“How was Camelot?” Mithian asks politely. She would usually rather be out riding with their fathers, but Vivian has refused to sit astride so often that Mithian has given up asking her to come along, and naturally Mithian cannot abandon a royal guest. What she really wants to ask is Are you ill?, because Vivian’s hair shines only dull even in the bright afternoon light, and Vivian’s skin is paler and less soft-looking than ever before, and Vivian’s eyes are huge and lost within bruised sockets. But that would be an impolitic question to ask; she’ll work her way to it, if she can, once it would be natural. Vivian has never been delicate, for all she pretends to be because she thinks it fitting, but now she looks like a cut flower left too long out of water.
And Vivian—Vivian who has always avoided talking about the best qualities of others, as if she fears their virtue is her fault—seems to kindle and ignite, color coming into her cheeks and light into her eyes, as she says, “Oh, I met the most wonderful man, Mithian, why did you never tell me Arthur of Camelot was so…so…so perfect?”
Mithian stands, lips parted, a funny cold feeling creeping through her from the inside out. She allows herself one frozen instant and then swallows and speaks, lightly, easily, as if something in what Vivian said hasn’t struck somehow past all her defenses. “I never really thought he was,” she says, smiling at Vivian, “for all that he well might grow into a very good king some day. But perfect?”
(“I don’t know why you think you’re so perfect,” Vivian had snapped at her once, years ago, “just because you can do things no proper princess ever would.”
That had hurt too, but cleaner than this, and Mithian had known what she meant and why, and had been able to hear the jealousy and admiration under Vivian’s temper. She still isn’t sure Vivian would admit to either. And that had been when she started to understand Vivian—Vivian who was so determined to be a princess that she never thought beyond that to being a queen, Vivian who had learned how to be both from tales instead of example. She thought, she still thinks, that Vivian is wrong, but she knows the weight of putting on a role every morning with her clothes, and she has no right to tell Vivian that she’s chosen the wrong one.)
“He is,” Vivian sighs, hugging herself. Mithian feels even colder. “He’s so strong, and handsome, and clever, and good with a sword, and oh, Mithian, when he kissed me—”
“He what?” Mithian asks. She’s gone through cold to numb; her mouth doesn’t seem to want to work properly.
“He kissed me.” Vivian beams, and she’s beautiful as she ever was again, even with her hair sere as winter grass and the bones of her face a little too sharp in spite of all their loveliness.
I wanted to do that, Mithian thinks, slowly. I never knew I wanted to do that. And she’s too late, anyway, and a princess may love where she chooses but a queen never. It feels suddenly, terribly unfair that Mithian has made herself a queen-yet-to-be and never allowed herself to notice why she didn’t mind Vivian’s cheerful self-centeredness.
Vivian, all unknowing, goes on. “We had a midnight meeting in secret and it was the most romantic thing until his horrible incompetent manservant burst in and interrupted us—”
“A midnight meeting?” A queen always keeps her voice level; a queen is never shocked; a queen never shows weakness. Mithian has never felt less queenly. She is a princess, her father’s daughter, still—please for many years more—and she hurts, and Vivian with her exceptional gift for noticing mistakes and intrigues notices nothing at all now, lost in her dreams about Arthur of Camelot. “So there’s to be a marriage alliance between Camelot and Deira, then?” Mithian makes herself ask. “It would be a good match, I think, you have all that seacoast and Camelot has forests in plenty—”
“No,” Vivian says, and Mithian wishes she’d never interrupted. Vivian is dimmed again, and if talking about Arthur is what Vivian needs to smile than Mithian will let her talk until her voice rasps into silence. “No, we’re not—it wasn’t—he decided he didn’t love me, he’s in love with a servant.”
“His manservant?” Mithian asks, feeling her brows tug together a little. It would at least explain not only the manservant’s lack of discretion but why Arthur had changed his mind about Vivian, if he had no preference for women after all, but how horribly unfair of him to woo her witless first and then abandon her in her hopeless infatuation. She likes Arthur much less than she had, knowing he’d so carelessly do this to Vivian. To anyone.
“Worse,” Vivian says miserably. She looks like winter, and worse than winter; she looks like Mithian could break her with a touch. “I’d understand that, at least. No, a woman, King Uther’s ward’s maid. He just—he—he liked her better than me.” Her voice cracks into a thin wail on the last word. Vivian can weep beautifully when she wants to influence people with her tears, but she isn’t, now, with her face screwed into a grimace, sniffling frantically to keep her nose from dripping.
