Lance wore a bitter scowl as he walked down the halls of the Thunder Palace to the queen’s boudoir. Every tense footstep, punctuated by the clanking armor of his “escort”, was a constant reminder to Lance that he was still a child.
He had told his father many times that he did not need a bodyguard, the most recently being the dawn of his return. After all, his brother did not need a bodyguard just to walk in the castle. Even the king was seldom attended, in spite of his status. And yet, what had his father said in response?
“You are the treasured second prince of Saekoria, Lancelus. It is necessary to ensure your protection should anyone try to lay a hand on you.”
The words had come from his father’s lips, but Lance knew they belonged to his mother. She always treated him the same, like a child who needed to be protected, like he wasn’t a talented mage of his own, capable of protecting himself.
What made him even more furious was the fact that he couldn’t argue against it. After all, in his mother’s eyes he was weak; a failure. He couldn’t use the Lightning of the King. He had practiced and practiced for years. The legendary Bloodline Magic of the Eldaria family, the ability to summon lightning from his fingertips… it should have come to him when he was a boy, but now, as a man, he was still unable to call even the slightest spark.
No wonder he still had to be escorted around with a knight at his side like a child.
Lance stopped outside of his mother’s room. He barely saw the guards, it was like that tall oak door took up all of his attention. His heart ached in his chest, pounding nervously as he stared at her door. It had been several days since his return home, when he had been informed that his mother wished to see him, and it was only now that she was summoning him to follow up on her instructions.
That was his mother’s way. She had informed him she wished to speak, and then promptly ignored him for days, letting him stew in the pressure of expecting the worst. He had seen it a lot. She was busy, after all, and as her son he would wait for HER to be ready to see him.
Rienne Eldaria was simply that sort of woman.
And now that the nerves were starting to get to him and he was choking just standing outside her door, she was finally ready to see him.
Lance took a deep breath, and raised his hand, knocking on the door.
Lance reached for the door.
“I will wait here, my prince.” For the first time since he’d been saddled with his escort, Lance turned to the knight who had been accompanying him, trying hard not to glare. He didn’t want a babysitter, but he couldn’t object, either. He could see the knight’s face beneath his helmet, the familiar blonde hair and blue eyes of the Jallbring family, with features similar to Est. Probably one his older brothers. He had a sympathetic look in his eye, like he felt bad for Lance. Or maybe it was pity.
Either way, he didn’t deserve further consideration from the prince. It wasn’t like he was doing anything to aide him.
Lance turned from the knight and opened the door, leaving all thoughts but those of his mother at the door.
Queen Rienne was not the kind of woman to lounge back in bed or on a loveseat on her off hours, not even in her quarters. No, of course the queen was standing in front of her body mirror, appraising her looks.
Lance's mother was known as the loveliest woman in the nation, perhaps all of the sky, but Lance only saw coldness and ugliness when he looked at her. She turned to him, and without saying a word she raised her hand and beckoned him closer.
“Hello, mother,” Lance said, placing his hand over his chest and lowering his head. “You summoned me?”
“Indeed,” Rienne said, adjusting one of the braids in her dark hair, and turning to Lance. Her dark eyes were like black ice, piercing right through him.
Lance felt a tremor rise through his body, unable to meet her gaze. She always looked at him like this, so cold and harsh, like she didn’t approve of anything.
Like she was looking at someone who had disappointed her in every way. And with how serious her eyes were, whenever he looked at them he believed it. He felt that he was a disappointment in that moment, like he was back to being that little boy again, unable to summon a spark.
That moment, when the light of a mother’s love in her eye had first dimmed, was ingrained in his memory forever. Even all these years later she still seemed so disappointed with him, even as hard as he was working to live up to the standards a prince should always aspire to, the standards his brother Erik had always defined for him.
The air around him said that it wasn’t nearly enough. The queen wasn’t talking, and that made it all so much worse, like she didn’t have words to spare for someone like him.
“I wanted to talk about your grades,” the queen said, her eyes turning away from him like he didn’t deserve to be in her sight. Lance could breathe easier without the pressure of her gaze, but his heart stung even harder.
But he stood a little taller, confidence and pride rising in his chest. His grades were exemplary, he was one of the best students in his class. He could hold his head up high with them.
“I noticed your scores on practical magic were lower,” the queen’s cold voice froze any hope of praise Lance had been feeling. He winced, and stared at his feet. He had tried his hardest, he really had. And his grades weren’t perfect, but they were still well within acceptable measures. The problem had been that he was too focused on trying to bring out his Bloodline Magic that he hadn’t used the magic he was good at.
But he couldn’t use that as an excuse, it would invite nothing but more disappointment from his mother’s lips. And now that she was staring at him again, her eyes compelling him to speak, it seemed even more impossible to say something like that.
But she wanted him to say something.
