Eruca wipes the clear mineral oil off her hands with the clean handkerchief the range manager gives her—she’d prefer to be shooting something useful instead of at paper and straw, hunting for the poor, making the wild paths a little safer for the newly increased flow of travelers, but here she must bow to her councilor’s calls for safety in uncertainty every now and again—and turns to the quiet page who waits for her with a gentle smile. There’s no reason to worry the child. He’s only doing his job, no matter how much she’d like to stay a little while longer. “You said the delegation was here?” At his excited nod, she carefully stifles her sigh and places her guns back into her personal case. She hasn’t fallen out of the habit of cleaning them herself, and won’t if she has a choice. As a little princess, she’d shamelessly cajoled her father into teaching her how to shoot, and after he’d died, she found it grounding. Something she could do with her hands, that she did quite skillfully, that had been a real help. The range attendants hadn’t said anything directly, but quietly, she’d learned most of what they knew, and she still sees their quiet approval as the first she’d ever earned for herself from her own actions.
Picking up the case, she smiles at the page, and hands it over to be taken to her quarters above, forcing her fingers not to hesitate at its weight leaving her.
She greets them with a smile as she enters the reception hall, a firm handclasp instead of the bows and speeches her stepmother would have demanded and her father suffered as necessary. “Gentlemen.” She meets Garland’s eyes as they discuss the journey from capital to capital as one fellow traveler to another, and insists that they will be on a first name basis with each other, for which she’s rewarded a hearty clasp of the shoulder for a moment. Neither of them have time for all the trappings of state in the way their predecessors had. No one does, anymore, but sometimes it’s easier to pretend then to destroy every social convention utterly, even if it drives her near to screaming at times, repeating herself.
Tomorrow, the Allstieliaen High Command will join them as well as the Beastkind delegates who they’re meeting on the road tonight. This summit is to start to discuss long term solutions to the desertification. There will be a meeting, full of all sorts of speeches and formality, enough to make any of the old guard swell with pride at their Queen’s efforts. It will still be hard work. None of them, herself included, are quite used to the cooperating yet, but everyone is still trying, which is a good sign, she thinks. Almost like the dreams she’d had as she hid in the library to escape another one of those interminable salons, dreaming of a world with her brother in it.
Garland’s hand is warm, surrounding hers: the roughness of his fingers feel good around her wrist where he’s apparently forgotten to let go. She laughs at his comment about the sand spinners dumping its contents into the hair of one of his men and is rewarded with it tightening briefly in return before he drops her hand gently.
They have a quiet dinner together a few hours later in the outer room in her quarters. Her new cook, a bright and ambitious young man she met in the marketplace three months ago, is having raptures of creativity over a feast for all the heads of state tomorrow. Despite her firm proclamations about excess and her programs to feed the poor and rich equally, it will be a sight to behold. This meal is simple as is most of her meals, although she has to purse her lips at the trifle on the tray the little page leaves them with as he clears away the dishes instead of the usual fresh fruit. Garland laughs at her expression, teasing her in her deep rumble, “They must think you need feeding up.” She makes a (slightly comic, perhaps) dismayed protest, although he has a point. She’s not nearly as indulgent as her forefathers of recent memory, although she does feel a real and lasting guilt at her small pleasures that her staff press upon her as her due. If the world is eating itself, isn’t decadence the weight that dragged it down before?
Still, she smiles as he picks up a spoon and digs in. She’d gone back to her habit of quiet dinners in her quarters instead of lavish court feasts, although she made a habit of eating her breakfasts with her personal secretary and her lunches with her advisors. She misses, fiercely, the meals on the road and the easy camradiere that Stocke’s group had, or even her days of plots with the rebellion. When it gets to be too much, she’ll wander out of the palace through her town. She wears the cape, when she just wants to be alone, but she’s usually here to be with her people, and the cape is just another barrier. She’ll eat dinner with her friends, perching in the backs of busy kitchens, inside taverns, outside of market stalls, and smile until her face aches.
