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Cousin of the Crown, Chapter Five
By: Elisabeth Treble
“Leaving?” Lahdel gaped at me. “No! You cannot leave me!” she said, tears in her eyes.
“Just for awhile,” I lied. I was never coming back here. “I miss my parents, my family.”
“But, who will be my friend?” she cried.
I laughed. “Everyone is your friend, you goose! Everyone is madly in love with you.”
“Come, don’t be such a brat.” I scolded. “I’ll go away for a few weeks and be back for the Snow Festival.”
Lahdel’s pout didn’t ease.
“Besides,” I said, elbowing her lewdly. “You’ll have plenty to keep you occupied, don’t you think?”
She went brilliant scarlet. “Alea!”
I sniffed. “Come, give me permission. Or I’ll leave without it and you’ll have to order me banished or executed.”
Lahdel gasped, horrified. “I would never!”
“Then I must go.” I said firmly. I had to. I had to get out of the palace. I had to get as far from Terran as I could. I had to sleep; I hadn’t slept in days, my nights filled with terrible nightmares of Lahdel’s death at my hands. Or nights spent with Terran, aching for him. “I’ll say hello to everyone, I promise.”
I had the arrangements already made. I took my leave of the king and queen that afternoon, none of the pomp and careful planning needed to move a princess across three countries. A ship waited to carry me across the lake, then a swift carriage over the pass and home.
“We will miss you,” the queen said. “Come back to us soon.”
“I will.” I lied again. “As soon as I can.”
Gulin had a wounded expression that stabbed at me. He followed me out to the waiting horses.
“Alea,” he pleaded, low and intense. I stilled my hands on my horse’s stirrup. I turned to face him.
“Gulin,” I said gently.
His expression went wooden.
“Enough,” he said. “You don’t have to say it.”
For an instant, I considered it. He would love me and care for me. I did like him. He was kind and funny and handsome. He looked like Terran, so much they could be twins. That decided it for me.
I shook my head. “Can we be friends?”
“You deserve someone who loves you, Gulin. I like you. A lot, but not enough.”
He sighed, dragging a hand through his hair. “I hate it when you are like this.”
“Would you rather I lied to you?” I demanded.
“Yes,” he snapped, glaring at me. “Yes, Alea. I would.”
I shook my head frantically. “No, Gulin. It would be terrible. You would hate me, because I could not love you.”
“Why not?” He demanded. “Why can’t you?”
“I-” I bit back my words. Because I love your brother, destined to marry my cousin. I love him with every part of my being. It would be a lie, to marry Gulin. Terran had to supplant me through duty. I would not hurt Gulin the same as I was hurting Lahdel.
Gulin growled under his breath, swearing. “You’re right, as always.” He said finally.
“I know.” I tried to joke. He didn’t smile.
“You will forgive me if I am not here when you return?”
“Where are you going?” I asked, alarmed.
He shrugged. “Away from here. For a while. Away from Terran and his perfect bride and their perfect marriage.”
I gasped; I couldn’t help it.
“What?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I said, smiling as brightly as I could. He eyed me narrowly. All at once he stepped close and kissed me.
“There,” he said, his voice rough. “It is done. Go home, Alea. I will see you again.”
I watched him stalk back to the palace, the guards carefully looking everywhere but at us. I raised my eyes. Terran was standing at a window above and to the side of the wide doors. I turned away, hiding my face.
I wanted to stay here. I wanted to marry Gulin. Then I would have a piece of Terran, a pale shadow, but as close as I could have.
I mounted stiffly, settling my skirts. It would be a disaster. It would only be a matter of time before we broke down, meeting somewhere in the endless corridors, betraying those we had sworn fidelity. One of us had to go and I was the one without a crown.
I clucked to the animal and it lurched forward. I could feel Terran’s eyes on me, feel his heart breaking as mine had done, that afternoon in the gardens.
I had never been so happy to see my mother. I jumped from the carriage before it had even stopped moving and rushed into her arms. She held me close, squeezing me breathless.
“My darling Alea!” she said. “My little songbird! How I’ve missed you!”
I dashed tears from my face. “Oh mama! I’ve missed you, too.”
“Come inside. The air is too cold to stand about.” She tucked my arm in hers and led the way into the manor.
Nestled back in the hills, it sat with faded dignity, worn enough to be comfortable, but not threadbare. The fields and little town surrounding it were old and well established, looking like they had risen from the earth herself. It was beautiful and perfect.
My many brothers, sisters and cousins tumbled about, excited that the eldest was home again. I spent the first week telling them everything they wanted to know about the palace and the king and queen. The fireworks were a particular favorite, retold many times.
I slipped easily back into my role as the eldest girl, my mother’s assistant as she managed the lands with my father. He was away at court, our own palace far to the east. Mother had an iron will that she dispensed with mercy and fairness.
“I hope I am like you one day,” I said wistfully as she read a letter from one of our land managers.
“Oh?” she asked, making a careful note of something. “How is that?”
“You are perfect.” I sighed.
She laughed. “I assure, my dear, I am far from perfect. Just ask your father.”
“He thinks you are perfect.”
“That is because he is a fool and in love.”
I had to close my eyes, shutting out the world until I could control my emotions again.
“Have you heard from the princess lately?” she asked after a moment of writing.
“Yes,” I said, keeping my voice carefully neutral. I wanted to scream and cry and break things.
“The wedding is tomorrow, isn’t it?”
I nodded. “Yes.”
“Why did you not stay to witness it?” Mother asked, lowering her papers to stare at me.
I shrugged. “I have seen a dozen weddings; what is this one?”
“It is your cousin marrying the prince of another country,” mother chided.
And the man I love. I added to myself. The man I dream about every night, the man whose heart I can hear beating in time with mine as I lay awake in the early hours.
