By Bethy <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted: November 2001
Summary: Kal-El, foundling prince of Nivekia, discovers that royal life is not all that great as he has to adjust to the prospect of an arranged marriage.
Prologue: A New Dream
Queen Elistra sat at her window, gazing out at the cold, distant stars, silent tears slipping softly down her cheeks. This was it. Her dream was dead.
So now, what was left for her? Pain? Certainly. Emptiness? Absolutely. Sorrow? More than ever. Pity. Judgement. Anger. Humiliation.
She wasn't sure if she could handle it anymore. For twelve years she had endured. But for those twelve years she had had hope. With the gentle persuasion, the firm support of hope, she *could* endure. But now…now the hope was dead, taking her dreams and her strength with it.
And without them, without her dreams, her strength, her hope, how could she go on? What point was there anymore?
She wiped a tear away and glanced down at the small sliver dagger in her lap. It would be so easy to…
Her husband's face flashed through her mind. She saw his sad eyes staring at her, questioning her, begging to know why she felt she had to do this thing. She could almost hear his voice in her mind, asking her. *Why? It's my pain, too. It's my dream, too.* She knew that it would be the easy way out for her, but only for her. It would only double his burden.
No, she couldn't do it. Not now. Despite the people's needs, she couldn't do that to Kaltrik. She couldn't add to his pain, not so deliberately.
She looked out at the stars, once again, and her heart cried out. *Help me. I can't do this alone. Please, help me.*
Suddenly, among the stern, unmoving stars she saw movement. It was…no, it couldn't be…but it was: a shooting star. Her heart leapt. Such beauty, and with such perfect timing. She sat and watched as it headed closer, at peace for the first time in a long while, content to wait and take life as it came. The pain hadn't left completely, not by a long shot, but she knew, deep inside, that it would get better. In time, she could live again, learn once more to smile and give herself over to love.
After a little while of watching the swiftly moving star, she noticed that, instead of passing through the sky and disappearing, it was literally coming closer. She waited in anticipation until, just before dawn, a large, glowing ball of fire shot across the immediate sky and landed almost directly beneath her window.
A brief moment of hesitation and she made her decision. Forget protocol, forget chaperones, forget everything — she was going to investigate. She slipped easily and silently through the large stone halls of the palace, encountering no one along the way. Once she made it outside, it was easy to discover the star's landing place.
As she drew closer to the object, puzzlement took over the realm previously inhabited by excitement. Expecting to see a meteorite, a dead rock, she wasn't quite sure how to react to what she saw. It appeared to be some sort of capsule, yet she knew of nothing that could have come from the sky like this had.
Heedless of any possible dangers, she tiptoed closer. It was slightly larger than the cradle that the servants had removed at her orders, just the day before. Refusing to allow the tears to resurface, Elistra instead turned to the inspection of the little vessel.
It was covered with inscriptions, but they were beyond anything she had ever seen before. They mesmerized her with their beauty and she had to force herself to look away from them. She ran her hand along her favorite and then jumped back in shock — the capsule was moving!
She almost forgot to breathe as she watched that metal plane rise. What lay beneath it? Something evil? Hard to believe that evil could come from something so beautiful… Or perhaps something beautiful to match the exterior. A gift from God in her time of grief. Her thoughts tumbled over each other in their haste to present their possibilities.
But nothing could prepare her for what she saw there.
A perfect, sleeping, gorgeous baby boy.
She trembled violently and remotely felt her legs betray her. She didn't even feel the impact as she hit the ground. It was too soon, too soon. She had just lost her own son, so beautifully opposite to this child here. This one was dark, a big healthy baby. And her son had been blond and tiny, delicate in his fight for life. Almost as if he wasn't capable of fighting. *Oh, why couldn't you have fought, my darling? After all our years of waiting, only to have you leave us in the space of a day?*
But now wasn't the time to think of him. Instead, she must make a decision. What to do with this child? She wanted to reach out, to hold him. To allow his perfect body to fill the empty ache in her arms. And at the same time, she wanted to push him away. To scream in the agony of her loss. She had just lost her own son, how could she let this child fill that hole so quickly? As her mind raged in indecision, her instincts seized control of her body. Her arms reached out and tenderly gathered the child in them. From her mouth emanated soft cooing sounds, comforting him as he fidgeted restlessly. As she rocked him, she knew the decision was made. Whether a gift from God or not, this child was hers to keep. To cherish and love for the rest of her life.
Chapter One: A Special Day…Or Two
Prince Kal-El nervously checked his robe for the twelfth time. Normally he paid scant attention to his attire, but today was special. Today was his nineteenth birthday, the day he was officially named heir to the throne and all the privileges and responsibilities that accompanied it.0
Today was a day of celebration, of great joy. And yet it was also a serious day. The one in which he officially began to take on the responsibilities of the throne.
Yes, today was special.
He may not have been the biological son of his parents, but he was their son in every other way. They had raised him, loved him, trained him, punished him, rewarded him, in short, fulfilled the roles of parents in every sense of the words save the genetic one. He had heard the story countless times growing up. His mother, in despair at the death of her own son and the necessary removal of her womb as a result of the complicated pregnancy and birth, had spent the night in prayer and meditation at her window. She had come close to killing herself, but the thought of her husband's grief and the perfectly timed appearance of a shooting star ("as if it were a sign from God," she used to say) prevented her. And when the star had landed almost literally at her feet, she had discovered him.
She always said that she had known almost immediately that he was to be theirs, but his father, King Kaltrick, had reservations. It was only when the globe from the mini-ship spoke that he became convinced. A regal man in flowing white robes had pronounced, "This is my son Kal-El, of the house of El. Love him and treat him as your own."
It was the name that convinced him. That this child should have a name that combined the beginnings of their own, Kal and El, was proof enough for Kaltrick. And from that day, there was never any doubt, reservations, or regret. Kal-El was theirs, and theirs for good.
Naturally, he would inherit the throne as well. And today, nineteen years later, it would become official.
After one final glance in the mirror to be sure that his clothing was *absolutely* perfect, Kal proceeded to the throne room, where the ceremony would take place.
"And I really think that we should consider the issue of a bride," Advisor Merkel emphasized during yet another boring council meeting, one of many Kal had attended since his coronation almost a year ago. He had been in the process of stifling a yawn, but shot upright at the word 'bride.' There was only one person of whom the advisor could speaking: Kal, himself.
*Not again,* Kal groaned to himself. At least once a month since Kal's coronation, Merkel had brought up the issue of a bride. *Why is he so insistent on this issue? It's not as if I'm close to the deadline — the laws state that I have four more years. Why should I be forced into an arranged marriage so soon?* According to an ancient statute, if the heir hadn't found a bride by the age of twenty-four, his parents had the right to choose one for him. But Kal was just barely twenty; he had plenty of time to find a bride! Besides, it was hard to fall in love when every woman he met fawned over him, and giggled like an idiot. Was it too much to ask to find a woman who knew how to string two sentences together?
