I do not have to change, do I?
"Let down your hand, that I may claim my prize," the lady Judge says, and the sword-sting is gone from her voice, "and that her Highness of Dalmasca's fair skin not be impugned upon by the lips of man."
When Ashe sinks to her knees against the rail, it is as if she melts.
Surreptitiously wiping the sweat from it on her skirts, Ashe lets slip her hand between the carved pillars of the balcony and down to the lady Judge, fighting to keep from trembling. Her countenance still severe and handsome though she frowns, the woman takes the Princess' hand in her gauntlet, turns its palm toward her face and, upon her tiptoes, presses her soaked lips to the Princess' wrist.
A knot ravels in Ashe's throat, and she swallows, heavily, at the wet, suckling touch.
She can feel the words as much as hear them, when the lady Judge's lips leave her skin: "Recall this day, when you are a woman grown," she bids, and Ashe swears to it a thousand times in silence.
That woman kissed me, Ashe thinks. That lady Judge kissed me.
The Princess' heart is still fluttering, entire days later. The wind and Mist of the skies rustles her hair: that woman kissed me. The galleon groans beneath her feet: that lady Judge kissed me. The protective rail in her curled fists is sweat-slick and cold: that lady Judge won those fights that she might kiss me.
She has done her research, with as much secrecy as she may. The Solidors brought with them the imperial sons, and the younger, only four years old, has a loose tongue and sparkling haggler's eyes. The lady Judge is called Drace, and will be Magister soon. She is older than Ashe's Captains, as old as Ashe's aunts. She plays with the Solidor boy and is his teacher. Her hair is always in plaits, and they are as long as the Solidor boy is tall.
But Ashe is late in the asking, and the colloquium is over soon, and here she stands on a ship returning home with only the rumbling of the engines to remind her of all the men in the courtyard, defeated, fifty pairs of eyes hot on Ashe's blushing cheeks as that lady Judge kissed me.
Her betrothed is sixteen now, and his arms are too long for the rest of him. That does not show as much in the armor he is starting to wear for more and more of the time, but today he is in cloth, and so it does. He wears white, and it makes his pimply yellow skin glow gold, and his forward-textured hair seem less strange. Also, she notices, the way he smiles at her has changed, and his teeth are the same color as his hair, now that his lips are paler.
"And I was actually quite scared," she is telling him as they stroll, and her stroll is actually quite skip-like, and the ribbon holding back her hair is coming looser with the spring of her step, "you know, that I might have backed myself into a sort of corner. It may have had something to do with the amount of armor the Archadians were wearing."
"It might," he chuckles, but she barely heeds it.
"And so when it came down to the last four, it was three Archadians and one Rozarrian, and then the final was between the smallest Archadian and the Rozarrian—"
"And the Rozarrian won?"
"No, the Archadian! I think my heart stopped for a moment."
He laughs, "Well, that is what you get for offering to kiss any old Knight," and when he catches her eye his are sparkling and she cannot help but laugh as well.
"It is, is it not," she says more than asks, and her walk slows a touch as they approach the thin rustling curtains astride a gleaming balcony. The air is warm and welcoming, and Ashe reaches slightly for it, the chill of the palace hallways abating a touch, then glances back and up at Prince Rasler. "But there is more."
"Of course," he says, and steps beside and past her to the terrace itself, holding the curtain aside with one of his long, bare, gallant arms.
She walks past him, and turns her face up to the convivial sun. "The victor came to the foot of the balcony I was at and took off her helm, and—"
"Her?" Rasler asks, surprised.
"Her," Ashe repeats with a wide smile, her eyes still closed to the warmth of the sky. She hears Rasler's feet shuffling awkwardly, and his breath thickens with what might be a laugh, and she is suddenly quite concerned but the bright day feels too lovely on her shoulders and cheeks for her to stop dwelling on it.
After what feels to her a long time, her Prince asks in his small, cracking voice, "And then what happened?"
The insides of her eyes are red from the sun on the other side, and she turns to face him, a bit of a blush creeping up her cheeks. He is tense as well, she sees, one white-leathered toe nestled into the instep of the other, his cape fanning and wrinkling against the stone floor. She looks at his feet for a bit, then up (so far up!, like looking at her Captains!) for his face. "This," she says, and takes his hand.
Unabashed, she kneels, and explains quickly, "She was on the ground, and I was a ways up," and he shuffles back suddenly, but not before she's turned his palm toward her face and gotten her lips to his wrist, if only for the space of a blink. That he retreats makes her giggle, and his arm shivers up its entire length.
