I was aware when Terran got out of bed the next morning. I heard him go to the door and talk with someone there. He came back and dressed, pressing a kiss to my face. I remembered him leaving for a long while and coming back, sitting next to the bed and watching me sleep.
I wasn’t sleeping. It was if my body and my mind had separated, my consciousness watching the world dully as my body lay exhausted and drained. The months, nearly the year since I had first loved him had taken everything from me. Now that I had my every want, my every wish fulfilled, I could do nothing but lie senseless.
Terran stood and leaned over me to shake me gently.
“Alea,” he called, his voice distant. “Alea, you must wake up now.”
I climbed out of the deep, dark place where I had lain motionless for so long. I blinked, my head swimming as I looked up at him and yet down at him, too.
“Alea,” he said, brushing my face with his fingers. “Wake up, my love.”
I gasped, wrenching my thoughts back into my body.
“Terran.” I said.
“Yes,” he smiled at me. “Who else would it be? You are in my bed, as it were.”
I sat up, my head aching. “What time is it?”
“Nearly noon.” He answered, sitting next to me. “How are you feeling?”
“Bad,” I admitted, rubbing my temple. “I’m sore.”
His grin was mischievous. “I am sorry.”
I blushed, pulling the blankets up to my chin. “Not like that,” I spat at him.
He only grinned some more and coaxed me out of the bed.
“We are needed in the city,” he said, growing serious.
I nodded, already weary just thinking of the work I had to do today. “I need to bathe, then I will take you.”
A blushing man had the bathing room prepared and fled at my nod. Terran stayed. I tried not to feel self-conscious. He pulled me to him once I was dressed.
“You are beautiful.” He said. “Never doubt it, Alea.”
I nodded, ducking my eyes. “Thank you, Terran.”
The rest of the day and the next few were mindless blurs of work. Washing linens in scalding water, feeding those too sick to help themselves, checking children for symptoms. Wrapping the bodies of the dead in clean cotton and preparing them for burning.
Terran was welcomed back with tears and grateful prayers. He and Gulin helped their father with the management of the resources.
When Terran went to a neighboring city to oversee the humanitarian operations there, I went with, no matter how Lahdel begged me to stay.
“She is coming with me, your highness.” Terran said firmly. “You have other attendants. Alea is my wife and will stay with me.”
Lahdel gaped at him. I knew Terran didn’t mean to be cruel, but his stern tone pressed her down, miserable. She had never been his wife, not really. He hadn’t wanted her.
“I will be back soon,” I assured her. “You will be well again and you can help with the others.”
She watched us leave with bright eyes, Gulin standing by her, his face stony. He and Terran did not speak unless it was directly related to the crisis.
“Will you not forgive him?” I asked as our carriage drove away.
“No.” Terran said shortly, staring out the window.
“I will not forgive his betrayal, Alea.”
“You did not love her.”
“I know.” He said, soft but still firm. “But what if I had? What if it had been you? It does not matter who it was. It matters that he would dare, even with your princess.”
I had to smile. True to his word, he never spoke Lahdel’s name. “I would never have betrayed you.” I said.
He turned to look at me, surprised. “I know.” He lifted my hand and kissed my palm. I turned his hand over in mine, tracing the scar along his own palm.
“Did it hurt?” I asked.
“Not as much as the thought of you with him.” He said after a long moment of silence.
“Why did you speak to me the next day?”
“I did?” he frowned.
“I asked if you thought I was frightening or handsome.”
His fingers clenched around mine.
I went on. “Why did you always ask me to sing? To dance? Even when we knew we could never be alone, you kept seeking me out.”
“I couldn’t let you go.” He admitted. “It was the only way I could have you. That I could touch you. And…I was testing myself.”
“Why?” I demanded. “Tormenting, is more like it.”
“I had to see if I would break, if I would do what Gulin did.” He dropped his eyes. “I wanted to.”
“Me, too.” I said. “Does that mean we are wicked? That our thoughts betray our true intentions?”
“I cannot help what I dream.” Terran said, more to himself than me.
“What did you dream?” I asked, tense. He looked up to me again.
“You will despise me.”
“I dreamed of killing her.” I said flatly. “And of having you.”
He flinched, telling me I was not alone. “I…sometimes, I…” He shuddered and wouldn’t say anymore for a long while.
The smell of pyres welcomed us to the city. No cheers for Terran’s return, but they were grateful. They were just too tired and sick to do anything but survive.
I watched Terran closely for signs of the infection himself. He refused to rest, working sometimes for two full days without sleep. He would fall asleep where he stood, me herding him to a bed, snuggling down to rest a few hours.
We helped in the fields. I truly was a brown as common laborer now. I rolled up my skirts and sleeves, working until my hands bled and calloused over. Terran kissed each place the hoe or plow had cut me every morning. They never hurt.
Shouts roused us from a fitful sleep. Terran sat up, glaring at the door.
“What?” he snarled. The door flew open and a guardsman rushed in.
“Your highness, Lady Alea,” he panted. “Riot. At the granaries!”
Terran was out of bed and dressing in an instant.
“Stay here,” he commanded me. I ignored him, pulling on a pair of loose trousers and boots and running in his wake. He pulled me to his horse and we thundered down the road.
A low mumble was all I heard at first, then the pounding of feet and shouting. Terran and the guardsmen formed a wedge and plowed through the milling crowd until they broke through. Guardsmen with drawn weapons held the mob at bay, protecting the precious food supply inside the graneries.
Terran jumped down, glowering at the crowd.
