Also, you can find the complete story under "Cousin of the Crown" at the top of the blog.
Cousin of the Crown: Chapter three
Smitten was too strong of a word. If anything, Prince Terran seemed mildly interested in Lahdel, but nothing out of the ordinary. I attracted more attention from shopkeepers than he showed to his potential wife.
It pained Lahdel for a few weeks. I told her to stop being foolish. If, I reasoned, he professed undying love at once, would she believe it?
She thought a moment. “No.” She said finally. Men professed undying love to her every other day, nearly.
“Better you get to know him, form a true friendship, than have him falling all over himself because you smiled at him.”
Lahdel went pink. She knew that I knew that she sometimes used her beauty to get men to do things she wanted. I was no better. My voice was deep and rich, at odds with my wide soprano range. I knew just how to inflect make a man lean in to listen, his eyes for me alone.
Terran was friendly enough, though. He took Lahdel and me both out on many excursions to let us get to know his subjects and his city. When he could, he spent afternoons with us, talking with Lahdel about her home, about his life, books they liked, anything.
I listened absently, knowing she would ask my opinions later. Her one flaw, I thought, was her need to be reassured in everything she did. I tried not to indulge her, but she was so heartbroken about the prince, I had to comfort her.
He and I were often alone together. We circled each other warily for a while, like two cats who met in a narrow street. He was a nice man, but my first responsibility was to ensure my princess’s comfort and happiness. His was to his throne.
“What is your favorite piece of music?” he asked one day as we tarried in a garden. Lahdel was with his mother, the queen. The woman had Lahdel spend many hours with her, doing who knows what. The woman wasn’t fond of me; I was too loud and boisterous for her tastes. Lahdel’s quiet grace was more to her liking.
“That is an impossible question.” I told him flatly.
“How can I choose just one?”
“Give me a selection, then.” He said, leaning on a pillar.
I shrugged. “I love anything by Khula. The Morning Masses are breathtaking. Rolin’s symphonies.”
He grunted. “What’s your favorite character?”
“To sing? Or watch?”
“Sing.” He said, his eyes on mine. I would normally have found such a steady gaze a little unnerving and blush-inducing, but there was nothing in his look or tone showing he was flirting with me. Prince Terran didn’t flirt with any woman. Not even Lahdel.
He was surprised. “Doesn’t she kill her husband and her lover and jump off a cliff?”
I laughed. “Yes. Doesn’t that sound grand?”
His eyebrows met over his nose. “Not very.”
I made a face at him. “Aren’t you boring. I suppose your favorite is some sort of pedantic hero, who always does exactly as he’s told.”
Terran’s eyes narrowed, that hint of a smile on his mouth that proved he was really amused, not pretending. “I wouldn’t say that.”
“Who is it, then?”
“You have to guess.”
“Unfair.” I declared. “There’s no way I could possible know!”
He cocked his head. “Why not?”
“I don’t even know you,” I protested.
“I think you know me well enough by now.” He said dismissively. “You’ve been here, what, two months?”
I sneered. “I think you would like Fairen.”
He laughed, his chuckles rolling around the garden. “The king of the damned?”
I tossed my head, my hair loose and blowing crazily in the wind. “He was never very nice to young maids, either.”
Terran snorted his amusement. “No, he was not.”
We both turned as steps came toward us. Gulin appeared, his eyes flicking between his brother braced against the pillar and me, sitting well away and looking scornful. The younger man’s mouth relaxed, smiling.
“There you are, Lady Alea.” He said, coming to kiss my hand. “I have been looking everywhere for you.”
“Why?” I asked warily. Gulin did flirt with women, especially me.
“I have a proposition for you,” he said with a grin.
“What?” I stood, still wary. He’d tried more than once to get me alone somewhere.
He held out his hand, waiting for me to take it.
“If your highness would excuse me,” I said, curtsying to Terran.
“Of course, Lady Alea.” He said graciously, nodding at us both. “Have a…pleasant afternoon.”
I scowled at him. Gulin’s stare was challenging. Terran seemed oblivious and went away, whistling.
“Lady Alea, dance with me.”
I looked up to Prince Terran’s face. “Of course, your highness.”
He took my hand and led me to the dance floor. I stared ahead as we waited for the rest of the dancers to set themselves. He was staring at me.
“Yes, your highness?” I asked, turning my head to look at him out of the corner of my eye.
“I am going to ask Lahdel to marry me.”