Did I look like that? she wonders.
Vossler is beautiful when he fights. Basch is just Basch.
So rarely does she see her Captains together when they are not also with her. They are friends, or something like it, though she finds it difficult to picture them doing things that friends do, laughing together, lying about, walking when they are not patrolling. She also thinks the image strange, that Basch and Vossler would do as other soldiers and go to the taverns and (she loves this phrase) get drunk, or make sheep's eyes at serving-girls.
But she looks forward to the few times of clement weather that someone else is guarding her, or no one at all, and that she has a view of the south lists, where they play.
She cranes her neck to stare down the three stories, through the gnat-buzzed window. Swords, today, and Basch is losing.
A great shout rings up from the sprawl and Vossler's sword is like heat-haze, less metal than air and disturbance. The weapon drums against Basch's shield with a sharp clang that spears right up through Ashe's ears and she closes her eyes and hisses slow through her teeth, drinking in the noise.
When she opens them to a grunt and a growl Basch has thrown Vossler back and is charging—and is done charging as soon as he started—and Vossler's sword is still between them, holding off Basch's sword and shield both with the sparking flat. Ashe can picture his serious face, eyebrows knotted into almost one straight line, his strange darkish skin getting red under his eyes, his lips half-parted and teeth flecked with spit.
It is probably only seconds that the men remain that way, but seems a good deal longer, perhaps because Ashe is holding her breath. They step apart naturally, and seem to be talking, but the words are much softer than their weapons and all Ashe can gather, three stories too high, is that they are going to try something similar. They catch their breath, reseat their weapons—Basch has to assert his shield as well, and takes longer—and square off, just as before.
Ashe smiles. And here she is supposed to be practicing calligraphy.
Teles is the first to take ill. The people who do not know him as a person are not as worried as Ashe, since Torias is the Crown Prince.
By the time Torias is afflicted too, most of the people in the palace only care about themselves.
It is over a year since she saw her fiancée last; the plague, of course, has kept him away. And now the time of death is done, the vaccines and spells in place, the paling amended against the disease, and the last rites have ended.
He comes to stand beside her at her brothers' graves, and yet wears white. She asks him why; he explains that it is his role, that in Nabradia one mourns as one weds, in the garb of state.
"Oh," she says as she nods—but does not turn up after hanging her head, and stays trained on the headstones.
Soon he has taken her hand, and the length of his chest is against her shoulder and side. She had thought herself grown taller, and perhaps she is, but so is he now, her collar as high as the rim of his cuirass. The metal is cold, but his bare hand is warm, and she laces her fingers with his. Their shared silence is not discomfiting, and even a bit thrilling through Ashe's grief; for all his talk of roles, she thinks, he does not take my hand as the Prince of Nabradia. His breath, even, is higher than her ear, and her hair feels slightly damp for it.
"So I am the heir now," Ashe tells him.
He nods, and his forehead taps the crown of hers gently with the gesture. "I know."
"What does this mean for us?" she asks, tracing the carved letters of her brothers' names with her eyes.
Slowly, his fingers wedge deeper between hers. "That the realms marry with us, I believe," he answers. His voice is more stable now than it was a year ago, and lower, though not nearly as low as her Captains' or her father's yet.
She tries to smile. "We had better have more than one child, then," she says. "A boy to rule Nabradia after you, and a girl to become Queen when I am gone."
"Practical," he laughs, and his armor rises gently against her back. "And thinking about birth and death at the same time..."
"You cannot have one without the other," Ashe considers somberly.
He makes some conceding noise, and holds her hand still tighter. "We'll name the boy for your brothers, and the girl for my mother."
"And they will be strong."
"And she will be beautiful."
"And there will not be any more plagues," Ashe concludes.
"So be it," Rasler says in her ear, the whisper cracking a little. She can feel the raised blemishes on his forehead through her hair, and it is somehow endearing that he stands this near, so she leans back a little and lets him come close to holding her.
This coming silence is different, woven thicker than the air and the sand beneath their feet. Rasler's toe raps once against Ashe's bare heel, and he reasserts his stance to let her against him. There is sweat between their joined palms. He smells pleasant, like armor-grease and fresh fruit.
Minutes, even half an hour, later, one of his pages draws near, to summon Rasler home. Rasler slides back from Ashe with an even denser silence, but does not let go of her hand. Eyes closed behind nearly-white lashes, he raises her arm to his lips and kisses her surely.
That he remembers touches her more than his lips, not that his lips do not their part.
