He takes a long pause, breathing in, breathing out, studying me as I stick the pills in the pocket of my jeans. “I know that talking to me is the last thing you want to do, Viktor. I know that’s why it’s your mother calling me, worried. But even though she is a queen, she is still your mother and she is suffering just as much, or more, as you. Please, for her sake, try not to add to your worries. Talk to her and if you can’t, reach out to friends. I know King Aksel suffered a similar loss when the queen of Denmark died. People like that can help you get through it.”
I swallow, feeling guilt wash over me. The last thing I want is for my mother to worry. I know she’s struggling, I know she’s turning to my father and finding little comfort, I know she worries I might suffer a similar fate.
I get up and thank the doctor, my voice barely audible, and grab my coat before stepping out of his office into the waiting room. My private secretary, Frederick, gets up, his messenger bag slung over his shoulder, his iPad out with all of the day’s schedule on it.
“How did it go?” he asks politely as we walk to the lift. Freddie is a few years younger than me and has been my private secretary, personal assistant, and constant companion since the moment he graduated from university in England. He’s smart, fluent in several languages besides just Swedish and English, efficient, incredibly well-organized and in some ways, is probably the person closest to me.
He was also close to Alex but unlike me, he’s thrived under the grief and the pressure of his job as I’ve been catapulted in a new direction. My public appearances and engagements before were very limited. Now, I’m shuffled along on a packed schedule that he meticulously maintains. Without him I would be even more lost.
Without him I would be free.
“It was fine,” I mumble to him, not wanting to get into it.
“Good to hear,” he says simply as the lift doors open
Sometimes I wish there was a bit more warmth from Freddie–he’s polite to a fault, never one to pry into your feelings or private life, never one to open up about his own–but I’m used to it.
“So the rest of the day,” Freddie says, launching into it the moment the doors close. I also wish Freddie would give me some space, but he’s under orders of the king and queen to keep me going and in line. These days, that means never giving me a break, just sending me to a therapist instead, as if that will change a thing. “In an hour there’s a press conference just outside the palace, so we’ll need to get you home to change.”
I glance down at myself. I’m in gray jeans, boots, a navy fisherman’s sweater and a long, gray wool coat that I carry folded up in my arms that wasn’t needed on this mild spring day. “This won’t suffice?”
“You have to be in the formal garb.”
I groan. “Not even a suit? Alex did all his interviews in a suit.”
Freddie gives me a furtive glance underneath his sharp glasses. A tight smile follows. “Your parents want to ensure that the public knows you’re the new heir.”
My heart starts to race again. “But everyone fucking knows by now. The fucking funeral was televised.”
The doors to the ground floor open and Freddie gives me another look, this one to remind me once again who I am, where I am.
He grabs me by the arm and leads me away from the front doors. Stationed there are members of the royal patrol, my bodyguards, but even so, we go in and out through the back entrances so that no one knows I’ve been here. I can’t imagine how it would look to know the Prince of Sweden was seeing a shrink. Though, fuck, we all have. It’s practically a requirement for royalty.
“Didn’t I just do a press conference?” I add as we step out into the back alley and get in the waiting car.
“Sorry,” Freddie says, buckling himself in with one hand while scrolling through his iPad with the other. “After the press conference you’ll have a meeting with the literacy charity that Alex founded, then you have a radio interview with the national broadcast in Helsinki. Tonight there is a ball held by the Countess at the Alandel Palace. You must go to that one, it’s in honor of your new role and the daughter of the countess would make an ideal girlfriend. Those are your mother’s words, of course.”
I can’t scarcely breathe. The walls of the car seem to close in around me, a black haze that quickly thickens. I’d barely woken up this morning before I was shuttled off to a meeting with my parents and the royal advisers, then was sent straight to Dr. Bonakov. The rest of my day is never ending, just like it was yesterday, just like it will be tomorrow.
Just like it will be for the rest of my life.
“Pull over,” I tell Kris, the driver. “Pull over!”
We’ve only made it a block from the doctor’s office, still in the alley.
Kris pulls the car over.
I open the door and get out, walking, stumbling down the lane.
I don’t know where I’m going.
I don’t know what I’m doing.