The king glanced sympathetically at his son, knowing exactly the thoughts that ran through his head. Every time it was the same thing — Merkel brought it up, the council argued, and Kal became miserable and stubborn. Kaltrick didn't blame him — he was forever grateful that his parents had decided to give him his freedom in that regard, even though he hadn't married Elistra until he was almost twenty-seven. But that was a long time ago. Now the council seemed to be favoring an even older tradition — no chances for the heir to find his own bride, but an arranged marriage for the prince regent from the beginning. Every time Merkel brought forth the issue, yet another council member sided with him.
This month would be the deciding factor — if Merkel could raise the fourteen supporters needed, Kaltrick would have to begin looking for a bride for his son. Though he was the king and had the right to ignore his council if he wished, they represented the will of the people in each of their regions. And though his own father had gone against the council in allowing Kaltrick to choose his own bride, he feared the reaction if he chose the same route. After all, the people still remembered the struggle he and Elistra had gone through in order to produce an heir. And he knew many wondered if it would have been such a problem if his father had simply submitted and chosen a bride for him.
He doubted the council, or the people, would be very understanding of his allowing Kal his own choice.
Kal sat stoically in his chair, his arms crossed tightly across his chest. He, too, knew the importance of the council's deliberations today.
"But it's tradition to wait at least until…"
"The people are impatient…"
"Why can't we at least give him until his twenty-fourth…"
"My district is entirely in favor…"
The deliberations went on for over an hour, with many advisors interrupting each other, speaking over one another, and general chaos reigning.
Finally, each was ready to give his recommendation. Kal, who had been silently tabulating each one's apparent intention while arguing, was not in the least surprised at the result — sixteen to twelve in favor of a bride to be chosen as soon as possible.
With that decision finished, the meeting was adjourned. Kaltrick walked to his son, his eyes full of sorrow. "I'm sorry."
"I know." Kal sighed. "You did everything you could. Now, just do a good job when you pick her out, okay?" He grinned a mite sadly. He was truly enjoying his training to be king, but this was the one issue that forever frustrated him — not only would his parents now have to pick out his bride, but he wouldn't even be allowed to meet her before the ceremony! No input, no say, no choice in the matter.
After giving his father a brief hug, Kal said, "I'm going out to walk in the gardens for a while. And I think I'll just have dinner in my room, okay?"
"Sure. No problem." Kaltrick watched his son meander away, wishing with all his heart that it didn't have to be this way. Oh, well, the decision was made. There was nothing he could do about it now. All he could do was try and pick out the best bride possible for his son.
Glancing furtively over his shoulder, Prince Kal-El quickly slipped through the trees in the garden toward the high stone wall at the edge of the palace grounds. Technically, he was never supposed to go among the 'common people' without a guard, an advisor, and a whole entourage of annoying busybodies. How was he supposed to understand his people if he never saw their real lives? If they were always on their best behaviour for the 'prince,' he would never truly see how they felt about their lives, and what he could do to help improve them.
He knew that there were official reports, but he never put much stock in them. Reports were biased. Plus, the people were often afraid to complain to officials. So he was never sure that what he was receiving was an accurate sampling of people's *true* feelings.
So he had taken up the practice of slipping out of the palace occasionally, in order to interact with the people on an equal level. He had many disguises, which allowed him to blend in inconspicuously. Often he would go to the shops, playing chess or cards with other shoppers or sometimes even the vendors. There he could listen in on conversations, and gossip. People never suspected that the prince was the one sitting with them, making casual bets and gently probing when they complained. He was so approachable and, well, normal without his entourage that he seemed a different person completely.
But today he didn't feel like listening to the chatter of the privileged in the market. They often had superior tones when speaking of the royal house — as if they knew exactly how to solve all the woes of the world. He was sure to hear of the recent council decision, along with every opinion under the sun regarding it, and he didn't feel up to handling that right now.
So instead, he slipped into the guise of a lower class townsman. That way he could roam the city without restraint, without question. He was high enough not to have to work in the fields, and yet low enough to excuse ignorance of court gossip, so he could evade the topic that sent him fleeing from the castle.
He slipped over the wall, finding familiar hand and footholds with an ease that came of constant repetition. With one final glance at the garden to be sure he was undiscovered, he dropped over to the other side.
But what to do first? He could go to the market, but that almost seemed to defeat the purpose of his disguise choice. Wait! He could go to the river at the edge of the city. It was a popular relaxation spot for people of all ages and all classes. He always had a fine time there, and never felt out of place. There was little chance of recognition — in a city as large as the capital, nobody took notice of who was where, especially not in regard to the lower classes. And since visitors came and went so frequently, nobody noticed if this one seemed familiar, or that one hadn't been around in a while.
"Kael!" He heard a shout as he reached the edge of the river. He had chosen a name that was similar to his own, and very common among all the classes. He looked across to see Grekol, a merchant's son, waving enthusiastically at him. "Come on in! The water's great!"
A few hours later, happy and exhausted, Kal exited the river and shook the water out of his hair before sprawling on the grass to rest and dry off.
"Excuse me," an imperious voice sounded above him. "You just got me all wet."
He looked up, expecting to humble himself in apology before some noblewoman, but instead seeing an ordinary townswoman frowning at him. Still, she was in the right and he was in the wrong, so he apologized and made an awkward bow from his position on the ground.
As he half sit up, and yet bent over at the same time, he found himself sprawled awkwardly on the grass. He hurriedly gathered his limbs into a semblance of a normal position and looked up to find the woman struggling not to laugh. He glanced down at the pieces of grass clinging to his wet tunic and ran his hand self-consciously through his tousled hair. Realizing how ridiculous he looked, he let out a laugh and found the woman joining in.
As he laughed, he watched her face. Never had he been so fascinated by a woman before — and he didn't know her name, had never heard her speak (except for those initial words, which weren't exactly a good indicator), and, in all truth, knew nothing of her.
Except that she was beautiful. Her clothes were worn, but cleanly patched. Her face was smooth, unencumbered by that fancy paint that most nobles wore. He never understood that. It only served to give an unnaturally bright look to otherwise pretty faces. No matter, this woman was obviously comfortable with her visage.
And her hair. So used to seeing court nobles, with their short, awkwardly styled coiffures, or long hair entangled with jewels, her simple braid fascinated him. Pulled back from her face, the dark hair fell into a perfect plait down her back. No extras to detract from its beauty. It looked so soft…he wondered if it felt as soft as it looked. Unconsciously, his hand reached out to touch it.
"Hey!" she cried. He snatched his hand back and murmured an apology. Humiliated by his own impetuousness, he kept his eyes downcast, inwardly cursing himself. Taking a chance a few seconds later, he quickly glanced up at her.
She was grinning. Not smiling demurely, or smirking, but plain and simple grinning. He grinned back at her and once again they found themselves laughing together.
They spent the remainder of the afternoon conversing and Kal was astonished at how comfortable he felt with this woman. He'd always found females to be a bit confusing, having had no sisters or close friends (of either gender, actually) himself. This was a new — and entirely pleasurable — experience.
Their conversation took a winding path, going from one subject to another, often without any outward form of transition. But they were so in tune with each other that they instinctively knew where the other was coming from or going to. It was invigorating.
