Interlude VII: The Role of the Second Prince
Nicholas had no memory of Queen Catalina, the Phoenix of Ventrayna, aside from her portrait, which hung beneath a black veil inside his father’s study. His earliest memories were the day-to-day routine, when the second Queen, his mother Rosalinda, would dress up both princes and escort them to Peony Palace, where they had breakfast with King Henri and then departed to start their morning lessons.
It was a pattern that Nicholas had grown used to—trailing after Tristan, who always held onto his hand tightly, as if his younger brother by two years, might wander off and get hurt or lost. An odd habit, considering the real troublemaker between the two growing up, had always been Tristan.
By the time he was four years old, Nicholas had learned to read and write well enough to read his older brother’s history books. The Second Prince quite enjoyed the stories of the first Havadur kings, who joined the Saint in overthrowing the tyrannical reign of the previous royal dynasty.
At five years old, Nicholas had caught up to his older brother in their royal studies. Tristan, who was known for daydreaming, doodling, or skipping classes altogether, barely made an effort but still managed to at least maintain good grades.
If Nicholas absorbed books and knowledge the way a sponge did water, then Tristan was the same when it came to the sword. King Henri indulged the First Prince’s fancy and presented Tristan with his first iron training sword at eight years old. As for the boy’s trainer, Marquess Durante, a famous Lafearian General, was chosen to train the First Prince in between the General’s regular visits to the border to subdue Tharyn invaders.
“Why is Tristan the only one to get a sword?” Nicholas asked his mother while waiting for the First Prince to finish his afternoon lessons at the Knight’s Garrison.
“Because he is older and has a talent for it,” Rosalinda replied, preoccupied with her own hobby of numbers and figures that all related to the funds she raised for different charities in her spare time. “As Crown Prince, when Tristan gets older, he will likely have to fight in many battles alongside the Generals.”
“Father doesn’t fight in any battles.”
“Henri did when he was a prince. He won several of them, in fact. And it is part of the royal custom to earn one’s right to rule by fighting alongside the military forces of Lafeara.”
“Then I must learn as well.”
“What?” Rosalinda looked up from her figures with a frown to where Nicholas sat with a picture book of the Holy Saint’s War.
“I must defend our country as well—and you most of all, Mother,” Nicholas explained gallantly.
The Second Queen smiled but shook her head. “Do not compete with your brother over a sword,” she said with a sigh as she refocused on her work.
The troubled look on Rosalinda’s face as she set down her pen, left her seat, and joined Nicholas on the sofa was one the Second Prince would not understand for at least another year.
“Because—” Rosalinda explained haltingly, “—it is better for brothers to have separate interests.”
In the way a child does, Nicholas had always understood that Tristan’s mother had died. He understood that this was why Rosalinda had become Tristan’s mother now as well and that they both shared King Henri as their father. Nicholas had never been given reason to question or be concerned with their familial arrangement as he had no other typical family to compare them to. Indeed the Second Prince was quite content to have his older brother around more often instead of living in a separate palace.
So Nicholas gave up the sword as his mother suggested and decided upon archery instead. Queen Rosalinda gifted him his own small bow and a private instructor, and life moved on in the golden haze of summer, where the world was little different than the painted pages of Nicholas’s book. Large and full of wonder, but where all monsters were kept at a safe distance beyond the great walls of Lafeara’s Palace Fortress.
It wasn’t until Nicholas turned seven that he finally understood the deeper reason behind his mother’s advice and the true difference between being the First Prince and being Second.
“Nicholas is really quite something,” Lady Sabella explained proudly to Rosalinda, who was enjoying her afternoon tea in Rose Palace’s courtyard of flowers. “His instructor has suggested that the prince’s classes be separated so that Nicholas can continue at his own pace.”
Nicholas smiled at Sabella’s diplomatic way of explaining that Tristan was now holding both of the princes back in class.
‘It’s his own fault for always daydreaming and slipping away to train with the knights.’
“Is this true, Nicholas?” Rosalinda inquired as she lowered this month’s test scores with a troubled expression.
