Chapter Two: The Plan
A few days later, Ben was clipping one of the hedges in the castle courtyard from the highest rung of his ladder. From the perspective of a spectator unaquainted with daily views of him on the job, he looked somewhat precarious balanced at the top with his clippers, though the more informed would know that Ben was the most efficient groundsman of the castle's servants. It was certainly one of his favourite jobs, though not necessarily because of the work itself. It was because, on warm sunny days such as this one, princess Brianna would also be out wandering the grounds. Sometimes alone, sometimes with her two closest compatriots, Lady Camilla of Arundell and Lady Claudia of Vandermere. Both maidens travelled from nearby regions every weekend to socialize with the sheltered princess, and they were both daughters of two of the wealthier families of Westvalen. Despite his attention being reserved for Brianna, Ben had to concede that both of these women would make more than adequate wives. Both were beautiful in their own way, with the tall and graceful Camilla's thick mane of silky auburn hair never failing to turn heads, who contrasted and complimented nicely with the shorter, sunnier and blonder Claudia. Still, neither matched up to the regal Brianna, and Ben silently cursed the fact that not even these two women would be caught dead marrying a simple servant boy like him. He could see the three maidens over the top of the hedge, laughing together in the garden near the fountain. The pitfalls of life as a peasant working under the aristocrats. The prospect of a higher class of woman, being dangled right there in front of him everyday. So close yet so frustratingly distant, the class rules of society forging an invisible wall between him and his utmost desires.
'But how distant? Ben thought, recalling some of his recent exchanges with the princess, particularly the incident days ago in which he had been more or less invited up to her tower for lovemaking. He immediately blocked out these thoughts. It didn't matter if she wanted him as much as he wanted her. the barrier existed on both ends. She was royalty and he was a peasant, and if anything happened between them his right to an existence would be brought up for question by the Royal Court. Ben was suddenly interrupted from these bleak thoughts by a familiar voice from down below.
'Get your arse down here lad, I know full well the damned hedge doesn't need more trimming!
Ben looked down and smirked, his mood uplifted by the sight of his boss, Master Reynard, gawking up at him from under his bushy white beard and mustache.
Ben climbed down and faced the wise but wizened features of his superior. Reynard was a frail old man of seventy-five who Ben could confidently call a close friend. He knew it was a luxury to get on so well with your boss, and he liked listening to Reynard's bounty of tales about his life working on the castlegrounds. Reynard, in turn, liked Ben's work ethic and his company even more. He had never had children, but he felt an almost fatherly affection for Ben after all the years of keeping him under his employment.
'What's the deal boss, I was making such progress.' Ben grinned. 'You know full well the hedges never look better than when they are under my watch.'
Reynard raised his bushy eyebrows. 'Ah, under your watch, precisely. Though for some reason, I harbour doubts that it was the hedges that were the focus of your gaze...'
Ben blushed and shrugged, but Reynard but a hand on his shoulder.
'Walk with me to the stalls boy, that was exactly what I wanted to discuss with you.'
Ben's heart began to race. He had never formally discussed his near-debilitating crush on Princess Brianna with Reynard before, though he suspected the old man had a vague idea after catching him daydreaming on the job a number of times.
At the very least, Ben was expecting a stern lecture.
'You like the girl, don't you? Reynard said as they strolled across the rolling fields toward the horse stalls.
'I..., Ben found himself tongue-tied by the bluntness of the question, which Reynard met with patient silence.
Finally, Ben blurted out: 'You're not working with the King on this, are you?
Reynard let out a hearty laugh and slapped Ben on the back.
'Oh my dear boy, if that wasn't so funny I would be completely heartbroken! Do you really believe that at my age, after all the years, all the drinks and all the tales you and I have shared, that I would be snooping around trying to get you executed?
Now that it was put this way, Ben felt foolish.
'I'm sorry Master, forgive my lapse in judgment. One can't be too careful around here.'
'Oh don't apologize lad, you are wise to question everyone and everything,' Reynard said with a twinge of melancholy. 'You are my favourite around here Benjamin, and I need your help.'
Ben frowned. 'Help? How so?
'We'll get to all that in a minute,' Reynard said. 'But first, answer my question. You like the girl very much, yes?
'Oh, much more than that,' Ben said. 'I would give my life for her, if the situation demanded it.'
Reynard nodded, stroking his beard contemplatively. 'And you believe the girl feels a certain affection toward you in return?
'Oh without a doubt. She openly flirts with me, and a few nights ago even invited me up to the tower after hours, which I declined against every base desire in my body telling me otherwise.'
Reynard nodded. 'Excellent, excellent...'
'But master, what's all this about?
Reynard paused, as if debating with himself how best to word it.
'Given your fondness of the girl, I would assume the arranged coupling with Lucien Ryker has been a matter of, shall we say, annoyance to you?
Ben laughed. 'Annoyance?! Ha! I dare say Master, age has not undermined your unique talent for understating the matters at hand.'
Reynard did not join the laughter this time, his expression remaining stony.
