Fic in two parts, and the second should be uploaded later this weekend. Goes AU near the end of The Thief.
The Queen awaits her Thief.
Her red lace handkerchief is waving in the wind, caught in the window of her second anteroom in a silent signal that only he will recognize. There are always clues when he arrives: a whisper of a curtain behind her, the shadows shifting against the wall hued golden by lamplight, a breath against her neck as she sits, rigid. Her Thief is patient in his art but impatient with her attentions, and she needs only wait an extra moment to acknowledge him before he surrenders the calm that unnerves her more than anything else the boy she'd snatched from prison can do to her.
She sees, rather than hears, the passage of her Thief into her room with the movement of the shadows; and pauses, her spine stiff and unyielding, her eyes on the scarlet tapestries covering the wall before her. There's a low puff behind her; a breath exhaled in the beginnings of frustration, and her mouth twitches for an instant in satisfaction at the victory.
"Your Majesty." Always Your Majesty, never My Queen, and she thinks that that must be the first reason why she still distrusts him, why she is certain that he still serves another. He never speaks of Eddis or other duties, has not made a move to leave her palace even once, yet she remains watchful. "I have the Mede's letter."
"Give it to me," she commands, still inspecting the tapestry. The golden lacing of the lower half darkens to brown as her Thief moves to her, temporarily obscuring the light of the lamp from her range of sight. He passes her the paper and she frowns down at it for a moment, skimming the first paragraph.
"It's more of the same," her Thief says, his boredom apparent. "He prattles on and on about how he's won your favor, and there's a bit about the possibility of an alliance between Eddis and Sounis caging you with Medea. Nothing different since the last letter."
"Nothing?" She smoothes down the lower half of the paper, eyes sharpened by years of watching palace intrigue play out immediately catching the discomfort just beneath the surface of her Thief's boredom. "Here he speculates that a marriage between Sounis and Eddis is inevitable, and I will of course turn to him in my…" She repeats the word, an eyebrow arching in amusement. "Desperation."
She can feel her Thief's impatience, barely contained, and is unsurprised when he bursts out, "It won't happen."
"No?" Do tell.
"The queen would never-!" He stops at once, and when she raises her eyes to gauge his reaction, he's staring at the ground in stubborn silence. For all his subtlety and grace in his art, his face is still naked and readable whenever Eddis's queen is mentioned.
"Wouldn't she?" Her voice is silky and low, the trap sprung and her Thief caught without hope of flight. "With Sounis's magus home with knowledge of Hamiathes's Gift, it will be small labor to duplicate the mark of legitimacy. And without the original to compare…" She watches him stiffen and smiles with little humor.
He shrugs, seemingly unworried, and had he not been shaking with suppressed rage moments before she might've believed it. "Let Eddis marry Sounis, then. Give the Mede something new to report." She blinks and the letter is in his hands again. He's staring at her with dark eyes so intense that she can't recall the outrage that she should summon for the thief who would snatch something from the hands of a queen.
"Indeed." She tears her gaze away from his, instead tracing the lines of the tapestry with her eyes. There is an imperfection in the stitching, one she's never noticed before. "You may go. I will call for you again when I have need for you." She will not call him for several days, and she is no longer certain that he will be there when she does.
Eddis might doom her country, if forced into marriage with Sounis, and there's a petty part of her that takes savage pleasure in the idea of Eddis, so spoiled by her people's love, finally trapped in her once-easy royalty. But Attolia would be an overly ambitious Sounis's final target, and that the Queen cannot permit.
Her Thief is gone when she turns, and she allows herself a satisfied smile at last. It had been a risky gambit, sending her other prisoners back to Sounis, but pressuring Sounis at this time would only strengthen his desire to gain Eddis. No, Eddis must be secure, and the Queen knows her Thief well enough already to be certain that he has the tools to ensure it.
