Cousin of the Crown
By: Elisabeth Treble
Gulin came back.
I had hardly noticed he was gone, so absorbed in my own life, in Lahdel’s.
“Lady Alea,” he said, bowing to me.
“Gulin,” I cried, going to him. It soothed my heart to see him, even if his eyes were the same color as Terran’s. Just not as serious or steady. How could I have ever thought them similar? His hand was stiff as I grasped it.
“Please, Gulin,” I begged, with more feeling than I meant to show. He looked to me, surprised. “Please, do not be angry with me.”
“I can’t be angry with you,” he said low and tense. “That is the problem.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said tartly. “I am hardly worthy of a prince. Haven’t you heard? I’m a famous actress, now.”
He smiled, his stern expression easing. “I had heard. Congratulations.” He kissed my hand. The hair on the back of my neck stood up.
“Welcome home, brother.” Gulin shot his older sibling a startled glance as Terran stepped up beside us. There was nothing nice in Terran’s tone, steely and keen, like a knife.
“Terran,” Gulin said, dropping my hand to shake his. “Sorry to have left you so long.”
Terran blinked and smiled, suddenly easy again. “How were the mountains?”
“Snowy.” Gulin said, making a face.
Terran laughed and clapped Gulin on the back. “Tell me.”
They went off together, slipping through the crowd with their heads together. I went to the wall and sank to a chair. I was never a fainter, but I came close then, breathing quickly, the room echoing very far away.
I forced myself to my feet and went back to Lahdel. She was laughing, the most sincere laugh I’d heard since I came back. Gulin was describing getting stuck in a snow drift while surveying their mountain mines. I joined in, ribbing him mercilessly. Terran was out dancing.
He came back for Lahdel. He always did, dancing at least once with her each time, no matter how casual the setting.
Gulin fell silent as we sat together.
“Alea,” he began.
“Please, Gulin.” I interrupted. “Please?”
He sighed. “I’d hoped you would change your mind.”
“I am sorry.” I said. “I just can’t.” I couldn’t stop loving Terran. I had been trying.
Gulin smiled at me. “Friends, then?”
I nodded. “Always.”
“You would have liked Glenshire.” He said after a moment. “It was cold.”
I laughed. “But I love the sun!”
“Yes, but not the heat, I think. Didn’t you grow up in the back hills somewhere in Talin?”
“They are not the back hills!” I protested. “There are at least two estates even further out than my father’s.”
“Close enough.” He grinned at me, the last of the anger fading from his eyes. I breathed a quiet sigh. He hadn’t loved me, not like his brother. Not the all-consuming, self-destructive force that kept Terran’s jaw set, his shoulders stiff. I feared for him, so tightly he was wound. He looked desperate most mornings, like he was barely holding onto himself.
“How do you like being our own prima donna?” Gulin asked, jerking my thoughts away from his brother.
“Very well.” I said. “Though, I am getting tired of young men yodeling in the garden under my window every night.”
Gulin snorted. “Poor Alea, loved and admired by everyone.”
I blushed. “You know what I mean.”
He searched my face suddenly. “You look thinner. Are you unwell?”
There was an involuntary edge in my voice as I said, “You’ve been away from court too long. You’ve lost your touch for flattery.”
He was taken aback. “No, no, I meant…” His eyes narrowed. “Alea.” He warned.
I smirked and turned away. He swore grumpily, giving me a rueful smile.
“Alea, you are beautiful. You know this.”
I shrugged. “Lahdel says I look pale as well. Maybe I should have gone with you. I could use some sun.”
“It is odd to see you not either burned or tanned,” Gulin teased. “Too many nights on stage, I suppose. When are you singing again? I’d like to come see you.”
We both jumped.
“Prince Terran,” I said, nodding to him.
“Dance with me.”
I counted five eternal seconds before my lips moved, making the shape of smile. “Of course. If you would excuse me, Prince Gulin.”
The younger man’s face was set, but his voice was easy enough. “We’ll speak more later.”
Terran’s hand and mine barely touched, like we were each straining not to actually feel the other. His other hand was light on my waist, not resting there, but hovering.
“Are you having a pleasant evening?” he asked quietly.
“Are you happy Gulin is home?”
I looked up to his face then. His eyes were blank, like they always were. “I missed him.” I admitted. “He makes me laugh.”
Terran grunted and the music started.
“You were lovely last night,” he said after a few minutes. “But doesn’t your voice get tired, singing all the time?”
“Sometimes,” I said. “It depends on the role.”
I hesitated an instant. “How are you? Really?”
He moved his eyes from his stare over my shoulder to meet mine. “How do you think?” His hands did touch me then, pressing into me for an instant before he eased away. I shivered and he felt it.
“Don’t!” I whispered fiercely. “Don’t say my name like that!”
He nodded. “I won’t.”
We danced in silence until it was over.
“Please don’t do this again.” I said as he bowed to me. I was trembling, my legs week. Being so near him for so long was crushing my resolve, my determination to be good.
“I’ll try.” He said. He handed me off and disappeared into the crowd.
He didn’t try hard enough.
He claimed a dance from me, too, usually the one right after Lahdel. I grew calloused to it, going so far as to be able to talk with him in a normal voice. It would look odd if we danced several times a week and never said a word to each other.
