The ink jar lay shattered, black spatters on the edge of pattern radiating over the wall. She would not apologize -- she feared that if she started, she might never stop.
“No,” she told her husband, who had ducked. “I will do no such thing.”
He straightened slowly, looking up at her from beneath the dark hair falling over his forehead. “The Guard may be loyal now, but they are kingmakers. They made you and they can unmake you, someday, if their strength is not reduced.”
Can they make you a king? she thought. He was fumbling at the front of his coat now, checking scrupulously for droplets of ink: he could not manage the small buttons. They had both been wrapped like gifts for their wedding day, in layers of stiff embroidery and brocade, so that the gathered crowd would see the clothes and not the human beings within them. On retiring, her attendants had unwrapped her, murmuring and reluctant, removing all her jewels and the circlet of gold from her hair. Leaving her to await her bridegroom.
It was on the tip of her tongue to ask if he intended to protect her single-handed. She bit it until she tasted iron.
“I need the Guard,” Attolia said, explaining as patiently as she could. “Against the Mede, against my barons.”
His head lifted, the dark gaze unnervingly direct. “Barons like Erondites.”
“And if he was no longer a threat?”
She exhaled and inhaled calm. “I have been dealing with House Erondites for years. If bringing him down were a simple matter, it would have already been done.”
“Give me six months,” he said.
She laughed out loud then, too taken aback to be tactful. But his face was serious and a little frightened, and he proceeded to tell her – not what he was planning, but what it would take, from them both.
When he was finished, she turned her head away. Everything in the beautiful golden bedroom seemed to dazzle her, from the carpet to the gilded chairs to the cloth-of-gold bedspread blurring together before her eyes. The flash of fireworks outside, Ixion-wheels spinning in the gardens.
She had never been able to afford a weakness: everything she did had to be calculated for effect. Once, she had bitterly envied him his freedom from such artifice, up in his mountains, the servant to a beloved queen. Now, as so much else, she had taken that freedom from him. Was she capable of no better love than that?
It seemed she was not.
“Do it, then,” she said. “And halve the Guard, if you can get Teleus to agree to it. My King.”
There was a light touch on her face, callused fingers brushing down her cheek. “What would your attendants say,” he asked wryly, “if they knew I had made you weep and throw household objects?”
“If they breathe a word, I’ll have them executed,” she said. “Yours, too.” And then I would be feared still further, she thought. But you would not be King.
“Best not,” he murmured. She shook her head mutely and placed her hands on his shoulders, feeling him shudder lightly beneath the touch, wishing she knew if it was fear or desire or both. The pearl buttons slid reluctantly through the button-holes, less easily than the buckles holding his false hand. She knew he could do that himself, but it felt like a ritual, a sacrifice placed inside the bowl.
She could just see over the top of his head. If he ever goes bald I'll be the first to know, she thought inanely, and was left reeling with the enormity of it. If they both lived that long. If this mad marriage survived, and her country with it.
She did not know how much of it showed on her face: for so long, nothing had shown on her face at all. Despite the modest nightdress and bed-gown she wore, she felt naked, stripped to the skin. If she was more of a coward, she’d throw him out of the room, draw the curtains and hide within her honeycomb of gold.
But he was braver still. His fingers found the nape of her neck, where the hair had been carefully pulled into a single plait down her back; tugged her down and kissed her. Not the formal kiss of their betrothal, or the marriage ceremony earlier that day at the makeshift Hephestial altar; not something she could stand inviolably still and allow to happen to her.
She had married him for his Eddisian connections, for the chance to decisively repulse the Mede, for the quicksilver mind that spoke to hers and the wellspring of forgiveness she did not deserve. She had not expected this -- had never thought herself capable of it, not as a sixteen-year-old bride plotting her husband's poisoning or as a queen using her beauty as another weapon in her arsenal.
She had been frozen and the thawing hurt, like a hundred stabbing knives.
He spoke her name, drawing away for the space of a breath, and in his mountain accent it sounded like ice breaking.
Neither of them slept well that night, accustomed to sharing their bed only with nightmares. His woke her in the darkest time before dawn, the muffled cries worse than anything her own imagination could have granted her.
Her breast was damp with his tears, and the strands of loosened hair spilling over her shoulder. “I’m so—" he began.
“Don’t you dare,” she whispered fiercely, holding him tight enough to bruise, feeling scarred skin under her hands. So many scars.
Later, when his breathing had calmed and his good arm was folded around her, he asked her, “What do you fear?”
To anyone else, she might have leveled an unassailable look and asked, What do you think I fear? To him, here, she said, “Death. The loss of my crown, which would amount to the same thing.” Only starlight shone upon the uncurtained bed, the celebrations over, the darkness nearly absolute. “Harm to you. Myself, sometimes.”
“Then we are agreed,” he murmured, already drifting back to sleep.
“My wife,” Eugenides observed, in a tone of some surprise.
She opened her eyes a fraction, and was able to see him. “Were you expecting someone else?”
“I would say yes and irritate you,” he said, raising himself up slightly on an elbow, “but I am far too content.”
“Are you?” Tears and night-terrors and thrown objects, and all the fine balance of what had been lost and gained, surrounding the brief interlude of awkwardness and pleasure that had sealed the contract drawn up between their two nations. The love of the poets.
“Of course,” he said. Content enough to come to her through locked doors and secret passages thereafter, to face the world outside this gilded room, to face the ridicule of her court. Perhaps even to face being her king.
She stretched, feeling the softness of the sheets, his gaze warm on her body, the sun rising in the east. In this still instant after suffering and before politics and deception, the Queen of Attolia smiled.