Cornelia turned away from them and reached up to unpin her hair. Guilford watched it as it fell, carelessly graceful, through her fingers, to rest in curls and waves against her back. One pin, silver and sapphire, clung gently but still desperately to her, buried at a spot just behind the curve where her shoulder met her neck, too drunk, perhaps, on her scent or on her beauty or on her dignity to do its duty and surrender her for the cold impersonal wood of her dresser. He smiled a little to see it.
"What a waste of time," Cornelia snorted.
Next to come off were her gloves. She always wore gloves to these events, long elegant sheaths that came up past her elbows. The seamstress, once, had tried to talk her into a gown with sleeves and no gloves at all, and hadn't given up until Cornelia had, disgusted, explained that no man wanted to feel his dance partner's calluses. Guilford wasn't sure that was the real reason, though: it was rare that a man would brave Cornelia enough to ask her to dance, and besides, he'd felt her bare hand once. It wasn't soft like Lady Euphemia's, perhaps, but it was smooth, and had a quiet sort of strength.
"Honestly, simply declaring war would be quicker and would most likely cost less in the end." She jerked her head at Darlton. "What time is it?"
"Just before one," Darlton replied instantly. Guilford snuck a glance over at the man. Darlton was cool-headed, intelligent, wise, competent, kind, fair, an excellent pilot and general, beloved by all his men - was, in essence, the perfect knight. Guilford was simply honored (and a little baffled) to be his peer.
"If it's any consolation," Darlton continued, "you looked lovely, Your Highness."
Even so, Guilford found himself occasionally, uncomfortably, resentful of his friend. He himself would never have been able to work up the courage to say something like that. Even if he did, it would doubtless come at the wrong time, spark her irritation. Darlton, though, knew always when something was appropriate, when it would be helpful - like here, for example, when instead of snapping at him Her Highness simply relaxed a bit, allowed herself a small smile.
"Thank you, Darlton." She sighed and ran her long fingers over her bare shoulder. "It's an absurd exercise, though, you must admit. Just because we smile and make nice and play them music this evening doesn't mean tomorrow there won't be blood."
"We can still hope, though - " Guilford said thoughtlessly, stupidly, and there it was: where Darlton sometimes got a smile, he was rewarded with nothing better than a scoff.
"How naïve," she spat. "That's not like you, Guilford."
He swallowed and dipped his head in a bow. "I apologize."
"Don't," she replied shortly, almost angrily, as she ran her fingers through her hair. Her face twisted into an expression of annoyance when she felt that last hairpin; Guilford almost winced when she brutally plucked it out and threw it on her dresser. "There's nothing to apologize for. I'm simply tired. That's all."
Darlton, evidently, took that as his signal to leave. He lowered his head and turned to go. Guilford hastily did the same, but he felt a hand on his sleeve and looked up to see Darlton shaking his head. Guilford narrowed his eyes in a question, and Darlton jerked his head at Cornelia, who had dropped into a chair and was removing her shoes, paying them no mind at all. Guilford shook his head, confused, but Darlton again jerked his head, and so Guilford turned back and asked hesitantly, "Is there anything else you need?"
"No, Guilford, thank you," she replied, and so Guilford looked back at Darlton. Darlton, though, damn him, just did the same thing once again, jerking his head at the Princess, and Guilford once again shook his head and tried to leave, only to have Darlton give him a little push in the chest.
"Um." He turned back and swallowed as he heard the door click behind him as Darlton made his exit. "May I get you a drink?"
There was a slight pause. Then Cornelia dropped her shoe on the floor with a loud thunk, stretched in her chair and replied, "Thank you. Do. Make one for yourself as well."
He bowed. It wasn't an unusual request. Cornelia had spent enough time fighting the Russians to pick up on their customs, and had come to hate drinking alone - had come, furthermore, to believe like there was no way to take the measure of a man like sharing a drink with him. She viewed the bottle like she viewed her Knightmare and like she viewed her gun and like she evidently did not view the waltz - as a weapon and a tool.
He poured her a scotch whiskey on the rocks and added a little water, then did the same for himself, a bit less generous with the whiskey and a bit less conservative with the water. She accepted it without a word, without a motion, simply took it as her due and threw back the first mouthful without a grimace. Guilford took his in a sip and even so had to suppress a shudder. There was no act that made him so self-conscious as drinking with Cornelia.
"Did you have a good time?"
The question was sudden and unexpected. He had to take a moment to understand it. "Ah. I - I suppose so."
"You danced a bit, didn't you?"
"Uh, yes..." Why did he feel ashamed? He hadn't attended the ball as a knight, but as Lord Guilford, as a guest. He hadn't consorted with the enemy. He had just... "Just one dance. With Cecile Croomy - Earl Asplund's assistant. I'm surprised you even noticed."
"Yes, well." There was a genuine anger in the set of her mouth. He didn't understand. The ball hadn't been that long, and she hadn't had anything else to do. She was that angry over the time wasted?
"She's a good friend." Guilford shook his glass a bit and watched the ice as it shifted. "We met each other when the Earl was developing the Gloucester - remember? - and I was impressed by her. She's very smart. And I always find it very impressive when a commoner is able to accomplish as much as a noble. More, even, in her case."