“What is the meaning of this!” His voice crackled through the air, echoing back harshly. The front rows eased back, astonished to find themselves confronted with their crown prince and heir. He continued, seething with rage. “What do you here?”
The crowd shifted, restless, sullen shouts of defiance from far in the shadows.
“You want the grain?” Terran demanded. “What will you do with it? Eat it? Spoil it? Sell it to one another, grasping and greedy for gold? Gold that will be worthless when you’re dead from fever. You there!” He pointed at a man cowering in the front row.
“What good will gold and grain do you when your child is vomiting blood?” Terran’s monologue sliced ruthlessly through the crowd, silencing them. “And when you’ve killed the guardsmen doing their duty, what next? You’ll turn on each other? On the few doctors and nurses still able to treat you? But don’t worry, you’ll die with a full belly. And you can watch from hell as your women and children starve this winter, blood pouring from their eyes as the fever takes them down one by one.”
He jumped up the steps, throwing the doors open wide.
“You want the grain? Take it! Come on, take it! You want gold?” He dug a hand in his pocket and flung the coins there out over the crowd. I heard them hit the ground, ringing. “How is this going to help heal your families? You have enough to eat. You have enough gold and possessions. Go home, you sneaking, cowardly dogs, and do what you should be doing! Helping us! Helping me. Make your choice! Take it or go!”
I waited, holding my breath. Terran stood alone between the guards and the mob. They could take him down, trample him before I could get to his side.
One of the men in front took a step back, half turning away. Suddenly, they were all turning, running back, dropping torches and fleeing into the darkness.
Terran spoke with the guards once the streets were empty. I sat shivering, the reins loose in my hands.
I started, looking down at Terran. He mounted, settling down behind me. He wrapped an arm around my waist and clucked to the horse, leading it back to our room in one of the manor houses.
We passed into a deeper shadow and Terran stopped. He dropped his head to my shoulder, squeezing me tight.
“You were magnificent.” I whispered. He was shaking, reaction to the stress. I kicked the horse and it went automatically. I gently took the reins from him and led it back to the house.
None of the citizens would meet Terran’s eyes for days after that. Before we moved onto the next city, he spoke a few moments with the minister in charge. The man shook Terran’s hand, bowing repeatedly.
“What did you tell him?” I asked as Terran climbed into the carriage.
Terran only shrugged and settled back, his eyes closed.
The next weeks were the same. As the sickness swept through the cities, moving out from the capital, we followed it. It surged a few times, then died away. Fewer and fewer were infected, then hardly any died. Then only the weakest were sick and they recovered quickly.
I stared at the border. A line of soldiers from the other side stood a half mile back from the actual gate, bows strung and ready to shoot anyone who tried to break through. Bodies littered the ground, in various states of decay.
I clenched my fists.
“Cowards!” I screamed at them. “Filthy cowards! See if we come to your aid when you need it most!”
I picked a rock off the ground and hurled it. It bounced, coming to rest about half way across the no-man’s land.
Terran closed his hand around my arm when I made to throw another.
“Come.” He said. “We need to return to my father.”
I went, crying brokenly.
The king was not pleased to see me. Now that the crisis was eased, he could absorb the full import of Terran’s actions.
“You have broken the treaty.” He snapped at his son.
“Yes.” Terran said evenly, not budging an inch. “But there is no way to annul either marriage now. Gulin knew the princess even before I left. That ended our marriage. What they were planning to tell you, I do not know. Probably that it was mine, as they have pretended until now.”
“No.” Terran snarled. “No. No. No.”
I sat trying to be invisible as they stormed at each other. Terran finally lost his temper and marched out, dragging me along with him.
The queen was a little more understanding. She had known that something was wrong between Lahdel and her eldest son, just not what.
“If you will be happy,” she said, sounding insultingly doubtful. I bristled. I knew well enough my blood was not as noble as Lahdel’s, that I was not as pretty and brown and haggard besides. I did not need her to tell me.
Especially because Lahdel was as beautiful as ever. She was healthy again, strong. She had stayed the palace, for fear of a relapse risking her child, even though the plague had been wiped out in the palace city since spring, everyone susceptible to it dead or recovered. Her child was the child of a prince. The wrong prince, but still royal.
“How dull it has been without you.” She exclaimed when I walked in to see her. “How tired you look! And look at your hands! You’re as brown as a field-worker!”
She looked up at me with her perfect smile, her perfect white cheeks and her perfect deep blue eyes sparkling, sharing our old private joke. The last of my jealousy flashed, making my vision red.
My hand burned as it smacked her cheek, snapping her head around. She clapped her hand to it, gaping at me, tears already spilling. I turned and left. Gulin could comfort her; that was what he was best at.
Terran was delegating out food stores when I found him. He looked at my face and nodded to his assistants. “Leave us.” They hurried out, muttering over their orders.
“What is it?” Terran asked.
I went to him and pressed against him. “I hate Lahdel!”
He stroked my hair. “No, you don’t.”
“You were best friends, my dearest. Closer than sisters.”
“Not anymore! The selfish brat! I hate her!”
Terran held me close as I cried.
“What did the princess say?” he asked.
“She said I was brown and coarse!”
“You are.” He grabbed my hand before I could slap him, too. He kissed it. “I would not have you any other way.” He turned it over and kissed my palm, my wrist. “And after a winter nestled in my bed, you will be as soft and fair as spring time. Just in time to go out and soak up as much sun as you want, all over again.”
I had to smile; he was being ridiculous. “I cannot spend an entire winter in your bed.”
His eyes flashed, a look I knew well. “Want to bet, my dearest?”