"So when you said you valued my perspective on Malkuth issues, what that meant was you were going to ignore it and do whatever you wanted anyway."
Natalia had only the one glass of brandy, so Guy's insistence on making the Engeve deal a subject of contention was baffling. "It's a fair deal," she said for the second time since leaving House Merrick. "Everyone agreed."
Her husband followed her into her dressing room, where Sera was waiting to help the princess out of her gown and remove the pearl pins decorating her hair. The conversation paused in Sera's presence. Arguing in front of servants was not done, even when one of the participants did not understand why the argument was happening.
But when Sera moved to take her place behind Natalia and begin undoing the gown's buttons, Guy stopped her. "I've got this, Sera, thank you." His voice was hard, strict, not the usual way he spoke to servants.
The maid looked to her mistress for instruction, and Natalia nodded. "Thank you, Sera. Good night."
Sera's expression was unsure, but she curtsied to the princess all the same. "Your Highness." She repeated the gesture to Guy. "Your Highness."
Once Sera had left the room, Guy did start unbuttoning Natalia's gown, but without the flirtatious touching and kissing she'd come to expect. He was silent, and Natalia bit the inside of her mouth to keep from speaking first. Stubbornness on her part, perhaps, but she would not be pulled into an argument when she had done nothing wrong.
"You didn't have to raise the tax on Engeve."
What a ridiculous thing for him to be upset about. It was a small increase in the scheme of all things. The terms were settled, and it had passed to the House trade committee for final approval, which she was assured was a mere formality, given that everything was deemed reasonable when the deal was last negotiated.
"Engeve produce and other goods have flooded our kingdom these past few years," she reminded him. "We have so little farming in Kimlasca, and our agriculture cannot compete. I don't say that in a disparaging way, because we all know the superior nature of Engeve's fields. And we also know that their farmland has increased three-fold since the end of the war. They make a lot of money selling to my people." As the back of her dress opened, she could feel his fingers through the thin satin of her slip, and it caused a brief distraction, making her want to lean against him. She wouldn't when he was being so unreasonable. "A lot of money," she repeated. "Honestly, Guy, shall I have Anise teach you economic policy?"
Still he didn't answer her and continued his task. This dress did have a peculiar amount of buttons, and Louise's expert skills resulted in tight, imperceptible slits for each.
"And you should ask your girlfriend Noelle about the taxes Sheridan pays the empire to bring their goods here," she continued, and his fingers faltered. "You'll know that soon enough when we've returned and you're given access to the ledgers. None of this is new or unusual."
"What does that mean?"
"It means you'll have access to Sheridan's ledgers so you can review the budget, of course. We've discussed this."
He stepped away from her, and when she relaxed her shoulders, her gown fell in a circle of emerald crepe. His duty as lady's maid did not appear to involve retrieving and hanging the gown.
His reflection in the mirrored wall showed a shadow across his face. "I mean about Noelle."
A quick mental backtracking was necessary. "That was a joke." Guy, Noelle, and Ginji had a tendency to get wrapped up in their own world when they'd talk about machines and flying, failing to notice how lost Natalia was once the conversation turned technical, but she never minded. Guy's enthusiasm was endearing, and while she did wish she could share his passion with him as they did….
Her husband's expression remained dark. The joke had missed its target like a poorly fletched arrow.
If his humor was hiding somewhere with his straightforwardness, she wished they'd return. "I'm sure I don't know what's the matter with you," she said, snippy and impatient, since joking did not work, "but I refuse to discuss this—whatever this is, because I'm sure I don't know that, either—if you're going to speak to me so."
He remained as a statue save the closing of his eyes. No words of apology or explanation were offered.
"And hang my gown before it wrinkles." With a grumble beneath her breath, she sat at her dressing table and began removing the pearl hairpins herself. Their purpose was decorative, not functional, and she was able to find them all with the assistance of the tri-fold mirror above the table's tulipwood surface. Each pin was dropped into a velvet-lined box, more silence in the room, not even a satisfying slam at her forceful closing of the cushioned lid.
Their friendship was better than this, she thought, running her fingers through her hair to return the fluff to her curls. She pretended to study the pastoral scene on the table's surface, tracing the delicate ivory inlay, but her eyes slanted upward to catch his reflection in the mirror once more. He was, to her surprise, tending her gown, mechanical movements of a servant rather than a husband, and she felt her pursed lips slacken, now concerned rather than annoyed. No, this wasn't their friendship, and it would not be their marriage. There would be no games, no power plays, no attempts to freeze out the other.
"Will you please tell me what this is about?" she asked. The petulance of her former tone melted away.