The opening flourish sounded. He put his hand on my waist and we started the dance.
“When?” I asked.
He gave me an odd look. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“I can think of several reasons, but tell me yours first.”
He gave me the smile that meant he thought I was being impertinent. He had many different smiles, which he employed as the situation called for.
“Alright” he said. “I think she will make a good wife. She has the training and experience to make a decent queen. She understands the importance of the treaty we are creating. And she’s nice.”
He shrugged, still smiling. “Have you met some of my other options?”
I winced. “Unfortunately, yes.”
I expected him to laugh. He glared at me instead. “What have they said to you?”
I met his eyes for a long moment, hard and angry. “Nothing I’ve never heard before.” I admitted.
A scowl flashed across his face. “Who?”
I shook my head. “I don’t need you to fight my battles, your highness.”
“Who does then? Gulin?”
I felt my cheeks flush and it made me furious. Terran’s hand tightened on mine, his arm holding me in place; otherwise I would have jerked away.
He laughed softly, signaling his return to good humor. “I know you’ve been instructed to try for him, my lady.”
I made a face. “Not that he needs encouragement.”
Terran grinned. “No, he doesn’t.” His eyes strayed to where Gulin was standing with a woman, his head tilted down to hers. “You don’t seem jealous.”
I rolled my eyes. “Why should I be jealous?”
“Don’t you like Gulin?”
“Weren’t we talking about you and Lahdel?” I snapped waspishly. He laughed again. He was having too much fun at my expense tonight.
“True. Will you prepare her for me?”
Teran shrugged. “She is…delicate.” He grimaced at my expression. “You know what I mean.”
He had me there. I let out a long breath. “I will speak with her.”
“Thank you,” he said, squeezing my hand again. “Truly.”
We were silent the rest of the dance. He staring at a point above my shoulder, I at his chin.
“Lady Alea?” He said as he handed me off to the man waiting for his turn to dance with me.
“Yes, your highness?”
He searched my face for a moment. “I am glad you came here. I am glad she has someone like you to help her.”
“Thank you.” I watched him stride away into the crowd.
The sun was sinking when I could control myself again. I leaned until my head rested on my pillow, drained, exhausted. My voice was completely gone now. I could feel the raw quality in my throat that meant I wouldn’t be singing for days, if not an entire week.
What had happened? What had been different about that touch, that moment?
There was a knock at my door.
I closed my eyes. It was Lahdel, coming to check on me.
“Alea, are you asleep?”
I stood and checked my face in my mirror. My eyes were a little red, but there was nothing I could do. I opened the door.
“Alea!” Lahdel exclaimed. “Are you unwell?”
“Just tired.” I said, with a convincing yawn. I was, soul-wrenchingly weary, as if I had lived a thousand years for every moment since then. “Is your ankle better?”
“Yes,” she said, looking a little abashed. “It is almost time for dinner.”
“Of course. I’ll be down presently.” She nodded, smiling again. She was easy to please. I shut the door and turned back to my mirror.
I rang for my maid. She clucked over the state of my hair, never easily tamed. Now, it straggled around my face, tangled. I undressed and took a cool sponge bath, watching the water stream over my skin.
I was beginning to look as my mother had warned. My arms, face and neck were darker than the skin of my body and legs. If I wasn’t careful, I would be mistaken for a common laborer.
My maid’s hands were gentle as she brushed out my hair. She dressed it quickly, tucking it up on my head in a simple knot, the only way it seemed to lie obediently. Anything more elaborate and it rebelled, escaping in wisps, then long locks of dark brown. She chose a simple white cotton gown, wonderfully light and cool in the hot afternoon.
“There,” she murmured, setting the jeweled pins that finished my hairstyle in place. “As lovely as the princess.”
I disagreed. But then I always disagreed and rightfully so. The princess was the loveliest woman I knew or had ever known.
My flash of jealousy was so unexpected, so overwhelming, that I staggered going into the dining hall. I caught myself against the door frame, the guards there watching me with blank faces. I straightened and strode forward, curtsying to the king and queen before taking my place at Lahdel’s side.
“You are feeling better?” the queen asked as I sat.
“Much, thank you. A touch of sun.”
“You do look pink,” she said, eying me.
My flush had nothing to do with the sun setting brilliantly behind the glass windows and everything to do with Terran’s cool gray eyes as he glanced to me and away.
