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Not as simple as the storybooks, my love

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1. Spring

 

“I think I’m in love,” a boy tells his father.

 

His father chuckles as he looks up from his writing, flickering candlelight illuminating his face. “Oho, is that so?” He turns to face the boy, resting his elbows on his knees and props his head up with his hands, leaning forward. “And how do you know you’re in love?”

 

“I met the most beautiful girl today,” says the boy. “Her hair looks like sunbeams, and her laughter is like birdsong.”

 

“That’s not enough for love,” his father says, clicking his tongue. “Hair and laughter can change, and beautiful girls can still be cruel.”

 

The boy huffs, tapping his foot on the floor instead of stamping it, because he’s eight now and that’s too old to be doing such things. “I know that! I wasn’t finished.”

 

His father laughs again but comments no further, waits.

 

“She was sitting by herself in the garden by the manor. She looked so sad and alone, so I asked if she wanted to play.”

 

She had smiled at first, her eyes brightening at his sudden approach, then withdrew. “I can’t,” she’d said. “I must do my lessons.” And she’d gestured to the book she had been reading.

 

“What lessons? Maybe I can help.”

 

“Etiquette,” and the girl held up the book.

 

The boy had stuck out his tongue. “Yuck. That’s boring.”

 

“I know.” And the girl cast her eyes down again. “All of it is.”

 

“Well,” the boy had said, brow furrowing, “maybe you can practice it with me, and then it won’t be as boring.”

 

She’d glanced over her shoulder then and turned back to him with a small smile, like she was keeping it a secret. “Can I?”

 

“So I sat with her all afternoon, and I told her jokes, and she looked so much happier. I want her to be happy like that, instead of how she was before,” explains the boy. 

 

His father strokes his beard. “That’s better. But there’s still a lot more to love than that.”

 

The boy frowns. Maybe he doesn’t know much about love, but he reads a lot of books, and the grown ups are always talking about it too. Isn’t that what it is? Wanting to make someone happy? Being happy when they are? “Well tell me.”

 

His father lifts an eyebrow. “You’ll have to do etiquette lessons yourself if you ask me like that.”

 

The boy shuffles his feet, shoes squeaking quietly against the wood. “I mean, will you please tell me, Father?”

 

“There we are.” His father pats the boy on the head, and he ducks and protests being babied. “Love is a promise. You can’t simply declare it one day and not the next.”

 

“I won’t,” says the boy, pouting again.

 

“Even when it’s hard, even when you’re tired, will you still want to make her happy?”

 

“Yes!”

 

“Think very hard about it, my son. You are choosing another person to be a part of your life. You can no longer live carelessly, because your choices will affect them. Some days everything will be good, and you’ll feel like you can do anything together. Other days, it is not always so easy. Love, after all, takes work.”

 

The boy remembers this. Every day, he goes to find Vanessa. Some days she’s there, some days she isn’t. He skips his own lessons sometimes, because what if she is there, and he isn’t, and she’s looking for him? The boy doesn’t mind waiting. Vanessa always brightens like the sun when she sees him, the clouds of her loneliness floating away. His father speaks to him sternly about the lessons, but he also moves the boy’s schedule around.

 

She’s the heir to the kingdom. He knows this. When the manor hosts a great celebration for her twelfth birthday, crushes of people surround Vanessa, so many of them more important than he, and the boy wonders if Vanessa will even see him. But she’s wearing that cloud of loneliness, even when she is smiling, smiling and waving and nodding for all the people she greets, and he pulls away from his parents, swept up with the crowd as he inches his way toward her.

 

He almost reaches her when it happens. A guest shouts in alarm, and the boy is forced back as the crowd of guests from around the princess back away in a ripple. The smile has fallen away from Vanessa’s face, and a circle of thin frost spans out from her feet. The queen swoops in from behind, gripping the princess by the shoulders, apologizing in soothing tones as guards lead the princess away.

 

As the guests mumble and churn, the boy sneaks out into the hall to find Vanessa. There are guards outside her room, of course, but he pokes out of a window into the cool night and crawls along the roof line until he finds her window and raps on the glass.

 

“Oh! It’s you!” Vanessa glances at the door, shoulders hunched. “You shouldn’t be here. You’ll get in trouble.”

 

“I don’t care. I had to make sure you were alright.” He’s still crouched just outside her open window.

 

She pulls back, staring down at her hands. A hint of rime still coats her skin, caking under her polished nails. “I’ll hurt you.”

 

“No, you won’t,” the boy says. “I trust you.”

