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A Better Option

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Prince Malyen slinks into his father’s study with an air of confidence that isn’t at all convincing.

Aleksander frowns at his unruly heir, “sit.”

His son drops down into a chair, a petulant curve to his mouth that makes Aleksander think he’s really been far too lenient with the boy.

“You missed another council meeting today,” he reminds Mal.

“They’re always such dull things,” his son complains.

“I don’t know how you’d know,” Aleksander notes coldly, “since you see fit to deign us with your presence only rarely.”

“I –” Mal begins.

Aleksander cuts him off with a raised hand and a glare, “I don’t want to hear your petty excuses. Hunting in the woods again, I’m assuming? Or tumbling some farmer’s daughter who doesn’t know any better?”

His son’s silence makes Aleksander think one of his guesses is right, possibly both of them.

 

He sighs heavily, “you have had all the advantages I could give you, the opportunity for an education unparalleled in Ravka. And yet you scorn your duties as if they are simple chores you can put off for another day.”

“If you’d just give me some real power,” Mal protests, “rather than endless paperwork and tedious meetings.”

Aleksander snorts, “if I thought you were actually capable, Malyen, I might give you that power. As it is, you must learn that a king’s role is not all ceremonies and parties and warfare. Administration is a necessary part of ruling, however distasteful you might find it.”

“But I –”

“Silence!” Aleksander commands, “I told you I didn’t want to listen to excuses. You are lazy, undiplomatic and far too distracted by running off to the forests to hunt, and sowing your wild oats with any girl who will have you. You need to grow up, Malyen.”

“And I’m sure you’ve got a plan for that,” Mal scowls.

 

Aleksander wonders where he went wrong. His late wife had been a perfectly sensible woman and Aleksander, never one for false modesty, knows he is an excellent king. And yet here he is, with a spoiled brat of an heir constantly pushing his buttons.

It almost makes him consider tossing his son into the dungeons for a week to try and force some sense into his head.

Instead, he’s gone for a more diplomatic solution.

“You are getting married,” he says.

“What?”

Mal is incredulous, eyes wide, mouth agape.

Really, the boy has no manners at all.

“Lady Alina Starkova will be arriving in five days,” he clarifies, “and you will be married five weeks from today.”

 

“I can’t marry Sticks,” Mal exclaims.

Aleksander narrows his eyes, “Sticks? Please tell me you are not referring to the daughter of one of my most loyal lords by such a name.”

“It’s what everyone called her,” his son protests.

“Malyen, I know for a fact that you have not laid eyes on Lady Alina for eight years. Has it not occurred to you that she might have changed, considering she is no longer a child of ten, just as you are supposed to be more mature than a boy of eleven?”

 

Mal mutters something under his breath that Aleksander chooses not to try and decipher. Instead, he orders the boy to find Ivan and catch up on what he missed at the council meeting.

Ivan won’t thank him for foisting the prince upon him, but Aleksander has to go and hear petitions in a few minutes and has no time to try and drill some useful information into the boy’s head.

 

His son leaves, grumbling unhappily at the prospect of a few hours under Ivan’s watchful eye.

Aleksander rubs a hand over his eyes, suddenly tired.

Saints, his son can be such a trial. Sometimes he thinks it might be better to …

But no, better not let those thoughts run away with him.

He might be a little too tempted to make them a reality.

 


 

Lady Alina Starkova had been the ideal choice when Aleksander was considering brides for his son.

The most eligible lady of a similar age to Mal and not already married or betrothed, Fedyor has reported that she is clever, pretty and kind.

Her Ravkan father’s marriage to her Shu mother had been quite a scandal in its time, but the gossip had died down soon enough when it became clear that the new Lady Starkova kept no ties to her home country and was not a spy in disguise. Even Ivan, the most suspicious of his councillors, has long conceded that Lady Starkova is loyal to the crown and to her adopted country.

Some of the more conservative members of his council, well-known for their xenophobic views, had protested the match of the heir to the throne to a lady of mixed Ravkan and Shu heritage. Aleksander has no patience for such prejudice, though, and Lord Starkov had more than proved his loyalty during the war.

Besides, if he has to have a fool for a son then he at least wants intelligent grandchildren.

 


 

On the day of Lady Alina’s arrival, the court is gathered in the Great Hall to welcome her and her retinue.

The entire court, save for the prince and a few of his merry band of idiots, all probably sleeping off a night of drinking.

It is nearing noon and to say Aleksander is unimpressed is an understatement.

