A/N Every creature in the world may deserve at least one moment of privacy, even if we're all absolutely dying to know what happened. This is not Gen and Irene's moment.
Disclaimer I The King of Attolia does not belong to me. Excuse me while I go and cry in the bathroom.
Disclaimer II Although this fic is rated T for adult themes, it does not contain any explicit sex. This is partly because I'm trying to stay true to the spirit of the books which focus on romance rather than erotica, and partly because I don't write explicit sex anyway. I know that some people read these types of scenes for erotica or avoid them because of it, and I didn't want anyone to be disappointed/worried.
The King's Wedding Night
The queen waited as the last of the long twilight faded from the sky, leaving the lanterns to glow in the streets unaided. A lively strain of fiddle music floated to her on the breeze and then drifted away. Attolia looked down at the hands folded serenely in her lap and wondered how much longer it would be before she was joined by her bridegroom.
It was a little bit unnerving, this Eddisian custom of the bride waiting for her new husband. Sitting alone and knowing you no longer had the same rights to your person, that at any moment the person to whom you had been irrevocably joined before men and the gods might walk through the door.
She wondered how well Eugenides would like actually using the door.
And she thought about how different this night was from her first wedding night, when she had poisoned her cup and waited for her husband's piggish greed to complete the assassination. That night had remained incomplete in more ways than one. But tonight would be different. At least, there was no body sprawled across the banquet table.
And it was different because she was afraid she might be happy. Happiness was so much more treacherous than suspicion. Than bitterness. And he was so young …
She was relieved when a flurry of noise from the antechamber broke the train of thought, and after what seemed an unnecessary amount of time and extended sounds of shuffling and scurrying, her husband entered the room, escorted by Phresine.
The elderly lady-in-waiting dropped a formal curtsey. "The king, my lady."
She smiled faintly. "So I see. You may go, Phresine."
Eugenides collapsed ungracefully into a chair, his formal robes bunching up around him, and looked petulant as he pulled the ceremonial crown from his head. "It itches."
"My apologies," she said dryly. "I am mortified that the artisans of five hundred years ago did not take sufficient forethought for your comfort."
"And," he continued, ignoring her sarcasm, "it's heavy. I've got a headache."
She knew the crown was painfully heavy, part of the reason she had elected not to claim it along with the throne, but she refused to be led into a display of sympathy.
"What I don't understand at all is, why are so many of your nobles willing to stab each other in the back to wear it?" He balanced the crown on his palm and, belying his complaint about its weight, tossed it spinning into the air. "Fellows like that Erondites, for example."
Attolia's mouth tightened as she reflected on the increasingly urgent problem of the Baron Erondites's ambition. While Relius's reports had assured her of the noble's treasonous intent, they had not given her the leverage she needed to put the baron's head on a pike.
"Six months," Eugenides offered casually, thumping the crown onto the desk.
She looked at him, confused. "What?"
"That should be enough time. I like to give myself a margin, when I can."
"Time enough for what?" she demanded, irritated by his deliberate misunderstanding.
"To dismantle the house of Erondites, of course. Since I will be eating your food and taking up space in your palace, I thought I'd better make myself useful."
"Your conceit!" was all she could sputter at first, incensed as she was by his insouciant cheek. "Do you have any idea how long I've been attempting to do just that? How much gold I've poured into the pockets of spies and how many traps I've laid? All of which he neatly avoided, by the way. And you think that in six months …"
Eugenides smiled sweetly. "You're welcome."
"You'll have my welcome when you've earned it." She wanted him to be king. She did. But this grandiose promise was hardly a serious assumption of the responsibilities of rule.
Unperturbed by her doubt, he lifted a pen from its crystal stand and began to flip it in and out along the backs of his fingers, the silver tip flashing in the lamplight.
Carnival trick, she thought in contempt, attempting to regain her poise, and she asked disdainfully, "Have you any other marvelous plans for the bettering of my kingdom? Paving the streets with gold, perhaps?"
"As a matter of fact, there was one other matter I was hoping we could discuss." He brought the spinning pen to a sudden halt, its tip poised to write.
She eyed him with deep and dark suspicion. "Do not, my Lord Attolis, keep me in suspense."
"I want you to reduce the Guard. By half."
Attolia rose to her feet, her hands clenched by her sides. Staring at her husband she asked slowly and distinctly, "Have the gods driven you mad?"
"At last?" he glibly finished her question.
She stared at him in disbelief. How could he possibly not understand that she ruled by the Guard? By the Guard she had obtained the throne, and by the Guard she held it. They were absolutely loyal to her, or at least to their pay, and she had sacrificed much to keep that loyalty.
"They are loyal to you," Eugenides said, echoing her furious thoughts. "Now. But in twenty years? Forty? What guarantee do you have they will never betray you and give your power to someone with a larger treasury?" The mocking glint had disappeared from his eye, and she knew he spoke with perfect sincerity, which made it that much worse. "While the Guard remains at its full strength, your throne will never be secure."