Garland coughs, and Eruca makes a face. “I’m sorry. You were saying?”
“Worried about tomorrow?” Garland asks, and she shakes her head, no. Even if she’s afraid of failure, even if she’s not sure that any of their work, from Aht’s desert ramblings to the endless interviews with researchers, and beyond will work, she’s confident. There will be disagreements, issues, but her real fears stem from the hope that this too, is not vanity, that the world will be saved.
“I don’t know what will happen,” she says, instead. “But I think this is an excellent opportunity for all.”
He smiles at that, a little crookedly, and she’s struck at how young it makes him look, under his scars. He must not be much more then a decade older then she, perhaps as old as her father was when he ascended the throne. He wears boyish handsomeness well, she thinks, and swallows, covering it by wiping her lips. She hopes she isn’t blushing. She’s still thinking about it as she bids him a good night, planning to get an early night’s sleep to be prepared for the morrow, and she’s still thinking about it as she stares into the shadows above her bed a little while later.
Eruca had talked to Raine and Aht, once or twice, about boys and men, snatched together in rare moments of idle contemplation. While they were at the edge of the desert, resting before venturing into the jungle, in the village of Aht’s people. She’s never really thought about men in the same way other girls had. She’s lived surrounded by devastatingly handsome beauties of the court before, both male and female, and for all their gleaming exteriors and exquisite complements, she knew how low they could sink. She’d seen extraordinary brave souls, in the resistance, pure in purpose, on the move. But she’d vowed never to make her father’s mistakes, and knew that she could not commit to an affair without causing some sort of stir, or worse, if they were caught by Perscita. Chastity had been the smarter route.
In a way, the other two were more experienced then she. Raine had an extremely practical and hands on appreciation of the male form that had led to some rather blush filled conversations of the considerations, and Aht was attracted to the purity of purpose of her brother, in a way that makes her suspect that he’s not the only one to receive such attentions in the past. Eruca has always kept her heart open, but has always known that one day, she would take someone to her side that was equal to a queen, fairly and justly. Easier to dream of a lost brother then to pin one’s hopes on a love that would sweep her off her feet when she’d rather stand firm. She’s neither blind nor deaf to the idea of romance, but has known that she must serve a higher purpose. Even now, she has to deal with the odd word about looking for a husband. Of the necessity of children, multiple.
She sighs, softly, as she reaches for the hem of her nightgown, pushing away her loincloth. She lets her hands rest upon her curls for a moment before she reaches into the damp spot between her legs, stroking upward. She’s not made of stone, she thinks. Despite the whispers about her in the old court, she’s hardly ignorant of the way her body works. Indeed, Mariah had once or twice stollen into her bed. Provided a little comfort. But only for a little while. She’d enjoyed herself, but Eruca was and is far too mindful of what she is to completely loose herself. Besides, it’s not the soft curves of another she craves at the moment.
As her hand rises to the nub between her legs, she thinks of the way Garland looks, when he sits on his throne. As he exhorts his men into battle. The way his vest sits. He’s not soft, but he is thoughtful in a way that warms her, every time she sees it. She gasps slightly as she thinks of that smile, feeling her release come upon her. She carefully cleans herself with a handkerchief left tucked onto her nightstand by Mariah herself, and letting it go, she drops into a dreamless slumber.
She finds herself standing next to Garland to greet the incoming commanders. They exchange pleasantries until the sound of a horn reaches them, and she’s distracted with seeing some of her dearest friends for the first time in months: so is he. He’s there, of course, when she opens the session with a few clear words, and during, while she steps neatly on two arguments and is herself lead out of a third by a well timed question. The air in the room at the end of the day isn’t unpleasant, but it does feel somewhat grimmer then when they came in. Out of all the possibilities that they’d hoped for, it has come down to three things.
