A/N: Titled lifted from the poem "La Belle Dame Sans Merci"
By the time the end comes the queen is sleeping with her advisor.
It's practical, she says. The safe-house they have fled to is small, barely more than a cottage, and while they have brought along a mere handful of their most trusted guards and retainers it is still a bit crowded. She will not have him bedding down with soldiers and servants; despite his protests he deserves more.
It's tactical, he reasons. After the guards and handmaids and valets are dealt with they will still have to get through him to take the queen. So he pulls a chaise over to block the door and settles upon it, a quilt pulled up to his chin and his feet dangling off the end. She lays at the center of the bed, flat on her back with her hands clasped atop the covers.
After two nights she bids he come closer, and the chaise is moved to the foot of the bed. Three nights after that she moves from the center of the bed and asks him to join her. He will do anything his queen requests and so lays beside her atop the blankets, the quilt still pulled to his chin but his feet no longer dangling.
She reaches a hand to him in the night, and he takes it gently in his own.
In the daylight they run the war through the network of spies he has established, mourning losses and plotting counterattacks by the riverside. At high tea they split a loaf of stale bread and compose their wills, each promising to leave all they have to the other.
"Whatever shall I do with all those pens?" she asks with a quirk of an eyebrow, a smile not quite reaching lavender eyes.
He, advisor and inventor and collector of writing implements, bows his head and chuckles. "And what will I do with a kingdom?"
"Save it," she says instantly, all humor gone. "Above any other, I trust you with my people. When this is over, if we triumph, if I am not able to-"
"Don't speak that way, Majesty."
"Dear friend, I wish to hear my name."
And when he remembers to do so he uses her name.
Once the suns set and the little house goes quiet, they lay together and talk. He has joined her under the blankets but they keep their distance, each with their back to the edge of the bed and their fingers just touching.
He talks about plans, still, troop movements and reports from the wider world. He comes up with ideas, inventions trivial and world-changing, like offerings to the altar of his goddess. With words he paints pictures of gardens long overgrown, darkened halls once filled with the sounds of laughter. His mood turns somber and he speculates about the fate of his family, of friends and colleagues who had fled long before.
She encourages, offers her perspective, thanks him for his diligence. When the mood is right she tells him her grandmother's stories of the old O.Z., and her husband's fairy tales about the Otherside's wonders. Very late one night she talks about them and the other sort of closeness they used to share, so long ago now.
Wisely, he says nothing. He does kiss her, once, barely, and she smiles and shakes her head and that is the end of it.
"I could do with a full decanter of Vinerype brandy."
"I could do with an atomizer of those vapors."
"These are terrible times."
They are no longer themselves. They dress as commoners ("citizens," she corrects gently) out of necessity ("the mother of invention," he proclaims), their formal wardrobes mostly left behind in their flight save one uniform of state and one diaphanous gown. Without the trappings of their station they still wear the mantle of dignified nobility while showing solidarity with those who have remained most loyal.
He is wearing a crimson sweater over buff-colored trousers when she spots him staring intently at a slip of paper in his hands, the messenger long since gone. A pen is perched over his left ear and she almost smiles at the glint of silver peaking out of his curls until she notices his stillness, the set of his shoulders. It is subtle, but it is enough, and she knows as she turns away that it is all over. Now it's just a matter of time until he tells her.
After dinner, when the guards and the valet and the handmaid have gone, she places a small wrapped confection on the table between them. He eyes it curiously, the first spark of interest she had seen in him all day, then picks it up for closer study before unwrapping it.
"Bonbon," he muses as a frown creases his brow. There's a pen over his right ear now as well.
"It's caramel," she tells him faintly. "Probably the last in the world."
He meets her gaze for the first time in hours and offers a smile which does not come near his doe eyes. "Thank you."
He cuts it in half and gives her a share, and they do not speak as they savor it.
The women of the house of Gale have long been known for the visions that come in their dreams. Things that are, her aunt told her, things that might be, things that will be. On this night her dreams are full of sorrow, stark and clear images of the inevitable.
Her kingdom is in ruin, crumbling in dark hopelessness.
The ancient horror that wears her daughter's beautiful face is smiling in satisfied triumph.
She herself rests upon a throne of driftwood, queen of a tiny islet. A broken prince with a zipper for a crown is cast at her feet, his face a mask of complete incomprehension.
Then...there is a blaze of white light, from which steps a dark-haired young woman with lightning blue eyes. Her mouth is set in a determined line and she reaches out with her right hand, demanding it be taken.
She wakes with a gasping sob, fists clutching his nightshirt while he holds her tight and murmurs reassuring lies about not being sure, about answers in the morning.
"Tell me," she begs. "Tell me how long we have, how much time is left."
He is quiet, calculating, weighing her meaning against the press of his knowledge. "Enough," he says and breathes her name like a prayer.
She responds with a kiss closer to desperate than amorous and rolls until he is pinned beneath her, fingers twisting in his hair while he tugs at her gown. He clings to her for repentance, she forgives with each ragged breath. She is lost and tired, he patient and determined, and it is enough.
At the first grey blur of dawn he tells her to sleep. She does so, ever trusting of his counsel.
The suns are up when she wakes to an empty bed and an empty hanger which had held a tailcoat and dress trousers for the past two weeks. She waits a couple minutes after ringing for a handmaid, and when one does not appear she gets up, bathes herself, and puts on the one formal dress she'd salvaged. It seems to take an age to pin up her silver hair.
The little cottage is silent, abandoned save for a well-fed fire in the hearth. On the table is a heel of bread, an apple, and a brief note.
Sent them away, I want no more blood on our hands. I will hear one more report and we'll meet by the river.
Calmly she eats the apple, and the bread, casts the note into the fire, and steps out the front door with her head high and shawl pulled tight. She walks to the river as a queen, not a fugitive, each step taking her countless spans away from the last fortnight. She is proud, noble, and unafraid on this silent morning, though at her back she can feel the relentless darkness closing in.
She sits and gazes none too hopefully out at her quiet realm, the river rolling by and swaying willow branches, the bright suns in a perfect spring sky, and prays to gods and ancestors for her daughters' return.
The man who eventually comes to kneel at her side is more familiar than the one she'd known in recent days. Without preamble he tells her things he couldn't while they were other people, about loss and betrayal and a small triumph. She feels fear for that quicksilver grin and reaches out for him one final time. He makes a plea for hope, and she gives him her brightest secret.
And at a noon more like midnight they stand alone together.