The tavern near the barracks had been open for only a few hours when Max and four other soldiers of her company entered, in need of a drink and in want of a little mischief.
"Bartender," Max yelled and slapped a coin on the counter. "Your best ale for me and my company, if you please." She made sure the barman saw the gleaming medal on her shoulder, the Queen's emblem on her cap, before she took it off.
They had been training the new recruits for weeks and would be training them for a few more until they were ready to either march in the forces or be stationed at one of the border garrisons to defend the country that way. The country had been in a state of war with neighbouring nations for as long as anyone could remember, and serving the Queen by protecting the country in either open combat or defence posts was considered one of the most honourable occupations.
The barman returned with foaming glasses, which were distributed among the company with great cheer. Max raked a hand through her spiky blonde hair, still damp from the showers, and raised her glass to her mouth. Soldiering was thirsty work. She looked around at the other customers. It was the kind of clientele you'd find in any army tavern – old women who cam to reminisce about the days when they bore arms for the Queen; young men who went because their wives were in the Queen's forces and coming here made them feel closer to their wives; local civilians who went because it was the closest tavern to their houses.
Max closed her eyes wearily and downed half her glass in one gulp. Nothing much by way of entertainment.
Max was partway through a second ale and contemplating a third when the door opened and a young woman in a hijab entered.
There was something about the way she carreied herself, about how she sat apart from everyone and then just *was* apart from everyone, that intrigued Max. With the boldness that comes to a woman after long days and weeks of toil without any sweetness or company for respite, she walked up to the stranger, glass of ale in hand. "What's a pretty girl like you doing in a place like this?"
"Oh, you can see I'm pretty underneath this, can you now?"
Max bowed in mock respect. "Your eyes are an indication, and the way you move."
It was a bold thing to say, even for Max, even for an army tavern. She fully expected to be told to get lost, like so many times before. But instead, the woman cocked her head.
"Is that so."
"Sit with me a while, soldier." The woman indicated the chair opposite hers. Max blushed as she heard her company cheer from the table behind her. "Talk amongst yourselves," she yelled in their direction. That order earned a peal of laughter and a few whistles from around the table before the company ostensibly obeyed it.
"You're of the Queen's Company." The woman pointed at Max's medal.
"And proud of it," Max said, stroking the piece of metal with her fingers.
"You're from a line of soldiers, then?"
Max straightened. "Three generations of women who bore the Queens loyal service." She leaned back in her chair. "Besides, puts food on our men and children's tables, and you don't need to go to the universities to do it." She exhaled. "Sorry, madam. This was all about me, and I never introduced myself. The name's Max. Who do I have the pleasure of speaking to?"
The woman laughed at Max's sudden attempt at courtly language.
"I am Loraine. Pleased to make your acquaintance."
There was a confidence and ease about the woman that Max had rarely seen in a civilian. They fell into conversation and before long, one of Max's company laid a hand on her shoulder and told her it was about time to get back to barracks.
"We must part, soldier," the woman said and laid a hand on Max's. Max's mouth felt dry despite the ale.
"So we must. I should like to return to you though."
"Let me make sure of that."
And with that, the woman bared her face, leaned in towards Max and kissed her on the cheek. Her hand felt warm on top of Max's on the table. The encounter was sweet, and contained a promise.
"See you again, soldier," the woman said and rose. Max's eyes followed her out of doors. One of the company came up behind her and laid a hand on her shoulder.
"Who was *that*?"
"Oh, wouldn't you like to know." Max brushed off her companion's hand and made for the exit. It wasn't the first time she'd messed around with a beautiful stranger in a tavern, but something was different about this one. Max didn't care to examine it too closely, but her heart was beating faster than usual when she lay down on her cot in the barracks that night.
Sure enough, the woman was in the tavern when Max returned two nights after. Max greeted her and sat opposite her like the first time. Max talked to her about her whole life - growing up with her father, who looked after her while her mother was away fighting the Queen's wars. Her memories of her mother's brief stays at the house, of learning how to wield swords and bows as a young girl, of the pride on her mother's face every time she came home. It wasn't until she had to part from Loraine again that she realised that, while she had laid out her life story before this stranger, she still knew next to nothing about her.
