“I want to go home.”
“Hhmm?” Terran lifted his head, drowsy and sated. His arm draped over me, holding me in place.
“I want to go home.”
“You are home.” He said, still pleasantly muddled. He always was.
“I want to go to my father’s house.”
Terran yawned widely, putting his head down again. “Alright, if you wish.”
“Can we go? Soon?”
“Of course.” he said, his eyes half-closed. He wasn’t listening. I poked him. He grunted and captured my fingers with his.
I rubbed his palm, feeling the faintest scars still on his skin.
“When you were shipwrecked.”
He opened his eyes and pushed away from the bed, resting on his elbows. He watched my face for a long time. “You wish to know?”
I nodded slowly, suddenly not sure. His eyes were dark again, flat even in the sunlight.
He stared at me, but not seeing me.
“It was mostly bad luck.” He said finally. “There was a storm.”
“I read the letter Dyyfed sent.”
His eyes focused suddenly, glowering down at me. “Who showed you?” He demanded.
I winced. “Gulin.” My voice was very small. I grabbed his shoulders so he couldn’t leap up and go storm at his brother. They’d been at it again today, their anger and resentment flashing out, like steam escaping from a tightly lidded pot.
“He knew, then, about us.” I explained. “He wanted to tell me before…” I swallowed. “Before the king came and asked me to comfort Lahdel.”
Terran grunted, mollified, but only slight just. I rubbed his face, smoothing out his scowl. He smiled suddenly.
“Why can’t I stay angry at you?” He wondered.
I made a pert face and he chuckled. It made my skin tingle.
“The storm?” I prompted gently, after a time.
He sighed, rolling onto his back, staring up at the ceiling.
“The ship was struck by lightning,” he said quietly. “It broke the mainmast and snarled the sails. After that, there was no way to fight it. With the mast in the water, it was only a matter of time before we capsized.
“I got out with a few others, once the ship broke up. There were a few dories on board. We caught one and managed to keep it afloat through the night. The next day was calm, but we had no food or way to catch any. There was no way to tell where we were. So, we made for the nearest shore, which should have been Serica, somewhere, on their eastern coast.”
He rubbed his palms together, like they pained him. “It was hard rowing, between the three of us that were strong enough.”
I snuggled up to him, pressing my face into his chest. His voice was flat, distant. “What happened when you reached land?” I did not want to know about the hours he’d spent slowly starving to death, his blood soaking into the wood of the oars.
“It was wilderness. We were blown further south than I thought, but where? The others turned north, to Dyyfed. I went south.”
“Why?” I demanded, jerking up to look down at him. “You went off alone?”
“Alea,” he chided gently. “I had to come home. To you.”
I shook my head. “You should have gone back to Dyyfed!”
“Alea,” he said again. “I had to. I had to see you.”
“Why do you say things like that?” I stormed at him, crying for no reason I could discover.
“Things that make me love you!”
He smiled. “You’re being a brat.”
He chuckled and pulled me down, shushing me. “Lie still, little songbird, or you won’t hear the rest of the story.”
I sniffed mightily and lay quiet and sullen.
“I was in Serica, but you know they…we are not the best neighbors.”
“Yes.” I pouted, still flustered for no reason.
“I was going to go to the capital and request refuge, help getting home. But…” He swore under his breath, angry with his political enemies. “But they are damned fools. They had word we were shipwrecked off their coast. How, I don’t know, but they were looking for us. For me. And not out of the goodness of their hearts. Some half-cocked scheme about ransoming me or saying I was alive and luring…one of my brothers to go, so they could hold him instead. I don’t know.”
I noticed how he hadn’t said Gulin’s name, but I didn’t comment. He was tight and angry next to me and didn’t need the provocation.
“So, I hid and made my way home myself.”
“That’s it?” I asked.
His smile was fake, forced. “Isn’t that enough? Should I have wrestled bears or been cursed by a witch or something? Sorry to disappoint you, little Alea.”
I scowled at him. “You were gone for so long.” I said, still nettled. What was wrong with me?
“Too long.” He agreed, touching my face. He seemed to think for a moment, gathering himself. “How did you discover…the princess’s pregnancy?”
“She told me. She was ill and not getting better. She confessed.”
Again he was silent for a long time. “Did you think it was mine?”
I hesitated too long.
“Did you?” he demanded, gripping my shoulders.
