They meet at one of her mother's grand soirees. He looks out of place, like the alien he is, in his wrinkled, simple cotton clothes and scuffed but comfortable boots. She feels out of place, like an actor in an ill-fitting costume, in her shimmering silk gown, sparkling tiara, and weighty jewels. They are outcasts so it's only natural that they gravitate towards each other.
Though it would make for a dramatic, romantic tale to recount at bedtime, it is not love at first sight. For one thing, it is not his first time to see her. He's popped in a time or two to catch a glimpse of the beautiful and brilliant Princess of Nasha. How could he resist such a legend? Nor is he a stranger to her. What child hasn't eagerly devoured the wild, wonderful of the mysterious, tragic hero known only as the Veil Crosser?
For another thing, it is not love. Something as all-encompassing, as soul-shattering, as life re-shaping as love takes more than mere seconds to form. Love requires work. It requires pouring everything you possess, every breath you take, into giving it life. Love cannot be created at the blink of an eye. Even if one of you is considered a deity on no fewer than seven worlds the other is the genius heir to the greatest, most prosperous kingdom in history.
His keen, dark eyes are drawn, naturally, to the brightest thing in the room. And, oh, how she shines. She's twice as blinding as the three suns of Loph'hang. It is not her physical beauty that pulls his feet across the polished hardwood floor, though that certainly isn't stopping him. It's the brilliance of her mind, the light in her pretty little soul, that draws him in.
Spotting the Crosser beside a silver tray of imported wine sends a shiver of relief down her spine. She loathes these parties. Especially the ones that proclaim they are in celebration of some obscure event but are really an opportunity for every royal mama to thrust her single son into the spotlight. She hates the insincere compliments, the pointless small talk, and the gossip. She's absolutely certain that her mother only requires her presence as punishment for something terrible she did as a child but has long-since forgotten.
The Crosser, though, is the perfect cure for her terminal case of boredom.
She politely excuses herself from the conversation with the Duke of Lower Whogivesadamn and drops into a deep curtsy in front of the Crosser. She knows all eyes in the room have shifted to her so she pastes on a wide smile. She might as well give them a show. She can only hope he is willing to play along.
"It is an honor to meet you, My Lord Veil Crosser."
The Crosser does not disappoint. His wide, goofy grin sets her nerves at ease. His formal bow looks ridiculous on someone dressed so casually. "On the contrary, both the honor and the pleasure are all mine, Your Highness."
She holds out her hand, family jewels twinkling on her slender fingers. She does not keep her wrist up and fingers limp. She extends her entire arm, palm sideways and fingers straight. It is her father's handshake, not her mother's. "Lila."
His large, warm hand engulfs her smaller, cooler one. He squeezes her hand tightly and is pleasantly surprised when she returns the gesture. She's got spirit, this little princess. "Vic."
Hand still tucked in the Crosser's, Lila cocks her head to the side and regards him with dazzling gray-blue eyes. "Vic-tor, I assume. You do not strike me as the Vic-tim sort." She chuckles softly, and it reminds him of pearls and rubies and the wild songbirds of his homeland. "Then again, it could be Lodovico, for all I know. If it is, I assure you that Vic is a wise choice."
Vic - not Victor or Victim or, gods preserve him, Lodovico, but a fourteen syllable name only pronounceable by the handful of people who speak the old language - knows without a shadow of a doubt that he's going to take Princess Lila with him when he leaves. She does not fit the cliché of the poor, abused, lost princess in fairy tales, but he is going to rescue her all the same. Remaining in such a dull, slow, colorless world will only atrophy her mind and kill the spark in her soul.
By the time the last of the intoxicated lords and ladies have been seen into their shiny chauffeured cars, Lila is standing beside Vic in front of her parents with a small black suitcase at her feet. She listens dutifully as her mother lists the dozens of reasons she must stay behind.
It is an impressive list. Aside from being heir to the throne, Lila has responsibilities. Mountains of them. She is scheduled to lecture at the Nasha Institute of Science for the remainder of the year. Thanks to her lineage and strong bloodlines, she is the strongest energy manipulator in Nasha, and she is a veil child. There are people and, at times, entire worlds depending upon her.
And if she stays, she's going to drown under the weight of all that. The King of Nasha, simply smiles at his daughter when his wife winds down. He kisses her forehead lovingly then turns stern, concerned eyes onto Vic. "Take care of my jewel."