They fell into a habit of meeting up after Max's training responsibilities after this. Talking to Loraine was a nice change from the sometimes mundane duties of barracks work. After a week, Max offered to walk Loraine home. They both knew that it wasn't just an offer of an arm and a companion until the doorstep. Still Max almost couldn't believe her luck when Loraine invited her inside and swept her up in a passionate kiss as the door clicked shut against Max's back. The veil of modesty across her face was gone.
There was something familiar in the woman's features, thought Max, something she felt she ought to recognise, but she couldn't put her finger on it. Loraine dragged a finger across her lips as if she could sense Max's thoughts, then let her hand wander further down and started unbuttoning Max's jacket.
"Lady," Max said and gently pushed against her, then made quick work of the buttons and shed the jacket on the floor. They kept kissing and touching as they made their way deeper into the house, shedding clothes along the way and finally landing on a bed twice the size of Max's spare cot in the barracks.
A thought rose in the back of Max's mind that there was something very unwise about this, but she brushed it aside. As long as she made it back to base in the morning, she told herself, nothing could be held against her.
She did make it back to base, not without the help of Loraine, who tied her tie in the morning and tucked a stray strand of Max's hair down behind her ear.
"Come back soon," Loraine said and kissed her one last time. Max did not doubt that she would be back.
It was a bit of a difficult one, balancing her wish to see Loraine with the obligation to show her face in the tavern, but somehow she managed. The first few times, she kept telling herself that it was only a distraction, only one more pretty face, one more (more or less) broken heart that she would leave behind on her warrior's path.
But as she kept going to Loraine's house, and as they kept being around each other, things started changing. Max found herself talking more, and more often, than making love to Loraine - although they still did that, of course. And Loraine - listened. Listened like no one ever had, to every story Max had to tell about growing up as a soldier's child, or the little village where her parents had lived, or how tiresome some of the new recruits could be.
"Can I write to you when you are gone, soldier?" Max was waking up, limbs tangled in sheets beside Loraine. For a second there, just after waking up, her happiness had been complete. Before she remembered where she was, and that tomorrow would see her in a different place, in different circumstances.
It was one of the things she hated about the warrior life. The only stability was in finding a husband or wife wiling to put up with long absences, and more often than not soldiers found wives within their own units and men willing to father and look after children.
"You can write to me at the field station at this posting," she said, taking up a pen to write down the address. "But do it soon. We might be moved, and then your letters shall never find me."
Loraine took the paper and pressed a kiss against Max's lips.
Max knew she could have offered to write to Loraine here, that Loraine had taken this step to spare Max the offer. It was a commitment Max did not feel she was ready to make.
"My letter shall race you there," Loraine whispered in Max's ear.
The letter arrived in a brown envelope, like every letter Max had ever received in camp. She smiled to herself when the officer gave it to her. She hadn't really expected Loraine to write and was delighted that she had. Max opened it when she was alone in barracks. The paper was fine under her fingers - velouté softness instead of the usual coarse grain of her family's letters.
And it had a royal watermark.
Max's first thought was that she'd bedded a member of the royal household – a lady-in-waiting, or perhaps an officer of the watch. She smiled to herself as she unfolded the paper.
Her smile didn't last long. By the time Max had finished the letter, the paper was shaking in her hands.
The Queen herself.
The Queen had given up body and soul to a mere foot soldier, had surrendered to Max's caresses, to meaningless words whispered on mornings after nights of pleasure.
It was a brief but intense campaign, and while there had been losses on both sides, Max's troops had succeeded in giving the enemy enough of a hiding to make them retreat and regroup for a while. Max and a number of the company were sent back for some leave, and from then to their home base responsibilities. Max wrote to the Queen at her lodgings and only half expected an answer. But sure enough, it came, containing an invitation to a rendezvous on the night Max was expected back.
Back at base, Max hastily threw off her luggage, changed into fresh clothes, and made her way to the Queen's lodgings. The Queen opened and let her in, her body language strangely distant.
