Author's Note: I wrote this to get rid of the old enemy known as writer's block. It's vaguely inspired by the animated film Anastasia. At the minute it's a one-shot, but who knows, I might continue it or write more about the characters someday.
Let any one speak long enough, he will get believers.
– Robert Louis Stevenson, The Master of Ballantrae
I have told many lies in my life. But there are four that stand out.
Lie number one:
Prince Eyldanin survived the murder of his family.
My real name is Mirilor Vier. I was a furniture-maker's son who happened to bear a strong resemblance to Prince Eyldanin. My family wasn't rich in those long-ago days, before the revolution that promised such great things but brought us nothing but misery. Yet we were happy. My resemblance to the Prince was a mere curiosity of no real importance.
Then came distant rumours of riots in the capital. Before we knew what was happening, a train had arrived in our village with the King, the Queen, and all eight of their children.
"Guorior no longer has a king," announced the captain of the soldiers who brought them. "We have thrown off those shackles. Now we have a president, and the people's voice will finally be heard!"
I was only eleven. What did I know of kings or presidents? All I knew was that the royal family were to be locked up in a mansion outside the village, and the captain of the soldiers wanted someone in the village to be his messenger.
I was paid good wages to go up to the mansion every morning, take a piece of paper the captain handed to me, and deliver it to the post office to be sent to the captain's superiors. Every evening I went to the post office to see if there was any reply, and if there was I brought it straight to the captain.
On some of these visits I caught glimpses of the royal family inside the palace. They were forbidden from ever setting foot through the doors, but I saw them through the windows. For the first time I saw the boy I resembled so much.
Prince Eyldanin was only a year older than me. Seen up close, he didn't look nearly as much like me as everyone said. But there was enough of a similarity to make people look twice. Several times the soldiers almost stopped me, mistaking me for the prince. Several times the king and queen stared at me as if they couldn't believe their eyes.
Several times the prince waved at me. I waved back. We never spoke. I was forbidden for going into the house, and he was forbidden from leaving it.
I couldn't believe my ears when I heard he was dead.
Everything was over before anyone but the soldiers knew about it. The president, that great man who was to listen to the people's voice, had decided that the people's voice was too much opposed to him and too sympathetic to the royals. So he ordered the entire family murdered in their sleep one night. The parents and the children were all stabbed to death in their beds. The oldest child was twenty, the youngest only four months. All of them dead as dust.
So, you ask, how is it that Prince Eyldanin was crowned King Consort when his cousin-wife overthrew the traitors and reclaimed her throne? How is it that he and his wife have reigned for almost fifty years?
The answer is simple.
Eyldanin didn't live to wear a crown. I wear it for him.
And that leads us to the second lie, which doubtless you have already guessed.
Lie number two:
I am the Prince.
By the time I turned sixteen my parents had saved enough money to send me out of Guorior. Doubtless anyone who reads this will either remember or have heard of the terrible changes the president made. Universities and colleges were closed down, because everyone was equal and no one had a right to a better education than anyone else. Anyone who wished to leave the country was viewed with extreme suspicion at best and outright forbidden to leave at worst. But there were "guides". They were people who would, for a price, help others escape without going through official checkpoints. It was dangerous and it often led to the death of the person trying to escape, their guide, and any family either of them left behind, but it could be done.
My parents decided to take the chance for me.
"You have no future in this land any more," my mother told me in a whisper one night. We only dared to speak of this subject late at night, with the doors and windows locked, and even then we spoke in whispers. No one ever knew when they were being watched. "There's a whole world outside Guorior, where you can get a good education and become anything you want. And maybe someday things will be better and you can come home."
So they found a guide to take me across the nearest border.
I never saw them again. I have never been able to learn what happened to them. They died, I am sure, at the hands of the secret police who arrest and kill anyone they suspected of the most minor crime.
My guide got me across the border safely. They left me in Darunia, with only a handful of coins and no idea where to go. But I was free, and I was alive.