His blue eyes were still cold when she turned to look at him. A memory returned, several memories of times when his eyes had lacked the warmth she knew, when he couldn't disguise the hatred he had for her family. Back then she didn't recognize it as anything more than disgust for a couple of spoiled rich children like her and Luke, but she couldn't be bothered to spare a thought for a servant's feelings.
His voice was oddly controlled when he answered. "Why are you spying on me?"
Her mouth opened and closed at the unexpected response. "What are you talking about?"
"Why are you spying on me?"
In her slip, she shivered. "I'm not." This accusation had no merit, but rather than angry, she was confused. "I'm not," she stressed. "I've no idea where you'd—"
"Your father, then. Same thing. If Kimlascan intelligence is investigating me, it's because he told them to."
The investigation. Hector Rowan and Malcolm Laskey and whoever else was involved in this bizarre conspiracy, they were the ones her intelligence agents were supposed to be chasing. "I know nothing about any of that." She stood, approached him, but stopped without touching him. "Surely Father wouldn't have—"
Again he cut her off. "Intelligence agents don't act on their own."
"Or so carelessly," she countered. "What sort of incompetent intelligence agent leaves a trail tipping off the subject of his surveillance?"
"The Kimlascan kind?" he muttered. She chose to take the high road by not mentioning that he insulted his wife, his cousin, and himself with that remark.
"It must be a mistake."
"Is it?" He sounded skeptical, but she could see behind the clouds in his eyes that he knew she was right, even if something was trying to tell him otherwise.
"Of course." She willed him to relax, smoothed her fingers across his coat's lapels. "If your name has come up in the investigation, it's because you were the one attacked."
"And not because you think I'm behind it."
"Because I think you orchestrated an attack on yourself? To what end?"
He held her hands away from him but didn't let her go. "To divert suspicion from myself. The long con, remember?" There was bitterness in his words, but no conviction in his tone.
"We're listening to Jade now? My, things are dire."
"It makes sense."
It most certainly did not. "If you're behind it," she said, wrapping her fingers around his, "why explain it all to me here?"
"I've lied to you before. Why wouldn't you doubt me?"
Her head tilted to the side to consider him. There was more going on than he was saying, more that had caused him to latch onto the trade agreement as a starting point for what was truly bothering him, but she didn't know what it was. He was accusing himself of things as much as he was accusing her intelligence agents. "I know you better than that," she said firmly, her eyes wide open to him. "And you know me better than this, too."
The clouds in his eyes parted at last, and he let out a long, shaky breath. "I know." He brought her hands to his chest and held them there. "I know."
After squeezing his hands, she wrapped her arms around him, and his head dropped to her shoulder. "I don't know about this spying business, but I'm beginning to think Luke was right," she said quietly, reaching up to stroke his hair.
"We're listening to Luke now?"
If his humor was returning, she'd take that as a good sign. "Someone's going to a lot of trouble to make us doubt each other. They even have you doubting yourself."
He raised his head, and she recognized the light in his eyes once more, the determination she relied on. "You're right," he said. "I didn't want to believe it was someone from Malkuth, but it has to be. The 'traitor' warning was because I was betraying the empire. Now they've started a whisper campaign against me, or you, or both of us."
"A whisper campaign?"
"Hal said there's rumors winding through Taman's. Apparently a Kimlascan officer was asking all sorts of questions about my voting record, my relationship with the emperor and even some digging into the Gardios family, which, if you go back far enough you'll always find something, but it's so…." He paused and thought for a moment. "It's so conspicuous that this officer probably never existed, which means it's coming from this side."
"Or it could truly be a rogue agent from my side."
"Maybe it's both. Hey, our two countries found common ground after all."
"Tis a miraculous day indeed."
In response he held her close to him, his arms tight as if she would vanish should his grasp falter. She absorbed his worry into her body and passed comfort into his. They'd been in a newlywed haze these past weeks, and she'd had the naïve belief that this matter was almost behind them. Their marriage had happened, security had increased and the perpetrators had to be on the run, but instead they changed tactics. Physical threats had given way to mind games. What would they try next?
What wouldn't they try?
His fingers splayed across her back, her slip no barrier to their heat. "I just can't lose you," he said, his voice low and fraught with a multitude of emotions. "Do you know what it's like for me to walk into Merrick's house, what it's like for me every single time?"
She remained silent and let him speak, to share whatever had led to his momentary lapse of faith in them.
"Every time I'm there," he continued, the words clipped and difficult, "I'm reminded of what he has and I don't. Every time, it slaps me in the face that everything—everything—was taken from me, by your father, your uncle, the last emperor, by people vying for power by treating the rest of us as disposable. And it makes me feel like it's just happened, all over again, and all I can remember is how much I need to make them all pay."
