Cousin of the Crown
By: Elisabeth Treble
I rubbed my temples, my head aching. Lahdel lay quiet, her breaths less dragging as her illness eased. The doctors had flatly refused to let me work anymore today, sending me home to rest. How could I rest?
I could see the curve of Lahdel’s belly against the sheets. As always, I flushed with anger, then shame. But I was no different. I had wanted Terran when he was married to another. She was only weaker than I, something I already knew. Gulin had wanted me; Lahdel was more beautiful and lonely besides. He was weaker than his brother, never reared to be as disciplined at Terran. I should have seen the signs long ago.
I went to the window, looking out at the stormy day. Why had Lahdel not been promised to Gulin and me to Terran? An accident of birth, Terran before Gulin and my mother after the queen. Would I have fallen in love with him had I been his bride?
I tried not to think of Terran, but his face would not leave my mind. He was dead. He had to be dead. It had been weeks, endless days of shiftless, dull gray waters. The ships crisscrossing the vast inland sea, bringing nothing home, not even the worst news.
The king had to make a decision. Gulin would marry Lahdel. Only I knew the truth, everyone else would think the child was Terran’s. Only I knew he had not betrayed me, that he had kept his word.
I sank to the window seat, my legs weak. I was so tired. Lahdel stirred, coughing. I watched her shift before falling back into a light slumber. She was healing, but slowly, too weak to fight it off without constant care.
I rested my head on the cold glass. I couldn’t go on. Not without him. Soon, there would be no other choice but to declare him dead and give Gulin the right of heir. Then I would go back home and live my days in endless, dull despair.
There was a commotion in the hall.
Cura went to shush them, Lahdel stirring again, her eyes opening slowly. The door crashed open, banging back from the wall.
I had started up. I clutched at the wall, sliding back down, my heart stopped dead in my chest.
“Terran!” Lahdel exclaimed, her voice raw and pained.
It was Terran. Impossibly, miraculously Terran. Terran bruised and dirty, framed by the doorway, towering. He stared at Lahdel lying in the bed. He turned to face me.
I gasped, sobs choking me. He stumbled across the room, going down on his knees before me. His hands, cut and dirty, gripped my skirts, my knees, biting into my flesh as his head pressed into my lap.
“Alea.” He said again, desperate.
“I am here, Terran,” I said, not seeing the crowd that bunched at the doorway, Lahdel’s white face, Gulin’s red one. I put a trembling hand on his hair, doubting it was really him until the instant I touched him. “It’s me, darling.”
His grip tightened even more. He looked up, his eyes wide and haunted. “Tell me you love me.”
“I love you.” I said at once. The room was deathly still.
He jerked to his feet, pulling me up with him.
“I love you,” he said, low and intense, his hands tight on my shoulders. “I will have you. You are mine!”
“Yes,” I said. I could deny him nothing, not now. He crushed me close, his lips hard and demanding. He broke away, leaving me staggering. He turned to his wife.
“Lahdel,” he began in an even voice. “Lahdel, I’m sorry. I tried to protect you…” He stopped, his hand that was still on my arm clenching. He had seen. “What is this?” he hissed.
Lahdel was weeping, hysterical. Terran lifted his eyes from the bedspread to the faces at the door. I flinched as he said, “Gulin.”
“Yes, brother?” Guilin asked, defiant. Cura had the sense to shove the door shut behind him, forcing the gawking servants and nobleman out.
Terran was breathing through his teeth, furious. I gripped his hand, warning him.
Terran’s voice was deeper than I remembered as he raged at his brother. Gulin shouted back, their voices deafening.
“You didn’t want her, Terran!” Gulin bellowed. “You wanted her.” He stabbed a finger at me. “Do not tell me you haven’t lain with her! Do not lie to me, Terran!”
“How dare you betray me!” Terran snarled, shoving me back behind him. “I will have your head for this!”
“No!” Lahdel cried, sitting up. She started coughing, holding her chest, trying to breath. I rushed to her as she cried out, her lips red with blood.
Terran recoiled, his mouth open. “What? Alea!”
I got Lahdel lying back down, soothing her as she whimpered. Gulin stepped close and gripped her hand, whispering to her. I turned to Terran.
“There is a sickness. A plague.”
Terran stared at me. “When? How?”
“After you left, before we heard word of your shipwreck.” I had to stop and collect myself, the memory of those moments still too much to handle. “It is killing every day, even still.”
Terran blinked, absorbing the information. “Father? Mother?”
“They were sick and recovered, as was I.” I wiped Lahdel’s forehead gently as she panted. “Gulin was never infected.”
Terran flushed with anger. “What happened?”
Gulin kept his eyes down, but his voice was steady enough. “I took your wife, Terran, when you would not.”