Though he is thousands of years older than the king, Vic nods his head in acknowledgement. He is, after all, taking away the man's most precious possession. The brightest part of Nasha. "You have my word."
With a stunning, genuine grin on her face, one her parents haven't seen since she was a child, Lila lifts her suitcase and grasps Vic's hand. Her heart thuds in anticipation. This is it. The start of the grand adventure she's longed for.
Oh, what an adventure it is. They visit worlds Lila hadn't dared dream about. Vic teaches her more about the Veils and energy manipulation than she could have ever learned back home. He couldn't be more pleased with his pupil. She soaks information like a sponge and offers her own observations on social interaction and the politics of the various worlds they see.
The love that didn't steal their breath at first sight grows slowly, silently. It remains unobtrusive, only showing itself through small gestures: the hand he keeps at the small of her back in case she ever stumbles, the goodnight kiss she presses to his cheek to keep the terrible loneliness out of his eyes, the way they learn to say a hundred words without having speak aloud. Each trip, each time they land with that skip and bump that makes Lila's heart miss a beat, only makes the love grow.
It is not all stops at tropical paradises or shopping at bustling, boisterous markets. He takes his duty very seriously. The Veil Crosser is the universe's mediator, police force, and all-around force of nature. He stops slavery on several worlds, takes down tyrants, and even stops an earthquake once. He admits to himself, and even to her after one too many sips of strong Haafen wine, that it's easier when he has his shiny, brilliant girl by his side.
All adventures, though, must come to an end. Four years after placing her hand into Vic's, Lila, still crown princess of Nasha, learns that lesson in a devastating way.
On Tritash IV she sprains her ankle running away from a squad of gun-toting Freads. They make it to his vessel Serendipity before the bullets start to fly. As soon as the doors close, they slide to the floor, still arm in arm, and listen to the tings as bullets hit the sturdy metal hull of his ship.
Lila is panting for oxygen, her cheeks are flushed, and her hair is in disarray. To him, she's still the most beautiful creature in the universe. The tings remind him how close, how so very, very close, he came to losing her. She's connected to the Veils, true, but she's not of them like he is. She is not invulnerable. She can die. She will die if she continues to bounce from one troubled world to the next with him. It's just a sprained ankle here, but it was a broken arm three trips ago and a concussion during their visit to Mariz.
Mouth set in a determined line, he surges to his feet and brushes the dust off his trousers. He holds out a hand, hauls her to her feet, and then returns to the ship's consoles. He punches in the coordinates for her home world. The ship lurches and he feels the familiar tingle as they cross through the veils.
"So? Where to next?" Lila leans back against the cool, metal wall and crosses her arms over her chest. She would have liked to stay longer on Tritash IV, but their job is to start the revolutions, to set the wheels in motion. They're not the ones who stick around to watch the fall out. She can count on one hand the number of time they've been part of the clean-up crew.
"I'm taking you home."
She shrugs her shoulders. Home's not so bad a place. It will be good to see her parents and brothers again. "If you can put us back a week after we left last time, we can be there for the Strawberry Harvest. It is always exciting. We can make a long weekend of it."
He crosses the control room in three large strides. He cups her cheek with a warm hand. He keeps his face as blank as possible. She's called him a heartless bastard before. It's time he tries to live up to that label. "You're going home to stay."
"What? Is it because of the incident on Legoa? I hate to remind you, Vic, but that was not my fault."
The teasing smile slides off her face when he doesn't join in her laughter. Oh. Oh no. He really is sending her home for good. Hot tears sting her eyes and a lump clogs her throat. She wants to throw herself at him and demand an explanation, but she is her mother's daughter. Dignity. Never disgrace.
"May I inquire as to why I am being sent home like an errant child?"
He brushes a tear off her cheek with the pad of his thumb. "This is dangerous, princess. Too dangerous for someone as precious as you."
Her eyelids flutter shut. Of course. It always comes down to that. She nods jerkily and takes a small step backwards. His hand falls off her face and hangs limply by his side. For a moment, he looks as lost as she feels. Every cell in her body, her stupid, weak mortal body, aches to comfort him.
She wants to believe that when he calls her precious, he means that she's precious to him. It would be nice to tell herself that he's sending her way, locking her in an ivory tower, because he loves her too much to lose her to a Fread or a Huloa or any of the others they've been up against. It wouldn't make leaving him any easier, but at least then she'd have a leg to stand on when it comes to arguing. It would be a balm to her fracturing heart.
