Cousin of the Crown
By: Elisabeth Treble
The king and queen were shocked.
“Truly?” the queen asked, smiling.
“Yes, your majesty.” Lahdel said in a clear voice. I shuddered, keeping my eyes down. I could feel Gulin trembling in the chair next to mine.
The queen came and kissed her daughter-in-law. “My dear, congratulations. And thank you.”
Lahdel nodded and returned to her light food.
I counted the hours until Terran came home. He sent letters to his parents, telling them of his successes and struggles with the treaty. He sent letters to Lahdel, too. I found her one afternoon, holding one in her hand. I took the pages from her. They were blank.
“Can he know?” she asked me, her voice small and terrified.
I shook my head. “I did not know, and I spend every hour with you.” I winced to myself. Almost every hour. She blushed, seeing my face. “I think…” It was hard to say it out loud, to admit it after months of keeping it locked away inside me. “I think he tries to do his duty, even though he...” Even though he wants me, not you.
Lahdel pushed me away. “Leave me.”
I went, shutting the door softly.
Lahdel fell ill again. I sighed, weary of nursing her already. Our friendship was hanging tenuously, a pale shadow of our old love. It was too damaged, the many months of my own envy and hate weakening it, so it nearly broke under the weight of her actions.
Gulin stayed far away from me, which was well to the good. I could not take out my anger on Terran’s behalf on Lahdel.
She did get a fever this time, lying weakly in her bed. I sat with her and read to her as she stared out the window listlessly.
She woke me one night, calling my name. I hurried out, pulling on my robe.
“What is it?”
She was coughing, her skin flushed. “Alea! I-”
She broke off, her lungs rasping. I held her while she coughed. She cried out in pain.
“Lahdel, what-” I sucked in a breath, staring down at her hands. They were pink with blood.
She lifted her eyes to mine, fever bright and horrified. “Alea!”
I shouted, calling for a doctor. Lahdel was panting when the woman came, pushing me back.
“What are the symptoms?”
“She’s had a fever for two days, and a cough. Just now she…” I showed my hands, stained from where Lahdel had grabbed them, terrified.
The woman nodded grimly. “Summer Fever, then. Only two days, you say?”
“Maybe three. But this is the first blood she’s coughed up.”
“If we work fast, we can save her.”
“What?” I demanded. The woman met my eyes. I blinked, collecting myself. “Of course, doctor. Tell me what you need.”
Lahdel was the first of many.
There had been an outbreak in the city, nothing worrying as the heat started and children spent more and more time outdoors.
Then adults caught it, the elderly and middle aged. Then the laborers and the soldiers, until the entire city ground to a halt. It took us completely by surprise. Before we could get a handle on it, the first victims were dying, choking on blood.
I stayed by Lahdel as much as possible, but I was needed in the city to help. I kissed her hot forehead.
“Lie still,” I told her. “I will be back.”
She didn’t beg me to stay, which showed she knew the gravity of the situation.
A makeshift hospital had been set up in a nobleman’s house, just below the palace. I went there first, helping the doctors and nurses as best I could. Even if the symptoms weren’t bad, the sheer number of patients overwhelmed us. The hours and days blurred together as we fought to save who we could.
People fled the city, taking it with them. Reports came in of sickness spreading along the roads, then out into the wilder parts of the country. I worked until I could hardly see, exhaustion dragging me down.
I jerked awake, my head resting on the bed of child who was crying fitfully, coughing weakly. I looked up to Gulin.
“Alea, how long have you been here?”
I shrugged, looking at the dawn breaking outside. “I don’t know.” I coughed once myself, achy everywhere.
“Get up.” He snapped at me. “Now!”
I tried. I went lightheaded as he lifted me in his arms. I held on as tightly as I could, the world rocking around me, the colors smearing and mixing. I squeezed my eyes shut in protest.
I didn’t remember much about the next week. When I opened my eyes again, Lahdel was there. She burst into tears.
“Oh Alea, I’m sorry!” she wailed, her voice still rough. She hugged me close, crying into the bedspread.