Mithian fumbles in her sleeves and finally finds the clean handkerchief that is exactly where she always keeps it. She doesn’t dare reach out to Vivian, even drawn in as she is by Vivian’s unpolished misery, not with the silly irrational feeling she still has that Vivian might shatter against her arms at any hint of even friendly affection. Instead she gives Vivian her handkerchief, and stands there, keeping guard (weeping isn’t forbidden for princesses, though it is for queens, but Vivian’s messy heartbroken sobbing is something that Vivian would hate for anyone to see), until Vivian has fought her way through and out the other side. It hurts like a full-body bruise watching Vivian cry and mean it, and although Mithian has met Morgana’s maid herself and can easily understand how anyone who wants a harbor for their heart could find Guinevere the best person to give it to, she hates Arthur more than a little for his deceit.
(And for the selfishness that she cannot share. Deira would be a prize indeed for any bride to bring to Camelot, and Camelot in turn a worthy gift to the future queen of Deira. It is a natural alliance, and Arthur had it in his hands—had Vivian in his hands, Mithian thinks, blinking away the image—and threw it away for a love that will bring him nothing except his own happiness.)
Even so, she thinks Vivian will heal soon enough. It’s some consolation, as they turn back to the keep—Vivian with her face blotchy and her eyes swollen, Mithian weighed down by her helpless sympathy and longing. It’s the only consolation she has, as the visit stretches out and Vivian drifts about like a wraith except when she can talk about Arthur. King Olaf gets grimmer by the day, and Mithian’s father starts casting wary looks towards the Camelot border.
At the feast when they leave Vivian glances idly around the room and then gazes into space, and Mithian feels something inside twist and break. The old Vivian would have leaned over to whisper questions in her ear: does this wife truly not care that her husband is flirting with her attendant over her very shoulder or has she somehow not noticed? or, hasn’t Lady So-and-So’s father, or that maid’s knight and lady, noticed by now that she’s caught a child, with last year’s gown stretched tight at the waist and tighter at the bodice? (More than a few of the gowns Vivian discards in shrieking outrage at the style have been thrown unceremoniously at women who can sell the trim for a dowry they badly need, Mithian knows, and she thinks Vivian knows as well. A queen would give it to them, not throw it at them, but Vivian has never tried to be a queen.) With Vivian sad and silent at her side, Mithian looks away from the dozens of little dramas playing out before them. She should watch, so she knows what’s happening to the people who are her responsibility, but it’s little enough fun without Vivian to make biting comments and offer advice, however absurd Vivian’s advice sometimes is.
It was Litha when Mithian first saw Vivian after Camelot, and a bit after Lammas the next time, and now she is afraid, because Vivian has not gotten better.
Vivian has gotten worse.
“I would like to see her myself,” Mithian says, feeling cold as a north-mountain winter.
King Olaf shakes his head. “She is not well,” he says gently, inflexibly. “I am sure she would rather not be seen.”
Queens do not plead, and neither do princesses; queens convince and princesses demand. “It might help her, to see a friendly face she’s known as long as she has mine.”
“I think not, princess,” Olaf says, still gently, still with the iron of his ancestors from over the sea in his voice. Vivian has told wild stories of his anger with her suitors, but Mithian has never been sure they’re true, and right now Olaf’s flat gentleness is more upsetting than a shout.
Mithian could do what she hopes Vivian would, if their circumstances were reversed, and insist, and insult, and make a scene until she got the answer she wanted. She could do what Elena of Gawant almost certainly would, and go off to Vivian’s chambers without permission because it was right, however unconventional. It is not in Mithian to do either.
She draws herself up, as regal as possible, and says, “Please, my lord.”
She hears her father catch his breath at her side and hopes she hasn’t disappointed him, but her eyes stay fixed on Olaf and the surprise waking on his face, from a flicker to something so blatant he must intend her to see it. He jerks his head at a page and says, “Ask if the Lady Vivian will see her.”
