David Nassau, Marquis of Athlum, gazed blankly at his mother's garden.
His father's presence--and absence--was most keenly felt in the audience chamber and the library, those places most intimately tied up with the duties of a Marquis. The gardens were not, therefore, a place David usually came to remember his father, but the old marquis had loved this garden while David's mother had been alive. Here beneath the open skies, David's parents had walked and talked and laughed together. Though they had married as a tactical political match, their relationship had deepened to love over the years, and neither had regretted their match.
His father and mother had been lucky, however, considering how most political marriages worked out. Everyone knew about Nielsen and his complicated marriage to Violet Gilles-Barre. And Qubine's parents, to all accounts, had been a coldly cordial couple at best. Ghor's wife lived entirely separately from him, in a palace outside the city--to David's knowledge, Ghor saw her perhaps twice a year at ceremonial functions. In fact, none of the Congress members were exactly shining examples of happy relationships; most were not married at all.
David sighed. That wasn't an excuse, really. He had become Marquis young enough--and in turbulent enough times--that the people of Athlum had been patient, but they would expect him to wed at some point. If he put it off too long, he would risk his reluctance becoming obvious.
Perhaps Pagus was right. Perhaps it was time to start seeking a bride.
Irina squinted at the figure striding along the path towards the house, and then grinned and waved as recognition dawned.
"Emmy! What are you doing on Eulam?"
The warrior smiled, and raised a hand in greeting as she approached. "Hey, Irina. I thought it would be nice to drop by. Are your parents around?"
Irina shook her head. "I'm sorry. They took a boat off to the mainland about a week ago."
"Hmm. Well, it's not really them I'm here to see. Mind if I come visit with you?"
Irina gestured for Emmy to go inside, puzzled. Irina had received a batch of letters from Pagus and Blocter recently--they seemed to feel obliged to keep her informed on matters relating to Athlum--and they'd mentioned nothing of a matter that Emmy might need to discuss with her. Irina poured out some wine for her old friend, and gently tried to find out why the general was here. Emmy seemed unwilling to talk of anything serious--in fact, Emmy prattled cheerfully on about townsfolk in Athlum, many of whom Irina had only minimally been acquainted with. Irina's confusion deepened. Surely Emmy wouldn't have come all the way here to tell her about the weddings of soldiers she barely remembered?
After a fair amount of time had passed, Emmy appeared to run out of trivial chatter, and an uneasy silence fell. Irina poured out more wine, and waited for Emmy to get around to whatever point she was here to make. If one of the generals was ill--or Mr David was in trouble--surely she'd have announced that at the outset.
When Emmy spoke, her voice was pitched at an artfully casual level. "Lord David is, of course, still a fine ruler. He's making steps to secure Athlum's future stability." Emmy sipped her wine, and stared at the table.
"That's good to know.."
"And as part of those measures, my lord is looking to contract a marriage. I'm supposed to be talking to appropriate noble families, to negotiate a good bride."
Irina nearly dropped her wine. "But.. he.. what? Why? He.. surely he doesn't want to actually get married?"
Emmy's eyes met Irina's. "He will have to sooner or later. The citizenry of Athlum would prefer that he furnish them with an heir at some point." She made a sour face, and sipped at the wine again.
"But that's so unfair!"
"I tend to agree. But think of it from the perspective of his citizens, Irina. My lord is young, sure, but his parents weren't much older when they were wed. Paris and Charlotte were about the same age."
"Paris and Charlotte had been in love for years by that point, though!"
"Yes. Still." Irina scowled down at her own drink. She shook her head. "People in Athlum don't know about Rush, or they wouldn't ask this of him."
"Just the vaguest of rumours, correct. And in honesty, they've not been pressuring him.. yet." "But.. he wants them not to have to, right?"
"Poor Mr David."
"This sort of brings me to my next point. You recall I said I was told to talk to nobles?"
"Yeah. But Eulam's not a high court, Emmy. I don't think you're going to find anyone here."
"Well, that's it. There's one person who would qualify. You."