“Yes, Queen Mother,” Nicholas replied, straightening his spine in the vain hope that it would help him catch up to his brother’s sudden growth spurt. Tristan scoffed quietly beside him, utterly unperturbed that his young brother had bested him yet again in their studies.
Rosalinda nodded as she lifted Tristan’s scores, compared the two, and then handed them back to Lady Sabella. “I think Nicholas has spent too much time studying of late. More time outdoors would do him good. You should pick up your training with the bow again, Nicholas.”
“Outdoors, Mother?” Nicholas asked, disappointed that his efforts had once more been glossed over without a single word of praise. ‘Even if you won’t compliment me, at least reprimand Tristan for not taking our studies seriously. He’s two years older than me and barely passed our last math test.’
“Nicholas could always use more practice with the sword,” Tristan commented with a sly wink at Nicholas, who ignored his older brother’s jab at his non-existent swordsmanship.
“No, there’s no need for them to compete,” Rosalind replied quickly as she tapped the lace linen table cloth before her.
“Why not?” Nicholas demanded. He had grown uncomfortable and frustrated with the lack of expectations everyone seemed to have for him. As far back as Nicholas could remember, he had felt little better than a mirror used to reflect his older brother’s natural abilities. At the same time, the areas Nicholas excelled at were wholly ignored. He was growing very tired of living in Tristan’s shadow.
Still, Nicholas would be the first to admit that the First Prince was naturally good at everything. Tristan was just lazy when it came to studies, and now that Nicholas had soundly bested him, Rosalinda was saying Nicholas needed to study less?
‘She’s not even your mother. She’s mine. But Mother spends more time worrying about you and praising you than she does me!’
“Archery is a fine activity for a nobleman to learn,” Rosalind continued firmly as she rose from her chair and placed her hands on Nicholas’s young shoulders. “As you are already, Nicholas, you can soon join Henri in the Royal Hunt. With a bit more practice, you may even be able to compete.”
“Compete?” Nicholas echoed, his voice grating with conflicted emotions. “With who? Tristan?”
“No, Prince Nicholas,” Lady Sabella interrupted quickly. “Her Majesty means you can compete with the other young noble lords. Both princes cannot participate in the Royal Hunt at the same time.”
“Then what’s the point?” Nicholas demanded sullenly.
Rosalinda withdrew her hands with a clear look of disapproval. “If you have no interest in participating, then you can always learn an instrument—or perhaps take up some art lessons? You do enjoy studying paintings.”
“Art and music are for noblewomen, mother!” Nicholas snapped angrily. “Why can’t I pick up sword training instead. Even if I start now, I won’t be able to catch up to this swordmaster,” he gestured angrily to Tristan, who grinned at the unexpected compliment.
“I told you—I don’t want you to compete with your brother!”
“We’re allowed to ride together at least, Queen Mother?” Tristan interjected with an expression that said he was growing tired of the conversation and eager to be dismissed and return to the Knight’s Garrison.
“Yes, horse-riding would be a good activity,” Rosalinda said with a nod of approval, then turned to Lady Sabella. “Start Nicholas off with a pony for now. Something calm and gentle—”
Nicholas flinched as Tristan snickered. The Second Prince’s hands clenched at the thought of the great black warhorse that Tristan was already riding, a gift from the Ambassador of Ventrayna.
“Well, when you finally upgrade to a real horse—” Tristan said with a snort and light slap to Nicholas’s shoulders, “—you can join me for a ride around the capital.”
“Is that a challenge?” Nicholas snapped.
“No, not really,” the First Prince replied with a dismissive shrug. “There’s no horse in Lafeara that can keep up with my Black Devil.”
“We’ll see about that!”
“Nicholas, you have to learn to crawl before you can run,” Tristan countered with that natural, confident laugh that always managed to get under Nicholas’s skin. “Anyway, it’s not a competition.”
