I

He remembers when she arrived in Corus; courtiers watched her with unwelcome eyes, not wanting to be tainted by the half-wild K'miri princess. They saw only her dishonour, and the misfortune she'd bring upon their families if they were tricked into accepting her.

Douglass was different. He saw her humility, and her grace. He also saw the worry lines around her eyes, and the hard frown of her mouth. He promised her then and there that he'd erase them for her; she rolled her eyes, but slowly, and surely, an unsteady smile blossomed across her face.

And so it began.

II

They were exiles. Exiled from homes, families, and everything they'd known. It didn't matter that she was there because of Oron, and Thayet because of fate; they both found themselves thrust into an unsympathetic foreign Court, competing for the affections of the same disinterested King. Both knew neither could win; the King's heart was held firmly in the grasp of the Lioness.

Their friendship was born out of futility and frustration. As the months turned to years, and Jonathan married his Lioness, Josiane came to realise; if she couldn't have the affections of a king, she'd settle for a princess.

III

He watched the Queen as she handed Daine a leather pouch, speaking too softly for him to hear. Thayet bent down and kissed the girl on the cheek, in a motherly fashion. She had children back in the capital, he realised. If the Black God took her today, he'd make sure to go back to Corus and watch over them for her.

As she walked towards the longboat that awaited her, she glanced back. Caught staring, Rikash simply inclined his head. She paused and then nodded back, a curious smile spreading on her lips before she disappeared from his sight.

IV

They had an understanding. Thayet didn't tell Jonathon, and she didn't tell her husband. It made public life more bearable for the Queen, having something she wasn't required to share with the Court. The hidden embraces, the stolen kisses, the furtive glances across the ballroom floor – it was theirs, and theirs alone. They spent the autumns riding together, the winters curled by the fire, and the springs dancing; and the Court saw only what they wanted them to see.

But every summer, when the Queen rode away with the Riders, Cythera felt like a piece of her heart left too.

V

Tradition told him women couldn't fight. His father told him women couldn't fight. He was sure that even the Code of Chivalry told him women couldn't fight. And all his life Joren had accepted that.

But now before him was this glorious specimen, this warrior Queen. She was all beauty and power and strength. She told him women could fight - and win. And he'd never before believed it – not the female Riders. Not the Lump. Not even the Lioness, who he'd seen best more than one man.

But now, he knew – if Thayet tried, she could probably break him.