This chapter contains adult themes that might be disturbing to some readers. Please contact me if you’d like a recap of the chapter with no mention of the mature themes below. Thanks!
It was imposing. Perhaps not so much as Knight Palace, but Lyric knew the people within were just as important as Stellan. She wiped her sweaty palms on her black skirt and tugged at her hair as she squinted into the sun. The afternoon was hotter than usual despite the shade such a mansion provided. Stellan stood beside Lyric, smiling softly. He was truly home – the place he spent his childhood, where he took his first steps and spoke his first words. Knight Palace had been built as a coronation gift to him, and it hadn’t acquired the same sense of home that this place did.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” Lyric deadpanned.
“Now you know how I feel,” Stellan replied. “It’ll be fine. It’s just my grandpa.”
“Only one person lives in this house?”
“Well,” Stellan trailed off. “technically, I guess.”
Before Lyric could ask him to elaborate, the front door flung open.
“Are you just going to stand there, or are you going to come in?”
Stellan laughed as he grabbed Lyric’s hand and bounded up the steps. The cool air refreshed Lyric, and she took a calming breath before examining the man in front of her. He was old, of course, but had a mischievous twinkle in his eye.
“Gramps!” Stellan cheered, throwing his arms around the man.
“My boy, I’m so glad you’re home.”
“I’m glad, too.”
Lyric was touched by the affection. Stellan wasn’t afraid to express himself for fear of appearing less than masculine, and she admired him for it. He clearly loved unconditionally, and wouldn’t apologize for it.
“Where are my manners?” The man said, turning to Lyric. “I’m Eugene, and you must be London!”
Stellan slapped a hand over his eyes as Lyric smiled timidly.
“I’m just kidding, goodness! It’s nice to meet you, Lyric. I’ve heard so much about you.”
Lyric extended an arm, assuming she would get a professional handshake, but was shocked when Eugene pulled her in for a tight hug instead. Afterwards, Eugene wrapped an arm around her shoulders and led the couple to the comfortable couches around the corner.
“Come on, cough it up.” Eugene said, punching Stellan playfully. “What’s the secret to staying with a guy as terrible as Stellan?”
Lyric laughed. “Well, it’s certainly a constant struggle. He’s awful, I’m sure you know.”
Eugene nodded. “I do. When he was younger, he used to run around butt naked at the parties his parents would host.”
“Gramps!” Stellan laughed.
“Sorry! Would you rather I tell the story about you breaking the chandelier because you tried to swing on it like Tarzan?”
“He sang me a song once,” Lyric chimed in. “It was the worst thing I’ve ever heard.”
Stellan huffed and crossed his arms as he sunk into the couch. “You’re all ganging up on me.”
Lyric patted his thigh before turning back to Eugene. “He’s certainly something special.”
Eugene softened at Lyric’s praise. “I always knew he was a great man, but he can’t run the kingdom alone.”
“Nice topic change, pops,” Stellan muttered.
“I’m serious!” Eugene exclaimed. “When you marry Stellan, you gain a new job title as well as husband.”
Lyric nodded solemnly. “I understand that. I really do. But I’ll be honest – I never thought I’d be in this position. I figured I’d just work at my parents’ opera house.”
“Well, there is something both jobs have in common.”
“Oh yeah? What’s that?” Stellan asked, now intrigued. He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees.
“Both jobs involve acting.”
The room went silent for a minute. Lyric let the true weight of such a lifestyle settle on her. It was heavier than any dress she’d perform in at the opera, more stifling than any corset. It was a lifetime commitment, one with no contract, one with no intermission.
Could she do it?
“Way to kill the mood.” Stellan said, laughing lightly. Lyric joined in, grateful for the distraction. If there was one thing she could be certain of, it was that Stellan would make a perfect costar.
Eugene flung his hands up in the air. “Just sayin’! Now, shall we have lunch?”
After the uneventful luncheon, Eugene and Lyric sat on the outdoor patio, soaking up the sun.
“I apologize if I scared you back there,” Eugene said. “I just wanted to make sure you were serious about all of this.”
“I get it,” Lyric assured him. “It can’t be easy watching your grandson go through all of this.”
“I think it’s even harder than going through it myself.”
Lyric’s eyes widened. “You had a competition too?”
Eugene threw his head back and laughed. “I was a good-looking guy back in my youth! Who do you think Stellan gets his looks from?” He said, flicking a lock of grey hair.
Lyric snickered. “I didn’t mean it like that! I just didn’t think it would be a tradition.”
“It shouldn’t be,” Eugene said solemnly. “Because it doesn’t always work.”
“Sounds like you speak from experience.”
“That I do, my dear. I chose Stellan’s grandmother that way. Astrid Ayers was a wonderful woman, but couldn’t handle the pressure.”
Lyric sat silently, letting the memories cloud Eugene’s eyes.
“She passed.” He said softly.
“I’m sorry,” Lyric said, patting his hand.
“It was of her own volition.”
“Oh.” Lyric couldn’t think of anything else to say. “You must miss her.”
Eugene smiled sadly. “I do. And the guilt is tough to live with. Every day I wonder if she’d be alive had I not chosen her. Would she still be out fishing like she used to? Or entering chess competitions?”