But, that's not what he means. One of the things she loves about him is his ability to see the big picture. Even if that means he misses what's right in front of him. When he calls her precious, he means precious to her world. Her value comes, not from who she is, but from what she is: future Queen of Nasha, most advanced energy manipulator in her kingdom, genius scientist, and Veil Child. She's too valuable to everyone, but or maybe including him just not in the way she wants, to risk taking on any more adventures.
She wants to beg to stay. Wants to lock herself in her room on Serendipity and refuse to come out. She wants to tell him how much she absolutely, completely loves him. But life has never been about what she wants. Besides, she cannot do that to the man who taught her to be more than a bored, spoiled princess. In the end, all she does is pack her suitcase with clothes and the trinkets she's picked up over the years, and step out of the ship that feels like home and into the palace that does not.
Before she's swallowed up by her mother's enthusiastic hug and her father's strong arms, she risks a glance back at the man in Serendipity'sdoorway. He raises his hand and wriggles his fingers in a half-wave. His mouth opens like he's going to say something, and the breath catches in her throat. If he says the word, she'll pick her bag up and follow him to the ends of the universe. Family and duty and responsibility be damned.
He slips back into his ship without saying anything at all. In the small gaps of silence between her mother's squeals, her father's greetings, and the cacophony in the throne room, is the sound of a heart shattering into a thousand tiny pieces.
For a year, she tries to move on. She tries to give her responsibilities the attention they deserve. She learns at her father's right hand. She absorbs every scrap of knowledge she can about peace treaties, trade agreements, and national defense. She can see her father's excitement about it all, but after chasing down rogue armies and talking down a tyrannical Daddna, it all seems a bit dull to her.
She picks up her energy studies and even attends a physics conference or two. She spends time with her family, becomes the perfect sister, daughter, and princess. Her hours are filled, from sunrise to well after dark, with millions of things, but it never seems to be enough. Her mind and body are in Nasha, but her heart and soul are stuck on Serendipity.
Thirteen months, four days, and sixteen hours after returning to Nasha, she makes her decision. She can't live this life anymore. It is killing her from the inside out. It is not fair to those who depend on her, either. They deserve more than half a princess, sister, daughter, whatever else she is. So over breakfast of toast and eggs, she surprises her mother, but not her father, by announcing her plans to remove herself from the line of succession. Her brother George, only ten months younger, is monarch material. He will do the House of Neyla proud.
Hands washed of one responsibility, she starts tutoring her youngest brother Thomas in energy manipulation. After a few false starts, he picks it up. He's not the natural she is because he is not a true Veil Child, but he has a quick mind and eager heart. Late at night, when the rest of the palace is sleeping, she writes down all her thoughts, every scrap of knowledge, every theory, into thick notebooks.
It doesn't take long to become a ghost. She drifts through the halls but has no impact on anyone except the servants who clean her room, wash her clothes, and prepare her meals. She limits the time spent with each family member to ten minutes a day. Her mother wails and rails against her, but her father seems to understand. If she ever gets the chance to go back to him, she'll take it without thinking twice. And this time, she won't leave behind anyone or anything that relies on her.
Three years, two months, seventeen days, five hours, and twenty-six minutes after he left her in the palace throne room, he reappears in the courtyard outside her suite. He has not aged, one of the benefits of being of the Veil, but she can see the strain around his eyes and the tension in his lean body. She uncurls her legs and smoothly rises off the concrete bench. This is not how she envisioned their reunion, she'd had plenty of time to plan it down to the laces on her shoes, but she'll take what she can get.
"Hello, Princess Lila of Nasha." He pauses for a moment and tilts his head to the side in that way she loves. It makes her want to clamp her lips on the juncture between his neck and his shoulder and finally answer the question of whether or not he tastes as good as he looks. "Or is it Queen Lila, now?"
She shakes her head solemnly. "Not Queen. My brother's coronation is in three months. King George, can you believe it?"
She takes advantage of the utter astonishment on his face to step forward and wind her arms around his waist. She presses herself against him, humming happily when his hands automatically fall to her hips. She rises up on her toes so that her lips brush the shell of his ear. "Guess what? I'm not precious anymore."
He throws his head back and laughs. It's a joyous, infectious sound that reminds her of babies and games and a broken heart mending. He's still grinning when he kisses her forehead and snuggles her closer.
Later, when they're back to bouncing between and through veils, he'll make her understand just how precious she'll always be.