"I would learn to fight the way you do," she tells Vossler firmly, and lets an arrow fly. It strikes the target, in the crude blue ring surrounding the red center.
Over her shoulder, blocking some of the sun, Vossler chuckles. "In what sense?"
"With a proper sword," she clarifies as she strings another arrow. "Two-handed."
He starts, and his tone is serious as ever, "It requires strength—"
"So I am weak?" She draws her bow, and too harshly.
"—in the upper arms," he says, lower, as if to correct himself, and she fires, "that few women are gifted with." The arrow goes wide to the left, a good body's length. Ashe curses to herself. "Perhaps when you are grown you will have this strength," Vossler goes on as Ashe readies the next arrow, surly and crooked. "In the meantime, the bow is best suited to you."
Frowning as much at Vossler as at the recalcitrant arrow, Ashe attempts to steady her breath and reminds herself of when he used to guide her hands with his own. "Then what about a regular sword?" She raises the bow, but pauses and slackens when he takes his time in answering.
Apparently, it was a sigh that delayed him. The adult kind of sigh, that claims to have forgotten how such children think. "That you ever be in a situation in which you must use one is a discredit to those who protect you."
She draws, sharply, "And so you would have me at the mercy of those who breach your defense?" and lets fly. "That is hardly logical." Again, she has marked wide, but not as far, though her frustration is still evident as she strings the next.
"We take it to mean that you do not trust us, if you are so vehement."
The arrow hangs loose in her grip, and the bow looser, as she turns to him. With the sun at his back, the hollows around his eyes are as dark as his hair, and his skin all the rougher for the shade. Even his light armor darkens in the gaps, but his framed jaw is clear to her, his severe grimace, where she much prefers him to be smiling.
"Vossler," she breathes, and glances at the earth, "I could never cease to trust you."
His shadow reaches nearer to her feet, and he follows it to her, and when she looks up to him his cheeks are still hard and solemn. Now, though, she has his eyes; he never looks directly into hers, but she knows when he wants to. "Then heed me on this; the day you take up a sword with both hands shall be a dire day indeed, and I pray it never comes."
Outright, she scoffs, and turns aside, readying and aiming, stepping back into the space he now occupies. "And you would have it be a day so dire that I fall before I can swing the blade, and all is already lost." She draws, concentrating on leading hands that are memory entire, on whispered instructions closer to her than he is now.
"…A dagger, perhaps," he relents.
"To start," she chides, and fires.
Of course the moon is closer to Bhujerba than it is to the earth. When she was younger she would try to take it for hers. She learned it was too large before she was taught how far away it was. But still, on nights like this, so clear that the stars almost hurt her, she stares the moon down and wills it to look back.
Her room in her Uncle's palace faces the wings, the feathers a perfect staircase if only the moon would heed her and come. But it does not, and Ashe wraps herself in the curtains. So much of her knows that even if she hides, nothing will change in the sky, and she thinks that perhaps she is not really hiding from anyone.
Someone knocks—twice, and the first one softer, which means, "Basch?"
"Aye," he says from the other side.
She bids him to come in, and smiles, but spins and tightens the curtains around her so she can barely peek out at the door opening inward.
Basch is a poor mummer, but at least he plays, which Vossler does not and her Uncle does no longer. Basch actually looks at the curtains, expecting her to be in them, but he remembers to look around the room as if something is amiss. "…I must be hearing things," he says, turning his back to her as he pretends to search. Ashe nearly giggles, but stifles it with the curtain. "Unless…" Basch muses, suddenly over-serious, "…some fiend has spirited her out the—" window, he knows not to say, "—or into thin air…"
His steps are slower even than usual, awkward enough to keep his armor silent. He reaches out to flip on the sconces, but when he turns back and Ashe squints at his face he is not smiling as he should be, but somber, his fair days-bearded cheeks sunken in and his small eyes downcast. After a moment he starts toward the wardrobe, then thinks better of it and turns back toward the door.
"It is getting to the point where it is not my place to seek her out," he says, and Ashe lets the curtain fall from before her face.
He does not yet turn back to her, and indeed still seems to be trying to play—she knows what his gestures mean, and if his hand is leading forward it means there is something to him in that direction—but she can feel him actually looking at her, though not with his eyes.
Oh, he is still trying to play, trying to humor her, and he looks at the ceiling as if her voice came from somewhere else entirely that she cannot even see. "There it is again," he mutters, and he is no better at acting.
Ashe has a few guesses as to why there is something suddenly wrong with this, why her feet are sweating, and likes none of them. "I do not want to be too old for this," she sighs.
