Note: For the curious, a sooshka is a small round crunchy Russian pastry. Its delicious quotient is through the roof, guys. Through the roof. And for some reason Harmonia and Russia have sort of blended together in my head, so...
The very first real thing the Lady Merces says to her, days after the initial formalities, is "What do you have there?"
Lelei isn't entirely sure how to respond, now that they've gone off the script. So she stares a moment at the pastry in her hand, then looks up, clears her throat, and says, "It's a sooshka, milady."
The Lady, all wisdom and grace, nods as if she's known it all along. "From the Northern Continent, right? From Harmonia?" She nods again, thoughtfully. "Are you Harmonian, Lelei?"
Lelei takes a moment to recover from her surprise, that the great lady knows her name, then shakes her head. "No, milady." Then, a little timidly, "My grandmother was."
"Not a first-class citizen, though," Lady Merces muses, not even glancing over for confirmation. "They never leave."
"I don't know," Lelei admits. "You're probably right."
"Mm, yes. If she had been first-class, you wouldn't have heard the end of it." Her sweet smile makes it quite clear that she doesn't mean for there to be any sting in her words. Then she stands, steps closer to Lelei and rests a hand against the bars between them. A moment, and Lelei catches a whiff of her scent, a sweet smell like prairie flowers, and she's even more impressed by the Lady Merces who can bring the smell of blossoms to her own imprisonment.
"May I?" the Lady asks, her hand sweeping a path to the small pile of sooshki on the desk before the cell. Lelei hesitates, uncertain.
"I'm not supposed to...give you anything," she says. "I'm so sorry, I really am, if I could I would but the rules say specifically we're not supposed to give prisoners anything."
"Then let's trade." The Lady leans forward to rest the curve of her cheek against the line of the bar. "Is that allowed?" She pauses, then slowly smiles. "Or would that make you...a trader?"
There's somehow heat in the joke, a quiet intensity that makes Lelei take a pause before she can bring herself to laugh. Even when she does laugh it's thin. "A trader," she repeats. "Yes." Then there's silence a moment as the lady continues to watch her, continues to smile. Lelei is curious, and it takes only a moment for her curiosity to overtake her intimidation: "But...what do you even have to trade with, milady?"
The Lady leans back and gestures at herself. At first, Lelei doesn't understand the gesture. They'd stripped the Lady of almost everything, though she is still in the clothing she'd been wearing when they arrested her. Lelei's unsure whether that's flattery or insult: the clothing is very fine, to be sure, but she'd been arrested nearly a week before and it's getting worn and filthy. Most likely the officer on duty simply hadn't known how to ask her to change.
So it takes a moment as Lelei looks the Lady up and down and up again before she realizes that what the Lady offers is herself. Lelei doesn't blush, and she blesses the fact that she doesn't blush. "Milady," she says, prodding herself into indignance, "I would beg you not to think that I'm a man, vulnerable to your charms. Just because I'm tall - "
The Lady interrupts with a laugh that somehow isn't mocking or patronizing even though the Lady is most certainly laughing at her. "Of course not," she says, then laces her forearms through the bars and allows her hands to dangle. "But allow me to confess to you, Lelei - I've always found all of that - man, woman - purely academic."
"It's, ah..." Lelei starts, so quietly that she can't even hear herself. The Lady must not even know that she's interrupting.
"Look at those sooshki, Lelei," the Lady urges. "Take them together, they're sooshki; they would be sooshki if one of them alone were a sooshka or a sooshok. Do you understand me?"
Certainly, she understands, but the whole thing is so ridiculous that she smiles and is even tempted to laugh. "If you're trying to seduce me, milady, there are better ways to do it than with grammar."
There's a moment where the Lady's face is solemn, and Lelei's smile fades as she's afraid she's been insulting. Then there's a laugh that's followed by a smile, and the Lady leans her head against the bars and just seems to enjoy it all. "You're very practical, aren't you?" she asks cheerily. Then a bit of that laughter fades; the Lady looks at her, still smiling but sensual, and says, "A kiss for a sooshka. Something sweet for something sweet."
"Oh, these aren't traditional. These ones are salty," Lelei says.
The Lady leans forward conspiratorially. "Don't tell anyone, but secretly, I am too."
Lelei says, "Oh," because she doesn't know how else to respond to that, how else to respond to the confusion it raises in her chest. Then she turns and picks up a sooshka, holds it out.
The Lady gestures her closer. Lelei steps in and the Lady presses her face to the bars. Lelei leans forward and meets the waiting lips, which are so very much softer than any lips she's kissed before and so very much gentler, caressing hers for a moment. Then the sooshka is slipped free from her hand and the Lady turns away, smiling and sucking on the treat.
Lelei swallows and resists the urge to touch her mouth.
The next day, Lelei brings sweet, even though she doesn't much care for sweet, and tells herself she's merely in the mood. Even so they're not very good; she eats about half and can't bring herself to eat any more. Instead she sets them aside and waits for the Lady to ask after them.