"Very impressive," Cornelia echoed impassively.
Guilford shook his drink again, then took a sip.
"I think she was glad of the diversion," he confessed after a moment. Another moment, and then, "Even for just a single dance." Another moment. "Just a diversion."
Thank God, Cornelia drew herself up then and took a breath, and he sat back to look at her. "Good of you, then," she said and held out her glass. "Get me another, won't you?"
"Of course." He set aside his glass, still more than half full, to take hers.
He debated adding a bit more ice, then ultimately decided against it. She'd finished her drink fast enough that the ice was still largely intact. So he was just pouring in the scotch when she asked, suddenly, "How long have you been my knight, Guilford?"
He turned and looked at her over his shoulder, but she was staring at some point to her left, so he looked back to his work. "Just over a year, Your Highness."
"One year," she said, as he placed the bottle back in the cabinet, "three months."
He looked down and swallowed, a bit of dread forming in the pit of his stomach. Nevertheless, he corrected softly, "One year three months since you asked me." He pulled down the water. "One year one month since the ceremony."
She said nothing. Then, when he turned around, her drink in hand, she laughed. "Such precise accounting."
Of course it was precise. Because he was like a child, counting half-birthdays. Because it had been one year, three months since he'd entered into a new life, one year one month since he'd left the old one behind. His life could be separated out into two periods, two great eras, two eons: Before Cornelia and Cornelia, and the two lives described were like the lives of two different men. The first was Gilbert, who came from a respectable family but not an outstanding one, who had briefly, naively, considered the diplomatic corps before his father had laughed at him and pointed out exactly how much difference it was possible to make in the diplomatic corps, who had once wanted to study law in order to argue for human rights. The first was a man of mercy, the sort who had a reputation for being fearsome enough on the battlefield but soft in negotiations, thin, myopic, overly curious, overly intelligent, the sort of man who would negotiate with terrorists and write poetry and have trouble sleeping at night when all he was doing was what was necessary. The second was a man who could serve Cornelia.
But he couldn't put this into words for her. So he just tried to smile and said, "You're very important to me, Your Highness."
She raised her eyebrows and scoffed softly and muttered, "Important." "I should hope so," she said then, her voice thick with laughter but also something more than amused.
He looked down again, a little desperate and unable to say precisely why. "I mean...important."
The smile faded from her lips, then came back, just a bit less strong than before. She looked at her drink in his hand, and he stared at the same point and waited for her to say something until, finally, he looked up at her and saw that she'd been looking at him.
"Um." He cleared his throat. "I'm sorry. I'm just standing...Forgive me."
When he handed her the drink, her fingers brushed his. They were smooth and cool, and the touch was so light that it almost tickled. It most certainly thrilled. It made him jump slightly, so that he clipped her drink and made the whiskey jump over the side onto her hand.
"Oh - I'm sorry, I really - "
She didn't so much as look at him. She just set her drink aside and raised that hand to her lips. He stared as she pressed her lips against the wet spot, drew her own knuckle into her mouth. He imagined the blade of her tongue, pressed against that spot. He imagined -
"Forgive me, please. Here - " He fished into his pocket for his handkerchief, almost dropped it, managed to hand it to her. What was wrong with him? Perhaps it was that ominous question, that How long...
"Forgive me," he begged again, then cleared his throat and returned to his chair and picked up his glass again and took a long drink and turned away his head to hide his cough.
"Why...Why did you ask? How long..." Tongue numbed by drink or simple stupidity, he couldn't articulate a thing. She understood nevertheless.
"I was merely thinking, Guilford, nothing more," Cornelia replied shortly. Guilford looked down and swallowed. Thinking? That sounded...Was that why she wanted to talk? Why Darlton had nudged him into staying? Perhaps he wasn't serving her well enough. Not, of course, that he ever could or ever would, but perhaps she had lost her patience with him, with his clumsiness, with the way he looked at...
"You don't regret becoming my knight."
He stared at her a moment, then drew in a sharp breath. "I love - " His tongue got tangled in his haste to answer. "What...I do. I never in my life received an honor so great as the one you gave me when you asked me to serve you."
"Goodness," she said softly, and raised her eyebrows and took another drink.
He hesitated a moment. "Are you all right, Your Highness?" When she raised her eyebrows a bit further, he explained, "You seem unhappy."
"Unhappy!" She laughed a high, harsh laugh that slowly faded as he didn't react. Gradually, she leaned back into her chair, and gradually, her face became less guarded, less fixed.
"Did something happen?" Guilford finally asked.
"No," she said slowly. "Nothing happened." She took another drink and said, more normally, "It's nothing, really. I'm just in a mood. Pay me no mind."
Guilford jerked his head uncomfortably to the side, and Cornelia half-smiled in acknowledgment of the absurdity of her command.
"Is there anything I can do?" he asked.
"Finish your drink and get me another."
He lowered his head in a half-bow, then eyed his drink. He'd managed to work his way through enough of it that he was able to drain the last of it in a few fiery mouthfuls, though that meant when he stood to take her glass he had to take a moment to get over the slight dizziness that had surged from his gut to his head.
