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A Token for a Token

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As the queen swept into the garden, her gown rustling, she scattered all of their attendants more than a resectable distance away, out of earshot even, with a mere wave of her hand. Eugenides arched his eyebrows in his most careful impression of her, and it was returned with a hard look.

“You're late,” he said as he casually snatched three rolls and began to juggle them with one hand. He wasn't sure which rankled her more, his words or his action, but Attolia sat stiffly.

He watched her as her gaze fell on the table before them, as if something might be missing, but he had studiously waited for her, even though he was late himself. His wife was as renowned for her beauty as much as her cruelty, so much so that they went hand in hand. But she seemed even more rankled to find that everything was in order, and as beautiful as she was, Gen though she looked exceptionally pretty when she was angry in a nonthreatening way—as nonthreatening as Attolia could be.

“My attendants had quite a time searching for the golden bees. It delayed me.”

“A pity. And they would look lovely with that dress.” As difficult as it was, he kept his face placid, save for the real tug of pity that he did have. She wasn't particularly vain about that pair of earrings in the first place, but they did match the dress well.

Attolia folded a golden napkin into her lap as her eyes fix on him. “And you wouldn't know anything about that?”

“Not at all, my love,” Gen answered cheerfully before he replaced the rolls only to toss a date into his mouth.

Her scowl merely deepened, but he smiled to himself as he chewed. Her eyes dropped as she gently shook her head. No one else would have seen it, but Gen had once again proved to himself that she did love every one of his lies now, even if she was probably quite irate about it.

He could see the attendants shifting uncomfortably a good distance behind his wife and queen—his attendants shifted uncomfortably, at least. Hers had probably had quite a morning, and he did hope he had not caused anyone's dismissal. But his lady Attolia had probably guessed even as she put them all to searching every corner and crevice.

“My attendants worry that we will be late.”

“The ceremony will not start without us.,” Attolia said. She tore at the breakfast roll on her own plate, but she did not eat. The loss of the earrings must have hurt her more deeply than he anticipated. And he thought his wife was not a vain or shallow woman...

“It is best not to offend the gods, my love.” Eugenides's half smile remained fixed, but his voice was soft. He was just about to enjoy another date when Attolia rose, her shadow falling over him.

“Then by all means, my King, we will go.”

She was truly angry now. First a ceremony at the temple of the Great Goddess, then the loss of her earrings, and then his flippancy to add to it. Eugenides had anticipated as much. He rose, snatching a roll to hide in his sleeve. He hadn't finished his breakfast, but he knew better than to complain of it. He noted as she turned and the morning sun caught the stones that Attolia had not considered leaving off her one constant piece of ornamentation—her headband made to imitate that of Hephestia.

The night before, Eugenides had casually suggested she might do something different with her hair, but he had received only a cold look in return. Her cold looks were not so chilling as they used to be, however, and he had lain his head on her lap shortly after, resting there while they shared the quiet after dinner together.

He caught up with her lithe steps, feeling lighter that morning despite his fine, too heavy clothes. They matched hers perfectly—deep sage green embroidered in cream and gold, and he could tell from the rare looks of approval from each and every one of their attendants that even if they did not believe them happy, they made a handsome pair. Attolia was cold and haughty beside him, and Eugenides did his best to match, though his smirk revealed him.

They made their way up to the temple slowly in an open litter, King and Queen for the masses to see. He did not wear his false hand. He kept the hook neatly against the flat of her back because she insisted on sitting rod straight, her face like the fair stone of the best statutes of the old gods. But he had seen Hephestia's breathing soul, and he was glad his wife was mere mortal beside him.

At the base of the acropolis, he insisted they go the rest of the way unaided. No one would impede their progress and the guard flanked them. Attolia merely nodded her acquiescence, and Eugenides held her arm firmly. As they neared, their steps slowed in tandem at the small shrine to his patron. He could see her studying it just as she could see her earrings glistening in the sun.

Eugenides gave her a moment—her cheeks were flushed. Then, he knelt beside her and opened his palm, allowing a small broach to fall beside the earrings. Behind him, one of her attendants gasped, no doubt clutching her breast. He could feel Attolia's gaze on his back as he whispered a prayer. No longer did he leave offerings in vain. And when he straightened, he took her rigid elbow again and led her into the temple of his goddess.

That evening they danced after a dinner absent of sand or grit in his food and where polite conversation about the temple ceremony had been perfunctorily made. She retired before he, and because she was Attolia, she had no need to make the excuse of a headache or sore feet or whatever it was the ladies said for excuses in her court. Eugenides carried out his duties without her eyes settling on him, and his attendants led him to his chambers thereafter. He locked them out only to slip through the passages that they now knew were available to him if not where they might be.

Attolia sat in front of her dressing table while Phresine combed her long hair. And Eugenides waited, watching as he leaned easily against the window frame. Neither woman had heard him enter, but his wife caught his reflection soon after in the mirror. She did not acknowledge him, and even after Phresine left them, a small bow and half smile to her king before that, Attolia did not move.

He watched her there in her dressing gown for a moment longer before sauntering to her side. Eugenides did not sit at her knees, nor did he touch her silken hair. He simply produced a small wooden box from his sleeve and traced one of the delicately worn carvings with his thumb before sliding it in front of her.

Attolia waited. “A trinket?”

“I believe you are the only woman who was ever consistently angered upon receiving them.” He watched her cheeks color at that, and he wondered not what she was thinking but which thoughts occurred to her first. He laid his hand gently on her slender shoulder as she fingered the box, recognizing it surely. But perhaps it had been too long.

When she finally opened it, Eugenides held his breath for half a moment as she stared at the pair of honey colored earrings deeper in color than their predecessors. She stared at them for a long time in silence before turning her eyes up to his reflection.

“Once something is dedicated it cannot be retrieved.”

“No,” he replied.

“Shall I ask how you found them?”

“You had better not,” he replied. He could see that she was pleased. Her cheeks were still colored as she reverently touched the pieces with the tips of her long fingers. She needn't wear copies any longer, and she would be satisfied at that.

“A token for a token?” She looked up at him then, her eyes meeting his. That piercing look never ceased to make Eugenides shiver, though it was different now.

“Allow me to claim one more,” he said, bending until his lips touched hers. Irene was happy, and that was all the thanks he wanted. And he raked his fingers leisurely through her hair before offering her his hand. Whether she wanted to go to bed or sit and reflect upon the earrings that were older than the reigns of the kings of Attolia, he did not care. She was content, and so was he, and they might stay that way for the rest of the night, at least.