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“He likes to listen, your man,” said Aunt Arbelan.

Tiavan choked on her tea but Csethiro smiled and didn’t bother to hide it behind a teacup. No one, save perhaps a former empress, would describe His Imperial Serenity as “your man”. She liked it, just as she'd been coming to like the man behind the brocade and diamonds. “So we've gathered.”

“That is something you should learn to appreciate.” Aunt Arbelan smiled wistfully. “Not all men—really, only one in a million it seems—have that gift.”

Csethiro thought of the gifts that had been delivered to the Ceredada suit earlier that day: silk and brocade gowns; shawls of the finest, softest wool; cloth dyed indigo and jade and an extravagant crimson and embroidered with silver thread; jewels that winked merrily at her, including an elaborate prarure set with pearls and diamonds. Her favorite gift of all, though, was a small ceremonial sword of fine, silver-blue Illinverian steel.

I know this is a paltry way to repay thee for the sword thou gifted me, his note said, but I hope thou wilt find this one to thy liking and put it to good use. And sweetest of all, the post-script: It reminded me of thee.

Impossible man! He had seen it, hadn't he, her almost-husband, seen past the ritual and insipid mannerisms and innuendo court life required of her, that Csethiro liked the jewels and gowns enough, but she had always wanted to be like a sword—swift and daring and full of intent.

“We know, Aunt Arbelan,” she said. “We know it very well."

 


 

The morning of Csethiro’s wedding found her beating her nerves to death.

“Wilt wear thyself out,” Aäno said, sitting balanced perfectly on a branch of a proud old tree just outside of the practice yard. “‘Where is the glow?’ people will ask. ‘The bride has no shine,’ they will say. Everyone knows a bride’s got to put on her best impression of a gas lamp, and they will all gossip if thou failst at it.”

“And I will be empress by the end of the ceremony, sweaty face or not, and I can shut every last one in the Esthoramire if I want,” Csethiro said, taking one last swing at the practice dummy. She put her practice sword away in the fashion that Renet had showed her in the old yard behind the stables at home: mindful and respectful of a tool that had taught her hand to hold a blade and her muscles to jump to action and calm to stillness by turns. Just because it’s wood don’t mean we don’t care for it, his gruff voice said, echoing through the years. Respect the blade, and it’ll respect you.

Well, she was trying.

“It’s late, isn’t it?” she called up to Aäno. “I’ll bet Tiavan wants to skin me by now.” The sun had risen a full hour ago while Csethiro was pounding away the queasiness in her belly, and with no yawning, put-upon Evro to remind her of the time, she had let it get away from her. And if funerals were for sunset and baptisms for dawn, weddings were for noon—“The zenith in between, the promising of new life blossoming,” Leänan had said while smearing paint on a canvas, because Leänan was the sort to say things like that—and she apparently required hours to make the transformation from Dach’osmin Csethiro Ceredin to Her Imperial Highness, Empress Csethiro Drazharan, Ethuverzhid Zhasan, wife of his Imperial Serenity, Edrehasivar VII Drazhar, Ethuverazhid Zhas.

“Not as such,” Aäno said, slipping off the tree as nimbly as a goat might leap from rock to rock. “At least, she wasn’t baying for thy blood an hour ago. That’s how long I was watching thee from up there. Hast gotten better at thy thrusts?”

“Did she send thee an hour ago?”

Aäno smiled beatifically. “Just about. But don’t worry—it’s better that thou hast thy practice before they truss thee up like a Winternight goose. Thou’rt less likely to kill us all.”

“I might just kill thee anyway,” Csethiro said, and made her way to the Ceredada apartments, Aäno’s laugh following her the entire way.

When she arrived, Csethiro found herself completely surrounded by a battalion of sisters and maids and others of more mysterious origins, all ready to bathe and perfume and robe her in the dazzling gown and the even more dazzling jewels that had been delivered only a few days before. Her gown had a brocaded silk bodice, iridescent white with a delicate pattern of twining vines woven into the fabric with silver thread, and a froth of chiffon for skirt that went on for miles, it seemed. Nimble hands rubbed lotions and powders and tints onto her face, pink for her cheeks and lips and sooty black kohl for her eyes. They combed and teased and braided and twined her hair, dressing it with moonstones and opals and ribbons of perfect, milky pearls, and finally set a tiara on top of it all. It was but a piece of a parure that Maia had gifted her; the pieces were not heavy and oppressive, but light and airy: rows of six-petaled flowers all made out of cleverly cut diamonds. When the necklace fitted around her throat and the bracelets around her wrists, they felt less like chains and more like promises, because she knew that Maia had personally chosen them for her.