Over the sound of Irina's spluttering, Emmy continued, "I know, I know, it's a dreadful thing to ask you." She seized Irina's hand. "Irina, you're a Marshall, which makes your blood nobler than almost anyone in the land. And my lord is fond of you and your family already. And.. you would understand if he found it hard to be a proper husband to you. You're the best match I can think of."
Irina pulled her hand back from Emmy's grasp, and said shrewdly, "he doesn't know you're asking me, does he?"
Emmy stood. "Please, just consider it? I'll be in the port inn until next week's boat to the mainland sails. If you change your mind, let me know. If you change your mind after the boat sails, come to Athlum--or send messengers--and I'll do what I can to speed your passage." She strode to the door, and paused, hand on the handle. "Irina, I didn't want to have to ask. And Lord David will not be pleased that I did. But.."
"No, I think.. I think I understand."
Emmy nodded, and let herself out.
Irina sat. Mr David as a husband? That felt really wrong. He was pure noble in so many ways, and she was just 'a normal girl'. Clever, sure--but genuinely normal, without Remnants in the world. Mr David was refined and valiant.. and admit it, she thought, painfully beautiful. When she'd first met him--before she'd realised quite how futile the crush was, she told herself--she'd nurtured a bit of a crush on the young Marquis. Not that he had returned the feeling in the slightest; he'd treated her with kindness and as an adult but well, pretty much like a sister.
Because she was Rush's sister.
These days the stone in her throat no longer blocked her breath when she called Rush to mind. She could even talk about him with her parents without weeping. Perhaps Mr David's grief was lifting also, finally. Seeing her would not exactly help things, though, and marrying her.. wouldn't it be cruel? She'd be a constant reminder of Rush to him, and he to her.
But would it be so bad to be reminded?
"You came," Emmy said, carefully expressionless as she paid the wagon driver. Irina nodded silently, clutching a cloak around her against the bitter winds on the dock.
"Does this mean that you.."
"..I'm not sure. I want to discuss it with Mr David first."
They stared together at the mist hovering over the water.
"Once we get to Athlum, I will tell Lord David why I sought you out."
"In which case, you have two weeks to persuade me that you're right."
David's reaction was, as Emmy had predicted, one of horror.
"You must be joking! Are you seriously suggesting that I marry Irina Sykes? Irina, as in Rush's sister?"
Emmy, shrinking back slightly, nodded.
"Have you lost all your senses?"
"My lord, I--she would be a good match. Politically, and.."
"You have lost all your senses!"
Torgal frowned, and leaned in. "Lord David. It is a worthwhile suggestion. Please, at least consider the option before rejecting it outright."
David clamped his mouth firmly shut, and glared at his generals furiously. After a moment of tense, angry silence, he rose from his chair and strode out of the audience chamber.
Emmy exhaled, finally.
"Emmy, he will have a hard time forgiving you for this," said Pagus. "Not that you're not correct," he added, before she could protest. "Irina is the best match of any that we've presented, for a multitude of reasons."
Torgal nodded. "Many of which are the same reasons that make Lord David so unwilling to consider the match."
"Indeed. Well, the decision must be his own. Can I assume Irina's presence indicates that she is willing to go through with a marriage?"
Emmy shook her head. "She wanted to discuss it with him, but I don't think she's exactly in favour of the plan."
"A pity. Still, 'tis in their hands now."
Irina absently followed the messenger down to the gardens.
David was gazing at the flowers, in a manner that was so familiar that Irina almost expected Rush to amble around the corner with that half-possessive, half-embarrassed grin on his face. She bit her lip against the small pang that thought brought, and instead concentrated on David.
He looked rather tired, was her first thought, but still very beautiful. It had been a handful of years since she'd seen him, and he'd clearly.. well, grown up a little. No longer quite so smooth of chin or clear of eye, but the hair was still sleekly blonde and he still possessed the same lean grace he'd had when she first met him. There was a sadness and solemnness to his demeanour that hadn't been quite so apparent before, and, suddenly, she felt foolish for thinking his grieving for Rush would ever have diminished.
"Mr David?" she ventured, stepping out of the shadows. He tilted his head to one side in greeting--she wondered if he was aware of the habit--and smiled.
"Irina," he said warmly. "Even in such unusual circumstances, it is good to see you."