Slowly, almost sullenly, he turns to the curtains and catches her eyes. "It is not that you are too old, your Highness. You may never be too old."
"But you think it improper," she presumes to finish, with a roll of her eyes at the words her maids have been using far too often.
He seems confused, Ashe thinks when she trains her eyes back on his and his brow is knotted low. "The word did not occur to me," he admits, plain as the price of a potion.
For a moment she considers, and recalls; it is not my place, he had said, and Ashe thinks aloud, "Perhaps my husband will humor me."
"Wives more often complain of their husbands playing hide-and-seek," he says with a gentle, unfazed smile.
She laughs, and it sounds bright, "So we will play it together, Rasler and I." With a bit more care than usual, she unwinds herself from the curtains and let them brush the window, blocking out most but not all of the moon and the wings.
Basch nods simply, still smiling. Ashe notices, and perhaps she has seen this before, that though Basch's smiles are more frequent than Vossler's, they are less obvious, less proud.
"But we are growing too large for all the good hiding places," Ashe considers, and watches Basch's lips. She wonders if they would appear less thin without the beard, and makes a note to look again when he has shaved properly. "It is time for bed?"
"You have grown too old for me to tell you that," he says. "I only suggest."
"You will be outside," she says, nodding courteously, which he returns. And then she nods differently, with a side-twist of her head that she knows he can read, and says he is dismissed.
He goes, and shuts the door, but not the light. Ashe does that herself, and for a long while stares at her other guard; a doll named Angel, her Holy Knight, in prominence beside the doorframe.
In the dark, Ashe thinks about propriety until it haunts her dreams.
All of Rasler's pimples are gone.
Why does she notice this? she wonders, when there are so many other things to see right now; the glint of his blade and his white Nabradian armor in the overzealous sun, the way he and his companion move so haphazard and serious as they spar, his flashing eyes, curling arms, scraping feet. He truly is golden, polished with sunlight and sweat, his ivory hair and teeth and the whites of his eyes flashing like the swords, his shoulders broader for want of a cape.
She has no idea if he is winning or losing. In fact, she is unsure if he is fighting at all.
One of her maids, Leto, says in jest that Ashe is off to conquer Nabradia. Ashe asks her, with what weapons?
With her eyes and her smile, Leto says.
With her midriff and décolletage, Tania corrects.
"Will it be enough?" Ashe asks, hanging her head concernedly to look down at her breasts, which are not much larger than they were last year, hardly more evident than those of a pudgy boy, and her stomach, which seems to have gotten uncomfortably curvy since she last looked at it.
Those two maids, and the third who folds the garments into the trunks, all laugh in turn. Tania and Leto are past a score old, and the third (who Ashe does not know) older still, and all three of them have bosoms more ample than hers.
Still giggling, Tania plants her hands on Ashe's half-bare shoulders and turns her firmly toward the nearest looking-glass.
The saddle is hard between her legs and the chocobo-feathers are thick and starched. She lets an arrow fly, and an Archadian falls with the shaft at the neck of his armor, between helmet and head. Dozens of arrows volley at her, and the mount beneath her bucks and swerves but Basch's arm tightens around her waist and his shield turns everything dark. The arrows pummel it like raindrops and laughter and nothing can touch her.
His breath, his grunting, his heartbeat is hot against the back of her neck. She leans over the chocobo's flank to string another arrow and Basch holds her sure, the plate around his arm warm and slick, the first curled round the beast's reins digging under Ashe's stomach. The plangent battle echoes off his armor and his shield and spears through her ears, sounds of metal and sand and heat. She takes aim, and Basch shields the firelight from her eyes, and she kills another man.
Everything is screaming and ringing and it is glorious, and they plunge through the chaos, the beast breakneck and the wind dust-sharp through Ashe's hair, hissing over the rim of Basch's shield and the chocobo's livery—
But fire, and explosion, and the beast screams and burns and throws, and she falls with her Captain still clutching her about the waist. There is blood in her eyes and her bow is gone, but there is Vossler's sword planted in the ground beside her and she scrambles to her feet, ducks under an assault of Archadian spears and grabs for the hilt, wrenching it from the ground with both hands. It weighs nothing at all, so little that she cannot see she swings it, cannot feel as she cuts some man in twain at the waist.
And soon they are all swarming around her, dozens of Archadians, with their insect-helms and thick hands and hundreds of weapons, nameless as they shatter and fall. Their blood runs down Vossler's blade and up the arms of her dress, and she cannot hear her laughter for the ringing and groaning and splatter around her, cannot feel her smile for the dizzying heat. The Archadians crumble to dust like the fiends they are, and sparkle, drowning out the stars.
