A. Alex Logan © 2019
All Rights Reserved
Gerald followed the steward to the study wearing an expression that would have been more appropriate if he were being led to the dungeon. The steward rapped on the door twice before opening it and stepping aside for Gerald. She gave the young man an encouraging wink, but he was too intent on bracing himself for the upcoming confrontation to notice.
He took a deep breath, visibly set his shoulders and stepped through the doorway. The steward closed the door behind him, and Gerald fought back the feeling of being trapped.
“Don’t lurk in the doorway,” an imposing voice scolded. “Come in where I can see you.”
Gerald did as he was told, stopping and giving a shallow bow when the woman came into view. She nodded, acknowledging the courtesy, which caused the sunlight streaming in through the window to catch and reflect off her golden crown.
Gerald resisted the urge to reach up and touch his own circlet—silver—which he too late realized was probably once again askew.
“Well?” the Queen asked. “Have you made your decision?”
Another deep breath, another forceful straightening of his shoulders, and Gerald said, a hint of defiance in his tone, “I have.”
The Queen’s harsh expression broke into a smile. “Oh, Gerald, thank goodness. Your mum and I were about at our wits’ end! There’s barely enough time left to make all the arrangements. So, what will it be? Rescuer or rescuee?”
The smile melted off the Queen’s face. “Neither! Don’t be ridiculous, Gerald. You said you had made your decision.”
“I have,” he said, crossing his arms in front of his chest. “I’ve decided not to participate.”
“That is not an option,” she said coldly, the warmth in her voice gone the same way as the smile. “As you are well aware.”
“I don’t wish to marry,” Gerald replied, trying to match her tone but not quite managing it. “As you are well aware.”
The Queen waved her hand dismissively. “This is merely the first step. It may take a year or even two for you to rescue—or be rescued by—someone who appeals. Then there’s the courtship, the inter-kingdom negotiations, planning the festivities…why, unless it’s True Love and you two want to rush things, I doubt the wedding will happen before you turn twenty-one.”
“I didn’t say ‘I don’t wish to marry in the next three years’,” Gerald said, forcing himself to keep his voice level even as he balled his hands into fists. “I said, ‘I don’t wish to marry.’ As in, ever.”
But the Queen was no longer listening.
“I really don’t know where we went wrong with you,” she said. “We never had this sort of problem with your older siblings or even your twinling…”
“Don’t call her that,” Gerald snapped. “You know how much I hate that—we’re not twins, we’re not even sort-of twins. We’re half-siblings at best and maybe not even related at all.”
The Queen looked up at the ceiling as if imploring it to give her strength. “Now you’re being deliberately obtuse,” she snapped back. “You know very well that the term ‘twinling’ has been in use for at least a century throughout every single one of the Thousand Kingdoms, and it’s a perfectly apt word. You’re acting like your mum and I made it up to irritate you. You’re acting like a child, Gerald.”
“Isn’t the point of all this that I am a child?” he responded. “Isn’t the entire purpose of this whole charade of rescue and marriage to make me into an adult?”
“It’s hardly a charade. It’s—”
“—a well-respected, long-established tradition to encourage young royals to broaden their horizons, explore more of the Thousand Kingdoms, find love, and forge stronger connections among the Kingdoms, yes, yes, I know,” Gerald interrupted. “I still say it’s a charade. It’s perfectly possible to accomplish all of those goals without forcing every royal into a ridiculous marriage quest the moment they turn eighteen.”
“You seem to be forgetting something very important here, Gerald,” the Queen said calmly.
“This isn’t optional.”
“You can’t force me to choose,” Gerald said. “Why can’t you leave me be and let Lila broaden her horizons, explore the Kingdoms, forge alliances, and all that rot? She wants to.”
“You have ten days,” the Queen continued, as if Gerald hadn’t spoken. She turned away without even bothering to dismiss him.
Gerald stalked back to his room, quietly fuming. It’s not that he expected the Queen to understand, but he hoped perhaps they could reach some sort of middle ground…but no.
I should have known, he thought grumpily. When have either of them ever listened to me? Lila got all the lessons she wanted, on every topic she wanted, and all of the approval of both of them, and while they were hanging on her every word there was never an ear free to listen to me.
It was while thinking those dark thoughts he turned a corner and came face-to-face with Lila. His scowl deepened and he was again conscious—too late—of his crooked circlet and general disarray. Lila’s own circlet was straight and shining from its recent polish, and she looked every inch the royal, easily projecting their parents’ attitudes of confidence and serenity.
Gerald had never gotten the knack of projecting either one.
“I heard you got summoned,” Lila said. Gerald grumbled something inarticulate and tried to step around her, but Lila slid over to block him.
“Are you ever going to grow up?” she asked. “I’m tired of sitting through all these uncomfortable family dinners because you can’t get your act together.”
