I know it is what I need to do, if only for my own personal growth as an author. But it is still nerve-wracking.
Now, a little about the story.
I am posting the chapters out of chronological order. The real beginning was a little slow, (says my beta-reader) so I decided to start right of with some angst and drama. There is going to be more exciting stuff later, but this sets up the mood, I think. Though even I was surprised at the thread of tension all through the story. I didn't think I was in a bad mood when I wrote it...
The story, for now titled "Cousin of the Crown," is set in some made-up kingdoms in the 'olden days.' You know, knights and pike-men, horse-drawn carriages and that sort of thing. No magic though, not this time.
Please read and enjoy. Let me know what you think. Also, if you have questions, things that I left unexplained, let me know. Some are intentional, things that will come in later in the plot. Others are details I haven't worked out yet or didn't realize were confusing.
Cousin of the Crown
By Elisabeth Treble
We were one of the gardens that afternoon, one filled with blooming roses. The princess sat beneath a gauzy canopy, erected on slender poles to protect her porcelain skin from the sun. We took it in turns to fan her; the sun was brilliant. Only a soft, steady breeze from the lake kept the air from being stifling.
“Alea,” the princess called. I went, ducking under the hanging edge of the fine cloth.
“Sing for us,” she urged, smiling as she lounged back on a bench.
I laughed. “I am still hoarse from last night, Lahdel.”
“Go on,” she pressed. Sirria already had a guitar ready, the scheming minx. I obliged, moving to sit near the princess.
“What shall I sing?”
“Anything.” She waved a hand airily. “Something from home.”
Sirria strummed thoughtfully, her harmonies reminding me of songs I hadn’t sung for months.
The faint murmurs of Lahdel’s attendants died away as I started, each turning to listen over the gurgle of the fountains. I sang the River Song, inspired by the sunlight flashing across my face from the pool next to us.
Sirria’s voice rose in counterpart to mine, softer, less rich. I smiled at her as she played and she blushed. She never gave herself enough credit for her talents.
Lahdel’s eyes were closed as I finished, a little breathless. The runs were hard, rising and falling just like water over stones. She sighed. “Another.”
I recognized the emotion in that sigh and chose my next one with care, a lilting sailing song, common in many countries. Two of the younger girls stood up and started the dance, their skirts wiping as they spun. Soon everyone was laughing, clapping to encourage them.
Lahdel was smiling as I finished, Sirria clapping her hand over the strings to silence them. Requests rang in from all sides. Sirria started ‘Dance of Heron’ and just about everyone stood up. There weren’t nearly enough men to make partners, so a few of the gardeners were pulled into the whirling mass. They didn’t know the steps and much chaos ensued.
Finally, I was laughing too much to keep singing and had to stop and catch my breath. Sirria finished alone, her hands flashing over the strings. I clapped with the rest until the final chord sounded and the dancers all fell about giggling and panting.
“What fun I am missing.”
Lahdel straightened, holding out her hands. “Your highness.” She greeted as the prince stepped around the fountain. He nodded to the bowing attendants.
“Princess,” he returned, stooping to kiss her hand.
“Alea was just entertaining us.” Lahdel explained as he found a stool to sit on. He smiled at me.
“And very well, it sounds like.”
I laughed. “And very roughly, I’m afraid. I am all hoarse this afternoon.”
“I didn’t notice.” Terran turned back to the princess. “Aren’t you too warm out here?”
I slipped away as they talked. It was stuffy underneath the canopy, tucked back against a hedge. The wind was picking up as the afternoon wore on, tugging at my hair. I went to stand by a wide reflecting pool, looking at the fish twisting lazily below.
The sun was hot and I drank it in. It was never sunny enough to please me. My one summer in the south had spoiled me for life. I loved the sun, the way it heated my skin, like it was filling me with golden glory. I didn’t even care it would make me as tanned as field worker, something my mother warned me of whenever I went out with a proper hat.
“Aren’t you too warm?”
I turned, surprised. Prince Terran was standing behind me. I gave him a little curtsy and smiled.
His eyebrows raised but he made no comment. “What are you looking at?” He asked.
“The fish.” I said, turning to look down again. “Do you ever imagine what it would be like to be a fish?”
He laughed, stepping up onto the little raised lip next to me. “No, I can’t say that I have.”
“I think it would be like flying, being able to swim so quickly.”
“Don’t you ever imagine flying, then?”
“No!” I protested.
“I hate heights.”
He grunted, not a response at all. He turned and gave me a little smirk. “Shall I push you in?”
I rolled my eyes. “Then you will answer to Her Highness’s Royal Tailor for the ruin of one of her lady-maid’s frocks.”
He gave a short laugh. “A fate I would avoid if I could.” He nodded to me and stepped back down. Sirria called for me to return to the fountain and sing again.
After a half dozen more ballads and lilts, I held up my hands.
“No more!” I protested, my voice breaking to prove its exhaustion. “I am sung out. Sirria can sing for you. She is very good and not nearly as deafeningly loud.”
Sirria went pink. “Lady Alea!”
“I am loud, admit it.” I teased her. “I cannot sing quietly. Too much training. I fear for my children and their lullabies. I don’t see many babies sleeping peacefully at an opera.”
Sirria was open mouthed. She reached behind her and splashed a handful of water at me.
“Sirria!” I exclaimed. She ducked away as I splashed her back, the drops of water flashing yellow in the sun.
Someone had the sense to rescue to guitar before it was ruined. Before long we were both breathless and dripping, leaning against each other to hold ourselves upright in our laughter.
Lahdel and Terran had retreated out of range, as had the other attendants. Lahdel looked like she wanted to laugh, but her eyes kept darting to Terran to see how he would take it. He was grinning and shook his head ruefully.