No one remains, and the sand is black with blood. She levels the sword and feels Vossler's coarse hands on her wrists, bidding her still, bidding her spread, bidding her aim. She is wrong, there is one more Archadian to slay, there, without a helm.
The lady Judge.
Laughing and singing, Ashe charges, and Vossler's sword is parried by the lady Judge's cruel mace. Its head looks like a child in a cocoon, Ashe thinks when she can see it through the sparks. The lady Judge swings hard and beats Ashe back, and the soaked sand cakes about her ankles but Ashe does not let the sword fall. She charges, and again the lady Judge parries, stern and unruffled, her gooedown-grey plaits spinning through the air behind each swing. Again, and again, and Ashe swears that the sword dents and bends, but not a blow lands, not on her, not on her adversary.
Her laughter ceases and Ashe is almost moaning as she whirls about, the greatsword in a low arc and she feels it connect and chime. Something snaps, and Ashe backpedals out of the spin and tries to find her feet in the clinging sand—and the lady Judge's mace is headless, frayed metal, powerless and bewildered.
The tip of Vossler's sword hits the sand, though Ashe still clutches the hilt in both hands.
"A kiss for the victor," the Lady Judge says, and kneels with her face to Ashe's hips, palms yielding skyward as she raises the hem of the Ashe's skirt waist-high.
Ashe wakes with her hand pinned between her legs, and turns onto her stomach to reach herself, where the lady Judge's lips would have been, should be.
Only after, when she can rock into herself no longer, when the throbbing, ridged walls are clenching about her curled fingers, does she remember that this is not her bed. She is in the Palace of Nabudis, as a guest. It is the nineteenth birthday of her future husband.
She finds the energy to writhe upon her hand again.
She is late to dinner. Rasler cannot take his eyes from her, and the prong of his fork catches on his chin. Ashe does him a courtesy, and sits in her place, and crosses her legs beneath the table, knee-over-knee, empowered.
No one actually says it where she can hear, but Archadia is stirring.
She does not say it where anyone else can hear, but a part of her wishes it would stop stirring and move.
"Were you expecting him?" her Uncle asks from the far side of the door. He never knocks the same way twice.
"No, Uncle Halim…" she concedes, and her grip on Angel's armored form slackens. "Come in."
The hallway is not lit by sconces this time of day, and the natural light is a dusty blue-gold through the windows beyond the door. It turns her Uncle's pale grey hair to a silvery blond for a moment, but that is soon gone.
"I cannot come to see you off to Nabradia," he says, stepping gently toward her, the thud of his cane only slightly heavier than his tread.
Ashe understands, and says so, and smoothes a place for him to sit beside her and the half-abandoned doll on the bed.
"And it is likely that I will not see you until the preparations for your wedding have begun," he goes on. He turns before he sits, with the same courtliness and care that he does at ceremony, but Ashe knows, and envies, that for her Uncle it is not that all things are ceremony, it is that he is always this composed, this dignified. She nods almost sullenly; he turns to her, glances down at the doll she holds, and smiles. "But it is not my absence that saddens you, it seems."
It takes some time for her to say, and she worries at the false, carved clasps of Angel's miniature armor, of no country at all. She stares into the painted eyes, which of course tell her very little, then looks askance at the man beside her, nearly as still. "…Am I prepared? To be wed?"
He does not quite laugh. "Is anyone prepared to be wed, I wonder."
Almost tiredly, Ashe leans her ear to his shoulder. It is easier to reach, and strangely more comfortable, now that her torso is longer.
"Your mother asked similar of me, before she to Dalmasca was summoned," he says low, not a whisper, but what her tutors once called a hand's-breadth voice.
She meets his tone. "And you told her the same?"
"I told her that she was," he says with a light, almost sullen chuckle.
"And you were wrong?" There is the hint of a restrained sob in her throat, and Ashe winces at the weakness of the sound.
Doubtless, her Uncle heard it—he hears everything, even that which goes unsaid—for he takes her in his arms the way he has not for several years, cradling her loosely as Ashe holds the doll in her lap. His breath, as ever, is very slow and almost difficult to feel.
"I do not fear it," Ashe tells them both, closing her eyes.
She can hear his smile. "I did not suspect you would."
"…I do not have to change, do I?"
His arms tighten about her shoulders, if just for a smirking moment. "If your husband woke beside a woman who was not the girl he courted, I suspect he would be much aggrieved."
