I let her words sink in, soothing my heart. I pull her into me, holding her tight.
We’re both free.
Five years later
“Are we there yet?” Clara asks.
“Yeah, are we there yet?” Freja asks.
“Yeah, are we there yet?” the twins say in unison, giggling like the little devils that they are.
“Not even close,” I tell them, leaning back in my seat. I glance over at Aksel, his hands comfortably on the wheel, his aviator shades covering his eyes.
“How are you doing, baby?” I ask him.
He glances at me, gives a half-smile. “You mean, aside from the kids yammering on and on in my ear? I’m fine.”
“You know we could have done this road trip with them in the car behind us. In fact,” I turn in my seat to glare at everyone. “If you guys don’t be quiet, I might have your father pull the car over and I’ll stick you with your aunt Maja.”
“Nooo,” Lars cries out dramatically.
“Well, then be quiet.” I turn back around. “Let’s see if that holds.”
“I wish my own children gave me the same respect that my country does,” Aksel laments with an exaggerated sigh.
“That’s what you get for putting more heirs out into the world,” I say. I glance at my children in the rearview mirror and even though they’re a lot to handle most days, having little princes and princesses, I wouldn’t change them for the world.
There’s Princess Clara, who is now eleven years old, smart as a whip and endlessly sassy. She’s recently gone from vegetarian to full-on vegan, much to the agony of her father. She likes for me to dye her hair wild colors every Friday night with wash-out foam, wears a lot of purple and denim, and reads as much as she can. She’s recently started taking up pottery as a hobby and I like to think that it was that priceless Greek vase all those years ago that got her interested.
Then there’s her sister, Princess Freja. Freja is ten and she’s both cheeky and devious as well as extremely sensitive and poetic. She likes to read too, but also write. She fills notebooks and sketchbooks up with poetry and drawings and short stories. She’s also in the boy crazy stage, is in love with all the K-Pop boys that she listens to non-stop, and she hates the fact that she has to wear glasses now. She’s one of the quiet ones but it’s the quiet ones you have to watch out for.
Of course, both princesses are stunning. They really do look a lot like Helena, with Aksel’s height thrown in. By the time they’re teens, they’re going to tower over me.
They’re in the very back of the SUV, probably because they can hide and get into more trouble back there. Right behind Aksel and I, though, are the twins.
Emil and Lars. Five years old. Born five minutes apart.
Even though they’re identical twins, I swear Emil takes after me and Lars takes after his father. Aksel says I’m crazy and that they look the same and it’s more that Emil acts like me and Lars acts like him.
I’m still not sure.
Emil is charming. He’s all smiles, all day long. He’s a big goof too and loves music, always dancing around with Freja to her K-Pop obsession. He’s really into horses at the moment, but last week it was whales, and I’m sure next week it will be alligators or something. He’s curious, always wanting to know more about the world, and his favorite thing to do is jump on the bed in the morning and give me a hug. He’s my own bit of sunshine.
Oh, and when he smiles, you can see his incisors, so that’s why I think he takes after me.
When it comes to Lars, though he’s curious, he’s also serious. He rarely smiles unless it’s about a fart joke and then he can’t stop laughing. It might also be his laugh that’s the issue, since it’s loud and squeaky and he tends to fart when he’s laughing, which makes everyone else laugh and then he laughs more and anyway, who knew that having boys resulted in a palace filled with farts?
His favorite thing to do is go sailing with his father (I like to stay on shore, thank you very much) and learn other languages. So far, he’s got English, Danish, and Swedish down but he says he wants to learn Italian next. I think it’s because his favorite meal is spaghetti and meatballs…with herring.
So those are the major changes over the last five years. I’m Queen Aurora now (much better than Princess Aurora). Aksel and I were married within a few months of him proposing and by that time I was already pregnant. All that baby-making paid off.
I honestly didn’t think I could be happier, feel this kind of joy, that I do nearly every day. We still have Snarf Snarf too, because that pig is going to live forever, but we also have a huge Newfoundland dog called Pilot, because one animal isn’t enough and Aksel still has a weak spot when it comes to his daughters.
As for Nicklas, the ex-butler, well he did write his book in the end. No Danish publisher wanted to touch him, especially when it was leaked that he was the snitch in the royal palace, but eventually a British publisher picked him up.
