Estora found Colin Dovekey at one of the tables, with his blue eye mask, filling a cup with punch.
“Have you seen Zachary?” She asked him.
“I believe he stepped out for air,” Colin replied. “Would you care for some punch?” He offered her his cup.
Blackveil, p. 261
Something in the air smells of a storm. Ensconced within the morass of perfumes and colognes worn by the nobility, it catches Estora's fancy, and she glances out to the balcony doors, where Zachary had escaped to. The sky is clear but for moon and stars, and she turns her attention back to Colin.
Condensation is already forming on the glass, and Estora becomes acutely aware of how hot she is under her masquerade costume. The masked tumbler will still be there in a few minutes, and she can wait to show Zachary. She accepts Colin’s cup with a word of thanks.
Far above the castle and its inhabitants, a star streaks across the sky, falling away beyond the horizon. Inside the ballroom, the tumbler pauses mid-cartwheel, then springs back to his feet with a flourish.
Karigan's fingers scrabble at the bow, which holds, and holds, and with a third, desperate tug, comes loose. Cool air rushes over her face as she pulls the mask off. She can’t make herself form any words, but she doesn’t need to.
“Karigan! I did not think you would come tonight.” The king steps forward, stares at her, so still and silent.
Apprehension swirls in her belly, and she feels the first faint stirrings of regret. This was a mistake. She should not have done this. And yet. It had been a near thing, her coming. She spares a thought for Tegan, how she had fought against her friends’ urgings. How fickle want could be. "The captain suggested it, said it would be unsupportive not to.”
“I’m glad you listened to her. There’s something I wanted to say, while you were here.” Karigan licks her lips. He’s a lot closer than he had been a moment ago. How did she miss him moving? “What is it?” Memories flash past, of the first time they had spoken here, of that night by the observatory. They have never spoken half-heartedly.
“Blackveil. Blackveil, and the expedition with the Eletians.” Karigan was thrown, and she blinked at him, confised. They had been planning the trip for weeks now. Everything was set, everything in order and prepared. And only now does he bring it up. Always it was the eleventh hour with him.
“The one that leaves tomorrow.”
“Yes.” Zachary closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, something settling in his expression. When he opens his eyes, they are dark and intense, and Karigan can’t look away, doesn’t wants to. “Kari,” he said. “I need you. I need you here. Please don’t accept that mission. It’s dangerous and I can’t bear the thought of losing you.” His hands are clasped in front of him, as if beseeching the gods to sway her opinion.
The breath freezes in Karigan’s lungs. She had heard those words before, and had forgotten them in turn. Even then, before everything, the sheer potential had terrified her. Now, she can do no more than stare at him, at the desperation in his eyes, the hope that dimms with each silent second.
“I can understand if you refuse my words, but-”
“Why?” He repeats, startled. “Because I - I care for you, Karigan. Surely you must know this, whatever your own feelings may be.”
Must she? Must she! She had always scoffed at the idea of “seeing red”, but in this moment, it was suddenly so very apt. “And how should I have divined such, your highness? You have done nothing but ignore me.” Frustrations she had not even acknowledged pour out of her, and she trembles with the force of them. “I come back from message errands, and Captain takes my report. When I was in the mending wing, recovering from rescuing your gods-damned book, even some of your Weapons came to check up on me. Never once did I see you rushing in with them. ”
Zachary frowned, anger darkening his features. Karigan scowled right back, felt her nails dig into her palms. He did not get to be angry, not in this. They’d never been ones to talk without strife, and this would be no different. This she was familiar with. She leans into the sense of betrayal, even as she despises herself for thinking he owes her anything.
“No. You have said your piece. It is my turn. Even when I was knighted, you couldn’t take the time to speak to me. Since the idea of conversing with me is so abhorrent to you, don’t you dare stand there and tell me I should know anything of your feelings.”
As her words run out, she realises she’s sobbing, great heaving gasps as tears bracket her face. Zachary fits a hand to her cheek, his thumb sweeping across the tear-tracks. She stills, afraid to move, afraid not to.
“I’m not angry at you, Kari,” he murmurs. “I did wish to see you. I wrote you, even. Laren should have delivered them.”
“I never received anything.” She closes her eyes with a sigh. So, the captain knew. Knew, and did not approve. Zachary hmms.
“So it seems. You would scarcely believe the amount of people who want something from me. I venture outside my chambers and they are already baying for this boon, or that favour. Public events are even worse. By the time I reached you, after your knighting, you had left.” He starts to draw his hand back, but she reaches up, twines her fingers around his, and holds it there.
“I thought you might’ve, I don’t know, gotten over me. You’re engaged to Estora, for the gods’ sakes.”
