“What are you doing here?” Helena asks, her voice coming out in a breathless hiss.
I keep the fake smile on my lips and gesture to the car. “I wanted it to be a surprise. We so rarely get to spend time together. I can’t remember the last time we were here. Usually it’s just you and Nicklas, just the two of you, isn’t that right?”
As I say his name, my eyes are fixed on his and I have to control the rage inside me as much as I can. Even looking at him makes my blood boil. He’s a lot younger than me, early thirties, with these blank eyes and a perpetual sneer to his lips. On first appearances, he doesn’t talk much and seems to be there strictly to obey. But I know better. He may act like a dutiful butler but he’ll be the first one to throw you to the sharks. For helvede, he is the shark.
Helena just nods. She can’t even smile. She gets in the back seat and tells Nicklas to drive.
“I’m driving,” I tell her. “Nicklas is tired from traveling, I’m sure.”
“It’s not a problem,” he says but I wave him off and get back in the driver’s seat, letting them figure out where they want to sit.
Outside a breeze is picking up, and bigger drops of rain are starting to pool on the windshield, illuminated by the dull glow of the airplane hangar. The blood in my ears is a steady whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.
Finally, Helena gets in the backseat, with Nicklas in the passenger seat. Either she’s so used to being driven around that sitting in the front seems uncouth, or she can’t stand me that much. I’m guessing it’s a bit of both.
The drive is silent. I have to force the conversation at the start, asking about the children, asking about the weather. I know for a fact that my aunt Maja is taking care of Clara and Freja right now but it’s funny how little Helena seems to know. Or maybe it’s not funny at all. Perhaps it’s just sad.
My heart clenches at the thought of what I’m about to do.
How I’m about to ruin it all.
I know what my father would say.
I know that he’d tell me that love was never part of the deal. Fuck, he’s the one who warned me from the start about Helena and how her school-girl crush was never quite what it seemed. That’s the one reason I was so hesitant about her to begin with. But she was beautiful and so devoted and made me feel like a king well before I ever became one.
This is my role, to pretend. This is the throne I sit on, one carved from lies, old as the ages.
But not anymore.
The last reasonable thought I have is of my children and how their world would be infinitely happier if I just pretended and pretended and pretended.
I should do it for them.
Everything for them.
Yet it doesn’t stop the words that grind out of my mouth.
“I know about the two of you,” I say.
We’re about halfway to the palace, the road climbing, the rain falling wildly in front of the headlights.
I’d think that neither of them heard me, judging by their lack of reaction, but Nicklas stiffens up just a bit. I eye Helena in the rearview mirror but can barely make out her profile. She seems to be staring out at the passing dark.
I can’t say I’m surprised. Denial is her favorite word.
“You heard me,” I say again. “I know.”
Finally, Nicklas says something. “Know what, sir?”
I let out a caustic laugh. “Sir? Really? You pretend to revere me as your King and yet insult me at the same time by fucking my wife.”
“Aksel!” Helena cries out. “Stop this nonsense. You’re crazy!”
“Crazy? I’m not fucking crazy. I’m not fucking stupid either. Everyone knows, Helena. Everyone. I suppose I was the last, and maybe that makes me crazy in your eyes, but everyone knows you’ve been a lying whore.”
“How dare you,” she seethes. “You crazy, jealous fool.”
My smile feels like acid. “I dare. I dare because I’m no longer the fool. I finally know the truth and I can’t ignore it anymore. I can’t pretend anymore.” Then something inside me feels like it’s breaking. The betrayal. The destruction of my heart that I know will never recover. “Don’t you feel the same?”
“I’m not discussing this,” Helena says, looking away, arms crossed in a huff. “And if that’s why you bothered to pick me up, then you’ve started the wrong war because I will fucking destroy you. You hear me? I will destroy you and take everything you love. Even the girls.”
“Motherfucker!” I yell, pounding my fists on the steering wheel, the car nearly going off the road. “You don’t give a shit about anything, do you? Just your image! Just what you can take! All you’ve ever done is take, take, take!”
“Aksel, please,” Nicklas says, his voice growing louder, nervous.
