Anne didn’t like chaos, as a rule. Even idle gossip rolled her eyes, and any excitement that interrupted her routine turned her stomach. However, she revelled in the madness Ann’s announcement sparked in the royal household. Emotions flared, servants sprinted from room to room to avoid a tongue-lashing from on-edge nobles, and Anne walked through the proverbial flames, utterly amused by the display.
“You,” Anne called to a servant passing by. The servant looked up at her with wide eyes. “Where’s the queen?”
Anne was purposefully vague. The tension in the castle was so thick everyone’s heads seemed clouded by it. Even clear, basic questions seemed to catch servants off guard. Anne’s heavy footfalls scattered them like mice.
“Um, I—uh—she’s in the throne ro—I mean, sorry, Ser. Which queen?”
Oh, good. Finally, a servant with their head on straight.
“The cute one,” Anne answered cheekily. “With the bright smile, and the tiniest gleam in her eye.”
The servant blushed. Anne’s smile widened; the reaction of a servant was telling of their master. That this girl was so scandalized indicated the royal family’s outrage could be multiplied by a thousand. Anne could hardly contain her mirth, and laughed.
“She’s, um, in the sitting room nearest the dining hall, I think,” the servant said.
Anne nodded curtly in lieu of a thank-you. The emotions in the castle were a confused amalgam of repulsion, fear, and excitement-tainted-by-guilt. The royal family’s dramatic reaction was funny on the surface, but reminded Anne deep down of the same cowardice that had turned Mariana against her.
The thought wormed its way into her head now and again; Ann’s bravery was fleeting in the past. Would she falter, now that things got tough again? She could take it all back, if she wanted.
No. Anne wouldn’t let anxiety rob her of her joy before it even started. The Sutherland’s and Ann’s family were foolish and limited by pointless tradition—it was funny to watch them struggle to accept Ann’s decision. Humorous, and nothing else.
Just outside the room, Anne paused. Gentle voices and more than a little laughing filtered into the hallway. Anne grimaced; she liked Elizabeth, but Ann’s sister could be hard to get rid of, especially when she’s had a bit to drink—or maybe Ann’s company was Catherine, which would lead to a far more awkward conversation. Why couldn’t Ann just be alone?
When Anne opened the door, the chatter stopped, and Ann and Eliza turned to look at her, the latter quite annoyed.
“Erm, hello. What’s going on?” Anne said, looking between the two of them. “Why do I feel like this is about me?”
“Sweetheart, don’t look so upset ,” Ann teased.
“We’re talking about the wedding, not you. Well, you too, I guess,” Eliza admitted, narrowing her eyes at Anne over the back of her chair.
“I’m not ‘upset.’ And what are you doing here, besides interrupting the queen? You should be in the stables, or trying to find Tiny.”
“I’ll have you know that you’re the one interrupting our meeting,” Eliza said.
“We’re discussing some very serious matters. I wanted her opinion,” Ann confirmed, grinning. “For example, we’re discussing your title.”
“‘Queen Consort,’” Eliza informed Anne. “Not as flashy or powerful-sounding as it should be. ‘King’ sounds stupid, since you’re a girl. I think you should forego the title altogether and stick with ‘knight.’”
Eliza was far too comfortable speaking her mind around the queen. Like Tib , Anne thought, a wave of nausea washing through her. Gods, I have to stop this immediately .
“Firstly, this is the last time you ever refer to me as ‘girl,’” Anne scolded firmly. Applied to her, the word tasted foul. “And—‘Ser Anne Lister, Knight’ really sounds better to you than ‘Ser Anne Lister, Queen Consort?’”
“You hate ‘girl,’ but like ‘consort?’ Uh huh, okay,” Eliza countered, rolling her eyes.
“One more word, and you’ll spend the entirety of the wedding throwing petals in front of the kids’ feet,” Anne threatened.
Eliza scoffed, glancing at Ann. Then a smile split her face. “But Ser Lister, we didn’t even tell you what your honorific will be. We’ve decided. There will be no more voting,” she said.
“Why do I feel like I’m being tortured?” Anne said solemnly.
