She had once thought he had the face of a boy, and some days, he still did. But his eyes still frightened her. How carefully her king had learned to school his features from betraying him--even in the moments where he allowed her to see more than he might others. It was when he woke in terror only to be comforted by her arms, the same extensions of power that had deprived him of so much, that Attolia saw once again his fear, his desperation.
It was one such night when he had woken, sheen of sweat on his forehead and his cries the evidence of the terrors that had haunted his sleep. They were the cries she had listened for, that he had held within himself out of something she could not understand. Though she tried the memory had haunted Attolia's dreams and sometimes haunted them still. And whenever she thought she was close, he proved only more complex.
She had held him close as he cradled the calloused stump that had been her revenge. The room stirred only with the rustling of the sheets. Her attendants knew when to keep their distance and she silently thanked them each time for leaving her to such moments of complete vulnerability. Sometimes he cried. Sometimes she did too. But not that night. He had fallen asleep again in her arms while her eyes were dry, and she had watched him breathe as shrewdly as she had listened at his prison cell door, a memory never distant.
He had been sleeping still when she stole away. There was no need to move the chair, and she had settled into it as she breathed the night air. Carts were not yet rattling in the streets below. Attolia only had her silence to measure the time, and a poor measure it was.
"Have I taken so much time at your window lately that you forsake precious sleep to sit before it?"
She had not heard him wake again, nor had she heard him move across the room. She had not seen him place his arm on the back of her chair, but the razor edge of his hook glinted in the moonlight. Attolia cast her eyes down. Sometimes in escaping his troubled dreams he reached for his dagger, sometimes for her. All other times, he woke reaching for the hook.
"I woke you," Gen said, his voice soft with the unspoken apology.
Attolia's movement was slight. She merely shook her head, the hook coming into the corner of her vision once again. Relius had taught her that one could only be sure of truth through pain. The suddenness of her love for the Thief of Eddis had overwhelmed her so with anger that she had not found the truth so immediate or the pain familiar. But it was ever present now and always through his pain and the bitter grief it caused her.
"What do you see?"
She had never asked him the same. There was no need, and if she could not truly guess, it was a sight not for her mortal eyes. She too had stared toward Eddis before, but her longing had been different entirely. But then Attolia's cheeks flushed at the intrusion. They embraced their silences as they embraced each other--with quiet desperation. Even in their trust in each other, she did not realize that he asked such things through interest that was not laden with expectations and secrets.
Still, she answered.
"I see the water, black and endless, as it would have surrounded me had I chosen a lesser fate." Attolia did not look at his face to see that the words made their intended effect, for she knew he would know then that she was instantly sorry for breathing them. How easily he had always pushed her to fits of anger. How easily he did it still.
But in the brief silence, she willed her patience, as she had willed it countless times before. It settled heavily on her shoulders.
"You would not have made that choice." There was a hollow ring to his voice, and Irene felt it as a pang in her chest. Nevertheless, she continued.
"You well knew." But she knew now that he had not. That night, she realized, he had worn the mask of a man, and on this one, she suspected a boy remained somewhere beneath it.
"Some things are obvious even without the favor of the gods."
A lie told without the almost imperceptible hesitation of his earlier assertion. Attolia had grown used to the feeling of her lips curling into a small smile, but it was brief. She knew he could not see it before it disappeared with the long shadows cast by the moon.
And then, Eugenides was at her feet, scarred cheek to her knee. Irene did not hesitate to run her fingers through his dark hair. Why she continued to bait and hurt him gently out of her own guilt, she did not know. Why he loved her despite it, she would no longer had the strength to question, that night at least. Love did not come easily to her. She had told him that before, and it was still true. But if her fondness, if the twisting inside of her, the palpitating of her heart at his smiles, no matter how wicked, at his injuries, no matter how slight...if that was love, she embraced it.
"There can only be war with Sounis." she began, unwilling to concede what they both knew was the cause of her wakefulness. "And the Medes..."
"Are a matter for daylight...preferably after breakfast." He turned his face up to hers, his dark eyes unreadable in the half darkness. "If you let them occupy your mind ceaselessly, you will never find a moment's peace."
Her eyes flashed like the spark between flint and powder, but with restraint that was cold and tenderness that was not, she took his chin in her hands, tilting his face where the silver moonlight fell across it. "A moment's peace is not a luxury either you or I can afford, my Lord who is Attolis," she said. The carelessness of his first comment irked her enough not to let the end settle with its proper weight. She knew that, but Attolia dismissed it.
"Not if you will not allow it for yourself, Irene."
Attolia became rigid and Attolis moved out of her grasp, soundlessly rising as a shadow before her. She felt her chest tighten again with familiar grief as he took one of her shoulders firmly. His other arm lay at his side, hook obscured by his bedclothes.
She had heard his tears, and she heard them still, though they fell on her pillows rather than into the filth of the prison cell floor. But what good was that? She was tethered to her guilt as he was to his loss, and together they tried to be whole. Attolia did not suppress her shudder when she reached for the mangled limb, caressing his wrist just above the cuff.
“The luxuries I allow myself do not discourage inner turmoil.” Because her worry, her fierce and private protectiveness over her husband was both necessity and selfishness, and she was not used to one married to the other. Attolia wondered if there would ever come a time when Eugenides ceased to steal small parts away from her mask by stirring in her feelings that conflicted, feelings she did not easily recognize. Even though she wondered, she did not think that day would come. He was still a thief, and he would continue to prove that, even if she was to be guilty until the day she died.
Yet she loved him still.
He caught her hand in his, loosening her grip on his other arm. She did not realize she had begun to hold him so firmly, and her cheeks flushed.
“Come to bed.”
Attolia arched one of her eyebrows, and she could see something light in his eyes.
“Am I not your King?” Even in his jest, there was a sense of earnestness. “Am I not your husband who loves you?”
“You are and you are a thousand times,” she answered quietly, and when Eugenides gently pulled her hand to his lips, she rose without resistance. Irene carefully removed the cuff, her touches tender in their firmness, and he conceded that with a nod.
She would find herself in his arms for their comfort as much as for her own desire not to allow herself to forget her cruelty. And he would allow her tears then if she would allow herself to shed them. And each time she saw him torn between looking away out of deference and holding her closer out of love. His kindness, his compassion, no matter how much need of them she had, were still sometimes difficult to bear.
Irene pressed her hand to his cheek and then her lips to his but only briefly. “Remember this when next I attempt to take you away from your window,” she murmured. And at the slight bow of his head, she allowed him to lead her to their bed.