SHEWAS QUEEN—of course he knew where she was. Did she think he didn’t? The moment she’d left the grounds a guard had spoken in his ear. They’d followed her—for her own safety, of course—told him she was safe with Selma.
He hadn’t chased her because he’d been right to push her away. To let her go. He’d been right because the moment she’d seen it—him—she’d run. He’d been right to tell her he couldn’t love her. Because how could he love her when he didn’t love himself?
You’re nothing without her.
‘Leave me,’ he said, in answer to the soft rap at the door. A rap that had come three times a day for six days. Today was the seventh. Today was the day he would officially succeed to the throne without his Queen.
‘Highness...’ The voice was hesitant, but still his senior aide ventured across the threshold.
‘You must ready yourself—’
‘I am ready,’ he replied, without looking at or acknowledging the tray of refreshments that was being placed on the low table by the door even as another, untouched one, was removed.
He’d been readying himself for this for nine years. What did he have to prepare that he did not already know by heart? By rote? A few practised words, a bow, a crown, a new title.
But wasn’t he already King in every way that mattered? Did he not already rule them? Lead them? Had he not led them when his father had been busy, distracted by his latest obsession?
Hadn’t he shown them he was worthy to be their King? Hadn’t he, to become the King they needed, shown that the past had no place in this world? Hadn’t he shown her there was no place for either of them? Because he, the forgotten orphan heir—soon to be the ruler up on high—couldn’t be King with any ties to the past, to the emotional boy now in front of him, staring at him with big brown eyes.
His legs cramped beneath him and he shifted, splaying them out flat. He looked again. Stared at the easels lined up against the windows overlooking the city. His city. Pictures by Charlotte—of him. Her drawings of a life he’d tried to forget and a life he was barely living.
So many of them...
Him at the children’s home, under the oak tree. Him asleep in a small single bed. Her at her bedroom window in London as he looked up at her from below. Both of them together, locked in an embrace surrounded by fire in the cave—his secret oasis. Both of them on the balcony... And a double portrait. A boy and a would-be king, side by side, staring straight back at him with the same brown eyes.
He’d swapped one life for another, hadn’t he? Without claiming either? Neither of those lives—the boy’s or the King’s—belonged to him. He’d been a puppet of the system until his eighteenth birthday and then he’d been his father’s puppet, claiming a heritage he’d never known belonged to him and changing himself to repair a legacy he hadn’t broken. His father had. And yet he had claimed the responsibility.
But at what cost?
‘The ceremony starts in two hours.’
‘As you wish.’ Resigned, his aide complied.
The door closed silently behind him—Daniyal, his right-hand man, and he couldn’t bring himself to care about his unkindness. Kindness had brought them all down. It had brought her down. His Charlotte. His Queen. His wife...
No, you brought her down.
He looked down at the aged paper in his hands. He’d found the picture Charlotte had drawn of him in care. He’d found it in a suitcase battered from his time in the children’s home.
The suitcase was scuffed from trailing it behind him to every temporary home he’d spent time in. He hadn’t even unpacked it when he’d arrived in Taliedaa.
Because you expected to leave again, like every time before.
Exactly! He hadn’t unpacked it in those foster homes, because he had known those big smiles and open arms were fake. Those hands hadn’t been reaching for him. They’d been reaching for the cheque they’d be given at the end of his stay. A brief stay before they sent him back with the same suitcase.
His father had been reaching for a legacy. His name. His lineage. His continued bloodline. Not his son. So he hadn’t unpacked again.
He clenched his fists too tightly. Then he prised his fingers open and felt his insides twist.
It was the first portrait she’d ever drawn of him, and she’d gifted it to him as a thank-you. Thank you? He’d destroyed them both with his weakness. He’d left her behind and now he’d thrown her back into her old world because he was an indecent bastard. His father had been cruel and selfish. Her father had been a mean drunk. But he was something worse. Maybe her father had been right—maybe he was a monster.
What have you done?
He laid the paper out flat on the floor, trying to smooth the creases his destructive hands had crunched into it. But he only blurred the lines. Smudged the face of the boy she’d drawn.
He destroyed everything.
Blew out the light of hope.
Hadn’t he been to blame for never finding a home? He’d never given anyone a chance to want him. He’d never given Charlotte a chance to love him.
It was your fault nine years ago too, wasn’t it?
The voice was right.
It had been his fault. The blame was solely at his feet.