Bending down, he kissed his mother on the cheek before taking a seat beside the eldest of his younger siblings. Glancing up, Marie briefly smiled at her brother before returning her attention to her book; settling in, he watched as his father – the most powerful man in all the world, the monarch of an empire so vast, there had never been a time when all its constituents had witnessed a sunset together – accepted the porcelain teacup that had been offered to him by his youngest daughter.
“Thank you, sweetheart.”
“You’re welcome,” she chimed. Seated at a table much too low for him, his knees nearly grazed his chin as he took a sip of imaginary tea. Obviously very pleased with herself, Aurelia swept her emerald hair over her shoulder as she giggled into the cup. Smiling to himself, his Majesty, the King of Kings, the Emperor himself set his tea down on the table to politely ask if he could have one of the croissants she had baked earlier that day with her mother, when he was suddenly attacked.
But the child only giggled as he clambered into his father’s lap. Clapping his hands, he beamed at him.
“Papa, I want to ride the horse.”
“Not today, darling,” his mother said. Picking him up, she held him close to her. “Papa is tired today.”
He began to say that he wasn’t that tired, when he caught the look his wife gave him. Immediately silenced, he remained in his seat before excusing himself from his daughter’s tea party with a kiss on her head. Standing up, he wordlessly asked for his son.
Taking him into his arms, the King quietly appeased his sulking son. “Tomorrow we can go out and ride the real horses.”
“I promise,” he said. “But you have to wait until tomorrow.”
He contemplated for three seconds before nodding slowly. Resting his chin on his shoulder, he yawned before replying that he understood. Smiling, his father remarked how it was starting to get very late.
“For you as well, Aurelia.”
“Oh, not really,” she chirped. “See? I’m plenty awake. Alexander is too.”
But Alexander, who had been nodding off for the past few hours, had finally give in and was fast asleep. Leaning against the arm of the settee, his mouth was slightly open as he sighed gently in his sleep. Pouting, Aurelia crossly stamped her foot when her father tried to pick her up.
“No! I don’t want to go to bed! You didn’t finish all your tea!”
“But I have. See?”
He held up the dry cup, but she shook her head. Sitting down on the thick rug by her father’s feet, she glared at him as if to prove how angry she was. Passing his son over to his wife, the king clasped his hands together behind his back before bending over so as to whisper in her ear. As he spoke, her anger seemed to dissolve into red-faced shame until she drew her knees up to her chin and hid behind her sulky pout.
“I’m sorry,” she mumbled. But he only offered her his arms. Allowing him to pick her up, she tightly wound her arms around her father’s neck as he accepted her brother into his other arm.
“Then it’s time for bed, yes?”
“Yes,” they said in unison.
Julius watched his parents lead away the three youngest until they had closed the door behind themselves. Turning away, he assigned his attention to the enormous portrait of the King and Queen that hung above the crackling fireplace.
He knew how peculiar his parents were. From their love story to their politics, they made a strange – albeit beloved – couple, and as he aged and grew wiser and more mature, he found himself looking at them in a new light. There were many ways to reflect over the pair, and while there was certainly much to be said about the way they conducted themselves as husband and wife, what interested the boy more was their partnership on the throne. For the only truly proper way to describe their relationship was that word: ‘partnership.’
He had heard of his father’s proposal just as any other in their empire had, and how his Majesty had, upon being told that his grandfather had passed away, before anything else, immediately turned to his right and knelt before his wife as he asked her if she would grace him with the honor of becoming his queen. There was no need, he had told her, for him to shoulder all the responsibility and power when there was such a bright and clever individual as she beside him. She had obviously accepted his proposal, and so they had been coronated together in the style of Emperor and Empress – not Emperor and Empress Consort as had been so popular with the monarchies of late.
And while that was a sweet story and one that caused many a lady to swoon, the fact that his father had only been 2 years his senior – that is, that his father had been 21 years of age, a mere 2 years older than he was currently – when he had ascended upon the throne couldn’t help but make him feel a bit..inferior. Which he was told was a perfectly natural reaction. How could a son not, when his father had been unanimously baptized as the Good King and the People’s Emperor? Kind, fair, and just, he was the epitome of good kingship; many a ruler strived to be like him. Of course, the boy had no idea of the great deal of stress and pain that his father went through when he lay beside his wife at the end of the day, nor of his worn expression as he struggled to maintain and uphold all that he had built for his people, but envy often clouded judgment and so it was with a black expression that Julius brooded.
“What troubles you, Brother?”
Glancing up, he saw his sister’s violet eyes drilling into him. Embarrassed, he straightened up as he cleared his throat so as to properly deny any burden of worry. Her eyes narrowing, she studied him for a long period of time. Though they were separated by 2 years, they shared a bond unique to them and them only. As the Crown Prince and Crown Princess, it was them alone who understood the other’s plight that would seem forever foreign to their siblings.
“Supposing I become king one day. Do you think it possible to surpass Father?”
She remained silent as he tightly clasped his hands together. Losing himself in the dark eyes of his father’s portrait, he quietly said, “I confess, there are days when the thought of remaining in Father’s shadow consumes me. It feels as if I could never exceed his abilities. He’s so perfect.”
He tore his eyes away. What did she mean by “not particularly?” How could it not be obvious the perfection that was their father? Had she not witnessed his elegance, eloquence, and dignity?
“When I was in the gardens yesterday with Maman, I was drawing a rose, when I remarked how perfect nature’s beauty was, with its effortless symmetry. But Maman asked me to pull back my focus so that I saw the flower as a whole, and when I did, I saw that it wasn’t as perfect as I had thought it before. At times, things can seem without flaw simply because we are too close to notice glaring imperfections. Perhaps you should heed Maman’s words and assess Father with a wider scope.”
“Since you’re so sure of it, why don’t you tell me some of his flaws then?”
“Why should I, when you’re sure to make the discovery for yourself?”
Silenced by her sharp tongue – that which she had inherited from their mother – he mulled over her counsel until his parents returned. Hand-in-hand, they alighted upon the settee that they could always be found upon at this time of day, whereupon his father devoted his attention solely to his two eldest children – the future of their nation.
Perhaps he would take a step back and contemplate. As he had learned in the past, his sister, Marie, seemed infinitely wiser than he in spite of their age difference. Besides, as he dutifully listened to his father’s address, he had realized how it had been a long, long time since he’d been as comfortable in the presence of his father as his brothers and sisters were. Always formal and stiff, he had treated his father coldly ever since he at the age of 9 had shouldered the weight of the heir’s crown. But his envy was starting to take a toll on him, and as he sat there and watched his father smile and kiss his mother’s cheek, his Royal Highness couldn’t help but long for that nostalgic security and warmth that had always overtaken him whenever he had embraced his father wholeheartedly.
In the very least, it was certainly something to consider, was it not? To remedy this poison of envy that ran through his veins.