The king’s office was in the back corner of the palace’s first floor as I walk down the high ceilinged hallways, lined with portraits of past kings and queens, I felt a lot like I was marching to the principal’s office, just minutes away from being expelled from school.
He knew. He had to know. It was the only explanation for why he would possibly want to see me, because the last time I went into the king’s office, it was because Tristan and I broke a priceless vase in the grand foyer while playing a game of indoor football. So my track record of visiting the king pointed to me being in trouble. And the only thing I could think of that I’d done lately that he might object to is kiss Tristan.
The guards outside the main doors let me in without question, and I inhaled and exhaled deeply to calm my nerves, smiling at the receptionist, Mindy, a sweet old lady who looked as though she should be advertising homemade baked goods. “I was told the king wanted to see me.”
Smiling sweetly, she nodded, picking up the phone on her desk and punching a number, speaking very quickly and quietly before hanging up and gesturing for me to enter. I did so slowly, knocking cautiously on the door, and pushing it open when I was told to enter to find the king seated behind a large wooden desk. As was proper, I curtsied before lifting my eyes to meet the king’s gaze. “Your Majesty.”
“Julianna, take a seat,” he motioned to one of the ornate chairs in front of his desk, his tone conveying nothing about his emotional state. I perched myself on the edge of one of the highly uncomfortable chairs and waited for him to begin the conversation. He laced his fingers together atop his desk and kept his gaze direct. “I’ve received some…information today.”
That was vague and ominous, and I didn’t want to reveal anything without confirming that he knew, so I acted innocent. “Information, sir?”
“Yes, regarding your relationship with the Crown Prince,” he replied briskly, no longer attempting to ease into the conversation slowly. “Apparently the two of you are…pursuing romantic avenues.”
I seriously doubted those were the words Tristan used when he told his father about us and it took a hefty amount of my willpower not to snort in laughter. “That is correct.”
One of the king’s eyebrows lifted in response. “You’re not denying it?”
“No, Your Majesty,” I shook my head. There was no point in denying it. The rumors were going to start spreading sooner or later. “It’s true.”
He nodded slowly, keeping his tone even, his gaze boring into my skull. His eyes were green, like Tristan’s, but unlike his son’s, they weren’t soft and dreamy. They were cold and tough, like emerald stones, piercing through every layer of my confidence. “Does this mean you are the reason the alliance with Aberdeen was broken?”
I wasn’t sure how to answer that question. “Yes,” I started, knowing being honest up from was probably the way to go, before seeing his eyes harden further and deciding to try a different tactic. “I mean no. I mean, ending the engagement with the Princess of Aberdeen was entirely the Crown Prince’s choice.”
Considering that was actually the truth, it was amazing how much my heart was pounding.
“I see,” King Robert pursed his lips, looking decidedly disappointed. Maybe he thought I had somehow convinced Tristan to end the alliance. And I didn’t want him to think that I would get in the middle of matters that didn’t concern me.
I blinked, feeling my heart sink into my stomach. “You don’t believe me.”
“I believe you,” he assured me, and I relaxed just a little, until he said, “I’m just concerned.”
I considered all of the issues that could possibly concern him about this scenario before settling on the most glaring one; the one that I, myself, had lost sleep over. “That I’m not good enough for the prince.”
“It’s not about worth, Julianna,” he shook his head, not sounding at all condescending, but more so like a parent, worried about his child. Which was strange, because despite how long I’d known the king, it was still difficult to wrap my head around the fact that he was more than just Tristan’s king, he was Tristan’s father as well. “I’ve watched you grow up alongside my son and you’ve become quite an incredible woman. But your accomplishments don’t change the fact that Tristan was raised to be a ruler and you were not.”
“I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing,” I shrugged, not hurt by his assessment. Why should I be? It was true.
“Maybe not. But it’s problematic at the very least,” he sighed. “Julianna, I’m not sure that you’re grasping the amount of responsibility which comes with being associated with the royal family.”
“With all due respect, Your Majesty, I’ve been associating with the royal family for most of my life.” That came out much sharper than I intended it to, but I was a little ticked off. And rightfully, so, I thought. He was acting as though I was some lovestruck idiot, simply wanting to be with Tristan because he’s a prince and conveniently forgetting that we’ve been best friends for the majority of our lives.
If he was offended by my bluntness, he didn’t show it. “Being friends with a prince is very different from being romantically attached to one.”
I knew that. Nobody really gave me a second look when Tristan and I were just friends. When he was single, I wasn’t considered a threat, so no one cared if we were hanging out. But being his girlfriend, well, that would mean having next to no privacy while we were in public. It would mean everybody constantly watching my every move and criticizing everything I did in the tabloids and I didn’t care. Because I had meant what I said to Tristan about only wanting him. None of that other bullshit mattered.
But before I could tell the king that, he spoke again. “Which is why I’m requesting you accompany Tristan on his diplomatic trip to Pressia.”
It takes me a moment to process his words and I gape at him in response. “What?”
“He leaves in a few days,” he continues, shifting in his chair to reach for a pile of papers on the side of his desk.
“To go renegotiate Astoria’s trade agreement,” I finished his sentence for him. Being best friends with the crown prince meant I was dialed in to all royal comings and goings. Plus, Tristan had told me about his trip weeks ago.
“Very good,” the king lifted the corners of his lips into a small smile, almost looking impressed.
The action boosted my confidence and I sat up a little straighter, feeling less nervous with each passing second. “But why do you want me to go?”
“I think it will give you good insight into what it really means to be royal.”
That made sense, but there was one problem. “I have university.”