Max wanted to embrace her lover, wanted nothing more than to sink into the bed with her and forget about the campaign, but there were things that needed to be said first. They looked at one another for a long time in silence. Finally, Max opened her mouth, but still no words would come to her. She bowed her head, then sank down on one knee.
"My sovereign majesty." She looked up at the Queen's face. "I'm your humble servant."
The Queen took a step in Max's direction and knelt down as well. Her face was very close to Max's and Max could see she was keeping very tight control on her features. She took Max by the hand and raised her up again until she stood opposite the Queen on her own two feet.
"You are so much more than that." They embraced and again there was silence.
"So what do we do now?" Max tried to sound playful, but she did not feel it.
"Like I said in my letter, you can't tell anyone." The Queen's fingertips brushed Max's.
"I understand that," said Max. "Apart from that."
"Apart from that, I shall do what I can to protect one of my soldiers. I hear you've distinguished yourself in this last campaign."
Max grinned. "My reputation precedes me, then?"
"The reputation of your battlefield prowess, certainly," the Queen said. There was a suggestion of a smile on her face now. The awkward tension that Max had felt mere minutes ago seemed dispelled.
"Have you not sworn allegiance and faith to me?"
"I have, Your Majesty."
The Queen took Max's hand, laced their fingers together, and kissed them. "Then I shall pledge my faith to you, for as long as you uphold your allegiance to me."
A warm feeling spread inside Max's stomach and from there to her chest as the Queen leaned in and kissed her. Max closed her eyes and surrendered to the touch. As they made their way deeper inside the house, she tried to get used to the thought that, improbable as it was, there was a real chance here to have something in her life - aside from metal insignia - that would last.
The Queen proved to be correct about Max's skill on a battlefield, and so two years later found them late at night in Max's new officer's quarters.
"You've done well in my service," the Queen said and nodded to the walls.
"Your love motivated me, Your Majesty," Max said and bowed to her. The officer's insignia gleamed from her shoulders like freshly minted coins.
"We should celebrate."
"There's a crowd assembling tomorrow night, I believe. We'll have ale and cards, and a couple of smokes if we're lucky." Max cocked her head to one side and turned one corner of her mouth up.
"I think I have something a bit different in mind," said the Queen and bit her lip.
Max looked at her and her heart constricted with how much she loved her Queen. They kissed – that first kiss after their enforced separations was always the sweetest, when they were both starved for it but neither wanted to be the first to show it, when with anyone else, Max would have shoved them against a wall at this point. But restraint and respect must be shown to one's monarch at all times, and though Max knew that the Queen was not some delicate flower, it was also wise not to run the risk of betraying their relationship through leaving visible marks.
This didn't stop Max from sucking love bites into the Queen's inner thighs, from dragging fingernails across soft flesh just the right side of roughly.
The Queen in turn proved to know exactly how to celebrate a soldier's entry into the ranks of officerhood.
Two years turned into three turned into ten, and Max found herself posted from raging battlefields to comfortable border stations and back again. The war waited for no one, but the Queen and her always found the time to be together on the few opportunities they had each year. The Queen's letters followed Max everywhere, and more than once Max drew strength from the thought that the very woman she was fighting for was also the one who would welcome her home with a comforting embrace and an open ear.
It was a good life, for a while, but as the years turned and many of Max's fellow officers started wearing marriage bands and leaving the company for months and years at a time to have children, Max found herself yearning for this kind of stability. It was a crazy thought, to even think about asking for the Queen's hand in marriage. It was inappropriate, certainly, for one of Max's origins. It wasn't as though it had never occurred to her through the years, but she had always dismissed it.
She returned in the tenth year with a brand new stripe on her shoulder which marked her out as a general. She turned the subject over in her head and, though part of her was still amazed that the Queen had not cast her off for better prospects, there was also a part of her that thought that maybe the Queen was just waiting for Max to take that step. True, it was customary for the higher-ranking person to do this, but it wasn't as if their relationship followed any of the established customs.
And so, Max changed into her dress uniform, combed and shined her hair, and made her way to the Queen's lodgings.
The Queen looked her up and down and they embraced as was usual for them. After a long, lingering kiss that was threatening to deepen into something more, Max gently pushed away from her and got down on her knees.