“Yes, it is!” Nicholas shouted, louder than he had meant to—not that he had meant to voice his complaints at all. The splinter of disappointment at being ignored again, despite all his best efforts, had somehow loosened the dam of repressed resentment he had built up over the last few years.
‘Why can’t I be first? Why does Tristan get everything? Father rarely acknowledges me; he doesn’t even care what grades I get. Why am I here at all if the only one anyone cares about is Tristan?’
“If I beat you and the Black Devil, then I get to be crown prince,” Nicholas announced as he whirled on his brother. “So take this seriously!”
“Nicholas!” Rosalinda cried out; pure unadulterated panic rippled through the Second Queen’s voice as Nicholas turned from Tristan’s startled expression to his mother.
There was no anger in Rosalinda’s light green eyes, only fear. Then his mother’s gaze flew past Nicholas even as he heard footsteps on the garden path behind him.
“Well, it seems I’ve interrupted a rather interesting discussion,” Dowager Octavia observed as she moved steadily towards the queen and princes.
“Dowager.” The brothers both turned and bowed their heads in greeting.
Octavia motioned for them to rise and then gripped Nicholas’s jaw tightly as she leaned closer to the Second Prince’s startled face.
“The title of Crown Prince is not a competition between brothers, Nicholas. It is a decision made by the current ruling monarch, and King Henri has chosen Prince Tristan.”
“Yes, Grandmother,” Nicholas muttered, still angry but aware that his words had caused offense.
“I am sorry, Queen Mother,” Rosalinda apologized as she curtsied to the Dowager. “I will correct his behavior—”
“Now, now!” Octavia’s voice rippled with amusement as she released Nicholas’s throbbing jaw. “There is nothing wrong with a little healthy competition.” Her ice-blue eyes moved from Tristan to Nicholas, her chilling gaze smothering the Second Prince with a look of disapproval. “As long as one does not reach for the impossible.”
“Of course, your Grace,” Rosalinda replied, her voice still trembling with fear that Nicholas didn’t understand.
“You have been a good mother to both of the princes, Rosalinda,” Octavia observed as she stepped around the princes to focus on the Second Queen. “No one could ask more of you.”
Nicholas rubbed his chin, eager to erase the cold, biting touch his grandmother’s fingers always left behind. ‘Like a dead person.’
“I came to deliver the First Prince’s medicine,” Octavia announced as she waved to Lady Janelle, who carried over a tray with a single cup covered by a blue napkin.
Tristan grimaced as the Dowager took her seat and then motioned for him to join her. “But I feel fine, Grandmother.”
“You must drink it so that you continue to do so, Tristan,” Octavia replied firmly, in a tone that would not allow further argument or delay.
Tristan sighed and stepped forward as Octavia removed the napkin to reveal a teacup with a dark blue liquid.
Nicholas remained where he was as his older brother drank the medicine. The First Prince gagged repeatedly, but forced it down, then clutched his stomach as he bowed to the Dowager.
“T-thank you, Grandmother.”
Octavia smiled and stroked Tristan’s unruly dark curls with a pleased expression. “Do let me know if the First Prince’s fever returns, Rosalinda.”
“I will, your Grace,” Rosalinda replied demurely, looking somewhat relieved until Octavia picked up the papers with the prince’s scores that had been left on the table.
“I see,” Octavia murmured as she studied both and then turned her gaze to Nicholas. “I think it’s time the Second Prince took a long break from his studies to enjoy the peace and solitude of the countryside. Perhaps a trip to the Sister’s Church to pray to the Saints for his family, country, and King would do him good.”
“Grandmother!” Nicholas protested as his hands curled into fists.
“Nicholas!” Rosalinda hissed as she grasped his shoulder and sent her son a pleading look.
“There can only be one Crown Prince,” Octavia replied coldly as Tristan coughed, still clutching his stomach as visible sweat appeared along his brow.
‘Then why does it have to be a sick one?’
Nicholas knew the answer to that question without asking. The truth of the matter stared him in the face each morning as King Henri pulled Tristan, and only Tristan, onto his lap for a hug. Every time their father fussed and praised over his eldest son, a shadow crawled inside Nicholas’s chest and skewed the golden image he once held for his older brother.