“She chose you too, Eugene. That means she loved you once, more than protocol, more than life itself. Some people will go their entire lives without finding that.”
“Sounds like you’ve got a good head on your shoulders, Lyric. Thank you. We were hopelessly in love, but it just wasn’t enough. So now I want to make sure you know what you’re getting into, because I couldn’t live with myself if you met the same fate.”
“You two look thick as thieves out here.”
Lyric and Eugene looked up to find Stellan leaning in the doorway.
“Ah, perfect timing!” Eugene said. “We were just about to break out of the tissues.”
“Oh? Should I leave?”
“No, no.” Eugene insisted as he rose from his chair. “I was just telling Lyric about your grandmother.”
Stellan cast his eyes downward and toed the floor. “That couldn’t have been an easy conversation.”
“No, but it was a necessary one.”
Stellan nodded as his grandfather walked inside, patting the young man’s shoulder as he went.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Lyric said softly. “I wasn’t expecting anything like that to come up.”
“That makes two of us,” Stellan sighed, flopping down on the chair. “I think it helps him to get a neutral opinion on grandma’s death. As much as family can assure you about it, hearing the same words from a stranger helps.”
“I can’t pretend to know the circumstances, but your grandfather seems like a good man.”
Stellan had begun pacing, so Lyric joined him to walk around the grounds.
“He is. He just tends to take a lot of the blame on himself – it’s a trait you acquire when you govern a nation. Every single decision comes back to you. On top of that, my great-grandparents painted the entire situation like an accident in an attempt to cover up the story.”
“Wow,” Lyric breathed. “When did she pass?”
“When I was seven,” Stellan answered. “I only have a few memories of her. My great-grandparents also got rid of all of her pictures. They practically wiped her from existence.”
“What about her family?”
“She had none. She was adopted, but her parents died before she even entered the competition.”
“That’s the whole, sordid tale.”
Without saying anything else, Lyric got up and hugged Stellan tightly.
“If you were trying to scare me off, it’s going to take a lot more than that,” She whispered.
Stellan chuckled and held her closer. “I just want to make sure you won’t be overwhelmed by the responsibilities. I’d rather you be safe at home without me than miserable by my side.”
“That’s not going to happen,” Lyric assured him. “I’m in it for the long haul.”
That night, Lyric was ruminating about the day’s events. She hadn’t expected such a tragic tale, but nevertheless was glad she had heard it. She found herself tearing up for a woman she had never met. There was a kindred spirit between the two – if Lyric married Stellan, she would have the same responsibilities as his grandmother once did. She vowed to herself that she would speak up about the struggles that came her way, and would work to circulate the true story…should Stellan approve, of course. Astrid’s story would bring awareness to the daily struggle of others, and hopefully make others feel that it’s more than okay to ask for help.
Even after Lyric tried to sleep, her mind was still buzzing. She gave up and tossed the covers to the side before sliding on some slippers. She padded down the hall, meandering in and out of different rooms. Studies, spare bedrooms, bathrooms – the mansion was filled with unnecessary splendor.
On the ground floor, Lyric pushed open a door, taking notice of the light shining underneath it. When she entered, she found Eugene sitting at a desk across from her.
“Oh! Sorry to disturb you. I’ll go-”
“No, no. Come in,” Eugene said, gesturing her forward. “Have a seat. Want to have a hand at the bubble blower?”
Lyric examined the purple monstrosity in front of her and shook her head. “I’m good, thanks.”
“Suit yourself,” Eugene mumbled, dropping into one of the purple chairs. He loaded a new flavor and turned the machine on.
“I didn’t mean to intrude,” Lyric apologized again. “I couldn’t sleep.”
“It’s always a struggle when you’re in a new place,” Eugene acquiesced.
The two went quiet as Lyric examined the wall behind her. A large array of pictures hung, all of different sizes and colours. Paintings of a beautiful man and woman hung in the center of it all. It was as if they were the sun and the other pictures were the planets, orbiting in harmony but focused on one point.
“My Benjamin was a lucky boy,” Eugene said wistfully. “A beautiful wife, beautiful kids.”
“Those are Stellan’s parents?” Lyric asked, examining the couple. “Was she picked through a competition, too?”
Eugene nodded. “She was. Elyssa was every bit a Queen as the ones that came before her. Strong, composed, loyal. She always wore that gold necklace.” He pointed to the circular ring that hung on a chain around Elyssa’s neck. “Always said she’d give it to her daughter.”
“Who’s the boy?” Lyric asked, pointing to the brown-haired child.
“Stellan has a brother?” Lyric asked incredulously. “He said he was an only child!”
“Well, he might as well be. Tucker is his older brother, but you’d never know it.”
“If he’s older, why is Stellan in line to become King?”
“Tucker was never fit to rule to country. When we told him this – not in so many words, of course – he lost it. Said he was never coming back. He took off into the woods and disappeared for years. Sometimes people in the village would claim to spot him and report it back, but we could never find him unless he wanted us to.”
Lyric snorted in disbelief. “This family is like a Greek tragedy.”
