Irene hadn’t been sure what to expect. She was fully dressed when the door to her room opened, allowing her new king to slip inside. He sat down next to her and she sat stiffly, unyielding and uncompromising, waiting for him to make the first move and unsure how to react when he did.
He leaned towards her ear, and murmured softly so that she had to strain to hear.
“You need to reduce your guard.”
It was easy to believe that she might have misheard or suffered some strange form of auditory hallucination. She looked at him disbelievingly, but no, he was grinning as though he had made some particularly witty joke.
“What,” she managed, her tones icy, “did you just say?”
“You need to reduce your guard.” He didn’t even have the decency to look embarrassed by bringing such a proposal to her on her wedding night. “By around half at least I would say.”
It wasn’t that political considerations were ever far from Irene’s mind, even on this night. And perhaps in a marriage formally made to glue a treaty together this was how it was always going to be. Still she found herself angry; not so much because he had brought it up but because he had taken the trouble to get so close to her before doing so.
“And I suppose Eddisian soldiers will only be too happy to come fill in the gaps?” she enquired sharply. “Or were you just planning to put me on display; bait for a trap for Sounis or the Mede and they can race to see which can get to me first?”
He did at least look a little taken aback at that suggestion. “I would never put you at risk,” he said hastily. Irene was just about to mentally class his suggestion as one made out of stupidity rather than malice when he added, “Besides, you have to admit that your guards are hardly going to prevent that anyway if I was already able to waltz in and take you from under their noses.”
It took her from irritation to simmering fury and she wrenched herself away from him to prevent herself from reacting the way she wanted to. The wedding was over but there were still formalities to be attended to in the morning. It would be unseemly if the new king attended them with the imprint of his queen’s hand across his face.
It could only have helped if Eugenides had had the decency not to follow her. “Right from under their noses,” he repeated mockingly, only a half-step behind her. “It doesn’t matter if you have a soldier in every alcove if they are all so stupid that they don’t notice--”
Irene reached for something - anything! - that would quiet him. The inkwell just happened to be within reach, and fit perfectly within her hand. She grasped it, turned, and aimed it somewhat more accurately than she intended.
Perhaps they should both have considered themselves lucky that Eugenides had a lifetime’s experience of needing to be light on his feet. He stepped hastily to the side, allowing the heavy inkwell to fly past his ear and crash heavily into the wall opposite. For a moment there was silence, neither of them seeming quite sure how to react.
“Well.” Eugenides said sardonically, seeming to recover his composure first. “I did think you might have waited a little longer before your next attempt at killing me, my love.”
Irene opened her mouth to reply - ah, how she wanted to reply! She wanted to rant and threaten and order him out of her bedchamber and express in the finest detail just how foolish she had been not to kill him the first time the opportunity arose. The words were there, queuing eagerly on her tongue, and then she looked at him more closely and suddenly everything was broken. Clever words and sarcastic tones could not on their own cover that Eugenides was shaking, physically trembling, even as he maintained his irritatingly smug expression.
She could cope with his comments. She could manage the annoying tone which insisted he knew all her kingdom’s tiny weaknesses and was far more interested in pointing them out than fixing them. But her new husband was afraid of her still, and much though she felt that should have been reassuring Irene abruptly found that it was nothing she had ever wanted. There was a sharp pain suddenly; a feeling of something precious she had smashed carelessly before she had ever even held it and now could never repair the same way. She had not cried for her father; she had certainly never cried for her first husband but she turned away from Eugenides as her eyes prickled treacherously and a feeling in her throat thickened.
“Irene?” And again he followed her - what did it take to stop the boy trailing behind her? “Irene!” He didn’t try to grab at her - perhaps an inkwell aimed at his head did at least teach some caution. Instead he reached for her cautiously and Irene let him embrace her, leaning her head against his.
“We could have it annulled,” she said very quietly. “It’s not too late.”
It was too late. A wedding that had never existed would have been one thing; a wedding publically annulled would be an embarrassment that would create a weakness in both kingdoms.
Eugenides was quiet for a moment. “Is that what you want?”
She laughed tiredly, feeling as though this day had stolen a decade from her. “It’s what you want.” Deliberately she ran her fingers down her face to feel him flinch and was startled to feel the dampness there. She dropped her hand as though the tears had burnt her. “Marry someone else,” she suggested. “Someone who doesn’t terrify you.”
Another man might have tried to deny it, but it was difficult to deny something they both knew so well. “I don’t want to,” Eugenides said instead flatly.
“Are you so invested in marrying me to make us both miserable?” It was what she had originally suspected, but Eddis had been so firm in her denials that she had doubted herself. Now it was hard not to wonder.
“No!” His denial was quickly but firmly given. “Irene, I didn’t marry you to make you miserable.”
“Then why--” she demanded disbelievingly, because of course he had. Of course he had, and he’d come to their wedding bed with the intent to start there.
But he was quiet for a moment before he said, “You know, I’m not sure I know a way to discuss things without starting arguments.”
