WHEN DIVYA MET ALEXANDER
"there is a poem scratched onto the walls of my throat / no one has heard it / but it is there."
Kai Cheng Thom, a place called NO HOMELAND
DIVYA'S MORNING WAS a disaster from the beginning. Some delusional part of her brain had convinced her that the shrill ringing of her alarm was part of her dream, and when she'd finally come to her senses and jolted upright, more than twenty minutes had passed. She barely managed to scrape together an appropriate outfit and stumble out of her apartment and into the streets, catching the metro just as it came to a stop on the tracks. By the time she entered Versailles, she was beyond frazzled.
Her mad dash ended in her office—though, in hindsight, it was far too generous to refer to the cramped room she shared with someone else as something so professional and official. She swiftly removed her coat and threw it in the general direction of her chair, not caring that her aim was terrible and it landed on the floor inside. With one swoop of her arm, she picked up the waiting documents and bolted into the hallway. Her co-worker's morning greeting faded into the stilted air.
She skimmed the pages as she walked, shuffling the papers around as she scanned each paragraph. The words were looked at but not fully processed—she was far too preoccupied to comprehend the twisting phrases that slipped around like snakes. From her peripheral vision, she realized she was moving down the hallway at a pace brisk enough to blur her surroundings completely. (She also had no context for what lay ahead, so really, she had been doomed from the start.)
With no possible warning, she turned the corner and crashed into a man. The documents slipped out of her grasp and flung across the hallway. The momentum of the shove threw her against the nearest wall, momentarily pushing the breath out of her. The man, who looked terrifyingly professional, had been forced a few steps back. He held a dazed look in his eyes.
"Oh, je suis très désolé, Monsieur," she said. Her voice caught in her throat, and she cursed herself for letting nerves overtake her. Surely, this wasn't a fireable offence, no matter how senior of an adviser he seemed. "I should have been looking."
"Pas de probleme," he responded smoothly. He moved to the other side of the hall and began picking up her papers. She was too stunned by quite literally having the air knocked out of her that she didn't process what he was doing until he stepped towards her, eyes solemn. "I'm sorry for your papers."
He handed her the mismatched stack. Her heart dropped when she realized there were black smudges of dirt across the pages, along with unseemly creases. There was no way she could turn in this catastrophe. "Oh, c'est bien."
It, very clearly, was not okay. He ran a hand through his hair and looked upward, battling with himself to say something. After a few moments, he succumbed to his thoughts and laughed with some mirth. His bright eyes fell upon her, looking at her for the first time this entire incident.
"I know this does little to make up for—" he gestured towards the papers clutched in her hand "—that, but maybe I could take you out for coffee? Or something?"
She scowled, not just at his question but also his accented and stilted French. An Illéan, she thought scornfully, the very banes of my existence. "Do you make it a habit to crash into women and then ask them to a date when they're frazzled and vulnerable?" she asked.
His eyes widened comically, and red heat washed over his cheeks. "No—I didn't—Mademoiselle—" He slipped between French and English, flustered. It was somewhat amusing, but somewhat annoying.
"I don't have the time or patience for this," she told him stiffly. She straightened the papers and her posture. "Whoever you are—"
"Xander," he said quickly.
"Xander," she repeated. It weighed on her tongue, sounding improper coming from her mouth. "I assume you work for the King of your—quite frankly—unstable country, and I'll have you know I won't hesitate to approach him with this misconduct." She spoke to him in clipped English, determined for him to comprehend every word.
"I'm sure," he muttered under his breath. He quickly straightened out though, and said: "I apologize for this incident, Mademoiselle. Have a pleasant rest of your day."
Divya huffed indignantly. Without waiting for further follow-up she turned on her heels and marched down the path she had initially been set on, leaving him standing in the middle of the hall, dumbstruck.
"The gall of this man, I tell you." Divya scoffed. "The absolute audacity. How those Illéans run their country, I'll never understand."
Aly, her office-mate and friend, hummed in agreement. Her legs were slung over the corner of her desk and she had a packet of candies in her lap, popping them into her mouth while Divya vented about her day. Aly hadn't gotten a word in for the past twenty minutes.
"And you know, I'm sure the king he works for is no better. Their entourage arrived, what, three days ago? And there hasn't been an appearance—not even a peep—from their supposed sovereign. It is astounding the lack of manners these people have. No respect." Divya took an aggressive bite of her biscuit.
Aly took the opportunity to voice her opinion. "I watched quite a few interviews of the King, and he seems rather genuine. More than competent, too." She placed a few candies in her mouth. "The guy who ran into you, though, sounds like a real asshole."