I cringed away. “Only for an instant.” I mumbled. “I didn’t think her capable, Gulin capable-”
“I don’t want to hear.” He snapped, in the tone he used to command his subjects. I stiffened.
“You asked.” I spat at him.
“You didn’t trust me?”
“Of course I trusted you. But what was I to think? She wouldn’t come right out and say: I betrayed my husband with his brother.”
Terran held me still so I couldn’t get out of bed and storm away.
“I’m sorry.” He said suddenly. “I’m sorry I left you, Alea. I should have stayed.”
All the fight went out of me. He gathered me close and kissed my face.
“Go to sleep.” He said.
“It’s only mid-afternoon!” I protested.
He grinned and I looked away. “I know.” He said. “You’re going to need your rest.”
The nobles came back from their estates, the plague finally releasing its grip on the countryside. The moment I had been dreading was at hand.
The king called a session of the court, a full session, no noble allowed to miss. There were many new faces, wives or husbands dead, their spouse or child standing in for them. A low feeling pressed down on the wide room. It was not helped when Terran came through the doors with me a step behind.
Terran seated me next to him, pausing to kiss my hand. I flushed and dropped my eyes. Gulin came next with Lahdel, ungainly and very, very pregnant.
There was a full minute of silence as the nobles took in the new situation. I wondered how many guessed the truth. Gulin’s stare was sullen and a little defiant. Lahdel stared fixedly at the ground.
I looked to Terran. He looked as he always did. Serious, confidant, unyielding. He played with my fingers, our hands clasped between us.
One man, much braver than I, signaled he would like to be acknowledged. The king waved at him.
“Your majesty,” he said slowly. “It appears to me that princess Lahdel is sitting in the wrong place.”
I almost laughed. That was the blandest way I could imagine to point out that Terran was publicly committing adultery.
The king was flushed, his cheeks a furious red. “My son and the princess have signed a writ of separation. Terran is now married to Lady Alea. Gulin and princess Lahdel are now married, as well.”
I watched every eye in the room look at Terran, then me, Gulin and finally Lahdel’s bulging stomach. I knew they thought Terran and I had been lovers. I knew they thought Gulin and I had been lovers. I knew they thought that I had somehow supplanted Lahdel, though she was pregnant with Terran’s child, and had stolen him from her.
I didn’t care. Terran’s very warm, very strong fingers were twined with mine. I wouldn’t have cared if they accused me of being a witch and demanded my head loped off.
Terran leaned forward. “The child is my brother’s.”
Gulin and Lahdel both flinched. I blushed as the room gaped open-mouthed. I squeezed Terran’s hand reprovingly. He could have been less blunt. He turned to me.
“You have done nothing wrong. I will not have you censured.” He said softly. I think I loved him more in that moment than I had the past year.
One of the ministers had the sense to steer the meeting away from this topic as quickly as possible. He started droning on about grain subsidies. The tension in the room eased, though the nobles’ eyes kept flicking between us, like we might jump up and start screaming at each other.
I want to run when it was over. Instead I stayed sitting, trying to look regal, as the nobles filed out. The king got up and stormed away, as did Gulin, dragging Lahdel behind him. Quickly, Terran and I were alone.
“You have done nothing wrong.” Terran said again, drawing my hand into his lap. He traced my fingers with his, feeling them gently. “You alone are innocent in all this.”
“And you’re not?” I demanded.
He shook his head. “No. Because the only thing that kept me from coming to you was knowing you would be ashamed when I left.”
I shivered. He knew exactly how to make my blood turn to fire in my veins and it was very uncomfortable.
“I have not told you how proud I am of you, Alea.”
“I don’t understand.”
His smile was tight, humorless. “Of course you wouldn’t. Because you are perfect.”
“I am proud of you,” he said slowly. “Because you had every reason to betray your princess. You had every temptation. I know. I tried.”
I gaped at him. “Terran!” I was beginning to feel like a fool, gaping at him with nothing more intelligent to say than his name.
He gripped my hand. “I love you.”
It was silly and impulsive, but I stood and shifted until I could sit in Terran’s lap, wrapping my arms around his neck. He buried his hands in my hair, pressing his face into my neck.
“We can’t go to your father’s house.” He said.
“The borders are still closed.”
I pushed away from him. “You’re lying. Why?”
He winced. “And…your king will not take this arrangement…well.”
