17 April, 2011

Cousin of the Crown, Chapter Two

This is the second chapter in my first short story. It skips back in time, giving a little history before we pick back up with the action/drama. Enjoy!

E. T.

Cousin of the Crown
By Elisabeth Treble
Chapter Two

My mother was the queen’s sister, though it was odd to think of the statuesque monarch as my aunt.  She was her majesty, the queen, not Auntie Philippa.  And even with our close relation, my mother stayed on my father’s estates for most of my childhood, so I didn’t see much if my royal relatives in any case.
Queen Philippa and the King had several children, boys mostly, whom I did not care about.  But when their daughter reached the age when she no longer needed a nursemaid, when the princess reached adolescence, it was decided that I would be a good companion for her.  I was a few years older and considered ‘royal’ enough to be worthy of such a position.
I was aware of the honor being bestowed upon me, even at thirteen.  The Princess Lahdel had other girl cousin’s, many of whom would have been happy to take my place.  But not only was my mother the queen’s sister, my father was the king’s most successful commander and one of his greatest political allies.  Such a combination was perfect in a companion, loyalty through both blood and service.
I did not want to leave my father’s house.  It was quiet and cool, full of my own family, my own brothers and sisters and cousins.
“Don’t cry, dear heart,” my mother said gently as I sobbed over the Letter of Summons.  “You will be happy.”
“I don’t want to go!” I wailed, hiccupping.
“It is your duty, my dear one.”
My father squeezed my shoulders.  “And if you don’t go, your uncle, the king, will select Parnissa instead.”
I lifted my head, horrified.  I hated my cousin Parnissa and she hated me.  My parents laughed at my outrage.
“I will go,” I declared, sniffing mightily and wiping my eyes.  I would not let Parnissa beat me at anything.  Especially not this.
As we prepared for my journey and removal to the capital, the thought of living in the palace, of being nearly a princess myself, was enough to squash my homesickness and make the idea tolerable.
I saw both my parents often, in any case.  My aunt and uncle were fighting with several of our neighbors, kingdoms nearly identical in wealth and power.  Nothing pitched; no citizen-raising battles in open fields or triumphant charges of cavalry.  But the constant harrying attacks, stolen ships and trade, and kidnapped nobles were just as draining and demoralizing, if not more.  The countryside simmered with discontent, but no one would risk all out war for a few reckless noblemen.
In the palace, I was shielded from much of the unrest, as was Lahdel.  Though we sat in with the ministers as they discussed treaties that went nowhere, what aid to send to which pirated towns, what soldiers which cities needed, it seemed very distant to us.  Our countrymen had been fighting these wars for a generation; it was less important than our day-to-day personal lives.  But we paid attention and answered our tutors dutifully when questioned on it.
I was always better at schooling than Lahdel.  She never had much head for figures or remembering treaty dates or important heads of state.  But by comparing notes when the tutor’s back was turned, we both did very well.
I had an unfair advantage, as not only was my father a general of some renown, but his estates were on the border itself, on the edge of the great inland sea, a fresh water lake it took days to sail across.  We were always fighting off freelance pirates, the occasional incursion of foreign mercenaries.
The lake itself belonged to no one, but our navy was not as advanced as our uncomfortable neighbors’ and it took much effort to protect our shipping and fishing interests.  And it was the fastest way to travel, the land routes mountainous and rough.  The king and Queen refused to be cut off from our trade.
Once I was settled, life in the palace was easy and sumptuous.  In my estimation, the best part was the opera.  I had always loved to sing.  I would go out into the gardens and listen to my voice echo back from the stone walls, pretending I was singing for hundreds, thousands of rapt listeners.
In the city there were several very lovely opera houses, with full companies and orchestras.  You could go see a handful of different productions a week.  It was only a matter of time until I advanced in my music lessons and started studying in earnest.
Lahdel could never understand how I could stand in front of the entire court and sing or dance nor do anything.  She hated public speaking, which I thought was not the best trait in a princess.  But her mother never spoke to her people either; the king doing most of the talking in council.  I supposed Lahdel just needed a garrolous prince to take care of her.
The day I stood center stage on the smooth boards of the Royal Opera House was the proudest of my life.  The thundering applause made my blood light up as I panted.  The man I had been singing my aria to stood and took my hand, leading me to the edge of the stage to take my bows.
I never forgot that day.  After the opera had come to its overly dramatic finish (I got to die, choking on poison, singing my heart out in my ‘lover’s’ arms), I rushed back stage to be swept into my parent’s embrace.
“My little songbird!” my mother cried, squeezing me breathless.  My father had tears in his eyes, more acclaim than I could ever hope for.
I went back out to bow again, taking the flowers gathered from the stage.  I was high on that success for a fortnight.
It showed Lahdel’s genuinely sweet nature that she was neither jealous nor dismissive of my talents.  I could sing and hail men’s souls from their bodies and she could not.  I think even the idea of being able to reduce someone to tears alarmed her.  She liked people to be happy.
We hardly fought, even though we had become more like sisters than a princess and her companion.  Again, Lahdel was so sweet and earnest, that even my more violent and passionate nature couldn’t be angry at her for long.
It was luck she did not grow up naive or selfish.  If we had been at peace, I think she would have been in real danger of being a moron.  But between me teasing her until she accompanied me on my pranks and her forced involvement in international politics, she learned to be wary of the world and look about with more than a interest in pleasing herself.
Not that she did not get anything she wanted.  She was a beauty, even as a child.  It was a point of contention between us until I grew confidant in my abilities as a musician.  She had hair light gold in color and the deepest blue eyes you could possibly imagine.  She would smile and the whole world felt brighter, more alive.  You wanted to love her and everyone did.  A fitting woman to be a queen one day.
I, on the other hand, once I stopped be gangly and awkward, was brown haired and skinned, as I never wore a proper hat.  I was taller than her and curvy where she was willowy.  I was told quite often that I was pretty, usually by a handsome young courtier behind a rose bush, but I was no ‘beauty.’  I didn’t mind; I could hold a man enthralled in a way Lahdel never could.  I could sing and make him believe it was for him alone.
If our dispositions had been less good, we both could have gotten into much more trouble than our silly palace pranks.  There were no scandals surrounding us, though looking back I’m sure several conniving young nobles would have been very happy to oblige.