 

Vanessa’s eyes dart up to meet his, going wide. She unfurls her fingers again, still watching him, and then she holds out her hand to help him inside.

 

“I thought I had it under control,” she says. “But there were so many people.”

 

The boy reaches out and helps her rub the frost off. Her hands are so cold in his. “Here,” he says, “take my coat.” He shrugs out of his dinner jacket.

 

“Won’t you get cold?”

 

“It’s okay. You need it more.”

 

It’s a stiff jacket, not very comfortable, but she wraps it around her shoulders anyway, and when she smiles at him, it’s not the shrouded smile from the party but the soft secret one for just the two of them. “This party is not so bad anymore.”

 

His heart lifts, higher than the moon--the way she looks at him like there’s no one else on Earth, like he’s the one to chase the world away. Her hands are damp now that the ice has melted.

 

She looks at the door again. “You should go, before you really do get in trouble. They’ll never let me see you again if they find you.”

 

He wants to stay, but that’s selfish, and he remembers what his father said about love. He goes because she’s right, and he needs to be able to come back for her, and because she asked him to.

 

When his parents demand to know what happened to his coat, the boy shrugs. “I lost it.”


 

2. Summer

 

The young man stands in the main hall of the manor, again amidst the crush of guests--another birthday gala. Vanessa is dancing, entertaining all the other eligible young men in their small kingdom, as is expected of the princess on her coming-of-age.

 

He waits on the boundaries, eyes following her every motion, until--there! She steals a glance at him over the shoulder of her current partner and shares a pained expression and an eye-roll with him before plastering her stately smile back over her face.

 

“Mother says I must entertain all of the potential suitors at the party,” Vanessa groaned when they last met. “Everyone else in Subcon gets to enjoy the birthday festival--everyone but me.” She had curled inward and the air had chilled, and the young man instinctively reached for her hands which had already opened toward him in anticipation. The air warmed once more, and she had smiled, not quite meeting his eyes. “I already know who I want to dance with.”

 

“I won’t be far,” he had told her. “I’ll make sure no one tries anything funny.”

 

Vanessa covered her mouth when she laughed. “Don’t! They might beat you up.”

 

“You think I couldn’t defend you? What little faith! I would fight the queen if I had to.”

 

She swatted at his shoulder, desperately trying to keep the laughter politely contained. As she caught her breath, her smile faded. “Don’t. That’s for me to do. If she doesn’t approve of you, I’ll fight for you.”

 

His hands still held hers as he repeated, “I won’t be far.”

 

On the boundary of the dance floor, he waits, not for his turn, but for his opportunity. It comes when the lights go down, perhaps due to someone having meddled with the circuitry earlier in the evening. As soon as the darkness falls, he rushes forward, and if he hadn’t known where Vanessa is already, it is easy enough to find her by the void of chilly air that surrounds her. (But he had known.)

 

When he grabs her by the hand, pulling her through the crowd and out through the back door of the ballroom and down the hall, she follows, knowing just by feel that it’s him. He’s riding a high of his good fortunate that the plan has panned out thus far so that he almost doesn’t realize he didn’t think of what’s supposed to happen after.

 

As if sensing his hesitation, Vanessa tugs on his arm. “This way,” she says, and this time he follows. They hide out in the gardens, listening to some of the confused partygoers stumbling out into the front lawn. Vanessa’s face is flushed, her new crown askew in her tousled hair. She stares at him with wide eyes.

 

“What on Earth are we doing?”

 

“It’s not fair for you to be the only one to never enjoy a birthday.” He holds out a hand to her, shoulders still heaving a little from the haste of their escape, but he gives her a grin. “Would you care to dance, my princess?”

 

As always, she glances over her shoulder before reaching out to him. One day, perhaps, she’ll feel sure enough to stride forward and only forward, but until then, he’ll wait. Love, after all, takes patience.

 

“They’ll be wondering where I am soon,” she tells him as he twirls her. The moon glows down, casting shadows from the hedges, lighting up her hair.

 

“It’ll take them a bit to get the lights back on,” he replies. “We can sneak up to your room. You showed me that shortcut in the cellar, remember? Just tell your mother a guard brought you there for security. It was too dark, so you couldn’t tell who it was.”

 

She peers at him. “You planned all of this?”

 

“Like I said, it’s unfair that you’re the only one who never gets to enjoy herself.”

 

Maybe it’s the way the queen’s smile never reaches beneath the mask, the way he fears that future for Vanessa. Maybe it’s the way she carries the weight of the kingdom on her shoulders, the way she breaks herself apart and hands out the pieces to the people. Maybe, she of all people, deserves this one moment of quiet.