Tristan was the First Prince, the Crown Prince, the loved prince.
Nicholas was only the Second Prince. A prince that nobody expected anything from or even wanted.
The following morning, the prince’s royal tutors were dismissed and replaced. Nicholas was barred from entering the royal library, not just for the summer he spent in priest’s robes praying before the statue of Harmonia, but for the rest of his life.
Even when his throat bled from reciting the Sister’s prayer for eight hours a day, and his knees and back ached from kneeling on the threadbare pillow that offered no protection from the stone floor beneath Abyss Mercy’s watchful eye—no amount of physical pain could compare to the truth Nicholas finally understood. The first lesson of being the Second Prince—never attempt to outshine the First Prince.
Beneath the cold, stone gaze of a long-dead Saint, the shadow in the Second Prince’s heart grew stronger until it fused itself to his soul where it tempered his burning resentment.
At eight years old, Nicholas returned to the Royal Palace with little fanfare or notice. He learned to observe the nobles in court silently and took on his Mother’s passive and submissive nature to mask his true feelings.
Tristan continued to thrive and grow and naturally achieved everything first. The First Prince became a royal knight officer at ten years old. He killed a rare white stag while hunting with King Henri in the royal forest. He even earned his first military victory against the Tharyn invaders by General Durante’s side. Last but not least of these, Tristan was engaged at ten years old to Princess Eleanora, a political arrangement that would ensure a lasting alliance between Lafeara and Ventrayna, and also further secured his position as Crown Prince.
Nicholas accepted that Tristan was meant to have everything first. He learned to live in his brother’s shadows, where only the leftovers and scraps remained. The Second Prince continued his passion for reading by building his own private library in a country house that Rosalinda purchased under her maiden name. Nicholas also continued his archery lessons, so he had an excuse to join the hunts King Henri was so fond of, though he never attempted to shoot anything. Nicholas never once pulled an arrow from his quiver as he raced through the forest in his father’s train of courtiers.
Everything in the King’s Forest, from the squirrels, rabbit, birds, deer, and boars, belonged to his older brother.
‘Tristan can have them. I don’t care.’
That single repeating thought slowly drove away the joy of having an older brother, not that Tristan ever seemed to notice. The Crown Prince showered Nicholas with as much love and affection as he did the Queen and King. The only person Tristan seemed at all reluctant to be close to was Dowager Octavia, who delivered the Crown Prince’s medicine even more frequently as Tristan grew older.
Then came the long summer of rain where Lady Janelle Borghese died of a sudden chill, and the Dowager shut herself away inside Iris Palace to mourn. Queen Rosalinda took over the task of ensuring the First Prince took his medicine while their grandmother spent most of her time either resting in her palace or in her private garden. A few months later, Rosalinda herself died of a strange fever that smothered her over the course of three agonizing days.
Nicholas was nine years old the day Queen Rosalinda breathed her last breath, and the Second Prince lost his mother and his place in the world. He was little more than a shadow adrift in a dark forest where all the trees ignored him as they reached towards the burning sun that was the First Prince.
“The poor Crown Prince, to have lost two mothers.”
“They said it was poison.”
“And who would poison her? Queen Rosalinda was the picture of kindness and obedience itself and had no political ambitions.”
“Do you remember when the First Queen died—”
“Shh, don’t speak of such things unless you want to lose your head.”
The whispers of the court attendants could not have confused Nicholas more. Neither could he understand the sudden violent behavior of the Crown Prince, who destroyed every piece of furniture in his bedroom before climbing out the window to escape the palace all together for a ride on his Black Devil.
‘As always, Tristan knows how to make others worry and see only him.’
Nicholas dressed himself in black mourning clothes the next morning. He followed behind the pale King and the cold, lifeless Dowager as the royal family walked down the cobbled path of the monarch’s cemetery to where his mother’s casket waited. Nicholas would forever remember that day. The way his mother’s white coffin buried in a sea of blue flowers glowed beneath the sun on the shoulders of Lafearian knights, dressed in black and white instead of their usual gold and purple colors.