As I huddled in an old barn for shelter that night, I thought of the Prince. I remembered him waving at me. I remembered how much I looked like him. And for the first time I imagined, as the cold wind chilled me to the bone, that I was him. I imagined that he had miraculously survived, and that he was living in exile until he came to reclaim his throne.
I didn't know then that my imagination foretold my future.
I found work in Darunia, and went to school there. I struggled to learn the language. I struggled with my lessons, so much more advanced than anything taught in Guorior. But I was determined. I would go to university. I would study hard, pass my exams, and become a lawyer. I would be rich and famous, I was sure of it.
And I succeeded in part of my plans. I did go to university. And that was where I met her.
I didn't meet Princess Shaciar until my second year at university. First I met one of her co-conspirators.
Teirlesh Druszka was – in name at least – a fellow student of mine. I say in name because she did very little studying. Her main occupation seemed to be stealing or smuggling, and in her free time she fell into bed with every attractive man in the university who'd have her.
I, who actually was there to study, was hardly aware of who she was until a certain day. On that day she walked past me in the library. Then she stopped and turned to stare at me. She stared at me so intently and for so long that she became impossible to ignore.
"What?" I asked – defensively, I'll admit. "Is there something wrong with my clothes?"
She took a step forward, still staring. "You look just like–" She shook her head and offered me a smile. "Sorry. I could have sworn you were a… relative of an acquaintance."
That was the first of many meetings. Teirlesh would stop and talk to me if she saw me. She asked where I was from, and about my parents. I told her as much as I thought wise. There always seemed to be a hidden meaning underlying each seemingly-innocent question. My answers never seemed to satisfy her.
At last she asked me outright.
"Are you Prince Eyldanin?"
I answered just as bluntly. "No, I am not."
Teirlesh nodded as if she'd thought as much. But her body slumped against the wall, as if she was truly disappointed beneath her unconcerned appearance. "Is there any chance he's still alive?"
I thought of the graves I had seen being filled in. Of the unnaturally still figures covered by cloth. "No."
After that Teirlesh seemed to take me into her confidence. I couldn't imagine why, but it was pleasant to be confided in.
"I work for Princess Shaciar when I've nothing better to do," she said one evening as she lay sprawled out on my bed. We weren't lovers yet, but she would come to my rooms, lie on my bed and watch me study. "She's the Prince's cousin, and she wants to reclaim the throne. The people of Guorior hate the president, I've heard. They'd rise up and massacre everyone associated with him if they had a hope of someone coming and ruling them properly. Shaciar plans to be that proper ruler."
"What has this to do with me?" I asked, pushing my neglected textbook away.
Teirlesh would not be goaded into explaining anything before she was ready. "She's the result of a morganatic marriage. She can't claim the throne herself. Well, she can, but all the other claimants would crawl out of the woodwork denouncing her as a usurper. So she needs to marry someone with a much more iron-bound claim. She hoped one of her cousins would have survived the murders."
I shook my head. "No one did. And believe me, Guorior is in such a mess that we'd welcome any queen. Her mother's rank or lack of it wouldn't matter at all."
"Not to the people," Teirlesh agreed. "But certainly to the surviving royals. There are some, you know, scattered all over the known world. And they all hope to take the throne one day… when someone else has done the actual work and dealt with the rebels."
She fell silent. I opened my textbook and tried to study. Her next words chased away all thoughts of laws and precedents.
"What if you became Prince Eyldanin?"
Princess Shaciar wasn't fooled for a minute. But then, she wasn't supposed to be fooled. Teirlesh told her the whole truth within seconds of presenting me to her. The aim of this ruse was to fool the rest of the world.
The Princess didn't look like a future queen at all. She looked like a quiet, unremarkable young woman. Her clothes were well-made but wouldn't attract a second glance. She wore no jewels or make-up at all. But there was a steely look in her eyes that warned me she would get what she wanted, no matter how many people were in her way.