Through it all, she thought, Will he even recognize me under all this?

And his answer came to her, with his crooked smile: I will an thou promisest to find me under all the silk and strained propriety.

Tiavan stood next to her in the mirror when all the fuss was done. She had tears in her eyes. “Thou lookst lovely, dear, really.”

“Thou said that when I was six and splattered with blood because I had thrashed Safis after he stole my marbles.” I should cry, she thought. This is when I should cry. But there were no tears in her, just a sense of utter unreality: she could not be this airy, ethereal apparition. Even her eyes felt strange, each sweep of her lashes dramatic with kohl. The midday sun streamed though the high windows and caught on the silver embroidery of her gown, setting her ablaze in imperial white.

“No,” Tiavan sniffed, smiling. “That was Hino. I threw thee headfirst into a bath.”

Hino appeared then, comfortably round and holding an ever-present toddler on her hip. “They’re waiting for thee in the vestibule,” she said, panting slightly, and then she paused to look Csethiro over fully. “Oh, what a vision thou makest.”

“It could be more more,” Tiavan said, recovering from her uncharacteristic foray into sentimentality. “I am still undecided about the lace."

“There was never going to be lace,” Csethiro said firmly. “It gave me a rash, and if I am going have to get married in this bloody thing, I will not be going to my wedding night with hives.”

“She does cut a striking figure, though, does she not?” said Hino, completely ignoring Csethiro.

“I do so love the silhouette,” Tiavan said happily, tears forgotten. “Very streamlined. It is all the rage in Csedo.”

Csethiro sighed. “Was not someone waiting for me, somewhere?” she said, and then tried not to think about how, for the rest of her life, someone would always be waiting for her somewhere. No. If he can bear up under it, so can I. She lifted her chin and her ears. “Shall we go?”


The wedding itself was a blur to Csethiro, which was a singularly disconcerting state of being for her. The white light shining through the windows of the Untheileian seemed limned with glitter and the Archprelate’s voice echoed strangely around her brain. The only thing that felt concrete and real was Maia’s hand in her own as they both stood at the altar, bearing witness and swearing fealty and a thousand other things. She could not tell which of his rings was the oath ring, twin to the one that she wore, but she drew comfort from the fact that he wore it as she made her own private vows: I did not want this, but I will do right by Maia and the trust he is giving me. I will not lose myself.

When she gave Maia her wreath of flowers, symbolizing her promise to bear him children and do her duty by him, neither of them flinched. She counted that as a blessing.


The feast and ball after the wedding were both predictably lavish and opulent. Maia, perhaps without his knowing, had been whisked away to a knot of members of parliament, who were fervently talking at him. Or to him? Either way, he seemed to be fending for himself well enough.

She took stock of herself while women in glittering jewel tones (she remembered Hino saying that pastels were “so outmoded" this spring), laughed and drank wine and slyly smiled at her. They knew, of course, like any person over the age of seven would know: tonight, she would be lying with a man. And it would not be over tomorrow. It would never be over, not until she had given birth to enough boys to satisfy a dynasty’s hunger for an heir. She drank more wine.

“You should eat something,” said an accented voice near her.

Csethiro turned to look at a lovely goblin woman, tall and voluptuous and smiling. She smiled back. “You must be Merrem Vizhenka.”

“We are she, your highness,” Merrem Vizenka said, sweeping a graceful courtesy. “If you do not mind, we should like to sit with you and offer our felicitations.”

“Of course,” Csethiro said, glad for company that wasn’t smirking at her, and gestured for Merrem Vizhenka to sit on the chair that had been set on the dais. “We will be glad for your company, as our husband had been swept away by the tides of political maneuvering."

“We will give thanks to whatever god was listening to our prayers, for our husband is not politically minded at all.” Merrem Vizhenka made an expressive face. “We so would have hated that.”

Perhaps the wine had loosened her tongue or something about the other woman’s face invited confidences, because Csethiro said, “We are still making up out mind as to what to think about it.” She looked down into her wineglass. “We appreciate that he is so serious about his role, but we…we think we will come to dislike sharing him before long.” And she would have to share him—every citizen of the Ethuveraz had claim to her husband’s mind, heart, and compassion.

Merrem Vizhenka’s eyes were kind. “We think it is a very good thing that you feel that way.”

“You do?”

“We do indeed. We encourage you to be selfish in this regard, and to demand from him time for both of you.” She smiled sympathetically. “Marriage is difficult enough without the eyes of the world on you.”

