Cousin of the Crown
By: Elisabeth Treble
“I do not like you going this late in the year,” my mother said, her eyes on the heavy clouds above the manor.
I tucked my scarves in tighter and stepped into the carriage.
“I will be well,” I told her. “I will write when I reach the palace.”
“Be safe,” she said, pressing my hand.
I waved to my family and shut the door, cutting off the biting wind.
The carriage lurched down the hills, cutting directly for the wide bay of the lake below. Five days it took to cross it in good weather. Now it might be a week or more. The captain grimaced at me as I was handed over the side.
“Get below,” he snapped at me, turning away. I obeyed, ducking out of the howling wind. The ship lurched as it left the dock, the sails whipping until they caught the wind and pushed the ship forward.
I spent each and every hour of the voyage lying on my narrow bed, steeling myself for what was to come. I had to ignore him. I had to pretend that his very name didn’t make my heart skip. I had to pretend he was nothing.
It was snowing as I rode up to the palace. Lahdel was waiting in the hall, wrapped up securely against the chill seeping through the doors and windows.
“Alea!” she cried, throwing herself at me.
My anger with her tamped down. She was thinner than I had ever seen her, hollow checked. She was truly miserable. I held her close, letting her hide her tears in my shoulder.
“Come, tell me everything,” I said, an unwitting echo of my mother’s comfort to me.
I left her sleeping in her bed, cried out and exhausted. She didn’t want his passion, just his respect, something infinitely harder to wring out of an unwilling man. She knew her duty and he was denying her.
The library was cold and dark, only a few candles lit in carefully sealed sconces. A fire here would destroy hundreds of years of careful work and research.
He didn’t look up at my steps, though I knew he knew it was me. Just as I had known he was here, sitting alone in the dark, staring at his hands. I stood looking down on him.
“You shouldn’t be here.” He said finally, his voice catching.
“I know.” I said. “I don’t want to be. My queen commanded me.”
He nodded. “You know, then?”
“That you refused Lahdel? Yes.”
He looked up. “Alea.”
“You know why, Alea.”
I shook my head. “It is impossible and we both know it.”
“It is not.” He snapped.
“It is done.” I shot back. “You dishonor and disgrace her. You must do your duty!”
He surged to his feet, advancing on me. “And it means nothing to you?”
I clenched my fists. “You mean everything to me, Terran.”
He snapped his teeth together so hard they clicked. “I will not.” He growled.
“You cannot make me!”
“I will not!” His fury was the more frightening for its quiet intensity. He did not shout, only stood panting, his hands working.
“Then what are you going to do?” I asked when I could find my voice. I was glad of the table between us.
“I have brothers. I will have nephews.”
I shook my head. “That is not right, Terran.”
“I will explain to Lahdel.”
“You will kill her.” I snapped. His eyes gleamed a moment in the darkness. I sucked in a breath. “Terran?”
He blinked and the shadow passed. “I will not.” He said simply. “Alea, I love you.”
I pressed my hands into the smooth top of the table, holding myself upright. “Then why did you marry Lahdel?”
“Why did you marry her? Why did you put me through this, if you are just going to make her suffer, too?”
“I had to marry her!”
“And yet you will not do your duty by her?”
“I did my duty for my kingdom!” He was blazing now, shaking with rage. “I did what I had to, though it tore my heart out. I am trying to make this right!”
“It will never be right!” I snarled at him. “It can never be right!”
“What would you have me do?” he demanded, throwing his arms out. “Go to her now? Would that make you happy?”
“And when its your name that I gasp out, what will I tell her then? That I love you more than my kingdom, more than my own life, that she is just a tool, a vessel to carry on my bloodline? That in one instant, you ripped my life apart? That every smile I give her, every word I speak is a lie? That I want you?”
It was the hardest thing I had ever said. “You cannot have me.”
“I know.” The words hung in the air between us, an insurmountable wall. He closed his eyes, breathing deeply. “And if I cannot have you, I do not want any woman. Can you not see that?”
I bit my tongue to keep my tears inside. “Terran, please.”
“Can you just accept this from me?” He asked. “I can give you nothing that I want to, but this. You will marry one day; you will have to. You will bear children that should have been mine. Will you let me do this? For you?”
“I will not marry.” I bit out.
“And I will not lie with Lahdel.”
“Do not lie to yourself, Terran.” I said, my despair making me ruthless, wanting to inflict my pain on anything, even him. “One day you will. You will want to.”
“No.” He said, almost gently. “Never. I swear it.”
“Please, don’t!” I pleaded, panicking now. He was pulling at me, his eyes dark and hurt. I wanted to comfort him more than anything in the world. But if I stepped into his arms, I would never leave again. I would kill Lahdel and countless others as our kingdoms tore each other apart.
“Go away.” He said, his voice hard. “Go. Now.”
I fled, picking up my skirts and running for my life.
Terran’s face was as cool and impassive as I had ever seen it the next morning. He treated Lahdel, and consequentially me, with polite grace, but achingly distant and cold. Lahdel’s eyes filled as she watched him stalk from the table.
“I don’t understand,” she begged me after he left and we were alone. “What has happened?”
“I talked with him last night,” I admitted.
“Yes?” she crushed my hands in hers.