One is that with further research, the Allstilean High Command’s researchers will find a way to disrupt the flux of ether once and for all. Given the general properties observed so far, this idea is a long shot, to say the least, but to let it go out of hand is of course unthinkable. The council agrees that there is no reason to halt, and that Granorg will send its researchers, who have been tracking down Eruca’s memories and her families’ secret texts for months. Both groups have gone as far as they can alone.
One is the faint hope that Aht, talented in ways barely comprehensible to most, will be successful in her search for her answer in the desert. Find what, Eruca is uncertain, but Aht is full of surprises, and trusts the girl to give her utmost, and says as much to a rather disbelieving Allsteliaen general, and is grateful to be backed up on this point by Rosch, who has a healthy appreciation for Beaskind society now, and Garland, who speaks of their time in Cygnus.
One is that the traditional duties of the royal family will continue with her marriage, which is a non option as far as she’s concerned, and says so. At the look of her councilors, some reproachful, some curious, Eruca rises to her feet, and says, in a clear and ringing voice, “No child of my body will attempt the ritual until it is proven to my satisfaction that it is the only way. There has been enough blood shed for this: We will only accept true necessity.”
As one of the councilors prepares himself to speak, he is interrupted by Garland’s hand, and the quiet question, “Would you send your children for this? To die?” The councilor colors quickly, and he continues, “If you want a real success, we’ll save everyone. Not just most of’em.” The councilor meets his stare for a few heartbeats, and then quiets. Eruca marvels at how quickly some people forget. They stop for lunch after a few more conversational fumbles and coordinate the movements of the teams, and end with the agreement to meet again in Cygnus in four months time, if not sooner.
Dinner is a bit tense. She manages to eat her fill—hard not to, with all the effort her cook had put into it, and she calls him out to receive praise at the end of the meal, as is his due—but there’s a headache chasing itself across her face, and she wants nothing more then to sleep. From the looks of those around her, she might not be the only one who wishes that, and from the conversation, she knows that the gathering will not go on for very long. But she sits through the presentation of musicians in the formal reception parlor afterwards with a light smile on her face. It feels like iron. It hopefully doesn’t look that way. As soon as she’s had a word with all the performers, she quietly makes her way to the door and has just slipped out when she hears someone clearing their throat behind her.
She turns to look: it’s Garland. He looks at her with his head tilted slightly, and then crosses to her side. She gives him a small nod, trying not to let her expression falter. She wants nothing more then to close her eyes and let go. He says quietly, “May I escort you back to your room, Eruca?”
Eruca blinks. She can’t imagine what he wants to say, but nods. At least it will not take too long. “All right.”
They walk down the corridor together quietly, towards the royal wing. They pass guards and maids, to which Eruca nods to each, and Garland the same. It is not until they are within sight of Eruca’s door that they pause in front of a window that looks to the rear of the palace, overlooking the gardens, and Eruca says, “Is there something the matter?”
Garland shakes his head. “I wanted to say that I think you did a good job. And to let you know that the people of Cygnus are behind you entirely.” She opens her mouth, to thank him, and he holds up a hand. “We remember the way it has been: we have long memories, you know. Longer then I think most people give us credit for. Did you know the meaning of the name of my country?” She thinks for a minute, then shakes her head. It hadn’t been covered in her diplomatic briefings or what she remembered of geography as a child. Garland nods, and continues. “It’s the name of a type of bird, probably gone now. Used to dwell near lakes, back when we had lakes. Pretty as all get out, but liable to break your neck if you tried to treat it like spun glass or try to heard it too much. It’s a pity they’ve forgotten.” He looks directly into her eyes as he covers her hand with his again for the second time in as many days, and all she can think of is oh as he raises it to his lips and kisses it carefully.
Eruca cannot help the blush that springs to her cheeks as soon as she reclaims her hand. She manages a breath, and then, marshals her voice into being. “Ah. That’s. . .a pity.” She takes another breath and manages not to rub her knuckles for all that they are burning. “I wish I could have seen them.”
Garland smiles the same slow and devastating smile, and says, “Perhaps we’ll find them again someday.”