Bitterblue lifted herself up onto her tiptoes, squinting against the sun in order to make out the expression on Giddon's face. People could be so dreadfully tall sometimes.

"Do you think this will take nearly as long as the last ceremony?" she asked

He shrugged, his eyes still on the man speaking several feet away. Vaguely, Bitterblue caught a couple of key phrases, words like "a symbol of hope after these decades of darkness and confusion," and "only through the work of our generous young leader," but she didn't pay them as much mind as she should've. Instead, she turned back to face the crowd and smiled sweetly, ever the "generous young leader," as the people standing around the entrance of the school, one of the first to have been built after the awfulness of the past year, clapped politely.

She maintained the smile, but allowed her eyes to momentarily scan the blue waters just visible in the distance; it had been the newly hired schoolmaster's request that the place be built near the sea. "Do you believe in mermaids?"

Giddon shifted back onto his heels, considering. "Well, Lady Queen, Leck's tales of monsters on land have already been proved true, so why not monsters in the sea? And while in Lienid I did hear some wonderful stories...Although, of course, sailors are not always to be trusted."

"Don't be silly, sailors are perfectly trustworthy. Some of my best friends are sailors."

He nodded, a ghost of a smile on his face as he brought his hands forward to clap as the speaker finished making what appeared to be a very inspiring point.

The ceremony dragged on, with more speakers and more clapping, until Bitterblue's hands were pink from the effort. Finally they were free to go, the crowd dispersing while Bitterblue, Giddon, and the rest of her entourage stood upon the platform, shaking hands with the speakers and some of the new teachers.

"Do you think we could maybe take a walk? All I'd have to do was get out of this dress, I'm sure Bren and Tilda would have some clothes for me at the shop, and you'd be right there," Bitterblue was aware of the whining note her voice had taken, but it was ridiculously hot out and there was sweat pooling on the back of her neck and she didn't want to go back to the pile of paperwork and ciphers that she knew was waiting for her at the palace.

"Come now, Lady Queen. You know the answer to that."

"But Giddon-"

"Lady Queen," he said, his voice firm. "Helda would skin me alive if I got you back a second later than expected."

She frowned. "But it's so hot, and all I have to do is ciphers and some approvals of some boring thing or another. We could go to one of the story rooms, or maybe take a walk down one of the bridges. They're so pretty in the summer, and then maybe-"

"Bitter-Lady Queen," Giddon corrected himself.

"Oh, don't call me that, I'm sick of it," Bitterblue snapped, hurrying towards the carriage. He followed a few steps behind, at the respectable pace a lord should assume. Only he wasn't a lord, she thought to herself, not any more. He wasn't really anything, not yet, although she'd often wondered whether making him her advisor or something like that would be acceptable.

He had come to the ceremony that day merely because she had asked him, something she had found herself doing more and more often lately. There was just something about Giddon, his steadiness and the way he managed to call her "Lady Queen" while still treating her like a completely normal person. And their promise, of always telling the truth to one another. That was something she could never get used to, the refreshing sensation of knowing that Giddon would never lie to her, or cheat her, or do any other horrible thing.

When Katsa spoke of the Giddon of the old days, how angry he could be, the hotheadedness that seemed to have faded quite a bit in the last decade, it was as if she was describing a stranger. My Giddon would never do anything like that, Bitterblue would think, before reminding herself that Giddon was not hers.

But there were times when he was angry, she knew that. Times when he missed home.

Back at the palace she sat in the library, carefully ciphering a letter from Katsa. But she was distracted, too aware of her hair sticking to her back and the thick fabric her dress was made of. Why did she not own anything more summery? She must visit the tailor, as soon as possible.

In her discomfort, she was unaware of Po until he was leaning against the table, frowning.

"Is everything all right?" she asked, looking up from her papers.

"Giddon is to be leaving. Word just came from the Middluns, Randa knows he is here, and-"

Bitterblue stood, the chair scraping loudly across the floor. "Y-you're joking."

Po shook his head. "He's leaving tomorrow morning, as far as I know."

"But, he-he can't. Are you sure? There's really nothing we can do to keep him here?"

"Randa is already furious with the council. He wants to make an example of us."

"Didn't he already do that? He destroyed Giddon's home, and now he can't take him away from..." Away from me.

"Bitterblue, please, be reasonable. Giddon is in danger-"

"I have to go." She shook her head, already turning towards the door.