Divya made a sound of indifference. "The Queen before him was absolutely off her rocker. I heard she was forced to relinquish the throne due to different health concerns than her family was suggesting."
Her co-worker chuckled in the dim light. "When she visited a few years ago, she demanded everyone refer to her as 'Her Royal Majesty, The Illustrious Queen Eadlyn Helena Margarete Schreave de Koskinen.' Even her family."
A beat of silence. "You're lying."
"I'm not!" Aly insisted. "Ask anyone. She was adamant."
Divya made a sound, a low rumble emitted from the back of her throat. "Dieu, do you think her grandson will be the same?"
"No, no, not at all," Aly responded, confident. "He was rather humble at the meeting today."
"Unfortunate I wasn't there to see it." No, she had been forced to skip out and reprint her twenty-page document. She had been so thrilled that someone had offered to print it for her the day before, specifically so she could sit in on the talk between the sovereigns of France and Illéa, but that ridiculous Xander had gone and ruined her day.
Aly slipped her feet off her desk and planted them firmly on the ground. She regarded Divya with some sympathy. "There will be other events, I assure you. The Kings are second cousins, oui? In India, that's practically a sibling."
Divya laughed with her, but she was struck with a pang of longing. Lately, she'd been missing her homeland more often than not. She made a mental note to call her mother tomorrow.
However, the next day arrived and her workload hit her like a freight train. She was so caught up in reports and data that she skipped her lunch hour, determined to power through as much as she could in as little time as possible. However, her famishment caught up to her late in the evening and she found herself drifting towards the palace kitchens.
The sky darkened with the approach of nightfall, and Divya had an aching feeling that she'd be working well into the midnight hours. Best to do it here than at home, she thought ruefully.
She'd done this routine a few times in the past, so from experience alone she was certain there would be no one in her way aside from some staff, though they would never distract her. They understood, just as she did, that a job in the palace was not a simple nine-to-five career. So, when she saw a hunched figure looking over a vast spread of papers, she was understandably surprised.
"Your usual, Dame Agrawal?" one of the servers asked. She nodded crisply.
The man turned his head to greet her, but he immediately did a double take. His eyes widened in partial fear, and she bit her lip—hard. Oh, of course it's him. She wearily slid into a seat a few spaces down from him, keeping her gaze set ahead. She could feel his eyes watching her, and she did her very best to ignore the urge to look over at him.
Tea was set in front of her with a delicate clink against the marble countertop, along with a plate of cheesecake. A rather generous serving, and she was extremely thankful. She placed her laptop in front of her and pried the screen open. There couldn't be any distractions; she needed her work done, so she could go home and salvage a proper night of rest.
Thick silence passed between them for what felt like hours, but looking at her wristwatch it revealed to only have been five minutes, at most. There was the sound of a pen on paper from him, and the clacks of typing from her keyboard, along with the occasional scrape of her fork against the plate. She had yet to touch her tea, because her hands were shaking an awful lot and she had a feeling she'd create a spill.
It's the anger, she told herself. Because this man is the most entitled son of a—
"I'm dreadfully sorry to interrupt, but I think you're pressing a key."
She startled. He appeared genuine enough, with his pen loosely pointing towards her laptop screen. There was more than half a page of the letter l. She lifted her finger up, relieving her keyboard of the weight. She turned towards him again, full intending to curtly thank him, but he immediately shrunk under her gaze. Perhaps it should have been a moment of power, knowing he rightfully feared her, but for some strange reason, it only added to brewing frustrations.
"What is your problem?" she demanded, her French sharp and fast. "You have no issue acting cocky with women you've just plowed into, but when we sit as equals you seem frightened for your life. I beg you, get a better grip on your ego."
He blinked, long and slow. He was frozen, staring at her so intensely Divya wanted to laugh, though the situation was far from comedic. She debated waving a hand in front of eyes, or perhaps walking away all together, but then his low, even response came: "I meant no offense, Dame Agrawal. In my—unstable, was it?—country, individuals occasionally ask others on dates, even if the timing is less than convenient. Supposedly, it can add to the charm. Be the basis of a thrilling story. But," he held up a hand in partial surrender, "I understand the French have different customs. And forgive me if I find you terrifying. Consider it Illéan fragility."
Divya guffawed, surprising herself. "You find me frightening, Xander?"
He shrugged. "You have a certain way with words."
She reveled in that declaration for some time, before the rest of his words caught up with her. In her books, he teetered on the edge of condescending, but there was a glint of mischief in his eyes.