“I can’t pretend to claim ownership of the idea,” Ann said. She made a choking sound. Late enough to be embarrassing, Anne realized she was stifling a giggle. “In a week’s time, everyone will be calling you—“
“—Ser majesty,” Eliza finished, barely discernible in a fit of laughter.
“Right. I’ll go marry Catherine instead, then,” Anne said.
She pretended to walk back out of the door, but barely made it to the frame when Ann jumped up from her seat, weaving their fingers together and clinging to her arm. Ann rested her head on Anne’s shoulder, looking up at her with those clear baby blue eyes. Anne kissed her forehead gently.
“Don’t go,” she said, a hint of laughter twirling the words.
“Okay, well, meeting’s over,” Anne said, looking pointedly at Eliza. “That’s a command, squire. Scram.”
The squire grimaced, cursed with the barest hints of what was about to happen, then covered her eyes with both hands and sprinted out of the door.
When she was gone, Anne raised her eyebrow. She said, “I’m sorry she keeps bothering you. You can tell her to bugger off, you know. You should —she’s getting the idea that you like her.”
“I know! She’s nice, and it’s nice to have someone excited about the wedding, for once,” Ann admitted shyly.
Anne pitied her betrothed; the excitement of a wedding should be infectious. Her friends and sister should have tripped over themselves to decide her dress, the flowers, the decoration—instead, Ann and she pried permissions from the Sutherlands piece by tiny piece, like plucking sticky candy from a toddler’s fist.
Anne wanted to complain about all the fuss, but for Ann, she’d give anything for it. She hadn’t expected the Sutherlands—or even Ann’s family—to treat the occasion appropriately, but that didn’t infuriate her any less.
“Isn’t Elizabeth excited?” Anne said.
“Oh, she is. But she has to be a bit reserved because—you know. It’s not her fault,” Ann said. She let out a deep sigh. “But, um, let’s not—can we not dwell on that? Unless you came to talk about the wedding? Or did Prince Sutherland say anything about the dukes…?”
Anne shook her head. The dukes still hadn’t responded to their queen. Not a single one, even to tell her “no.” They were cowards, the lot of them, and Anne wanted to personally oversee the execution of each one—or, at least, give them a good taste of her fist.
“Well, as it turns out, I’m here on official business as well,” Anne said, changing the subject entirely. She leaned back against the doorframe, easing Ann into the same relaxed energy.
It worked. Ann smiled. “Oh?”
“And it’s a bit dire, I’m afraid. We’re running out of time—we need to practice our wedding kiss.”
Ann threw her head back with laughter. She smoothed Anne’s shoulders with her palms, absently at first, then squeezed and rolled her muscles, breathing heavily.
Ann looked dreamily up at her. She murmured, “Do we? How would you kiss me now? Just so we have a starting place, I mean.”
Anne wrapped an arm around her waist, pressing her closer.
“You’re right. We can’t improve if we don’t have an example to measure against. Are you ready?”
Ann nodded, and closed her eyes. Anne took her soft chin between her thumb and index finger, tilting her face ever so slightly upward. She was beautiful. No painting could capture the pale yellow of the sun touching her cheeks, or the freckle just below her lip, or her shallow breathing, anticipating the touch of Anne’s lips to hers, already surrendering her breath before they even kissed. Art was lifeless in the presence of the muse, and that’s why Anne wasn’t an artist.
“What are you doing?” Ann giggled. She didn’t open her eyes.
“Savoring the moment,” Anne murmured.
Anne brushed her lips over Ann’s soft cheek, then pressed their foreheads together. Their noses touched. Ann’s breath warmed her mouth. Warmth flourished from Anne’s stomach to her fingertips; Ann was here . Ann was hers . She allowed the joy to seep into her bones, hard-won but ephemeral, so fragile she daren’t scare it away by accepting it too zealously. She leaned closer, taking Ann’s lips in a hard, chaste kiss.
Satisfied, Anne smirked and tried to pull away, but Ann’s hand on the back of her neck stayed firm. She quickly gave in, deepening their kiss with a broad stroke of her tongue. That earned a low groan from her future wife, who pressed her body as close to Anne’s as she could, and began grinding against her thigh.
“Kiss me like a knight would, Ser Lister,” she whispered.
“In a broom closet, pressed against a shelf?” Anne teased.