The page bows and scrambles out of the hall, and Mithian is left with her heart pounding uncomfortably in her ears and her hands chill in the loose-clasped hold that is all she allows herself. When she dares a glance at her father out of the corner of her eyes he hasn’t added to the distance between them, and a little of the tension melts away from her. (“Even a king may beg,” he’d told her once, when she was very young. “If the cause is great enough, to the world or to him, a king may beg with no shame at all, and so may a queen. The trick, dearest, is the cause.” And Mithian had nodded, and stored the knowledge away with everything else he taught her, and hoped she would never have to guess at a cause.)
When the page comes back he nods to Mithian and she excuses herself politely with words she never remembers and follows him away.
If Vivian was wraithlike in Nemeth at the height of summer, just after Camelot, in Deira with autumn settling in and the long days slowly waning she is barely more than a ghost. She haunts her chambers, wearing trailing gowns gone ragged at the hem, and does nothing but write letters to Arthur and sing ballads of heartbreak.
The letters are burned at King Olaf’s command.
The ballads are a little off-key, and Vivian doesn’t have all the words by heart, but Mithian still feels tears she refuses to shed prickle against her eyes.
Vivian sits sharply up when Mithian enters, and then sighs. “You’re not Arthur,” she says, sinking back down against her pillows.
“I know,” Mithian says. She takes a step in, very carefully. Vivian looks…drowned, almost. That’s the best way Mithian can describe the way Vivian seems to drift through the world, unable to breathe, like Arthur was her air and she cannot live without him. “You said you would see me anyway?”
Vivian gives her a smile, tiny and cracked and distracted, and Mithian’s heart flips over in her chest. “You’re not completely awful.”
It’s far from the sweetest thing anyone has ever said to Mithian, who has had poems composed in her honor and champions ask for her favor before riding into tournaments, and it isn’t even the sweetest thing Vivian has ever said to her (“Don’t be so serious all the time,” Vivian had said one evening a few years ago, just a little giddy on mulled wine, “you should smile more,” and it had been imperious criticism, yes, but Vivian had grinned when she said it, fondly, like she meant I want you to be happy and couldn’t say it because princesses are never that generous to other princesses), but right now, from this Vivian, even that is more than Mithian had expected. It opens something small and fragile in her heart.
Vivian falls asleep before long, and in her sleep her smile is radiant, everything about her weightless. Mithian hesitates at the end of the bed, watching her, for just a moment longer than she should, until Vivian murmurs “Arthur” and Mithian draws back with a guilty start.
Vivian’s attendant—an older woman with a plain kind face, whose name Mithian wasn’t given—must have seen, though her eyes are steady on her embroidery when Mithian glances at her. There are too many people who know. Mithian gathers the tatters of her composure around her and leaves Vivian to her heartbroken dreams of a man she barely knows.
The noon meal is a quiet one, served in chambers, and Mithian asks her maid Alys to fetch her some writing implements. She eats one-handed, scribbling a rough map of Albion with the other: Camelot roughly south-central, Deira to the north and east of it. Mercia and the Perilous Lands lie between, but Bayard of Mercia was Uther Pendragon’s ally last Mithian heard and the Perilous Lands have neither king nor queen nor any other ruler to bear a grudge against their borderlands, and in any case it would take someone entirely without reason to try to turn their own land into a battleground, or even a troops’ highway. Say neither, then. Mithian taps the end of her quill against her lips, thinking. Olaf has had frequent quarrels with the king of Northumbria, but if anything he’s more belligerent, not less, towards everyone but royal maidens with his daughter…ill. Could Northumbria have foreseen that, though? Mithian’s own father would hesitate to take such risks with her unable to pick up a war in his stead if need be, and perhaps they might have thought the same. Either way, she’s heard nothing in either Nemeth’s court or Deira’s that hints that any of Olaf’s neighbors are trying something, and with winter closing in it’s getting too late for anyone with sense to start a war.
She leaves the map after she’s eaten and goes to change into riding clothes. Her father may have an idea that escapes her, and there’s to be hawking that afternoon. Mithian herself is indifferent to that sport as to few others, but she enjoys watching well enough and her father never misses a chance.
The moors shine green and violet and gold, velvet-soft in the hot afternoon sunlight, and the wind tugs at Mithian’s veil and her father’s hair where it sticks out from under the light crown he wears. For once he waves aside his master of birds when they reach the hunting-grounds, instead putting all the weight of his attention on Mithian. She draws a steadying breath and prepares to bear it.
“What is Lady Vivian to you?” he asks, mildly enough.