Csethiro slowly turned her wineglass in her hand. “We know nothing of marriage,” she said. “But we will try.” Her sisters had tried to prepare her, of course, but Tiavan and Hino both ran roughshod over their husbands in different ways, Tiavan because she had known Naraïs since childhood and had been inspiring in him (she said) a mixture of lust and fear that long, and Hino because Thanet was singularly tractable and moreover allergic to fuss. Maia was not like either Thanet or Naraïs—he had the legendary Drazhadeise stubbornness in spades, for one, and had burdens more than they ever would.

Merrem Vizhenka covered Csethiro’s hand in hers. “We are also recently married and so we cannot give you any words of wisdom from ourself. But our grandmother told us, before we wed, that if a husband and wife think of each other tenderly throughout their worries and heartache, and share their joys in the meantime, they will do very well indeed(1).” She touched the diamond flowers on Csethiro’s bracelet. “Marriage is not chains, your highness. What holds married people together are mere threads, threads of time spent together and laughs and hopes and dreams and love shared. And together, those threads are stronger than any chain.”

And now, of all idiotic times, Csethiro found tears sprouting in her eyes. “We apologize,” Csethiro said. “We do not know why we are so overcome.”

“Dry your tears, your highness,” said Merrem Vizhenka, laughing, and pressed a handkerchief into Csethiro’s hand. “Or we will be accused of upsetting the empress and will find ourself in short order on an airship directly back to Barizhan.”

“We would not let you go, for you are far too kind a person to evict,” Csethiro said. “Thank you for your words, Merrem Vizhenka. We are a bit—overset.”

“It is your wedding day,” Merrem Vizhenka said. “We would think you a very cold person if you were not. Ourself, we cried like an animal dying on our wedding day and we think our husband was more upset by it than we were. And on that note, we think we will take your leave.”

Maia returned to her then, crinkling a smile at her, a little shy and full of wonderment. She smiled back. “Would you be too embarrassed to dance with us?” he asked, and she said, “Are you insulting our tutelage, Serenity?” and he said, “No, never,” and she laughed through her tears as they swept across the hall.


That night, Maia’s spine did feel like a steel rod.

Csethiro—his wife, by the goddesses—had been whisked away the moment they had (with too much pomp and circumstance, he thought) ascended the stairs of the Alcethmeret to the empress’s chambers. He had tried not to notice the commotion in the past weeks as the long-uninhabited suite had been aired out and scoured and filled with her belongings, but he could not help but be profoundly grateful to her for her generosity in this matter. So much of his private life was on display already; he would have hated to parade himself before the Court when on his way to visit his wife in her chambers. Here, the Alcethmeret provided the illusion of privacy, if not the reality, and if his courtiers still would still eye his wife's waistline while pretending not to, they at least would not do so while counting the days since his last conjugal visit. Maia had learned to take small blessings where he could get them.  

Tonight, though, the main event would take place in his chambers. He tried not to look at the bed while his edocharei undressed him. They knew, like the whole Ethuveraz knew, that the business of heir-making began tonight; try as he might, he had been hard-pressed to think of little else this evening. His edocharei felt the unsettling mixture of dread and anticipation thrumming through him, and did their work in uncharacteristic silence, though Nemer looked like he was trembling on the cusp of saying something, but changed his mind, and left in silence with the rest.

Only Cala remained in the room with him, and even he would leave once Csethiro arrived. Maia could not meet his eyes, either. He had not been properly alone since the Crown had fallen upon him—And thou wilt not be alone even now, he told himself—but his nohecharei had become seamlessly woven into the fabric of his life. He did not want them in the room, of course, and it had been a powerful sort of relief that swept through him when he had learned that the emperor had the right to privacy when his wife was in his presence for conjugal matters, but... 

Enough of this nonsense. He settled himself on his bed, crossed his legs, pressed his palms together, and, like he had done ten thousand times before, began counting his breaths.

Tonight, peace eluded him. Maia kept losing that count; every sound, no matter how distant or obscure, distracted him.

Finally, after what felt like hours, his wife appeared, swathed in a thick robe and slippers and looking much more like herself. At that, Cala murmured that he would see the emperor in the morning, and vanished.

Their eyes met over the distance in between them, and though it could not have been more than a few feet, it felt to Maia like miles. But Csethiro's mouth quirked up at the corner and her eyes twinkled with cautious good humor, so Maia roused himself to go to her; and because his life was a cosmic comedy, of course, his bedcover caught at his leg, and he nearly went sprawling across the floor. They both laughed at that, and the throbbing tension in his temples vanished.

She said, “I am glad thou hast decided to appear foolish first, because I was wondering how to do it myself.”

