Juliana thought there was something ironic about being the most powerful woman in the country while also unable to hold up a simple soup spoon. She pinched her lips closed and shook her head when her maid lifted the spoon from the bowl. Her stomach was already protesting the small amount of clear broth she'd swallowed.
"Prince Harold has returned, my lady," Marcus, the head of palace security, said from his position in the doorway. He kept his eyes fixed on a spot just over Juliana's head. Seeing his cherished queen, once so vivacious and beautiful, in her sickbed made his heart ache.
"Thank you, Marcus. Please tell him that I would like to see him as soon as possible."
With a bow of the head, Marcus backed out into the hallway. Juliana bit back a sigh as her maid Carol plumped the pillows behind her back and tucked the thick quilt under her chin. She felt like a child instead of the ruler of Avedra and its colonies. As her health continued to deteriorate, she often wished that her mind would follow. It was one thing to be frail as a newborn and quite another to be aware of your weakness and trapped inside a failing body.
"My darling girl!"
At Harold's entrance, Carol flashed Juliana a sly smile before ducking out of the room and closing the door. She sincerely hoped that the return of the Prince Consort improved the queen's spirits and appetite. While the head chef no longer saw half-eaten meals as a personal insult, he did get testy when she returned to the kitchen with full plates and bowls.
"Hello, Harry." Juliana forced her lips to curl up and injected a note of cheerfulness into her tone. She tilted her face up for his kiss. Though his lips were dry and tasted of tobacco, they were warm and firm against her chilled skin. She sighed softly when he moved away far too soon.
Harold perched on the edge of the bed and clasped her bony hands between his larger, warmer ones. Concerned blue eyes regarded her carefully. "I heard that Doctor Lowry spent the morning going over your latest test results. Please tell me he finally has made a breakthrough."
Juliana's heart sank. She'd hoped to postpone the conversation for as long as possible, but her Harry always went straight for the kill. It was one of the things she loved most about him. She swallowed and blinked rapidly to hold back the tears pooling in her eyes.
"I am dying." She'd practiced saying it her head a hundred times, had tried a dozen different ways to word it, but it still didn't feel right on her tongue. She doubted there was a good way to inform your spouse of your imminent demise.
Harold's mouth fell open. His grip on Juliana's hands tightened. "Is there anything Doctor Lowry can do?"
"No. The virus attacked my internal organs. Even if he were able to stop the virus from spreading, too much damage has already been done." Juliana congratulated herself for getting the words out without wavering or her voice cracking. Doctor Lowry had offered to give Harold the diagnosis, but Juliana had insisted on telling him herself. Her prognosis fell under the heading of 'better or worse' and they'd vowed to tackle every obstacle together.
"What about your sisters? Surely they can donate what you need. Have Lisette and Astra been tested?"
Juliana's eyes flashed angrily. She'd lashed out when a similar suggestion had been made by one of her advisors, but she refrained from yelling at Harold. At least she knew his concerned stemmed from his love for her and not his desire to maintain the status quo. What man wouldn't try and do everything to save his wife from death?
"They are vital organs, Harry," she said gently, "if I need them then Lissy and Az do as well."
"But they are not…" He broke off, closed his eyes and exhaled noisily. His face was ashen and his fingers trembled slightly. He couldn't believe what he was hearing.
"Not what, Harry?" Juliana slipped her hands out of his grip and gently caressed his tanned forearm. She longed to be wrapped up in his strong arms, nothing ever seemed to hurt when he held her, but they needed to finish their painful discussion before she could properly welcome him home.
"Not you, my darling girl. They are not you."
Warm tears spilled out of Juliana's eyes and over her cheeks. Love swelled her heart until she feared it would burst. How had she gotten so lucky? Theirs had been a political marriage arranged by their parents, but she couldn't have asked for a better man. Harold adored her because she was Juliana Veadra and not because she was Queen of Avedra.
"Oh, my love. I am very sorry that I have to leave you so soon." She lifted his hand and pressed her lips his knuckles. "I had hoped for a lifetime of love and laughter."
"And children." Harold's lips quirked up in a wistful smile. "Adorable little girls with my hair and those beautiful Veadra eyes. Little queens and princesses we could spoil."
Too choked up to speak, she nodded in agreement. They had often discussed having a large family rather than just the typical 'heir and spare.' Though Avedra was a matriarchal monarchy, Harold was second in line for the throne in his home country of Charis. Their children would have been powerful political pawns in either country, not that Juliana would have let them be used by anyone. Her parents had taught her that children were more than a commodity.
"I… oh, Harry… I will be dead by month's end."
Harold nodded once, eyes still squeezed shut. He patted Juliana's knee before rising from the bed. When he finally met her tearful gaze, there was no warmth or kindness in his cold, blue stare. "Well, I have to say that this not how I planned it."
"P-planned it?" Juliana struggled to sit upright. She cursed her stupid, weak body when she couldn't summon the strength to move. "What are you talking about?"
"I married the wrong Veadra bitch. I should have gone for pretty little Lissy." Harold examined the pre-loaded syringes on Juliana's nightstand. While playing the dutiful husband, he'd insisted on learning how to treat his wife's pain and how to sedate her when the pain grew unbearable. "I was prepared to be patient, but you've forced my hand."
Juliana's heart thudded painfully in her chest. She bristled at the way he said Lisette's name. Though Harold was her husband, Lissy was her little sister. She'd promised their parents she would protect both her sisters. While Astra could take care of herself, Lisette was the naïve and gentle sister. Juliana's fists clenched.
"I demand to know what you're talking about! What do you mean you should have married Lissy?"
"I'm afraid your time for making demands is over, my queen." Harold jabbed a needle into Juliana's arm, pressed down on the plunger. "Welcome to the fall of the House of Veadra."
A/N: This is part of a much longer story/mini-series. It's a gift for Cathy who wanted something short and sad with a dash of romance. Also, she's letting me get over my "princess" kick.