Two brothers - one the sheltered crown prince, the other the king's illegitimate child - uncover the dark underbelly of the royal family. But - far from settling their doubts - the discovery only turns them against one another.
"Maya! Tamino! Wake up, Tutor is here!"
At the sound of his older brother's knocking, Tamino rolled onto his stomach and pressed it into his face, hoping to disappear. He had been dreaming - a pleasant dream - and Linde had no authority to interrupt it. Even if he was the crown prince of Lusitania.
The rattling subsided surprisingly quickly - but only because the door had cracked open. Sleepily, Tamino raised his head to see Linde at the door, keys in hand. He was physically unremarkable, even pathetic - inches shorter than Tamino, the sort that always looked in need of a few hugs and a few dozen guards. A cute little kid who would be long dead if he hadn't been so well-liked.
But Tamino had been long inured to fluffy blonde hair and earnest blue eyes.
"Your Highness. I must request that you leave."
"Tamino. Please get up." As Linde crossed the room, Tamino could hear his sister's footsteps thundering down the hall. Maya could be a perfect little lady - in public. Without her gaggle of attendants in waiting, she let her hair loose. Linde jerked open the curtains, struggling momentarily with the heavy cloth, and turned back to his comotose brother. "Five seconds."
Really. The light streaming in on Tamino's eyes could not be assuaged by flimsy things like blinking, so he reluctantly propped himself up on his pillows, still unwilling to leave those last pieces of his dream behind. Linde pulled him up by the hand, determined to tear away that hope of falling asleep again - a task usually assigned to servants or particularly eager-to-please nobles who were willing to sacrifice their dignity for a little affection, to wake up the royal family and to flatter them as they dressed-
"Wait." Tamino held up his hand as Linde fastened the tunic at his back. "Linde, why - no. Your Highness. May I ask why you are attending to me?"
Linde walked around him to straighten the collar, smiling lightly.
"We are brothers."
"We are not."
The words came out more vehemently than Tamino intended, and he recoiled awkwardly as Linde peered up, eyebrows converging in a pretense of sympathy.
"What is it, Tamino?"
"No. Nothing, Your Highness." Tamino held still as Linde fastened the belt around his waist. "But - I'm used to getting dressed on my own. And as the crown prince, Your Highness really should-"
"You're second in line now." Linde stepped back, the same dumb smile on his face as always. "So please. Work with me, Tamino."
But even before he said the words, Tamino felt as though he had struck some invisible nerve. Linde looked as though he had been slapped; he gripped his elbows and seemed to slump a little where he stood.
"Linde-" But he spoke too late. The crown prince suddenly materialized under Tamino's face, pulling his hand back for what promised to be a painful strike.
"Be more hopeful, would you?" His hand connected, and Tamino winced. Even if Linde looked like a fragile little boy, he didn't hold back when he hit. "You never do anything except wallow in your self-pity and wait for other people to help you out-"
"What would you know about that?" Tamino roared directly into Linde's unyielding face. "You're the only one who thinks it's worth the effort, to - to talk to the bastard son of a perpetually drunk king!"
"And you're the only one who cares about your parentage. Perhaps if you stopped sulking around all the time, someone would pay attention."
"That's not how the world works, idiot." Tamino swallowed to contain the rush of sensation in his throat, shoving the shaken-looking Linde away by his shoulders. "Look. You're-"
"You two!" A louder voice than either caused the entire room to tremor, making both princes forget their quarrel. Princess Maya had the tall, dark complexion of her mother and the same exotic texture to her hair, but the resemblance ended there. She was as tricky and clever - and loud - as her mother was compliant, though her mastery of court etiquette would have no one know that. As Linde spun to face her, a little wide-eyed, her voice fell to a lower, harsher pitch.
"Tutuor's going to be mad if you're late." Her fire-red eyes flickered over the princes, catching on Tamino's unfinished belt and the fading mark on his face. "And Shiso's been down there, whining for ages."
Linde sighed and straightened his coat. "I'll see you later, then."
As he disappeared, Maya turned to Tamino, her eyes still accusatory but now a little bit compassionate as well. In the focus of her steady expression, Tamino felt his temper falter - but willingly, gently. Maya never forced his feelings, or asked Linde's sort of probing questions. She was just there, as calm and strong as steel.
"Are you alright, Tamino?"
"I'm fine," he replied, pulling a hand through his still-untidy hair. Now that the older prince was gone, Tamino felt a pressure tighten just under his throat. "I...was just taking it out on him again."
* * *
Maya had few memories of her mother, and couldn't even recall the day she had been taken away. But Tamino seemed haunted by them. The king had been kind to both twins, sending gifts and tutors and anything that he could possibly provide to his two illegitimate children - including a prime position in the line of succession, for Tamino. And Linde had cared for them too, even if his naïveté had him fumbling to handle Tamino.
And Yousha. Yousha had been every bit as warm as a real older brother.
Maya swallowed, remembering. The oldest son of the Almaviva house had defied all her expectations of a crown prince, eschewing order and flirting with the pretty maids at every possible opportunity. Once, he had helped Maya up the tallest tree in the royal gardens - and when the gardeners came, he claimed all the blame for himself.
But just weeks ago, Yousha had collapsed after returning from the royal colonies. Whatever disease he contracted had been sudden, and fatal. Now the palace had become a serious place. The nobles, no longer seeing Yousha's golden protection around the bastard children, weren't afraid to make conspiring remarks behind their backs, or to let condescension enter their voices as they spoke to them.