He looks over to Fedyor and inclines his head ever so slightly.

The man nods and vanishes in search of the wayward prince.

It really is nice to have competent people who can anticipate his wants and carry out tasks quickly and efficiently. If only he could have a competent son too.

 

“Lady Alina Starkova,” the herald announces a few minutes later, stepping aside to allow the young woman to enter.

Fedyor had called her pretty, but Aleksander’s immediate thought is that she is radiantly beautiful.

Long dark hair shimmering down her back. Skin that seems to glow with some inner light. Her black and gold gown suits her colouring perfectly.

He feels a sudden (and rather inconvenient) rush of attraction towards the lady who is to be his son’s wife.

Thankfully, he has plenty of practice in keeping his emotions off his face. Only Ivan, who knows him so well that he seems to catch almost every change in his demeanour, seems to realise his heart is beating a little too fast.

 

“Your Majesty,” she curtsies and, although her head is bowed, he notices that she looks up at him, her expression more curious than coquettish.

Well, it’s good she isn’t the simpering sort. It might be what Mal seems to prefer at the moment, but it isn’t much use in a queen. She is Lord Starkov’s daughter, though, and that man has got a good head on his shoulders that Aleksander is hoping his daughter has inherited.

“Lady Alina,” he nods, “welcome. I do hope your journey was not too difficult.”

 

They speak for ten minutes or so about the journey (she seems to approve of his recent project to improve the road conditions) and her impressions of the city (the lady is frank enough to say it does not smell half as bad as she, used to the countryside, imagined it would, and the bark of laughter this comment elicits from him makes several of his more nervous courtiers jump, much to her clear amusement).

It should be Mal doing this – welcoming his betrothed, making her feel at ease in her new home.

Aleksander finds, however, that he doesn’t particularly mind having to shoulder this particular duty while his son drags himself out of bed – from what he can discern from their short meeting, Lady Alina is a charming and engaging young woman.

He has an errant thought that the lady really is far too good for the likes of Mal.

No, though … he’s having dangerous thoughts again.

 

Mal finally arrives, clean and dressed in fresh clothes, but pale and a little shaky on his feet.

“My son,” Aleksander booms, perhaps making his voice a little too loud on purpose.

In the corner, Ivan snorts quietly.

 

The meeting goes well enough, he supposes.

Mal is polite, although his hangover makes him reluctant to say much.

There is some awkwardness towards the end of their conversation when his stupid son refers to his betrothed by that ridiculous nickname of ‘Sticks’, a faux pas made even worse by the fact that Lady Alina, while slender, has a figure that certainly invites admiration.

And if Aleksander admires it a little more than he probably should, no one (save Ivan, damn him and his eagle eyes) notices.

 

“Why don’t I show you the library,” Aleksander interjects just as Mal is about to make a bad situation even worse, “we have an excellent collection of maps and I believe that is something of an interest of yours.”

Lady Alina takes his offered arm with a smile, “I should very much enjoy that, Your Majesty. My father allowed me to bring a number of my favourite maps from home – perhaps we could have them brought to the library to compare the differences.”

Aleksander’s interest in the maps is mostly for strategic use, but he certainly has no objections to an afternoon spent in the company of Lady Alina, especially since he imagines some of her maps may have more up-to-date information about the area surrounding her home, which has not been visited by any of the royal mapmakers in almost a decade.

“That sounds like an excellent idea, Lady Alina. Shall we?”

 

They walk off to the library together, chaperoned by a red-haired woman a few years older than Lady Alina. He believes Lady Genya to be her neighbour and friend, sent to court as a companion and to find a husband of her own.

Thankfully, Lady Genya is an indulgent chaperone, winking at her friend and then sitting down on the opposite side of the large library. He wonders if he should be concerned by her apparent lack of concern for her charge’s safety, but then he remembers Lady Alina is supposed to be his son’s bride and Aleksander, despite his fearsome reputation, is not known for compromising the ladies of his court.

Even if he is starting to think he would enjoy compromising this one very much indeed.

 

Aleksander and Alina study the maps and he relaxes a little, in his element as they talk about the differences between the castle’s maps and the ones she has brought from home.

At one point he looks over to check on Lady Genya, only to see she is talking animatedly at David as he works on one of his latest experiments. He wishes her luck with that conquest – David is a lord of not insignificant means but most ladies are put off by his scientific interests and tendency to go days in the library without speaking to another soul, entirely oblivious to the world around him as he works.