It actually had a ring of truth to it, a touch of honest bemusement. Irene was not a woman easily moved to laughter but that caught her off guard, and she started to chuckle despite herself.
“That’s better,” Eugenides approved. “I wasn’t sure you knew how to laugh. If I can’t discuss this -- let me show you.”
She might have asked how, but he was moving towards the window before she could get the words out, stepping out onto the ledge as though it were no more than a stroll into the gardens. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she said sharply.
He only turned to grin at her. “It’s hardly my first time,” he reminded her. Perhaps it was intended as a joke but she flinched at the reminder and his expression softened again as he held out his hand. “Come on.”
Out on the narrow ledge where it was so easy for someone to fall - or be pushed. It would only have been sane to refuse but something in his expression challenged her and she took the offered hand defiantly. Only once she was out on the ledge did she think to wonder -- if he was using his hand to steady her, what was he holding to the wall with?
It was too dark for Eugenides to have possibly seen her expression, but he guessed what she was thinking anyway. “Thieves don’t fall,” he reminded her, “unless their gods drop them.”
“And kings?” she queried, her voice surprisingly steady considering her grip on his hand.
He laughed again, sharply. “Oh, they fall all the time,” he said drily. “Frequently when their gods drop them. Not usually literally though. Look down there.”
She did not in anyway want to look, but she also didn’t want to admit that. Reluctantly she squinted down at the tiny light far below. “What is it I’m meant to be seeing?”
“Your guard,” Eugenides said. “You see how they’re not shooting at us?”
That thought had in fact occurred to her, and she searched for a suitable response.
“You’re thinking it’s too dark for them to see us, and that’s true, but you know in that case they wouldn’t see an assassin either,” Eugenides spoke her thoughts for her. “You’re thinking that you have a weapon in your room, and that’s true too, but in which case why have guards?”
“Not all assassins climb through windows in the dead of night,” she retorted.
“They don’t,” he agreed readily. “Some of them pay off guards already here to shoot their monarch in the back right out in the day.”
Someone else might have torn him to shreds for questioning her guards’ loyalty, but Attolia would have died years earlier had she made a habit of not listening to things she would prefer not to hear. “What do you know?” she demanded instead.
She thought he shrugged - in the dark it was hard to tell. “Nothing yet,” he admitted. “But tomorrow, or the next day, who knows? The more guards you have, the more possibilities there are for bribery. Most seem relentlessly loyal - or at least, not stupid enough to betray you, but it only takes one.”
“So to prevent my back being stabbed, you would leave my front open to attack?”
“No,” he said firmly. “But you don’t need numbers to prevent assassination. You need numbers should it come to a battle - but if there is a battle here in the palace what has happened to the rest of Attolia? What you need to prevent assassination is smart guards - are you sure that those you have all meet that standard?”
She wasn’t and it made sense, even if she didn’t want it to. She wanted to have seen that argument herself, not have it explained to her by a boy who had barely been king for five minutes. She brooded on that for mere minutes before she saw the solution. “Convince Teleus,” she told him firmly.
“Convince Teleus?” His tone was startled; perhaps he hadn’t expected her to give way so easily and now she did want to laugh. He would learn for himself just how easy that task wouldn’t be.
“If you walk in and lay off half my guard, you’ll create for yourself the kind of discord and disloyalty that betrayal thrives on,” she pointed out, suspecting already that he had intended to leave that task to her. Oh no, my king, she told him silently, grimly. You wanted this suggestion carrying out, you learn to do the dirty work yourself. “Convince the guard captain they love, and you’ll convince the men.”
“All right,” he said, and repeated it a moment later more confidently. “All right. If you’ll allow me to, I can do that.”
“Wait,” she cautioned him. “You haven’t heard my half of the agreement.”
“I thought convincing Teleus was your half?” he protested, but there was laughter in his voice as though he were humouring her.
“Convincing Teleus is what you need to do to make your half workable,” she said firmly. “No. If you want me to reduce my guard, and leave me open to attack then I should hope you’ll be doing more to prevent that than trusting to the cleverness of the guards left.”
She didn’t expect the kiss in the dark. His lips brushed her cheek lightly, his hand gripping her firmly enough to prevent any danger of her startling and stumbling from the ledge. “You don’t need any deal for me to keep you safe,” he murmured. “I’d do that whether you asked me or no.”
Pretty words, pretty promises, but Irene had seen too much to trust vague promises in the dark. “Stop them for me,” she said, needing something to hold him to. “Any of them. Within-- a year?” It was, she knew, a completely unreasonable request for a new king still finding his feet but she made it anyway.
Again she heard his soft laughter. “For you, Irene, within six months,” he promised. “The most dangerous of your barons. Not because I want to reduce your guards, but because you asked.”
She didn’t believe him. She couldn’t believe him. On a dark ledge outside her room, hundreds of feet from the ground, Attolia agreed to it anyway because she wanted to believe him and for one night that was enough.