Linde had once made one of his youngest royal cousins cry, for casually insulting Maya, and insisted - almost obstinately - on treating the twins as his equals. But he wasn't the same as Yousha, to whom "family" seemed to come so naturally.
Maya sighed, and fell back in her seat. To her left was Tamino, determinedly avoiding Linde's worried gestures as the two pored over the same book. The youngest prince, Shiso, was staring at a map with the tutor, Lady Sana, his voice fluorescing curiously with each new question.
There was no effort to be spared for Maya - the illegitimate daughter, last in line. Linde was first, and Tamino second - despite the fury of the nobles. Shiso came third, and then the uncles and aunts and cousins. Maya would never need to run the country - but she liked Lady Sana, and loved the books. So as the tutor turned from Shiso to the silent older princes, she took the map from his hand and began to point things out.
"No. Shiso, look. Astaria's borders are here. That's the Viehes River..."
Perhaps Sana gave her an approving look. But Shiso only made a popping sound in his mouth as he bent over to mark the line Maya had indicated. Unlike his brothers, he rarely made the effort to recognize the twins.
"Of course not," Tamino had said bitterly, "If not for me, he'd be the third prince."
Still, Maya doubted that Shiso had the mind for that sort of power play - he was only ten years old, after all. It was more probably their skin - darker in Maya, but still present in Tamino - which marked them out as Sarundons. Foreigners, from an enemy country.
Yousha was warm and Linde reasonable. But Shiso was a child, ready to listen to any skin-related slur the lords at court might make.
"Shiso. Dvoria is over here."
Lady Sana coughed, interrupting the exchange, and looked directly at Linde.
"Your Highnesses. The messengers say that Prince Coryn will arrive this afternoon." Diverting her gaze to Tamino momentarily - Maya's brother had dropped his head to the desk in exhaustion - she reached forward to pull the stack of books back into her arms. Something deepened in her voice as if in warning, but Linde seemed not to notice, simply looking on attentively for the tutor's next words. "Prince Linde - you may be dismissed, to prepare more adequately for the...arrival of your royal cousin."
Linde beamed, pushing his chair back and ignoring Tamino's obviously jealous glare. It seemed that they had made peace over the lesson - probably more out of necessity than anything. Tamino was hopeless in all studies but war, while Linde excelled in all scholarly pursuits.
"Thank you, Lady Sana! I'll see you tomorrow."
The tutor bowed, as Linde pushed aside his books and made for the door. Maya studied her expression curiously - there was something in it that looked troubled, even guilty, though she couldn't understand how.
She hadn't noticed Tamino's frantic gestures under the desk, but now turned to see him - eyes lowered, whispering over the top of his book.
It took a moment to process his words. Maya felt a quiet jolt run through her.
"Are you serious?" It was difficult to keep her voice down to a quiet hiss as Tamino sat back up, apparently immersed in his studies again. Maya had agreed with the plan, when Yousha died and left her uncertain of her place in the family. In fact, it had been her idea: to run away. But the entire thing sounded far away now. "At least see the end of Coryn's visit-"
Neither of the twins had met the son of the king's sister, Neara, but he was constantly praised by Linde and all the nobles in court. At one time, Tamino might have shown some interest at the prospect of his visit - but now, he simply raised an eyebrow.
"He'll distract Linde."
Maya turned back to Shiso and the map, but not before nodding quietly.
She didn't want to go - but Tamino was the most important.
* * *
"...And that's all we've been doing for a while now." Linde paused and leaned back on the garden chair, extending a hand to his cousin in an invitation to join him. "It's good to see you again, Coryn."
Coryn smiled and sat down lightly, kicking his feet out as he did so. He was a brilliant, soldierly type, about five years older than Linde and already an accomplished governor in his own right - taking care of the lands that had yet to be properly assimilated into Lusitania. The people loved him, even if they didn't agree with his policies, and Linde understood why.
Coryn had an air about him that was so much like Yousha's.
"It sounds tough, actually." A flower settled on Coryn's pocket; he flicked it away with an amused expression. "But you still haven't told Tamino anything about this?"
Linde chuckled, but his expression remained sad. "There's no point in making him worry."
"Making him worry?" Coryn echoed, half-laughing, as Linde looked down. "He has every right to know-"
"But he doesn't care. And I don't want him to."
Coryn sighed, and reached over to pat Linde on the head - eliciting a sound somewhere between a frightened squeak and a scream. After a few seconds, Linde's quick breathing calmed.
"He still calls you 'Your Highness,' doesn't he?"
"Yes." The smaller prince dipped his head. "I know."
"Don't you think that's a little weird?"
Linde didn't respond for some long moments, and Coryn had to lean closer to hear when he did.
"He won't stop."
"If you opened up - if you asked for his help-"
Linde stood up suddenly, thrusting his hands into his pockets as he turned back to glare at his cousin.
"I'm not telling him that our father is dead." Coryn smiled sympathetically and made a gesture with his hands, but Linde continued, a bit more quietly. "Tamino thinks I'm an idiot. He'd mutiny if he realized that I was in charge of Lusitania."
"Even though you've been doing a good job so far?"
"If I'm doing a good job, then I don't need his help."
Sighing, Linde motioned for his companion to rise, and started back towards the palace, apparently having had enough of the conversation. Coryn followed reluctantly, staring at the inviting tinge of sunset color on the gray palace walls.
"...He's not your pet, Linde."