I set my teeth. “Then he should be angry at Lahdel. Not me. Not you.”
Terran sighed. “I know.”
“I am going home. You are coming with me.” I glared at him until he nodded. He smiled suddenly.
“I can refuse you nothing.” He said, pulling my head to his. “How do you do it?”
My parents were waiting for us at the dock.
Terran gripped my hand so tightly my fingers went numb as we climbed over the side.
I pressed against him as he stood on the steady wooden planks. He was breathing rapidly.
“We should have gone around.” I told him softly.
“No!” He snapped. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “No,” he continued in a calmer tone. “I’ll be fine.”
I turned. My father stood, watching us. Terran gave himself a shake and went to greet him.
“General.” Terran said, nodding.
My father bowed. “Prince Terran.”
“Papa!” I flew at him, cutting into their tense pause, fed up with protocol. He caught me and held me close.
“You were sick?” he asked.
“But now I’m better.” I assured him. “Much better!”
His eyes strayed to Terran again. “I’m glad you’re home.” He said softly.
My mother was crying, holding me close. She paid no attention to Terran at all.
I was too happy to worry or notice the tight looks the two men gave each other on the ride up to my father’s manor house. My mother held one of my hands, Terran the other. I did notice how tense it was. I smiled at him. He smiled back briefly and then turned to look out at the hills.
It wasn’t until later that I cared about his wooden expression. He and my father stood to one side of the large dining hall. My mother and I watched them as they talked. It did not look like it was pleasant. My father grabbed Terran’s arm and Terran smacked it away, glowering.
I went to them.
“Stop it. Now.” I said firmly.
They each glared at me. My father turned back to Terran, his voice rough with anger. “What have you done?” he snarled.
“Papa!” I knew he couldn’t be angry with me. He could only take it out on Terran. “Papa, you know what she did.”
He scowled. “Yes.”
“It was not Terran’s fault.” I insisted. “There is no reason the treaty cannot stand. If anything, Reuss would be the injured party, not the king.”
“No!” I said over him. “I will not have you blaming Terran for his brother’s wrongs!”
My father was silent for a long time. Finally he let out a sigh. “I am having trouble choosing between my love for you, Alea, and my duty to my king.”
I smiled. “Papa, listen to Terran. He can tell you what to do.”
Terran growled. “Now is not the time to joke, Alea.”
My father rubbed his face. “The king does not know, yet. There has been no news coming overland. You should not even be here.”
“I know.” Terran said with a lift of his chin. “But Alea wished it.”
They eyed each other a moment more. I jumped as my father chuckled. “And you could not refuse.” He guessed. Terran smiled thinly.
“Something like that.” He admitted. I made a face at him. He sighed. “General, here is the truth. I love your daughter. I wanted her.” He went a little red here but plowed on bravely, considering my father’s raised eyebrows. He was on dangerous ground. “I honor her and respect her. I did not touch La- the princess.” Terran’s eyes flicked to mine, an apology. I smiled and he relaxed a little.
“I swear it, General. I did not touch the princess or your daughter. Until we were married, that is.”
“It’s true, papa.” I chimed in. “No matter how I tempted him.”
“Alea!” they exclaimed together.
I laughed, jubilant and excited. My joy kept bubbling up, filling the void where my despair and grief had been. “There was no other way, papa. We set things right, giving her to Gulin. It was what needed to happen. They are happy, I suppose. They deserve each other.”
“Alea,” Terran chided, taking my hand.
“What?” I demanded. “Who cares about them?”
“Alea.” He said again, sternly. I pressed my lips together and glared at him.
My father started laughing.
“What?” I snapped, blushing a little.
“Nothing, little songbird,” he said. “That is simply the first time I’ve ever seen you obey a man other than me.”
I went scarlet. I could feel my cheeks burning. “Shut up.” I said crossly. Terran pulled me closer, wrapping his arm around me. He pressed a kiss to my red forehead.
“General, do I have your permission to marry your daughter?”
“Yes,” my father said, still grinning. “My permission and my blessing.”
Terran shook his hand. “Thank you. I will make her happy.”
“You’d better,” the older man answered knowing look. “Trust me, she is like her mother in that respect.”
I jerked free as Terran laughed and marched out, leaving the men laughing behind met. I heard Terran’s steps behind me and broke into a run. He caught me as I went through my bedroom door, whirling me through the air.