He was trembling, and she wished she knew how to take that pain away forever, to make those deep scars disappear and stop haunting him.
"I'm still so angry, Nat," he whispered. "I think I'm not, but it's there. It's always there, and I can't… I won't let them take you away from me, too."
"And do you think I have none of that living in me?" she replied, holding him as he needed her to, as she needed to. "I was ripped from my parents. My mother killed herself in grief, and my father turned against the world. My fiancé was stolen from me and replaced with a stranger, only to die as the result of profane experimentation." Tears stung at her eyes, but she kept going. "So do you think you're alone in being angry? In finding that darkness spreads within you and can only be contained, never eradicated?" Her heart clenched, her stomach turned, only realizing these things as she said them, but they were true, burned into her soul. "Never think I'm not struggling also. I struggle every day with that weakness in me, this pervasive fear that I'm not strong enough to lead my people, and that's why I fight so hard for everything. I fight for my kingdom, and I fight for you. For us. Because no one's going to take you away from me, either."
Despite their fears and tragedies, she would never doubt that he was fighting with her to secure a new future. No one else would ever have to endure what they had, to find themselves as pawns, the fate of the world in the balance and all for naught in the end.
There would be no more destruction. No more despair.
"You are the strongest woman I have ever known," he murmured, his mouth moving against her hair. The gentleness soothed her, his anger already a distant memory. "You can do anything, and I pity the poor bastard stupid enough to get in your way." He drew back to look at her, and his thumb brushed away the solitary tear that had fallen despite herself. "And I'm sorry," he added. "Maybe I drank too much or something. You know I'm always on your side." The fluttery caress of his thumb continued, and when his blue eyes darkened, her breath caught. "I love you."
That was all she needed to keep the darkness, the ghosts, away. She cradled his perfect face in her hands and brought his mouth to hers. "I love you."
This first kiss after their first married quarrel was sweeter than she'd imagined. Soft, glancing touches reaffirmed their vows to each other, to always be honest, supportive, understanding. In these moments alone together, they could be vulnerable and still know they were safe, and when it was time to go back into the world, they would stand side by side, stronger than before.
But the world could wait.
The sweetness transitioned into something deeper, her lips parted and glistening each time he slanted his mouth in a new direction, her tongue searching for his as his hands clutched her hips, his body subtly yet insistently moving hers backward until a final step had her pressed against the paneled wall. Already a chain of reactions set off inside her, and she opened her mouth wider, shoved her hands into his hair, and wished she could melt into him.
His fingers pressed hard into her thigh, beneath her slip, and her leg found its natural place wrapped around him. One flimsy shoulder strap slid down her arm, and he released her mouth to trace the strap's path with his tongue, nipping her creamy flesh with his teeth. Some men salivated over legs or breasts, but she'd discovered that her husband was obsessed with her shoulders. With this knowledge she'd made sure to dress in a way that made it as easy as possible for him to kiss them, nuzzle them, whenever they could steal a moment alone. It had become a delicious bit of foreplay, giving her something to look forward to after those tedious diplomatic meetings.
With a blissful sigh, she tipped her head back against the wall and gave herself over to him. His deft hands multi-tasked, one continuing to stroke her thigh as the other crawled under her slip and elicited little gasps of pleasure from her. Glorious heat spread through her like an early morning sunrise, chasing away the black clouds of a bad dream.
"Oh!" Her body stiffened at the sudden inspiration, but he didn't stop, taking her exclamation as one of passion. "I have an idea."
"Yeah, me too," he mumbled, hot words against her neck. "Let's do mine first."
Temptation beckoned, dangling his intoxicating scent and addictive taste before her. "No, this can't wait." With great reluctance, she guided his hands away from her and unwrapped her leg from his waist. She gave him a quick kiss and rearranged her slip as she ducked around him and left him to follow her into her bedchamber.
She could sense his confusion when she sat down at her writing desk. More tulipwood and ivory, another crystal vase of Pere's sunny daffodils on the surface, the chair upholstered with gold damask. She loved her new suite with all its yellow textiles and white accents, but it was rather bright, making it something of a relief to spend alternate nights in Guy's starkly masculine room. Perhaps she could add a complementary color, a pale peach or robin's egg blue, but so much of this house needed redecorating first—a woman's touch, now that she was the lady, and….
Everyone liked to tease her for losing focus and getting off track, but she couldn't help that her mind was constantly working, one thought leading to the next. She reined in her plans for decorating in favor of the previous distraction. Inconvenient as this idea's timing was, it needed to be addressed.
Her husband stood behind her chair as she put a pen to her embossed stationery. His fingers glided over her hair, keeping that current of intimacy from fizzling out while he waited. "It's almost midnight. Who on earth could you be wri—?" Upon reading her opening lines, he dropped his hands to her shoulders. "Noir? Noir as in the Dark Wings?"
