Under the Attolian stars, the palace slept. True, all was not perfectly still – nothing the size of the capitol ever really was – but it was the midst of what had been a long week for many, and even the calling of the guards and the night-business of the city below seemed hushed.
Within, the sworn and honored ruler of Attolia lay abed, listening to the soft rustle and thump of feet descending from a windowsill, followed by a soft and irritated huff. Eugenides hid a silent laugh in the space between wrist and pillow, and waited. Sure enough –
“Your hands are freezing,” he hissed, flinching away from the ice-cold touch settling against his shoulders, and her hands whipped back in a rush of bedclothes that made more noise than her entrance by several degrees. Shaking his head, Eugenides rolled over, worming his way back towards her until he could slide his hand to the small of her back, nudge a knee between hers, rest his head against the curve of her shoulder. Slowly, carefully, her fingers settled into his hair. They were still cold.
“You know,” she said, close enough to him that he could feel her throat vibrating as she spoke, “there’s something deeply humiliating about nearly being caught sneaking through one’s own palace.”
“Wear darker dressing gowns to sneak in,” he suggested, rubbing his cheek against the soft wool surface of the one she was wearing – a soft sea-blue, if he remembered rightly. The easiest way to tell would be the feel of the sash against his hand, and that was buried somewhere in the mattress.
“The darker ones are thinner,” she said, one hand wandering nervously along the nape of his neck, “and then I would be colder when I got here, and you would complain at me.”
“I complain at you anyway.” He dotted a kiss to the edge of her neck, just below the jaw, at the little cluster of muscle that tended to tense on difficult days. She snorted, coarse, into his hair; he smiled, running his hand up and down her back. It had been a long day; he dug his fingers into the space between her shoulder-blades, and she gasped, arching back in a burst of tension before it all drained out of her. He snickered; she huffed, a warm breath of air against his ear, and combed her fingers through his hair.
“How’s your ankle?” she asked after a while, and he grimaced.
“You mean the swelling lump of pain where my foot used to connect to my leg in a perfectly respectable manner?” he asked, nudging at her calf with the bandages encircling his foot. A sparring accident that morning had gone badly. “Horrible. Agonizing. Petrus is a filthy liar. It’s no more a mere sprain than a disemboweling is a stomach upset.”
“Need I eviscerate any guards?” she asked, absent. Her other hand had settled on his hip, he noticed; he shifted a bit, letting his nightshirt catch on the sheets a little until it had hiked up somewhat. He hummed, musing, and shook his head, bumping his ear against her collarbone.
“Not unless it’s punishable by death to be stupid now,” he said, “and if we’re going to start hanging people for that –”
“I should have to start with everyone in this room,” she observed, dust-dry, tilting his head up. He stretched the last few inches to her mouth, quick gentle kisses, tracing the edge of a silent chuckle with his tongue.
“And wouldn’t that be a pity,” he said, nudging her back down to the pillow with his nose. “Besides, I think Costis was fond of this one, Aristogiton –”
“And may the Goddess forbid we eviscerate anyone Costis is fond of.” She kissed his forehead, landing possibly closer to his eyebrow than she had planned – a quick soft touch, fast as blinking. Eugenides curled a contemplative noise past the back of his throat, nuzzling at her collarbone.
“Well,” he said, soft against the edge of her dressing-gown, “the two of you do seem to have similar tastes.” He paused. “I should pick less painful ways of earning companionship.” He nudged the bare stump of his arm against her stomach, and she laughed, a little bitter. He kissed her throat, gentle; her fingers tightened on his hip, and he smirked, soft against the skin. “Mmmm?”
“Bastard,” she murmured, shifting on the bed. Loose strands of hair trailed over Eugenides’s cheek, and he shook his head like a damp dog, making a hideous face that made Irene roll her eyes and smile. Her hand hovered next to him for a moment before she brushed her hair and his own away from his eyes. He sighed, propped himself up on his elbow, looked at her.
“You’re quite lovely, you know,” he observed, matter-of-fact. She was, bright-eyed in the moonlight with her soft deep hair shining, her faint little smile like delicate glasswork and the way the blankets fell around the curve of her hip. She brushed at the blankets, and he couldn’t truly see if she blushed, but he would bet.
“Did you –” he started, bit his lip, and gestured vaguely at her midsection, swallowing hard. “Do you know any more?”
“Did – what would I have learned between this morning and now?” she asked him, curling her hand over her stomach as she blinked up on him. “I – it’s not as if my bleeding has returned, and there is nothing else that would be certain –”
“I know, I know.” He collapsed against the mattress, shaking his head. “Gods above. Have – have you said anything to Petrus?”
“No,” she admitted, biting her lip. “I should, I know, but there wasn’t the time. And…”
“It frightens you.”
“Well,” Eugenides observed, tugging her close to him, “gods know I’m scared out of my mind, so that makes two of us.”
“Somehow, that’s not especially reassuring,” she observed, curling herself over until she was settled half in the crook of his arm. She sighed, a long slow shake of her head, a smile slowly taking over the corners of her mouth. “A child. The gods help us.”
“I don’t know that my particular god has any especial affinity for children,” Eugenides observed, staring upwards as if the draperies of his bed might hold an answer. “At least not until they’re old enough to make off with their least favorite baron’s brand-new cloak pins.”
“I’m sure any children of yours will be precocious in that regard.”
“You’ll still be to blame for half of them,” he retorted, rolling sideways until he could lean in and kiss her. “A child. Let’s just hope they don’t look like their aunt.”
“I suspect the crooked nose is inevitable.” Irene leaned up to kiss him, a soft light thing until he curled his hand around her shoulder and pulled her over him, her knees framing his hips, her breasts pressed against his chest. She scraped her teeth along his lip; he pulled back just enough to nip at her chin, sucking at her jaw as much as he could manage before she pulled away. She never could bear the possibility of a hickey visible at court. Eugenides, naturally, did his utmost to show off his own.
“I love you,” he murmured, looking up at her. She closed her mouth over his.
“I love you, too,” she breathed against his lips.