Oh, God, is he flirting?
Another lashing was balanced on the tip of her tongue, but she reevaluated her standing: they were overworked, unable to concentrate on the spreads in front of them, and had mutually decided to indulge in a conversation. Perhaps, this meant nothing at all. Perhaps, there was no harm in playing along.
She shut her laptop firmly, then slipped out of her seat and moved closer towards him. Now, with only one chair separating herself and Xander, she had his full attention.
"Tell me, what other strange customs do you have in your country?"
"I cannot believe you agreed to a date."
Divya laughed and smoothed the front of her black pencil skirt. "I'd hardly call it momentous. It's practically the same as what we did last night, just with coffee in the afternoon."
"So what, this is your second date, then?"
Aly was rewarded with a flat look. "Last night, we were two people having a conversation. Nothing more to it."
She sighed. "Yes, alright, today is a date. The first." Under her breath, she added, "Likely the last."
"Don't make presumptions," Aly scolded. "This could very well be the last first date you ever have."
"You're too much of a hopeless romantic."
"One of us has to be!"
In a turn of events, Divya was truly enjoying herself; Xander was witty and well-read, and he matched her pace of switching through languages. There was always something to talk about, both of them leading the conversations into different tangents that resulted in various discussions within the range of pop culture to philosophical ideas.
When Divya glanced at her watch, she was shocked to see nearly two hours had passed. "I have to go. There's a meeting I have to attend…"
He recognized the regret in her voice. "Of course," he said, standing up as she did. "Perhaps I could walk you over."
"I'm more than capable—"
"I didn't mean—"
She laughed at how red his face had gotten, like a beet. "I appreciate your sentiment, Xander. I'll let you walk me to the door." She nodded towards the entrance of the alcove they had tucked away into—it was a space for the advisers and diplomats of the palace to work, lest they needed a change of scenery from their offices. It was especially helpful for the employees without grand windows and garden views, and even better for informal meetings between colleagues.
"We could meet tomorrow," she suggested. The words slipped out of her mouth before she could thoroughly think them through.
Xander regarded her with pleasant surprise. "That'd be wonderful."
They reached the archway, and it felt so similar to being dropped on her doorstep after an adolescent first date she was tempted to laugh at the irony. Without precedent, he lifted her hand and pressed a kiss against the back of it. He lifted his eyes and regarded her with the smallest ounce of regret. "Is this a terrible time to tell you I'm rather… bound to the palace?"
She snatched her hand out of his in mock-offense. "Your King keeps you under a tight leash."
He smiled thinly. "Something like that." He looked behind his shoulder before leaning in conspiratally, whispering, "We could take a walk in the garden? I know all the secret nooks and paths."
A bolt of electricity chased itself down her spine. "I look forward to it."
There was nothing quite like walking away from a victory, whether it be in her career or personal life. She hadn't expected to be genuinely thrilled at the prospect of seeing him again, especially considering what foot they had begun on. Fantasies of what she would wear and what conversations they could have occupied her thoughts for most of the remaining day, filling her with a certain glee and excitement she hadn't experienced in quite some time.
Of course, even the best feelings had to unravel, at some point.
It was the weekend—a bright and sunny Saturday, the sky crystal blue and completely clear—so she allowed herself to tap into the more colorful aspects of her wardrobe. She'd read in some article that green and purple were a rather trendy combination, so she paired lavender pants with a short-sleeved lime top and tied a cream, square scarf around her neck. Of course, it wasn't truly French chic without large black sunglasses. Looking in the mirror, along with her towering block heels, she felt rather like the models she'd see sauntering around Paris. Certainly a change from her business attire of pressed skirts and satin blouses, always in shades of black and white.
This is a social meeting, not business, she had to remind herself as she walked through the palace. You're allowed to dress as boldly as you want.
Still, even if it was her day off, she was a workaholic at heart; she weaved through the throngs of staff, marking the familiar path to her office. The door was unlocked. As she peaked in, she immediately saw Aly, hunched in front of her laptop, blue light illuminating her face. Aly's eyes snapped up to her co-worker, and several emotions crossed her face.
"I can't believe you," she hissed as Divya stepped towards her desk. However, the accusatory tone stopped her in her tracks.
"Don't play dumb. Why didn't you tell me? Dieu, did you feel embarrassed after all that smacktalk? Oh, you were too stubborn to admit it, weren't you? Honestly, it's kind of funny—"
"Aly," she snapped, interrupting her spiel. "What are you going on about?"