Mithian might have been tempted to pretend confusion if he hadn’t given her the question in full, though in the end she would have admitted she knew what he meant. Instead she says, “Impossible.”
“Mithian, I…” Her father shakes his head. “If you could form a marriage alliance with a noblewoman…” He lets that sentence go, too, but Mithian knows what he means and she has to swallow hard past the burning in her throat. They’ve never talked about this in words before, and she’d foolishly thought that perhaps it was because he never knew. “I would be happy for you,” he says, still more at a loss for words than she’s ever seen him. “Please know that, at least, and that I’ve spent the last few years trying to make alliances in other ways in hopes that you might…”
“I have never asked to be excused from my responsibilities,” Mithian says. It’s that or let her tears overflow, here on the open moors with half of King Olaf’s knights in train, because queens may not marry for love but her father has still done all he can to keep her from having to marry without it.
“I would hesitate to take a husband for Nemeth’s sake,” her father says, smiling at her as if they’re allies in this, and suddenly they are—it isn’t that Mithian has burdened him with her unspoken wishes, but that he chose to do what he could as a gift to her. “I hope I would do it in the end, if I had to. I’ve never seen you even flinch from the thought; you seem to consider marriage alliances as calmly as any others. I would like…” He sighs. “I would like you to not have to consider them at all. I don’t think I can do that for you, unless Albion comes to a lasting peace. But that wasn’t what I asked.”
“I care for her,” Mithian admits.
Her father, bless him, doesn’t question her taste, though she knows there must be at least a dozen ladies of their acquaintance he’d understand more easily than Vivian. All he says is, “And how is she?”
“There’s something I can’t understand—it’s too much to be natural. I think when she went to Camelot someone…I don’t know. Cursed her, maybe, to be unable to bear any disappointment. She talked about how her father and Arthur dueled for her honor and how Arthur nearly killed Olaf before deciding to show mercy at the last possible moment, and now she’s—” Mithian closes her eyes against the sun. “She’s not well, Father. If it’s possible to die of a broken heart outside of tales I think she might. Does Deira have any enemies who were at the conference? I can’t think of anyone there who has a recent grudge, but if there’s something from before I can remember…?”
“Hm.” In the distance a little knot of riders drift past, following the high specks of their birds, and Mithian’s father turns a little to watch them before looking back at Mithian. “You’re not trying to explain away her love for Arthur for your own comfort?”
“No,” Mithian says, and hopes it’s even true. “But she’d never even met him before, and now months later she still does nothing but weep for him and dream she’s with him. Vivian wouldn’t do that. Vivian would—Vivian would decide that if he had the poor taste not to love her that was his loss and not hers, and she’d tell herself that until she believed it.”
Her father smiles wryly. “Like a queen, Mithian?”
“Like a princess,” Mithian says, though a queen would do the same.
His brows go up a little, and he nods, very slowly, as if thinking it out for himself while he does. “Good. Who was at the conference?”
“Olaf of Deira.” He knows this as well as she does, which means it’s a test. “Uther of Camelot, Alined of Kent, Bayard of Mercia, and Harbon of Anglia. There were also their families and a few personal attendants—Vivian, Trickler, Harbon’s so-called fosterling.” Her father nods again, in open approval this time. “The servants were Camelot’s, for the most part, but I know very little about even the ones I’ve met, and I think it’s easy enough for any stranger to get at least access to the castle, especially if they were hiring extra servants to handle such a collection of kings.”
“I wish,” says her father, “that I could reward your attention to your lessons with an answer for you. But I have no old gossip you’ve forgotten or were never told about to offer.”
“Is it likely?” Mithian asks. There are so many explanations: one of Harbon’s Continental trade-partners hoping to stir up war in Albion; anyone who’d planned to pin the blame on some other king and accuse him of using sorcery within the castle of Camelot itself; something so slight and personal that nobody else would ever know—someone’s wife had the unfortunate habit of shouting Olaf’s name in bed, maybe, or Vivian’s way of forever putting down others as if she’d be knocked out of her own place if she didn’t had found a softer target than anyone had guessed. Mithian might never find the right reason, and that doesn’t matter so much, not as long as she can do the right thing without that knowledge.