“He…” I hated to lie to her, but the truth would destroy her. “He does like you, Lahdel. He respects you, which is why he refuses you.”
“I don’t understand.” She said, pitiful in her distress.
“He loves another.” I blushed as I said it but she didn’t notice.
“What?” She demanded.
“He loves a woman he cannot have. He does not want to lie to you by…being with you when he wants her.”
“Who?” Lahdel insisted, her eyes bright and feral. “Who is it?”
I shook my head. “He would not say.”
“Why did he not say anything before? Why did he not warn me?”
“I don’t know.” I admitted, wishing I knew what to have done to prevent this. “But be patient with him. His is heart-broken.”
Lahdel dropped her eyes, tears streaming down her cheeks.
“Do you love him?” I asked after a moment.
“No.” She said dully. “But he is my prince and will be my king.”
“Give him time.” I said. “He did not know his own mind, I think, until faced with the decision.”
Lahdel nodded. “You are right, as always.” She said, a weak hint of smile on her lips.
I forced a laugh and turned back to my cold breakfast.
I tried to stay as far from him as possible. I didn’t know how no one else could feel it, how he drew at me. There were nights when I would go to bed, my cheeks aching from holding a false smile on my face all day. Terran never smiled. Not even the fleeting ones he used to bestow on me when he thought I was being particularly difficult and willful.
He watched me flirt and dance with his noblemen, his face smooth and blank. Lahdel did her best, putting aside her own embarrassment to try to charm him into at least being cheerful. He was very nice to her, but I heard the whispers. People noticed his distant attitude, how he hardly spoke to her. They noticed how he went through the motions of courting her, but never an inch further.
They noticed that she was not pregnant.
I joined an opera company in the city. It was nothing like the ones back home, much smaller and less extravagant. But I enjoyed it. It was hard to think of anything when I was frantically memorizing dialog and coloratura. I would fall into bed, the music jangling through my head, exhausted. It helped.
I made quite a name for myself. Lahdel teased me as I fended off overly eager admirers, trying to convince them gently that looking at them while I sang did not necessarily mean I was in love with them.
“Shut up.” I snapped crossly as I dumped yet another bouquet into Clara’s arms to dispose of.
“What did you expect?” she asked. “You grow more lovely by the day.”
“I do not!” I protested. I thought I looked sick, pale and growing thin. I couldn’t eat, no matter how many days passed.
Lahdel clucked over me. “Silly little songbird!” She chided. “Of course you are lovely. You have always been lovely. I don’t tell you enough.”
I closed my eyes. It was hard to hate her when she was being so genuinely kind and gentle. There was not a guileful bone in her body. I flushed, ashamed. Not like me.
“You just need sleep,” Lahdel said. “You’ve been working too hard.”
“I have to learn Gigi before next week. And then-”
“And now you need to rest,” Lahdel said sternly. “Otherwise you’ll fall flat on your face tonight.”
I nearly did anyway, as I glided out onto the stage. Terran sat in the royal box.
My emotions, usually so controlled while performing, rose up and choked me. I stood frozen, unable to speak, the men in the scene waiting with growing concern as I hesitated. I shook myself.
“What revelry is this?” my voice echoed out, rough.
My co-protagonist answered, looking very relieved. The scene went on from there without any trouble. I sang the opening duet and hurried off for a change of costume. I stopped for moment behind the curtains, irrationally furious.
How dare he come here? How dare he come and watch me sing, without warning me? I took a shaking breath. He had no right to come here, to upset me. It was the one place I could forget him, pretend that this was real and my life was the drama, that it would end soon and I could walk away unscathed.
“Alea?” My male lead asked, coming up to me. “Alea are you unwell?”
“No,” I said, mastering myself. “No, just…I don’t know.” I laughed then, blinking my eyes clear. “Hurry, or we’ll miss our cue.”
He searched my face in the shadows. “Should I fetch Viva?” I made a face at him.
After the raucous finish, complete with thrown pies, misdirected letters, and a duel, I stood alone on the stage and bowed to the cheering audience.
I nearly fell off into the orchestra when the noise died all at once, the echos fading quickly. I looked up. Terran had stood and the crowd waited to hear his opinion.
“Beautiful, as ever, Lady Alea.” He said softly, but somehow filling up the space. I shivered and tried not to show.
“Your highness,” I murmured, dipping a curtsy. “Thank you.”
He sat again and the applause resumed like it had never halted. I waved, flashing smiles and kisses, then exited back stage.
“Alea!” my co-actors caught me as I stumbled. “Whatever is the matter?”
I drew my hand across my eyes. They were dry, something that surprised me.
“I’m just tired,” I said. I patted their hands, pushing them away. “No late party for me tonight. I need to go home and sleep.”
I didn’t; I laid in bed, wide awake. What had he meant by it? Those three words were more than he’d spoken to me in weeks. Again, an inexplicable fury rose up in me. Couldn’t he just leave me alone? Couldn’t he just give up and let me be, let me be miserable without having to be reminded of all I had lost?
I was not pleased to see him again the next week as I reprised my role as Gigi. This opera was serious, no flung pastries anywhere.
At least he did not speak to me again. I did look up after the most famous scene, a lament as I mourned my dead lover. I was crying, as it fit the situation, and the noise was thunderous. Terran nodded once, his face half concealed in shadow. I looked away before my tears became real.