Her amused expression began to slip off her face, replaced with genuine confusion. "You mean you don't know that we know?"
Divya threw her hands in the air in frustration. "You're going to have to spell it out for me, tu garce."
"Why are you so angry? Did you expect no one to notice you dating a king?"
Divya laughed. She well and truly laughed herself into hysterics, everything bubbling out of her in complete nonsense. Do these people have no lives? In what world would I do that?
She repeated as much to Aly, who regarded her with a slice of concern. "This one, clearly."
"No, really," Divya insisted, "is this some sort of hazing? A joke? Tell me, do you have poorly photoshopped photos to complete the ruse?"
Aly said nothing, only swiftly pulling out her phone and tapping the screen a few times to pull up a text chain with one of their co-workers. She clicked a recently attached photo to blow it up across the screen, then presented it to Divya.
It was her, mid-laugh, on her coffee date with Xander. He was casually leaned back in his chair, legs stretched in front of him, and completely engrossed in whatever Divya had been explaining.
"That isn't a king, that's Xander," Divya said, pushing the device away as if it had burned her. Even if this had begun as a harmless joke, invading her privacy by taking photographs crossed a line.
However, Aly looked at her with equal parts duh, that's obvious and you poor thing. There was a sudden, sinking feeling, that what her office mate was about to say next would not be received well.
"Xander, as in King Alexander of Illéa. Chérie, you've been flirting with royalty."
The silence from Divya was intertwined with immense disbelief. Aly took the liberty to pull up a new tab on her laptop and swiftly type something in. She swiveled it around.
She had typed in King Alexander photos, and sure enough, the search engine had pulled up photo after photo of the man she assumed—no, had been led to believe—was a low-ranking advisor, just like herself.
"Vie de merde," she exclaimed, out of all the thoughts whipping through her mind. Aly snorted. "Don't laugh," Divya said, whacking her shoulder. "This is beyond embarrassing."
"Are you kidding?" Aly asked, "how many girls can say they've dated real royalty? And a king, no less."
Her voice began to rise. "It was one—"
"And isn't the second scheduled for right now?"
Divya glanced at her watch, realizing she was cutting it close if she wished to be on time. Her face settled into impassive features as she came to a new realization, and she straightened out her clothes. Being late would be the least of her's—or Xander's—problems.
Alexander knew he was playing a risky game. His trip to France was his first foreign trip since his coronation, and yet he was dodging the press like bullets. Inherently, he was a private and introverted person, but the crown forced one to play up the nonexistent charm for the cameras. He'd been naïve to think they'd get off his back after a month of his newly-appointed kingship.
And, more increasingly, he was letting personal matters flood his daydreams; more often than not, he'd find himself zoning out of languid meetings and thinking of escaping for a bit. It was a fantasy he'd never experience—being able to explore Paris as a true tourist—but it was a comforting thought to fall back to, like tracing the back of his hand.
His phone buzzed in his pocket.
u have 2 hrs, the text notification read. His cousin never lacked with the abbreviations.
He was typing back a brief response when something compelled him to look up. Perhaps it was a sign from the universe, because directly in his eyesight was the loveliest woman he'd ever met, determinedly walking towards him.
And she looked furious.
"When were you going to tell me you're the King of Illéa?" she demanded as soon as she was within hearing distance. She stopped in front of him with blazing eyes and her fists clenched at her side. Her stance was rooted to the ground, powerful and towering.
"I was thinking after the second date," he joked, weakly attempting to break some of the tension. A beat of silence passed, which he had expected to have been filled with her twinkling laughter. Instead, her brown eyes—oh, how those beautiful eyes could send him to his knees—deepened with anger. "Okay, maybe the third. Didn't want to rush this relationship."
"What relationship?" she bit out. "We had one—one—" she held up a finger to enunciate her point "—date. Does that constitute as a full-blown affair for you Illéans?" She scoffed, crossing her arms and looking upwards in regretful realization. "You people have always been so stingy with your ideas of romance."
Divya certainly had a bone to pick with his country and its people, but it was one of her charming aspects. A breath of fresh air and a release from the individuals who fell over themselves with sugared praise, so clearly sharing an exaggeration of their own thoughts in order to appease him in some manner.
"That was a joke, mon biscuit," he said, "but I will admit, I was hoping we were on that route."
She blinked a few times, almost frozen. He was tempted to wave a hand in front of her face, see if her eyes were still responsive, but he was confident she'd have no qualms with snapping his wrist.
"Did you just call me your cookie?"