The hawks and hounds go past again in the distance, trailed by the hunters, and Mithian’s father glances after them. He answers her quickly enough, though. “It’s a little complicated, but I can see how someone planning an attack on one of the Five Kingdoms might want to be hide behind complications. I think it could be likely.”
Mithian draws a long, grateful breath. “Thank you for the confirmations. I won’t keep you any longer—your bird is waiting to catch half the game in Deira for you, I think.”
Her father grins and nudges his horse onward. Mithian follows more slowly.
Vivian is singing when Mithian returns to her chambers later that afternoon, something told by a woman dying of her unrequited love for a beautiful but coldhearted knight, and even the awkward fall of the highest notes can’t quite ruin the effect. Mithian shivers with a cold that creeps from the inside out and blurts “I think you’re under a love spell” as soon as Vivian is done, before she can even think it through and arrange her words to persuade.
“Oh, I know,” Vivian says.
Mithian actually feels her jaw drop.
Vivian waves dismissively at her attendant, still sitting drab and quiet over her embroidery in the corner by the west window. “Well, go on, what are you waiting for, I’m perfectly well attended. Or is another princess not good enough for you?”
The attendant glances from Vivian to Mithian, for just long enough to make Mithian have to fight off a blush, and then rises and curtsies and leaves, as neutral as she’s been all along. Mithian wonders if she plans to listen at the door, and in spite of that asks, “You know?”
Vivian frowns. “I’m not stupid, you know perfectly well that I’m not stupid. Obviously I wouldn’t be making myself this absolutely wretched over anyone, even someone as wonderful as Arthur, without some kind of push, especially since when I first met him I was horribly misguided and didn’t even like him, though I later developed a much better appreciation of his virtues.”
“Obviously,” Mithian says faintly.
“Also I got a message a few weeks after we returned. Some wandering knight—such a mess, nowhere near as good-looking as Arthur, or as strong, or as good with a sword, and I’ll bet he’d be nowhere near as good with his ‘sword’ as Arthur would, if—”
Mithian gathers her wits in time to say “The message?” and spare herself the rest of this train of thought.
“Oh, yes, the message.” Vivian sighs, the corners of her too-pale mouth turning down. “Well, the message said that I’d been enchanted, and Arthur had too but that servant girl broke the spell on him by kissing him, and he remembered that he loved her, and that’s why he broke all his promises to me and left me here.” The last few words are barely audible through her sobs.
“That doesn’t even make sense,” Mithian says. “Why would anyone love-spell you and Arthur?”
“I think it was Alined,” Vivian says, flopping back down on the bed. Her hair fans out around her like a fading dandelion. “He really didn’t seem happy about the conference being a peace conference, which I suppose is what happens if you have iron you want to sell and no armies to sell it to, but he kept making terrible faces at things, especially once my father and Arthur didn’t kill each other, and really I suspected that his fool was doing real magic even before I knew someone had enchanted me.”
Mithian had never even considered that Vivian might just be a means to an end, rather than an end in herself. She realizes now that that was terribly shortsighted of her, pure bias, and part of her flinches away from the revelation. Once she might not have made that mistake—it was so much easier to become a queen when all of her love was steadying and certain, for her kingdom and her people and her father and her friends. Her feelings for Vivian are neither steadying nor certain. She almost wishes them gone, but…her father is the best ruler she knows, and for all the expectations he’s made sure to tell her of he has also never hesitated to tell her that he thinks even kings and queens should defy them when it’s important enough.
She had never been sure what important enough was supposed to mean. When she broke her rules it was always for other people, to smooth things over because that, too, is something queens do.
Vivian is humming, quietly, gone back to Arthur while Mithian tripped over her own doubts. It’s the same ballad as before, and every so often she’ll slip from tune to words just long enough to sing a phrase or two—of broken hearts and memories and dying flowers—that sinks the chill deeper into Mithian's heart.
“Was there anyone?” Mithian asks desperately. “Before Arthur, I mean. Anyone you wondered how you could have ever considered admiring once you were pushed into love with him?”
“I don’t remember,” Vivian says, but at least she's stopped singing.
It’s horrifying. It’s so awful, and Vivian is so calm, and Mithian feels acid in her throat and tears in her eyes that Vivian can’t even care. She has to swallow several times before she can ask, “Would you let me try?”
Vivian looks at her thoughtfully. “Do you think I loved you?” she asks. She doesn’t make it an insult, though Mithian realizes she’d always thought those words from Vivian’s mouth would take on a sneer however grave the circumstances. Instead she sounds hopeful, uncertain more than doubtful.