When he poured the drinks and turned back to her, she'd turned her ankle up so that it rested on the chair beside her thigh, a curious girlish pose that stretched her ribcage out in a straight line and left her long bare arm resting against the opposite arm of the chair, pressed just below her breasts. In the just-past-tipsy, late-night flatness of the room, with her dark lashes not quite hiding the bright glint of her eyes and her hair hanging over her bare shoulder and the skirts of her gown cascading down to the floor, Cornelia looked like a fairy tale, a heroine from a myth. He had to take a moment to comprehend everything that she was.
"I just feel so unnatural at things like that," she was confessing, her voice low. "Out of place." She looked up and half-smiled when he gave her the drink. "Those sorts of things are for girls like Euphie. Not for girls like me."
He didn't know what to say to that. He couldn't think of anything to say, or anything to do. He just looked down uncomfortably.
"I know how to dance," she continued. "I'm a princess, and I was a princess in the days before Marianne. Even so - those sorts of things aren't for me." She smiled, and if it hadn't been her he might have called the smile wistful. "They're not for me."
Maybe not. Maybe she was right. God knew she was beautiful, and God knew she was graceful, but the ball was for the diplomat. Perhaps she could dance, but she was still a warrior, and she did a lot of things and not all of them were good things but she would never lie the way a diplomat had to. She would never flirt or simper. That wasn't for her.
"That's all right, though, Your Highness," he said, and she looked up at him. If it hadn't been her, he might have thought she looked startled. "It's fine if you want to be...like this. If that's not who you are. That's fine."
She tilted her head just a little and smiled sardonically. "Thank you, Guilford."
For once, he was uncowed by her sarcasm. "You're magnificent. You're splendid as you are. If you were any different..."
She looked down at her glass and traced her finger around the rim. There was a long moment before she murmured, "I see," and an even longer one before, so softly, she confessed, "There are times, though, when I would...like. To be a little different." Then, softest of all, "Perhaps."
He watched her, waited for her to look up with scorn in her eyes, with a laugh of contempt at his willingness to believe that moment of vulnerability. That laugh never came. (Because she didn't lie.) Then he waited for her to laugh off what she'd said, to snort at what she'd said, but that laugh never came, either. (Because, in spite of it all, she was a woman. She was a woman.)
There was a disk player in the corner of the room that was shaped like a gramophone. He remembered it from the very first time he'd come into her room. That had been the day Cornelia had asked him to be her knight. He'd been escorted into the room and waited for her, terrified. He hadn't known why she'd called him there. He knew her, had fought by her side several times, had spoken to her several times, but he was still terrified of her. She was the invincible Princess Cornelia, the Goddess of Victory, who cut across battlefields like a wildfire and never even so much as trembled. She was so much more than human.
But then, pacing the room, he'd seen the gramophone - the silly, pointless thing, overly elaborate, overly decorated, when a simple disk player would have done just fine. He'd seen that, next to it, there were music disks. And he hadn't been terrified any more.
"Why me?" Somehow, that day, after his third drink and her fourth, he'd managed to work up the courage to ask her that question. "Why me?" Guilford was a capable pilot, but he wasn't the best. He was smart, but he wasn't the smartest. He was loyal, but he wasn't unquestioning. There were better generals, better fighters, better politicians, men from better families. There were some that were all those things.
She'd just smiled, her eyes heavy with contempt for the question but not for him, "Because I trust you."
So now, Guilford set his drink aside, and he went over to that silly gramophone. He found, beneath the disks (some of classical operas, some of the insipid popular music of the day) a single disk of waltzes. He put it in, and Cornelia looked up at him when he turned back to her. Her face was expressionless, but that single girlish foot curled beneath her shifted, and that outstretched arm released its grip on the chair and fell to play with her skirts.
And Guilford stood before her, upright. He wasn't the perfect knight, perhaps, wasn't handsome or dashing, but perhaps he would do. And she trusted him. So he stood before her, and tucked one arm behind his back and bowed, and then held out his hand. And, slowly, Cornelia started to smile.
"Ask me," she commanded.
"Your Highness," he said, and lowered his head again. "Milady. Would you honor me with a dance?"
"How cliché," she laughed. "It's unlike you, Guilford."
He smiled at the floor, laughter in his own throat. "Forgive me, Your Highness," he murmured, and then looked up at her. There was color in her cheeks, and her eyes shone brightly, and her hair was a mess, and his smile faded as he was struck by her beauty.
Perhaps she understood, because her smile faded, too, and she looked down, and stroked her arm uncertainly, and then looked back up at him again. And she started once again to smile, and he couldn't help but smile, too.
So she reached out. She lay her fingers in his palm, then twisted them around to intertwine with his. Her hand was cool, and smooth, and strong, and it fit his so well. That curled foot fell away, pressed against the floor as she stood, as she reached out for him, and he wrapped his arm around her. They stood like that a moment, together, before they started as one to waltz.
And as they danced, she rested her face against his shoulder. And he leaned down, and he took in the scent of her. She smelled like oil and gunpowder and war, and she smelled like roses. He wondered if she could feel his heartbeat.