That night I dreamed I murdered Princess Lahdel.
I slipped out of bed, my bare feet silent on the wood floors. I knew where each squeak would be and stepped carefully around them. She was sleeping, as beautiful as a sunrise, her lips curved in the faintest of smiles. Lips that had kissed Terran.
She kicked as I pressed a pillow over her face. Her hands clenched around my wrists, but I was stronger than her. I always had been, the insipid, vain fool. And she did not have the hate that was coursing through me, the despair and jealousy that lent me power over her, crushing her life out, smothering it, every inch of me howling with savage joy.
I woke with a strangled cry. The sun was rising and Clara paused in the act of pouring fresh water in my basin.
“My lady?” she asked, astonished.
I gasped for air, wrapping my arms around myself to hold in my shudders of horror.
“My lady, are you unwell?” Clara asked, coming to feel my forehead. “You are very pale!”
“I am well.” I said for what felt the thousandth time since yesterday afternoon. I was starting to hate those words. Couldn’t everyone see I was not well, that my heart had been ripped into pieces, that it was lying broken at my feet? “Just a nightmare.”
“Lie back down,” Clara insisted, trying to ease me to the mattress.
“No.” I snapped. I did not want to go back to sleep. I did not want to have to face that again. I got up, hours earlier than normal. Clara’s eyebrows were low and scrunched as she dressed me, worried I would do myself harm.
I escaped as soon as I was presentable. Lahdel was still sleeping. I turned away my face and left silently.
By midmorning, I was exhausted again. My restless night and the late hour at which I went to bed were dragging me down. My voice was noticeably rough, bringing unsolicited advice on how to treat summer fever from all sides.
“Just too much singing,” I said, my vowels catching, breaking. I made a face and the nice courtier talking with me laughed before moving on. I escaped to a garden, lush and verdant in the morning sun.
“There you are!”
I looked up from the pool I was staring into, counting the leaves of the lilies. Lahdel came toward me, laughing.
“I have been looking for you since breakfast. Were you not hungry?”
“No.” I said. “I ate too much last night.”
“I heard the fireworks all the way up here.” She said, sitting next to me. She chatted about our usual topics, every now and then reaching over to touch my hand or squeeze my arm. I tried not to flinch away.
“Terran!” Lahdel exclaimed. I didn’t look up, finding a sudden knot in my embroidery threads that needed my attention. I wasn’t sure I could control my expression just yet.
His strong, browned hand passed into my view, a white bandage wrapped around his palm.
“Your highness,” he returned. “How is your foot?”
“As good as new,” Lahdel said. I could hear her smile. “Alea is a wonderful nurse.”
I laughed, lifting my eyes. “I can hardly take credit for making you lie down and rest.” I said. “And I was gone most of the night anyway. You did your healing on your own, cousin.”
Lahdel squeezed my hand in thanks.
“Speaking of mortal wounds, how is your hand, your highness?” I looked all the way up to his face. “I did not see how badly you cut yourself.”
“Not serious, I assure you, Lady Alea.” He lifted his hand and grimaced at it. “Though I won’t be much use with a blade for a few days, until the stitches come out.”
I sighed gustily. “I suppose then it is my responsibility to protect Lahdel should brigands attack.”
Terran grinned. “I’m sure you would scare them off much quicker than I could.”
“True.” I scoffed. “My scowl is infinitely fiercer than yours. You are too handsome to be frightening.”
“And you’re not?” he asked, one eyebrow raised.
“Which? Frightening or handsome?”
We both looked away at the same moment. I wonder to this day why Lahdel did not start up and slap one or both of us. I’d seen the prince’s answer in his eyes, a flash that twisted my heart right around itself. He thought I was beautiful and it terrified him.
“Lahdel,” he said lightly. “Shall we leave your frightening cousin to plan for her assault on the northern outlaws?”
“As it pleases your highness,” she said simply. He drew her to her feet and they walked away, their heads bent together.
We were careful to avoid each other after that. At least, I knew I deliberately put myself in a group of people whenever we were in the same room. I only nodded respectfully when we passed in the corridors, not trusting my voice.
He seemed to be doing the same. He never spoke to me after that morning should he come out in search of Lahdel. It was too easy, too powerfully alluring. No one appeared to notice our reserve around each other, how he would turn away his face when he saw me, how he would take Lahdel’s arm, angling his body away from me, doing anything to avoid conversation with me. We were like two weights on opposite ends of a line, swinging around each other, never meeting, but unable to escape.
The summer wore away, the days shortening slowly, but inexorably.
I grew brown and coarse. I sat out every day, my face to the sun, drinking it in. It was the only thing keeping me alive and warm. The rest of the world still felt cold, detached from me. It was getting better, but those moments in the garden had left me wounded, slicing through me. It would take me time to heal.
I didn’t want to heal.
I wanted Terran.
For the harvest celebration, the king held a Grand Ball. I skipped down the steps, the impossibly light silk of my dress floating around me. I felt like I was wearing a cloud of vibrant emerald, swirling in every direction.