One early spring day, we were going about our lives with very little thought but for what the next few months would bring.  I had a new role to memorize and was practicing my dialogue in the gardens.  Lahdel was sitting by me reading, making comments when I forgot a word or she didn’t like my delivery.
A servant came rushing out, interrupting my declaration of love to a blushing gardener.
“Your highness, Lady Alea,” the man said.  “Your presence is requested in the council room.”
I picked myself up out of the gardener’s lap and brushed down my skirts.  “Why?”
The servant wouldn’t say, so we followed, whispering about what it might be.
The king and queen stood in the council room, speaking in low voices.  The ministers and noblemen were standing about, looking awkward.  They turned as one and watched us as we crossed to Lahdel’s royal parents and bowed.
“Your majesties,” we said in unison, Lahdel’s voice light and soft, mine rolling and rich, deeper.
“Lahdel, come sit.”
The princess went to her father and sank to a chair.  I glanced around, taking in who was present.  Despite the different factions the noblemen formed, usually disagreeing on everything, today they all stood expressionless, staring at Lahdel.  And a man by the fireplace.
I blinked, completely taken aback.
He wore the royal colors of Reuss, the red cross over his chest on a field of white.  He was dirty and travel worn, but standing with pride, his chin well up as we peered at him.  I looked and the king held a thick roll of paper in his hand.
“Daughter,” he said slowly.  My stomach clenched suddenly, unusual and unexpected fear at his tone.  “Daughter,” he continued.  “We have had word from Reuss.”
“Yes,” Lahdel said evenly, passing a cool gaze over the stranger.
“It concerns you, my dear.”
I gasped.  I couldn’t help it.  Lahdel didn’t see what the king was driving at.
He took a deep breath and went on.  “We have been talking of a truce for some months.  An alliance.”
“Yes.  You have had word?”
The king nodded.  “And an offer.”
Here her eyes widened.  “What kind of offer?” she asked, finally suspicious.
“Reuss has three sons,” the king said slowly.  “He is offering his eldest, the crown prince, in marriage.  To you.”
Lahdel’s perfect face didn’t flicker.  “What would you have me do?”
The king sat next to her.  “My dear, it would cement our treaty.”
“And it is a sign of goodwill.  You would be queen there, your brother king here.  It would mean peace, safety for your people.”
Lahdel nodded slowly.  She swept a glance over the gathered nobles.  “I will do as my country needs, your majesty.” 


So that was how I found myself in a carriage on my way to X.
As the princess’s companion, I was of course included.  She had an army of women serving her now, but I was her closest and most trusted.  My father was a general and a powerful noble, my mother sister to the queen.  I was a goodwill offering, as well as Lahdel.
I was told many times that Reuss had three sons, each very nice and handsome, so they said.  With the princess and the eldest, a man Terran, our countries would be at peace.  If I should happen to find one of her other sons agreeable…
Here I would usually roll my eyes and say, “I know, I know!”
Then they would say, “You’re twenty-three, Lady Alea.  It is high time you thought about marriage.”
They didn’t like it when I snapped back, “I have been married many times.  You were there weren’t you, when I sang Fildella?”
“This is serious, Alea!”
I would laugh and flounce away.

