“What’s wrong?” she asked. I knew the concerned expression that would be on her face from the patronizing tone she used. I gritted my teeth and hissed through them.
“You. You’re what’s wrong.”
“You talk about saving the villagers and the people but you don’t actually know. You’re a princess. Princess Alexandra, darling of the kingdom. How many hours have you worked in your life?”
“Shawn,” she said quietly.
“Don’t do that. You don’t know what it’s like to labor on, I don’t know, a road. Burning under the sun. Carrying heavy stones to and fro, having them dig into your hands and shoulders, chafing until it bleeds. What have you done that’s equal to that kind of pain?”
“What road? When was this?”
“The road your father commissioned leading to the mining town in the mountains, so he could more easily transport the salt that was mined there. So he could enjoy salted pork and boar and whatever other ridiculous foods you aristocrats eat. I was eleven. While you sat in the nice, shaded castle, I was slaving away for months on end for a copper a day. Because I lived in the slums, the son of a fisherman, I had to work. A copper a day was a higher pay rate than anyone in my family had ever made. But you?” I seethed. “Your family has the unlimited wealth of the people’s taxes and profits.”
She shook her head. “You were eleven. That was six years ago. I never once heard of a road being built.”
“Such an insignificant event, that the king decided his daughter didn’t need to be bothered to know. Meanwhile, my fellow slum-workers were collapsing from heat exhaustion.”
She scowled. “I don’t see what brought this up. I had no idea this was going on until just now. What did you expect me to do if I never knew?”
I didn’t know what I expected. But I had slid down the slope and there was no stopping the cutting remarks that rolled off my tongue with frightening efficiency. “Just open your eyes, Your Highness. What are some of your happiest memories? Dancing the night away in your jewel-encrusted silk dresses at some party?”
“Spending time with my friends, with you!” she shouted.
“Stuffing your face with spiced meats and stews and cakes and pies?” I took a menacing step towards her. “Mine are bringing home a deer so my family could eat for the rest of the month. They’re me catching my first fish, learning to support my family.”
“Good for you.” Alexandra was snarling, eyebrows crushing down. She was angry now. “Now tell me what the relevance is.”
“The relevance is that you’re not like us. You’re not like me.”
And we can’t be together. The gap between us is too large to span. I’m upset because I love you and there is no way to make it work. I bit back those thoughts. “You’re royalty,” I said. “You’ve never known hunger. Maybe you’ve experienced a passing sensation that it would be nice to eat something, and you do what all rich snobs do – you call up your Cook and tell him to bake you a feast. You know you won’t finish it all, but you do it anyway and throw everything else out, completely wasted. You don’t know starvation.
“But I have. I’ve lived through winters where dozens of people I knew starved to death because they couldn’t hunt. Froze because they couldn’t even find firewood. Burned with fevers and infection because they couldn’t afford a healer. Every day of every winter since I could shoot a bow, I was out in the forest, shivering so hard I could barely pull back the string, fingers so blue with frost I couldn’t feel them. But I had to go out, had to find food, had to keep my family from dying, too.” I shook my head. “You see?” You don’t have to worry about death and hunger because you’re rich. If you’re poor, it’s everywhere.”
Suddenly, Alexandra was right against me. She slid her arms behind my back and hugged me.
I felt ready to cry. I don’t know what about that action broke me, but it did. “Don’t even try to understand,” I said, voice hitching. “Because you can’t imagine.”
“You’re right, I can’t, and I’m sorry if that makes you upset.” She didn’t let go. Her voice vibrated against my chest. “But look at me now. Right now. I’m working and fighting right beside you. I’m doing everything you are. No privileges of rank. And you know what? I love it.”
I put my hand on the back of her head and held her close. “You’re so complicated,” I whispered. “Why don’t you let me hate you?”
“Because I don’t want you to.” She hugged me a little tighter, but the pressure was nothing compared to that building in my throat. I stopped talking. We stood there at the mouth of the cave, arms entangled, feeling each other breathe in sync.