The fire cracked gently in the sooty hearth, making the silence in the room just a little more bearable. Rupert sat across from her drawing on his cigar, signing the last of the commissioners papers with his gold pen. He looked tired, but determined to enjoy the festivities that were looming before them. The already prominent wrinkles around his eyes screwed up as he read something, rubbing his forehead in puzzlement. She smiled a little at him, taking in his appearance. His once coal black hair was flecked with grey now, softening his terribly hard features. He was older and in all honesty it never had really affected her, but now it was becoming apparent. He was approaching forty five, she had only left her twenties. He looked up, registering her scrutiny of him. She looked down, back to the proposal for more money for the tourist board.
"Are you sure you don't want to come to the lodge?" she questioned, in a desperate attempt to dispel the silence.
"No, my dear, I'm sure." Rupert smiled, looking over the rim of his glasses. She sighed, this was the last time she'd ask. It wasn't vital that he spent Christmas with her, it was more for the benefit of her two sons. She decided to push again, perhaps in the hope he would even reconsider. She knew he intended to spend Christmas with his mistress on the state trip, and to be perfectly honest - it didn't hurt anymore. The first time she found he had a mistress, a year after they married, she had been inconsolable. Now, it didn't even hurt. She had to admit it made her feel a little more belittled and unwanted than she cared to admit to anyone, even herself. She felt sort of used but not as if he done it to be bad. However, as much as she had accepted it she still felt used - as if she was only good for one thing.
"I'm sure the boys would like it," she tried, putting the papers to the side as she stood up.
"They don't need me," he smiled, his voice unconcerned and non committal. She decided she couldn't ignore that as she stood at the fireplace and began glaring at him. He looked up, his eyes a little apologetic. After all, the boys did need him. He just needed his mistress more.
"No Rupert, I think it's the other away about," she answered, raising her voice a little. "Can't you cancel the state trip or will your mistress be upset?" .She didn't mean to say it, it had just slipped out. Anger flashed across his face but it stopped mid-way to rage, after all, what she said was perfectly true. She had challenged him, chided him about his extra marital hobbies before - it wasn't as if it was the first time.
"No," he said shortly, " you of all people should know that is not possible." He decided that taking the route of the state-trip was preferable - discussing his mistress, the young Countess De Brazen, was the uncomfortable and unnerving option.
"No you're right, it's not and I apologise because I'm being unrealistic. However," she paused, looking up at the family portrait that hung above the fire, " I shall not apologise for trying to acquaint you with your children." She didn't really want to apologise after all, what was she apologising for? Being used.
"I am perfectly well acquainted with my children," he answered sharply, "and I will not be told otherwise."
"Never mind," she sighed, walking towards where he was seated. She would normally have argued till her face was blue, but it was late and she knew it would get them nowhere. He was a good friend, a bad husband, and a terrible father. It wasn't that he didn't try, but it was always a half-hearted effort when he did, and one that often served to make the distance even wider. Rupert was her friend, but no more, and for that she was glad. It wasn't that she didn't love him, she just wasn't 'in' love with him. It sounded cliché, even to her, but it was true.
"Goodnight," she sighed, patting his shoulder as she made the way to the door.
"Goodnight, Clarisse," he smiled. She went to make her way out but he grabbed her hand, turning her to face him gently.
"Clarisse, I'm sorry," Rupert said apologetically.
"I understand Rupert. Just make sure they don't find out, the boys I mean. I can stand knowing - I can even stand the humiliation, it doesn't hurt. If they found out it would wreck their image of our family and I don't want that. You understand?"
"I will try Clarisse, but it's not who I am. This isn't who I am. We don't love each other and maybe the boys should know that." His half hearted, unconvincing attempt at trying to sound sorry and pitiful just riled her even more. She glared at him, her fiery eyes dancing at him in the dull room.
"Rupert!" she flashed angrily, still glaring at him, " It will remain the way it is. If you want them to know, at least be part of their lives before you shatter their illusions."
"Clarisse, I'm sorry I hurt you." Again, it was conceited, almost patronising as he said it. He didn't even look at her. He was distracted when he said it and it really did rile her.