“A little burned, perhaps,” I said, laughing. I took a long drink. I was thirsty and hungry, two things I never thought to feel again. The world still felt numb, even if I could see how the guards sweated in the heat, the servants sending long wafts of air over the table. “And hoarse! Too many songs today.”
“We can never hear enough of your voice.” The king said, lifting his glass to me.
I smiled my thanks and turned back to my cool dinner.
Lahdel and Terran were talking, as they usually were, just too low for anyone else to hear. I had mastered my initial surge of raw rage, but it simmered now, deep within me. Her voice was light and pleasing; it scraped across my skin, each small laugh and giggle piercing me. It was the only thing I could hear, drowning out the small noises of the silver against the porcelain, the murmur of the other diners, the faintest sound of the servants in the kitchen getting the second course ready.
I clenched my silverware, the food in my stomach rising up, choking me. I hated her. I hated her laugh, her perfect smile, her smooth ivory skin-
“Yes?” I turned and smiled on Prince Gulin.
“We, Henry and I, are going into town this evening to watch the fireworks. Would you care to join us?”
“What are the fireworks for?”
Gulin shrugged. “Who cares?”
I laughed. “No one’s birthday? No distant aunt come to…grace us with her presence?”
Gulin winced. “No. Aunt Milalia is very far away on her estates. Thankfully. But you have to come! There’s dancing and singing, plus the fireworks.”
I couldn’t help glancing over to Gulin’s brother. Terran was looking across the table at his mother, but something in his attitude made me know he was listening. Intently, desperately waiting for my answer.
I grinned at Gulin. “Of course I’ll come! I love fireworks.”
“Are you well enough? I heard you took too much sun.”
“I can never have too much sun.” I declared stoutly. “Just ask my mother. When are we leaving?”
“Right after dinner is finished.” Gulin’s smile was warm and excited. He leaned around me. “Did you wish to join us, your highness?”
Lahdell shook her head with a pretty, rueful little smile. “My ankle is not up to a long walk. Thank you, though.”
Gulin grinned back, easily charmed, before turning to me again. “Will you sing?”
“I cannot.” I said firmly. “Can’t you hear? My voice is completely gone. I sound like a frog.”
Gulin scoffed my self-deprecation. “You have the loveliest voice I have ever heard. I could listen to you talk all day.” His eyes slid away from mine, the faintest blush on his face. "Besides, if you can’t sing, I can keep you all to myself.”
We all jumped as something slammed into the table top, followed by the sharp crack of breaking glass. Terran swore under his breath, looking at the blood dripping from his hand.
“Slipped right out of my hand,” he declared with snort. “Ow.” He added as he pressed his napkin into the wound.
Lahdel was panting, her face turned away. I steadied her as Terran stood and followed a servant out of the room. She fanned her face, white, her lips bloodless. I patted her hand briskly. “Come, dear, don’t be so missish. It can hardly be serious,” I assured her. “Why, I say worse things when I bang my toes on my washbasin.”
Chuckles rolled up and down the table, easing a little of the surprised and alarmed atmosphere that had fallen over everyone. I felt it at least. I handed Lahdel off to Sirria and Cour. Gulin was hovering anxiously.
“What?” I asked, laughing.
“You are still coming, right?” he said, sounding much too serious. My stomach turned.
“Of course,” I said. “Lahdel hardly needs me to rub lavender water into her temples. She’ll be herself again in no time.”
“Half an hour?” he asked, turning to leave.
“I’ll be there.”
He grinned at me and strolled away, whistling.
I added a light cloak to my outfit. The wind was steady off the lake and could turn quite cool despite the summer sun. My maid let my hair down, knowing it would all fall out before the first dance was even over. She pulled it back, tying it pertly with a ribbon.
“Try to come back with your dress intact,” she pleaded. “It is just muslin, but still!”
I wrinkled my nose at her and left, my light steps belying how my heart lay listless and still inside my chest. I hadn’t felt it beat since that afternoon, only throbbing dully, barely enough to keep me alive and moving. If it stopped all together, I feared I would come to pieces, torn apart, scattered on the wind like chaff.
Gulin took my arm and led me down the wide steps to the main gate.
“No carriage?” I asked, looking around.
“I thought it would be fun to walk.” He said easily.
“You won’t think so at midnight when you’re half drunk and footsore,” I told him.
He laughed. “I’m sure I can find us a way home.”
Henry, each arm around the waist of court beauty, joined us at the gate.