“Because they can’t accept my decision,” Gerald corrected.
Lila snorted. “Doing nothing isn’t a decision, Gerald, it’s the lack of one!”
Gerald scowled and Lila returned the expression. “You know what your problem is? You’re spoiled.”
Gerald gaped at her. “I’m spoiled? You’re the one who gets everything you want! Tutors for every subject you’re interested in, the best training, the best of everything! You’re the heir of Andine, and I’m the afterthought.”
“The heir gets those things,” Lila snapped. “Not me. I don’t get those things for me. The lessons, the tutors, the training, those aren’t rewards, Gerald, they’re responsibilities. And you have none. You want none. You don’t care about Andine, only yourself.”
Andine doesn’t care about me, Gerald wanted to snap. But he didn’t want to give Lila more ammunition. “Don’t you have a quest to be getting ready for?” he asked instead and, without waiting for a reply, he dodged past Lila and ran until he reached his room and barred the door behind him.
Gerald could easily have stayed in his room for the rest of the day, alone with a book, but he forced himself to go to dinner. The monarchs only dined in state once a week, unless there were holidays or festivals or visiting royalty. The rest of the time, it was family dinners, and they were strictly enforced. The only acceptable reason for missing one was a serious illness or a trip abroad.
Unlike the morning’s official meeting, there was no steward to announce him or give him an encouraging wink at the door to the dining room. He opened the door himself and tried to slink in unnoticed, but every head immediately turned his way when the door slipped out of his hand and latched with an echoing click.
There was Lila, her circlet still straight and polished, catching the lamplight and glittering against her short, dark hair; Queen Mixte, an older, softer version of Lila, with the same dark hair and the same green eyes; and Queen Danya, much paler than the other two, whose icy blue eyes had pinned Gerald in their meeting that morning.
At least James and Vani aren’t here. James resembled Mixte as much as Lila did, while Vani had the same icy beauty of Danya, although her temper was much warmer than her mother’s.
And then there was Gerald, whose skin tone was halfway between the Queens’, whose hair was red-streaked auburn, whose eyes were hazel. Who always felt like he was unbalancing the royal tableau.
“About time,” Lila said. “I was starting to wonder if you were going to go on one of your ridiculous sulks and refuse to come to dinner at all.”
“I’m not that late,” Gerald said mildly.
“Children,” Queen Mixte said warningly, but Gerald made no move to reply to the rest of Lila’s comment.
I’m going to have to choose my battles tonight, he thought as he took his seat across from Lila.
Indeed, as soon as the soup had been served and the servants withdrew, the Queens exchanged a significant glance and Gerald sighed, knowing what was coming.
“I heard about your discussion today,” Queen Mixte said lightly. “I have to say, Gerald, I’m having trouble coming to terms with your objections.”
“If you heard about the discussion, then Mother will have told you my objections.”
“She did. But I don’t understand them.”
“I don’t wish to get married. It seems a very straightforward objection to me,” Gerald said. His tone was level, but his knuckles whitened as he gripped his spoon like a lifeline.
“You’re royalty,” Queen Mixte pointed out gently.
“So you must marry!” Queen Danya interjected. “Mix, you mustn’t coddle the boy. He can choose his role, but he will play one of them!”
“Why must I marry?” Gerald demanded. He dropped his spoon, ignoring the clatter and the soup that splattered the table, and snapped, “I’m not the heir. Lila is, and she’s obviously far more suited to rule, and there’s always James or Vani!”
“You know very well that James and Vani are out of the line of succession,” Queen Danya retorted. “They have gone to their spouses’ kingdoms.”
“Because you allowed it! You could have negotiated differently—”
“But we didn’t.”
“And what if I’m negotiated to join another kingdom?” Gerald asked, changing tacks.
“You’re getting quite far ahead of yourself, Gerald,” Queen Mixte said calmly. “You know very well you and Lila are both in the line of succession and you both must remain in the line of succession since our prior twinlings went abroad.”
“But Lila’s the heir.”
“Lila’s the heir,” Queen Mixte acknowledged.
“So she will marry—she wants to marry!—and she will have children and she will inherit and her children will inherit after her, and I am completely irrelevant to the succession!”
“Even so. There are other purposes a royal marriage can serve. Even though you are not a crown prince, you are a prince. And your marriage can ensure many benefits for Andine. You owe your duty to your kingdom and your people. And your marriage is a duty.”
“I will not marry,” Gerald said flatly. “I will not argue any further, but I will not marry. Let Lila go off questing. She’s clearly dying to. She’ll find a spouse and be happy doing it. I will not.”
The Queens exchanged another significant look while Gerald glared furiously at his soup and Lila sat back and watched the scene with a faint amused smirk.