Despite their compatibility, in the space of a few hours, they still managed to fight no less than four times. Nobody ever dared disagree to his face in the castle, and even when he went on his excursions to the real world, he was always trying to find out what the people thought, without letting his own opinions get in the way. Even though sometimes the best way to get someone to elaborate on their opinion is to 'argue' the other side, it was still, always, an exercise or…or a game. He never let the conversations get personal. But this was different. A totally new experience. Slightly less pleasurable, but every bit as invigorating. Because this time it *was* personal.
"Are you kidding?" she exclaimed. "Of course modern advances in technology have improved our lives! Just think of all the diseases we've eradicated, and all the luxury time we have as a result of what computers can do for us!"
"I'm not denying any of that," he said hotly. "I'm just saying that all these new advances seems to be limiting human contact. And without contact, what good is all the luxury time and disease-free environments? We need contact, and conversation!"
"And what exactly do you think we're doing now?" Her eyebrows were raised as she posed her question.
"Yeah, but how often do you do this? How often does it fit into our lives anymore?"
Her eyes clouded as she thought. Obviously it fit as little into her life as it did in his own. "See what I mean?" he asked. "We get so busy we forget about each other. And look around you. How many people here have some technology that is allowing them to ignore those with them?"
"I still think the benefits outweigh the problems," she said stubbornly.
All of a sudden, the church bells struck six and Kal's head jerked up. "I've got to go." The regret he felt was evident in his voice. "I'm sorry."
"Me, too." Sadness took over her stubborn expression. Then mischief filled her eyes. "But, knowing your aversion to technology—"
"I didn't say that!" he protested, but she ignored him and kept going.
"—I won't ask for your worldnet ID, and I won't give you mine. If we meet again, it will be in *person.*" She grinned. "See you later!"
And she sprang up with a surprising agility and ran off before he could get another word out.
Shaking his head in wonderment at this intriguing friend, he too rose to leave. "Wait!" he called, struck by a sudden thought. But it was too late. He finished in a whisper. "I don't even know your name."
Chapter Two: To Meet Again
A few weeks later, Kal was once again sitting in a boring council meeting. But this time he wasn't bored. For his mind was far away, off in the middle of the city with a girl whose name he still didn't know. He had tried multiple times to find out, but every time he decided to go on a disguised excursion, something came up to ruin his plans.
First a state dinner in honor of his birthday — the dinner was planned, but the impromptu party the next night hadn't been. And though normally he would have enjoyed the party, he was disappointed because he didn't want to be there that night. He wanted to be with her.
And then a few days after that, when he had decided that absolutely *nothing* was going to stand in his way, his mother became ill. Technically, there was nothing he could do for her by staying home, but something inside him felt guilty for leaving and seeking joy when his mother, who had raised and loved him, was miserable. So he stayed. He read to her, sang for her, did little things to cheer her up.
Never the strongest woman, she had been hit especially hard this time. Hard enough to drive all thoughts of 'her' from Kal's mind. But now she was better, and Kal no longer felt guilty for the wanderings of his mind — for they only followed where his heart had already arrived.
Today was the day. There was never much planned after a council meeting, so it was the perfect time to go out in search of her. The only possible thing that could mar his excitement would be… no. He couldn't even entertain the possibility in his mind that she might not be there.
Though he knew the meeting was still far from over, Kal couldn't resist yet another peek at the time. Only forty- two minutes left. He caught himself before he sighed audibly and then forcibly turned his attention back to the meeting.
As a 'king-in-training' still, he wasn't expected to participate much. In fact, too much participation on his part was discouraged. This time was for him to learn the procedures of the State and to learn how to deal with the different advisors.
He could already tell he liked Fred. He was a wise, older advisor who had served on the council for Kaltrick, and Kaltrick's father before him. He knew the inner workings of the court, but also understood the desires and attitudes of the average citizen. Well respected among the council members, Fred was slow to make judgements. He always wanted to be sure of all the possible options before making a decision. Kal liked that in an advisor, but also realized that as king, he would need the ability to make immediate decisions at times as well. But he always knew that a recommendation from Fred carried the weight of years of experience and great research behind it.
Now was one such time.
"I believe that this tax reduction will serve to benefit the entire kingdom, sire," he was saying. "After researching the trends and punching the numbers, it appears that a three percent reduction will be the boost we need right now to stimulate the economy. The people will have more money to spend, yet it will not deplete the Royal Treasury greatly." That was the way Fred spoke — "I believe," and "It appears" and "It would seem." Never a statement of fact, of "It *is.*" Yet an "It appears" from Fred could usually be accepted as much as fact.
The council deliberated a few moments, then voted on the issue. Kal wasn't surprised to see an overwhelming vote in Fred's favor — twenty-three to five. He had noticed this trend when a proposal came from Fred's direction. Naturally, the five opposed included Merkel and his goons. Kal couldn't put his finger on exactly why (although it might have had something to do with that whole arranged marriage business), but Merkel gave him the creeps. It was almost as if he was hiding something, but Kal had no idea what it could be. And his father didn't seem to have a problem with Merkel, so Kal kept his suspicions hidden — at least until he had some proof.
Kaltrick's voice cut into his thoughts. "I think we've accomplished enough for today. Thank-you gentlemen, I'll see you tomorrow at the Harvest Ball."
The men began shuffling their papers (in the figurative sense, of course, since very few used actual paper anymore) and creating the general din that accompanied the end of a meeting. Kal shook a few hands, murmured a few pleasantries, and then, as soon as was politely allowed, bolted.
He didn't know if it was his excitement or increased strength, but getting over the wall was even easier today. Eager anticipation made him run almost all the way to the river, but common sense (and a bit of fear) forced him to slow down before he arrived. After all, it wouldn't do to arrive hot and breathless, would it?
He refused to acknowledge that part of him that taunted him. Of course she'd be there. She had to be there. He needed her to be there. And if she wasn't, he would just come back, again and again, until he found her…or at least found out how to find her.
His breath caught when he reached the bank of the river. Was she there? Almost frantically, he scanned the shoreline and then relaxed. There. She was there. Yes! He was so thrilled it took a moment to remember that he needed to walk in order to reach her.
She was reading a book, a sight that gave him a little thrill. He'd known she was educated by the way she argued last time, but this showed that not only did she enjoy reading, but that she too appreciated the special relationship between reader and book. He knew that palmbooks were efficient and helpful, but there was something about turning pages that held a special connection for him.
He snuck up behind her and covered her eyes with his hands. "Guess who."
Next thing he knew, he'd been flipped over onto the ground in front of her and she was on her feet in a defensive position. He put up his hands in surrender. "You win, you win."
She let out her breath in a huff and berated him. "You should know better than to sneak up on someone like that. It's just rude."
"Sorry." But his smile belied his words. After a minute, she relaxed and smiled too, then settled back down on the ground beside him.
"So, where've you been? I haven't seen you in a while."
"Oh, busy. This and that. Here and there," he answered evasively. "But first things first. I realized after you left last time that we had never been introduced. Imagine, hours of talking and we never got around to our names."