Having Gulin home was a blessing. Henry had never cared much for me or Lahdel and had no time for us. Gulin would come and spend his mornings with us in Lahdel’s solarium, keeping us laughing. Some of the stress weighing down on her lifted, and consequentially from me as well. If he wouldn’t have taken it the wrong way, I would have kissed him.
Terran never came.
It was late in an afternoon, the days just starting to lengthen again, when I chanced upon the two of them talking. Arguing, in low, tense tones. I stilled, my heart hammering. It was a quiet wing of the palace, where I knew Terran came to work when he was upset.
“What is going on?” Gulin demanded, his voice rising.
I cringed. I knew what this was about. Gulin had to have noticed, to have heard the whispers.
“Leave it.” Terran warned, his voice as cold as his brother’s was heated.
“It does not concern you.”
“It damn well does!” Gulin snarled. “She’s my sister, now, Terran. What are you thinking?”
Something heavy slammed, like a book hitting a table. “Gulin!”
I closed my eyes. Just say it, I pleaded silently, not knowing why. Just let it out, tell him. Explain.
“Go away.” Terrsn said finally.
“She knows. Everyone knows.”
“Knows what?” He was wary, now.
“That you won’t have her. You don’t even share a room! How could you think no one would guess? It’s crushing her, Terran. She was never very strong, not like her cousin. You have to have her sometime! Why do you wait? Think what you’re doing to her, to Alea!”
“Do not dare to direct me, Gulin.” Mentioning me was a mistake. I shuddered at Terran’s tone. “Get out.”
I ducked into an empty room until Gulin had stormed by. I followed silently, slipping into a garden, still trembling.
I was too distraught to hear Gulin’s steps until he snapped my name.
I jumped, staring up at him.
“What the hell is going on?” he snarled at me.
I was a coward. I knew it and I was not ashamed. Faced with the same question, I couldn’t make myself tell him. Couldn’t tell him how I loved his brother. So instead I asked, “What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean!” Gulin snapped. “Terran and Lahdel!”
I hushed him.
“We’re alone, I checked.” He bit out. “Tell me what’s going on!”
I winced. “Lahdel says…” I shrugged helplessly.
Gulin swore then, his fists on his hips. “Who is it?”
I couldn’t lie, so I said nothing. He shot me a hard look. “You know, don’t you!”
I shook my head frantically.
“Don’t lie to me, Alea!”
“I’m not!” I shouted back, jumping to my feet. “I tried to reason with him! He is acting crazy!” He was. I was. We were both out of our minds.
“He’s a fool.” Gulin growled. “Talin could annul it. It would ruin everything.”
I gasped as he said my deepest, darkest wish aloud. More than anything, I wanted my king to lose his patience, to grow furious with the shame heaped on his daughter and take her back. It would be terrible for everyone, for every single citizen and soldier dragged into it. I didn’t care.
Gulin sighed suddenly, rubbing his face. “I’m sorry, Alea. I shouldn’t be angry with you.”
“Its alright.” I said shakily. I sank back to the bench. “The stress…”
Gulin nodded. “I imagine.”
I bowed my head, breathing deeply to calm my stomach. I still couldn’t eat. Terran’s abrupt attention was not making it easier to deal with.
“You don’t sing tonight?”
I shook my head. “No. We have two weeks pause.”
“You need to rest.” Gulin’s hand lifted my chin, his fingers gentle. “Really, Alea. You look terrible.”
I believed him. “I am tired.”
“Go to bed.” He said. “I’ll sit with Lahdel tonight.”
“Would you?” I asked. “She likes you. You make her laugh.”
“Something I assume she has not done much of lately.”
I had to smile. “She knows all my jokes already.”
Gulin chuckled. “Go on. Before I have to rewrite my love songs to include the shadows under your eyes.”
I made a face and left, leaving him in the garden.
It was well I wasn’t at dinner. Terran punched Gulin in the face.
Lahdel told me about it when she came up, her eyes wide. She had soup staining her dress.
“And then Gulin jumped up and shoved Terran over the table. Everyone was screaming. The guards had to pull them apart.” She was bouncing in her chair, biting her lip.
“I’m sure they’re fine,” I said, grumpy. I had actually been asleep, for once dropping off effortlessly. “Just a disagreement.”
“The king lectured them in front of the entire assembly.” Lahdel continued, her color coming and going by turns. “It was terrible. They wouldn’t say what they were fighting over.”
Me. Laid my head down, miserable. They are fighting over me. The egomaniac thought made me flush from my hair to my toes. But it was true. They were fighting because of me. And I couldn’t leave again. I couldn’t leave Lahdel here to face it all by herself.
The urge to tell her was almost overwhelming. I lifted my head again, looking at her as she stared out the dark window, her brow furrowed.
“I hope he is alright,” she said softly.
I sighed, turning my face away. I couldn’t. She was my sister, a woman I loved, that I had cared for. It would crush her. She was already thin and pale, both of us reduced by the situation. There would be no way to fix what would break between us. It would only make it worse.
And she would send me away and I would never see him again.
She left soon after, leaving me alone with my jealousy and selfishness. I huddled under my blankets, chilled through, and tried to sleep.