I dip my hands into the water. My cool skin becomes coated in the flowery scented tonic, easing the pain I felt only slightly. Delia looks at me tenderly, clasping her hands in front of her, her hood drawn close over her hair. If we were in the palace right now she would have gotten Landon. She always trusted Landon over any one of my ladies. My ladies were supposed to protect me, but she always trusted him. Funny for a handmaid to trust the person I needed the least.
“Was it diving?” She asked, knowing I wouldn’t utter a word unless she did.
“Yes. There was a turtle caught in a crevice. It was too small for him, but he tried to test the odds anyways. I had to help him get out. He would have surely been stuck there for another week or two otherwise. Anyway, I didn’t even cut my hands that bad.”
“Miss Cory. Stop. It was splinter stone, and you could have gotten infected. I know you are new to me taking care of you, but it is sort of my job to keep you safe and I can’t do that if you get yourself into trouble. Now come on, what would Landon think?” She gently pulls my hands out of the bowl, placing them gently on a towel in her lap.
“Landon wouldn’t care. You know he doesn’t care for me like that. It isn’t my place to force him to. What is between us isn’t natural, it is political, and it shouldn’t have been me in the first place. I don’t do this for Landon, I don’t do anything for Landon.” I say more forcefully than I probably should, causing Delia to purse her lips tightly.
“It is what we need, now come on, put this shawl over you and let’s go.” She says quietly, her hood coming further over her face as she turns away from me, cleaning up all of the healing tonics. I pull a shawl over my swimsuit, and pull my hair back with a band. “I respect you, your majesty, I just want you to know your new life now isn’t as carefree as it was when you were just a politician and tactician. Eyes are on you now princess.”
“I’m not a princess yet.” I mumble as we step inside the pod. The automated vehicle sends us through the coastline a little bit before dipping into one of the offroads that leads to the palace. While royalty still used horse drawn carriages for parades and such, the pods were the more economic and efficient modes of transport. I was more used to their speedy delivery anyway, all of this horse-drawn, bumpy road bullshit gave me headaches anyways.
Delia smirks as the pod opens to the palace. Landon stands on the steps, waiting with his arms crossed and face bitter like the slight chill that was in the air. “Cory, we need to talk. Can I escort you to your room?” Despite his regal and firm appearance, he looks like he used to when we were growing up, fragile, afraid, everything his father forced out of him was suddenly coming to the surface.
“Certainly. Delia, if you would kindly bring my belongings up while we walk, I will be with his majesty for the time being.” Delia nods, a giddy smile threatening to break lose. Every time we wished to be alone together she always believed it was so that he could declare his love for me or vice versa. Landon brings his arm up and I take it reluctantly, our elbows knotted together as we enter the palace. This was mainly for looks, before the engagement we would have been perfectly fine with strolling down the halls arm in arm, but now, we didn’t want anything to do with each other. We don’t speak as we walk, knowing Delia is right behind us, but I can feel the weight of the impending conversation like a brick.
My room is on the upper west corridor of the palace, one hallway down from the suites of the royal family. Down my hallway the walls are lined with portraits of the royal family, all staring down at you as you walk. I had never liked it before, and I hated it now. The thought of producing one of the figures in the portraits on the wall made me sick to my stomach, especially at the thought of the involvement of someone who used to be my friend.
I pass by those stoic portraits everyday, and now, with my arm in his the pictures seem menacing, and my breath feels tight in my chest. Landon stops in front of my door, and moves to the side so that Delia can get past and put my stuff away properly. I still wasn’t used to that, but I never said anything of my discomfort because Landon would throw a fit if he knew. Delia was quick to set my things down, she always has been a deft worker, but it still felt like an eternity, waiting in breathless silence with my betrothed.
As she exits I see her devious smile. The formal rules of courting are that we are not allowed to be in a room alone together until our wedding night, but most servants knew to let that rule slide. Delia, with her romantic, fever heart, wouldn’t be the first to question us about that particular rule.
Once the coast is clear, Landon walks inside without waiting for me. I hurry in after him and close the door behind me, not bothering to lock it, even though that is always my first instinct. He clears his throat, and I move to sit on the bed until I realize he has already made himself comfortable. As always, the next best thing will have to do. “So… do you have anything you want to talk about?” I roll my eyes and move from where I had sat in my desk chair to my closet, where I can sift through clothes to distract myself from this brute.
“If you are looking for a confession, I am afraid you are going to come up dry.” I say, pulling a blue tulle dress out of the closet and laying it on an unoccupied part of the bed. Landon is unfazed as I begin to undress from my swimsuit in order to put on the gown. Only Delia would know I didn’t have it on when he first came in. Either way, Landon is no stranger to the female body, and he certainly couldn’t care less about mine.
“Please, for once in your life stop thinking that everyone is out to get you. I was simply asking as a friend.” He crosses his arms over his chest, his feet laid out in front of him.
“We haven’t been friends since you put this ring on my finger.” I say through gritted teeth, pulling the snug dress up over my bossom. He just chuckles.
“I miss your fire. We never get to be ourselves around each other anymore, have you noticed that?” I turn away from him, and he takes the cue to lace up my dress, something he had done many times before.
“It is for the best, Landon.” I turn around and look at him when he finished, the same youthful look still on his face from earlier. I thought surely it would have worn off by now.
“I miss my best friend sometimes. I’m not invincible like you seem to think.”