I just have to get out of here.
And that’s when I have an idea. I can just keep walking. Walk until this alley turns into the street, walk down the street until it turns into the sea. Keep going until I’m in its icy depths, until I’m with Alex.
“Your highness!” Freddie yells after me.
I don’t stop. Fuck that term. Even in a state of panic, I’m not Viktor to anyone. The formalities remain. The constraints. I keep walking, faster now, the end of the alley shining like a beacon under a burst of sunlight. I fish out that pill that the doctor gave me and force it down my throat.
Two of my guards suddenly appear at the end of the alley, blocking me in.
I would never ever have dreamed of fighting them before.
But I am a great deal taller than them, larger and stronger than at least one. They have been trained to protect me, but training has no match for raw emotion, for pure anger and desperation unscripted.
I could do a lot of damage.
I stop in front of them, feeling cagey, my fists opening and closing. I think one is Tor, the other is Gustav. I look in their eyes. They’re determined to keep me in line though a bit wary of the force they’ll need to use in order to do it.
I just don’t fucking care anymore.
“Let me pass,” I growl at them.
They exchange a worried glance. Good. They should worry about me. I’m worried. Everyone is fucking worried.
“We’re here for your protection, your highness,” Gustav says. I can hear Freddie’s shoes slapping on the ground behind me as he gets closer, echoing against the buildings.
"I'm going for a walk," I tell them, looking them dead in the eyes and trying to keep my voice steady.
"Your highness," Freddie says from behind me, breathless. I don't even glance at him.
"As your royal highness, the crown prince of Sweden, heir to the throne, I command you to let me pass. I don't want to be at your mercy anymore. I don't wish to do anything you have planned, Freddie, and that means everything. I just want to be alone, to do what I fucking please."
"Your highness," Freddie says again, nearly chiding me. Now I'm looking at him. At six-foot-five I'm just a foot over him though he barely shrinks. Just adjusts his tie and gives me a stern look that could rival my father's. I wonder if he's been giving him tips. "I don't think it wise for you to cancel any of today's engagements," he goes on. "Your parents would be very upset, and it would look terrible for the monarchy."
I frown at him, my fists still balled until they feel tight and numb. "What looks terrible for the monarchy is having me paraded around town acting like everything is fine when it's not fine. My brother is dead. We should all be allowed to grieve."
"It's been a month, your highness," he says carefully, looking away as if he's ashamed he said it. Well he should be ashamed. It's the most awful thing I've heard in a long time.
"Have some respect for who would have been your future king," I sneer.
"Have some respect for yourself," he says back, boldly. "You have been nothing but a handful and I know that this is grief and I know this is normal, but you are not a normal citizen, your highness. You are the crown prince, you are the heir to the throne, you are all of these and more and if you don't learn to control yourself, to put on a mask and act out your roles and your duties, then you'll never rise to be the man that your brother was."
I don't even think. All I do is feel.
I feel my arm swing back and my fist come forward.
Right toward Freddie's cheek.
Somehow Gustav is faster than I am.
Maybe this medication is already kicking in.
I clock Gustav in the jaw instead, my knuckles exploding against him as he falls back, knocking Freddie to the ground as he does so.
I'm instantly filled with both rage and regret.
An arm shoots out, Tor, attempting to hold me back from any future damage.
There's no point. Whatever fight I had in me is gone.
I can't even look at Freddie, Freddie who has been with me for so long, a man I've never been so violent or rude to before in all my life, a man who is just doing his best to keep me in line. I can't look at Gustav either, a man hired to protect me and yet here I am hitting him. Accident or not, I had been ready to fight all of them from the start.
They can't handle me.
And I'm someone that needs to be handled. Not carefully, like some fragile gift, but with brute force.
I hate what I've become.
Freddie was right. I'll never rise to be the person my brother was. And the worst part of all that is, my brother couldn't rise to the person he was expected to be either.
I can't stay here.
I must keep moving.
I duck back away from Tor and walk past him to the street, grateful that no one saw the fight that just erupted here, a fight that would be splashed all over the papers, all over the world. They don't stop me this time.
I shuck on my coat, suddenly cold and hail a cab passing by.
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