It takes a while; the Lady is paying little attention to what's around her, still and staring at a single spot, humming tunelessly. She either looks bored or frightened. Lelei follows her gaze and stares at that same point, trying to see what the Lady sees, but there's nothing there but one slightly discolored brick.
Still, Lelei loses herself in it, and is startled when the Lady says, "More sooshki."
She looks up to see the Lady watching her. "Oh," she says, looking down at them and back up again. "Yes."
"Because you are loyal to your Harmonian roots."
"You're Harmonian, aren't you, milady?" Lelei had looked at the Lady's file the night before, and is still shaken by what she saw there, so she keeps running over that which doesn't involve her sentence. Faintly, she gestures to her hair - "First-class citizen, right?"
"No." The Lady looks down, eyes shaded by long lashes, and smiles to herself. "No, they never leave."
"Oh," Lelei says, uncertain. She watches the Lady and thinks there must be a story, and wishes she had the skill to coax it out before the day when the Lady would die. But the moment when she could even so much as ask has passed; the Lady looks up again and smiles a more open smile.
"How was the exchange rate, last time?" she asks. "Sooshka for a kiss?" When Lelei clears her throat, a little embarrassed, she laughs. "How many kisses are in that pile, Lelei?"
"Six," Lelei says quietly, then thinks it might have been more dignified if she'd pretended to count.
"Six," the Lady repeats, and beckons with an open hand.
Lelei hesitates. "This, I think, is precisely the reason they don't want us giving things to the prisoners." She's practiced the line in her head, and in her head it is strong. In her mouth it turns weak, a token protest.
"Six kisses." Her hand and her smile whisper Come hither. Lelei comes.
Her lips still are buzzing when the Lady licks away the last crumbs. Only then, with the Lady satisfied, her eyes hooded and a half-smile hovering about her mouth, does Lelei dare to speak what she doesn't want to say.
"They're going to kill you."
And the Lady freezes mid-lick, slowly lowers her hand and her eyes. "I see," she says quietly, then with an open vulnerability: "I knew, of course. But I hoped..."
Her eyes fix once again on that single brick, and she says nothing. Tentatively, Lelei prompts, "You'd hoped...?", but the Lady says nothing else.
But she's regained her cheer the day after, as if she's forgotten death or forgotten that she's supposed to fear it. She greets Lelei by name at the changing of the guard, asks her if she's brought anything today. Lelei holds up a napkin full of sooshki.
A kiss and a trade, and for the first time they eat their sooshki together. Lelei tries to savor it, but her mouth is dry and she's nervous. Swallowing is an effort. The Lady finishes her sooshka with great relish, then smiles and watches as Lelei struggles with hers.
Another kiss, and Lelei is almost embarrassed, wondering if the Lady can tell how dry her mouth is. This time, Lelei doesn't even try to eat hers, just tries to snap it into smaller pieces. She ends up crushing it instead.
"Poor thing," the Lady says, but Lelei can't even summon up a smile.
"Milady," she says, "it's not right."
"No." The Lady's eyes are fixed on the remains of the pastry; they flick up to look at Lelei, her smile an invitation to keep what is said between them a joke.
But Lelei can't. "You've done nothing wrong, milady. They have no right - no right - "
"Lelei." The Lady smiles gently. "It's all right. Really."
"You've done nothing wrong," she repeats defiantly.
"I couldn't imagine what your Lord Godwin would say if he heard you talking like this," the Lady says.
"Lord Godwin can - " Lelei shakes her head, unable to think of an appropriate fate for the man she's sworn allegiance to. "Hang himself," she finishes. "He's unjust. He's not a man of justice."
The Lady's face clouds, and she turns away. Lelei watches, and it occurs to her that there have been rumors: she's a little uncertain, wondering if after all the Lady loves the Lord Godwin. She's afraid that she's offended the Lady.
"I'm sorry," Lelei says. "I didn't mean..."
"I think I'll lay down a while," the Lady says, and she sounds spiritless and tired. She crosses to the cot in her cell and turns her back toward Lelei. And Lelei sits alone, awkward with a pile of pastries for which she has no appetite.
They come the next day. There are three of them, all men a decade older and a decade better than Lelei. She nevertheless imagines pulling her saber and fighting them, all of them, for the Lady. Instead she stands, salutes, and moves off to the side as one confronts the Lady.
"Come with us, please," he says.
The Lady's smile has a hardness to it, but she stands and sweeps her hand out in a graceful gesture. It's an invitation: Here, I am as I am; come. There is such defiance in it, such pride, that Lelei has to look down and bite her lip.
They bind the Lady's hands behind her and cover her eyes. Then they take her with them, one before her, two on either side holding her arms. Lelei falls in step behind them and tries to be inconspicuous. One of them, a ruddy, fair-haired man, looks at her, and she meets his eyes a moment, then looks back ahead, and he doesn't say anything.