"Yes," he replied evenly. "Would you rather I call you my croissant?"
She scoffed, but from the way she turned her face away he could tell she was covering a short, surprised laugh. "You're insufferable," she muttered. When she faced him again, eye-to-eye, she possessed a different sort of heat. "Did you take me for a fool, Your Majesty?"
Whatever playfulness he'd been aiming to promote fell away completely, instead replaced with cold dread. "Of course not, Di—Dame Agrawal."
"Then why wouldn't you tell me who you really are?" she hissed. "If you were truly invested in this, I would assume you'd give the decency of truth."
"I was going to tell you before I left," he said.
However, she paid that little heed. "I'm rather new here, Your Majesty, so I am constantly battling my way through hell and high water to be given a fraction of the respect given to my male colleagues. This charade of yours may have just cost me my reputation, and that's a damage I cannot afford. And furthermore—" She raised her voice when he opened his mouth to speak. "It's embarrassing that I was out and about with the leader of one of our closest allies, and I wasn't even aware of it."
Alexander said nothing for some moments, letting her words sink in and formulating a plan of action. There were a variety of things he could say, but two floated the closest to the forefront; one was the proper and formal route to take in this instance, but the other was what he truly wanted to say.
He craned his neck to look at the clear blue sky, admiring how there wasn't a cloud in sight. It was a peaceful and utopic, reminding him of the summer days in his childhood. However, when he forced himself to return to reality, to Divya waiting with her arms crossed and eyes bordering on impatience, he sighed. He had done enough damage letting his emotions and heart dictate his actions.
"Je suis très désolé pour cet, Madame," he began. "It was never my intention to undermine you, and I apologize for the harm I've caused. I hope you have a wonderful afternoon, and perhaps we will meet again under better pretenses."
He bowed, his body completely tense and his face flaming. This is beyond embarrassing, he thought. I truly like—
"That's not what you wanted to say, was it?" she called, just as he had turned to walk away. He whipped around so quickly he nearly got whiplash.
"I can tell that was the answer of a politician," she said. "If you truly want to make things right, tell me the truth. I deserve better than more lies."
He cleared his throat. She wasn't wrong. But where to begin, where to start with his confession, that stumped him. He decided to air on the other side of caution, and simply speak to each little idea that occupied his thoughts.
"I didn't want you to see my title before anything else—and I mean that with no disrespect to your intentions had you known, of course," he clarified quickly. "But people tend to act differently when they're aware of my… employment status."
She smiled—really, it was just an upward quirk of her lips—but it motivated him to continue.
"I genuinely enjoyed your company, Divya; more than I could have ever first expected when you gave me that dressing down when we first met. I know you've been nothing but honest with me, and I regret I couldn't return that in full. And, even though we've been talking for all of, what, two days? There's just… something…" he trailed off, trying to grasp a momentum that was so quickly disappearing like dry sand between his fingers. He turned his head to look away from her, thinking his memory may get jogged were he to break from the intensity of her gaze. He felt the chain he wore under his shirt collar shift against his skin, and it sparked an anecdote of sorts to elbow its way to the front of his mind.
"Forgive me if this makes little sense, but my grandfather once told me that everyone had metaphorical cards belonging to them, and that every time someone took a risk, they played a hand. Perhaps this is rash of me, but Divya—" He stepped towards her, cautiously, but she met him halfway. They didn't touch, but there was something palpable passing in the air between them. He carried on, his voice so much softer and more personal than before. "I'd play my whole deck for another chance to start with the truth."
Silence hung around them like a cloak, draped across their shoulders and heads and shielding them from the world outside. Divya contemplated his words steadily, letting them drip and simmer in that lovely mind of hers. She was always so brilliant, so wise about every decision she made in and out of board rooms, and this was treated no differently than foreign negotiations.
"I like that metaphor," she decided, after some time. There was a confident spark in her eyes, still a sort of fire but not one that would burn him. It held the comfort of a fireplace, or a candle. "And while it's rather careless to play all your cards in one row, I do appreciate the sentiment." She paused, looking up to the clear sky herself. She smiled, then took a step back and extended her hand. "I'm Divya Agrawal."
He slid his hand into hers, marveling in how right it felt. "Alexander Schreave."
original french text: english translation
je suis très désolé, Monsieur: i am so sorry, Sir
Pas de probleme: no problem/no worries
c'est bien: it's okay
tu garce: you bitch
Vie de merde: fuck my life!
mon biscuit: my cookie
Je suis très désolé pour cet, Madame: i am very sorry for this, Ma'am