“You must lead the way, your Highness,” Lady Sabella urged as the knights turned slowly towards the giant royal tomb door.
The sound of hoofbeats cut off Nicholas’s reply as Tristan made his appearance. The First Prince’s face was more flushed and filled with color than it had been for months. The weeks of sweat and fever he had suffered from leading up to Rosalinda’s death had entirely vanished as Tristan dropped down from Black Devil to bow before King Henri. As usual, the Crown Prince ignored the Dowager while he offered his apologies for being late.
“Never mind, you are here now. We can begin,” Henri said tiredly as he patted Tristan’s shoulder and offered the Crown Prince Rosalinda’s crown.
Nicholas stared at the crown in stunned silence, his nails biting into his fists as Tristan accepted his mother’s royal circlet. A crown was always buried with each queen so that they might be acknowledged for their good deeds and granted a new life worthy of their talents and merit. The chosen crown was placed inside the sacred ceremonial box carved into the coffin lid by the one closest to the deceased. Either the King or the Queen’s son was given this privilege along with the task of leading the dead queen to her final resting place.
‘Why? Why him and not me?’
Nicholas had never before felt so invisible, useless, and completely unnecessary than the day his half-brother buried Queen Rosalinda in his place.
Long after King Henri had escorted Tristan and the Dowager back to the palace, Nicholas remained outside his mother’s sealed tomb, confused, numb, and all but forgotten.
Only Lady Sabella remained at his side, patiently holding up the umbrella that protected them both from the drizzle of rain that washed away the petals on the cobblestones and turned the royal tombs a dark grey.
Lord Attwood Hargreve found them several hours later and escorted them both back to the palace. There the Marquess introduced Nicholas to a towering boy with the shiniest pale blonde hair the Second Prince had ever seen and even more memorable, vivid violet eyes.
“This is Beaumont. He was adopted by my older brother, Duke Stryker.”
Nicholas nodded, somewhat intimidated by the silent, giant boy.
“Beaumont is training to be a knight,” Attwood continued as he patted the older boy’s shoulder. “I thought it would be a good idea for the two of you to get to know each other.”
“Why?” Nicholas asked, not out of suspicion or anger, but confusion that anyone should think of him.
“Because the Dowager mentioned that your Highness was lonely,” Attwood replied with a fatherly smile. “I would have brought Acheron, but he is busy with his studies, and his mother worries whenever he is away from her.”
‘Ah, so Beaumont is expendable like me.’ Nicholas smiled, comfortable with this understanding and level of interest. “Thank you, Lord Attwood.”
The Marquess smiled and moved off to speak with Lady Sabella, who was busy preparing snacks.
Nicholas regarded the towering older boy hesitantly. Beaumont gazed back with those strange violet eyes that showed none of the fear or reverence that other servants and nobles expressed when meeting a member of the royal family. “How old are you?” Nicholas demanded as he shrugged off his damp funeral jacket and held it out to the silent boy expectantly.
“Twelve,” Beaumont answered and ignored the jacket held less than an inch from his chest.
“Twelve?” Nicholas echoed as he lowered his arm. “I thought you were sixteen at least.” ‘What kind of giant gave birth to you?’ He frowned and considered the boy’s muscled arms. “You look like you could beat my brother in a sword fight—or any fight for that matter.”
“I have beaten your brother in a sword fight—and a wrestling match,” Beaumont replied in such a casual tone that Nicholas doubted he had heard him correctly.
‘Doesn’t he realize how much trouble he could get in for not using Tristan’s title?’
Nicholas shook his head in disbelief. “You—beat the First Prince—in a sword fight?”
“Several times,” Beaumont answered with a note of annoyance.
Nicholas dropped his jacket on the floor and held out his hand instead. “Teach me.”
“What?” Beaumont raised a single pale eyebrow as he regarded Nicholas’s offered palm.
“Teach me how to beat Tristan.”