Lahdel was terrified.
She held my hand the entire first day, her palm clammy.
“What if he’s mean?” she asked me.  I patted her fingers.
“He won’t be.  Aren’t princes supposed to be charming?”
She made a face.  Her youngest brother could hardly be called ‘charming.’  “But what if he’s mean and cruel?”
“Then you won’t marry him.” I said stoutly.  “You haven’t signed anything or promised.  We are going to meet him and his brothers.  If you like their Prince Terran, you will make a decision then.”
“I am glad you’re with me.” Lahdel said.
I made a face this time.  “I am in the same boat you are, Lahdel.”
“That horrid woman, the one married to the Secretary of the Treasury?  She kept slinking up and dropping hints that I should try to capture Gulin or Henry.  That is was my duty to stay by you, should you marry Terran.”
Lahdel’s eyes were round.  “Will you?”
“What?  Marry Gulin?”
“No.  Stay with me.”
I checked my flippant response as her eyes filled with tears.  I sighed.  “I will stay, for a time.”  I promised.  “If you do marry this prince, then I will stay until you are settled.”
“Thank you.” Lahdel said, hugging me close.  “I will not be nearly so afraid with you there.”
“I am rather alarming,” I remarked dryly.
She elbowed me and was in a better mood for the rest of the trip.

  The room was quiet with an expectant hush as we entered.  The kind like everyone was holding their breath.  I loved it; it made my skin tingle with anticipation.  Lahdel trembled next to me, before straightening her spine and gliding forward.
“Princess Lahdel.  The Lady Alea.”  The Major Domo called out.  We walked up the long hall, looking neither left nor right, me a step behind the princess.
The king rose graciously and stepped down to meet us.
“Your highness,” he said as we curtsied.  “Lady Alea.”
I nodded once more to recognize his condescension and straightened.
“My son, Prince Terran.”
A second man stepped down.  I examined him closely.  He was handsome, but not beautiful.  Strong, average height.  He had dark brown hair like mine and eyes that were steady and nice blue-ish gray.  A good king, I realized suddenly.  He would be a good king, straightforward and dutiful.  And I had to give him credit; he was one of the few men I had ever met that did not gape at Lahdel when he first saw her.
“Princess.” He said quietly, his voice deep.
“Your highness,” Lahdel said.  “I am pleased to meet you.”
“And I you.”  He said simply.  “My brothers.”  He waved a hand and two more stepped forward, each so like the first that I knew I would have trouble telling them apart.
Their eyes did widen as Lahdel smiled on them.  I nearly rolled my eyes, but Terran was looking at me now and I couldn’t.  He studied me a moment and I studied him back.  He took Lahdel’s hand and led her to a chair, just below and to the side of the thrones on the dais.
“Lady Alea.”  One of the brothers led me to sit next to Lahdel.
There was a great rustling sigh as the room relaxed.  I didn’t know what they thought would happen.  Did they think Lahdel or I would fly at the king or prince?
Long and tedious speeches followed as ambassadors from each country went on and on about how great this whole thing was.  Lahdel was fidgeting.  I had the restraint of a statue and kept my face as smooth as possible, though every now and then my mouth would twitch involuntarily.
Finally they sat and the food was served.  I heard the brother next to me sigh.
“Praise be that’s done with.” He muttered.  I smiled, turning my head to look at him.  He saw and looked back.  He smiled as well.
“Lady Alea, is it?”
“Yes.  Which brother are you?”
“Hhmmm,” I mused.  “I have been told I should try to marry you.”
He choked on his drink.  “What?” he strangled out when he had caught his breath.
“I am Lahdel’s cousin.” I explained coolly, though I knew my eyes must be giving my amusement away.  “And I have been told repeatedly what a good idea it would be for me to marry either you or Henry.”  I looked over to where the third brother sat, his eyes intent on the woman next to him.  I made a face.  “He looks like a drunk.  Are you a drunk?”
Gulin stared at me, then threw back his head and roared with laughter.  Conversation faltered on all sides as the nobles watched him gasp for breath.
“No,” he said finally, grinning at me.  “I am not.”
“Good.” I said.  “Then I have something to work with.”  I winked at Lahdel and she gave me a fleeting smile.  Terran was talking with her, but she looked too scared to make any sort of response.
“Tell me about your family,” Gulin said.  “You are the daughter of General Full, aren’t you?”
“And your mother is your queen’s sister?”
He watched me eat for a moment.  “Well, if you’re to be my bride, I would know what your good qualities are.”
“My good qualities?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.  “I would think you would want to know my bad traits first, so you know what you’re getting into.”
He grinned.  “It’ll be more fun to explore those…later, don’t you think?”
I blushed.  I couldn’t help it.  “Prince Gulin, you are flirting with me.”
“Yes.” He said promptly.  “Do you like it?”
I rolled my eyes.  “In response to your first question, I have been told I have no good qualities, that I am wicked and loud and rebellious.”
“Wicked is promising.”
“And I am loud and rebellious.  I work hard at it.”
“A good thing you are for me then and not Terran.” He said.
“Terran is very dour and serious; he would not like a wife like you.”
Terran must have heard, because he looked up at Gulin, then to me, then back to Lahdel.  I thought I saw a smile cross his lips before he set them firmly straight again.  My hope for Lahdel’s happiness took a surge upward.
“What do you do that is so rebellious?” Gulin asked, his tone carefully casual.
“I sing opera.”
That was not what he expected.  He winced.  “Oh.  How nice.”
I smiled, every bit as wicked as I claimed to be.  “Do any of your noblemen’s daughters sing?”
“Yes,” he admitted.  He winced again and I looked to where his eyes flicked.  A few sharp faced women sat down the table.  I sized them up; they looked shrieky to me.
“I do so love to sing,” I gushed, clapping my hands together.  I stared at him, just a hair short of a pointed glare.
He looked pained, but did his duty.  “I should like to hear you, lady.  Perhaps after dinner?”
“As it pleases your highness,” I said, looking up at him through my lashes.
“Now you’re flirting with me.” He accused severely.
I smiled and turned to my other dinner partner.

