I considered myself a completely rational person these days. Despite having grown up inside the royal palace, I never really thought of myself as part of that world. Or perhaps because my best friend growing up was the future king and his parents had welcomed me so warmly, I had never thought that there were separate worlds at all.
At least, my view of my life had been a very naïve one until the year both Tristan and I turned thirteen. It was when he became a teenager that Tristan truly started getting groomed for his position as future king. All of a sudden, he no longer had time to go on adventure walks through the woods that lined the back of the palace grounds and he was going to all these fancy parties that I wasn’t invited to.
When I asked my father why that was, he sat me down and explained that as the oldest child of the king and queen, there would come a time, in the distant future, when Tristan would have to take his father’s place as king and that meant he might not have as much time to spend with me anymore. But my father did assure me that it had absolutely nothing to do with me and that Tristan and I would always be friends.
Tristan said something similar to me one night soon after my fifteenth birthday. Due to the fact that the daylight hours were usually consumed with princely duties, the only time we ever got to hang out was at night, so he’d make a point to sneak past Tucker and come tap on my bedroom window and the two of us would wind our way down to the treehouse that he’d begged his father to build him when he was ten and we’d pretend we were in a magic machine that would take us anywhere we wanted to go.
That night we went to Mars and he made me promise that no matter what happened, even when he became king, that we would still be friends. I assured him that was true, besides, it wasn’t as though his father was going to pass away for a long time. It was then that he told me that the king had recently passed a new law which stated that he could step down at any time and officially turn the crown over to his eldest child.
At the time, I just shrugged off this news, because surely the king wouldn’t consider Tristan fit to rule for a long time to come. But apparently I was wrong. Because it seemed the king planned on stepping down just in time for Tristan’s twenty first birthday and the coronation would take place the day Tristan turned twenty one and a few days before he married the Princess of Aberdeen, all information I’d gathered while winning an award for remaining completely emotionless at dinner.
I’d almost let out a sigh of relief when they rose from the table to return to the parlor for post dinner drinks and I’d ignored the glances Tristan was shooting in my direction, indicating we really need to talk. MW had probably been impressed by how efficient and thorough I was while I helped clean up, but she didn’t have a chance to say so because I practically sprinted from the kitchen when all the work was done, making a beeline for the treehouse where I’d always done my best thinking. It was here that I sat with my legs swinging over the edge, wondering how I could have deluded myself into thinking that things between me and Tristan would always be the same.
If anything, the fact that I was in love with him was bound to cause problems someday. I knew it had been causing problems for me since the day I realized it was true.
It wasn’t an epiphany, really. Tristan and I had known each other for so long that my fall for him had come slowly but surely and the day I came to fully accept just how deep my feelings ran had been both the happiest and saddest day of my life. Because on one hand, being in love was kind of amazing, but on the other, I had unfortunately developed those feelings for someone I could never be with.
Because even if Tristan did feel the same way, which I was almost positive he didn’t because he had never given me any indication that his feelings for me were anything beyond platonic, nothing could ever happen between us. He was the future king of Astoria, which meant that he was destined to marry another royal and most likely forge an alliance with another kingdom through his marriage.
So at the end of the day, it didn’t matter that we’d grown up together and that we knew all of each other’s secrets, because I was still a commoner, and commoners never ended up with royals.
Sighing, I inhaled deeply, allowing the soft night breeze to wash over me and relax my muscles, knowing I’d have to face Tristan at some point. I’d been able to avoid him thus far because the Aberdeen royals were still around, but it was only a matter of time before I’d have to explain why the announcement of his engagement had such an effect on me.
“Permission to come aboard?”
Blinking in confusion, I looked down at the sound of a soft voice to see Tristan standing at the base of the treehouse, the fingers of one hand wrapped around the rope ladder as he stared up at me, his eyes filled with hope. I should have known he would find me here; it was the first place I always checked when Tristan seemed to be MIA from the palace, so of course this was where I came when I needed some time away as well.
“Are you alone?” I asked, squinting across the lawn behind him, searching for a sign of Tucker. It was rare that Tristan was allowed to go anywhere on his own, even within the palace grounds.
“I snuck out the window and climbed down the vines,” he admitted, his free hand reaching up to adjust the beanie pulled over his hair. “But I’m sure Tucker will notice soon enough.”
I wouldn’t be surprised. Tucker was so used to monitoring Tristan’s attempts at freedom that I was pretty sure he always knew exactly what the prince was doing, but sometimes just gave him a head start. Laughing, I waved Tristan upwards. “Come on.”
He flashed me a grin as he began to climb, heaving himself onto the wooden platform beside me and swinging his bare feet over the edge as well as he settled in, leaning back against his flattened palms.
“So,” I said quietly, picking at the edge of the uniform dress I was still wearing. “I suppose congratulations are in order.”
“I suppose they are,” he sighed, keeping his gaze forward.