She held out her hand. "Lysa. Pleased to meet you."
He bent forward and placed a gentle kiss on the back of her hand. "Kael. Likewise."
And then the conversation stalled. Funny how last time he'd had no problems finding words, but this time, his mind was blank. He knew how eager he had been to see her again, but what if she didn't feel the same way? What if to her he was just some goofy guy at the river?
And besides, he almost didn't want to speak because he was content to look at her. He realized that she wasn't beautiful in the traditional sense, which was why he was confused at the strength of his attraction to her. But no logic could deny the conglomerated feelings jostling inside him.
It seemed she had nothing to say, either. She was becoming restless under his scrutiny and he was struck again with uncertainty.
*Say something, you idiot!* he thought. "So, what are you reading?"
The perfect choice. She answered him with the title, but didn't stop there. She went on to describe the plot of the novel (fortunately one that he had read) and then they went on to discussing the author's style, their preferred styles to read, the subjects of books they each enjoyed, and so on and so forth. It felt as if mere moments had passed when Kal noticed that it was getting dark.
"So late already?" He was disappointed, but gratified to see that she felt the same way.
She looked down, fidgeted with her book a moment, and then spoke. "I hope you don't think I'm being really forward, but I really enjoyed today, and that afternoon before. And I don't really want to depend on chance for it to happen again."
"So you want to plan another meeting?" he asked, saving her from having to pose the actual question. Inside, he shouted with joy. She wanted to see him again!
"Um…yes. I mean, if you want to."
"Absolutely!" They quickly arranged another date, planning to meet in the same place, and then went their separate ways.
Kal left the river feeling as if he could float up to clouds. She wanted to see him again! He started thinking, planning all sorts of things they could do together, before reality smacked him in the face.
He was a prince, and she was a townswoman. And he was to be betrothed as soon as his father found a suitable bride. Even if he wasn't going to be betrothed soon, there was no way he would be allowed to marry a commoner. Marry? Where did that thought come from? Yet he knew where it came from — from the depths of his heart, mind, and soul, he knew he loved Lysa and wanted to marry her.
But there could be no chance of that. The euphoria that had added a bouncy spring to his step fled faster than it had arrived.
He shouldn't go back. If he ended it now, before it had a chance to go further, neither would have as much hurt. Sure, Lysa would be mad at him for standing her up. Then hurt when he disappeared completely from his life. But wouldn't that be better than what would happed if, and when, she found out he was the prince? And that there was no chance for them to ever be together?
He shouldn't go back. He should exercise self-control, face his destiny, and forget her.
The trip home, the rest of the evening, and through the next day, he continued to wrestle with himself. At the Harvest Ball, he hardly noticed any of the women with whom he danced. He ignored the speeches and toast, simply following along when others clapped and cheered, letting his body move out of habit.
His mind was occupied elsewhere.
*Oh, Lysa. What fun this could be if you were here with me!* A glint of dark hair, and he would think of her. A true laugh (rare in that world of fake, political laughter) danced on his ears and reminded him of her. It was no use, trying to distract himself.
And his fight went on. Logically, there was no decision. End it now. Sever it cleanly; forget about her. There was no hope, so why torture himself needlessly?
But he knew that it wasn't going to happen. He would return. And he would keep on returning for as long as he could, enjoying as many stolen moments as possible before he was permanently consigned to a marriage without love.
Chapter Three: A Time to Love?
The weeks, then months flew by as life went on. Kal continued his royal education, constantly fascinated by the inner workings of the court. He continued meeting Lysa as often as possible, and cherished those rare times in his heart.
After a few more meetings at the river, they branched out, daring to go into the city, into the shops, the museums, anywhere and everywhere they chose. As long as they were together, they could find something to enjoy about everything.
After the initial name trade, neither volunteered any more personal information. It was as if by mutual silent agreement they decided that it was out of bounds. If Kal hadn't been so preoccupied with protecting his secret, he might have wondered at Lysa's own renitence, but it never crossed his mind.
He was too busy enjoying life to worry any more. Often he would bring up politics, gently trying to get a feel for her views and opinions. She was well versed in the issues, and usually had insightful comments that gave him new perspective.
*She would do so well as queen,* he would often think, regretting that it would never be. But he tried not to let that regret cloud the joy, choosing to focus on the now instead of the abstract future.
Considering the extent to which his life had begun to revolve around Lysa, it wasn't surprising that he was thinking of her as he walked through the palace halls in response to a summons from his father. He had a close relationship with his parents, so he saw them often, but this had felt more serious, more formal. He was apprehensive, but Lysa's face caused him to smile at each of the servants he saw on his way.
Because of her lower class, and yet her astounding intelligence and insight, he had begun looking at the servants in a new light. He claimed to want to understand his people, and yet had ignored the servants right under his nose. Well, no more. From now on, he was interested in the lives of *all* his people. Even the servants.
"Ah, come in, come in, Kal," his father responded to Kal's knock on the chamber door. "Just a second, I need to finish reading this proposal."
Kal waited in respectful silence, while casually glancing around the room. He had always loved being allowed in here when he was a child. It was a magical place, where his father took care of the country. He knew all the while that someday the burden would fall to himself, but that never felt real to the little boy. Instead, he would watch in fascination as his father worked, peppering him with questions and begging to know everything that went on.
Now, years later, the burden had begun to fall on his shoulders, and he was still as fascinated as that little boy.
"There, done," Kaltrick said as he pushed the proposal away in satisfaction. He swiveled the chair to look at Kal. "Sit down, my boy. I have something I need to talk to you about."
As if Kal hadn't deduced that from the summons. Obediently, though, he sat. But nothing prepared him for the blow that was to be dealt him.
"I know it's been a couple of months," his father began, then paused. "Actually, I guess it's almost a year now. Anyway, your mother and I have chosen a wife for you."
A wife! No! Already? Actually, his father was right, it *had* been almost a year. Quite a long time, in fact. But still…he wasn't ready! He was so happy with his Lysa, he didn't want to think about marrying. It couldn't be true.
Inwardly, he raged and screamed and despaired, but outwardly, he maintained a calm facade. "A wife? That's…good." He had to choke the word out. "Have you begun preparations for the wedding yet?"
"No, no. You mother wants to handle it, with any input you'd like to give. Merkel and some of the other advisors have been pushing for a decision, so we're going to announce the betrothal within the week, but there will be some more time before the wedding." Kaltrick had tried to deliver the news gently, but knew that marriage was always a big step — bigger so when it was out of your control.
"I'm sorry, Kal." He reached out to his son. "I would give you a choice if I could, but I just can't."
"I know, Dad. I know. It's just…" he sighed, searching for words. "It's just that I don't feel ready for this." He felt like such a hypocrite. He *did* feel ready for this — but only if Lysa was the bride. If Lysa could be his bride, he would jump at the chance to wed. He would skip the engagement and have the wedding tomorrow.
But it wasn't Lysa that he was marrying, it was to be some noble woman of his parents' choosing.