"Do you know another?"
He squeezed her shoulders, once, twice, then settled himself in the nearby slipper chair. "Okay. Gotta say I'm intrigued."
Words flowed from her pen, and when the bulk of her request was conveyed, she was able to answer him. "Traditional intelligence channels aren't working. We have no idea who Malcolm Laskey is, and now it's been brought to my attention that I may not be able to trust my own agents. The Dark Wings, however, have many contacts in Chesedonia, and if anyone can uncover information without the burden of following political protocol, I believe Noir can."
"Sure," he answered slowly. "But why would she help us?"
She hesitated when it came time to sign the letter. The royal seal of Kimlasca-Lanvaldear was at the top, and she had many titles to choose from if she wanted to exploit her various positions of authority, but she knew Noir wasn't one to be impressed or intimidated. The seal would be message enough, and so her signature simply read "Natalia".
"Noir has no love for the government of either of our countries," she replied, "and therefore would feel no compulsion to protect the reputations of any high-ranking lords using the Laskey alias. In fact, I daresay she'd enjoy ferreting them out."
"True," he agreed, "but like you say, she hates both governments equally. Do you really think she'd help you?"
Another pause as she applied wax to the back of the letter, then she met his eyes. "A few weeks after…." There it was, that twinge of wistfulness in her heart. Over the years, it had reduced to that, no longer a lump in her throat she couldn't swallow no matter how she tried. "After Asch died," she continued, unwavering, "she came to see me. She said she promised him that if ever I required the Dark Wings' assistance, she was to comply." Natalia's lips quirked as she added, "Though she did stress that this offer would be good only once. This seems the perfect time to redeem that favor."
"The perfect time is midnight. When we were kinda in the middle of something."
His tone was teasing, but he did deserve an explanation for the haste. "We're leaving for Daath in two days," she said, "and if Geoff can get this to someone with the Black Dream tonight, maybe we'll have news by the time we're home again."
"Yeah, I guess that makes sense." Guy steepled his index fingers and tapped them against his chin. "Well, in case your name alone isn't enough…." He bounded from the chair and strode toward the doorway connecting their two chambers.
Letter in hand, it was her turn to follow and see if her unspoken question would be answered.
Apparently there were many things she did not know about her husband. On one wall of his bedroom was a painting of some tropical fish. Not the grandest piece of artwork she'd ever seen, but she'd assumed he liked the colors. Now as she watched, he pressed a hand flat against the canvas, and the painting sprung open like a cabinet door, revealing a safe embedded in the wall behind it.
"My, aren't we clever?" she said. Knowing the door was there, she could see how the hinges were camouflaged in the ornate frame. The "painting" itself was a printed image on the panel.
"Hey, you think you're the only one who read the Star of Malkuth books?" he replied with a wink. "Come here. You're my wife, so you should know the combination."
He spun the dial, but the sequence of numbers appeared random to her, which she supposed was the point of a combination lock.
As if reading her mind, he said, "It's the date I first arrived at House Fabre."
"Oh." She felt chagrined. "I'm afraid I don't remember that."
He gave a causal shrug in response. "I wouldn't expect you to. It might have been one of the most important days of my life, but a couple of new servants arriving would be beneath a princess's notice."
"Still," she said, and a new worry occurred to her. "We didn't meet that day, did we?"
Guy chuckled and pushed aside some of the safe's contents, mostly bundles of papers, searching for something. "No. That was the next day. Maybe I should change the lock, since that turned out to be the most important day of my life." Before she could respond to that charmingly offhanded remark, he pulled a small black box out of the back of the safe. "Aha, I knew I had it."
Inside the unassuming box was a key. Natalia raised her eyebrows and waited for him to elaborate.
"Noir's key of darkness," he reminded her. It did look familiar, now that he said it. She was a little surprised that he still had it, not that she'd thought about it in years. "If Geoff takes this with your letter, then Noir will know the request comes from both of us."
"You think she's more likely to help you?"
"Well, yeah," he answered with a grin. "She thinks I'm cute."
With an indulgent roll of her eyes, she took the key from him. "All right," she said, "I'll have Geoff deliver these immediately."
She was halfway to the door when Guy stopped her. "Natalia."
"Hmm?" Time was of the essence, was it not?
"Geoff is a fifteen-year-old boy."
"Yes, I know. We've met." Granted, it was Guy's influence over the last several years that made her more aware of how she treated the staff, but she'd made the effort to learn all of their names, including the young footman.
This time his eyes moved deliberately down her body, then up again.
She looked down as well.
She was just in her slip.
"Perhaps it would be better if you took this to him," she said.