As they walk, Lelei swings her hand far forward, so that her fingers brush against the Lady's crossed palms. She tries to imitate the flutter of taking a sooshka for the hand. She tries to reassure: Don't be afraid. I'm behind you. But the Lady doesn't seem to notice.
A gate is closed and locked, and none of the men have the key. Two of the men go to find someone who does; the third, the red-cheeked man, stands off to the side, going through his keys again and again, distracted as he searches. It gives Lelei a moment alone with the Lady, and she leans in close and breathes, "I'm here. Don't worry. I can save you - "
"Lelei," the Lady says, her voice hushed. "Forgive me."
"Milady?" Lelei asks hesitantly.
"I have mistreated you horribly," she whispers. "Forgive me."
"But..." Lelei keeps herself from shaking her head in confusion, aware that this would attract the attention of the other guard.
"I've tried to make you fall in love with me," she says, "so that when I'm killed a Godwin servant is miserable. I was trying for a most petty revenge, but Lelei, you're a very good-hearted person. Please forgive me for what I've done."
Lelei takes a step back and stares at her Lady's pinioned form, at the face turned blindly toward her. She swallows and looks over at the red-cheeked man who's been listening but just presses his lips together and shakes his head.
"I..." Lelei starts, but doesn't know how she'll finish. The other two men return at that moment, keys jingling. They unlock the gate, and once again they start forward, making their way towards the Lady's fate.
It is when they're opening the final doors that Lelei knows what it was she was going to say. I love you anyway. She can't believe that the Lady was being so base; perhaps she is deluding herself, but she believes deeply that her Lady merely said that so that Lelei wouldn't be heartbroken. And she is happy believing that, happy deluding herself, for her Lady. Her hand drops to her side, to her blade, and she prepares to pull it free to defend her Lady with her life.
Then the door swings open, and the Queen is there. Lelei, startled, lets her hand fall away.
Beside the Queen is the Lord Godwin, who looks almost petulant. The room is bare, devoid of its usual block; the Queen nods, and the Lady's blindfold is removed.
"Your Highness," she says immediately. Lelei thinks there is relief in her voice. She looks over at Lord Godwin, and this time there is just the faintest dusting of contempt. "My lord."
A frown cuts its way across the man's face. "Her Royal Highness has commuted your sentence," he says. "Life imprisonment rather than the traitor's death that would be right."
There is just the slightest drop in the Lady's shoulders, the slightest relaxation of her neck. "Your Highness is merciful." The Lord sneers at that, turns away and walks from the room. Lelei is shocked at his rudeness, but the Queen simply shakes her head gently.
"Lucretia," says the Queen. "This is all I can do."
"I am humbled and grateful that you did even this much," the Lady says, bowing her head.
The Queen watches her. "You're still not safe."
The Lady doesn't look up. "I know."
The Queen smiles to herself sadly. "One day you will be remembered as one of the great heroes of our country."
Then the Lady raises her head again. She smiles at Her Highness. "I have no need of that, Your Majesty. I know I've helped the people of Falena. That's all I need."
"I'm sorry." Her Majesty shakes her head. "This is a poor way to reward loyalty."
"Loyalty had nothing to do with it, Your Highness. I am a traitor. The just punishment would be a traitor's death." The Lady smiles even broader. "You truly have shown mercy."
"One day," the Queen promises, "the Godwin faction will lose their power. You won't be in here forever."
The Lady nods. "That thought will sustain me," she says. The Queen shakes her head again, reaches out a hand and rests it gently on the Lady's shoulder, then turns from the room.
The Lady is taken to a new cell. By some oversight Lelei is reassigned there as well. But the Lady doesn't seem surprised to see her, welcoming her instead with a smile. She gestures to her comfortable surroundings. "It's an improvement, isn't it?" she says, dressed in new clothes no less sumptuous than those she had before.
"I'm glad that you'll be able to live more comfortably, milady." Lelei smiles at her. "I'm glad they didn't kill you." Once that's out of her mouth, she realizes how ridiculous it sounds, but the Lady's laughter isn't mocking, isn't abrasive. Instead it makes her laugh a little too.
"I am, as well." The Lady looks her over and smiles. "How old are you, Lelei?"
"How old?" Lelei says. "I'm sixteen."
"Sixteen," the Lady repeats. "A bit older than I was when I started, but..."
The Lady is silent a moment; Lelei blinks. "My lady?"
"I trust in the Queen," the Lady says. "I trust that there will be a day when she busts me out of here." Lelei smiles, uncertain, at the way her Lady had said that, but her Lady takes no notice. "When I do, I think I'd like to take you with me."
Lelei's heart leaps; her breath catches. "My lady?" she says again.
But the Lady seems to take no heed, nodding instead decisively. She looks Lelei in the eyes. "I think the previous exchange rate was unfair. This time, I think, a sooshka for a lesson."
"A lesson...?" Lelei repeats.
"Sit." The Lady gestures to a chair. She smiles broadly when Lelei sits and settles behind the desk they've given her, then steeples her hands before her. "Let me tell you of the art of warfare," she says.