"What is her name?" Because of some…awkwardness in past arranged marriages, the bride and groom were forbidden to meet until the marriage, but he thought he would at least be allowed a name. And if it was someone he knew… No, it wouldn't make it easier. Because he couldn't think of anyone he would want to spend the remainder of his life with.
"Alysarinda Kelil. Her family is of noble ties, but they don't participate in court much because of her mother's early death. Her father just never knew how to deal with a daughter."
"I see." Not someone he knew then. Maybe it was better this way. No preconceived prejudices.
"If you don't mind, I think I'd like to be alone for a while." He bowed and made his exit.
Instead of going to the privacy of his chambers, Kal headed out. He needed to see Lysa. He had a stash of clothes near the wall for emergencies just like this one. After changing hastily, he made his way to some of their familiar haunts.
After over an hour of searching, he finally found her at the river. Winter was beginning to set in, so the place was almost deserted, but there she was. Sitting and staring across, not really focusing on anything.
He walked over and sat next to her. They sat in silence for a while, each staring, content to just be with the other.
Finally she looked up at him, her beautiful face marred by a dismal expression and traces of earlier tears. It was almost as if she knew of his bad news and had cried for both of them already. But that was impossible, which meant that she had some grief of her own.
Perfect. Both of them subject to misery in their separate lives. But his misery was going to cause hurt for them both. And who knew the extent of hers?
"What's wrong?" he finally asked.
She bit her bottom lip and fresh tears welled up in her eyes. He put his arm around her, pulled her close, and let her cry. "Shh. Just let it out." He shushed her when she tried to speak. It wasn't going to go away by waiting, but he could at least try to comfort her a bit first.
She wiped the tears away and forcefully stopped the sobs. "Crying isn't going to change anything."
"But sometimes it helps to let it out." Even then he had to point out the opposite view. It was a game they had played, arguing both sides of an issue, no matter which side they truly believed. Quite often one or both learned something in the process, and they always have fun. Lysa recognized what he was trying to do, and this time it still managed to elicit a small smile in response.
"Want to tell me what's going on, now?"
She grimaced. "Well, I kind of have to tell you something else before. I've had a secret. I'm sorry, Kael, I wanted to tell you, but I was afraid…afraid of what it would do to us."
Thoroughly confused, he waited.
"Okay. I'll just say it. Um…I'm not a townswoman. I'm nobleborn."
Nobleborn! Then…there was a chance for them after all! He could talk to his parents; the betrothal hadn't been announced yet, they could just switch women! Everything would be perfect! Or…not. She was continuing and what she said succeeded in breaking his heart again.
"My father just announced that he has arranged a marriage for me. It would advance my — our standing greatly. And ever since my mother died, he's had money problems, so the increase in social and monetary status would save our line. Even if I could go against his will, stand up and marry you, it would ruin him. Probably kill him."
Wait! Kal wanted to shout. I'm the Prince! I can marry you and fix everything!
But he knew it wouldn't work. Lysa's father had a sure deal in the bag, he wasn't going to ruin that in favor of a 'maybe' with the prince. And the more he thought about it, his parents weren't exactly going to be thrilled to change their plans, either. The council was in favor of an arranged marriage, a bride had been chosen, there was nothing he could truly do.
For a brief moment, he thought about trashing everything and going with his heart…but he couldn't. If he were just a normal man, or even a normal noble, he could go for love, but as prince regent, it wasn't an option. All his life he had been raised, groomed to become king. It wasn't just a privilege, it was a responsibility. Even as the desire surfaced, he knew he would never, could never follow through on it.
"It's okay, Lysa. I wouldn't ask you to do that for me. And anyway, I have some bad news of my own. Ironically, it's basically the same as yours." Ironic indeed. "I'm nobleborn, too. My father, who is following old traditions —" that was close enough to the truth, right? Not exactly lying… "—told me this morning that he and my mother have chosen a bride for me. Great day we're having here, isn't it?" He attempted a smile. "We both find out the other is nobleborn even as we find out about our engagements to others. Yeah. Just great."
Why now? Why couldn't the secret have come out before? Why, oh, why now? He knew he'd have to give her up, but now, to know that there could have been a chance…
It just hurt.
He bent forward, put his hand gently in her hair, and kissed her — for the first and last time. "I love you, Lysa. I believe I have always loved you, and I will always love you. I will never forget you. Please don't forget me."
He looked her in the eye, willing her to know the truth in his words. "We each have a new life ahead of us, and I see no point in prolonging the pain."
She shook her head. "I know. I agree."
He stood up and began to walk away.
"Kael," he heard. He turned to look at her one more time. *Please, make it quick, Lysa. I don't know if I'll be able to make myself leave again.*
"I love you, too," she said and then turned and walked the other way before the tears could fall again.
Kal wandered the city, unable to face the palace which now felt like a prison. He knew she loved him, but what good did it do? He could never have her, could never have happiness. Somehow he knew, even if a decent relationship developed over time with his wife, she would never take Lysa's place in his heart.
Less than a week later, Kal stood on the 'announcement balcony' of the palace, with a large crowd gathered beneath. Worldnet cameras had been strategically placed in the surrounding areas, so carefully that it was easy to almost forget they were there. It was because of them that he refused to tug on the neckline of his formal tunic. It tightened around his throat, threatening to choke him, daring him to make a fool of himself and tug on it. But he refused to give in. Funny how it never felt that way before.
"And now, it gives me great pleasure to announce the impending nuptials—" he heard his father say. Impending nuptials. Yech. It sounded so…stiff. Formal. Official. And impending just had this sense of doom that came with it. Why couldn't he just say upcoming wedding? Or marriage?
"—of my son, Kal-El, prince of Nivekia, to Alysarinda Kelil, daughter of Dlanor Kelil." Kal tuned out the rest of the formal address. He knew exactly what his father was going to say. Following tradition, the wedding would take place exactly six months from that day. Until that time, Kal would spend a portion of every day in solitude and meditation. His hair, which had been cut to a man's length when he was nineteen and declared prince regent, would be allowed to grow out. After the ceremony, it would be shorn again, representing a new life begun with his wife.
And above all, until the ceremony, neither he nor his bride to be would have any contact with the other.
He wondered at these often stupid sounding rules, but also recognized the comfort that traditions brought. He supposed that the time apart had some value — it allowed a love struck couple to see if they really loved each other, or if they had just become dependant. But he had never even seen his bride! Though the argument in that case was that there was no chance of either of them trying to back out before the wedding. And if their parents were wise (which was assumed), the match would work, so the young, impulsive, foolish children should have no chance to behave, well, impulsively and foolishly.
He understood, but he still chafed at the traditions. But he didn't know how much of his discomfort was because he was not to be marrying Lysa, and how much was that he really disagreed with these traditions. If it was the former, then perhaps they weren't so bad, and he was just biased. But if the latter, he would like to do some serious thinking about reform.
Traditions were always harder to reform than official laws, but he felt that if he truly believed in something, he would find a way to do it. Like that time when he was eight and had wanted a horse so badly, but his parents hadn't thought him ready for the responsibility. So he'd gone out and made friends with the grooms, determined to learn everything he could about equine care. And early the next spring, when one of the mares died after giving birth, he was ready and willing to raise that foal.