“Do not blame Gulin!” Lahdel gasped. I shushed her.
“When?” Terran’s voice was deadly calm.
“Before you left.”
I watched Terran’s fists clench and unclench. “You can have her.” He spat. Lahdel flinched. “I do not want her.”
“Terran!” I protested. “Be kind!”
“Kind?” he snarled at me. “Kind to the woman who betrayed me?”
“You betrayed me!” She said, pushing herself up again. “Why did you not tell me of Alea?”
“Yes, Terran,” Gulin spat. “Confess your sins before you judge us.”
“I have not lain with Alea.” Terran said forcefully. “What have you-?”
“Leave, Terran.” Gulin said. “Now.”
Terran turned on his heel and stormed for the door. I left Lahdel with Gulin and followed. He raged all the way to his rooms, slamming doors open and kicking things out of his way in the cluttered corridors. The servants were too busy and too few to do more the necessary tasks of living. I slipped in before he could shut his door in my face.
He whirled on me, jerking me to him. His hands were rough, calloused on my skin. He pressed his head into my neck, panting.
“My love,” he said brokenly. “What have we done?”
“What?” I demanded.
“I should have married you.” He said. “You were right. I should have had the courage to be with you. Now Gulin has…” His hands clenched around my arms. “I will have to exile them both.”
“No.” I said firmly. “Separate from Lahdel; give her to Gulin. Marry me.”
He sighed. “I want to. I want to with every part of me. Father will never allow it.”
“Do it now. Without his permission.”
“Alea!” Terran exclaimed. “He will disown me and Gulin both! Why-?” He checked himself, searching my face. “My love,” he said softly. “Do not make me choose between my kingdom and you.”
There was a time when I would have flared up in anger at such a suggestion. That woman was dead, killed when she thought her love lost in the depths of the inland sea.
“I am asking you to make that choice again,” I said evenly. “You already chose your kingdom over me once before.”
Terran flinched, looking away. I touched his face gently, feeling the half-healed cuts under his rough beard.
“Alea,” he said, trying to reason with me. “If Lahdel is gone-”
“I will not be your mistress!” I snapped, jerking away from him. “I will be your wife or nothing!”
He stared at me for a long time, his eyes moving across my face. Slowly he nodded. “My wife. My everything.”
He caught me as I faltered. I hadn’t thought he would agree to it; it was madness. I could only hope that in the confusion, no one would notice until it was too late.
He held me close, his breathing slowly calming.
“It must be at once.” Terran said. “They already know I’m back.”
“What happened? Where have you been?” I asked, holding his face still so I could see his eyes. They were dark, shut to me.
“Later,” he promised. “Not now.”
The High Priest looked from Terran to me to Gulin to Lahdel lying gasping in the bed. He grimaced.
“And what assurance do I have that you are not lying?”
Gulin started up, but Terran shoved him back down into his chair.
“Our souls are own business,” Terran said in the voice I remembered. The voice of a man who commanded other, lesser men. “Do it. Now.”
The High Priest glanced at the Secretary of the Records. “Very well,” he said. “I will. But on your own souls be it.”
Terran sneered at him and turned to the Secretary. “Now.” He prompted, his hand tight on mine.
It was over in moments. Lahdel signed each paper, the writ of separation and the marriage contract. My hand was shaking as I signed under Terran’s name. The Secretary fixed a seal to each, making them binding and legal.
He and the High Priest bowed and left, each looking upset. The silence weighed on me, pressing me down. What had I done?
Terran shook himself. “Congratulations, brother,” he said stiffly.
Gulin scowled, but stood to bow. “And you.”
“Come,” Terran said to me. I followed him, my hand trapped in his. He had taken the time to bathe and shave. As we wound our way down the corridors, courtiers stared, astonished. They grabbed at him, but he shoved them away, sending them scurrying back with hard glances.
“Terran!” I protested as we passed the turn for the king and queen’s apartments. He didn’t slow until he pushed shut his own door and locked it.
“No one will take you from me again.” He said, reaching for me. “I swear it.”
It was more than I could possibly imagine. I had all of him now, not just his love. He was mine, forever.
Terran brushed my hair from my face, smiling, much of the desperate tension gone from his expression.
“Now I can face my father.” He said, helping me to my feet. I flushed as he held my face in the light, examining it.
“You are beautiful,” he said slowly. “I had forgotten.”
“Most men do.” I said tartly.
He grinned. “No, they don’t.” But it died as quickly as it had come. “Alea, he will be furious.”
“I know.” I said.
He took a deep breath. “But no matter what happens, I do not regret it.”
“Only now you realize?” I asked dryly.
He scowled. “Can you not be serious, ever?”