She expects her Thief to be gone for several days, at the least, and so she glides over to the window to remove her handkerchief from its hanging place and return it to the table in her bedroom. It sweeps over something glittering red that she hasn't seen before, and she sets it aside for a moment to inspect the ruby earrings now sitting inconspicuously in the case that holds her headband. "Eugenides," she says aloud, her eyes narrowed and her spine rigid again.
She's walking in the gardens with Nahuseresh three days later, allowing herself to be led down the path and the conversation, and when she looks up, her Thief is perched in the trees above her, laughing silently at them both. She presses her lips together tightly, disapproving, but when Nahuseresh follows her gaze upward, her Thief is gone.
She smiles at the Mede, a picture of innocent charm. "It was only a passing breeze."
Her handkerchief is dangling from his fingers when he arrives in her chambers that night. "Your Majesty." He always acknowledges her with deference, even when his eyes are frustrated or angry or alight with amusement at a humor she can never quite understand. She should punish him for it, should have her guards drag him back to a cell and teach him a lesson about respect; but that would require her to admit that she's more aware of his presence than she wishes. He's below her, not worth her while, and the moment she treats him as an equal, she loses the game.
It's tricky work, stealing a thief.
"Eddis's Thief has presented her with Hamiathes's Gift while you were gone." She chooses her words with care. "He left her court immediately after. It seems the Thief of Eddis is gone for now."
"It seems," her Thief agrees, his tone carefully neutral.
"And I have a Thief of my own." The Queen stands, cupping a pale hand against dark cheek, and she can feel him tremulous against her. His eyes are awash with fear and wariness and an emotion she can't quite name, and when he looks away it's an unsatisfying victory.
"You do." He inhales slowly, and she watches her hand rise and fall with the breath.
It's almost mesmerizing. She snaps out of her reverie with that thought. "How fortunate for me."
"Yes." Now he's smiling. It's a child's smile, soft and eager and guileless, and for a moment she allows herself to consider just how young her Thief really is.
She knows he must have an angle, that there must be some purpose to his being here with her now when he's shown that he can go home so easily. A spy, perhaps, concealed within her most trusted servants, but there is little intelligence that Eddis can use against the might of Attolia, and her Thief has shown desire to leave only once. And now, his face clean and free of artifice, his motives remain a mystery. "Why did you accept my offer?" she murmurs. "Why become my Thief?"
He glances down, almost bashful, and she wonders how much of his response will be affected and how much sincere when he mumbles, "You're very beautiful."
She's momentarily staggered speechless, and he ducks his head and glances up at her through dark lashes. It's absurd, ridiculous to take it at face value, but then she remembers the earrings that sit in their own box beside her headband's case. It's a sham, and he's a liar, but now his face has steeled into something hard and defiant and she can't stifle the laugh that his lies have summoned forth.
"And you," she says, cupping his cheek again, leaning in close enough that she can feel his hot breath harsh against her lips. "Have far more important things to steal than glances at me." She drops her hand and turns away toward the window, and he nearly rocks forward into her. "The Baron Erondites met with the Mede yesterday, and he gave him a ring of some value." She waves her hand, unconcerned. "Dispose of it. Dedicate it, sell it, I don't care. I want the Mede to see how little value Erondites puts in their alliance."
Her Thief is gone when she turns back. This time a thin gold band, intricately gilded with what is unmistakably the work of an Eddisian artisan, is resting on her handkerchief, gold on red.
It hadn't been like this with Relius, when she'd found him and seen his usefulness and elevated him. Relius had taught her, had served her, and his loyalty never wavered nor had she had reason to doubt him. And for her risks, she'd found an invaluable Secretary of the Archives in Relius, one of the few people in her court that she could trust completely.
She'd expected it to go differently with her Thief, who'd had other allegiances to begin with. She'd expected him to leave, proving all her suspicions true; or stay, choosing to serve a new queen. And he'd chosen the latter but she still can't quite see him as hers, or determine if this is only the fickleness of youth.
