Author's Note: As with all of the Word of the Day ficlets, this is a first draft. It has not been edited since I wrote it.
Takes place roughly six years after the manga.
A Word of the Day Ficlet
Castoria's Imperial Princess Justinia was bored. It seemed to be a fairly reliable thing these days, and her discontent was starting to show in her treatment of her loved ones - Fredd, Sister, Brother, and - her increasingly stupid husband - Alec. Knowing her ill temper was only complicating their already complicated lives, she had deigned to remove herself temporarily from the halls of the palace, just until tea time. She knew Alec and Fredd were much too busy with trade negotiations and the ongoing peace talks with Glaren and the other surrounding discontented territories to entertain her with a game of chess (or two or three).
Sighing, despondent, the sixteen year old royal turned her full attention to the clouds at length, wondering at the meandering movement across her field of vision and guessing at shapes absently. Here a fuzzy rabbit, there a warty toad, and another that startlingly resembled His Majesty with a very tall papal cap. She grinned and suppressed a giggle even as her eyelids began to feel suspiciously weighted.
The sun was warm but not overhot on her skin and the shade of a nearby oak shielded her from the afternoon glare. She felt alternately sluggish and ridiculously comfortable, so it was with very little surprise that she would later recall contemplating a squat little puffball of a cloud that amusingly reminded her of snowball fights and snow-princesses in the palace foyer before the world went dark with a sudden eclipse.
It was the crunch, crunch, crunch of wooden soles crushing fallen autumnal leaves that woke her. That and the hand twining her hair about as well as the familiar rumble of her husband's voice saying, "There you are, asleep in a strange place once again."
Equally groggy and irritable, Justinia attempted to push herself to sitting before giving up (without much struggle) and running a hand down her face, surreptitiously feeling for drool. Finding none, she gave a little satisfied noise and heard - more than saw - Alec's responding smile. She suddenly felt somewhat foolish. Drooling in sleep was something of an idle pastime for her, it seemed, and Alec was often an unwitting audience when she woke in their marriage bed; however, she was always aware that he had known her since she was a precocious-if-clumsy ten year old girl and had born witness to an alarming number of moments which has cast her as the bumbling subject of abject humiliation. She simply did not wish to give him more ammunition for the future should they ever find themselves on opposite sides of a spat.
"I like the pond," she said softly, her eyes fluttering closed against the dying sunlight and his shadow. "It's peaceful and no one really bothers coming here or passing through the far path."
She heard the rustle of his cloak and the whine of his leather breaches as he lowered himself to sit next to her, still petting her hair. It was a habit, a years-long obsession; and considering how well she liked the sensation and how absolutely critical the action seemed to be to Alec's peace of mind, she had quite firmly rejected her parents' insistence that she cut her hair as married women customarily did in her country. After all, she argued at their persistence, the queen's hair still boasted an exaggerated length . . .
"You were bored, weren't you?" His hesitant chuckle filled her heart as she remember that it was not so long ago that his laugh remained a mystery. Indeed, she had believed him incapable of such a thing.
Opening her eyes to look at him from the ground, Justinia grinned winningly before letting the expression fall dramatically and sighing heavily. "Yeeesss."
His fingers tugged on the ends of her hair. "I apologize. I'm neglecting you again." She could detect the underlying regret in Alec's voice. Truly, the man was self-sacrificing to a fault. Certainly, their time together had been limited to the point of near non-existance. He had been away for a stretch of six months - the longest separation they had faced since their marriage nearly six years ago; and though being apart from him for such a length of time was difficult and she had missed him terribly, she understood that he was the king's soldier first, her husband second. That she trusted him enough to believe he would be courteous and prevent her early widowhood was about the only thing that stopped her from disguising herself as a squire and following him into battle.
Taking a deep breath, Justinia finally found the strength (and energy) to push herself to sitting and gave a pleased sort of mewl when Alec braced a strong arm behind her shoulders, urging her head against his chest (it vexed her soundly that - having reached her full adult height finally - she would spend the rest of her life barely reaching to the broach clasped at his collar bone), his hand still tangled in her hair, winding then grasping then releasing.
"Nonsense. You make ample time in the evenings." And he did - or tried to. They would often meet in the library or the courtyard or the garden and spend time talking, reading to each other, or simply soaking up the other's presence. And - of course - there were the nights. It had been little more than a fortnight since they had begun meeting fully in the marriage bed; but it was still new enough to fill her with a sense of wonder and love. Still, despite his best efforts and hers, they were often pulled in opposite directions due to their duties as prince and princess of the realm. "Are you done working for the day?"
"Not completely; however, I remember a certain someone urging me to take a breather once in awhile and so I am."
They lapsed into silence, just watching the sunset through the slight canopy and being close for the sake of it. She wondered briefly if she should ask the question that had tipped her tongue repeatedly for the last year or so, always hesitant for the "right" moment. Gingerly, she decided this might be it. His workload seemed to multiply exponentially with the days, and he was only one man with one aide. Surely he could use a pair of extra hands and a set of extra eyes . . . "If it serves you and if it is allowed by His Majesty, I have some experience with answering tenant complaints. Under yours and Fredd's tutelage, I'm sure I could relieve you of some of the burden."