He wasn’t it having it, the royal attitude of efficiency and problem solving kicking in. “If you have anything due in the next week, see if you can get it done before you leave and see if you can get lecture notes from a classmate. Do you have any exams?”
“Perfect,” he nodded, and I took that to mean the conversation was over.
“Okay,” I replied quietly, not wanting to argue. “May I be excused, Your Majesty?”
He looked a bit surprised, as though he expected me to raise more of an objection, but he nodded and stood, my signal to leave. “Yes.”
As soon as I was back in the hallway, I made a beeline for the soundproofed room on the opposite side of the first floor where Tristan had told me to meet him after I’d said goodbye to Alisha. He used the room as a music studio when he got the chance, banging away at his drums when he was particularly stressed out. And if I had just dropped that kind of bomb on the king, I’d need some tension relief too.
Just as he said he would be, he was in the midst of a passionate drum solo when I stepped inside the room, staying quiet until he finished, half because I didn’t want to frighten him and half because watching him was pretty mesmerizing. His eyes were closed and his lips were pursed and he was glistening with sweat, his sandy curls flying out as he banged his head along to the beat.
He noticed I was there about thirty seconds after my arrival, flashing me a smile as he removed his earplugs and tucked his drumsticks into the back pocket of his jeans, pushing a damp lock of hair off his forehead. “Hey, where have you been, I was starting to get worried.”
Normally, I would have immediately assured him that everything was fine, but my conversation with the king was weighing too heavily on my mind for me to bother with the niceties, so I blurted out, “You know, you could have warned me that you told your dad about us.”
His brow furrowed in confusion and he lifted the hem of his shirt to pull off his tee and use the cotton clothing to wipe the sweat from his face and chest. “What are you talking about?”
“I mean,” I gulped, my mouth suddenly feeling very dry. It wasn’t as though I’d never seen Tristan shirtless, after all we’d gone swimming together hundreds of times growing up, but there was something different about this situation. Something much more intimate. It took me a minute to regain my train of thought. “I know you’ve got a lot on your mind right now, but a text would have been nice.”
Tossing his shirt over his shoulder, he crossed his arms over his chest. “JJ, I didn’t tell my dad anything.”
“You didn’t?” I breathed out, my voice unable to go any louder.
“Not yet,” he shook his head, “I was gonna do it after dinner tonight. Why do you think he knows?”
My breathing was slowly returning to normal. I wondered how it was possible that he was so calm right now. “Because I just talked to him.”
That got his attention. He tensed, taking a step towards me, one hand reaching out to grab mine. “Really? What happened?”
“He wants me to go to Pressia with you.”
His expression went blank and the pressure of his fingers on my hand relaxed. “Oh.”
My heart sank as I came to a terrifying realization: Tristan didn’t want me involved in that part of his life. Maybe after everything that had happened, he’d come to the conclusion that being involved with me publicly really wasn’t going to work out. “You don’t sound too thrilled.”
“It’s not that I don’t want you to come,” he assured me, immediately sensing my disappointment in his tone, “it’s just…I think he’s trying to smoke you out.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, my heartache being replaced with genuine curiosity.
His fingers squeezed mine once more and he took another step towards me, keeping his gaze direct. It was a surreal moment, because I’d been on the receiving end of almost the same gaze from the king, yet Tristan’s eyes were soft and flooded with concern. “He thinks that if he shows you the real responsibilities of being a royal, it’ll scare you enough to break things off.”
“Why would it scare me?” I actually had no idea why the king would think having more responsibility would be at all frightening to me.
“Scare is probably the wrong word,” he said quickly, lifting his other hand to tuck my hair behind my ear. “It’s just intense and you’re expected to be perfect all the time and I mean, sometimes it’s overwhelming for me and I’ve been doing it my whole life.”
That made sense. The truth was, that despite growing up with an inside look at the life of royals, I didn’t actually have any firsthand experience with their daily duties. “I guess I don’t really know much about it besides what you tell me.”
Smiling softly, he moved both hands to my waist and squeezed my hips reassuringly. “I’m sure you’ll be great.”
“You still want me to come?” I asked, a little surprised that he was being so encouraging, when he’d seemed against me being involved just a few moments before. I flattened my palms against his bare chest, pushing them up his shoulders to lace my fingers at the back of his neck. Despite the fact that my heart rate was slowly but surely picking up, the action felt completely natural.
“Of course,” he said softly, leaning his forehead against mine. “I’m just nervous.”
I could barely breathe, yet I also felt like I was at home. It was a strange combination of feelings. “About what?”
It was completely understandable that Tristan would be hesitant about his first diplomatic trip, with or without me being there. But it seemed his concern came from something beside his impending royal duties.
“You want to be with this version of me,” he spoke softly, stopping every few words, as though trying to construct the perfect sentences, “the person I am when it’s just us, but I’m afraid that when you see the Crown Prince of Astoria side of me, you’ll change your mind.”
It was strange to see Tristan be insecure. He was usually so confident, so completely sure of himself, that seeing him so worried about how my opinion of him might change was kind of mystifying. Especially because he had no reason to worry. Cupping his cheeks between my palms, I looked him straight in the eyes. “You’re not two different people, Tris. I’ve always known who you are. And honestly, I’m kind of excited to see you in action.”
“Yeah?” he said, looking a bit relieved.
“Yeah,” I smiled widely, thinking it would fascinating to watch him be the king he was going to be someday. And sure, maybe I’d be a little out of my element, but I’d have Tristan by my side to keep me strong. I always did. “So we’ll help each other through it?”
Matching my smile, he leaned in to kiss me and murmured against my lips. “Deal.”