The book didn’t go anywhere. He was dropped.
It could have just been about his life as a butler and the real involvement of Aksel in the accident and perhaps people would have believed it.
But he went on and on about sordid, dirty details of the royal family, including a lot about Helena. Like, sexual stuff. Private stuff. It was pure drivel and malicious, with everyone assuming it was made up. All the publishers expected Aksel to sue for libel, so they didn’t want to take the chance. The guy even tried to go the self-publishing route, but the Danish royal family was quick to threaten a lawsuit.
That said, the Danish royal family now consists of just me, Aksel and Stella.
Aksel and Stella’s mother, Queen Liva, died a couple of months ago. Luckily Aksel was able to get closure with her over the years, coming to terms with their relationship. Even though she rarely recognized him, on the days that she did remember, she was kind and remorseful. They never had the mother/son relationship that Aksel wanted, and she never gave him the love he needed, but at least in the end, he was able to salvage the distance that had grown between them.
He gave a stirring speech at her funeral, which was televised across the nation. Every time I see Aksel give a speech in front of his country, I see him transformed into a king. It’s not that he isn’t, it’s just as the years go on, he wears his crown with pride. He’s become someone that people need and more than that, he’s started believing they need him. That he’s worthy of it. He rises to the occasion, born to be a leader and a ruler.
Born to be mine.
I’m so, so lucky that he’s mine. I’m so, so lucky that six years ago he agreed to hire me. And I’m so lucky that I didn’t give up when the going got tough—not on myself, not on the girls, not on him. I didn’t give up on love, even when it was drowning me. Being a queen isn’t an easy role and I have some very pretty and beloved shoes to fill, but I can do it with my king, with my love, at my side.
I have no greater proof of his devotion to me than right now.
We’re currently in an SUV, driving across the dry outback of Queensland, heading closer to the border with South Australia.
Heading to Windorah.
Behind us is another car with Maja, who is still spritely at her age, and Johan at the wheel.
And behind them is Henrik, driving the royal attendants.
Rich, red dust rises up behind our mini convoy, spreading across the desolate brushland.
We’ve been driving forever at this point and my hometown seems to get further and further away.
Of course, we could have flown in a little plane.
And, of course, Aksel didn’t have to drive at all.
But after what happened with his mother, I felt the need to make peace with mine. And even though my mother can’t be located by any means, and I know she’s no longer in Windorah, I figured I need closure in other ways. Just to see the pub, just to see the shack. Just to see the life I used to have and say goodbye to it. No more demons, no more pain. I’m moving on and the guilt can stay behind.
So Aksel insisted on a family trip to Australia and then he insisted on reliving his ex-rally driving days and driving us there. Naturally I’ve been keeping him from going too fast since we have our little princes and princesses in the car and with there being no bends or turns in the road whatsoever, it probably doesn’t feel like racing at all.
But to Aksel, it’s freedom.
Window down, arm outside, the hot air blowing back his hair, Aksel feels free.
And I will soon too.
It’s another three hours until we finally hit the outskirts of town and thank god for that, because everyone has had to go pee and there hasn’t been a single rest station or even tree on the side of the road to do your business behind.
The town is even smaller than I remember. It’s just a road with a few houses scattered about. There’s the petrol station/dairy and a farm and feed store and…the pub.
It looks the same as it did, all peeling paint and clapboard sides, dust that’s been permanently etched onto the windows. Aksel asks if I want to go inside but I don’t. I just want to see it in passing, to know it’s still there, to know it has no hold on me anymore.
We keep driving, past a cattle ranch and then down an even worse dirt road and then suddenly we’re here. Both the cars behind us have stopped further up the road to give me some privacy.
“Is this it?” Clara asks, peering out the window as we come to a stop in a dusty driveway.
“Yes,” I say, breathless already, as I slowly step out of the car.
I barely feel the cramps in my legs from being in the car all day, my eyes are focused on the shack.
It looks a lot better now or maybe it was never that bad. About three rooms, single story, tin roof. There’s a porch with a sagging couch and a screen door that’s not shut properly.
“Do you want me to come with you?” Aksel asks, getting out of his side.
I shake my head. “Take the kids to pee behind that tree.”
I walk toward the shack, slowly, as if in a dream. In fact, I have to pinch myself a few times.