“Honestly, brother,” she interjected. “It’s a marriage, not an execution. What’s the harm of it? Are you afraid you’ll be stuck with someone unsuitable?”
“Anyone—everyone—would be unsuitable,” Gerald growled.
Lila rolled her eyes. “If they could see you now, I’m sure the rest of our cohort would be thinking the same thing about you.”
“Children,” Queen Mixte said again and they subsided.
Gerald didn’t say a word for the rest of the meal, which lasted four long courses.
Gerald woke with the sun, as usual, and after easing himself out from under the covers to avoid disturbing the cats he always collected in the night, he quickly dressed and left his room before anyone could come looking for him. After a quick stop in the kitchen for a portable breakfast—warm rolls filled with cheese and sausage—he trotted to the stables.
His favorite little bay pushed forward to the front of her stall when he entered, and he soon had her saddle and tack on. After a quick word to the hostler, Gerald and Wisp were out of the stable and heading into the forest.
At least riding is one royal thing I do well, he thought as they trotted down the path. This early in the day it was dim under the trees, although their leaves were starting to turn color and fall, leaving gaps where the light could shine through. But even draped in shadows, the forest was a comfortable place for Gerald, and he—and Wisp—knew the path well enough that the low light caused no difficulties.
“We’ll go to the second clearing,” Gerald said aloud, and Wisp flicked an ear back as if she were really listening. He lapsed into silence after that, watching the small animals and birds of the forest start their own days. I wish my life were as simple as theirs, he thought. Instead, I’m stuck with a half-sister-or-less who thinks I’m simple and a pair of mothers who don’t understand me. I don’t want to marry! It’s not even the quest, as such…although I’d be horrid at that, let’s not get any ideas there… But I don’t want to find a spouse, I don’t want to produce heirs!
A pair of squirrels bickering loudly about an acorn caught his attention and he sighed. I guess if I were a squirrel, I’d do all that and not think anything of it. Lila certainly isn’t thinking anything of it… And I can’t remember either James or Vani objecting, when they turned eighteen. Am I really the only one who wants out of this system?
Thinking of all the many ways in which he was different from Lila, from the Queens, and from his older siblings, Gerald sunk further into gloom. Probably, he concluded. The problem’s not the system. It’s me.
Slowly but surely, the ride, the fresh air, and the time spent with Wisp—simple, uncomplicated Wisp, who was content to provide unconditional affection and was easily bribed with nothing more than a carrot, a bit of sugar, or a good brushing—drew him out of his gloom. By the time the sun was fully up, his stomach was grumbling for lunch. It doesn’t matter what the problem is, he decided. I’ll have to find the solution.
A messenger was waiting by the stable when Gerald rode back in. “Your Highness,” she said, giving a shallow bow. “Correspondence for you.”
Gerald dismounted and took the scroll with a word of thanks. There was no sender’s mark, and he tucked it unopened into his belt to read later, after Wisp was settled and when he was alone.
The messenger, the hostler, and the stable boys were all hovering “unobtrusively” in the area, and if Gerald opened it now, they’d all be looking over his shoulder, wondering what it said. The entire palace was aware the youngest prince was feuding with the monarchs, and his eighteenth birthday—and the deadline day—was barely more than a week away.
When Gerald was back in his room, a plate of lunch in his hand, he retrieved the scroll from his belt. He wondered about the lack of a sender’s mark until he noticed the ribbon holding it closed—dark green, tied in a double bow—had a small yellow bead knotted into the center.
“Of course,” he said aloud. “Who else would be writing me?”
He untied the scroll and pocketed the bead before he unrolled the message and weighed down the corners. His gaze flicked to the signature at the end and he smiled to see he was correct. It was from Erick, his cousin and one of his very few real friends.
I hear you are being as meatheaded as usual. My parents must have had a dozen urgent messages from yours in the last few weeks. Knowing you, I’m guessing they’ll be getting several dozen more…
So I want to know, why don’t you just choose? No, stop making that face. Keep reading. It’s not like you’ll be monitored, you know. No scrying, no messages, no contact is permitted. So tell them you’ll go questing, and then…don’t. Or do. As you wish.
You can travel with me! We’ll be starting at the same time, remember, even though I’m three whole weeks older than you (youngin’!). You’re lucky your birthday is the last day of the month; you can start right away. I’ve been sitting around twiddling my thumbs for weeks, waiting for the first of next month to come around.
But look, we can start together; I’ll keep you from falling off a cliff or getting eaten by a dragon, and you can keep me from starving to death.
Gerald smiled at the idea of traveling the Thousand Kingdoms with Erick—it would certainly be fun at least for a while—but the underlying problem would still be there. He might be able to get away with not truly questing for a while, but sooner or later Erick would complete his quest and rescue a spouse, and Gerald had no illusions about his ability to survive a quest alone. Not to mention the pesky fact that eventually Gerald would be expected to return home with a spouse, too.