'Yes, I suppose annoyance would be putting it mildly. In fact, I pity the fool who would merely be annoyed at what is going on behind the walls of that castle.'
He met Ben's gaze, his bushy eyebrows raised.
'Do you know anything about Lucien Ryker's people boy?
Ben furrowed his brow in thought. 'The Alkaranians? I know their kingdom is set deep in the mountains, and that they are a rich people. I know nobody who has ventured there, so stories are somewhat difficult to come by.
Reynard nodded. 'Very rich indeed. And how, may I ask, do you think they have amassed their wealth?
After a brief pause in thought, Ben said: 'Power and control?
Reynard nodded again, his demeanour becoming more excitable.
'Precisely, precisely! The Alkaranians have control over numerous smaller kingdoms across the land, plundering their resources and labour. But not through the use of force, that is the key! They are an imperialist people, yes, but war is an outdated and barbarian concept in these civilized times. When you have the power, like they do, then all that needs to be done for control is to quietly infiltrate the Royal class of a society.'
Ben's eyes had grown very wide. 'So what you're saying is, we're on the verge of a takeover?
Reynard nodded, his eyes gleaming. 'You catch on quickly boy. Yes, Westvalen will become a mere puppet state of that foul regime if this marriage goes through. Imagine, what better way to take over a kingdom than for the king to announce a new 'trade partnership' with the Alkaranians, with the marriage of his daughter to their prince the ultimate public facade of allegiance and assimilation? It pains me to say this Benjamin, but most of the peasantry around here wouldn't think twice about it.'
'But surely the king and queen wouldn't allow this to happen! Ben exclaimed. 'They care deeply for their people, and not to mention their only daughter!
Reynard chuckled. 'Ah, the joys of being young and naive. My boy, the Royal class are nothing like you and me, and don't think for a second that they won't be benefitting greatly from a takeover. Things will get much, much worse for the everyday peasant around these parts if the Alkaranians succeed, while the Royals will reap an abundance of rewards in exchange for their puppet leadership.
Ben, his worldview shattered, had gone quiet.
Reynard waited patiently for him to respond, respecting that it was a lot of information for a young servant to take in.
After what felt like minutes, Ben finally broke the silence.
'So what did you have in mind to stop it?
'Well,' Reynard said. 'In our own invisible, non-violent way, I supposed we could help make Brianna a little, shall we say, undesirable for our dear Lucien Ryker.'
Ben, struggling to reconcile these two things, shook his head.
'Uh Master, with all due respect, but the princess as undesirable? What foolhardy scheme is this?
Reynard cleared his throat. 'What would you think,' he said, his voice vaguely apprehensive, 'If I proposed that we fatten our dear Brianna like livestock so Ryker will delay, or if we're lucky, completely break off the marriage?
Ben was stunned. The proposal was so ridiculous that he would normally have burst out laughing, except the deadly serious circumstances had sucked any potential levity from the situation.
Instead, Ben said; 'But how would that work? Someone around the castle would suspect something, and we don't even know if the princess would agree to something as outlandish as that.'
'Don't you worry,' Reynard said as they finally reached the stalls, stopping in front of the entrance. 'I have not devised this little plot on my own. There are a number of, shall we say, accomplices inside and outside these castle walls that will assist in our efforts, with a number of those individuals being in the castle kitchens. As long as the princess agrees, we will succeed.'
'But how do we get her to agree to such a thing? Ben asked. 'She is very beautiful, and she could be very vain.'
Reynard smiled again. 'Ah, now that is where you and your unique skillset come in Benjamin. Who better to convince her to get fat than a handsome young man that she fancies, and who desires her just as much? Love can certainly make you do crazy things.' Reynard chuckled to himself. 'That I know for sure.'
'So am I to tell her our plot then? Ben asked.
Reynard's eyes widened. 'Heavens no! You must pitch this solely as a means for you two to be able to be together and nothing else, and quench any of her fears by insisting that you will stand by her regardless of her size.' He chuckled again. 'Personally, I can't think of anything more romantic.'
Ben could, but he kept his mouth shut.
'So when do I get a moment alone with her? It's not like she's the most accessible person in the world.'
'That,' Reynard said as he put a hand on Ben's shoulder. 'Has already been arranged. It appears that a random spot clean of the princess's tower was cleared by yours truly for tomorrow night just after dinner. Would you care to take a guess who I nominated for the job?
Ben sighed. 'So this is actually happening then? I really don't know if I can do this sir.'
'Sleep on it,' Reynard said as he clapped him lightly on the shoulder. 'I know it's a lot to take in, and there is an element of risk for all of us, but it will be an utter disaster for our kingdom if this marriage goes through. An utter, utter disaster. The stakes have never been higher, and if this succeeds it will help us bide our time to come up with more organized strategies of resistance against the Alkaranians. You will be a hero if you do your part Ben, and most importantly, you are the only person I believe can do it. I bid you a well rested evening.'
Reynard turned and walked back toward the castle, leaving Ben at the stalls, his mind a whirlwind.
Tomorrow night was going to be very interesting.