 

Vanessa’s eyes shine in the moonlight, and she leans forward, pressing close against him. “This party is not so bad anymore.”

 

They’re no longer properly dancing, just standing there swaying along with the breeze. He knows the seconds are ticking away; he could only buy her so much time.

 

Eventually, they sneak back into the manor, the upper level still quiet as the staff remain preoccupied attempting to wrangle the chaos below. As he pulls away, Vanessa clings to his hand until the last moment, and seized by a moment of bravado, he darts forward and kisses her on the cheek. As he flees, he glances back long enough to see her standing there, holding a hand to her face. She gives him that small smile of hers and a tiny wave goodbye, and then he forces himself to turn away, before he can decide to do something truly stupid.

 

Maybe it’s the way she makes him stronger--when he could never demand dignity for himself, he suddenly finds it in himself to demand it for her sake. Maybe it’s the way she believes in him, that he could do anything by her side. Maybe it’s the way she chooses him back, the way he chooses her.

 

They keep their promises. She argues with her mother about her marriage arrangements. He knows this because he always sees the aftermath, and like he said, he makes sure he is never far. He fights to make himself worthy enough for the queen. Whether the queen’s heart softens or whether it’s their sheer determination, eventually she relents. Love, after all, takes perseverance, and soon enough, on another moonlit summer evening, they find themselves standing across from each other, making a new set of promises, and a young man becomes a prince.


 

3. Fall

 

He doesn’t know how he slept through getting his hair dyed, but he’s still staring at himself in the mirror, clutching one of the locks.

 

Vanessa stands behind him, hands clasped together, her face rigid. “I’m sorry, my prince. I only wanted to surprise you.”

 

“Why would you want to surprise me like this?” He doesn’t mean for his voice to carry such force, takes note of the way her shoulders drop.

 

“You so often talk about how much you like my hair. I just wanted us to match.” Crystals of ice gather on the floor around her feet, and she shrinks herself further. “I truly thought you would like it. Please don’t be angry. Please don’t leave me.”

 

Instinct drags him away from the vanity and back to her. He takes her frigid hands, warms them between his. “N-no, my love, no, I-I won’t leave you. Don’t ever think I would leave you.”

 

She still doesn’t look up at him. “But you do hate it. You are angry.”

 

He does hate it. But that’s not what she needs to hear from him right now, not when she’s caring for the ailing queen on top of shouldering most of the responsibility for the kingdom. Love, after all, takes forgiveness. “Hair will grow back. I’ll live. But we can talk about this sort of thing next time, can’t we?”

 

She nods, still looking down at their hands. “I promise I won’t surprise you again.”

 

“It’s not that. I do love surprises, just...not this kind.”

 

She nods again and leans into his embrace. “I’m sorry,” she repeats, her voice still dull.

 

The prince runs a hand through her hair, trying to forget the golden tint of his own haunting his peripherals. “It’s alright. I’m still here.”

 

 

“Nessa, come on, be reasonable!”

 

She whirls around from her pacing and takes several sharp steps toward him. “Reasonable? Aren't I? It's a simple request. We are not having bacon in the house. I can’t stand to look at it. You smile more for a plate of breakfast meat than you do for me.”

 

“That isn’t true!”

 

“It feels that way! It feels as though everything pulls your attention away these days. What’s wrong? Do you dread seeing me?” She covers her face with her hands. He can see her fighting back the ice. He wants to draw toward her, but he knows she would repel him if he tried. Instead, he only reaches out a hand.

 

“Vanessa, no.”

 

“Then why? You’re leaving! You’re leaving me for that academy. Mother has just died, and I’m supposed to become queen in a few days and you’re leaving me, when I need you the most.”

 

It guts him right to the core, because he had always promised he would never be out of her reach. But it was part of the agreement, part of his becoming capable enough to help her run the kingdom. “I’m sorry. You have to know I hate to be apart from you. I’ve already asked them to delay enrollment. I will be here as long as I can.”

 

She glares at him, her reddened eyes revealing her tears. “But you’re still going.”

 

He exhales. It’s not the first time they’ve had this argument. She lashes out at the most seemingly unrelated things, worsening as the coronation approaches. But can he blame her? She’s right. He is leaving her when she needs him the most.

 

“I know...I know. I’m so sorry, my love. I’m doing it to support you better. I’m doing it for you. It’s all to make things better for you.” He takes a hesitant step toward her, testing her reaction.