“And you chide me about ruining frocks,” he said. I made a face at him.
“I’ll sit out in the sun and dry in a moment.”
“If you don’t shrink.” Sirria muttered. She yelped and danced away from a final deluge.
Lahdel sniffed. “You’ll be brown as a field-worker,” she warned. I stuck my tongue out at her, but only after Terran had turned away. She wrinkled her nose and went with him to stroll the garden paths.
I wrung out my hair, twisting it up on top of my head and stabbing a few pins through it to keep it in place. I found a place where the stone bench had been warmed by the sun and sat, turning my face to its fire.
Sirria was playing again, but she was careful to play songs from this country. She had heard. Lahdel’s sigh as well and understood what it meant. We all did.
I gave a sigh myself. No matter the sun was brighter and warmer here, the people pleasant and the palace more beautiful than I could imagine, I wanted to go home. It was a constant ache in my heart, dull now, but present none the less.
Maybe after Lahdel and the prince had married, I could ask to return home. My duties would be fulfilled, the princess settled in her new kingdom. I could go home and sing in my own home for my own family.
A commotion drew my attention. I stood and went to see what the matter was.
Down one path, shaded by trailing vines, Lahdel, in her usual clumsy fashion, had managed to trip over nothing. She was convinced her ankle was broken, or at least sprained. Terran was plainly trying not to laugh. Nothing held my chuckles back.
“You’re as clumsy as an ice-skating cow,” I scolded her, kneeling to check the injured appendage. The Royal Tailor would have fits over my clothing today. “Here, stop complaining and let me look.”
I felt her ankle, twisting it in all directions. “Maybe a little pulled, your highness,” I assured her. She was watching me with wide eyes, biting her lip between her teeth. “It will be well by this evening.”
“Perhaps you should lie down?” Terran suggested, real concern in his voice, despite his smothered grin.
Lahdel nodded. “It is very warm today.”
I hesitated a moment, not wanting to intrude. Lahdel might like to be assisted by her fiancé and him alone. Terran brushed aside my reservations. “Help me, Alea.”
I knelt on Lahdel’s other side, letting her grip my hand. The other I slipped around her shoulders.
I cannot explain what happened next or why.
As I supported her weight, my hand slid across the silk of her gown. It touched Terran’s. We both looked up at the same moment, looking at each other over Lahdel’s head.
I saw his eyes widen. His lips parted, drawing in a sharp breath, like he was in pain. I could hear it hiss over the talk and laughter, the gurgle of the fountains and the birds chirping all around us.
All the sun I had soaked in escaped all at once, flooding my body with heat, flashing from my face all the way to my toes. His fingers curled away from mine, snatched back like they had burned him.
Lahdel’s grip tightened on my arm and I wrenched my eyes from Terran’s.
“There you are,” I heard myself say. “You’ll be just fine.” We got her to her feet. She limped a little, pouting as Terran supported her as she walked.
“Come with me, your highness.” He said, his voice as steady as mine had been. How could that be?
I watched them move slowly for the palace, Lahdel’s attendants fluttering around her. I blinked and shook my head. It had to have been my imagination. But there was no denying that I could feel my fingers tingling, the ones that had touched his more warm and alive than they had ever been.
I had just about chalked it up to too much sun, when Terran looked back.
I could see his face clearly and the expression it wore. It filled with me with dread: surprise, confusion, alarm.
They passed under the archway and were gone.
I gathered up my things, the fabric I had been embroidering, my book. I tucked them all inside my basket and started for the palace.
I had to catch myself on a bench, my knees weak.
I pushed myself up, the rough stone cutting into my palm.
“I am well,” I lied. My voice was still as cool and even as it always was.
“Too much sun,” someone said. I couldn’t see their face. The world had grown distant, indistinct.
“Yes,” I said. “I should go rest.” They helped me until my own pride stiffened my spine. “Thank you,” I told them. “I am well.” I slipped out of their grasp and went inside. Sun-blinded, I moved automatically through the dark corridors, blinking as my eyes adjusted.
Lahdel was already lying down in her sumptuous rooms, fanning herself. Her foot was elevated on a pillow.
“How is your ankle?” I asked, setting my things down.
“It hurts.” She said pathetically. “I sent for some ice.”
“That is a good idea.” I checked it again, still amazed that my voice and hands were steady. The day was no longer warm, but cold, numbing. The colors of the princess’s gown ran together.
“Are you well?” Lahdel asked, pushing away from the low couch to touch my face. “You look odd, Alea.”
“Too much sun,” I said, continuing that convenient excuse. “I am going to go lie down.”
“Yes,” she said, smiling sadly. I left her, going to my room down a narrow passage. The door shut solidly behind me. I leaned against it, staring fixedly at the floor.
It was impossible. It was horrible and terrifying and it would ruin everything.
I shook my head, scolding myself.
It was impossible.
I had danced with the prince a hundred times since Lahdel had come here. He and I were often thrust together, whenever he was with Lahdel, during meals, the day to day life of the palace and the government.
I walked to my bed, taking each step carefully. My knees were shaking. I felt sick, like the world was tilting up behind me, at any moment going to pitch me onto my face and tumble me out the yawning window above my bed.
I sank to the mattress, the down compressing below me.
Oddly, I noticed smells first. How I smelled of sunshine and clean water and the dirt that was staining my silk dress. The earthy, old scent of the wood floor, the sharp smell of the clean fireplace, with the hint of smoke as the wind blew across the chimney far above.
I lifted my hands, dirty from helping Lahdel to her feet. I could still feel where I had touched Terran.
I tried to cry silently. My lungs burned as the tears poured down my face, gasping, gripping the fine woven blankets with tight fists.