 

The time passes quickly, and soon enough it is time for Aleksander to go and deal speak with a few of his lords, while Lady Alina retires to her chamber to prepare herself for dinner.

He cannot quite resist the urge to take her hand and press a gentle kiss to it, unreasonably pleased to see her blush slightly in response.

Lady Genya, clearly no wilting flower, rolls her eyes and half drags her friend out of the room, muttering something that makes Lady Alina’s cheeks redden even further.

“At least,” he hears the red-head say, “he’s got more charm than that boor of a son of his. I think you’d have far more fun being married to the King than the Prince.”

And isn’t that an interesting idea.

 


 

Mal manages to make it to dinner on time.

Unfortunately, he appears to have forgotten his manners … again.

 

“Ivan,” Aleksander mutters to his most trusted counsellor as they watch Lady Alina’s increasingly disgusted expression as Mal makes his way through his meal without even picking up his fork, “who was supposed to be teaching etiquette to my son?”

“Lord Petrov, your Majesty.”

Aleksander remembers the man. Second only to the late, unlamented Lord Lantsov in his whoring, drinking and hunting.

“I want half his lands and any ceremonial positions he possesses to revert to the Crown. Tell him he should be thankful he’s keeping his head.”

 

Saints, he’s getting a headache.

A king spends years fighting off Fjerda and Shu Han to secure Ravka’s borders, then immediately finds themselves embroiled in a brief but irritating civil war with the idiotic Lord Lantsov and the ambitious Lord Zlatan, and then, when he finally rules over a strong nation at peace, he finds his vassals have entirely failed in educating his only child.

Mal has, thankfully, finished eating. Now, though, he is talking without letting his betrothed get a word in edgeways. When the lady asks about the city and its people, his son totally ignores her question in favour of another tale of how he had tracked some beast in the forest and caught it where no one else could have.

Aleksander will admit that his son’s hunting skills are unparalleled. However, Mal does not yet appear to have grasped that one cannot spend all of one’s time speaking about one single topic.

 

Lady Alina turns to look at him and Aleksander raises his glass to her, shrugging apologetically when Mal waves his hands vigorously during one of his stories and almost hits her in the head.

“That poor girl,” Fedyor shakes his head, “I fear she won’t have a particularly enjoyable marriage.”

Ivan snorts, “there’s an easy solution. I’ve been telling you for years, Your Majesty, all you have to do is let a couple of the larger animals escape the menagerie while he’s on one of his ridiculous hunts and the problem is all gone.”

“Not in public, Vanya,” Fedyor nudges Ivan in the ribs.

Aleksander says nothing. He only watches as Mal spills a goblet of wine onto Lady Alina’s dress.

And wonders.

 


 

His son avoids both his betrothed and his responsibilities over the next few weeks.

Aleksander, sick of trying to force his son to care, allows him to gallivant around while Lady Alina dutifully prepares for her new role in the castle.

 

She joins him when he hears petitions, softly offering a few sensible suggestions when he looks to her for her thoughts.

She visits the city, meeting merchants and peasants and spending a day touring the city’s orphanages.

She sits in a corner of his study, sketching while he works, presenting him with an excellent likeness of him at his desk, as well as other images of the castle, the courtiers, the grounds … everything except his son.

 

Lady Alina also attends the council meetings that Mal thinks are beneath him, and his council do not object to her presence.

Some of them want to, he knows, but they are cowed by Lady Nina and Lady Zoya, who join their husbands during most council meetings and, it must be said, offer much of the better advice given to him during such meetings.

While Lady Alina has not had lessons on statecraft, her parents have still ensured she has an excellent education. Her contributions to the discussions are always well thought out, often centering on how best to improve the lot of the Ravkan people and care for the orphans scattered across the country.

 

She’ll make an excellent queen.

He just isn’t sure if Mal is the one destined to be her king.

 


 

Aleksander is not a tyrant.

His people do not go hungry. His borders are kept secure to avoid raids. His punishments can be harsh but he always considers them fair. He does not drink to excess, never defiles the ladies of his court or the maids in his castle, does not strike anyone without just provocation, gives his servants fair wages and rewards hard work and loyalty from his people.

Really, the occasional (or slightly more frequent, recently) murderous thought about his son should be forgiven. The boy is a thorn in his side rather than a productive member of his court, after all, a drain on his resources with his bad habits

And it’s not like he ever means for the thoughts to be anything other than little daydreams he uses to amuse himself every now and then.

