Fourteen months ago.
The indirect light filtered in, dusty and distant, from the crack of the tall window that managed to be above the line of the bed curtains. It played over two resting lovers, touching some places to throw them in relief against the soft shadows of other places. The swell of the woman’s bared breasts and the rise of her fair cheek stood out particularly well. Her long lashes and thick hair shone a well-brushed black.
A necklace, so beautiful and delicate, hung from her slim neck, falling unevenly to one side as she lay curled. It caught the light and threw sparkling patterns, cells of red in diamonds and circles, over her flesh. The gold still gleamed and the odd, night unidentifiable red stone still glinted. She’d always taken good care of her singular possession of value, after all.
The woman sighed softly in her sleep, shifting her weight slightly and pressing closer into the warmth provided by the man behind her. His figure rose hulking behind her, a massive man holding a tiny woman safe as could be. The light dusted over his shoulder and arm, thick with muscle, on top of the blanket, curling around to rest his hand on the woman’s soft belly. His thumb traced small, idle circles over the sheets.
Equius cupped Aradia’s sleeping form with perfect care, laying on his side and curling his great bulk around her protectively. She never seemed small when they were sparring, tossing barbs verbal or literal, or when they slept together in hot flurries of blanket (or hard against furniture of any sort, as the case may have been). But at times like this... when she was drawn almost into a ball, doubled quite in on herself... Equius was reminded of how delicate she really could be. A slight young woman, muscle and curves notwithstanding, who reached not even to his shoulder.
They were hidden away here, wrapped up in bed in Aradia’s room, deep inside the Clocktower. The Clocktower was Scratch’s domain, tucked into a cove along the rocky Eastern shore of the Empire. It was so far north that it was almost in the Voidlands, Equius’s domain. But it was not quite there, and it was a solid two week ride for him to get there.
But it never felt like two weeks when he traveled there from the Stronghold. That probably had something to do with Aradia.
Equius only knew of this place because of her, after all. After a year of imprisonment, she had memorized the place well, and she studied hard what her master taught her. Scratch may have accused her of being no true mage, but she knew what she was doing enough to each herself things she needed to know. Many months of late nights in Scratch’s personal library had given her instructions. She could use her knowledge of the Clocktower (and her knowledge of Equius and how he thought) to send him images, pictures of where she was and how to reach her.
The original plan had been escape. He found his way to her, guided through the treacherous maze of cold marsh and rock that guarded the fortress, and she snuck out onto the fens to meet him... only to discover that she physically could not do so. There was some boundary, invisible, or else a tether that tied her to the Clocktower... and to Scratch. It became quickly apparent that there would be no leaving for her, with or without Equius.
Possibly more alarming still was the fact that Equius could neither come nor leave without guidance from Aradia. She had to mentally direct his every step, every single time. He was totally unable to memorize the path, and the few times they tried were met with utter disaster. He could visit her, in secret within Aradia’s apartments to hide him from Scratch or any of his minions... but she could not leave with him.
Nor could he stay with her forever. The danger was too great, and he had a corner of the kingdom to govern. Their visits lasted only a day or two at a time, and then he had to ride his horse as hard as he dared to get back before he was too missed. Luckily with Aradia’s aid his travel time was halved, so it was not as dire as it might have been. Still, after a monthly pattern of this for ten months, it seemed odd to the other residents of the Stronghold. They would have to be more careful.
His large hand reached up, mindful and surprisingly gentle, to pet the wild dark mess of his lover’s hair. Equius wound a delicate curl around his first two fingers, careful not to pull, not to wake the beautiful sleeping woman. His flesh stood out, paler and more blue-toned, nearly ashen, against the warm flush of her. He was angles, flats and plains, where she was soft rolling hills and curved lines.
From the first time he saw her, Lord Zahhak had not once doubted Aradia’s beauty. And after that first night, he had never once questioned that he loved her, passionately, intense as every emotion he had ever repressed. And being returned to her rekindled the fire he’d felt. He had missed her so much... just thinking on being parted from her again brought on a near physical pain, a tightening in his ribs constricting his chest terribly.
His hands abandoned her hair to trace a delicate line down her cheek to her neck to her shoulder, moving along the path of curves nature drew for him to follow. Her skin was so soft. Had it always been so? Had the pasture peasant somehow managed to preserve herself through years of hard work and several months of army life? Or was this another work of magic from that pale little man, some magic trickery? It didn’t feel like trickery. Everything about her felt so terribly, terribly real. Almost too real to be real, in an odd way... that she was returned to him... Equius had to question his luck. She seemed too good to be true.