I wiggled free. “What’s wrong?” I asked. My own voice startled me, hoarse and grating.
“I thought I’d lost you!” She said, wiping her eyes. “The doctors said you-that you might not wake up again!”
“I’m awake,” I assured her, not happy to be so. “I’m hungry.”
“Here.” She insisted on feeding me small sips of broth. I was exhausted before I was full and sank back into unconsciousness.
I healed slowly and the doctors would not let me risk a second infection. I was stuck in the palace, doing what I could from behind the gleaming walls.
I was helping boil and clean cloths in the palace kitchens when Gulin came looking for me.
“Alea.” He said.
I froze, staring at him over the scalding water in my tub. His eyes stabbed at me, a warning, almost, and hopeless.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Alea, come with me.”
I dropped my cloths and hurried after him. He stopped in a dim passageway. He wouldn’t turn to look at me.
“Gulin, what is it?”
His fists clenched. I looked; he held a piece of paper. I worked it free of his hand, wiping my own on my rough dress.
It was a letter, marked with the seal of Z. Terran.
I opened it. It wasn’t Terran’s writing. I looked up.
I focused on the tight scribbles, written in haste. Phrases jumped out at me, leaping off the page to claw at my heart.
Unexpected storm. Lost. No sign of the ship. No survivors. Presumed dead.
Gulin caught me as my legs gave away. He held me close, pressing my head into his chest.
“Alea, I’m so sorry.” He whispered hoarsely. “Alea, please. Believe me. I am so, so sorry.”
I wasn’t crying. I stared into his arm, feeling his voice rumble under my cheek.
“What can I do?” he asked, lifting my face in his hands, his eyes searching mine. “Tell me, Alea. I will do anything you-”
“You’ve done enough.”
He jerked away. “Alea?”
I took a breath, the first since I’d seen the words. Lost. Dead. Gone forever. I shook off his hands, turning back to the noisy kitchen.
He had done enough already. He had ruined everything. He had stayed when Terran went. He had killed Terran.
I stared into my pot, the white sheets and cloths swimming under the shimmering water.
They were heavy as I dipped my paddle in and lifted them to a second tub. Steam seared my face, leaving my eyes watering. I dipped my paddle in again, catching the rest and moving them to the cooling tub as well.
A woman in a crisp white dress came and took it away, her hands wrapped up to protect them against the heat. A second load was dumped in my tub, another load of wood added to the stove underneath.
“Start the timer.” I said. A girl, too young to help with the lifting, turned over an egg clock, marking the time until the sheets were sanitized and safe for use again.
I sank to my knees. Despite the raging heat from the ovens, I shivered, a heap on the floor. I stared at my hands, red and raw from the fires and scalding water.
What would I do now? How could I go on?
“Time!” the girl said. I pushed myself up, lifting the sheets out, repeating the same motion I had made a hundred times today, a thousand times, the only thing I had ever done my whole life.
I turned. The king stood in the doorway.
“Lahdel needs you.” He said. I nodded.
“I will go.” His eyes had no pity for me. Only for the princess. For the child he thought was Terran’s.
She relapsed, sick all over again.
This time it lingered. I feared for the child. It had no say in its parents, in how it was conceived. And it would kill Lahdel to lose it.
I gripped the window sill, the edge biting into my palms. Why wasn’t she stronger? Why was she so helpless, always needing me?
I only cried at night, when I was alone.
I could see Gulin watching me, wary around me. What was he waiting for? For me to wail with grief? To scream and fight something I could not change?
Lahdel stirred. “Alea?”
I turned. “Yes?”
“I think…” Her hand was on her stomach. “Come see. I think I can feel it.”
I went, lifting the covers. I ran my hand over her abdomen. It swelled outward slightly, at odds with the fragility of the rest of her. She had always been slight. With her morning sickness and two bouts of fever, she was nearly emaciated.
“Yes.” I said. “You are showing.”
She turned her face away and cried roughly. I didn’t comfort her.
I had given up.