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Authors: Diane Stanley

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BOOK: The Chosen Prince
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But Teo is still afraid. There's water all around him and it's too dark to see how deep it is. So he stays where he is, wet and shivering, gazing longingly at the beach ahead.

Now slowly the skiff begins to rise, as if the sand itself was lifting it. Teo gasps as water streams away on either side of the boat and forms a little pond far behind him. The boat is on dry land.

Come
, the air sings to him.
Come onto the island. You will be safe here.

Teo swings his legs over the gunwale and drops onto the sand. The water keeps its distance. Encouraged, he takes a deep, shuddering breath and runs as fast as he can till he reaches the soft, dry sand of the beach. Then he runs farther still, through the brittle, honey-gold grass that grows at the edge of the shore till he comes to hard-packed earth. Only then does he stop and turn around.

He sees the skiff perched on a wide shelf of sand. But it's settling now, slowly sinking back into the rising waters. For a brief time the waves seem to play with the little boat, pushing it toward the beach and drawing it out again; then they let go. Teo watches as the skiff floats gradually out to sea, growing smaller and smaller until it's lost in the fog and the darkness.

Only then does he turn away and head for the shelter of the forest. It's as if a door has closed in a corner of his mind. Behind it is his old life: his former home and all the people in it, and most especially his brother and the terrible thing he did.

Somehow Alexos knows all this and he fully understands: Teo will not remember him, not even the good things, not even the love they shared. But that's the bargain he made when he begged Athene to save his brother. And she has done it admirably. She has brought Teo across the River Styx with no need of a coin for the ferryman. And because he lived a pure and blameless life, brief though it was, he will be blessed in the Underworld.

In his dream, Alexos thanks the goddess.

Teo walks deeper into the forest. He senses that he is thirsty. And the moment the thought forms in his mind, he hears the rippling of water and looks down to see a clear stream running close beside him. It wasn't there before; he's sure he would have noticed it, for even under the canopy of trees on this foggy, foggy night, the air glows with the light of a thousand fireflies. But he doesn't ask himself why any of this is so. He just drops to his knees, makes a bowl with his hands, and draws the water, cold and sweet, up to his mouth.

When he can drink no more, he sits down on a nearby rock. It's the perfect height for a boy his size and is smooth and flat on top, almost as if it had been specially made for him to use as a stool. Only a formless sadness still lingers in the now-empty space where his memory used to be—a sadness and a new awareness that he is very hungry.

Overhead, he hears a rustling of leaves, as if the wind has risen. But the air is perfectly still; there's not a hint of a breeze. He looks up to see a fruit tree, its smooth, heart-shaped leaves gleaming in the glowing light, so shiny you'd think someone had polished them. And the branches of the tree don't merely droop, as heavy-laden branches do. They actually reach down, as if to ask:
Won't you have some? Take as many as you like
.

He's never seen fruit like this before. It's not a peach, an apple, or a pear; and it's nothing at all like a fig. But it looks delicious. Teo bites through the fruit's smooth, delicate skin and finds it moist but not runny, tender but not soft, sweet without being cloying, and just a little tart. It's altogether new and the best thing he's ever tasted.

I know this place
, Alexos is thinking now.
It's the enchanted country the goddess showed me on festival day.
It had seemed a paradise then. It seems so now.

Teo eats three of the fruits. Then he picks two
more. When he's finished the last one and is quite satisfied, he looks up at the tree and thanks it. The tree shivers its leaves as if in reply and stands up straight again.

Teo's muscles don't ache anymore and the desolation that filled his heart has been replaced by something like hope. Also, he is very, very tired.

As it happens, there is a mossy hollow at the foot of the tree and it's just Teo's size. He lies down in it and curls up small, as he did earlier in the boat. But this is not hard and wet; it's soft and warm. As he drifts off to sleep, a gentle breeze rises and covers him with a blanket of leaves. The air fills with sweet music. The wind is singing a lullaby.

Now two figures emerge from the fog and stand over Teo. Alexos recognizes them too: it's the man and the girl from his vision. The man kneels by the mossy bed and takes Teo into his arms.