The hallway was less stuffy than the library, but Bitterblue was dizzy, and nothing was really helping. It was almost as if she was dreaming; her footsteps seemed twice as loud, the sound of her dress swishing against her ankles more pronounced.

The walk to Giddon's rooms seemed much shorter than it had ever been before, and all of a sudden she was standing in front of his door, her head still spinning.

He couldn't leave, could he? There had been short trips before, a few weeks on "council business," where she had begun to miss him more and more often. That was why she had started asking him to come along with the events, simply so that they could spend more time together. Was that why they had found him? She shook her head. She didn't need any of that, not right now.

She knocked, and the door opened almost immediately. There was Giddon, looking so different from that morning, that little crease between his eyebrows telling her he was worried. "I suppose you've already heard," he said, stepping back to let her into the room.

"Po came just now and told me...Are you sure you-"

"Lady Queen, there's nothing I can do."

Bitterblue shook her head, her knees suddenly weaker then before. "It's true, then, what I said before. Everyone leaves. Even you, though I know you can't help it. M-maybe it's good, you going. Yes, you should go. You should move on, do something more interesting than just sitting around here, listening to me whine. And I-i'll be fine on my own." She kept talking, but it wasn't helping at all, just making her dizzier and dizzier, until she had to lean back against the door for support.

"I've talked it over with Po at least half a dozen times in the past couple of hours, and...there's nothing. I think I'll go to Lienid, maybe stay with Skye for a few days. And maybe you could write a letter for me to take to Ror, leaving a good word?"

"Of course. Anything you need. But Giddon, I-" She stopped, suddenly aware of how close he was standing to her, their toes nearly touching. Looking up at him, there was an entirely different sort of dizziness, something stirring in her stomach that she knew was making her cheeks turn red.

Their eyes met. "Yes, Lady Queen?"

"I-i broke the promise. The one about telling the truth, I mean." It was impossibly hard, to keep staring straight into the warmth of his eyes as she admitted this. "I can't bear you leaving. Great skies, Giddon, don't go."

And then she kissed him.

Her first thought was that it wasn't like kissing Saph at all, which was a terrible thing to think while kissing someone, and almost made her pull away, but this was Giddon, and his mouth was so terrifically warm against hers, and when he moved her away from the door so that he could wrap his arms around her properly she felt so small and so big, all at once.

She put her hands on the collar of his shirt, to pull him closer, and it was so strange, how completely at ease she felt with him, how even though she knew she should be desperate and half-mad for not wanting him to go, all she could think was how sweet it felt, to be kissing her Giddon. He had to be hers, didn't he? Before Saph, she hadn't ever owned anyone before, hadn't known all their secret bits and pieces and wants. But when she deepened the kiss, Giddon made the smallest of noises in the back of his throat.

"L-l-lady Queen," he stammered, taking a step back from her, his hands moving to her shoulders. "Bitterblue, we can't possibly do this. Not now." He chuckled. "Really, you seem to have the worst timing..."

"I just...You can't go," Bitterblue said, somewhat stupidly.

"I have to."

"Oh, blast it, Giddon, I feel like a child. I know, I know you have to, but I don't want you to go, which is selfish and childish and ridiculously un-queenlike, but-"

This time it was he that kissed her, catching her completely by surprise, despite the fact that just seconds ago they'd been doing the same exact thing. This time she reached up, marveling at the feel of his cheek against her fingertips, the soft hair at the back of his neck tickling her palm. And he moved his hands to her waist, making her feel twice as girlish as before, but in a way she almost liked.

When he pulled away again, their noses were still touching. "So this is going to be something, is it?" he asked.

Bitterblue closed her eyes for a second, so full of the taste and feel and smell of Giddon that for a second she couldn't think straight. 74562 by 18 she thought to herself, and once she had worked that out, Giddon's breath still warm on her face, she nodded, and that time she wasn't sure who had kissed the other, her or Giddon.

"I'll visit," he said later, when they were sitting next to each other on the floor of his room and Bitterblue knew her lips looked swollen and her hair was mussed.

"And write to me. I'll write to you, I swear." She was tracing the veins in his left hand, finding some pleasure whenever he shivered.

"What should the cipher be, Lady Queen?"

She leaned forward and whispered in his ear, "Stay."

He nodded. "Stay."