The light and music of harvest dances poured out of the palace in the Attolian capital. The harvest had been good, both the king and his heir were alive and well, and the court celebrated. Unnoticed in the commotion, Princess Irene breathed a soft sigh of relief as she stepped out of the palace into the first of the flower gardens. The autumn night was warm, but it felt cool compared to the stifling atmosphere of the party inside. After sitting still for hours at dinner and speaking only when spoken to (which was rarely), it was a blessing to walk through the gardens as she pleased. For as long as she could remain unmissed, she was free.
As she passed through into the kitchen gardens, Irene lost the sound of the music, and felt a sudden pang of loneliness. She disliked the falsity of most people’s smiles and the careful words of diplomacy and ceremony that she both heard and spoke in public, so she spent much of her time watching her father’s barons and their families, keeping her thoughts to herself. Irene sensed that she didn’t really know anyone. They certainly didn’t bother to know her, since they never spoke to her when it wasn’t required. What she missed now was the music, which spoke to her without words of the warmth of family love and the joy of celebrating with trusted friends.
Standing between rows of cabbages, Irene lifted her head and pulled her shoulders back in her best regal posture. She closed her eyes, and imagined the garden as the great hall of a megaron, lit for a party much like the one she’d left behind, but full of people who knew and loved her, instead of people who cloaked and masked their malice and self-interest with varying degrees of success. Irene smiled at an invisible girl, and pretended to link arms with her, nodding to other invisible people as she paced down the line of cabbages to an open space under the orange trees. There, she began to dance the harvest circle, holding her arms out to the friends of her mind, skipping in a wide circle and then spinning on the spot so her pale dress flared out around her, making her look from above like a single orange blossom. Her dark hair fanned out behind her, then settled into a tangled cloud when she stopped.
Irene shivered in a sudden gust of cooler air that shook the branches of the orange trees above her. She thought for a moment that she had heard laughter, like her own laughter, in the wind, but she shook her head. She was alone, and no sound from the palace could carry so far into the gardens. Just my mind getting carried away, she thought. At any rate I should head back before they miss me. Not that they seem worried when they say they miss me. She turned and left, slowly, bracing herself to return to puzzling out the hidden meanings in every word and glance. She wouldn’t know until much later about the thief, who stretched out along the branch of an orange tree and watched the young Attolian princess thoughtfully.
Attolia was tired. She was frequently tired, between long days of governing her ever-rebellious barons and long nights of wondering about the Thief of Eddis, who seemed as free to wander through her strongholds as she was. More so, for the Thief could not be interrupted while walking in the garden and forced to listen to Baron Erondites’ son’s latest poem. She thought Dite was talking about stars, though she wasn’t giving him enough of her attention to be sure. Instead, she was mentally reviewing the latest report her secretary of the treasury had given her, and wondering where would be the best place to put another bridge over the gorge currently monopolized by Baron Minos, assuming she could find a way to build the bridge in the first place.
Over her years as queen, she had learned how to inspire fear and hold power, how to use her barons’ greed and pride to bend them to her will. If she was ruthless – if she was heartless, even – she was so for the sake of Attolia. With every difficult judgment and painful mistake she hardened her heart and her resolve. She was the only force that held her country together, and she was proud of and grateful for the strength of will that made it possible for her to do so.
Dite was in full flow, intent on whatever it was he was talking about and watching Attolia’s face closely for her reaction. Attolia sighed very slightly, her face showing none of her impatience.
“My Queen?” asked Dite.
“Did you hear something?” asked Attolia in return. For a moment, she had been sure she heard a noise, like the sound of a duck being smothered to death, coming from one of the takima bushes.
“No, My Queen,” said Dite. “Though I confess my thoughts were elsewhere.”
“The poem, yes,” said Attolia. “Naturally. It sounds like it’s coming along well. If you’ll excuse me?”
“Of course, Your Majesty.”
Attolia didn’t hear the note of disappointment in Dite’s voice, as she was already walking back to the palace.
“Dance with me,” Eugenides said, and he pulled Attolia out onto the floor, prodding and cajoling her, much as he had pulled and prodded her into their marriage. At times, she still wasn’t sure it had been a good idea – although she had come to trust him, he was still unpredictable, a counterbalance to her iron control over the rest of her life.
They were dancing to music he’d heard since he was a child, and which always caused her to feel a pang of jealousy or longing – or both. The last time she had danced Eddisian dances, she had been merely Irene, and she had danced mostly out of obligation. Now, Attolia whirled, reaching for her husband’s missing right hand and finding his left instead, a moment of imbalance, no matter how smoothly done. As they danced ever faster, she found herself thinking back to when she danced alone under the orange trees in the garden. She wondered if dancing on the roof of the Megaron would carry the same thrill of adventure she had felt at times as a child, and rarely since then.
Her thoughts were broken by the weight of hair against her neck. She couldn’t see Eugenides’ face, but she was sure that he was both responsible and pleased. If he chose to work out his anger by undoing her hair instead of murdering her advisors, though, she wouldn’t complain. In fact, she was somewhat pleased herself. Once again, her husband had not only managed the impossible, but had managed it with apparent ease, like the god descending from above the stage at the end of a play. When he opened his hand and held out the hairpins, gathered as if by magic from where they fell, she was reminded of another night, when he held knives instead of hairpins. She was both fascinated and terrified by his skill, and it made her glad that he was, even temporarily, on her side.