She nodded, and dropped her gaze to the flowers, clasping her hands in front of her. David's intense gaze always made her a little uncomfortable; Rush had joked that that the eye contact made people think David was sincere no matter what he said. Which was probably a good thing for a political leader, but in casual conversation it unnerved her.
"They're beautiful, Mr David."
"This flower is your favourite, is it not? I recall that R--" and he faltered slightly, and gestured vaguely at the purple blossoms, "--that you were fond of them."
She nodded. They stood in silence for a moment, awkwardly, and then David appeared to gather himself.
"Irina. We must discuss this ridiculous notion of our marriage; if only to agree that we are both opposed to the suggestion."
Irina hesitated a moment too long, trying to phrase a response, and David frowned at her.
"You are opposed to it, I assume?"
She shrugged apologetically, and he gaped.
"Has everyone lost their minds?"
"Mr David," she began, and then paused. She realised that she did genuinely understand why Emmy wanted someone who knew David to be his wife. "There aren't many women you can actually consider marrying. Single noblewomen of childbearing age aren't common."
David blinked. "So Emmy informs me, but I don't see why--"
"I'm already your friend--and publically, your former ally. I don't have other political considerations or commitments. I'm young enough. And apparently Marshall blood is as good as nobility, if it becomes an issue."
"Irina, nobody knows you have Marshall blood. I promised Rush I wouldn't put you in danger. I won't break that promise."
"Now that there aren't any Remnants, my blood can't cause me peril. What use is my power going to be to anyone?"
David scowled, and pinched the bridge of his nose in a gesture Irina hadn't seen him make before. It was more.. defeated and weary than she'd seen before.
"Irina, what happened to being a normal girl? Don't you want a normal marriage? A normal life? You're a pretty enough girl; not that I'm much of a judge, I grant." He smiled weakly at her. "There must have been suitors for you on Eulam."
Irina sighed. "Mr Da--Lord David. Even on Eulam, people know I was involved with the defeat of the Conqueror. That scares most men off, and the ones who are left get all starry-eyed about the heroic past. It's nice of you to think that I'd have suitors worth marrying. But I don't, and I don't foresee that changing."
"That matter might change, given time."
"And you know I couldn't promise you love."
"I know. Have you considered other women you might marry? Who didn't know you--who thought you might end up loving them, just possibly?"
David stared at her for a moment, expressionless. Irina put her hand on his shoulder.
"Lord David, I wouldn't expect a normal marriage from you. But others--do you want a wife you'd have to pretend to be in love with? Or a wife who hoped you'd love her eventually? That's what most women would expect, isn't it?"
David drew himself upright, and looked grave. "Hardly. I would strive to be a good husband. Most noblewomen would be prepared for far less in a husband, I assure you."
Irina removed her hand, startled.
"I think you underestimate the extent to which nobles are raised to adhere to their duties," said David, sounding more certain of himself. "Duties which you do not have to assume, Irina. And you never did answer my question; don't you desire a normal marriage and a normal life for yourself?"
"Instead, you come here and, what, sacrifice yourself to Athlum's future?" There was almost a sneer in his voice. "In memory of Rush, is that it?"
Irina, aghast, had no answer for him.
David stared at her for a second, and then turned and strode to the edge of the garden. He paused at the door for a moment, his hand half-way to the handle.
"My apologies, Irina. That was uncalled for."
Before she could summon a response, he had left.
Several days later, she was summoned to the library. David was seated at one of the vast desks in the center, poring over papers, and he waved at one of the nearby seats vaguely as she entered. Sitting, she tried to make out what he was reading--a list of names, from the looks of it.
He pushed the list towards her. "You were correct, it seems."
"There are indeed not many women who are suitable marriage material. The choices left to me are minimal."
Irina glanced down at the list. Most of the names were struck-through, with small annotations next to them--too young, past child-bearing age, politically unviable.
She looked up at David, who had a strange, pained smile on his face. "This is even worse than Emmy said."
"Indeed. That list doesn't even exclude those I would personally find repellant."
She snorted at that, and looked down at the list again. It was plucked from beneath her, and David pressed another sheet into her hand. This list was far shorter.