“Art thou surprised?” he asked. “After dancing lessons?”

“I am, actually. Thou’rt usually graceful.”

“No false compliments now, please,” he said, but he smiled as he said it. “We’ve come this far without.”

She nodded. “I agree. Let us begin as we intend to go on. To that effect, Serenity, you must learn to take a compliment.”

“I suppose I shall have to,” he said. “Thou canst teach me. Wouldst like something to drink?”

She looked at him through the semi-darkness with purpose and stepped a little closer. A fine tremor ran through his hands. “Or not. There’s a decanter of metheglin. I like it not, personally, but—”

She was very close now, close enough to touch him. Or for him to touch her, if only he could figure out how to stop his hands from trembling. He had been trying very hard not to look at her, at her brilliant eyes that turned down slightly at the corners, the sweep and fall of her hair, and the dewy paleness of her skin. But now her eyes were all he could see, twinkling up at him, as she set her hand to the lapel of his robe.

“I don’t want anything to drink,” she said, her voice low. “Dost thou?”

Maia’s heart pounded in his chest. Surely she could hear it. Surely the entire Alcethmeret could hear it. “No.”

“Good,” she said, and pulled his lips down to hers.

He froze utterly, unable to feel anything but the pillow-softness of her lips, the way they moved over his own, and his battered composure shattered into seventy pieces, then into seventy more. She gave him little kisses—on the corner of his mouth, on the half-moon indentation above his chin—and he trembled in the force of them. Slowly, he began to kiss her back, hesitant and fumbling, but oh, her skin, soft as the night and smelling of fresh flowers. His hands found themselves rising to her without conscious command, one splayed on her back, one buried in the wondrous fall of her moonspun hair. He touched her hair for the pure tactile pleasure of it.

She kissed him long and tender, bold and clever with her tongue, my lioness he thought in some bewildered and pleased corner of his mind, and he tried to match her in that, but it didn’t seem to matter that he was inexperienced and clumsy and a little shy; everything he did seemed to delight her. He moved from her mouth to the smooth column of her neck and the perfect angles of her jaw, kissing and just feeling, and she arched her neck and let him, and merciful goddesses, he wanted her and wanted her...

She had unknotted his robe and pushed it off his shoulders, began pulling at his nightshirt, and had that off him, too. “I want to see thee,” she whispered to him. “I have no idea what a man looks like under his clothes.”

He could not force words out of his mouth; she had begun to kiss his jaw, his collarbone, mouthing the rapid pulse at the base of his neck. He had no time to feel skinny and dark; the world upended itself and he found himself on the bed, and she shed her robe and hoisted her nightgown up and climbed on top of him. Her weight was warm and her thighs under his hands were silky, covered in fine white hair.

“Let me,” she breathed into his ear. “Let me touch thee. I haven’t ever…”

He never found out what she’d never done, because she began her devastating campaign from the top and kissed and licked and suckled and touched all the way down. Every touch charred him to rubble, incited fires that raced along every nerve with a vengeance and set him ablaze, but every time he reached for her, she said, “No,” and went on driving him mad.

His heart was pounding in his ears and his skin felt fevered, stretched tight, and he knew he ought to do something, if only he had the barest inkling as to what. He felt on the verge of some violent cataclysm, and he could not—not when she had not—

He flipped her over, trapping her beneath him. “I said—” she began, and he said, “I know,” and kissed her, finally feeling some mastery over himself. “But I will not rush this.” And he offered her a truth: “I have never seen what a woman looks like under her clothes, either.”

He kissed her as she kissed him, starting from her brows to the delicate angles of her collarbone and then her breasts—merciful goddesses, her breasts. It helped that she seemed to enjoy his ministrations as he had done hers, and that she especially enjoyed it as he suckled her nipples. In some distant corner of his mind, he thought I thought only babies did such things, but men, too, had such tastes, and that was an accurate analogy as any. And he remembered his aunt saying, “Men and women are not so different,” and thought, Well, if I like it, then perhaps

Her body was a mysterious landscape, dipping and swelling where his lay in flat panes. He kissed his way down the voluptuous swell of her belly, dipped his tongue into her navel, and finally came to the most secret part of her. Perhaps she'd think him a barbarian, unfit for the company of well-bred women, but the noises she was making were urgent and lovely, the slow, tense undulations of her hips so entrancing, that he bent to kiss her there and it felt right when she let out a half-sob and tangled her fingers in his hair and pushed herself toward his mouth, into his mouth. She had no patience with gentleness, his lady; amazed and flushed and more aroused than he had ever been in his life, he lapped at her, at the little nub at the apex of her sex, over it and around it, and she stiffened finally, her body bending into a bow, beautiful and primal.