He was striking at the very heart of her power, the strength she relied on, trusted as much as she trusted anything, and now he wanted to take that away from her.
Attolia seized an ink jar and hurled it at her husband's head.
Eugenides dove from his chair just before the alabaster smashed against the wood, showering black droplets across the brocade seat.
Attolia clenched her hands amid the folds of her skirt, firmly repressing the desire to throw something else, a lot of something else. He would only dodge it anyway.
Eugenides eyed her warily as she fought for composure. "Well, that's a start. At least you're not entirely dependent on your Guard for protection."
Her palms itched to slap the insufferable grin off his face, but she refused to allow this … this goat-boy the satisfaction of provoking her to a personal attack. "I will not decrease the Guard," she snarled, sitting back down.
"We can talk about it later," he offered, in a tone that was actually as provoking as it pretended to be conciliatory.
"We will not talk about it."
"Yes, we will," he sang.
He sighed heavily. "New country, new queen, same treatment."
"Eddis is a saint."
He quirked one of his dark eyebrows at her. "And what leads you to that unlikely conclusion?"
"You are not dead."
Eugenides looked wounded. "A fine sentiment from a bride on her wedding night."
She was remembering sourly that she had actually been looking forward to this with some anticipation, when he unexpectedly placed a kiss on her cheek. "Good night," he said. "I don't like to keep the lapdogs waiting too long."
Is that it? she wondered, stunned, watching the door close behind him. And how dare he? How dare he tell me I have to reduce the Guard, and then saunter off as though we had been discussing nothing more momentous than the weather!
Deep in the bitterest corner of her heart, she knew that what he had said was true. She could not guarantee the Guard's loyalty forever. But she also knew something else—if Attolia had a strong king, the Guard would be unnecessary. I notice he said nothing of that possibility. She should have said it, and she would have, had she not been so …
Is that it?
Her fury drained suddenly and absolutely away, and she felt brittle, hollow, ready to shatter if she bent ever so slightly in the wind.
But she was Queen, and she had seen these nights before. Her fingers were steady as she reached up to remove the hairpins she had not thought she would to pull out herself, tugged at the intricate laces she had thought she would not untie herself. Her wedding dress was excessively formal and therefore excessively complicated, but she refused to call her women, although they were no doubt anxiously clustered in the antechamber. It made little difference to her whether they would curse Eugenides as a brute or mock him as the Eddisian two-minute wonder; but she could not afford to have them see firsthand how very far removed from kingship he was in every way. Or so she told herself. Underneath, she suspected that perhaps she could not bear their covert looks of sympathy. Not tonight. Tomorrow would be time enough. Strength enough.
She extinguished the lamp and climbed into the bed with its ancient headboard, intricately carved with blessings of fertility and peace. She lay precisely in the center, as she always did, and refused to let herself think, although she could not stop the tears that ran silently down her temples and seeped into her hair, as she stared up into the darkness.
A deliberate footstep sounded halfway across the room.
Of course. She should have known.
Eugenides played the fool, not only to keep her court vulnerable in its contempt, but to guard this part of their life, this marriage of two people, to hold it safe from malicious eyes and sharpened tongues.
She felt the soft give of the mattress as the weight of another person—the first time in all those years, the weight of another person—slipped between the silken sheets. With a gasp, already there before she knew she had moved, she flung her arms around his neck.
Eugenides lowered his face to hers, but drew back again when he felt her wet cheeks. "Irene?" he asked softly, and she heard the puzzlement in his voice.
She buried her face against his shoulder and waited for him to guess that she, so long distrustful of love, had not realized that he meant to return by another way.
He did guess, almost immediately. "Did you really think I would stay away? That I could?"
She sniffed, an unqueenly sound, but there was something in his tone that dried the tears she had been unable to stay. "You are known to be whimsical," she reminded him a little stiffly. "And fickle. After all, you did change queens."
"So I did," he mused. "But with good reason." He lifted her hand and pressed his lips against the soft skin of her wrist. "You are more beautiful."
She was almost angry. There was no denying that the words, and his amusement, stung. But she heard the pain beneath the laughter in his voice, and knew that he would probe the old wounds until they would not hurt anymore.
"I will learn to be more kind," she whispered, and pulled him down, into her bed.
The middle watch of the night had begun as Eugenides reclined on the pillows propped against the headboard, and she rested her head against his chest. She was deeply, achingly happy. His hand drifted lightly over her face and hair, tracing a line up one cheek, down her nose, across her mouth, and then repeating the pattern. Concentrating, she recognized the sign of blessing the priest of Hephestia had bestowed upon them as the wedding ceremony drew to a close. She reached up and stilled his hand, pressing his fingers against her lips. She had fulfilled her own vow and built the altar. She had begun to believe. But she still could not understand Eugenides's devotion to the gods who had betrayed him.