“She’ll manage. I was quite superfluous, in any case.” I laughed and winced as it rang falsely. Mother watched me a moment longer.
“You are returning this winter?”
“I said I would try to be back before the snow festival.” I said. I had it planned very carefully. The snow would trap me here until spring. Then the bustle of planting, the long hours tending the grains and cattle. Then harvest, and the fall storms, the snows again. If I was careful, I could delay until everyone forgot I should go back, even Lahdel.
“The lake is dangerous to cross in the winter.”
“I know.” I said. “Say, have you heard what happened to Lady Geora?”
The day of the wedding came and went. I thought I might feel some sort of change when he spoke the words binding himself to Lahdel forever. The sun rose and set with its normal grace and unconcern.
I lay for long hours on my bed, weeping silently into my pillow. I washed my face, splashing cold water on my cheeks and went down to dinner.
“Sing!” My cousins begged, herding me toward the fireplace. I laughed, grasping their tiny hands. The adults were grouped by the warmth, talking in low murmurs. My father had come home. He smiled on me, easing some of my heartache. I was loved and welcomed here. There was no reason for me to leave, ever again.
I sang until I was falling asleep. The children were all lying on the rugs, curled up and snoring. I left them to their parents and went to my rooms again. My pillow was still wet with tears.
My mother had been giving me increasingly worried glances for a few weeks when a letter arrived from Lahdel.
I took it upstairs, wanting to be alone. If it was news that she was with child, I was going to throw it the fireplace and never speak to her again.
What it said was much worse.
I wish you would come back to me. I am in need of you support and advice. I don’t know what to do.
Here the paper was wrinkled, like it had been crushed in a dainty, smooth skinned fist. Her ink was blotchy after that, smeared with tear drops.
Terran does not want me.
I gripped the arms of my chair, forcing myself to go on.
I know our match to be political, but I had thought he cared for me, as I cared for him, a partner, a friend. I do not want or expect his love, but something has changed.
It is mortifying for me to admit it to anyone, but you are my best friend. How can I not tell you?
He will not come to me. He refused, even on our wedding night. He was very kind and gracious, sad even. But he told me he could not. ‘I can’t’ were his words. He does not dance with me anymore; he does not touch me, or smile at me. He hardly smiles at all.
I do not know what has happened, Alea, and I do not know how to fix it. Please come back and help me. I fear he - Oh I can hardly stand to write it! I fear he has taken a mistress, a lover. What am I to do?
I couldn’t read any more. I stood and lurched over to the fire, tossing it in. I panted before the flames as they flared up consuming the paper in one flash of heat and light.
What was he doing? What was he trying to achieve? We could never be together. It was settled, finished. I would not fight my duty and he could not fight his. I would not hurt Lahdel, anymore than I already had.
Our kiss was a weight on my conscious. The power of it, the intensity; we might as well have lain together. Our intentions were clear, even if our deeds were chaste. How many times had I dreamed of it? I wanted him. It was wrong and wicked, but I did. I could not help myself.
And I could not go back. I would not put myself into that kind of temptation. I would not do that to Terran. What was he trying to tell me?
If not for Lahdel! She was innocent, trapped between us. She needed me, not knowing I was the cause of her distress and humiliation. How degrading it must be, to be denied by her husband, shown and told she was not good enough.
My suppressed rage and jealousy flared up before I could control it.
She wasn’t good enough for him. She was too used to be being perfect, the loveliest, the most beautiful. Terran didn’t want her. He wanted me. Her humiliation was just her pride, her conceit being cut down.
I pressed my hands to my face.
My mother’s hands were soft on my shoulders.
“My little songbird,” she said softly. “Why do you cry?”
I whirled and pressed into her, sobbing uncontrollably.
“My dearest girl, what is the matter?”
“Mama, I cannot live like this!”
“Like what, dearest?”
“I love Terran!”
She went still. “The prince?”
“Yes! I love him, mama, and he loves me. I cannot stand to think of him married to Lahdel! The scheming witch! She stole him from me!” I gasped, shocked at my own hatred. “No, I didn’t mean it. Oh, mama, what shall I do?”
She held me close until I had calmed down. She drew me to the low couch and pressed me down.
“Tell me everything,” she said gently.
I did my best. The afternoon in the garden, the weeks between until he kissed me, why I had left. What Gulin wanted. She stroked my hair as I cried, until I was too exhausted to do more than shiver.
My father’s hands were larger and heavier, their weight comforting in a way mother’s gentle caresses weren’t. Not better, just different.
“You know what will happen if you and the prince are together.” He said finally, his voice heavy.
I nodded. Our countries would split their alliance. We would fight against, instead of alongside each other, repayment for Terran’s adultery.
“I would never wish that,” I said. “I know he is lost to me. What shall I do?”
“I don’t understand?”
“How can I keep living?” I begged him. “I don’t want to.”
His grip was tight. “Alea!” He scolded.
I broke down again. “I’m sorry,” I pleaded. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, papa!”
My parents held me tightly while I cried. I let them put me in bed, my mother sitting by me.
“Is Lahdel with child?” she asked softly. I was staring unseeing at the ceiling.
“No,” I whispered hoarsely. “She wished me to return to comfort her because…” I swallowed. “Because Terran will not have her.”
My mother sighed. “I feared as much.”
“The queen is distressed about her daughter. She has asked me to send you back to her.”
I cringed. I had to go now; it was an order from the crown.
“I will go.” I said dully. “I must. If only to convince him to do his duty.”
“What is his duty?”
I jerked my head up to gape at my mother. “Mama!”
She stood slowly, tucking in my covers. Her voice was quiet when she spoke. “What is a man’s duty but that which is closest to his heart?”
I stared after her as she left.