“What...” she said to the ceiling after some moments, “what was that?”

“Didst like it?” he asked, laying his head on her stomach.

She let out a sound, somewhere between a groan and a sigh, and draped her arms over her eyes. “I loved it, as thou well knowst.” She peeked at him from under an elbow. “Wherever didst thou learn such a trick?”

He crawled up to lie next to her. "I didn't learn it anywhere. I just thought..."

“What?"

“That thou’rt as pretty there as anywhere else, and I...I wanted to.”

She gazed at him in the dim light, like he was a puzzle she very much didn’t know how to solve. “But what pleasure did it give thee?”

Arousal made it difficult to think clearly; she was flushed and lovely and he wanted to touch her again. He found that it was easiest to tell the truth. “I liked pleasing thee.”

She stared at him a moment longer, her eyes wide. Then she pounced on him.


Rumors were the lifeblood of the Untheileneise Court, Csevet knew, but he could not decide whether this new rumor was a good or a bad one. Certainly, a newly married couple could be forgiven excesses in this matter, and in this case, when an heir was so eagerly awaited, might even be encouraged. And even then, Csevet was pleased with his emperor’s moods in the mornings—this morning, his Serenity had been downright cheerful—which was not an unwelcome change in a man who felt his responsibilities so thoughtfully and keenly. One certainly could not fault her Imperial Highness, the Empress Csethiro, for keeping her husband happy.

But Csevet really had no idea how to tell his Serenity that the latest rumor running rampant in the Court painted him as a lover of such legendary finesse and skill that, apparently, virgins would faint before his might and married women might reach for smelling salts as well. The Empress, Csevet had been chagrined to learn, had cheerfully added fuel to the fire; when asked about it during a private ladies’ salon, she was reported to have replied, “His Serenity certainly does not lack the, ah, propensity to endlessly amuse us. He has a decidedly innovative and unpolluted mind, as you all well know,” and had refused demurely to elaborate.


In the days following her marriage, Csethiro came to the unhappy conclusion that she had been grievously and maliciously lied to. How else to explain the pounding in her breast and the (deplorable!) weakness of her knees whenever she caught even the merest glimpse of her husband? Worse still was dining with the Court; just last evening, she had been so distracted by the sharp angle of his jaw and the curve his lips made when he smiled—just like that, Against my neck in the moonlight, she’d remembered—that she had nearly lost her place in the conversation. Lie back and think of the Ethuveraz, my foot, she thought crossly and wished for something to hit.

But her errand today was not to moon over her husband like some insipid little ninny. She smiled at Ino and Mireän. Mireän gazed back boldly, but Ino looked anxious. In truth, Csethiro did not blame her, because she knew that the children idolized Maia and did not know what to make of her. 

“My name is Csethiro,” she said, breaking formality from the first. “I hope you will call me cousin, like you do with Maia.”

“We know who thou art,” Mireän said. “We saw thee at the wedding. Thou looked very pretty.”

“Thank you,” Csethiro said. “I wish I could remember seeing you, but the entire day is a blur in my mind. I was very nervous.”

Ino looked surprised at that. “Thou wert? But thou looked like a—a princess in a wondertale.”

“It must have been a great deal of fuss,” Mireän said, pulling a face. “Suler said getting ready like that takes hours. I don’t think I want to ever do it.”

“But Mama said that all of us have to get married when we get big!” Ino said to her sister. Then to Csethiro, “Oh, I want to, I want to wear a pretty dress and the jewels and walk in front of everybody—”

“Aunt Vedero didn’t, and she doesn’t want to, either,” Mireän said. “So not everybody.”

“Do you study the stars, too?” Csethiro asked before a mutinous-looking Ino could reply.

“No,” Mireän said. “Mama said that Aunt Vedero would be better off choosing a less mannish interest.” Her brow puckered. “But Idra and Cousin Maia say we—Ino and me—we can do and study whatever we like. So it’s very confusing. What makes an interest mannish? The stars are very boring. Does that mean men are boring?”

Csethiro bit back a smile. “Men, like any other group of people, can be interesting or boring or anywhere in between. I think studying the stars is a fine thing for a woman to do. I’ll have you know, I have unusual interests, too.” She lowered her voice conspiratorially. “When I was little, I learned how to use a sword.”

Mireän gasped. “Thou knowst how to fight with a sword?”

“I do,” Csethiro said, “I started learning when I was a little older than you.”

“How?” Ino asked.