“What sort of creature is it?” the girl whispers.

“Oh, for heaven's sake, Aria!” says the man. “It's a little boy.”

“A human child?”

“Yes.”

“But where did it come from?”

The man does not answer. “Let's go,” is all he says.

Teo sleeps as he is carried out of the forest, back
to the welcoming beach, then up a long, steep, winding path to the highest point on the island. Nor does he wake as he is laid on a down-filled pallet, then a blanket is draped over him and pulled up to his chin. But he feels the girl's tender kiss on his cheek. He can smell her breath: fresh, like clover.

“He's very sweet, Papa,” the girl says.

“They generally are,” the man replies.

13

THE HAND LIFTS FROM
his shoulder as softly as it fell. Then gradually, like a flower unfolding its petals from the bud, Alexos opens again into life. At the shock of it, he gulps in air and opens his eyes.

It's still dark in the room, but it must be morning now. Light bleeds in at the edges of the shutters where they meet the window frame. Across the room, Suliman wakes when he hears Alexos gasp.

Wordlessly he rises and goes to him. He pulls up a stool beside the bed and sits down.

“So,” he says. It's almost a whisper. “You have returned to us.”

“I didn't want to.” This is the truth. “I wanted to stay there forever.”

“Where?”

“In the Underworld.”

Suliman sits up straighter.
“You crossed the River?”

“I must have. It was a perfect paradise. I saw Teo. He'll be happy there. He has a kindly death-father and death-sister to love him and look after him.”

Suliman doesn't speak, just studies him through half-closed eyes. Alexos feels the depth of his scrutiny; it makes him feel exposed, vulnerable, transparent.

“Shall I open the shutters?” Suliman says.

Light comes into the room along with a gust of cold air. It's autumn now, Alexos remembers; soon will come the bitter winds, the sleet, and then the snow. Suliman arranges the covers to keep the prince warm, then sits again and waits. Ever the patient man.

“I heard,” Alexos says. They have things to say to each other. This is the best way he can think of to begin.

“What did you hear?”

“My father, what you talked about, everything.”

Suliman looks down at his hands, folded in his lap. “And what did you think of it, Alexos?”

“I'm not sure. It's complicated.”

“So it is. Would you like for me to prop you up? You look uncomfortable as you are.”

“Yes, please.”

Alexos feels his vertebrae shift as Suliman moves
him. He lets out a little moan, but Suliman takes no notice. He just goes on arranging the pillows and covers in a brisk, professional way. Alexos senses the disapproval in his manner and knows he'll have to do a whole lot better than “I'm not sure. It's complicated.”

“Will you take some water? Say yes, Alexos.”

Alexos nods and accepts the drink he is offered. And
that
, he realizes, is all the prologue there is going to be. Now it's time for the main event.

He closes his eyes and tries to think. “I heard what you said, what you guessed might have happened to Teo.”

“And?”

Alexos struggles with what to say next, because it really
is
complicated. Suliman's account of Teo's death had been remarkably close to what happened, almost to the end. And that version—an unfortunate accident—would be infinitely more comforting to the king and better for the kingdom than the ugly truth. Obviously it would also be better for Alexos, because if his crime is revealed, he will be ruined. What exactly will happen to him, he doesn't know—execution? banishment?—but there is no doubt it will be terrible.

On the other hand, he could lie. He could say to Suliman, “Yes, that's exactly how it was,” and he would be magically washed free of blame so far as the world
was concerned. He could go on as before, his reputation unsullied. He could even be king.

Alexos shoots Suliman a pleading look but Suliman just gazes back, still as stone.
You have to do this yourself
, he's saying.
I can wait forever if I must.

“You know, don't you?” Alexos says.

“I think so.”

“Then you must despise me.”

Suliman pulls in a deep breath. He makes Alexos wait.

“No,” he finally says. “I don't despise you. But I don't understand it either. It goes completely against your character to do willful harm—and
to your brother
, Alexos! How is that possible, when you loved him so much?”