He sighed into her hair but she knew that heartbreaking smile of his curved his lips. "It would be nice having you near where I could watch over you more constantly."
She rolled her eyes. "I no longer trip over my own feet or run into walls. As I recall, you are still prone to falling in lakes, ponds, and other bodies of water. If anyone should be under constant surveillance, it's you."
He chuckled and she liked the way the sound and vibration felt against her skin. "Why didn't you go to the queen's chambers for tea?" Had she been younger, she would have taken his lack of reply to her offer as rejection; however, experience told her the idea would be stirring at the back of his thoughts and when next he spoke to His Majesty, the proposal would be made in a more official context.
"Ah, I was asleep." She needn't look to his face to know he was frowning. Alec was nothing if not overly worried in the best of times. It still amazed her - even after all these years with this man - that he had such a gentle soul yet such a fearsome image. She had known from the moment she saw him (while desperately stuck in that tree) that he was a good man, disregarding all following (semi-murderous) behavior to the contrary.
With gentle fingers, he urged her chin towards him as he kissed her softly, sweetly. "It worries me, how tired you've been." He pauses and averts his gaze a moment, that adorable wide-eyed lost look blooming over his features. She grinned evilly to herself as he seemed to steel his resolve and grimaced. "Fredd seems to think your exhaustion and sudden aversion to mutton signifies that you are with child."
She had always liked Fredd. Perhaps tomorrow she would condescend to let him win at chess (again) and arrange to have a bowl of ale-soaked-cherries delivered to his room at midnight. He did so love those syrupy little treats. "Well, my father did demand that we start work on that little project immediately."
"Euti!" He was using his "commander" voice, and he only ever used that tone with her when he meant business and she was being needlessly coquettish.
She smiled and patted his cheek lazily. "Fredd is a smart man, very observant, unlike a certain prince I know." She paused, orchestrating a sigh so weary-sounding, Alec tensed against her. "If I did not know you so well, I would be insulted. Did you not notice the ruffles added to all of my dresses?"
He stared uncomprehendingly. "They are ruffles, Euti. I do not make a habit of counting them."
Justinia swallowed down the urge to 'hmph' in his general direction. "Well then, I am disturbed by your lack of concern that I have been occasionally violently sick."
"I told you to see the court physician several days ago."
"Not to mention the rather sudden development of my belly."
This time, he did laugh, fully and absolutely before exhaling in dramatic relief. He was really so silly, her stupid husband. "I suppose you are right, dearest."
"Of course I am."
"Then I am doubly sorry for being so oblivious." The hand in her hair came to rest on her far shoulder as he pulled her in, cuddling with her just a bit more completely. It was then her stomach decided to announce its hunger. After all, she had quite staunchly refused breakfast (really, what were they thinking loading her plate with mutton that stunk of lard?) before sleeping through lunch and tea . . .
"I had cook save some dinner for you. It should have been delivered to my room." . . . and apparently she had missed dinner as well.
She smiled up at him, reaching further to kiss the tip of his nose before untangling her skirts about her legs and feet and moving to stand (with her husband's assistance - of course). The sky was darkening and the stars were reborn - another day in this palace in this country with her husband whom she had not hoped to love at ten but had fallen deeply for in the intervening years.
Once, a year after their wedding, when she was traumatized by the appearance of her woman's blood, Justinia had written to her mother and sisters and father begging to be allowed back home, back to Castoria, because though she had already begun to think of Fredd and Sister and Brother and Alec as dear friends (and a surrogate family), she had feared what growing here within the bonds of marriage might mean for her.
Her father's reply had been cordial and succinct. She could not go home, but if she was patient perhaps she could build a home there in Adarshan. He had continued to confess that in the beginning, when the treaty standards were to be met with the transference of her hand, he had been reluctant to force the marriage upon her; however, after meeting Alec, his heart changed and was merely reluctant that she was too young to appreciate the match being made.
For who better to match a Demon than an Angel?
Of course, Justinia giggled now with recollection, Alec - despite his reputation as the "Black Demon" - was more angel than demon and she, more demon (perhaps imp would be more appropriate to describe her mischievous nature . . . ) than angel. Despite the obvious lack of understanding in character on her father's part, she could look back now and admit that her first impression - the one formed before her perception of Alec was colored by the need for vengence - was correct.
He was a good man (one of the very best) and though all she had allowed herself to hope for in the years between then and now was a deep-rooted companionship and a friendly sort of affection, she was enormously pleased and grateful for what had actually bloomed.
They made their way, her hand tucked into the crook of his elbow, to his chambers, and as she leaned her head against his forearm, her hip lightly bumping his, he granted her a sidelong glance. "Are you feeling unwell, my love?"
She smiled for him, the full-power smile he often called his 'light.' "Not at all, husband. I am positively . . . felicitous."