“Care to join in?” Eugene sniffed.
On the floor above, Stellan was at his desk, reading and responding to letters from other kingdoms. He had neglected some of his work in the past week or so, and was looking forward to finally catching up. Being in his own room was a big comfort – he had missed the large, L-shaped desk and cozy fireplace. It centered him, made him more confident.
Stellan’s neck popped as he whipped his head up.
“Tucker? What the plum are you doing here?”
“I moved back in to live with Pops.” Tucker swaggered around to sit on Stellan’s bed.
“Impossible. There’s no way he’d let you back here. Not after you lit those forest fires and dyed the river.”
Tucker waved a hand dismissively. “That’s all in the past now.”
“It’s not, and you know it. It took years to replenish that forest. Farmers lost their livelihoods! Now you’re going to waltz in here and pretend nothing happened?”
“Have a little faith,” Tucker said. “I’m a changed man.”
“If you’re a changed man, why are you wearing gramps’ bunny slippers?”
Tucker wiggled his toes. “They’re comfortable.”
“They are his absolute favourite, made by a cobbler a week’s ride away! And you’ve got dirt all over them. What are you doing out in the forest, huh? Does gramps know you’re sneaking off in the middle of the night in his slippers?”
“He doesn’t have to know everything.”
“Ah, I see you boys reunited.”
Eugene had slipped in the door and was watching the exchange with distaste.
“Grandpa, how could you let him back in here?”
“Everyone deserves a second chance, Stell.”
“I believe that,” Stellan assured him. “But Tucker’s had ten chances!”
“Stellan,” Eugene admonished. “He is your brother, and while he’s made some mistakes, maybe it’s time we move on from them.”
“This is ridiculous,” Stellan spat. “He abandoned this family a long time ago!”
“And now he’s back. I don’t want to hear another word about this. Until he proves us wrong-”
“Ahem,” Tucker interrupted.
“Excuse me. IF he proves us wrong, we can talk about it then. Until that day, I don’t want any complaints from you. Do I make myself clear?”
“Do I make myself clear?”
Stellan sighed. “Yes.”
“Good. Now come on, Tucker. It’s late.”
As the two left, Stellan could hear their muted conversation in the hall.
“I want those slippers back, Tuck.”
Stellan groaned and rubbed his hands over his face. He gave up on the letter he was writing, moving to flop down on his bed instead. He buried his face in the feather pillow and resisted the urge to scream. Tucker had been nothing but a menace all his life – or at least since mother and father passed away.
And now he was back.
The next morning, Lyric wrapped a robe around her form and wandered outdoors. The view from the gazebo was incredible – the water continued as far as the eye could see, and the shining sun caused the waves to shimmer.
Stellan had seen Lyric through the kitchen window, and prepared two cups of tea. He balanced them precariously as he made his way up the steps.
“Mind if I join you?” He asked, standing beside Lyric. He held up the two mugs in his hands. “I come bearing gifts.”
Lyric smiled gratefully as Stellan sat down and handed her a mug. She immediately noticed the large bags underneath Stellan’s eyes, and noted his slumped shoulders.
“You wouldn’t believe it if I told you,” He said, tipping his head back on the stone.
“Long story short, I have a brother-”
“Tucker.” Lyric chimed in.
Lyric shrugged. “I saw the portraits in the library.”
“Oh. Okay, anyways, he’s back home after disappearing for over a decade. Thinks he’s all reformed and whatnot. We had a huge fight last night over it – he’s up to something, and Gramps refuses to admit it.”
“How do you know he’s up to something?” Lyric asked.
“Because I know Tucker. He has an agenda for everything.”
“Maybe that was the old Tucker,” Lyric suggested. “You said it yourself – it’s been more than a decade. Why not give him a chance?”
“The lady’s right, Stell. Just give me a chance.”
Stellan jumped at his brother’s voice. “You know, a simple ‘good morning’ is a nice way to greet people.”
“Stellan,” Lyric whispered. “Be nice.” She turned to Tucker and extended a slim arm. “It’s nice to finally meet you, Tucker. Your grandfather and brother told me about you.”
“Nothing too incriminating, I hope.”
Lyric chuckled. “Not at all. Just that you’ve been gone for some time. You must be glad to be home.”
Tucker nodded. “I am, m’lady.”
Stellan clenched his jaw and refrained from snapping at him.
“I just came to say hello. Eugene wants everyone in the foyer for your sendoff.”
“I can’t believe it’s been two days already,” Lyric murmured to Stellan.
Stellan nodded. “Tucker, will you give us a minute? I want to say goodbye in private.”
“Suit yourself,” Tucker said before bounding down the steps.
Lyric turned back to Stellan as he grabbed her hand. “I know this weekend didn’t go exactly smoothly, but I’m glad you stuck around.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Lyric replied.
“I’m going to miss you.”
Lyric smiled as she kissed his nose. “You better.”
Behind them, Tucker watched with narrowed eyes. Lyric was infatuated with him, just as everyone else was. The soon-to-be king. Tucker’s hands clenched into fists as his short fingernails dug into his palms. His brother had stolen his title and his future.
But that’s all he would get.