The ballroom was already noisy, all but the most important guests already arrived and eagerly awaiting the dancing and the feast. I’d read the harvest reports; a bumper crop, the best in years.
“Alea!” courtiers cried out to me, standing by the raised platform for the musicians at the back of the hall. “Sing!”
I shook my head. “It is too early, yet.”
One young man came and took my hand. “Please, Lady Alea. Sing something, so we may dance.”
“You can dance well enough without me.” I sniped tartly.
“Please? It is not the same without you. You are the best.”
I rolled my eyes. “Flattery will get you nowhere,” I told him sternly as I climbed the shallow steps. “I am immune.”
They all laughed. They made a small square of dancers, clapping and singing along. Slowly it widened, drawing more and more couples in as their excitement caught on.
The Master Musician tamed the crowd, choosing more stately pieces, slower than the rowdy dances I had sung. I stepped down, flashing him a smile. He grinned back, his fingers dancing on his strings.
Lahdel was watching the dancers with bright eyes.
“Come, sit!” she insisted, patting the chair next to her. I went and accepted a drink from a servant gratefully. I disappointed Gulin and Henry both, shaking my head at their requests to dance.
“I am sorry,” I said truthfully. “But I do not feel like dancing. Dance with Lahdel, since Terran in nowhere to be found.”
His absence was being remarked upon by even the most oblivious courtiers when he strode in the main doors. The dancers parted, letting him pass until he stood before his father and mother.
“Forgive me,” he said. “I lost track of time in the library.”
Lahdel reached for him eagerly. I watched the flashing gems in the hair of the women as they twirled.
“Yes, your highness?”
“I wish you to sing, so I may dance with the princess.”
“Of course, your highness.” I stood and made to go to the musician’s stage.
“No.” Terran stopped me. “Sing alone.”
“Alone?” I asked, astonished out of my carefully absent stare. His eyes were as flat and shuttered as I supposed mine to be.
“The most beautiful song you know.” He said softly. Lahdel blushed. So did I.
“I will try to please your highness.”
He nodded and led Lahdel to floor. The wide space cleared, the courtiers moving back to the walls, hushed.
Terran waited, Lahdel’s hand in his, his eyes on a point above my head. I tried to think of something, but every song I knew flew out of my head. Nothing sounded beautiful when he was with her.
I drew in a breath and started singing, anything.
By chance, it was the love aria from the most recent opera I had performed before leaving home. A slow pavane, lilting and delicate. I sang without thinking, holding onto my tears, listening as my voice reverberated from the stone walls, more powerful than even my sturdy frame would suggest. I had once sung in the Grand Theater in Bask, an outdoor space nearly a quarter mile from stage to back tier. I knew how to fill emptiness with my voice, make it dance around every corner, wrap around each person listening.
I finished, the final note long and vibrating, then dying away. The room sighed as one.
Terran bowed to me. “Impossibly beautiful, as always, Lady Alea.” I curtsied back and sank to my chair.
The queen leaned forward, her hand light on my shoulder.
“Astonishing,” she praised, sounding choked. “I have heard it many times, but never with such…sorrow! You made her weep in her happiness.”
I smiled. “Does not happiness make us weep, at its most extreme?”
Her eyes were sparkling. “And at its very best.”
The Master Musician rightfully chose a breathless, breakneck dance to follow that, dispelling the mood I had pressed down on the assembly.
I forced my way through the feast after, then more dancing. If I stood still, I feared I would start weeping myself, all the sorrow I had kept inside me spilling out, released by my thoughtless song.
The sun was lighting in the sky before the ball broke up. I walked carefully back to my rooms, one hand trailing the wall to keep my balance.
I stopped, staring at the ground.
He came toward me slowly, his steps almost dragging, as if he couldn’t decide if he wanted to ran at me or away.
His hand was warm on my face, lifting it to look up at him.
“You are crying,” he said softly, his fingers wiping the wetness from my cheek. He pulled me against him, dipping his head the slightest bit.
I was a sun myself, blazing with blinding, golden light. He gasped, his breath rushing across my lips before he pressed his to mine again. His grip on me was painful, shocking, glorious after weeks of apathy, of heartache.
In that moment, I felt all the years of love and passion we would never have. Every touch and caress, every soft smile and glance we would deny ourselves. I had it all, everything I could ever want from him.
He set me carefully back on my feet, steadying me. We each stepped back, our hands at our sides. He stared down at me, in so much pain, I nearly cried out for it. He turned then and left, his steps uneven, halting.
I went to my room. Lahdel was still downstairs, so I was safe from her commenting on my tears, the flush in my face. I stood at my window, looking out over the palace grounds. The sun was rising, a faint yellow glow to the east.
Terran would never beak his promise. He would marry Lahdel and be faithful to her.
I did not hate her just then. I knew. I knew that every time he touched her, every night he lie with her, every child she bore him, he would be thinking of me. He would give her his word and his honor.
He had given me his soul.