When she was old enough, he began training her for the saddle. And when she was grown, he had ridden her into the castle during dinner to prove to his parents that he was worthy.
He realized that nationwide traditions would be a tad more difficult than getting a horse…but he could do it.
His memories were jostled away by the conclusion of his father's speech. Fortunately for him, Kaltrick and Elistra had agreed that it wasn't necessary for Kal to make a speech of his own. They knew his ambivalence and decided that a forced 'happy speech' would only add to his suffering.
Relieved that the betrothal announcement was over (and thus, the ceremony as well — since they weren't allowed to see each other, that was as far as the ceremony went), Kal mingled a bit at the exclusive reception.
It wasn't too long after, though, that he fled to the relative privacy of the ballroom balcony. His arms rested on the railing, his mind miles away. Music played, couples danced, people chatted, and he wished he had a stiff drink.
"Lovely party, isn't it?" Merkel's voice cut into his thoughts. Lovely. Just the person he wanted to see right now. The man responsible for this travesty. Why couldn't he have escaped to the privacy of his quarters instead of the balcony?
"Wonderful," he replied stiffly, yet trying not to let Merkel see his discomfort. The man preyed on that. "Too bad the bride to be wasn't invited."
Merkel looked stunned. *Guess he never thought of it in that light before,* Kal thought. But it made sense to him — this reception was in honor of the 'impending nuptials.' So wouldn't it be natural to have both halves of that pair there? But tradition stood in the way of that. As much as he enjoyed traditions, Kal was beginning to seriously hate this one.
It seemed that Merkel sensed Kal's animosity, at least to some degree, because he said, "Well, I should probably go speak to your father. I'll see you at the next council meeting."
"Fine." Kal forced a polite smile. "Enjoy the party."
It was only few minutes later when Fred came up to him. "How you doing, son?"
"You mean that? I know this isn't exactly the prime choice for your life and all…" His voice trailed off, giving Kal a chance to respond or tell him (politely, of course, as befitted a royal person) to back off.
But Kal knew he would never tell Fred to back off. Not that Fred would mind overmuch. He'd just nod and, in his own subtle way, let it be known that he was available if Kal needed anything.
Kal smiled wanly, letting his emotions show, quite different from the almost-grimace he had given Merkel. He leaned one arm on the railing and faced Fred.
"Choice, huh? No, there was no choice involved in this. No choice whatsoever." He gave up trying to hide his depression.
Fred nodded. "Nope. You're right, there. No choice." He looked into Kal's eyes and it felt like the older man was reading straight into his soul. "You didn't seem to have a specific problem with this before, though, other than general frustration poorly disguised dislike of the system." He paused and nodded, as if confirming to himself his own idea. "But now something's different. You're in love, aren't ya?"
Kal started in surprise. He thought he'd hidden his feelings. Nobody else seemed to suspect, anyway. Or at least they hadn't let him know they suspected. "Why do you think that?" he asked carefully, trying to keep an escape route open as long as possible.
Fred laughed. "I've been around a while, Kal, and I've learned how to read people pretty well. Your attitude has changed toward this whole arranged marriage deal, and I picked up clues from little things you've said and done, not to mention the way you sneaked off palace grounds right after your father told you about the betrothal."
"You knew about that?" Kal was astounded.
"'Course I did." Fred leaned as if confiding a secret. "I may be old, boy, but I'm far from senile." He grinned. "Even if I choose to let men like Merkel think I am every now and then."
Kal had to grin at that. Merkel and Fred were far from bosom buddies. More like complete opposites. Enemies, even, if the idea of Fred having enemies weren't so ludicrous. Everybody liked Fred. Fred was…Fred.
"Okay, I admit it. You're right."
"Of course I'm right," Fred retorted. Obviously, to him the idea of being wrong was even more ludicrous than the idea of him having enemies.
Fred didn't have to say anymore to get Kal talking. It was a relief for Kal to finally spill his guts to someone. And he knew Fred wouldn't judge him. He might tell him he was out of his mind, he was on the wrong path and he needed to choose the other fork immediately, but he wouldn't judge.
"I like to go out in public, without the whole prince entourage, sometimes and see what the real people think about the way things are going, you know?" He begged Fred to understand. Fred just nodded.
"I figure that when they're in their own environment, they're a lot more likely to state their minds about, well, everything. And then, I can find out honest opinions and factor them in when I'm trying to make decisions about council matters."
"You do realize that you're also going to get some people venting and exaggerating their complaints because they're upset, don't you?" Fred interjected.
"Oh, yeah. And I've gotten pretty good at recognizing venting versus honest dissatisfaction. Anyway, I was at the river one day, dressed as a townsman, when I met her." His eyes got dreamy as he thought of that day, then reality clamped down on the vision and his expression fell. "She was beautiful and intelligent and wonderful and talkative and perfect."
Fred just nodded again and waited for Kal to continue. When he did, it was in a softer voice. "We kept meeting, off and on, whenever I could get a chance to meet her. And along the way, I guess we did fall in love. But she was a simple townswoman, and if I told her I was the prince, it would have ruined everything we had."
Fred gave him an 'I'm not so sure about your logic' look and Kal hastily corrected himself. "Okay, so it may not have ruined things. But it certainly wouldn't have made any positive difference — there's no way a prince would be allowed to marry a commoner.
"Anyway, after Father broke the news about the betrothal, I went to tell her good-bye, only to find out she's a noble, who's father just arranged *her* betrothal to a wealthier man in order to preserve their line. They've had money troubles and she's the only child." Kal laughed bitterly. "All that secrecy, only to find out that if I'd told her earlier, or vice versa, we could be celebrating our own betrothal today."
"Ah, I see," said Fred. "And, aside from the recent public announcement of your betrothal and the contract your parents made with your bride's parents, there was nothing you could have done?"
Kal ran his hand through his dark hair in frustration. "Don't you think I've thought about that? What if…the two most awful words ever written. Each idea I came up with was crazier than the last. And anyway," he sighed, "it doesn't matter now. It's too late to back out of my betrothal."
Fred clapped Kal on the back in support. "I'm not going to give you any platitudes, tell you that these things have a way of working out, or any such stuff as that. All I'm going to do is ask that you give your marriage a chance. It may not be the relationship of your dreams, but if you put nothing in, you will get nothing out."
"I know. And I have six months to convince myself of that before I actually have to face the test." He paused. "Thanks, Fred. I really appreciate your listening."
"Anytime, son, anytime. You be sure and come talk to me if you have any more problems, y'hear? And don't worry," he added as he turned to walk away, "I know to keep this confidential."
Kal smiled after the departing man. It did feel good to have some of his troubles off his chest. It didn't solve everything, but knowing that Fred was pulling for him encouraged him. He may not love his wife the way he loved Lysa, but he wasn't going to give up on this marriage before it even began.
He decided that maybe he could face a little more of the reception, after all.