 

Her lips quiver, and she sinks down to the floor. “You’ve said that, I know. But what if you don’t want to come back? Look at me. I’m not even queen yet, and I’m a mess. I can’t imagine why you’d want to stay. You really do look happier to see your breakfast than you do to see me, and why should I blame you? How much better will the rest of the world outside seem?”

 

The prince can’t hold himself back any longer, and he rushes to her side. “Come on, Nessa. Don’t say that. Didn’t I say you don’t ever have to worry about me leaving you? Even when we’re apart, I’ll be with you. I promised you I’ll write every day. I won’t forget.”

 

“Then why are we even having this argument? We're not having bacon anymore. Please. It makes me sick to see it, I feel like nothing in comparison. To food! I feel like I'm losing to food! How can I believe you would keep that promise when you won’t make even that one sacrifice?”

 

He gapes at her, and then sighs. Love takes compromise. “I never want you to feel that way, especially not over something like that. If...if it will make you happy, I won't eat it.” He loves it, but she’s right. What is one single food in comparison to his wife’s comfort? In the face of that, it’s a simple thing to go without. Isn’t it?

 

She brightens again, the frost on the floor thawing. “Do you mean that?”

 

“Yes. Of course I do. How could I keep something that makes you feel that way?” It’s a small price to pay, when he’s the one leaving her behind…

 

Isn’t it?

 

 

Vanessa is cold, even as they decorate the nursery together. The prince aborts a number of conversations before they can escape his mouth, the chasm between them widening the room beyond its walls. He only has a few days of holiday to spend with his wife, and the sands are trickling down in that hourglass, deafening against her silence. Finally, he tries simply being direct.

 

“Vanessa, please, talk to me.”

 

She doesn’t turn around as she folds the same blanket repeatedly, sharpening the crease with each swipe of her hands. “Why? Haven’t you had enough stimulating conversation with that woman?”

 

He balks. “W-what woman?”

 

Her hands slam down on the bedding, disrupting the crisp folds she had spent such energy creating a second ago. “Do not play the fool! You cannot stop talking about her in your letters. Going on and on about how much time you spend with her.”

 

It takes him several seconds to process what she’s talking about. “My...my tutor?” His considerations of her are so far from romantic, he never even entertained the possibility of Vanessa’s jealousy.

 

“So you do know what I’m talking about.” Vanessa still faces the wall, but she has the edges of the blanket balled up in her fists.

 

“I-I’m sorry, my love. I don’t understand. I have to spend time with her. She is my teacher.”

 

“Is that all?”

 

He can’t help his bark of laughter. “Yes! That is all!”

 

Finally, she turns around. “You think I’m insane.”

 

He presses a hand to his temple, already crossing the room. “Wh-? Ness, where is this coming from?”

 

“You’re avoiding the subject.”

 

“I’m just confused! Why would I think that about you?”

 

She steps back from him as he steps closer, freezing him in his tracks. “I can hear it in your voice.” Her own voice is low, toneless. “‘There she goes, with that jealousy of hers. Why can’t she just get over it?’ Am I wrong?”

 

“That’s not what I’m thinking,” the prince says, placing each word one by one like he’s laying out bricks on a path. “I just...why would I lie to you about that? She is just my tutor, assigned by the academy. I didn’t even choose her.” Why don’t you trust me, he doesn’t say. Has he been gone too long? In her letters, Vanessa begged him to come home, and it took some maneuvering with his schedule, but he’s here.

 

“You talk about her all the time. You know I miss you, every day. And every day all I get are letters about you spending all your time with another woman. How do you think that makes me feel? When I’m here, alone.” She turns back toward the wall, but he sees her wipe at her eyes as she does.

 

When she next speaks, her voice comes out shaky. “Did you even think about it at all? Why even mention her? We both know I get jealous when you’re with other women, I can’t help it! You’re all I have! How could you not know how it would make me feel to have to hear about the two of you together all the time?”

 

“I…” The words catch in his throat, all the rhetoric and speech training failing him. How can he answer her? Does he have anything to say that isn’t some stupid excuse? He could fire back about trust, but in the end, it doesn’t absolve him of the fact that, yes, he should have known, he was thoughtless, so overexcited to be there that he neglected to comfort her.

 

He swallows. Love takes humility. “I’m sorry, my love. You’re right. I didn’t think.”

 

“I’m not like you, you know,” she says, after a long silence. “I’m not friendly, or likeable.” She laughs hoarsely.

 

“You know I hate when you say things like that.”

 

“But it’s true. It is. Honestly, it’s a miracle I even have you, someone who actually wanted to be with me, and not my status. Even then, only barely.”