She could feel the Queen's eyes on her as she knelt on the cool floor. She took a breath, looked up, and asked, "Will you marry me?"
The Queen did not react for a long time. Then she laughed nervously and grabbed Max by the hand.
"Max. Max, stand up, please."
Max tried to rise, but found that she couldn't. She suddenly felt sick to her stomach. She let go of the Queen's hand and let her own drop to her side.
"Majesty," she said, addressing the Queen formally like she hadn't done since the early days of their courtship.
"Max," the Queen said. Her voice was very tender. She knelt down in front of Max, who still had not moved an inch, and bent her head. She touched Max and lifted her chin up to face her. Their eyes met, and Max saw that the Queen's were bright and shiny.
"I love you very much," the Queen whispered. "But I can't."
The words, spoken harshly through gritted teeth, fell on the floor between them and created a fence. Or, rather, the fence had always been there, and Max had just convinced herself that it wasn't. There was no need to ask the Queen why.
Max bit back the emotion that was threatening to choke her and looked the Queen squarely in the face. "Majesty, I always thought of you, no matter where I was fighting, and against who."
"I am your queen."
"Other soldiers were fighting for their families, for their husbands and wives and children. For the little village that they wish to return to. I was always fighting for you, just for you."
"Max, did you really think...?" The Queen's voice was suddenly cold, withdrawn. But Max wasn't willing to let her go to a place she wouldn't be reached, at least not comfortably. She grabbed her physically, fisting her hands in the silk of her dress. She wanted to force her to face the physical reality of what her words meant.
"I have nothing besides this," Max said, shaking her. "I've walked to the ends of the earth for you, I've given you my youth, and my health, and my love, and I would do it all again for one word of love from your lips." With this, she let the Queen go.
"I have nothing," Max repeated. Her voice was breaking, the tears she'd been keeping inside now running free. She was not ashamed.
The Queen gathered up her dress and rose, shaking. She reached out to touch Max but Max batted her hand away with a yelp. "I love you so much," she said, "but I cannot make you my consort. I would love to, Max, truly I would. But you're more useful to me - to the country - on a battlefield than by my side, in my palace," she said finally.
"Is that the truth," Max said. The Queen just looked at her. With a sudden flash of determination, Max got up. "All right then. I'm not fighting for you anymore." She removed her uniform jacket and dropped it on the floor, followed by her cap, and uniform trousers. "There's your usefulness. You pledged faith to me for as long as I uphold my allegiance. But my allegiance was misplaced." She unbuttoned her shirt and added it to the pile of clothes. "I'm deserting Her Majesty's Army. How about that for my marriage proposal."
The Queen looked down in silence. Finally, she met Max's gaze with tear-filled eyes and shook her head. Max thought she could feel her heart falling into pieces inside her chest. "So that is what it comes down to in the end," Max said, with steel in her voice. "All these years, and yet you still worry more about what people will say about the queen marrying who she loves than what your heart wants, or mine. The Queen can't marry a lowly soldier from the wrong side of the road, can she now? Not even if she works hard and becomes a general?"
The Queen was weeping silently, unable to offer verbal resistance or counter Max's accusations.
"Were you ever going to tell me?"
"I was hoping you'd get tired of me before I had to."
The Queen wiped her face and looked at Max. Max gave a hollow laugh, then twisted her face into a pained grimace. When the Queen spoke, her words were like strikes of a whip against an already open wound.
"Max, you know what happens to deserters."
"Yes." Max looked at the Queen in defiance. "But since the country 's more important to you than your personal relationships, that shouldn't affect you, now, should it?"
The Queen walked up to her and seized her with a strength Max hadn't credited. She pressed a hard kiss against her lips. Max could taste the salt and iron on their faces as she opened her mouth. One last time, she looked into the eyes of the Queen, this fair yet strangely heartless creature, and still no other thought would come to her than the conviction that she would do it all over again, exactly the same.
Finally, the kiss broke. "Is this really what you want?" the Queen whispered into Max's skin. Max detached herself and stood upright, with her hands behind her back. "Yes."
The Queen opened the door and called out for her guards.