His agenda is still obscured, his motivations a mystery; and while she flinches at the idea of wearing the jewelry he brings back for her, she can't help but wonder what he's trying to accomplish with them. She's taken to idly twisting the bracelet between her fingers as she awaits her Thief to twist between her fingers as well, taking a certain satisfaction in his discomfort with her proprietary grip. The Thief of Eddis belongs only to his country, she remembers, not his Queen, and she holds in her hands a pointed reminder that she views his duties differently. He serves the Queen, not Attolia, and he's a phantom visitor of the night now, creeping through Attolia on her orders with none the wiser.
A shadow thief for the shadow queen.
And yet, there's no denying the way her stomach twists each time her Thief appears in her room, his eyes hopeful as he catches sight of the bracelet in her hand. It's something very close to guilt that plagues her when his innocence is so apparent, when she can see the unchecked desire on his face for her to appreciate his gifts. She's turned them into weapons, into an expression of ownership when she has no others to tie to him, and there's a part of her that's vaguely uneasy about doing so with him.
Damn him. She remembers herself at his age, not too long ago, remembers her idealism fade away with every stitch on her spindle at her then-fiance's table. Whatever reason Eugenides has to want to present her with trinkets, it's irrelevant to her, and there's no need to regret it or feel his aching embarrassment so sharply. What he wants, what he thinks he can obtain...all his dreams will fade just as hers did, and she has no time or need for compassion there.
Her Thief has taken to following the Mede around during the day, she's noticed- though she suspects that she notices only because he wants her to, and because he knows that it'll amuse her. He steals from Nahuseresh with savage satisfaction, snatching baubles from his pockets mere moments before the Mede attempts to present them to her, taking his pocket watch and his papers when he'd leave them unattended; and once she'd nearly laughed when Nahuseresh had arrived with a full beard and apologetically informed her that an accident had destroyed all his flasks of hair oil.
Still, her Thief can't be allowed to run unchecked when it comes to such a vital ambassador, and she issues a single command to him one night, warning him not to interfere with the Mede anymore. It's the first time she's given him an order he doesn't want to obey, and she is tense with dread for the day following. She may be queen, but how can she force a shadow to comply without risking that it take form before her barons?
But her Thief obeys, and the Mede is untroubled by missing items anymore. And if she sees Eugenides raising his eyebrows at her from the shadows of her palace as she walks with Nahuseresh, she makes no mention of it.
Nor does she comment on the pendant she finds beside her headband one morning beckoning her in defiant challenge. She flushes once, tucks the pendant into another box, and when she next lays out her handkerchief at the window, she leaves the bracelet in its box.
His eyes watch her hands in silent reproach and Attolia dismisses him, dissatisfied and guilty again.
She's walking alone through the queen's garden one day, hyperaware of her Thief crouched in front of the water just behind the next bush. Her guards haven't noticed him yet, and she wonders if they've earned a reprimand for it or if she should commend her Thief instead. She stays tense and tight-lipped for the time being, uneasy still around Eugenides, and when she walks past his hiding spot he's already vanished.
She ponders the necessity of alerting her guards of her Thief's existence, but he has had ample time and place to be a danger to her and hasn't yet proven so. If he is a spy, he isn't a very effective one, or Relius's informants in Eddis are simply unaware of any intelligence her Thief has fed them. For now, she's inclined to continue to trust him in her realm, even if the Mede is now complaining of foreign Attolian insects that have burrowed into his bedding. It's subtle and untraceable enough that she's certain Eugenides is involved, damn him, even if she chooses to turn a blind eye for the time being.
Lost in her thoughts, she nearly stumbles into the younger Erondites. He is as loyal to her as his father is a menace, and she is grateful for his loyalty more than she can express without showing vulnerability, so she listens patiently as he tells her about a poem he's been writing. When he's finished, she excuses herself and makes her way inside to dine with her court, musing on the crestfallen look on his face as she'd left. She had never been much for poetry, too caught up in the requirements of minor- and eventually full-fledged- royalty, but she'd hoped that she'd made her admiration of his craft known.