“I… my grades in the other classes were exceptional,” Lance said, pathetically trying to change the topic out of desperation. Like it mattered that his scores on his other finals were perfect, he had already shown how much of a mistake he had made.
“We’re talking about your grade in Intro to Combat Magic, don’t change the subject,” Rienne said, her voice not angry enough to be a snap. She sounded more tired and bored than anything, like she just didn’t care what his excuse was.
Six scores approaching the top of his class, but that didn’t matter. That was expected. The problem was that he had messed up on the seventh due to his pride and arrogance.
Of course, his mother hadn’t said anything to that effect. But she didn’t need to, either, the disappointment was plain, on every look she gave, every cold word that passed her lips, every disapproving twitch of her eyebrow.
Lance could have passed a hundred more classes with exceptional grades, and she would still only care about this one failure.
“I suppose that you tried your best,” Rienne finally said.
Yes! Lance wanted to scream. Yes, I tried my best! But he held his tongue. The queen didn’t speak those words with the comforting tone of a mother, but with the restrained sigh of exasperation of someone who blamed herself, for having an expectation in the first place.
It was a tone he knew well.
“Let’s not dwell on it further,” Rienne decided, turning fully to Lance. She wore a smile, and it was loving. A brief glimpse of warmth from the queen of ice. In a second, Lance felt like his tension was gone, and all that stress had faded into smoke. She was being nicer now, like a mother should be, and even though he knew that she wasn’t any less disappointed in him he was happy to receive the affection regardless.
Rienne walked up to Lance and placed her hand on his shoulder. “I’m sure you will improve next term,” she said. “Now that all that business with that pesky little gutter girl is behind you.”
Bile built up in Lance’s throat as he saw the flash of hatred in his mother’s eyes. She didn’t need to say a name, they both knew who she was talking about.
“I can only imagine that with a pest like buzzing around, interfering with your studies, you certainly had your hands full,” Rienne continued. The face that was touted as the most beautiful of Saekoria was twisted and ugly now, filled with spite. “The nerve of that girl, trying to drag you down with her, getting you mixed up in that unpleasant business with the safety board? I must say, you’re lucky I stepped in, that girl is a liar and a tramp just like that whore mother of hers, twisting men around in order to get what she wants.”
Lance stood paralyzed as his mother continued to spit venom from her lips, shaming and denigrating Elly as a shameless slut and abuser, talking about how his sweet little sister had no-doubt twisted up one of the teachers with her “wiles” in order to try and implicate him in… her own beating?
Lance held his tongue, however, not able to let any of his true thoughts out. She didn’t know anything. She didn’t know anything! How could she say all those horrible things about Elly?! Elly hadn’t “pretended” to be beaten! That monster Derek Lyder had brutalized her! And she certainly hadn’t accused Lance of being the culprit, how in the sky had his mother thought that?!
But worst of all was how casually the queen spoke of Elly as a tramp; talking about how she had crept into bed with one of the professors to turn him against Lance, and that was the reason he had been roped into the whole thing.
The notion that Lance could have gotten involved on his own, or the truth of the matter, that he had come to Elly’s aide when she was being abused by someone else, never seemed to cross her mind.
Hell, Lance could have told her that Elly wasn’t the type of person to even hold hands with a boy her own age, let alone seduce one of her professors, and he doubted his mother would hear one word of it. She was far too lost in her hatred.
It hurt him, when she got like this. It was like the smiling face from moments before was a distant memory, like the days of his childhood when she would gently rock him on his knee with a smile on her face and sing him a song.
Those days hadn’t come in a long time.
Maybe if Lance was stronger, he would have stood up for Elly and told his mother that she was wrong. But he knew it would do no good. It would just give her another reason to be disappointed in him, and he could bear the thought of that. So he held his tongue and let her slander his sister until she had cleared all the bile and loathing she’d built up, even as he felt his heart break just a little more with each word she spat.
In the mirror just past her shoulder, Lance could swear he saw a specter of Elly, staring at him with a pained look in her eye, like she was disappointed that he wasn’t standing up for her. He could barely see her, like a paper waving in the fog, but he was certain she was there, and she was staring dejectedly at him, asking why he wasn’t standing up for her if he loved her as much as he kept saying he did. It was like his guilt was laid bare, reflected back in the mirror and judging him.
He didn’t want to see that pained look on her face, he wanted Ely to only be smiling. But he couldn’t do anything to mollify the spirit’s judgmental eyes. No matter what he said, he was disappointing someone. All he wanted to do was make Elly feel safer, and make his mother happy. Why was he forced to withstand something like this? It just wasn’t fair.
What do you want from me?! He silently demanded of the empty eyed vision of his sister. What am I supposed to do?!
But the vision was just that, a vision, and it had no response for him. All he could do was stand in her presence and bathe in the disappointment he felt from her, while his mother continued her tirade against Elly and her mother.