Ann laughed, “ No . Like—I don’t know! Do what you want with me. Take me.”
“Ah, you don’t want chivalry. You want to be conquered,” Anne cooed, catching Ann’s cheek in a kiss.
“Yes,” she said in a breathy sigh.
Anne hummed softly as she brought their lips together in a slow, searching kiss. The queen’s hips rolled against Anne’s, her hands smoothing along Anne’s broad shoulders. Anne loved that; the action charged her with Ann’s protection, her safety, her content, things that came easier to Anne than breathing. Marriage oaths were serious, binding things, especially if you meant them, and poured your entire soul into the words. Anne was ready. She didn’t need words—they performed this wordless oath enough times that their bodies settled into a rhythm, familiar and comfortable, and their wedding in a few short weeks was an extravagant formality. It was hard to wait.
Anne had a few ideas on how to make the wait less arduous.
They turned as one, Ann backing slowly toward the wall. She wove her tiny hands in the soft hairs at the nape of Anne’s neck.
“Anne,” she whined softly.
Anne grinned and kissed her again, slipping one hand along her betrothed’s back, following the gentle swell of her ass. Before Anne could even comprehend what Ann wanted, she had vaulted into her arms, locked her legs around Anne’s hips, and hooked her arms around Anne’s neck. Anne made a soft yelp of surprise, and Ann pulled back with a giggle.
“You’ve gone soft, Ser Lister,” she teased, stroking her thumb along Anne’s cheek. “Aren’t you meant to be my strong, dashing knight?”
“And I thought you were meant to be my timid, virtuous queen.”
They crashed together once more, lips and tongues and teeth slipping together as Anne pressed Ann into the wall. She could feel the warmth of Ann’s center against her stomach, the desperation in her kiss, the hunger in her hands.
“Quiet,” Anne said in a low growl, her teeth nipping against Ann’s bottom lip. “We’ll be heard.”
“Play along, darling,” Anne whispered in her ear. “Let your knight ravish you.”
Ann nodded, her eyes dancing with excitement as Anne shifted her weight and scrambled to find the hem of her gown. She kissed Anne’s neck, rolling her hips against the knight’s firm body. Finally, finally Anne found her way. Ann gasped.
“You’re so beautiful,” Anne said, her voice rough.
Beneath her, even trembling and whining, a glimmer of sweat on her brow, Ann was a goddess. Anne marvelled that the movement of her fingers could affect an ethereal being so swiftly.
“Anne,” her betrothed groaned. “Oh, gods.”
“There are no gods, here, Your Majesty. Just you.”
Anne nipped at her bottom lip while her long fingers brought Ann closer and closer to her release. Ann broke away, gasping air into her lungs, and Anne turned her devilish kisses to the flushed column of Ann’s neck. Her muffled moans grew louder, needier, breathier. With a final, strangled sob, she trembled in Anne’s arms, ecstasy washing over her face and across her body.
Anne kissed along her collarbone, then licked the gleam of sweat across Ann’s heaving chest. Ann kissed her hair.
“That’s...a bit much,” Ann said as she caught her breath.
“I said, I think...that’s a bit much...for our wedding kiss.”
“Ah,” Anne said, relieved. Then she laughed. “Do you think? Would you be upset if I kissed you like that in front of your aunt? Or William?”
Ann pursed her lips. “Would it be too late to call the wedding off at that point?”
“During the kiss? Yes, I think at that point it’s a done deal. I’ll have trapped you,” Anne informed her.
They shared a smile. Anne carried her to a velvet loveseat, placing Ann’s legs in her lap. Ann closed her eyes, and soon Anne’s own fluttered shut. How strange it was to feel a little peace. Between her service in the kingsguard and hiding their relationship from every living soul for years, allowing themselves to doze off together in the middle of the afternoon felt too good to be true.
“I want to get married in Lidgate,” Ann murmured. “Not this cold, awful place.”
Anne opened her eyes just to see if she was joking. She wasn’t.
“Lidgate is a week’s ride away,” Anne reminded her. “You’d have us take a royal entourage to some unfortunate village and set up an impromptu royal wedding? Gods, that was a contradiction.”