Eugenides, she recalls, has the same fascination with books and writing as Dite, though his conversely seems a family trait passed down from Thief to Thief. Relius's men have reported that the Thief of Eddis has a home in the royal library, though he hasn't returned there in months. Now that winter is close, she's had Phresine ensure that several warm blankets are delivered to the rooms above her own library and changed weekly.
She asks him about Dite's poem when he drops soundlessly into the anteroom from a hidden passage he still hasn't shown her, and he shakes with barely repressed laughter until she grabs him by the scruff of his collar and demands to know what amuses him so. "Dite, the poor fool." Her Thief shakes his head pityingly. "He's hopelessly in love with you."
He's studying her face as he speaks, but she's too taken aback to school her expression. "Dite?"
"Didn't you know?"
It's impossible, and she says so, her cheeks hot at the thought of it. She's cultivated too strong an image, too ruthless for anyone to love her. Men don't need a queen they can love- they need a queen they would fear, they would tremble from, they would never dare to question.
Her Thief is still staring at her. "You can't possibly believe that."
She flushes deeper. "Oh, it's different in Eddis," she spits out, venom in her tone. "This is Attolia. There are no-"
He cuts her off, but she barely notices, too caught up in her own self-doubt and guardedness. "You're their queen! And no matter how much the barons loathe you, it's nothing compared to how much the people of Attolia-"
"Respect me?" They must, since she allows no less, but the idea of them loving her, of a man actually coming forward to profess his love for her…it's laughable.
And then there's Eugenides's voice, thundering over hers until she falls silent, his eyes fierce and shining with a passion that silences her mid-denial, and she can only stand, incensed at his tone, as he says, "If you let them-!"
And then he ducks his head, bashful again, and Attolia's still riveted in place with shock and anger as he murmurs, "What man wouldn't?"
There's a banging on the door to the anteroom, a slew of worried guards and attendants behind it, and when she moves to open the door and reassure them that they heard nothing (and they're nothing if not discreet, even if Phresine has them believe that they're only concealing an affair), she feels only a brush of her Thief's hand against her own before he's gone.
"Your Majesty." She hears a whisper within a dream, swallowed up at once by the somnolence of slumber. "Your Majesty!" The voice returns, more insistent this time, and she blinks up at her father and wonders why he would call her queen when she is nobody, irrelevant, the Mede seated in the chair of Attolis and her Thief standing where her throne would be.
"Irene." Her eyes snap open, drowsiness draining from her in a moment with a single word. Her Thief is crouched beside her, a hand outstretched and millimeters from her face as though he'd been considering rousing her with a touch.
Outraged, she slaps him away, hitting him hard enough that he has to rock backward on his heels to keep his balance. She rises from her bed, drawing her nightgown around her as though she's wearing her most regal of dresses, and turning an imperious stare on him. She'd learned long ago that clothes do not make a queen; they only enhance what she already possesses, and in that moment she'd never felt more unnerved, more violated, and more in need of her own command. "You overstep," she snaps, glaring down at him, her heart still pounding from the shock.
Eugenides doesn't respond, and for a moment she desires nothing more than to slap him again, to make him hurt for that instant where she'd awakened and been afraid. She'd sworn years ago to never allow herself to be afraid again, to never for an instant surrender control to anyone else, and until the moment when she'd heard the name he had no right to say and seen his dark face so close to hers, she'd never once ceded.
Her Thief drops from his crouch to a kneel, lifting his face to meet her eyes. "Your Majesty," he amends, though his expression is still dark and worried, and only then does she see the letter slotted between two fingers of his left hand. He makes no apologies for his behavior, and she supposes that any demands she makes for them would only unnerve her further. "That damned Mede sent this message out just a few minutes ago."
"And you stole it?" She makes her way to a gilded chair in the corner, extending a hand until Eugenides rises, swift-footed as a frightened goat, and passes her the letter.
Her Thief shrugs his shoulders unhappily. "I followed his messenger to one of the lower chambers here." Where the attendants sleep, and presumably a dalliance awaits, the Queen thinks. "We don't have much time, but I thought you'd want to read it yourself."