“Please?” My eyes bore into him just as I correct the car back onto the road. “Please? Your manners forsake you. You don’t give a shit about any of this. You’re only fucking her because you think it will spite me, that you’ll take my place. Guess what? She’ll ditch you as quickly as she ditched me! You think I’m some one-off victim, a fool she gets to blind? She went after me from the start! She pretended to want me, pretended to love me, all to get the crown. Now she has it. Now she has the crown and she’s pretending to want you, only to flaunt what a shallow, lying bitch she is!”
“The fuck you’ll talk to her that way!” Nicklas yells, punching me in the arm, trying to go for my face. It’s now that I know for sure that I’ve hit a nerve. You can’t hide love when it’s been insulted, threatened. He thinks what they have is genuine and real. Who’s the fucking fool now?
“Nicklas!” Helena yells, unbuckling her seatbelt and coming forward between the seats, trying to break us apart. “Stop it!”
“Oh, he knows, Helena!” Nicklas says, voice in anguish. “He knows, everyone knows. This is it for us. This is the end.”
“It’s not the end,” she snipes, and I can hear the panic in her voice as her hands slap against the side of my arm. “Oh fuck, oh fuck.”
“Fuck is right,” I yell. “How long has this been going on? How long have you been betraying me? Betraying the family?”
“You’re full of shit,” she hisses. “I haven’t betrayed you. We both know you never loved me. You only married me because you had to.”
“I loved you!” I roar. I squeeze the steering wheel so tight I swear I could break it in half. “I loved you so much that I thought my world would end if our love ended. And our love did end and everything else kept on going. I learned it was all a lie.”
“Fuck you,” she says, sitting back. “As if I haven’t given you what you wanted, children, as if I haven’t been the perfect future queen. I’ve given you all you wished for.”
“You wanted that too! That throne, that crown, that’s the only thing that’s mattered to you from the start. And now you have it. Now you’re queen and I’m tossed aside for some fucking butler. A man who is supposed to shine your shoes, not fuck you out of them. But we both know your standards are pretty fucking low.”
“You fuck!” Nicklas says, lunging, trying to punch me again.
He’s hitting me and I’m ducking, and the road sweeps to the left in a tight curve and I hit the brakes, whipping the wheel around like the pro I used to be. But even though this sort of turn isn’t a concern to me, the wetness of the road, especially after weeks of drought, means that the rain hasn’t sunken into the asphalt.
It’s slick and the car starts to spin out.
In a moment I forget why we’re even fighting.
I forget about the betrayal.
I forget that I’ve never hated two people so much in my life.
All I know is that we’re sliding out.
All I know is that if I can’t correct this vehicle, we’ll all go over the edge of the road and down into the valley below.
So I tap the brakes and I correct and I do everything that racing has taught me and I keep my head level, like this is just another bend in the course.
But the SUV does not behave like a rally car.
And the road does not behave like a rally track.
And my passengers aren’t navigators.
Everyone screams as the SUV speeds forward, spinning out of control as it bursts over the side of the road that barely had a shoulder to begin with.
We’re airborne for a moment.
Then we crash.
We implode. It feels like thousands of pounds of steel are warping around me.
Then we flip.
Over and over.
I don’t know what’s up or down.
The seatbelt digs at my windpipe, carving into my waist, just as Helena’s figure moves past me.
I reach out for her, to grab her, and I graze the length of her leg, my fingers trying in vain to grasp her.
But it’s too late.
She’s going through the windshield.
Glass shatters like rain and then everything is black.
It’s a blackness I can sink into. A void. A place where my sins live, waiting for me in its depths.
Then, after eons, centuries, years, minutes…
There’s rain on my face.
My head wants to explode.
Everything comes back to me.
I gasp for air, feeling trapped like a wild animal.
I fumble for my seatbelt and unclick it. My body drops, freefalls, slams against the car’s ceiling that’s now the floor and nearly knocks me out again. The SUV landed upside down.
That image of her moving past me, like a darkened ghost in the night, a spirit trying to flee the world I live in for another. That was no dream. This is no nightmare.
I raise my head, glancing up to see Nicklas unconscious and upside down.
I should check on him. I will check on him, even though I want to do anything but.
But first I have to find Helena.