Queen Ovelia moved among the crowd of courtiers, alone. She was unused to the new court and recognized few faces. The Lion War had claimed too many of the old nobility, which she supposed worked just fine for the newly-minted King.

The whole thing was a farce. Her life, her title, her marriage...all of it was a screen over the reality. She was not the princess she herself had been made to believe; the king was no hero. But no one was left who could challenge the image. Those who might were dead or in exile, save for her. Ivalice was ruled by a monarch who built his claim to the throne upon the sham of Ovelia's own heritage. Their story would make for a fabulous play, if someone ever learned the truth.

The sea of nobles parted almost by chance, forming a path at the end of which she could now see the king. Handsome, tall, and regal, he was speaking to a courtier she did not know. King Delita wore the mantle of royalty well. Unless one knew, one would never suspect that he had been born in obscurity or that he had clawed his way to the crown. He laughed with an urbane, easy manner at something the courtier said, as though he had been raised in a palace without a care in the world. Only Ovelia seemed to remember the bodies he had stepped over to get here now, the blood he had spilled.

Part of her wondered if she hated him for it. She turned the thought over in her mind. She knew he did not care about her beyond her title, even though he put on a grand show for everyone. She had become the ideal damsel in distress, and he the handsome knight come to her aid. Some bard had even written a song about them, their fateful meeting turned from an abduction to a rescue. His humble beginnings only made the tale more romantic. No one could deny the power of true love when reminded of his kindness to her even as he was forced to be her jailer. And then of course, there was the battle at the bridge, where he had given her the choice to follow him and be saved, or to face her erstwhile captors.

Gone with him she had, and she still wasn't certain she had made the right decision. No, she didn't hate him, but she did not love him either--any more than he loved her. She ached for that connection, wished fervently for the tales to be true. With all that had happened, all she had lost, she felt she was owed some small happiness. Surely it was not too much to ask.

He caught her watching him, held her gaze with his own before she could look elsewhere and did not hide the upward quirk of his lips. The courtier with whom he had been speaking quickly blushed and smiled, backing away from the King's silent communication with his lovely bride. Ovelia knew that to all assembled, they appeared to be head over heels in love, a couple who could not resist each other's touch or presence.

She smiled back, playing along. What was 'truth' anyway? The perceptions of the people, or the secret understanding that she still had no freedom but was allowed the illusion of such...so long as she made no trouble? Ovelia could not say. She strode to him, head high with a smile of her own, and accepted her husband's outstretched hand. Sometimes it was easy to pretend that all was as it seemed, that the fairy tale was real and she had found her loving prince.


Later, she sat at her mirror and pulled pins from her hair. She preferred no lady to wait upon her at night, for the illusion should never be disturbed. One never knew what gossip might spark and take flame. She heard the latch of the door behind her, saw it swing open in the slightly distorted reflection, and Delita entered the room. He did not speak right away, instead sweeping the cloak from his shoulders and removing the heavy trappings of his rank, the pauldrons and chest plate he still favored for their effect, his tunic. Unlike many men, who looked smaller without their armor, Delita still appeared strong. He had let his hair grow, and his clothes were finer, but he was still broad-shouldered and muscular from his days as a mercenary. Ovelia lowered her eyes, continued to unpin and unbraid as though she had seen nothing. Last was the soft clink of gold on wood; she imagined him removing the plain circlet that marked him as king, without which he became just a man.

A hand caught hers, almost gently, and stilled her movement. She felt the warmth of her husband's body behind her, he stood so close; his breath smelled of wine from dinner. She waited, neither resisting nor giving in. Part of her dreaded what was to come but the other part wanted it badly. She was never sure which feeling was right.

"Come to bed," he said, the first words he had spoken directly to her since that morning. She started, then looked up at him. His face was unreadable.

"As you say, my lord." Ever the obedient wife, she stood and took a step toward the bed. His hand stopped her once more, this time heavy on her shoulder. He spun her around, gripped her arms firmly but not harshly.

"Ovelia," he murmured, and she was surprised to hear some emotion in his voice, "Can you not at least pretend to love me?"

"I might if you would do the same," she shot back, then recoiled. She had never spoken so frankly of their arrangement before, but once out, the words kept coming. "We keep up the charade for the people, for the court," she went on, "Why must we pretend in private?"

She thought she saw a smirk. "I thought you enjoyed this part. You never turn me away."

That made her angry. "Is that why you do it? Because you think I want to--to--"

"Make love to your husband?" he supplied, and now he really was taunting her. He knew exactly how she felt, what she feared, how much she wanted and hated it. She felt cold; it was not a warm amusement in his voice but a tinge of scorn.

"You're enjoying this, aren't you?" Ovelia moved back, and he followed until the bed bumped up against the back of her legs.

"Always." He leaned in and she could not push him away, God help her but she could not. They both knew she clung to the dream, the pretty story that the world accepted, that she wished so much was true. She would not run from him or avoid him because she wanted to believe just for a moment that he loved her, that someone loved her, that the strong arms around her at night would keep her safe.

That was the trouble with dreams. They rarely stood the light of day.

Delita slid an arm about her waist and pulled her to him with the firmness he always used with her--never harsh, but rarely gentle. A thrill flowed through her like a wave; she knew what he would do next and though she might hate herself for giving in, she could not help but do so. The heat of his mouth on hers, the press of his body, the cage of his arms cradling her softly to the bed was all so familiar, so wrong, so good. She returned his kisses, his caresses in kind and threw back her head when his lips moved to her neck and his hands drew apart the laces of her chemise.

He was not a gentle lover and his touch was not light; he had always been a working man and it showed in times like this. He devoured her body, tasting what he wished. His fingers stroked her skin and gripped it by turns. When they were both unclothed, he braced himself on his arms and gazed down at her. In the sudden stillness, the only movement was the rise and fall of Ovelia's chest as she caught her breath.

After a few seconds, she turned her head aside, unable to take the silent scrutiny any longer. "Delita, I--"

"Ovelia." There was an odd note behind her name. She looked at his face again and was struck by the host of emotions she saw there. Never had he been so honest with her, and it frightened her. Delita was too dangerous to be conflicted about anyone.

The moment passed. Delita shook himself, and when she looked again, he was himself once more. A wicked, knowing grin curved his lips as he rested his weight atop her. The unease she had felt before vanished with a single touch of his hand on her sensitive skin. She arched, he pulled away, they played a game of tag with their mouths until she won, capturing his. He surged against her body, strong and virile, and again she could not resist. When they came, it was together, the first and last time they were ever completely in tune with each other.


She woke later to the light of the moon pooling on the bed. Delita's arm was draped about her waist possessively, his wide, scarred hand idly stroking over her stomach.

"You're awake," she murmured, turning. She pressed her body up to his in search of warmth, perhaps also in search of any sign of her fleeting dream. He wrapped her in his embrace but there was little feeling behind it. He said nothing.

Ovelia sighed and closed her eyes. She willed herself to fall asleep while the illusion yet remained. Plenty of girls were caught in loveless marriages. Her husband was handsome and strong and popular with the people. Things could be worse, she supposed. She had lived through worse. So she did not have love. She could settle for now.

Happily ever after could come later.