“We could just lay here, you know.”
Equius looked down at the woman in his arms, not responding in words, only drawing small circles on the soft flesh above her elbow. Her warm eyes were open, staring mildly off into space, as if they could look right through the heavy green damask curtains.
“Lay here, in this lovely soft feather bed,” Aradia went on, her voice a small, slightly hoarse murmur, “Ignore the politics. The games. And your Empress. And my master. We could burrow so deeply under the sheets that they never find us.”
Equius had to crack a small smile. “An escape plan, I see,” he commented mildly, “You’ve put thought into this.” His own voice was a low rumble, a little parched.
Aradia closed her eyes and exhaled heavily, slipping back further into the warmth of Equius. “Just enough to have no backup.”
It was after dawn, but not by much. The light still had grayish undertones, though it was lightening up and becoming more yellow. The fire had gone out sometime in the night, giving the room a chill that drove them both deeper beneath the covers. There were people waiting for them, Scratch for Aradia and Equius’s people back at the Stronghold. There were expectations to be met, tasks to fulfill. But at that moment, neither of them could be bothered to rouse themselves to care.
“We’ll have to rise at some point,” Equius rumbled softly, “You have to return to Scratch, and I have to return to the Stronghold.”
“What if we didn’t?” Aradia replied after a moment. He turned to examine the women. She still wasn’t looking at him. “We could let him win. Scratch.” Equius stirred. He didn’t think he liked where she was going with this. “What if we worked with him, bent to what he said to do and willingly agreed. You could offer your aid in his plan. And then...”
Aradia rolled over so that she was laying on her back, one of Equius’s arms beneath her, supporting her neck. Her stare shifted to the space above them, one swath of canopy strung across the four posts of the bed, and then the stone of the ceiling overhead.
“And then he’d probably reward you, for going over willingly. He doesn’t need to destroy the Empire, just own it. I don’t know what his master wants, but why would he bother with the Voidlands? They’re too far out for them to be of any true use to him.” She’d put thought into this, that much was clear. “When his army arrives and his lord, Scratch can’t possibly want me for a servant anymore. He complains about me endlessly as it is; I imagine he’d be pleased to have me out of his hair.” She turned to look at her lover at last. “I could go with you. We could be together. Just as we’d wanted, just like we planned it before. It would be so easy.”
Equius propped himself up on one elbow, half-leaning over Aradia. Red brown eyes searched for an answer in the dark blue looking down at her. “I swore fealty when I became a lord, Aradia,” Equius replied, as if it were so simple a discussion as that. “I swore an oath to defend the Empress and her Empire with my lands and my life, if need arises. I cannot fling her aside or betray her, regardless of my own desires.”
“Nothing would be different for you,” Aradia argued blankly, “Your position would scarce change. One master is very like another.”
“But they are not the same. I cannot do what you ask of me.” Equius removed his arm from beneath the woman’s head and sat up. The sheets pooled around his waist as he leaned forward.
The scar on his back stood out quite plainly against his skin. Where he’d been tan, he was now far paler, though the edges smoothed seamlessly together, blessedly not raised or turned into a shine or keloid. It didn’t pain him overmuch of late, and that was a pleasant thing for which he was quite grateful.
Aradia sat up a second after him, leaning close. It had become a mark of great fascination for her. Delicate, slim fingers reached carefully out to trace the air along the borders, and then the thing itself. Equius did not jump or flinch from her touch. He was a warrior, and he knew her well. He’d supposed what she would do the moment she sat up.
The pads of her fingers (softer, now, than they’d been three years hence; her imprisonment had softened much of her, god food and no rough work gentling her skin and rounding her curves) slipped along his skin, curious and careful. Equius let her do as she wished. It would have seemed, for the outside observer, that they were a bird and a lion - some great beast full of danger being toyed with by some tiny creature too far below his notice. But of course this was anything but true, and they both knew it.
Equius was a warhorse. Dangerous? Yes, very, in his own element. He had power. He could crush someone easily if given the cause or the order to do so. But he was no predator.
It was hard to say just what Aradia was. Once, she may have been a sheep. But she’d quickly shed that wool. Now maybe she was a bird of prey. Beautiful and dangerous, sharpness hidden in her mouth and her hands. She was deadly, that was for sure.