She does so, an eyebrow arching at the contents of the letter. It's nothing she hadn't been wary of, especially after she had rejected Nahuseresh's advice to keep the magus interred, aware more than ever of the dangers there. The Mede are determined to have their war in the peninsula. "Then Sounis's rebels are treating with the Mede, and Sounis is pushed further and further toward war with Eddis." His kingdom is in danger, and a sovereign more driven to protect his sovereignty than his country would turn to battle instead of stability. The rumors have been diligently spreading for months now until even in her own halls the Queen hears whispers of Eddis sponsoring Sounis's rebels. But she trusts Relius over rumors, and the letter she holds now is mere confirmation of what she has already known. "They court Attolia, and drive Sounis to destruction."
"Sounis's destruction is only a precursor to Attolia's," her Thief reminds her, though she needs no warning.
She probes his gaze for a moment, finding exactly what she's searching for in his eyes. "Eddis will be lost first. Her armies are strong, but far smaller than Sounis's, and each realm will tear the other apart."
Eugenides twitches, and she pushes further. "The country will be devastated, and even a marriage treaty will not save Eddis now. Nor will a rock destroyed by its sovereign." Her Thief's shoulders tighten in defiance against his fears, expressed so plainly, and the Queen takes a savage satisfaction in seeing him brought to the same seized terror as she had been to find him in her bedroom.
But her objective is more nuanced than a petty revenge, and she's suddenly vaguely ashamed that she's stooped to that level, no matter how briefly. Eugenides is trembling, and she softens her voice a hair. "We can't allow that to happen, of course. Attolia must be secure, and Sounis cannot take Eddis."
His eyes are intense and driven, more animated than she's seen them since the night he'd told her about Dite, and Attolia is stricken with a flash of passion so ferocious and invidious that she seizes the arms of her chair, her throat sealed and words powerless to slip through. For Eddis, she broods, only Eddis can awaken such power in him, and when she closes her eyes and opens them again, Eugenides is standing, the letter in his hands again and the seal on it intact. "Let me go," he says, and something within her twists in rebellion at those words, from him to her. "I can stop it."
"Can you?" She leans forward, folding her hands together. She doesn't doubt his confidence, and there's something about Eugenides that she imagines has everyone he meets believe he can do anything. But she finds it difficult to believe that he wouldn't already be off to Eddis, had he nothing to demand from her first.
"Sounis's magus will take my counsel. And Eddis-" He pauses, remembering himself, and then discarding any last vestige of concealment that might have remained. "Eddis will have my counsel as well."
"Indeed," the Queen agrees, unbothered.
"I only need-" He ducks his head, discomfited. "I'm not a very good rider. And I must outrun this message."
There's something almost delightful about Eugenides's embarrassment, something refreshing and self-effacing at his admission that makes her desire to smile at him stronger than she would have him know. This is neither the time nor place, and she instead slides her signet ring from her finger and says, "You must have a soldier in mind to transport you. You will tell him nothing of who you are and your mission, of course."
Eugenides's head bobs up and down once, a small dance of anticipation at being permitted to run unchecked, she supposes. "Of course."
She takes his hand in her own, a thrill running through her at how he shudders at her touch, and she slips her ring onto a slender finger, her thumb dancing along his palm. His hand is softer than she'd have imagined, not the fineness of royalty but the gently calloused hands of a master of his craft, and only the white scars at his wrists are any indication of what casualties he's accrued over the years.
"My Queen." The words skitter out of him so roughly that she can't imagine that they had been intended, even as she trembles from the power behind them. She should be exultant, a victory at last, her Thief finally half stolen.
Instead, she walks into her anteroom and leaves Eugenides behind, seeking serenity in the stillness of her silent apartments.
She never sees her Thief return that night. When she reenters her room much later, when the moon has vanished over the horizon and the sun is just beginning to lighten the sky, her handkerchief is red against the gold of her coverlet and the signet ring resting atop it.