“I don’t know,” Mithian says. And then, looking at Vivian’s too-pale face and lost eyes, she offers her own vulnerability back. “I want you to have. I’ll do anything I can to help you find someone who can free you, whoever they are, but I want it to be me.”
“Hm,” Vivian says. “Did I know that? I don’t think I knew that.”
Her voice is a little unsteady now, tightening with alarm for this as it didn’t when she talked about forgetting her own feelings. Mithian says “No!” in response to Vivian’s fear more than her question, then makes herself draw in a slow breath and continue more calmly. “I don’t think you knew. I didn’t know myself until you came back from Camelot and I realized why I was so upset.”
“Tell me about us,” Vivian says. “And sit down.”
Subdued as she is she’s here, she’s focusing intently on Mithian in a way she wasn’t even when she was mapping out the political snare that had caught her as if it were a simple thing. Mithian thinks about Olaf sending the page to ask Vivian if she’d receive a guest, about the surprise he and everyone else had almost managed to conceal when Mithian was given leave to go. He’d meant to stop her with that, she thinks, and feels a tiny spark of hope that she hadn’t dared allow herself before as she settles herself next to Vivian.
Then she stamps it out again. “We weren’t—” she starts, worried Vivian’s misunderstood, or that Guinevere had only managed to break Arthur’s half of the spell because she had been able to call him back to something that had already been.
Vivian waves off Mithian’s protest. It’s almost a gesture she might have made before, imperious and dramatic all at once, but there’s a hesitance to it that would never have been there before. “I know that, this didn’t make me forget things, just how I could ever have loved anyone but Arthur, which I still don’t understand even though I know it must be true. Tell me about whatever it was we had that makes you think you might be able to break the curse.” Her mouth wobbles. “And tell me why you even want to, since I’m nowhere near good enough for Arthur, I’m not even—”
“You’re not restful,” Mithian says. She isn’t sure how much longer she can bear this, or how Vivian can bear it at all. “You never have been. Anyone who loves you would have to love everything about court, all the feasts and intrigues and petty quarrels as well as the lonely weight of the crown.” She could be gentler, but that might look like pity, and Vivian has always been as offended by pity as by insults, or by things that look like either. “Arthur never has.” Vivian sighs but doesn’t argue, and Mithian swallows again and says, “I do.”
“That’s a metaphor.” Vivian makes a face halfway between a frown and a pout. “I didn’t ask for metaphors.”
“It’s not a metaphor—it’s not only a metaphor. That’s what we’ve always done together. We attend court festivities and you make fun of people’s ugly clothes and tell me all the scandals—if we’re in Nemeth you figure out everything that it took me weeks to piece together by the time the first subtlety is served—and you’re deeply unmusical but you can always tell how good a bard or minstrel is by watching everyone else’s reactions. You told me that,” Mithian adds with a warm flush of pride, “even though you don’t like people knowing, because I asked why you looked everywhere but me during performances.”
“I said your manners were too good,” Vivian says. The words, slow and quiet, sound dredged-up from somewhere deep inside.
“Lady Deilla calls you my ‘musical friend’,” Mithian says, feeling nearly the old urge to smile at the memory. “You have everyone else fooled still. But you told me. You do things like that—you’re a little more willing to admit when you’re playing a role if I’m the only person who’ll know. I don’t know, maybe you’re like that with other people.”
Vivian shakes her head. “You play a role too. You always are. I can tell you because I know you won’t tell anyone else.”
Mithian inhales sharply.
“Except you’re not, now,” Vivian says, looking almost curiously at Mithian. “Are you?”
“No,” Mithian admits. “The woman I’m used to trying to be wouldn’t be here.”
“So you came without her.” Vivian manages to smile. “It’s all right. The woman I’m used to trying to be wouldn’t be here either. They’re probably off doing something terribly fun without us.”
A silence falls around them, light and clinging as cobwebs. Finally Vivian brushes it aside, saying, “What else?”
Mithian shakes her head. “It’s not…I can’t tell you about a time we rode out and watched the sun set across the moors, or crowned each other with roses like children playing at knights, or anything like that. That’s not…that was never us. I can’t pretend it was.”