Except …

Well, he really can’t stand the idea of seeing Lady Alina married to Mal.

 


 

It all comes to a head three days before the wedding is set to take place.

Their heads close together as they look over some paperwork that will provide the city’s largest orphanage with some much-needed extra funds.

They turn at the same time, their lips meeting a happy accident.

He knows he should pull away, but he leans in instead.

This might be his only chance and he’s not about to waste it.

 

She is simply Alina now, as she ends up in his lap, her arms around his neck tugging him closer to her.

There is nothing sordid about this. It doesn’t feel like that with her, seems instead like a natural progression.

 

“I must be honest, Your Majesty,” she admits a few minutes later, still curled up in his lap, “Genya has offered to provide me with a draught to slip into Prince Malyen’s ale, one that would ensure he falls asleep and never wakes up.”

“Oh,” he says, “how enterprising of her.”

Alina smiles slightly, “Genya is a very good friend. And she has a talent for tinctures and poisons.”

“Hmm,” Aleksander considers, “you know, our apothecary is getting on in years. It might be nice to have some new blood around.”

“I think Genya would like a reason to stay,” Alina admits, “she is rather taken with Lord David, despite his … obliviousness.”

He laughs, “I rather think she won’t let him ignore her for long. But, circling back, I must ask – were you planning to use your friend’s draught?”

 

Alina looks guilty, “I confess that I wished to. But, in spite of his shortcomings, he is your son, and I believed you must love him.”

Aleksander pauses. Thinks for a moment.

Realises the only thing he’s felt for his son in almost ten years is a constant, low-level exasperation interspersed every now and then with actual anger.

“Would it shock you, Alina, if I were to tell you that I would not experience any sorrow should my son depart this world tomorrow?”

He wraps an arm around her waist, pulls her close to him, nuzzles the soft skin of her neck.

“Would you despise me?” he asks, as he presses kisses to her clavicle, trying not to groan at her soft, breathy sighs, “if I admitted that I would put a dagger into Mal’s heart myself if it meant I could have you as my queen … in my bed … pregnant with my son?”

“I …” she cannot continue for a moment, moaning his name as she feels the evidence of his physical attraction and writhes a little in his lap, “I would say … that I would do my utmost to ensure our children never end up like Prince Malyen.”

He captures her mouth then, hungry for every taste he can get of her.

 

When they break apart, flushed and breathless, he can see the desire and the attraction shining in her eyes.

Saints, he wants her.

 

All in good time, though.

He’ll have what he wants soon enough.

They both will.

 


 

Prince Malyen does not die in an ambush. He is not stabbed by an unknown attacker. He does not fall from his horse while jousting. He is not attacked by wild animals in the forest.

Instead, he simply goes to sleep one night and never wakes up.

A tragedy, the physicians say. Some sort of undiagnosed heart condition.

 

Genya tucks away a small bottle, sings to herself as she takes over from the old apothecary when he goes to enjoy his retirement in a nice dacha in the country, smiles when she manages to get David to say good morning to her.

Aleksander and Alina stand side-by-side, dressed in mourning clothes. The king is solemn. The lady weeps.

(perhaps they would both have enjoyed wielding a dagger, but sometimes subtlety is the better way to go).

 

The country doesn’t mourn, exactly.

Prince Malyen’s work-shy habits are well known, after all.

Still, the country needs an heir. Their king is in his prime, really, but he won’t be around forever.

And Lady Alina is so conveniently already settled at the castle, has spent a number of weeks preparing to become the highest-ranking lady in the land.

It really makes sense. The king needs a young wife, one who can give him a number of children. Lady Alina was considered the right choice for their future queen, and there is no reason she cannot take on the role a little earlier than planned.

 

Yes, people whisper, it really would tie things up very nicely.

 


 

When the period of mourning is over, King Aleksander weds Lady Alina in a magnificent ceremony at the Os Alta Cathedral.

There is a little bit of talk about their age gap, but there has been far worse before. Twenty-one years is not insurmountable, and all are agreed that the king certainly does not look his age.

Besides, their serious king looks happier than they’ve ever seen him as he is tied for life to Lady Alina.

In fact, it almost looks as if the bride and groom are in love already.

 

And if Queen Alina is delivered of an unusually large baby boy an unusually short seven and a half months after her wedding, well, no one is going to say anything about it.

She is such a popular queen, after all, and it is a blessing to have a healthy new heir so soon after Price Mal’s tragic demise.

All is well in Ravka.