“I had one of our guardsmen to teach me,” she said, and that started another deluge of questions about her expertise—could she teach them (maybe), how did she convince the guard to teach her (she had badgered him nearly to deafness), could she run a person through (yes, but she had not ever done so)--and others, too, about dresses and when could they take their hair out of their braids and wear jewels and combs and when would they be allowed to attend a real ball, and so many others. Csethiro, used to younger sisters and little nieces, answered as best as she could, and hoped that she had put any fears the children had had about her to rest.

“I’m so glad I could find time to talk to you both,” Csethiro said finally, smiling conspiratorially. “Dinners with the Court can be very boring.”

“What do grown-ups even talk about?” Ino asked.

“Political difficulties,” Mireän said wisely.

Csethiro laughed.


Maia and Csethiro carved out time together when they could. Mornings before breakfast, he meditated in the shady garden while she went through her morning exercises with her practice blade. She did not do them as attentively as she should have—Renet would have thumped her on her head with a stick had he seen her now—but she could not help but let her eyes drift to her husband.

He looked like a stone carving come to life, slate grey and absolutely still, she thought one morning as he meditated in the garden. Whatever stone-carver thought to fashion him would have had a wealth of imagination—what else could produce that combination of features, that thin blade of a nose, the sharp cheekbones and the hollows beneath them that waxed and waned with his worries? His mouth was soft, softer than any elf's, an echo of his Goblin heritage, and even softer were his eyes, the color of rain and melancholy, and when they crinkled in the corners as he smiled, she felt like her heart would stop.

Thou must put a to stop this, she told herself, but she feared it was much, much too late.


Csethiro found within very few days after her wedding that she very badly needed a secretary. There was no way poor Evro could keep track of the luncheons, teas, high teas, suppers, and salons to which Csethiro received invitations, let alone which ones Csethiro had decided to accept, which ones she had refused, and which ones required a written answer. Added to that was an entire mountain of letters, either delivered via the pneumatic system, messenger, or, even worse, in person, requesting her presence or patronage or some other service for some charity or assemblage.

She complained to Maia about it one night (and tried not to be too put out when he laughed at her) so she told Mer Aisava instead, who was, in this thing as in all things, much more helpful. He had recommended a secretary to her, a Min Saënu Banochenezhen, who had come highly recommended by the Countess Zulchenel upon that venerable lady’s retirement to her country estate. The girl was half-Pencharneise, highly efficient, and wore her reddish hair scraped ruthlessly away from her face. Saënu was a welcome addition to Csethiro’s retinue, not only because of the way she stemmed the growing tide of letters, but because of her company, for some days, Csethiro didn’t see Maia at all.

The problem with being married to someone with a job, Csethiro thought as she viciously speared a slice of chicken on a fork, is that I never really get to see the man. For the third day in a row, her husband had absented himself, leaving her to eat luncheon with her secretary when the ladies’ gatherings became too much of a dashing bore for her to handle.

He was too well bred to abandon her without warning, of course; each time, she had received a note written in his own hand, delivered usually by Mer Aisava. Today's read, 

 

C—

Deshehar to discuss latest proposal before House of Commons. Need to discuss contingencies. Dinner?

—M

It was a very good reason to miss lunch. But come dinner, his mind would be stuffed with a day's business, busy analyzing developments and planning, planning, always planning.

And she wanted to speak with him. She filled her mouth with another fork-full of chicken lest she begin screaming. This baby-making business was terrible, making her fundamentally incapable of carrying on in her usual stalwart manner. She didn’t want to stop—didn’t want to stop touching him and feeling his heart beat against hers in the dark, did not want to stop speaking to him in the candlelight in solitary splendor, where they could shed all of the accouterments and formalities of the crown and laugh with each other. And yet, for a few nights, her husband had been too tired to do anything but sleep. He had not visited her at all.

How stupid. How excessively sentimental. Csethiro could kick herself. So what if he had no use for her! She had plenty of use for herself. And long years spent at court had taught her the dangers of depending on the kind regard of a man: women needed to forge a path for themselves.

She did not notice Saënu slip out after Mer Aisava.


Maia knocked on her door that evening, looking sheepish. Csethiro, feeling rather sheepish herself, let him in.

“I’m sorry for missing dinner,” he said. “My meeting with Berenar ran late, and I thought I should come by and apologize in person.”

“I wouldn’t have been very good company anyway,” she said.

“No, thou art usually very good company,” he said. “Thou hast a brain, and it’s just what I need after a day of shouting people down.”