“I never ride if I can help it,” Vivian says, then hesitates. “And you knew that, and you…stopped when I visited?”
“I stopped,” Mithian says, and wonders how she never wondered before, when she forgot even to care about the hunt she was missing, and the discussion between kings with it, because Vivian wouldn’t and she couldn’t very well ride off and leave Vivian behind. Of course she had done it, because it would have been rude not to, but she should have known from how little she minded that Vivian wasn’t just any guest, or even any princess. She had been as happy walking with Vivian as racing with Elena—the same exhilaration, with none of the wind in her face or the forest beyond her or the strength and speed of the horse under her to account for it, only the difference in the way that she cared for her companion.
“You stopped for me.” Vivian is almost smug, but not quite, and Mithian would allow her this even if she were.
Mithian will let Vivian celebrate as many victories as she wants, because every single one of those victories is another instant of reprieve from the memory of Arthur and the curse. “I did,” she says. “And I didn’t mind.”
“I asked for the gardens to be replanned.” Vivian frowns, rubbing the bridge of her nose with her eyes half-closed. “I didn’t care much about them, but they were too dull to spend hours in, and I knew if I did I’d get freckled, or tanned, and just a few freckles might have been charming but only if they were in the right places, and if I were tanned or had too many freckles I’d look common. And you were already giving up your rides, I knew you wanted to go, so I wasn’t going to make you go completely inside.”
The ornamental gardens in Olaf’s castle are exquisite. Mithian remembers, barely, the first few years she and her father visited, when they were low and raw and plain, with rigid little borders and severe little flowers. Now the very walls are brilliant with roses, and honeysuckle-wrapped trees cast glancing bits of shade between the bright-canopied pavilions. The borders have softened, studded with tiny white and blue and yellow flowers like stars, and the bits of garden between them have filled out—some of the sad young plants inside have matured and been allowed to spread out, and the rest have been replaced with the kind of flowers that grow free on the moors, the bright gold of broom and gorse and the soft light violet of heather and wild thyme.
The effect has always been unlike Vivian, and even more unlike Olaf, for all that Mithian knows she and her father have not been the only ones to admire them. She is proud enough of the ornamental gardens she sometimes takes visiting queens through, but she knows, and they know, that for gardens one must go to Deira.
Mithian had always thought it was cleverness on Vivian’s part, some blend of the same trick that lets her judge music with the genuine talent she has for picking out the most flattering gowns and jewels guiding her to a truly skilled gardener. She had been less sure how Vivian knew that any kingdom should have a showpiece, when Vivian seemed so unaware (princesses are showpieces in themselves) of so many other expectations, but she had never questioned it.
“You had the gardens replanned?”
Vivian tilts her chin up. “I couldn’t stand looking at all that grey and brown and plain green for that long, could I?”
“No,” Mithian says, not agreement but denial. She thinks of Vivian’s gardens: brilliant color and gentle warmth, the deep gold of sunbeams and the cool bars of shade and the liquid cascades of birdsong that came from the distant kitchen gardens and the orchards, of Vivian settling herself proudly in a seat under a pavilion that might as well have been a throne, and of how there was never only one throne-seat beneath the bright falls of silk.
Princesses never yield, even when queens might. Princesses, Mithian thinks, must send their suitors to do impossible tasks, even when they like the suitor in question. Princesses do not show favor, even when they feel it.
“I really couldn’t,” Vivian says. And then, uncertainly, “Do you like them?”
It’s a moment before Mithian can even speak. “They’re beautiful. Everyone in Albion thinks they’re beautiful, everyone who’s ever been here. The lord of Tregor asked me if you had confided the name of your gardener in me, so that Lady Catrina could have something as lovely that close to her own home.”
“You,” Vivian says, more firmly. “What about you? I think I had them made at least a little for you.”
“I love them,” Mithian says. “They’re the prettiest parts of Deira all brought together. I loved them when I thought you had done them for the political advantage and now I—I don’t—” Everything else she could say slips through her mind, too quick to catch. “Vivian, please. May I try?”
Vivian’s breath catches, so hard Mithian can hear it. “I don’t know,” she says, raising a hand to her lips. “I don’t know, don’t you think I’d want to kiss you at least a little if it was what would save me? Not just to save me, I mean, but that I’d look at you and want you?”
