Title: "Equivocation"

Characters: Attolia, Eugenides

WARNING: Set during A King of Attolia, contains spoilers for everything up to and including the events of that book. And this is not a series you want to be spoiled for.

Summary: In the dark, in secret, the king makes his way to the chamber of his queen.

A/N: This is fairly old, but I came across it on my hard drive recently and realised I'd never posted it. So, um, happy belated fic, anyone still interested?


Equivocation

The Queen of Attolia stood at the window of her bedchamber, looking into the darkness of her private courtyard. She could count constellations over the dark shapes of the buildings, could name them in the invader's tongue and in the old names, whose meanings were largely forgotten. The moon was not out yet, and the courtyard was dark. It was very late. The second watch of guards would be taking their stations in the guard room beyond her door.

A soft musical chink sounded behind her. Without looking, she knew the sound was that of her husband, having entered silently through a passage which none of the palace's seven recognised architects would have known existed, brushing the priceless gold- and silver-worked glassworks on her ornate dresser with a finger to let her know of his presence. He was more soundless than a cat, but was always courteous to her well-honed, survival-oriented dislike of being approached unaware.

She turned slightly, a narrow concession to his presence in her private space. He came up beside her, dressed in an Eddisian-style dark tunic and trousers she hadn't seen before. The tunic looked soft, and was trimmed in subdued silver. They weren't a part of his king's raiment or the Mede-styled wardrobe he'd hastily had assembled for himself, and she wondered if he had brought them with him and where he was storing them. They made him look older than the ill-fitting clothes and ill-matching colours of the garments he allowed his attendants to dress him in. Dressed in the Eddisian wear, he could almost be taken as the same age as she.

Almost. She wondered if she were trying to convince herself, and pushed the thought aside. "What news from behind the walls?" she asked.

He leaned against the stone of the window frame, seemingly languorous but carefully positioned to see through window without being seen. His line of sight traced to where hers had been before he'd come in, then he shrugged slightly and turned. She wondered if the stars looked different over the mountains. He said, "Your barons plot like so many adders, my attendants play amusing little pranks, the servants gossip about their lovers and children and about who is sleeping with whom."

She arched an eyebrow. "You're privy to the secret conversations of the palace, and that's all you have?"

He smiled. The candlelight caught the glint in his eye as he took her hand, his gaze holding hers as his fingers brushed her palm. "We maintain a sterile distance, you and I."

"Do we?"

"Oh yes. I'm largely considered too unreliable to find my way in the dark."

His fingers were tracing down to the soft skin under her wrist. She sighed and withdrew her hand. "You may find this amusing…"

"Oh, but it is. Tremendously so."

She turned her back to him and crossed to sit at her writing table. She laid her hand on its surface, the edge of her nightdress sleeve brushing the correspondence from her Sounis spy that she had been reviewing before restlessness had pushed her to rise to the window. The surface of the desk was cold under her palm, its smoothness a mark of its origin in the ranks of the finest imported Eddisian timber. "I am not accustomed to allowing my personal life to draw such attention."

"You certainly are," he said. "And well used to directing that attention however you wish. You just don't like having to contend with an additional element complicating matters." He pressed his fingers to his chest, and made an ironic bow to indicate the identity of the element. His right arm he held behind his back, she noted.

She straightened the correspondence, and gave him an unamused look, the same look that caused men to tremble and faint in her presence. He did neither, but did acknowledge it, unknowingly or not, when his gaze flickered down from hers. His lips curved faintly, a moment later, but she could not read the meaning there.

The shadows of candlelight softened his features. His hair gleamed black and glossy, falling across his forehead. He had not grown it out fully since it had been cut short following his illness a summer ago – her eyes did not flicker to his right arm, and she was glad of the rigid control her position had taught her – and it was nowhere near the length it had once been, when he'd tied it back with a piece of leather. But it was still longer than was normally worn by nobles in Attolia. From what she'd seen of Eddis grooming, the style wasn't particularly common there either.

His skin, also marking him subtly different in its darker mountain shading, seemed ridiculously smooth save for the pale scar on his cheek. She knew, up close, there were small pain lines marked around his eyes and mouth, and that, too, twisted something within her, because they were hers. She again did not look at his arm. Perhaps, she thought, one day, it would not require conscious effort. The stump where his hand had been did not repulse her; it would stop haunting her in time. The nightmares of a voice in a dark cell, sobbing dry gasps of anguish, would fade too.

