Pint of chocolate ice cream: check.
Glass of red wine: check.
Pajamas, slippers, bra off, hair pulled up in a messy bun: check.
It’s finally time for the season finale of Gentleman’s Choice, my own personal favorite guilty pleasure television program, in which an eligible bachelor has six weeks to choose his future wife from twenty eager women.
Tonight, Rowan is deciding between Jade and Serena, and the previews have shot after shot of him staring angstily into the sunset, like deciding between two beautiful women is the hardest thing he’s ever done. Whatever, everyone knows he’s going to pick Jade. It’s obvious.
I settle back onto the couch in my private quarters, my own little corner of the palace, ready to finally have this night to myself. For the past few weeks it’s been nothing but wall-to-wall Voravian independence celebrations, because four hundred and seventy-three years ago this month we broke away from the Holy Roman Empire.
And as much as I love Voravia, and I love being its princess, going to event after event, waving at the people, standing up straight and smiling pretty? It’s all exhausting. Thank God I can finally chill out, take my bra off, and watch some reality TV.
The cheesy title sequence starts: rose petals fluttering down over the words Gentleman’s Choice. A shot of a mansion in the hills, attractive people frolicking on the beach. The silhouette of two people kissing in front of a sunset.
“Rowan has narrowed his options down to just two women,” the voiceover says. “But which one will he choose? After all... a gentleman can only have one choice.”
I toss a piece of popcorn into the air and catch it in my mouth.
“Will he choose Jade, the fun-loving firecracker?” the voiceover goes on. “She swept him away on their skydiving date, but the two lovebirds hit a rocky patch when she confessed...”
Static flickers through the picture, briefly turning the faces on screen black-and-white, their features distorted, the sound gone.
“Come on,” I say.
It rights itself, and I toss another piece of popcorn into the air. Living in a stone palace built sometime around the year 1300 does have its downsides, because it’s not like it was built with the expectation that someday electricity would exist.
“Or,” the voiceover continues, “Will Rowan choose Serena, the upper-class sommelier who wowed him with her knowledge of...”
The picture goes black. No static. No nothing.
I wait a second, hoping it’ll come back and I won’t even have to get up. It happens sometimes, when there’s wind in the forest, or the ravens get curious about the wires, that sort of thing.
“Come on!” I say to the TV, again.
There’s a screech of static and the screen sputters to life, making me jump.
But it’s not Gentleman’s Choice.
It’s a blurry video of someone in a suit, wearing a huge rubber mask, sitting behind a newscaster’s desk. I’m still on the couch, frozen with popcorn halfway to my mouth.
What the hell?
“Greetings, Voravia,” says a gravelly, screechy voice that sounds like a record scratch. “Please enjoy tonight’s entertainment.”
The figure on the TV holds one gloved hand out, and the screen changes again. First there’s a long clip of a bunny, hopping across a field, the footage old and grainy. It’s intercut with a homemade-looking video of a rock climber slowly making his way up a cliff, shot from below.
Bunny, climber, bunny. It’s somehow incredibly creepy, but I’m wondering if this is some weird guerilla art thing that’s supposed to be making a political point I don’t understand.
Out of nowhere, a hawk grabs the bunny, and it screams. I gasp, making a face, and the video cuts to the rock climber.
He falls. The camera goes shaky, but there are flashes of his twisted body on the ground.
I turn my face away.
What the hell is going on?
I look back at the screen, but it’s only getting worse. It’s nothing but horrible accidents, dead bodies, animals eating each other.
Cars smash into each other, buildings go up in flames. Someone’s drowning, there’s a body with a chalk outline, lions tearing into a gazelle while it’s still alive.
I grab the remote and change the channel.
Same thing. I change it again.
Holy shit, this is on every channel, the same horrifying progression of gore, again and again. But whatever it is, I’m not watching it.
Just as my thumb’s over the power button, I’m stopped cold.
There’s one last still shot on the TV, the camera slowly panning back.
It’s a girl, lying on a bed, blood soaked through the sheets below. She’s got one hand hanging down limply, her eyes and mouth open, wearing a fancy ball gown as blood trickles from her lips.
I gasp, my hand flying to my mouth. My eyes fill with tears, and suddenly I’m on my feet, shaking. I feel like the world is rocking back and forth, like reality’s been thrown off balance.
It’s me. The dead girl on the bed is me.
I can’t turn it off. I can’t even look away, I can only stand there, remote in hand, rooted to the spot as I wonder what the hell is going on.
That’s my face.
That’s my dress. That’s my bed.
That’s my room.
Tears course down my face as I quickly glance down the hall, toward the entrance to my bedroom. I’m suddenly terrified to make any noise, because what if they’re in there?
What if I’m dead already? What if I’m not really watching TV, this is all some sort of vivid hallucination and—
The door flies open, and I scream. I don’t even see who it is, but I jump away from the couch, remote in hand, and I brandish it at the men who just came in, backing against the wall.
“Princess Bianca, it’s me,” says the first man, holding his hands up.
I pant for breath, my heart like a jackhammer, and I slowly lower the remote.
“Hans,” I whisper.
He’s part of my bodyguard detail, a gruff, middle-aged guy who’s been glowering around me for a few years now. I’ve never been gladder to see him.
“Are you all right?” he asks, striding across the room.
I just nod, hands still shaking, and put the remote on a side table.
As he passes the TV, he turns it off, then takes my shoulders in his hands. Behind him, two more bodyguards rush in, one speaking into a walkie-talkie already.
“Just breathe,” Hans says, and I inhale a long, shaky breath. “You’re all right.”