She sniffed. “Please, husband mine. I have never even heard thee raise thy voice.” It was one of things she liked best about him. Her father was so full of bluster, always babbling on about this indignity or that injustice. Silence was not a quality she’d thought to appreciate in a man, but Maia was always finding new ways to surprise her.

He sighed. “I have often thought that it is an emperor’s lot that he must have patience with folly, surrounded with it that he is. I am trying, but…” He came forward and enfolded her in his arms, burying his nose behind her ear. Slowly, the harp-string tension seeped out of him.

She patted his back, biting back a smile. “Whose folly gave thee a headache today?”

“Isthanar,” he said immediately. “The man is an idiot. We cannot provide education to the masses, he says. What will they do with it, he says. Prohibitively expensive, he says. ‘It is not a bridge, Serenity, education is a complex matter.’ As though the bridge was simple. As though I don’t know. As though….” He continued muttering into her shoulder.

She held him for a while longer as he fell silent and presently felt the change in his body and in the quality of his embrace. He moved his lips to her neck.

“Not tonight,” she said, regretfully disentangling herself. “I am feeling a little unwell.”

His face clouded over with worry. “Art sick? Should I send for a doctor? No, best to call Kiru, she was a cleric of Csaivo before I was in—”

“Maia, wait.” She lunged forward to catch his arm. “'Tis nothing serious, just a female complaint.”

“Nothing? Thou art not the kind of female, indeed the kind of person, to complain over trivialities.” He eyed her dubiously. “Thou lookst pale. I like this not, I—”

His concern warmed her even as she tried not to laugh. “Daft man, knowst nothing about ladies’ days?”

He flung his hands up into the air helplessly. “What is thy meaning?”

“I mean the monthly bleeding that afflicts every woman of childbearing age.”

“From where? What affliction?” He looked her up and down. “I see no blood.”

"'Tis an affliction in truth, but not serious." She kept from laughing with difficulty. “The bleeding occurs from a woman’s private place.”

He looked down immediately as though he expected to see her standing in a pool of blood. Csethiro lost the battle against her laughter then and he crossed his arms across his chest and looked distinctly grumpy. “I take it back. Thou art in perfectly good health.”

“Oh, don’t take it personally.” She wiped a tear away from her eye. “And I do appreciate thy concern. It’s just that most women prefer to avoid bedsport during this time.”

He nodded. “Well, all right.” He hesitated. “I just…well, goodnight, then.”

Again, she caught his arm. “Though you cannot…we cannot…wilt stay?” She swallowed. She could not help but feel like her marriage was rushing forward like a river, messy and completely out of her control. Now was the time to stem the tide a bit. I do not just want thee for that. “I miss thee.”

He sighed and took her hand. Together they sat on her bed. “I know, and I am sorry." And after a moment's hesitation, he offered, "I miss thee as well.”

“It would not be so bad,” she said, “if I had something to do. If I have to see Csoru’s face in a ladies’ salon again, I will not be held accountable for my actions. I am warning thee now.”

He smiled at her, wrapping a loose curl of her hair around his finger. “As it happens, I have a proposition for thee.”

“Yes?”

“I hate to importune thee like this,” Maia said. “But if thou art truly bored, and if Min Banochenezhen is right when she says that thou art declining more invitations than accepting…”

“Don’t be silly,” Csethiro said. “Thou art not importuning me. I can’t go on having endless teas with court ladies forever, Maia. I’ll go mad, and Esaran will have to lock me in the attic.”

“I believe that was the plot of a book." He tugged at the lock of hair he had wound around his finger, and when she obliged him by leaning closer, he kissed her on her cheek. "And I don't believe we have an attic. We shall have to appropriate the scullery, and Esaran will truly be put out by thee."

“Nevertheless.” She beamed at him. “What dost thou need me to do?”

He cleared his throat. “Well, more endless teas. With more ladies.”

“Thou art joking, surely.”

“I am not. I need thee to help me inveigle members of Parliament. I’ll explain tomorrow,” he said, suddenly smiling brightly, “with charts, even! Csevet has made up some cunning charts.”

She laughed at him again. “Did he affix labels onto them? It’s no wonder thou art besotted with him.”

“Colored labels! I am utterly besotted,” Maia agreed. “Dost wish me to stay? I can leave if thou wish'st.”

“Stay.” She leaned her head on his shoulder. His braid ticked her cheek.

“Thou art at perfect liberty to say no.”

He leaned back, and she caught that look on his face again—uncertain and kind and determined to plow through regardless of any discomfort he might bear—and thought again of his question at their first formal meeting: “Dach'osmin Ceredin, are you content with this marriage?” It had been a useless question, foolish and idealistic in the extreme. And yet...