“I don’t know,” says Mithian, going cold and numb again after the long bright thawing of this whole conversation. She wonders if she’ll become nothing more than an echo—first a phrase, then everything. “I won’t tell you it’s just the curse. It might not be.”
“I don’t know who else it could be, and I refuse to believe it isn’t anyone, I won’t have it. There must be someone, and it’s most likely to be you.” Vivian sits up as straight as if she were in front of a full court, the brittle winter-grass of her hair catching sparks from the sunset and glinting for a moment almost gold again. The shadows pooling over her face are too sharp at the edges, but she bites her lips together and they as relax into softness they darken from waxen to pink. “So kiss me.”
It feels like stealing something.
Vivian told her to, and Vivian knows, and nothing in this is a lie. Mithian still feels like a thief.
Vivian closes her eyes before Mithian’s lips touch hers, and Mithian wonders if Vivian is pretending she’s Arthur. Mithian would pretend too if she could, if it would help, if it would let this desperate try be easier on Vivian.
In the end Mithian settles for the gentlest kiss she can, the barest brush of her lips against Vivian’s, so light it almost tickles. If Vivian wants to imagine Arthur, the texture of Mithian’s skin won’t get in the way, and whether or not Vivian is fighting to hold Arthur’s image in her head now she won’t have to remember, later, that Mithian took anything more than this from her.
(Mithian tries not to remember any of this, because this isn’t the Vivian she wants to remember. That Vivian glitters bright and sharp as a faceted gem, dazzles so charmingly in gold and pastels that people never really look at her, is unfaded and undaunted and unhesitant. She wears the scent of southern flowers, rich and sweet, incredibly costly and nameless to everyone in Albion. Her mouth is glossy-wet with paint and never drawn for so long into such an unhappy line. This Vivian is all wrong.
And still Mithian memorizes her, and wishes she could stop.)
Vivian inhales, long and slow and deep, and her breath tugs at Mithian’s lips. Her eyes open, darkening as Mithian watches, from hazy noon to twilight. As Mithian pulls back there’s color blooming in Vivian’s cheeks, slow and patchy, an uneven flush of pink and white that looks feverish more than anything else. Tears brighten her eyes.
Mithian holds her breath and waits.
“I remember,” Vivian says, and her voice cracks and her too-shining eyes seem to burn with the tears that won’t spill over. “I—I can’t—”
And she lets herself break, then, collapses against Mithian and trembles so hard that she shakes them both, though she still doesn’t weep. Mithian holds her through it as tightly as she can.
“I can’t,” Vivian says again, muffled by Mithian’s shoulder, gasping for air after every few words, “I thought I knew what it was like but I just knew that it was all wrong, I was all wrong, I didn’t know what it would be like once I felt it, once I was fixed, I want to kill him, I didn’t even know how much it hurt.”
Fury sears through Mithian. “Nemeth will never buy Alinor’s bedamned iron,” she says into Vivian’s hair, and it’s probably no comfort at all, it’s certainly stupid and reckless and selfish, but she vows it anyway; Camelot has mines too, though nowhere near as many and it has little enough right to them, but she will crawl to Uther rather than Alined if she has to. “Never.” She can’t declare war on Kent, and she can’t goad its king into declaring war on them—even now she knows better than that. But this, this she can do, this she will do.
Vivian looks up at her in wonder. “That’s not like you,” she says. “You’d never do anything like that.”
“But I—” Mithian starts, and Vivian stops her with another kiss, hard and frantic and nothing like the one that had broken the curse. Vivian’s fingers close bruse-tight around Mithian’s arms, like she’s afraid she’ll be pulled away, and Mithian tries to kiss back carefully in case she hurts Vivian more and then relents and lets Vivian take what she needs.
“I know,” Vivian says, pulling back just enough to breathe, and Mithian tastes blood on her own lips. She remembers how pale and drawn and dry Vivian’s mouth had looked, earlier, and feels a twist of guilt even though she’d decided to let Vivian decide. “I know you mean it, I know you will.”
She kisses Mithian again and it’s gentler this time, less desperate, less terrified, and Mithian is lost, forgetting caution, forgetting everything, just following wherever Vivian wants to lead. They are both crownless here, just themselves, and for now Vivian’s arms around her suit Mithian better than any gold-embroidered cloak. She couldn’t ever give up her kingdom, but Mithian makes another promise, this one just to herself, never to give up her heart either.