"We must teach you all about our family," she said. I couldn't tell if she was using the royal we, or if she was including Teirlesh in this statement. "Your pretence must be absolutely foolproof."
Lie number three:
I fell in love at first sight with the Princess.
I don't know if I have ever fallen in love with my wife. If I have, it's happened so gradually and unobtrusively that I didn't notice it. I certainly didn't fall in love with her at first sight.
Nor did I fall in love with Teirlesh at first sight.
Some time after this, while Shaciar was teaching me to successfully impersonate the Prince, Teirlesh waltzed into my room unannounced.
"A shipload of guns is coming in tonight," she said. "I'm going to smuggle them to a contact a few miles outside the city. Will you help me?"
I stared at her. Her illegal activities were an open secret in the university. As long as no one outright mentioned them, no one had to do anything about them. But this was the first time I had ever heard her speak of them so bluntly. I could hardly believe my ears.
"Smuggle?" I repeated. "But–"
Teirlesh rolled her eyes. "Yes, I know. It's illegal, it's immoral, I'm a thoroughly bad lot for doing it. I dare say I'll be caught someday and sent to the gallows. But that probably won't happen today. Now will you help me?"
"Why are you asking me?"
She grinned. "Because your little pretence gives me a power over you, so you aren't likely to betray me. And also because I like you, and trust you more than anyone else here."
This was the beginning of many collaborations between Teirlesh and I. It was only a matter of time before we went from being bedfellows in crime to being bedfellows in a more literal sense. And if I ever felt any guilt about helping her break the law, I reminded myself that the majority of the money she earned went to Princess Shaciar, who used it to gather and arm an army to reconquer her homeland.
Shaciar knew about Teirlesh and I even before I felt I should tell her. She made no objections at present.
"We will marry only when my taking the crown is certain," she said. "Until then both of us are free to do as we please. But I wouldn't advise you give Teirlesh your heart. She'll leave you soon enough, as she's left a hundred other men. Wait and see. As soon as she gets an offer of a job that pays more than I do, she'll be gone before we know it."
I didn't object. I never thought it my place to criticise anything Shaciar said. She was the true royal, I was a mere imposter. Hers was the theme, mine the counterpoint. Neither of us could do anything without the other, but I was content to stay in the shadows and let her have the attention and glory that were rightfully hers.
Deep in my heart I knew she was right about Teirlesh. But I wanted to imagine otherwise.
Shaciar was right. I woke up one morning to find Teirlesh gone. She at least did me the courtesy of leaving a letter. She was gone to somewhere more peaceful.
"I like causing wars," she wrote. "They keep me in business. But I dislike being caught up in them."
With a heavy heart I went to break the news to the Princess. She didn't bat an eyelash.
"I knew it," she said. "Now tell me, how do you think we should get our troops into this city? Its defences are different to that one's."
Everyone knows what happened next. Shaciar and her army conquered Guorior. The people welcomed us, glad for any reprieve from the tyranny of the president and his secret police. She put me on the throne. No, she put Prince Eyldanin on the throne. He wasn't alive to be crowned, so I stood in for him. She married King Eyldanin, and she has been the one who truly rules ever since. I don't resent this. She is a much better ruler than I ever could be, and she has raised our eldest daughter to be a worthy successor.
I don't know if I love my wife. But she is my friend; a good, dear friend to whom I tell everything.
Years passed before I heard anything more of Teirlesh. And when I did hear of her, it was a short notice in a foreign newspaper. "Yesterday the criminal known as Teirlesh Druszka was hanged for robbery, murder and smuggling." That was all it said.
I sat in silence for a long time after I read that. Shaciar noticed it.
"Did you love her?" she asked when I told her what was wrong.
"No," I said. "But I'm sorry she's dead."
She looked at me thoughtfully. "Do you love me either?"
I had always been honest with her, and I wasn't going to change that now. "No."
Years later, when she too died, I realised something I should have known long before.
Lie number four:
I didn't love Shaciar.