I don't know!
That's the truth. It just happened somehow. My hand was on the bow; I meant to get into the boat. That was truly my intention. But then . . .” His voice breaks and he can't finish. Still, he's satisfied that he's done what was required. He's confessed his crime when he might have evaded it. Every word he said was true.

Tears are streaming down his cheeks now. He takes shuddering breaths, wipes his eyes and nose, tries to get control of himself. “I don't understand it, Suliman. I really don't.”

Once again there is silence. Then, with admirable calm, “I think I have some idea, Alexos. May I tell you?”

“Please!”

“For all of us, there are moments when we ‘forget ourselves.' In moments of overwhelming emotion we sometimes lose connection with our higher nature, our ability to reason and act according to our values and beliefs. We are reduced to our animal natures; and in that state we do irrational things. We kick a door and break a toe. We throw a precious cup against a wall. We say cruel words we do not really mean. This is a well-understood phenomenon, Alexos. Even our laws acknowledge it, punishing ‘crimes of passion' more leniently than those committed ‘in cold blood.'

“In this case, of course, the harm you did was much worse than a broken toe or a shattered cup. So let's consider what led up to it.”

“Nothing,” Alexos says. “Nothing at all. Teo was his usual, wonderful, sweet self and I—”

“Please listen, Alexos. Let me finish. I have spoken in the past about the weight of responsibility you've carried since your earliest years. You were never allowed to be a natural child—or really a child at all. You handled it with remarkable courage, as I have also told you before.

“But these last few months you've been tested almost beyond endurance. Think, Alexos: the pressure and humiliation of the festival race, the disapproval of your father, the grave illness that might have killed you, and the resulting paralysis that has robbed you for life of the normal use of your legs. Then on top of all that, your father takes away your life's purpose and makes Teo his heir instead. He was in the Queen's Garden at the same time as you—am I right? And you overheard him?”

“How did you know?”

“The king gasped when I told him you had planned to walk there.”

“He said it might have been better if I had died.”

“That was very cruel.”

Alexos shrugs. “Maybe not. If I had, then Teo would be alive.”

Suliman gives him that deep look again. He is turning it over in his mind.

“It was hurtful to hear all the same. And you were already strung as tight as a bow just before the arrow is loosed. When a bow is drawn as far as it will go, then pulled a little bit more, it can snap—from the pressure, you understand.”

“Are you saying I'm not responsible for what happened? Because I ‘forgot myself'?”

“No. We are all responsible for the things we do.” He lets this hang in the air for a while. He strokes his beard and gazes out the window.

“Suliman?” Alexos says. “Last night, after Father left and you gave me the sleeping drops, then went to sit in your chair—did you rise again and come over to me and lay your hand on my shoulder?”

The physician blinks, clearly astonished. “No,” he says slowly, looking directly into the prince's eyes. “I slept without moving till I heard you wake.”

“Then who—?”

After a long pause: “Who do you think?”

Alexos draws in breath to speak, then lets it out again without a word.

“The goddess Athene was here in this room,” Suliman says. “She looked into your heart and saw the depth of your sorrow. Then she forgave you. She must have, Alexos, else she wouldn't have taken you across the River, where living mortals never go, and shown you that Teo is safe and happy there. It was a kindness, was it not?”

“Oh, yes. You can't imagine.”

“I can, actually. And now you must thank her and accept her forgiveness. You will find that hard to do, I would imagine.”

“How can I possibly, when I can't forgive myself? I don't deserve her mercy.”

“That's true. But mercy is, by its very definition, an undeserved gift. And it's not your place to question the goddess and her motives.”

Alexos droops. He is exhausted, body and soul.

“There's something else you need to keep in mind, going forward,” Suliman says. “Grief and guilt are two entirely different things. The guilt you cannot bring yourself to put aside, which you hold so fiercely to your heart like some poisonous darling—that's all about
you
, Alexos. But the grief is for Teo. So accept Athene's forgiveness, and in doing so think less about yourself. Just grieve for your brother, purely and sincerely, as he deserves. Do you think you can do that?”

BOOK: The Chosen Prince
13.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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