He moved around behind her, silent in the shoes he insisted on having custom-made. The fabric of his clothing whispered against her thin nightdress as he passed, raising a shiver that seemed to run from her fingertips to her toes. His fingers touched her hair where it was bound up, and ran down to lightly trace her shoulder and her side, his palm pressing flat against her stomach.

"How long will you insist on playing the court's fool?" she asked as he bent over her shoulder.

He smiled, and moved his mouth to her ear. "To my queen's amusement? Forever."

"Who says I am amused?"

He laughed silently, felt through his body where it pressed against hers. "Appearing helpless and incompetent is a far more effective technique against a concealed enemy than is laying one's strengths out openly, my dear. As you know."

She did know this, and could not disagree. She did not particularly like it, however. Unable to glare at him, she instead narrowed her eyes at the wall beyond the desk. "I do not like the games your attendants are playing. They could become dangerous." His nightmares had become worse since the incident with the hunting dogs, and she knew it was not a coincidence. She wondered if the instigators of that prank knew how he'd been pursued from the palace last summer, if they knew that the dogs had found him, injured and helpless, before the handlers had. Deliberate, or an accident, that they chose to play that joke on him? Her fingers curled inward.

"No beheadings yet, please," he murmured by her ear. "Let me handle it."

"I would," she said. "Except that you aren't."

"Appearances are deceiving."

She closed her eyes. "You," she said, "do not have experience in managing attendants and commanding a court. Let alone a country."

"And still you made me king," he breathed. "How unwise."

She opened her eyes and straightened, angry. He released her, but met her gaze calmly as he asked, "How am I to learn to be king, if you don't trust me to deal with matters myself?"

She pressed her lips together, then breathed out.

"Am I king?" he said.

"You are king," she said. If he heard the extra meaning shading her words, he showed no sign of it.

"And do you trust me?"

"Yes," she said, without thinking, without hesitating; the ease of the response surprising her – and, she thought, him. It was like water flowing through her fingers, and she found freedom there.

She let her shoulders loosen and released a sigh, along with the argument.

He smiled – grinned. He took the hand that she had just clenched tightly and opened, and she permitted him to draw her to her feet. "I have plenty of experience in court politics, even so," he pointed out. "If not as a ruler."

She lifted an eyebrow. "Eddisian court politics are rather different to Attolian."

"Somewhat. But I'm not talking about Eddis. I mean experience watching you." He lifted his hand and touched the ruby earring dangling from her ear, and smiled.

She laid her fingers across his cheek. The slight roughness there told her he was no boy, though she hardly needed the reminder. Did he seem older, or did she feel younger? Sometimes she felt a thousand years old, as if there was nothing left to her but the stone mask that maintained her throne. She felt that way less with him nearby, because he did not flatter or cajole or scheme, because he looked at her with something she had never before seen in another's eyes.

It was almost as if, she thought, he saw still that girl he'd first glimpsed those years ago, the girl who'd danced alone in the dark in a garden while a boy thief from an enemy court hid in a tree and watched. It was as if he saw what remained of that girl, something hidden within her no one else had bothered to look for. Something she used to think she'd sacrificed long ago.

Still, she was not changed enough that it did not frighten her, sometimes. That it did not strike her as dreamlike and strange. That she did not doubt her judgement and his love. And so she laid her fingers across his cheek, and so she glimpsed the flicker and the waver of fear that edged his devoted fascination, and so she was somehow reassured. That was her bleak and bitter accomplishment, and it was her punishment, and sometimes she thought it would never not be there.

She touched the scar on his cheek, tracing its feathery shape. She brushed her fingertips over his clever, mobile lips.

His eyes darkened, his gaze unwavering on hers. She allowed him to draw her closer, until she could smell the scent of parchment and smoke and dust on his clothes and the warm, strange scent of him beneath. His lips brushed her ear, his breath soft on her skin. "Shall I please you, My Queen?"

She leaned aside to blow out the candle on the mantle. "You may," she said.

He kissed her. As he lowered her onto the soft bed, her guards stood at silent attention beyond the door to their queen's rooms, which admitted no one from eventide till morning. Elsewhere the king's guard whiled away their watch in the guardsroom outside his door, laughing amongst themselves at their king spending another night alone in his sand-riddled sheets.

In the dark of the chamber, Eugenides said her name softly, like a prayer to his revered gods. The Queen of Attolia held him close enough never to have to let go.

-end-