She leaned forward this time. “Surely, there will come a time when I will refuse thee, but not tonight.” Elvish men, for all the vows they exchanged during the marriage ceremony, did not hesitate to heap cruelties and other abuses on their wives’ heads, but Maia would not. She could expose her secret and tender heart to him, and he would not cast it aside. Maia knew the value of such things. “I would rather be with thee. I miss thee, not just for what we do together. I miss this. I miss just talking to thee.” She kissed his cheek in return. "My husband, thou makest for very good company."

His blush, had he been full Elvish, would have been brilliant enough to put a sunrise to shame.


The next afternoon, he led Cesthiro and Saënu into what she had come to think of as his “war room”, where he made plans and conferred with his lord chancellor and secretaries and civil servants and a whole host of others. Berenar and Csevet were already there, seated around a table covered in lists and charts, and they all began the process of introducing her to their plans.

“So you see,” Berenar explained some time later, “if Edrehasivar’s plan to impose standard work conditions upon factories in the west is to work, the stipulations must be approved by three-fifths of the House of Blood and two-thirds of the House of Commons. You see here, your highness,” he continued, handing her a sheaf of papers, “is a report from a inquiry commissioned earlier this year to observe the work conditions of factories in Choharo and Sevezho and other industrialized cities. The conditions under which the workers labor are abominable.”

“We will not tolerate such abuses under our rule,” Maia said firmly.

“Yes, Serenity,” Csevet said. “As such, we have compiled a list of needed improvements and reasonable standards from a number of representative bodies—”

Csethiro flipped through the report. “Like the Cetho Workers’ League? Were they not accused of spreading incendiary pamphlets a little while ago?”

“That was mostly Chavar’s doing.” Maia looked grim. “And ‘incendiary’ is a relative term. The pamphlets were about malarial fevers.”

“And here,” Berenar said, pushing yet another stack of papers toward her, “is a working draft of a proposal that will be put to Parliament next spring. In short, the project will require that the government pump a great deal of money into the western provinces, money which shall, perforce, be levied from the east.”

She blinked. “There must be a great deal of opposition, especially in the House of Blood.”

Maia smiled grimly. “The Tethimadeise Conspiracy took care of much of that.”

“Even so,” Csethiro said. “The nobles and merchants who have controlling interests in these factories will surely protest that such standards are an imposition on their freedom to run a business as they see fit.”

“It matters not,” Maia said. “They will accuse us of pandering to the 'poor and wretched masses'. They will say that we have no notion of economics and business, that we are trying to destroy the Ethuveraz. It matters not. We will not have workers who labor in factories from dawn until dusk suffer because they are not paid a living wage, nor will we be content to see them suffer from diseases that can be prevented with proper medical care or because work conditions are too inhumane.” He set his jaw. “We will not have children die under our rule because they must do work for which they are not quick or tall or big enough, just to feed their families. We will not have children grow up illiterate because their government—their emperor—has decided that the products of their labor are worth more than they are. It is a gross abuse of power, and an it be within our power to improve their lot, we shall do so.”

Something strange was going on in her heart, some kind of swelling, a ballooning of love. His passion was infectious. She felt it flooding her. “What do you need us to do?”

Maia smiled, and invited her to change the world.


Overall, Cala thought, this arrangement is working out quite well.

Cala watched his emperor and his empress as they ate luncheon together. Three months had passed since the wedding, and they still managed to catch each other’s eye and blush like newlyweds.

Even more months had passed since that horrible night the emperor had been taken from his bed. Even now, Cala could not imagine what would have driven Dazhis to hurt the emperor so—an emperor who, Cala was often reminded, was a terribly lonely, often bewildered, and heartbreakingly earnest boy. That Dazhis had done such a thing sometimes crept up on him unawares and still had the power to compress his lungs and steal his breath. Killing Eshevis Tethimar had been easy in contrast; Cala still wondered, in quiet moments and disordered dreams, why the casting of a Revethmaz had been easier to bear than the betrayal of a friend.

Maia’s hand met his wife’s over the butter dish, and they both blushed again.

Not so lonely, not anymore. They were an oddly well-suited couple: he was soft-spoken and earnest and determined to do right; she was his personal lady of war, sharp and bright and ready to rend limb from bloody limb any idiot who dared to disparage her husband. Even Beshelar, that great stone-faced bastion of propriety, settled into his stance with a satisfied air. Cala smiled to himself, and the day went on.


 

(1) I know nothing of marriage, either. Advice lifted from The Shadow and the Star by Laura Kinsale.