“You’re late.” He said, glaring pointedly at me. I made a face at him and we stepped out into the city.
It was several hours until full dark, so we walked the streets, looking in the shop windows. Gulin and I moved with the others in a little bubble of protection, their guards not glowering, but definitely warning everyone to keep their distance.
A crowd had gathered in a large square. It overlooked the long sloping beach that lead to the lake, filled with fishing boats lying on their sides on the sand. A barge had been floated a little ways out from shore, the fireworks ready to be primed and lit once it was dark enough. A dance had already in full swing.
“Dance with me!” Gulin insisted, grabbing my hand. We whirled into the set, the others pausing in their spins to bow and curtsy. A man with the calloused hands of a laborer claimed me next, grinning, showing gaped teeth.
“Let’s show that blue-blood how to really dance.” He drawled, winking. I laughed and followed him back into the dancers.
Gulin was there in the brief pause as the musicians debated their next tune, the crowd all shouting their own opinions. His grip on my hand was tight.
“Don’t be jealous!” I teased him.
“I’m not.” He snapped. He shook himself, his smile a little forced, but better than the tight set his mouth had had. “Besides,” he continued. “How can I be jealous when you don’t show anyone any preference? You’ll never be married at this rate. You’ll be an old maid.”
I rolled my eyes. “And who would you have me marry? The exchequer? He’s dour enough to tame me, don’t you think? My spirit would be crushed within a fortnight of our marriage.”
Gulin’s hand tightened even more on mine. “I know.” He was all he said, an odd response. “Let’s go.”
We danced until the dusk finally deepened and the first crack of the fireworks drowned out the music.
I watched the colors flash across the sky, rockets making gleaming trails like shooting stars. I followed one as it sped off toward the palace, the towers dark against the stars.
Its countless windows gleamed, flashing in time with the aerial display over the lake. I could see the pennants flying from the towers whipping lazily in the wind, their scarlet cross on white hidden by the darkness.
“Alea?” Guling touched my arm.
I blinked and dragged my attention back to the cacophony before me.
“Aren’t they beautiful!” I praised, clapping with everyone else. I knew Gulin was still watching me. I stared straight ahead, unseeing. Which window hid him? What was he doing now? Sitting with Lahdel, smiling on her while his palm ached, pulsing in time with his heart?
A final deafening boom shook the city and we all clapped heartily. Gulin steered me away from the crush. Henry and his companions had disappeared long ago.
“Shall we walk back up?” He asked when we had moved away from the noise and could hear ourselves again.
“Please. I am tired,” I admitted.
He didn’t take my arm was we walked, for which I was grateful. I liked Gulin much more than I should.
The palace grounds were hushed after the roar of the city. We paced along the wide approach, the gravel under our feet crunching.
“Would you like to walk in the gardens?” Gulin asked, touching my arm to get my attention.
“No, thank you.” I said as lightly as I could. “I really should get to bed.”
“Thank you for coming with me.” He said, that unbearable seriousness in his voice again.
“Anytime!” I said gaily. “I love fireworks!” I could see him smile, then he bowed and went into a garden alone, flanked by his guards
The door guards opened the small nightdoor for me. It was cool inside, the heavy stone walls keeping out the lingering heat. I yawned, rubbing my face. I brushed my hair back; my ribbon had vanished even before the sun had gone down.
I put my hand on the banister of the grand stair.
The air solidified around me, holding me in place. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get my feet to move, my head to lift, even my lungs to breathe.
“Did you enjoy the fireworks?”
Time rushed forward, leaving me gasping.
“Yes, your highness.” I said, looking up to where he stood at the top of the stairs. “They were beautiful.”
He only nodded. I climbed up, again surprised that I wasn’t trembling, that I wasn’t a gasping, weeping mess in his presence. He was coming down the stairs on the far side, his own hand sliding down the smooth stone banister there.
We didn’t look at each other as we passed halfway. I didn’t want to look. I stepped up onto the next floor, the tension in my face easing, my smile slipping.
“Good night, Lady Alea.”
I turned and nodded. “And you, Prince Terran.”
I blinked at Lahdel’s door, not remembering the walk between the stair and here. I went in, moving to the bed. She was sleeping already, the hour very late.
Once in my own room, I slipped out of my clothing, leaving them in a heap on the floor. I didn’t bother to wash, though I smelled of sulfur and ash.
My sheets were smooth and cool, my pillow soft. I laid my head down and closed my eyes.