Oh, oh, she cannot speak, she cannot think, she can barely even breathe, and Rasler's mouth where her legs meet is searing and wet like she is all over. She hangs on to the sheets with her fingers and toes too and cannot tell if it is working and oh—
He stops, curses, he stops, "Are you—"
"Yes," she wheezes, or thinks she does, "yes, just—"
"Don't stop no matter what I—"
"They'll hear us," he laughs, and he sounds so far away.
She reaches down and grabs for his neck. "Let them."
He almost falls on top of her but she minds that not at all, and she kisses his lips once she finds them. His mouth tastes strange and new and sour, but the way he is moving above her and what his hands and legs and—
She almost jumps, and her breasts crush against his chest and her lips rasp out of his reach. His hand clamps around hers and he retreats, and so does the nosing pressure just against the juncture of her thighs. "…Are you certain?" he asks her, and when she darts and looks up at him his face is blurry around the edges, rimmed white.
"We—" have to practice, she tries to say, "—yes, Rasler, yes."
He smiles, and pulls a little further away, smoothing Ashe's legs back apart. This time, he holds her still at the hip with his free hand, and she can feel him trembling—at her side and her fingers, and then so slowly where—
Noise. And feeling. Lean and still and thick and new and deep, which is strange but oh, he is moving, and against her and within her and they are both moving now and the mattress under her back is whimpering, or maybe those are her sounds. Even if they are hers—it does hurt, or maybe it is just foreign—she tries to hide them as best she can because it does make her want more. He is biting his lip and she wants to laugh at how serious he looks but tries to kiss him instead and they buck foreheads—but—oh—he should do that again, whatever he just did—
"Yes!" She does not mean to shout, but it is half laughter anyway and she is sure he does not mind.
"—all right," he finishes, but not as a question, as another way of saying yes.
And then he is kissing her and rocking into her and the bedspread gathers behind her backside and she does not care at all. She cannot bring herself to close her eyes to him, he is so beautiful like this, sweating and blushing and fighting but his face grows hazier and hazier and her eyes are rolling back and the lashes are fluttering. It is like just before when he kissed her there, but not as blinding, not as sharp, and faster when he pins her, and she wonders through the clouds if he stops seeing things too.
The bedclothes are wet, like she is all over, like he is where he still moves inside her. She curls her mouth, confused, and kisses his salty cheek, and he shivers within her, and bites his lower lip again. His hand tightens around hers, desperate-tight, like a grip on a weapon, as he is suddenly further in than he could have gotten before.
She realizes what just happened. It feels a little bit like the days before her menstruations start.
"Ashe," he pants, and finds her eyes once his cease to quiver and blink, "gods, gods, Ashe…"
Again, she jumps, and shoves him back so she can hug him, fiercely, giggling on the fading ghost of her breath. And he staggers and topples against the foot of the bed, and once he gets done stammering he is laughing too.
A while later, curled against him, she asks if he practiced like this with other girls.
His cheeks turn pinkish-yellow. His answer is yes.
She thanks him.
There is dancing at the wedding, hours of it, to the rapid peals and bells of Moogle drumming, and even though it is not custom in Dalmasca for the honored couple to dance, Ashe and Rasler do. He tells her, when she laughs about this to him, that it is not custom in Nabradia either.
"Two months," she almost spits, throwing all pretense of dignity on the floor with her shoe. "Two months," she repeats when the other of the pair bounces back from the carpet.
"I am not angry at you," she protests, more collapsing than sitting beside him on the bed. "I am angry at the same thing you are angry at."
He sighs, and pulls her against him, laying them both down atop the covers, his chin in the crook of her shoulder. They are both trembling, and she the quicker. "I must go," he whispers, and however soothing his voice, it allays her not at all.
It is a trap, Ashe does not reply. "I know," she mutters instead, and then, still incredulous, "Two months…"
He embraces her tighter, and turns his face from her skin to her hair. "Two months," he echoes, resigned and quiet and sad, "that I would have spent no other way."
When Ashe cannot control anything else, she tears cloth.
She usually has enough presence of mind to find something replaceable, something simple, something only she would really miss. Canvas. Cheesecloth from the larders. Terrycloth she can pluck the threads out of once the first rip takes.
By the time her marriage-bed is in tatters around her, she realizes what she has done.
For hours after, she clutches at the remains, and tries to find his scent.
And as she pries the ring from his swollen, icy finger, she turns his hand palm up, and lays her lips to the crook of his wrist.