I quirked an eyebrow upwards as I turned my head to look at him. “You don’t sound too thrilled.”
He lifted one shoulder in a shrug and shot me a quick glance. “Would you be?”
“Thrilled about marrying a princess?” I laughed, amazed that it didn’t come out sounding bitter. “Probably.”
“It’s more than that, though,” he shook his head in frustration, “this is the rest of my life we’re talking about. I don’t even know her.”
For a fleeting moment, I was ecstatic that he had doubts about the entire situation, but I immediately felt guilty for feeling that way. Just because I knew I was never going to end up with Tristan didn’t mean that I should root for all of his relationships to fail. Scooting backwards, I brought my legs up onto the wooden base of the treehouse and crossed them beneath me, shifting myself so my body was facing him and putting on my most assuring voice. It was time for me to be the best friend he needed me to be. “You’re not getting married for another year, though, right. You’ll get to know her by then.”
“Maybe,” he said softly, bringing his legs up so he could mirror my position and playing with the silver plated watch his father had given him on his eighteenth birthday. “Don’t get me wrong, she seems perfectly nice, and just as wary about this situation as me. And I guess on some level I always knew this was going to happen, maybe not so soon, but my father has been telling me since I was sixteen that my marriage would serve as a great strategic alliance for Astoria.”
“That’s so romantic,” I replied dryly, thrilled when my words caused him to crack a smile.
“I know it’s not exactly an epic romance,” he laughed softly. “But it’s the way things are when you’re…”
“When you’re royalty?” I offered, knowing he’d always felt strange acknowledging the fact that he would one day rule the kingdom.
Nodding, he let out a shaky sigh, lifting his gaze to meet mine and causing my breath to catch in my throat. “Yeah. And I get it, I do, but…”
“But?” I whispered. If we were in a movie or a romance novel, this would be the part of the story where he told me that he couldn’t go through with it because he’d always loved me and he didn’t care about strategic alliances because he wanted to be with me and we would work it out because love conquered all.
Unfortunately, I lived in the real world where romantic declarations between royalty and commoners didn’t occur, so the words that exited his lips next were, “I feel like I haven’t really lived, you know,” which was honestly just as intriguing.
“What do you mean?” I asked, furrowing my brow in confusion.
“I mean,” he replied slowly, attempting to formulate his thoughts. “I’ve lived my entire life inside those palace walls. I never went to school and I don’t go to university because my parents thought having a private tutor was much safer than allowing me to experience the real world. I grew up sheltered and coddled and as a result, I haven’t really experienced anything. I haven’t even seen most of Astoria. There’s still so much I want to do and see and…” he paused, lifting the corners of his lips into a rueful smile. “Does this all sound incredibly bratty to you?”
“Not at all,” I assured him, reaching out to curl my fingers comfortingly around the wrist without the watch, hoping he knew I completely supported everything he wanted to do with his life. “You’re allowed to have dreams that are different than the ones your parents have for you, Tris.”
“Am I, though?” he laughed bitterly. “Because it doesn’t matter what I want. Nothing I do is going to change the fact that in a year, my father is going to step down and I’m going to be crowned the King of Astoria.”
It was a bit stunning to hear him say those words. Because although Tristan always performed his royal duties to the best of his ability, when it was just the two of us, he rarely acknowledged his status, and it wasn’t until he had to leave our hangouts to go to a state dinner or a charity gala that I was reminded that we lived in entirely separate stratospheres.
“Okay,” I replied softly, wanting so desperately to erase the sadness from his eyes. “Then live now.”
“What?” he lifted his eyebrows upwards.
“Yeah,” I nodded, sitting up straight and bringing my hand back into my lap. “Live now. You have a year until the coronation and wedding, so make the most of it. Go do all of the things you want to do and get to know the woman that you’re going to marry and then maybe when all of it happens, you won’t feel like you missed out on much. And who knows, maybe you’ll fall in love with Alisha as well.”
I felt my heart ache as I spoke those last words, but I knew they were what he needed to hear. Because I knew Tristan would always put his duty to his kingdom above his duty to his heart, he would still be comforted at the thought of marrying someone he loved and not just someone he was being forced to marry because it was convenient.
“I guess we’ll see,” he laughed, looking much more relaxed and glancing downwards to grin sheepishly at Tucker, who had made his way across the lawn and was glaring up at us from the bottom of the rope ladder. “Thanks, JJ. I better go.”
Nodding, I waved at Tucker, glad it was dark so that the night could hide my blush when Tristan leaned forward to press a kiss to my cheek before scooching forward to climb down the rope ladder.
“I don’t know what I’d do without you, JJ,” he grinned up at me when he was halfway down, shouting up towards me again once his bare toes were squished into the grass. “Goodnight!”
“Goodnight,” I whispered at his retreating back, watching as he walked briskly across the lawn back to the palace with Tucker at his side, thinking that he would soon have to find out what to do without me because a year from now, we might not be in each other’s lives at all.