"Irene beloved," he crooned, and her eyes narrowed suspiciously at his coaxing tone, although she could see nothing in the darkness.
"Light of my eyes and heart of my heart, fairest of the fair, best image of the goddess—"
"Wait a moment," she ordered, sitting up and reaching for the lamp that stood beside the bed.
He made a sound of protest and tried to pull her back against him, but she resisted. "I am going to light the lamp. Your wheedling is bad enough as it is, and I refuse to endure it in the dark."
"Don't!" he said sharply, and she heard the note of panic he failed to suppress.
If there was one thing you could say about Eugenides, it was that he had talented fingers, and it was only now that she realized she had not once felt the scarred stump that was now devoid of either false hand or hook, as she had never seen it.
"I am going to light the lamp," she repeated, quietly, and he did not try to stop her again as she struck a match.
When she replaced the etched glass around the flaring wick and turned back, he sat motionless against the headboard, his face turned away from her. His legs were gathered loosely toward his chest, and his arms rested on top of his knees, on display: the left one, with its palm upturned and the sensitive fingers curling inward; and the right one, the naked stump of his forearm unexpectedly narrow and fragile without the balancing width of a hand, the scarring faded in the lamplight. She saw the ring worn by the prosthesis, slightly inflamed despite the calluses, and the thing in her heart that had been breaking, over and over ever since his blood splashed onto the floor of her torture room, shattered again.
The lamplight caught the glitter of a tear on his cheek, and she thought he was biting his lip, like a hurt child. And so (although she wanted to weep but she would not, would not, do that to him) she gathered both his arms to her breast and kissed them, first the whole hand, and then the scarred stump, rough and cool beneath her lips. She shifted herself backwards between the valley of his knees until she could recline against his chest, and she wrapped his arms around herself, still holding his hands. Or his hand, and the place where the other one should have been. She waited.
At last she heard him release a shuddering breath as he pressed his cheek against the top of her head. Hot tears crept through her hair, and she held still, very, very still until his breathing was even and she judged he had recovered.
"What do you miss the most?" She brushed her fingers across his right wrist so that he could not mistake her meaning.
"Having only one hand to make love to you," he responded promptly. "But you can only blame yourself for that."
He had recovered, she thought, slightly exasperated because she could not keep pace with his mood swings. "Let us be grateful I did not cut off something else," she responded tartly, and Eugenides had to muffle his laughter against the cloud of her hair.
Impatiently, she smothered his snickers with her mouth, and when he was again properly focused, she reminded him, "I believe you were about to tell me something."
"Ah yes." He laid her down on the mattress and propped himself on his right elbow, leaving his hand free to trace distracting patterns over her lips and down the curve of her throat. "Where was I, exactly?"
"Best image of the goddess," she prompted.
He smiled mischievously. "Oh thou who art far above rubies and more to be desired than never ending life. My Queen."
Despite her skepticism, a tendril of fierce pleasure wrapped itself around her heart. Her eyes slid shut as she waited for his next words.
"You really must decrease the Guard."
She knew it. She knew he wouldn't be able to leave the subject alone.
Careful to keep her triumph from her face, the Queen of Attolia opened her eyes and gazed up at her bridegroom. "Do you know what you are asking?"
"Your safety. The security of your throne thirty years from now."
"And the security of yours," she reminded, but he ignored her.
She sighed. "You are determined that it must be half?"
"I am. I will not be easy if it is less."
"I have not heard that you are easy on any terms. I have it on good authority that you caused Eddis more trouble than the combined armies of Sounis and Attolia."
He refused to be distracted. "Half, O My Queen."
She sighed again. "Very well." Wrapping her arm around his neck and sliding her fingers through the waves of his dark hair, she murmured, "The King of Attolia may decrease the Guard by half, if …" She hesitated, locking his gaze with her own so that he would know she spoke with absolute seriousness. "If he can convince the Captain of the Guard to let him."
It was evident by the set of his jaw that Eugenides was not happy.
"Are the terms unfair, O My King?"
He rolled onto his back without answering, and she could tell he was sulking. The Queen of Attolia was a woman of decision, but he was so strange to her, this boy-man thief-king, that she knew neither how to hold him nor how to let him go. She forced herself to lie still and silent for a time, not to berate or push him further.
At last she raised herself on one arm and looked down at him. "Eugenides."
He met her gaze readily, not sulking any longer, but merely grave.
She placed one careful hand along his jaw. "You are My King."
He reached up to cover her hand with his own, and a smile pulled at the corners of his mouth.
She bent down and kissed him, not to convince him of anything, but because she loved him. It was her wedding night, after all.
A/N Loved it? Left you cold? Want to lynch me? Express yourself in a review!
(All Reviewers will be made honorary members of the Queen's Guard.)