"Those are the only realistic choices left to me--not in any particular order. The ones with a question mark are those I've never actually met."
"Lady Pygia? Countess Lavenford? I've never even heard of some of these."
"Minor nobility, for the most part. Pagus was very thorough in his research. In many cases we're not even sure they're suitable, but the chance is there."
Irina saw her own name towards the bottom, as expected, and then another name she recognised leapt out at her. "Wait a moment--Emmy Honeywell?"
David sighed, looking as miserable as she'd ever seen. "Indeed. She's one of the better candidates, on paper. Now you understand why she was prepared to go to such lengths to find a more suitable alternative."
Irina considered that. Emmy'd never really discussed her feelings for David, but Irina had her suspicions. "Marrying her would be cruel."
"I concur. And marrying you would not?"
David stared at Irina for a moment longer, then nodded. "Then I rather think that makes your offer the best I am likely to have, Irina Sykes."
He rose, and held out his hand to her. She stood, and allowed him to pull her towards the window. The view before them was of Athlum, spread out serenely below.
"Athlum is my life, Irina. The needs of the citizenry come above my own. You will be expected to serve Athlum, as I do. Do not enter into this lightly."
They wed two seasons later. In the haze of ceremony, under an autumn sun, Irina and David kissed chastely under an arch of vines.
That night, Irina tried to ignore the sensation that she was betraying her brother more with every moment. David was gentle, but he did not hold her afterwards, and he would not feign a passion he did not feel.
It took several months--months of increasing frustration--for Irina to become verifiably pregnant. David was jubilant at the news. Irina was a little surprised that he did not immediately quit her bedchamber, though the polite distance between them at night became a gulf. It took a week of politely awkward goodnights before she realised that perhaps he was merely trying to avoid suspicious comment by the staff.
She took pity on him, and made enough of a fuss over her nausea to allow him a reasonable excuse to vacate her rooms.
The news of the future heir, made public a month or so later, was greeted with jubilation by the citizens of Athlum, and congratulations from other leaders slowly began to trickle in. Qubine, now a fey young man, visited Athlum and made polite noises of pleasure at them both. Irina thought he did a fine job of suppressing the curiosity he clearly felt about their marriage. She supposed he, too, would be under increasing pressure to wed and produce heirs in a few years. She hoped the marriage market was in a healthier position by that point.
Marina and John Sykes visited; Irina tried not to fret that they would be disappointed at her marriage. She did not for a moment think they would believe it was a marriage based on true love. They knew both her and David too well for that. She prepared herself for gentle questions, for direct probes, for any sign of disapproval.
Their genuine delight at the prospect of a grandchild seemed to win out over any such feeling, though Irina nearly kicked her father when he told David that it was an honour to finally have him legitimately be their son-in-law.
They avoided mention of Rush.
By the time Aethan Henri John Nassau made his entry into the world, Irina and David were firmly established in "their" new rooms--effectively two suites joined by a single internal door. The Sykes made their farewells and set off back to Eulam, and Marina hugged Irina closely and with a hint of pity before she left. Irina rather suspected that her mother had been waiting for some kind of confession of loneliness or unrequited love.
Amid the swirl of pageantry and gift-giving after the birth, Pagus briefly attempted to convince David and Irina that Aethan would welcome a sibling. He dropped the topic fairly swiftly when it became clear that neither of them were willing to contemplate that. One child was enough; one child fulfilled their obligation to Athlum.
In public they kept up their contented married facade. Irina discovered that she was quite content as the Marquess of Athlum. Aethan alone would have been enough to keep her heart full of joy, truth be told. And she found that she rather enjoyed being married to David, now that they did not have to deal with the physical side of a relationship. David was intelligent and courteous; he was a model of chivalry and attentiveness in public; he doted on Aethan. While he was not exactly the husband she would have once dreamed of, he was a good companion.
Her mother would be waiting a long time for any confession.
A/N: I have the next couple of chapters of this written already (and in beta). We shall see if posting some of what's done actually prompts me to get back to writing the rest!
(And because I'm sure it's worth mentioning: yes, I know this is marked Rush/David. Give it time.)