“Not now!” I cried. My joy was intoxicating. I was hysterical; I could feel it and I relished it. “Not ever! You are home with me! I love you!”
He pulled me close. “I must go to him. Will you come?”
“Of course.” I said.
The king looked up from his letter, his mouth dropping open.
“Terran!” he breathed. “They said you had been seen, but I couldn’t…” He stood slowly, blinking. “It is impossible.”
“I am here, father.” Terran said firmly. “And I will tell you what happened some other time. What is happening here?”
The king shook his head groggily. “A plague, you must have seen. Alea, tell him…” The king looked at me again. His eyes flicked down to where Terran’s hand clasped mine firmly. “Terran?” He asked, bewildered.
I stepped forward. It must be done at once. “Terran is not the father of Lahdel’s child. Gulin is. Terran never lay with Lahdel; he loved me, but married her out of duty to you. He and Lahdel have just separated and she and Gulin are married now, as are Terran and I.” I laid the documents on the table. The king stared at them. He sat suddenly as if the strength had gone out of his legs.
“I have taken Alea,” Terran added, making my entire body flush. “There is no going back now. I will take whatever punishment you wish. I will not be separated from Alea.”
The king put his head in his hands and sat silently. Finally he looked up. “There is a plague,” he said vaguely. “We have asked for aid, but our neighbors have closed their borders. It is killing the commoners; we cannot stop it.”
Terran nodded slowly. “No cure?”
“None can be found.” The king said grimly. “They have tried everything. We must simply wait until it runs through us.”
Terran scowled, not accepting that answer. “What is being done to ease the situation?”
“If the illness is caught early, the victim will mostly likely live.” I said. “We have hospitals, every healthy man and woman working to doctor those in need.”
Terran gripped my hand. “Show me.”
I had to make him lie down and rest. He was gaunt, nearly half starved.
He fell into bed, already half-asleep. I hesitated, not sure what to do.
He gripped my hand before I could move away. He sat up and grabbed my skirt. It one swift motion, he pulled it my dress over my head; me too surprised and embarrassed to stop him. He pulled me down to the bed and pressed my head to his chest.
“I am never leaving you again.” He said.
I was crying, half joy, half terror at what was going to happen now. His hands were gentle as they played with my hair.
“What happened?” he asked suddenly, his voice thick with fatigue.
I knew which one he meant. “I don’t know.”
“I have tried to puzzle it out a thousand times.” He murmured. “I cannot decide just what it was that changed about you.”
“You didn’t love me before?” I asked, turning to look up at him.
“No.” He said. “I liked you. But you were just another woman, another courtier.”
“Did you…” I swallowed. “Did you love Lahdel?”
“No.” He said firmly. “I did not. Nor have I ever.” His arm tightened around me. “You will laugh at me.”
“Tell me anyway.”
“I looked up and I realized your eyes were green.”
“What?” I said, laughing just like he said. “You had to have known that before!”
“I did.” He said. "But you also had dirt on your face. Your skin was pink from the sun. I could count the freckles across your nose. I could smell you.” He took a deep breath, ragged and quick. “And your eyes! You were the most real thing in the entire world.”
“And that is why you loved me?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I just know I did. And when I decided I had to marry Lahdel…”
“Don’t speak of it!” I said fiercely. “I never want to hear her name from your lips again!”
He pushed me away, staring down at me. “Alea!”
My tears were hot and jealous, though I didn’t know why.
“Alea, my love,” he said, kissing my face softly. “Alea, Alea.”
Deep inside me, the snarling, whimpering monster I had denied for so long, kept pressed down, awoke fully. It reared up now, furious, exploding with my rage and terror. I screamed at my new husband, beating his chest with my fists. Every nightmare I had had, every second of agony, of despair, came pouring out.
He grabbed my wrists, holding me to him as I sobbed. I kicked and struggled, raging at him, at my princess, at Gulin, everyone. I watched myself go to pieces, observing in an absent sort of way that I was acting insane. I didn’t care. The only thing that had been holding me together before was Terran’s promise, one I took as rash and impossible, one that I had doubted in my fear and grief.
But he had never loved Lahdel. He had never known her. I was his and only his. He was mine.
When I could think again, I was trembling, gasping from exertion. He kissed my forehead, rubbing his cheek on my skin.
“I will never speak her name again,” he promised softly. “You will forget I was ever married to her. I never wanted her.”
“I know.” I admitted, ashamed of my outburst. “Forgive me. I am acting like a spoiled brat.”
He grinned. “A little more extreme than that, I think.”
I made a face and he laughed out loud. It soothed every rough place in my heart.
“My darling Alea,” he whispered, kissing me. “Sing for me.”
“I cannot sing lullabies, or softly,” I protested.
His next kiss was deeper, more urgent.
“I don’t want you softly, Alea.”