True to his promise, Prince Gulin stood when dinner had been cleared away and said, “I have asked the Lady Alea to sing.”
They all politely murmured to each other, some looking bored, others pained. A few looked sharply at me, frowning.
Lahdel was giving me a suspicious look.  I smiled and she laughed suddenly.
“Your highness?” Terran asked, seeing our little exchange.
“Nothing, prince Terran,” she assured him, her lips curved up.  “Only my cousin does so love a captive audience.”
He glanced up to me, looking rather alarmed.  I stared back and he winced, just like his brother had.  “I am looking forward to it.”
After a quick conversation with the Court Musicians, I strode to the center of the room and set myself.  The music was soft, gentle.  I saw several men roll their eyes.  I had chosen an aria from an opera very popular among the younger noblewomen for its absolutely horrid sappiness and unrealistic romance.  I hated the opera itself, but I loved singing it.
I drew in a breath and began.
The dead silence in the room thrilled me to my toes.  Even the few children allowed to attend were watching me with wide eyes.  Servers paused with full trays, gawking.  Captive audience indeed.
I grinned at Lahdel in the breathless pause after I had finished.  I curtsied prettily for the applause and went to my chair.
Gulin was gaping at me as he had at Lahdel.  “Merciful Heavens!” He exclaimed.
“Really?” I asked, seating myself.  Terran and Henry were staring at me as well.  “Why?”
Gulin shook himself.  “That was amazing.” He took my hand and kissed it gallantly.  “Terran can’t have you now.”
I only laughed and turned to talk determinedly with Lahdel.

I was leaving the hall with my princess when a hand stopped me.
“May I have a word?”
It was Terran, looking very serious.  Lahdel curtsied and went on alone, though I could see her flush.  I carefully put some space between me and the prince.  No matter my first impression, I had dealt with enough royalty in my life to know they tended to think overly highly of themselves.
Terran didn’t say anything at first.  Then, “You are close to your princess, yes?”
“I am.” I said simply.  “We were raised together, from adolescence.”
He nodded thoughtfully.  “Then what is your opinion of her?”
I stared at him.  “Sorry?”
“What is she like?”  Terran looked a little sheepish, but not nearly enough to satisfy me.  “All I had been told was that she was beautiful.  She is, do not misunderstand me, but…”
“She is not stupid, if that is what you’re asking.” I snapped, not caring whose son he was.
He shrugged.  “I am asking.  I am going to be king.  I need a woman who will be a queen for me.”
I sniffed.  “Lahdel will be a very good queen.”
“Is that your opinion or your friendship talking?”
I glared at him.  “Both.  Lahdel is the sweetest woman I have ever met.  That she is friends with me should give you some estimation of her character.”
Terran smiled then.  He had a nice smile.  “Well spoken.  I’ve never seen Gulin so flustered by a woman.”
I blushed.  His smile widened and I had to bit my tongue to keep it in my mouth.
“I like you, Lady Alea,” he said suddenly, still smiling at me.
“I am happy for you.” I said scathingly.
“What is she like?” he asked again, softer.
I took a calming breath.  “She is gentle and sweet, forgiving.  She is a true friend, though sometimes I am exasperated with her.”
I shrugged.  “We are like sisters.”
He nodded thoughtfully.  “Siblings are like that, aren’t they?”
I had to smile.  I wondered what Henry got up to that annoyed his eldest brother.
“You have a very lovely voice,” he told me.
“Thank you, your highness.”
“I should like to hear you sing often.”
“I am sure you will.”
He smiled once more and bowed.  “Good night, Lady Alea.”
“Prince Terran.”  I gave him a cool dip of my head and swept away.