 

“Nessa…”

 

“You could have anyone you wanted, you know. It’d be easy for you to just walk away from this life. That’s what scares me, and I can’t even be a better wife who you actually would want to stay with.”

 

“That’s enough!” He wraps his arms around her from behind, pressing his face into her hair. Her shoulders tremble as he holds her. “Stop, please, stop. How can you say you’re not good enough? You are the one I want. I would do anything for you. Just please, don’t talk about yourself that way.”

 

“Then change teachers.”

 

“What?”

 

Her voice steels at his hesitation. “Ask the academy to assign you a different tutor.” She waits for his response. “You said you would do anything for me. Were you not being serious after all?”

 

He’s backed into a proverbial corner. He has no choice. “I...yes, my love. I’ll have them change my assignment.”

 

She softens in his embrace, finally. Her hand drifts up to touch his arm, still wrapped around her. “Thank you, my prince. I don’t know what I would be without you.”

 

He says nothing, only feels like somehow he’d been in some kind of battle and lost.


 

4. Winter

 

He doesn’t know how he got to this place. Everything happened so fast, it’s making his head spin. Or perhaps that’s just his body going into shock.

 

Once more, from the top. (Will that finally make it make sense?)

 

He returned to Subcon early without telling her. It was meant to be a surprise. He bought flowers, then went home and found her in a rage.

 

“How could you do this to me?” she’d screamed. “Has it always been a lie? After everything you said?”

 

“Vanessa! What are you talking about? What’s wrong?”

 

Ice like he’d never seen before spiked out from the floor, the walls, nearly impaling him. Frostbitten air whipped his face.

 

“You’re still going to play the fool? Even now? Enough! I’ve had enough!” Her voice cracked as she clutched her head. “Guards! My prince has betrayed me! Lock him away! He is never leaving me again.”

 

Guards he had known for years grabbed him from behind, as though he was some intruding rogue. The flowers had long since frozen over, solid and blue where they lay on the floor. The air howled as they dragged him away.

 

“Wait! Vanessa! Please! Talk to me! Vanessa!

 

No. He still can’t put it together. What had he done? What did she think he had done? The pain in his shoulders and ribs hazes his mind, makes it impossible to think straight. He calls for her again, but his reedy voice doesn’t even make it to the door.

 

It’s impossible to tell how many hours pass. If only he could concentrate. When did it become so cold? The weather had been good when he arrived. Now there’s frost on the floor, on the walls, making it even harder for his feet to find purchase and keep his body upright, keep the weight off his chest.

 

The hinges to the cellar door shriek as it opens. He opens his mouth to call out to Vanessa again but his breath stops in his throat as he looks up. The red-eyed shadow that heaves its way toward him bears a passing resemblance to his wife--at least it has her hair and wears her crown. The cold metal of the chains bites into his skin as he grabs onto them, trying to pull himself up and away from the monster approaching. He presses against the wall, feet sliding on the icy floor and the stone digging into his back as a frostbite-gray hand reaches toward him and caresses his cheek.

 

Isn’t that better, my prince? Now we can always be together.

 

Surely it’s the delirium that makes her voice shudder and echo and her image murky.

 

“V-Vaness…” he gasps. “Why? What did I do?” It can only come out as a whisper.

 

Nevermind that, my love. I’m here with you. That’s all that matters now.

 

“Please...I-my arms. I can’t feel…”

 

Her hand on his face turns to claws. “ You’re not leaving! I’m never letting you go again. This way you’ll never look at anyone but me.

 

What is she talking about? For the thousandth time, he tries to remember.

 

Back early. Surprise. Flowers. (Crying?) Home. Ice.

 

Wait.

 

As he stares into the red eyes blazing through the curtain of hair, a splinter of clarity finds him. Maybe it’s hearing her voice, however distorted that reminds him. He thought he heard someone crying when he bought the flowers. He holds that thought in his mind, turns it over.

 

“The flowers,” he mutters.

 

The grip on his face tightens, slicing into his skin. Something hot runs down his cheek. “ Don’t even think about her! She’s gone, it’s only us now! Just us! The way it’s supposed to be.

 

Gone? What...does that mean? He has no breath left for the question. He just stares and stares as the pieces slot together in his head. The florist. Another...woman...and Vanessa saw. Vanessa, who is currently crooning nonsense to him as he hangs from the wall. He doesn’t hear her, an abyss opening up inside him and swallowing him whole.

 

Where was the domino that set this into motion? Where did it begin?

 

A long time ago, a boy asks his father about love.

 

Think very hard, my son. Love, after all, takes...Love takes .