But at least for now she did not choose (and, yes, of course it was by her choice alone and little else) to use that sharpness against Equius. He was ever at her indulgence, and for now he was indulging her.
She traced the circle on his back several times before leaning in to kiss him softly at the dead center of the scar, and then to lay against him. Her front pressed into him, chilled skin warming and soothing chilled skin. Her cheek distorted as she pressed the side of her face into him, wrapping her arms around his torso and pulling close.
Outside the window, the glass barely muffled the choppy northern sea. The Clocktower stood on a cliff even more sheer than the ones around the grand cities of Beforus or the Aquarium, jagged and deadly. The cliffs and the castle above it were made of thick stone, rich with copper deposits. The copper and the salty sea had reacted over the decades to turn everything a pale, ghostly green that reminded Equius of sickness. He hated to think of Aradia - his Aradia - trapped in such a place.
“Did I ever thank you for it?” Equius asked, just to have something to break the silence.
Aradia raised a brow, and pressed so near he felt her question.
“Saving me,” he explained.
The woman found one of his arms with her hand and though she could not enclose the bicep with her small hand, she squeezed tight. “You never needed to,” she replied, “I know you’re grateful. And it was an even exchange, besides. You’d already saved me.”
He shook his head. His long black hair curtained his face from the manner in which he leaned forward. “That was nothing. I shoved you. I didn’t sacrifice my freedom for you.”
“But you would have, if you’d been able.”
Yes. He knew that. The pair faded into silence again.
The quality of the sunlight was changing slowly, letting the room turn yellow in the light from the tall windows. The bed grew comparatively shadowed from the curtains.
“If you won’t betray her,” Aradia said at great length, “Then don’t.” She took in a shivery breath. “You and I could run. We can escape. Hide out until the danger is done. And then we’ll find what place we can. We don’t have to have a castle. We can hide where and how we need, for as long as we must.”
The grip of her arms and her hand intensified, to the point where Equius was shocked. He could feel her hurting him, nearly bruising with her ferocity. “As long as we aren’t separated again, nothing else matters.”
He had never expected her to be this possessive. But after last night and her words, he supposed he couldn’t be surprised. Scratch had... changed things in her. Gone within and stirred things that never were meant to be stirred. And Equius wasn’t quite certain how he felt about it.
But he could not deny that he wanted them to be together. Close and inseverable. As he was sure that they were meant to be. He’d felt that since the moment he’d met her that they were meant. The fact that Aradia - his bold peasant beauty, his passionate lowborn goddess, the glorious woman he’d found in the mud and dragged into place as the glorious lady she ought to have been in the first place - finally, finally thought so too encouraged him.
Aradia pulled back and leaned over, looking at him with some concern. It took him a moment to realize why: his heart was racing. He hadn’t even realized how worked up he was getting himself.
“...Equius?” she asked softly, tipping her head to one side.
“How?” he asked suddenly, sounding nearly strangled.
She looked at him as if he had asked her the simplest question in the world. “We kill him,” she murmured, so soft it was as if she thought her master in the same room with them. “We end his life. He expects magic from me; he thinks that if I make an attempt it will be sparks and poisions. But he wouldn’t think I’d be brash. I’m not armed, after all... there aren’t weapons here, not in that sense.” She smiled as she thought of all the training Equius had given her.
“A knife,” she went on, “If you can give me a small blade, easily hidden... I can plunge it into his back when he least expects it. And then he’ll be dead and his curses broken. And then we can run.”
She seemed so sure.
Equius took a moment to breathe and retake control of his voice and his body before nodding. It was not foolproof, but it was by far the best chance they would have. “We will find a way,” he agreed, turning to look at Aradia. And then, moving quickly, he reached out and grabbed her, his large hands rough on her arms as he took her and dragged her close. She stiffened for a moment, but softened when he clutched her to his broad chest, grip hard and desperate.
“I will not be parted from you again so easily,” he swore in a low growl. They held each other tight and close and nearly painfully for a time, perhaps for too long, though neither kept track of the time spent.
“I wouldn’t let you if you wanted to,” Aradia replied in a whisper into Equius’s ear that twisted his stomach.
When they did draw apart at last they kissed, hard and desperate and in such closeness that they seemed to be in a battle for one another’s breath. But that, too, faded after a time and they relaxed into gentle touches. Aradia stroked the line of Equius’s chin and jaw as he carded his fingers through her long hair.
It would be done. They’d make it. For once, Equius felt he could be certain of something again.