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Playing Politics

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"There are better ways to release frustration over stalled negotiations than asking your brother to box five rounds," Aravis says, her voice dangerously mild. Small objects clink and rustle as she moves them in the cupboard by the mirror.

Cor doesn't lift his head from their mattress, where he'd collapsed with an exaggerated moan as soon as possible after his humiliation at Corin's fists. His shirt lies abandoned on the floor, stained with sweat, dirt, and traces of blood from his brother's knuckles. His own hands are equally battered though to notably less effect. Corin is doubtless laughing and carousing the afternoon away, hardly the worse for wear.

"I needed to hit something," he says. "Do you know another morally acceptable way for a king to break someone's nose?"

"I would be more inclined to believe your rationalization if Corin's nose were currently broken, which, in point of truth, it is not," Aravis says. "But the pirates should be more inclined to speak with him now -- they do seem to share his general outlook on violence and authority -- which is what I assume you intended."

Her weight settles on the edge of the bed, making the mattress tilt and sway under Cor's body. Cloth rustles mysteriously.

"I'm appalled by your lack of trust in my innocence. You have no grounds to assume I had ulterior motives," Cor grumbles, not bothering to make his tone match the words. He might well have had unrelated reasons to challenge his brother to a match. He might not have been concentrating on how badly he wants to break the pirate coalitions, and how he needs a middleman to establish trust. He might not have been thinking at all.

That Aravis is correct has no bearing on his willingness to argue a hypothetical point.

"Everything is politics with you," he adds.

"Said the moon to the sun, O my husband and my king. Hips up."

Cor obediently raises himself an inch or so on his elbows and knees, gritting his teeth against the scream of his shoulders and the bruises slowly blooming on his chest and sides. Aravis reaches underneath and begins to unlace his trousers, fingers deft and sure from long practice despite the awkward angle.

She leans down as she works, bare breasts pressing against Cor's back, and whispers, "If you merely wanted a fight, you would have come to me with a sword." A pause. "Either sword," she adds, thumb brushing casually up the inner crease of his thigh. His skin burns in the wake of her touch.

"Maybe I wanted to lose," Cor says as his wife pulls his trousers down over his hips, her fingers trailing like fire over his skin.

"Or to hurt? That can be arranged," Aravis says. "Knees."

Cor lets his torso drop back to the sweat-damp sheets and points his toes, lifting his knees just enough to let his trousers pass. Then he bends his knees and raises his feet, expecting Aravis to finish... but she leaves the heavy tangle of wool clumped around his ankles, like irons, and pushes his feet down.

"Rebellion is tiresome. I prefer not to give away advantages," she says.

Cor smiles into his pillow. He knows this mood, and while it's not always to his taste, today he and Aravis are apparently of the same mind. "As you say, O my mistress," he murmurs. "How may this unworthy one make restitution for his offense?"

"For the moment, you may lie still while I tend your foolishly earned wounds. Once I am certain your back will not seize at the slightest motion, we will discuss your debt and what I may choose to accept as payment." Aravis wipes a damp cloth across his shoulders, then down his spine. Cor shivers at the chill against his overheated skin, fights the urge to pull away from the roughness of the fabric. He digs his hips into the bed, relishes the pressure.

"To hear is to obey," he says.

"So the poets have written," Aravis agrees. She pours a stream of cedar-scented oil onto his back and settles her weight astride his thighs, knees spread to pin his legs together. He can feel her nether hair brush against him, the heat of her like a balm and goad combined.

"Make no sound," she says as she presses her hands to his skin.