Chapter Four: Forever
"I present to you the crown prince and his new wife!" the officiator of the wedding proudly announced to the crowd after finishing the vows. Fortunately for Kal, they omitted the traditional kiss. He felt it was too much for a first meeting. Especially a first meeting that had such consequences. Forever. They were now married and it was a union to last forever. What an ugly word.
He felt numb at the thought, and bent his head to look at his bride. That only reinforced the numbness. Everything about her was the antithesis of Lysa. Six months of meditation and preparation and still all he could think about was Lysa. And naturally, on their first meeting, he couldn't help but compare this stranger that was now his wife to his true love.
He loved Lysa's laugh, and this girl hadn't so much as smiled all day. Then again, she was being forced to marry one whom she didn't love, as well, so he could understand her solemnity.
He loved Lysa's long, thick, naturally soft and shiny dark hair; his wife succumbed to modern noble style and wore her hair in short, multi-colored spikes interspersed with jewels and strands of precious metals. It was so ostentatious that it repulsed him. He swallowed the feeling and tried not to let his distaste show.
Whereas his Lysa…no, not his. Lysa would never, could never be his. He needed to get that through his thick head and get on with his life. Six months felt like forever without her, but more time still awaited him. A real forever. With…his wife. The woman standing next to him, no expression on her face. Well, at least none that he could see through all that goop. The formal make-up on her face left few, if any, of her natural features visible. She looked like a perfectly painted doll. He knew that it was custom, especially with nobles, but he couldn't help but long for the clean, natural, beautiful face of his beloved.
Then again, he really should try to give her the benefit of the doubt. It wasn't as if he looked as he wanted today, either. His hair, left to grow out during the betrothal period, reached his mid back and was tied in an elaborate queue. His face, which he preferred clean shaven, was covered by a heavy beard. His clothing, just as hers, was elaborate and overly decorated. What was it about formal ceremonies that required absence of everything normal and familiar?
He smiled at the tiny woman by his side and tried to ease her discomfort. He may be miserable, but he wasn't going to let that ruin what ought to be her special day. He offered his arm and she gently laid her own on top. They began the procession out of the chapel toward the ballroom and the reception. He looked at her and was surprised by the hugeness of her deep eyes…and the glimmer of tears that covered them. Suddenly he was swept with a wave of compassion for her and he renewed his resolve to make this as easy for her as possible.
When they arrived in the ballroom, however, they were separated from each other almost instantly. Well-wishers, friends, relatives, everybody wanted to speak to one or both members of the new couple. As he forced himself to be polite and even cheerful, Kal was struck by the similarity to his betrothal reception. Only this time…this time there was no backing out, no hope, no comfort available.
A string quartet played quietly in the background, but now the music perked up and the dance floor cleared. As the guests of honor, he and his new wife were obligated to dance the first dance together. Alone.
He sought her out and, upon reaching her, offered his hand with a bow.
"May I have this dance?"
She smiled up at him. "Of course." She placed her hand in his and he led her out to the floor. One hand on the small of her back, the other holding hers. Her free hand rested softly on his shoulder. Suddenly he was grateful for all those years of dance lessons his parents had forced him to endure. Many a time before, when he was stuck with some fawning nitwit, who only wished to tell her friends later that *she* had danced with the *prince,* he had wished he was a clumsy oaf who could step on her toes without faking. Instead, he had always performed beautifully and then extricated himself from the latest sycophant's grasp at the earliest opportunity.
This time, however, he found he wanted to please his partner. He wanted to give her a dance worth remembering and, oddly enough, found hurting her was something he wanted to prevent. He didn't even know her, for crying out loud! She may have been his wife, but she was still a stranger. Where had these feelings come from?
"How are you doing?" he whispered.
She looked up at him, startled. His heart sunk. Had he really been so cruel and indifferent? "I'm fine. Well, as fine as one can be after marrying a complete stranger who just happens to be the prince," she corrected herself with a little laugh.
Now he really was going crazy. He could have sworn that sounded like Lysa's laugh. His mind must be playing tricks on him to try and fulfil his desire for Lysa. He grinned to cover his confusion. "Well, after this dance, we can escape as soon as you'd like. No one will fault us."
"I'd like that, I think." Then she hesitated.
"Nothing important," she said while her expression remained troubled.
He tightened his grip on the satin of her gown and pulled her a little closer. "Listen, I'd like to talk to you, but I'd rather not do it in here. How about we leave after this dance and I'll take on a quick tour?"
At the mention of a tour, she relaxed a smidgen. "Okay."
"And then you can tell me whatever's bothering you."
"It's nothing, really. I'm sorry I even…" She trailed off, unsure of what she was sorry for.
"Don't apologize." Before he could say anymore, the music finished and they turned to bow to a smattering of applause. The first dance between the couple of honour finished, other couples began joining them on the dance floor. Since the attention was off them for the moment, Kal leaned down to whisper in his bride's ear.
"What do you say we make a run for it?"
She grinned and picked up the front of her skirt for easier movement. "I'm game if you are."
After weaving their way through a multitude of dancers, they made their way into a silent hallway.
"First things first," he said and held his hand out to her in greeting. "I'm Kal, nice to meet you."
She laughed and clasped his hand with a firm grip. "Alysarinda. Likewise."
He led her down the hall and towards his wing of the castle. "I know you have to be tired after all the stress of today, so I won't give you the full tour. We just left the ballroom, which is in the North wing. Our quarters are in the East wing. In fact, we have most of the East wing to ourselves."
A slight look of fear crossed her face and he almost questioned her, but decided to wait until they reached a more private place.
Instead he continued his tour guide spiel. "This is one of the main corridors, there are two which meet at a cross in the center of the castle. Most other corridors branch off this one." He turned down another hall as wide as the first. "That was the cross, and this corridor runs East- West. The other one goes North-South. If you ever get lost, just try to find the big corridors and you'll be able to get anywhere in the palace from there."
She nodded without saying a word. He knew he was dumping a lot of information on her and she probably wouldn't remember much of it, but it was easier than silence. And she would have time to get this all straightened out.
He turned down a smaller hallway and then opened a door into a simply furnished sitting room. He paused in the doorway. "Do you still want to talk or would you rather I show you to your room?"
"I have my own room?" She couldn't hide the relief in her voice. So that was what was bothering her.
"I'm not going to force you into anything, Alysarinda." His voice was gentle. "Eventually, we will need to produce an heir, but really, we've just met each other. We might want to at least get to know each other first, don't you think?"
"Sure. Fine with me." She tried to appear unconcerned, but he hoped her mind would rest easy that night.
"Okay. And, Ly—Alysarinda, we may neither of us have entered this marriage by choice, but I would like to do everything I can to make a go of it. We can take our time, but essentially, I would like to court you." She didn't have to know what it cost him to say that. He would much rather be courting Lysa, but he was already married to Alysarinda, and he was determined to make this marriage work.
"I think I would like that," she replied. "But if you don't mind, I'd really like to get out of this getup and get some sleep." He was beginning to like her more already.
"Sure, no problem. I'll show you your room." He led her down the hall and opened a door into room decorated in every shade of blue. "I wasn't sure what you'd like, so I left it as it was. Feel free to redecorate if you want."