And finally, it was blissfully over. Rienne calmed down and returned to discussing the coming new year or the Unification Festival or something along those lines, but Lance wasn’t listening to a word she said. His attention was still held by his vision of Elly, though only for a few moments more. She shook her head, turned, and disappeared completely, leaving Lance with his mother.
“…As I was saying, Lancelus,” the queen’s voice piercing through the fog of unease that had captured Lance’s attention, “you’ll have to try extra hard. The Unification Festival is only a few nights away, and then comes the new year. And I don’t think I have to tell you what’s expected in the coming new year, do I?”
She was asking him a question, but the coldness of her eyes said there was no question at all, but a demand for a single answer that Lance would provide.
“Yes, mother,” he said, nodding. “I’ll approach Blake about it, just as you want.”
His mother smiled. “It’s not me who wants it, my dear boy, you want it too, don’t you? And your father. This is what we’ve always wanted,” she crooned, reaching out and stroking his cheek. With all she’d said since he arrived, it was a wonder Lance hadn’t recoiled in shock from her fingers. But of course he couldn’t, she was his mother. He was so desperate for the tender warmth of her touch it didn’t matter what she said.
As she stroked his cheek and looked lovingly into his eyes, Lance so desperately wished she was always this kind. But he knew that it was necessary for him to prove himself. He may have failed in his grades, but he had managed to bring Blake to the Thunder Palace, and that was more than enough.
“It’s perfect,” his mother continued. “Harker will marry that Emberly girl or whoever, and his loyalty to the crown will be secured. When he grows up, he’ll be a fine lord, and those dragons of his will be excellent weapons in our arsenal. And we couldn’t have done it without your help, my dear boy.”
Lance felt his stomach turn. But this was what he had expected. News of Blake’s engagement to Ramona Emberly had spread through the palace like dragon’s fire, and Lance had always suspected it would come to that. Engagements for power and convenience were a common thing among the nobility, so common it was more of a tradition than a curiosity. When he had extended his father’s invitation to Blake, in the back of his mind he knew that an engagement was a likely outcome.
“Remember, you have to stay by his side,” his mother urged him. “It will be difficult for him to adjust to life as an archduke, so he’ll probably need your help to guide him. Those dragons are too important to us, we can’t have him fall into temptation.”
Lance had wanted to approach Blake out of respect and friendship. Not to use him to secure Blake’s political allegiance. But he couldn’t argue with his mother right now, not when she was like this. The bitterness in her eyes, it could only be…
“It disgusts me that he traveled with that… wretch of a girl,” the queen spat, shaking her head. “You have to make sure she can’t get her claws into him, Lancelus. Elves like her are all the same, no good for anything but tricking their way into the beds of powerful men to drive them to ruin, all for their own benefit. You keep that girl away from the Harker, do you understand? He seems a… respectable sort, but even the noblest of men can be caught by an elf’s tempting wiles.”
Lance had nothing further to say about it. He could already imagine the cold stare of Elly on him again, pleading with him to stand up for her. But he couldn’t. He just couldn’t. He understood his mother’s pain too well, he could see it in her eyes.
For this reason, more than any, Lance despised his father. Certainly, he loved the king and looked up to him, he wanted to be just like King Richorr. But part of him hated the king as well, not as a king but as a father. The king had hurt his mother so badly, before Lance had even been born. He couldn’t find it within himself to forgive him, it just could happen.
Rienne carried that feeling of betrayal every day. And seeing Rynae walk the halls of the Thunder Palace like nothing was wrong probably didn’t make it better. It was that understanding, mixed with his love, that kept him from decrying her horrid words, and made him hate himself even more.
Of course Elly was disappointed in him, of course his own mother was. He couldn’t even stand up for his sister he was so pathetic.
“I suppose that Harker will be taking that fiancé of his to the Unification Festival,” Rienne mused, no longer giving Lance any consideration at all. “While it would certainly do well to strengthen their bond, there is time for that later. I want you to invite him to spend the evening with you and your friends. Keep him surrounded, engaged with others, don’t give that knife-eared strumpet a chance to sneak off alone with him, it’s clear that she’s waiting for the opportunity.”
As heavy as the weight upon him felt, it was a surprise that Lance could raise his head to nod. But he did, and agreed to his mother’s wishes. In two nights’ time, he would be celebrating Unification Day with Blake, which he had planned to do anyway; but now, it felt like he was doing something wrong.
Lance cleared those thoughts away with a shake of his head and exited his mother’s chambers with a weary and battered heart. Amidst the swirl of guilt and disappointment with himself, one more nagging though burst free, and he tasted bitterness once more.
His mother had readily dismissed him, and with all they’d spoken of, he’d seen not even the faintest trace of relief that he was still okay, that he hadn’t fallen in Estval.
But if he pushed on those thoughts any further he would cry, and that was unbecoming of a prince. He couldn’t bear the thought of disappointing his mother again today.