“Never. I want you here. I always will.”
Karigan opens her eyes to look at him. His eyelashes cast faint shadows across his face. In the soft light of the moon, he is achingly beautiful. “I’m a Green Rider, I’d go mad if I couldn’t get away sometimes.” She remembers his original plea with a start. “I knew you were going to say that.”
“What? But you said- ”
“No. I knew. Word for word. There was this telescope, at Seven Chimneys. Remember, when I was delivering the warning about Amilton?”
“As if I could forget. But what does that journey have to do with us now?”
"Anyone who looked into it saw visions. Past, present and future. I saw you saying that, exactly that. I didn’t recognise you at the time, and I forgot about it. I thought that some kind of timer had run out. 'The future isn’t set in stone', after all.”
“And yet sometimes it is.”
“Sometimes it is.” Karigan watches as Zachary brings his other hand up to cup her cheek. She has wanted this so badly, for so long.
“I don’t know if I’ve told you this, Kari, but you truly are the most remarkable woman.” She holds her breath as he draws closer, until they share breaths, until his lips press against hers. She breaks, an ocean wave finally meeting the shore.
Maybe there is something to the tales of dress-up, because she pushes Zachary against the wall with a fervency worthy of Oddacious. He smiles into the kiss, hands against her as if afraid to let her go, and she manages to say something about privacy. She parts from him long enough for the two to escape down a nearby hidden corridor. She is vaguely aware of the black shields flanking them, but her attention is locked on Zachary, who routinely stops to capture her mouth with his and frantically loosen a few more laces on her bodice. She’s weak-kneed by the time they reach his chambers, and then they finally have a room to themselves. Someone will probably be looking for the king soon. Finders keepers is fair game, though, and she has wanted this for so long.
There’s no finesse involved, just the needy way he runs his hands over her, the sounds she wrings from him, and the lingering taste of his skin. She mouths the words against his shoulder, and he gasps them into her mouth between kisses. They are desperate and clinging, silk and static. I love you, I love you, I love you. It sounds like a farewell, like an apology, like grief. She doesn’t want it to be true, and part of her wonders if it's Zachary she loves, or just the thought of him. He moves inside her, and she lets herself forget and simply feel. If she's to die on this mission, she wants no regrets, no unclosed doors. Just for tonight, she wants without caring if it makes her selfish.
Afterwards, they lie together, limbs tangled and sweat cooling on their skin. Zachary's eyes glitter in the moonlight, and she keeps her own trembling words inside her. They haven’t spoken since the balcony, and she fears doing so now will shatter whatever promise they just made. This was a mistake. She should not have done this. And yet.
Zachary eventually drifts off, body curved around hers. Karigan remembers being a kid, staring longingly after the baubles and playthings she saw in one of the craft shops of Corsa. Artfully crafted, each one was a masterpiece of glass and steel. Her aunts had warned her away, cautioned her to be careful of handling something so delicate and precious. Looking back, her younger self had no idea what they were truly worth, nor would she have truly valued them. They were made to be displayed safe indoors, and her rambunctious personality hated being cooped up. Even now, she admires the skill that goes into the craft, but she knows now that they’re not for her. She’d always made a habit of her heart being bigger than what she can hold.
She leaves in the early morning, shadow-quiet, kisses her fingertips and presses them to the curve of his jaw. He murmurs her name and rolls over, a frown on his face. It takes everything in her to pull away, to not slip back between the covers with him. The black shield outside - not one she knows by name - watches her with cool eyes, and she's glad it wasn’t any of those she was close to. Doesn’t want to think about pity and understanding and the price she's paying for peace. Her own bedsheets are cool and crisp,
She wakes alone in the morning, a little bit closer to not in love.
King Zachary farewells them by the castle entrance, Karigan’s heart aching. He watching her with intense eyes, hesitates before reaching up to clasp her forearm in his. "…Good luck." Karigan takes in a shuddering breath and nods, flexes her fingers around his arm before letting go. "Thank you, your majesty."
Months later, she returns to the castle a falling star, trailing glass and grief. She lives in the mending wing for the next few weeks, nursing wounds inside and out. The king visits her a few days in, and she manages an awkward, bed-ridden bow and a half-hearted smile. He tells her of his marriage, of the queen's pregnancy. Something in his eyes reminds her of sitting in the moon priest's confessional, when she was young and her aunts still bothered to uphold a token piety. Fearing, hoping. Unguarded. "Congratulations," she says, and means it. Cade is a wound she's barely had time to stitch, but seeing the king's eyes light up as he thanks her is a balm to rival Ben's gift. She smiles, more genuinely this time, and he responds with a brilliant grin.