"Oh, no," she breathed. "It's perfect." She eyed the plush double bed and he could tell she was just waiting for him to leave so she could get ready and get in.
"I'll see you tomorrow. I know it's the day after the wedding and everything, but I have some meetings in the morning. So feel free to wander and if you have any questions, just ask one of the servants.
"Okay, I will." But she wasn't really paying attention to him. She'd opened the closet door to find her clothes already installed, and the same with the dresser. Kal backed out and shut the door, leaving her alone.
"Good night," he whispered.
Kal sighed, scolded himself for being a coward, and knocked. The day after his wedding he was supposed to be in marital bliss, falling in love with the woman who was now his wife. But all he wanted to do was run the other direction. So far that morning he'd gone for a long run on the grounds, visited his horse in the stables, giving the mare a complete grooming, looked over and signed a few papers — which weren't urgent, as the council knew he was technically on his honeymoon, even if he and Alysarinda hadn't actually left the premises — and reached 562 on his paddle-ball without missing.
Finally, he quit procrastinating and headed over to his bride's chambers. Where he was now standing, like a fool, waiting for an answer to his knock. He supposed she felt as awkward as he, but that was no excuse for ignoring him! After a few more unanswered knocks, he tentatively opened the door and poked his head inside.
"Alysarinda? Are you there?"
No answer. He opened the door the rest of the way and entered the room. A cursory inspection revealed the fact that she, in fact, wasn't there.
Now what was he supposed to do? He couldn't exactly go wander the castle looking for her. He would look like a total fool! On the other hand, if she were lost, or looking for him, it would be cruel to just leave her.
Well, he supposed he could wander around and casually look for her. If anyone asked, he'd just tell them…well, he didn't know what he'd tell them, but he'd think of something if need be.
But first, he decided, he'd go to the kitchen. He'd been avoiding people all morning — let them think he was sleeping late with his wife — and was getting hungry. And who knew, there was always that off chance that Alysarinda would have the same idea.
He meandered through the halls, in no hurry now that he'd come to a decision. He hated the decision making process, but once the decision was actually made, he was happy.
Opening the door into the East-wing kitchen, he saw a dark head sitting at the table in the middle of the room. Marla, the cook for this wing ever since he was a baby, was at the stove, mixing something that smelled delicious. Her niece, Kari, sat at the table facing Kal, talking animatedly with the dark head.
"Something smells great, Marla," Kal said as he moved toward the table. The dark head looked up in surprise — obviously she hadn't realized he'd entered — and Kal's heart stopped.
"Lysa?" he mouthed, but no sound came out. Her hair was hacked off, but he'd know that face anywhere. Those perfect lips, those dark brown eyes, that furrow in her brow as she frowned in confusion.
What was she doing here? He thought she was getting married! She said…she said she was getting married, by force, to a noble. A union that would increase her family's social and monetary status. Well, marrying the prince would certainly increase one's prestige.
But that meant…he'd married Lysa! His one true love!
"Lysa." This time sound came out, but all he got in return was a bewildered and partially fearful look. Why was she looking at him so strangely? Had it really been that long? Didn't she know him? Then he remembered — he hadn't shaved his beard or trimmed his hair yet. He was desperate to be rid of them, but didn't want to make the decision without even requesting his wife's input. If they disagreed, it could mean their first fight, but on the other hand, if she had no problem with it, asking her might make her feel like she had a say in this partnership. Which she did.
But all that was moot now. This was Lysa!
"Lysa, it's me." He crossed the room and knelt beside her. "Kael."
She hesitantly reached a hand out and touched his cheek, traced down to where it became rough with beard. "Kael? But…how? Why? Is it really you?" She looked into his eyes and he begged her to recognize, to know.
She smiled and threw her arms around him. "Oh, Kael, it is! It's really you! Oh, you have no idea how I've missed you. How I've loved you and longed for you these past months."
He cut her off with a kiss. *You'd be surprised,* he thought. But he didn't say the words out loud. Right now he was busy. Busy enjoying the feel of his wife's kisses, the feel of kissing her. Basking in the knowledge that this was Lysa, that she was now his, forever. And he was hers. Forever.
"I love you, Lysa."
"Oh, Kael. I love you, too."
Suddenly remembering their surroundings, he looked up in embarrassment. He needn't have worried. Marla, he noticed with a smile, ever the epitome of tact, had discreetly left the kitchen, taking her niece with her.
"What do you say we take this reunion back to our chambers?"
"Oh, they're *our* chambers now?" she asked pertly.
"Whatever." He kissed her again and led her to the doors. They could argue semantics and sleeping arrangements later.
He looked down at his bride and gently ran his hand over her short hair. They were in his chambers, sprawled on his spacious bed, upon which they had just made love. Again, and again. For now, he was content. Content to lie there and just be. Because now, being meant that she was 'being' right next to him.
"Why'd you cut it?"
"Huh? Oh, that." She hesitated. "It'll sound stupid."
"That's okay. Nothing could be stupider than us marrying each other yesterday and neither of us recognizing the other," he said with a grin.
"Okay. Marriage represents a new step, and I didn't want anything to be a connection, so to speak, to the past. You loved my hair, and always looked like you wanted to touch it—"
"I did," he interjected.
"So, I guess, since you weren't going to be my husband, I didn't want to give my husband that privilege. I wanted to reserve that for you, even though there was no hope for us. And since modern fashion seems to lean towards short spikes with jewels and glittery metals, I decided to go with it. It was different."
He nodded. He could accept that. And it gave him a little thrill of pleasure to know that she wanted to save her hair for him. "My sweet Lysa. Do you know what a gift you just gave me?"
"No," she said impishly, "But I'll certainly take credit for it. And claim that it was extremely expensive."
They lay in silence for a few moments and then she said, "My turn for a question."
"Why didn't you shave off that infernal beard yet? It scratches!"
He laughed out loud. "Now it's my turn to sound stupid."
"Turnabout's fair play."
"All right, I wanted you to be in on the decision."
"What?" She was obviously confused.
"Well, after I accepted the fact that I was marrying Alysarinda Kelil, I made the decision that this would be an equal partnership, and I would not compare her to my true love, Lysa. As such, I didn't want my first decision after the wedding to be without her knowledge. It may be a simple thing, but I thought it would set the stage for the future. I hoped it would open the doors of communication between us, and maybe even be the first step to love."
"Kael. I love you, and you are not stupid." She reached up and kissed him again. "But, now, go shave off that beard!"
Laughing, he headed to the bathroom, leaving her behind, lounging on the bed.
"Does this mean you're moving in?" he asked.
"You think you could keep me out?" she answered. "I'm planning on staying here forever."
Forever. What a beautiful word.
Author's Note: This story is in part based on the Disney movie *Aladdin* and the Lori Wick book *The Princess.* No infringement intended. Same goes for the L&C:TNAOS characters, which belong to Warner Bros and DC Comics.
Thanks to my betas, ChristyL and ShivaSaavik, and to all the folcs on the listserv and Zoom's message boards for their comments.
Comments and constructive criticism welcome at email@example.com