A false quest would delay the inevitable, but that’s all it would be: a delay. Gerald started to pen a reply to Erick saying as much when the original scroll chirped and went blank. Gerald let a large drop of ink splash on the parchment and within moments it began to spread out into a spidery line of text.
The two-way parchment was Erick’s own invention and he was very proud of it. The spell was keyed to the recipient, too; with this piece of parchment, only Erick and Gerald would be able to write back and forth. For anyone else, it would act like regular paper.
So, meathead? Ready to be less meatheaded?
It won’t work, Gerald wrote back.
What do you mean, it won’t work? Of course it will work. No one will find out it’s a fake.
Until I come home without a spouse.
Ah. You mean it won’t work long term. Well…you know, you might change your mind. If you meet a few eligible princesses—or princes—or princexes—you may decide marriage isn’t so awful after all.
I’m not going to change my mind.
Well, Gerald, I hate to break it to you, but your parents are not going to let you sit this out. To be honest, I doubt they’re going to let you sit marriage out. Wouldn’t it be better to have some fun with me first?
Maybe “better” isn’t good enough.
Well, I tried. And if I starve to death, it’ll be on your head.
Pack a lot of journey bread.
A knock on the door drew Gerald’s attention away from the scroll.
I have to go, he scrawled quickly and then lifted the corner weights. The scroll would erase itself in a few minutes unless he used the bead to archive the conversation. I don’t think this one needs to be archived, he thought wryly.
He opened the door and blinked in surprise to see Queen Mixte standing there.
“May I come in, Gerald?” she asked.
“You never come here,” he said, but he stepped aside to let her pass, too surprised to say no.
“I wanted to talk to you privately. I thought, perhaps, without you and your mother butting heads, I might be able to help sort things out.”
Gerald turned away from her serene smile to pace around the room. “There’s nothing to sort out. You two want me to participate in this ridiculous tradition and I don’t care to. You two want me to get married and I don’t care to.”
“Yes, but Gerald, why don’t you care to?”
He turned back to face her. She seemed genuinely interested in his response, and her expression was as calm and warm as ever. Unlike his mother, Queen Mixte never turned to ice.
“I…” he trailed off.
“Many young people are worried about marriage,” she said gently. “Pre-quest nerves have rattled many a royal. But nerves can be overcome, my dear. And the reward at the end is worth it.”
“But don’t you get it? For me, marriage isn’t a reward. Being stuck with someone, tied to someone I don’t even know, a stranger, for the rest of my life? That’s supposed to be a reward?”
“They won’t be a stranger. That’s the point of these quests, Gerald. For the royalty of the Thousand Kingdoms to become friends and more.”
“It seems an awfully circuitous way to do so,” he grumbled. “I mean, if you’re questing, you have to go to desert after swamp after mountain, trying to find the right royal to rescue. And the one being rescued has to sit and wait and wait and wait. How many other people do they really meet?”
“Through portfolios and signposts and correspondence? Dozens.”
“I believe the average is five.”
“All this nonsense to meet five people?” he yelped, throwing his hands up in frustration.
“The circumstances forge bonds,” Queen Mixte said serenely. “The couple is much more devoted than if they met at a simple ball, where neither one would have to prove their worth or endure a wait. The rescuers form deep bonds with each other by helping fellow questers over obstacles or by working together to best a guardian. And the rescuees all have a deep well of common experience to draw on, to make them more sympathetic with each other and engender more cordial relations between kingdoms. You know all this, Gerald, and you know it works. It’s worked for hundreds of years.”
“I don’t want to forge bonds, Mum!” he burst out. “I’m not suited for marriage. I’m not suited for a relationship. I’m not Lila! I’m not Erick, I’m not you or Mother.”
Queen Mixte tilted her head and looked at Gerald as if she were actually listening. His heart lifted slightly as she asked, “Why do you think that?”
“I’ve never—I’ve never wanted to be with anyone,” he said, crossing his arms defensively. “Lila’s had crushes, Erick’s had crushes. I’ve never looked at anyone and felt my heart flutter. I’m never going to. I don’t want to marry someone I don’t love, and I don’t think I can love anyone.”
“You love us. Your mother, and me, and even Lila, as much as you two bicker. You love Erick. Of course you’re capable of love.”
But Gerald shook his head miserably. “That’s different. I don’t think I can love anyone the way you love Mother, or the way James and Vani love their spouses.”
“You’re still young,” she said gently. “You’ll grow from this experience. You’ll mature, and you’ll find love. Everyone does.”
She gave him a kiss on the forehead. “You’ll be fine, my dear. But please—make a decision before your mother makes one for you.”
And with that, she swept out of the room.
Gerald sat down heavily on his bed.
Even when they’re listening, they don’t really hear me.