"You're not hurting me," she said curtly. "Be very sure of that! Perhaps it is your reputation that you shall hurt if you continue so carelessly. I care little for the fact you happen to screw any -," she stopped, her temper being reigned in yet again and her angry tone coming to a halt. He glared at her, his eyes almost daring her to continue.
She turned away from him, looking towards the window as the snow drifted in the inky blackness of a cold, European night. She shivered as she felt his eyes scan over her, perhaps apologetically, perhaps with malice. She decided the latter was most likely. She didn't really want to face him again but eventually she knew she couldn't just stand there. She would face him, she had to. She was no longer a young girl, afraid that her much older and mature husband should not approve if she argued back. She was a woman, able to stand her own, able to argue as an equal.
"Perhaps this is not the time to discuss this," Rupert said, his tone final and partly dismissive. She stood a moment, looking into the evening, contemplating whether to argue or to turn and go to her room. A fruitless argument it would turn out to be. He was set, stubborn, and didn't care whether his children needed him or not; it was a losing battle.
" No, perhaps not," she sighed, in resignation. "Goodnight."
"Goodnight, Clarisse. Sleep well," Rupert half-smiled.
She glided past him, ignoring him as she did so and slamming the door behind her. She paused in the deserted corridor, standing against the wall and gritting her teeth to control her emotions. She sighed as she leaned off the wall, walking to the window directly in front of her. The icy snow that was drifting heavily in the sky gathered at the corners of the windows. She pressed her head against the cool glass and sighed, her breath condensing and making a misty cloud on the perfectly polished surface. Rupert could always do this, make her angry and uncontrolled. He was so aggravating, the way he treated her like a child.
She was so lost in her thoughts, and lost in the wintry scene before her, she didn't notice an unobtrusive, but aware Joseph, coming down the corridor. His heavy, almost reassuring footsteps brought her out of her wintry dreams.
"Oh, Joseph," she smiled distractedly. A warm feeling of contentment stole over her and she suddenly felt a little better.
"Hello, Your Majesty," he answered placidly. She half-smiled. She noticed, as she often did, how attractive he was. She wasn't attracted to him, after all she was married, but he was handsome and fit. He had wonderful deep eyes and a caring voice which often comforted her.
"May I join your gazing?" Joseph questioned, coming to stand beside her. " Or is it simply for your viewing purposes only?"
"Oh, Joseph," she laughed dryly, motioning with her hand and sliding along on the slippery floor so he could stand along beside her. He looked at her, then to the window, then her again. He noticed the slight distress on her face as she looked out into the icy night.
"Your Majesty?" Joseph questioned, looking at her and fiddling with the Rolex around his wrist, "Are you ok?"
"No, no Joseph I'm not," she sighed, turning from the window and leaning against the window sill, "and how may times must I ask you to call me Clarisse?"
"Always once more, Your Majesty," Joseph answered. She half frowned, half smiled at him. He could not see her face, for he was still staring out into the winter night. He could hear the soft breath that escaped her every second and it made him secretly euphoric ; he had never known such a wonderful creature could be alive.
"Perhaps if I ordered you to call me Clarisse..." she suggested, nudging him gently in the ribs, "Perhaps you may call me Clarisse then!"
"No need for orders..." He smiled, swivelling round also so he mimicked her, staring at the ornate tapestry on the wall directly across, "Clarisse."
She pivoted her head. A shocked, humoured, and what seemed like her being pleased, greeted his smile warmly. Her eyes danced in the silvery moonlight, which bathed her in an eerie, almost angelic glow.
"That's better," she laughed, "I am Clarisse when we are like this."
"I wonder Clarisse.." he smiled, sliding down the wall a little and sitting on the floor. He reached the hard surface effortlessly. He sat on the Italian marble, crossing his legs in a Buddha- like manner. She watched him closely and as he reached up, his hand offered out to her, utter horror played through her. Did he expect her to sit crossed legged on the floor? Yet, she felt the urge overcome her, tugging at her as his eyes offered her a place beside him. She quickly looked around, and whipping up his hand, fitted down onto the cold marble beside him and tucked her legs underneath each other. He smiled as she joined him. They sat, enjoying each others company for a few silent moments, when at last she spoke.