“Mmm,” Ann hummed, thinking. Then a grin split her face. “Yes. Little River is just near the border—they were kind enough on our way in. I daresay the gods will it.”
“Ah, okay. I’m seeing that ‘the gods will it’ will rule my life from now on,” Anne teased.
“Have I already used that too many times?”
“For you, there is no limit,” Anne said tenderly.
Lidgate was too present in Anne’s mind to be a memory. Every corner, nook, and cranny was familiar to her; she could trace the wavy valleys and hilltops on the back of her hand, and her veins were its bluish rivers. The land was as much a part of her as it was of Ann. Marrying there made sense.
“That’s a perfect idea,” Anne said warmly. “And clever. The Sutherlands won’t feel so insulted by our wedding if they aren’t forced to host it.”
“I’m sure they’ll find something to be insulted about,” Ann huffed.
Anne didn’t doubt that. As far as she was concerned, the Sutherland’s attitudes couldn’t get much worse. But a wedding wasn’t free. Between Ann’s dress, food, and flowers, they needed to rely on the Sutherland’s generosity to hold a legitimate ceremony. Hiring hunters for wild game—a boar was the traditional centerpiece of a Lidgatian wedding meal—and paying farmers for their backstock of crops during the winter wouldn’t be cheap.
Then an idea formed in her head.
Before she could stop herself, she blurted, “Perhaps we could find a way to do the whole thing ourselves. Accept your dress as a wedding gift from the Sutherlands, hunt for the boar on our way to Little River, and petition the region’s duke, Lord—who is it? Henry?” Ann nodded. “Good, and petition him for the honor of hosting you. Assuming his non-answer means he isn’t aligned,” Anne finished bitterly.
“Ugh, and that’s it’s own set of problems,” Ann said, rubbing her temples. “I may just send a runner. Maybe Prince Sutherland’s got intercepted.”
Anne bit her lips. She reasoned, “If the Royal Courier was attacked, Prince Sutherland would have said something. What if we send one of yours instead, and not tell anyone it’s being sent?”
Ann shifted to sit upright. Her brow furrowed. “You don’t think Prince Sutherland interfered?”
Anne shrugged. “I have no idea. But it would have been inconvenient for him, wouldn’t it, if the dukes had agreed to provide you with their men?”
“...Yes. We should send our own, I think. Just to see what happens.”
They fell into silence, pondering the implications if Prince Sutherland had misplaced or intercepted the dukes’ responses. He had admitted to corresponding with General—Anne refused to call him “King”—Rawson on Ann’s behalf; to such a man, interfering with the dukes wouldn’t be out of the question. Anne grit her teeth. If that was true, none of their communications were private or safe.
Ann’s feather-light kiss on her jaw turned her attention.
“Does this mean you’re participating in the hunt?”
The hunt. Oh. Anne was so caught up in the betrothal and the other details of the ceremony that she hadn’t stopped to consider whether she or Ser Washington would slay the boar in Ann’s honor. Traditionally, one or both of the marrying royalty would do it, but the danger of the task meant it was more often relegated to a high-ranking knight or lesser family member as an honor. When Anne became captain of the kingsguard, she always assumed she’d hunt Ann’s boar—but never imagined herself as Ann’s suitor.
“Well, as the former captain of your kingsguard, slaying the pig would have been my honor. I assisted King Sutherland’s men when your sister was wed,” Anne said. “It’s been a long time since Lidgate has hosted the wedding of its king or queen. Your father hunted his boar.”
“Did he? That seems so old-fashioned. But I suppose you’re a bit old-fashioned yourself,” Ann teased gently.
“Funny, I thought that’s what you liked about me,” Anne said.
“I do,” Ann said. She giggled devilishly and climbed onto Anne’s lap. “I also like you for a different reason.”
Anne’s heartbeat quickened. She gripped Ann’s soft, pale thighs just under the hem of her dress.
“You aren’t tired, your majesty?”
Ann ran her hands down Anne’s throat and over her shoulders. Her nails scratched the tender skin under her chin.
“On the contrary, I’ve set aside the entire day for you,” Ann murmured.
The touch of her betrothed’s lips was all the pleading Anne needed to find out exactly how exhausted Ann could be.