“If a king isn’t immune to emotions, then he should at least be cognizent of others.” I say from my desk, putting a light powder sheen on my face as he takes in my words. Yes, I was still hurt over the incidents of the night of our engagement. Wouldn’t a bride have every right to be?
“In all honesty, I was escaping the nobles. Lords of the eastern provinces or something of that sort. They had the markings of magic ones. Anyways, I knew, despite your incredibly long grudge, that you would be there for me.”
“You could have told me flat out and I would have come to your aid. I am not always to be ordered around like some rag doll, you know.” He smiles, and I can see, even in the reflection of my vanity, the twinkle in his eye. Another thing his father had beaten out of him. Not with a stick or his hands, but with words, his father had beaten out everything that made up my old friend. I missed him, the old Landon, but I also knew he was too far gone for me to bother hoping for his return.
“Cory, I know you are loyal to me as a subject, but as a fiance there is still some lacking. Understandably so, of course. These past three months have been hard on both of us, I know. Our friendship has gotten lost somewhere in there and I was hoping, if you were willing, that while I wait out the nobles downstairs, we could… discuss.” I don’t even have to look in the reflection to know he is nervous. His voice proves everything that I can’t see.
“Well, this is my room, so unless you planned on leaving, I don’t think I have a choice.” I say, turning around in my chair to face him. We had talked about this before. Many times actually. Whenever one of us got drunk it usually came up. One night it even went as far as him getting angry enough with me to do it again. Since then my anger had only grown. His father had noticed, but didn’t seem to care as much as one might think. Either way, my rage had been three months coming, and if I knew anything it is that this conversation wouldn’t change much.
“Cory, you must know by now that I am sorry, for that night, for the other night, and for everything in between. The pressure is hard on both of us, yes, but I let the pressure of a wedding, of a coronation, I let it all get the best of me.”
“Yes you did.” He gives me a puzzling look, as if he expected me to just forgive three months of hell over that half-assed introduction. “Oh please, don’t let me stop you. Go on.”
“Fuck, Cory you make this too damn hard. I’m mad at you too okay? I’m mad at you for abandoning me immediately after the public ceremony. That’s why those girls came up to me. You know who else came up to me? My father. He said if I didn’t make this look believable, if I didn’t make the people happy through our union, that he would declare me illegitimate, and pick the next ruler. I needed you then. I had no idea where you were and I couldn’t find that one boy, the one you had been riding with. I assumed you had gone of with him. I was paranoid and stressed because of my father’s threats and so I drank. I drank and drank until those girls didn’t look like a bad idea. One last night of true freedom. After that I was yours. When you came back I wanted to prove to you that I wasn’t tied down to you. I wasn’t responsible for your feelings, but I am, and always will be, as your best friend. So I’m sorry that I let my anger and stress and paranoia get in the way.” He takes a deep breath and seems to sink further into the bed.
Some of that was news to me. Not the drinking, or the girls, both of those I saw clearly. It was the conversation with his father that made me even contemplate forgiving him. His father was a cold calculating man. He hadn’t always been that way, but after the death of his wife, it seemed as if everything was a tipping point for the aging man’s temper. I had been caught in the rage before. I knew what it felt like to be scrutinized from head to toe by his beady eyes and alcohol-ridden, breathless hisses. What I did not know, was how it felt like to have that be your own father. It was true, Landon was under intense pressure that night and the week after. I could forgive him for that, but the three months after that would take much longer to forgive.
“Landon, I can’t possibly know how hard that was for you, and I’m sorry he would threaten that, but that doesn’t forgive the hurt, tears, and heartbreak you have caused. While we were never romantic with each other, I was going to pledge myself to you, and you alone, because you were my best friend, and I owed you that respect and courtesy. It hurt me when you didn’t show me an ounce of that in return. Your infidelity, while nothing in the eyes of the law, broke my heart that night. Then for you to do it again… It is going to take a lot more than a mean talk from your father to make me forgive that.”
“I understand that, so let me show you. Tomorrow morning will you come with me to the farmers market in town? Just us. No Delia, no press. Just us. Well and a few guards, but they will keep their distance if I order them. Or they could stay close if you would like. I just want to do something we used to do, back when it was easy and natural for us to be friends. Back before I ruined it. Please, Cory. If you are going to give me a chance to prove myself, at least let it start tomorrow.”
“As long as you will let me go diving afterwards. Delia will try to object, but I need to dive, Lan. It’s my entire world and she is trying to take it away from me.”
“You called me Lan…” He says with a smile. I turn away from him to hide my blush, not noticing I had used my old pet name for him.
“Diving, or no more chances.”
“Fine, yes, diving. You know the power my smile has on Delia. Maybe let me give you a little peck on the cheek and then she will have no choice but to say yes. Also, I will be in the falconry after our morning tomorrow, my leading lads and ladies would like fresh fish. If you pick that up for them, I am sure they would be eternally grateful, as would I.” He says, finally getting up from my bed and crossing the room to stand behind me at my chair. From my turned position, I look up at him, oddly feeling more comfortable beside him, even though my brain says I shouldn’t. If I let him in too fast, my hopes of truly trusting him will be gone for good, and it will be old habits and old ways with no relenting and no respect for me. This may be his one chance, but it was mine too. I would not rest until we were on an equal playing field again.
“Of course. Don’t send any guards with me either. I prefer to do my diving without the fear of being watched.” He smiles, and leans down to kiss my forehead.
“Done.” Then he walks out of my rooms, sending Delia scrambling in.
“My prince! My lady! They need you immediately in the council room. A craft has landed in a northern province and they found a girl. They found you Cory.”