"You wonder what, Joseph?" Clarisse questioned eagerly, remembering his uttering before he'd challenged her to sitting on the floor. He paused a moment, as if trying to recollect what he said. In those short moments, he never took his eyes of her and it made her feel dreadfully uncomfortable but utterly ecstatic at the same time.
"I was wondering," he smiled, diverting his eyes from hers and returning to the Rolex on his wrist to fiddle with the catch," what made you so unhappy before we got lost in a different conversation?"
"Oh," she said, looking down at the almost inky lines on the intricate marble, then to the streams of light snaking their way into the hall. A question perhaps she would quite happily have avoided.
"'Oh', what?" he said, forefront and unconcealed. She wasn't surprised, nor taken back by his pointedness. In fact she found it interestingly refreshing. Never had she known a man that got straight to the point about things, even if he happened to be the King, or a Minister, or a member of Parliament. Men too often had a tendency to beat about the bush, but with Joseph, with Joseph it was different. He always told the truth and always questioned thoroughly and pointedly. He never danced around subjects.
"Oh, I was upset." she said finally, settling that honesty was most likely the best policy.
"May I ask why?" Joseph questioned, again looking at her with those eyes that took in every word and gesture she made.
"No," she said quietly, "It's complicated."
"But I could make a fair guess," he interrupted, again staring at her in half shadowy light.
"I'm sure you could-" her voice failed her.
"Your husband," Joseph resolved, offering her his hand as he stood up. "It's getting cold down here and I don't want to be blamed for your being ill in the morning...it wouldn't do, not for the Queen." She took his hand, raising an eye brow at his very double sided comment.
The kitchens, in the very bowels of the palace, were considerably warmer than the icy corridor they had been sitting in minutes before. It was humid and moist, making her feel drowsy as she sat down at the old wooden table in the center of the kitchen. She watched Joseph intently as he bustled about the kitchen, making drinks for them. She had, up until this point, looked on Joseph as a friend but never to this depth. He was so kind, so truthful, always to her. He always cared for her, even if she had a tendency to be uncaring back. Never had he hurt her, he'd always been there for her. He helped her to look after the boys, he was practically their father...
She smiled up at him as he sat down, placing a steaming mug of cocoa in front of her. Again she noticed him, how utterly attractive he was.
"So, what was it this time?" he growled, sipping some cocoa from his cup.
"Ah, nothing. I am overreacting," she sighed, running her finger along the rim of the mug and avoiding his eyes. He placed a restraining hand on her wrist, forcing her to look at him. The fear and what was perhaps pain in her eyes was unmistakable.
"You know he has lovers," she blurted out. He let go of her, as if she had said something that disgusted him, or burned him.
"I don't love him but I don't know...I don't understand why he does this. I know he's unhappy, so am I, but I don't have lovers." She bowed her head, willing the hot tears that pricked the back of her eyes to go away. He sat, stunned but not shocked by her revelations. It wasn't as if he didn't know the King had lovers, that was obvious.
"Clarisse," Joseph said, reaching for her hand across the table. It was alright to touch her but he was afraid he'd never stop if he only touched her hand. "Is there anything I can do?"
It sounded so lame and he felt like an idiot for asking such a cliché question. She looked up, a watery laugh coming from her as she did so.
"No, but thank you for listening," she sniffed, wiping her eyes on the collar of her jacket. "What could you do?"
He had ideas, highly inappropriate ones, and things he'd never dare to suggest, but yet, they crept to the front of his mind. He pushed them to the back, willing them to go away. She was his Queen, and his friend, and nothing more. He could never, would never, do that to her.
Clarisse smiled at him again but she felt tired, it had been a long, emotionally draining evening. She stood up, the chair pushing out and scraping along the floor. He simply sat, registering her movements as she bent down and kissed his cheek in a friendly manner.
"Goodnight, Joseph." She smiled, her hand burning through his black shirt and heating up every part of his body.
"Goodnight," he managed, "Clarisse."