Costis reached up absently and wiped the blood off his cheek; he hadn’t even noticed he had been cut.
It was a good thing that six months after the king had promised to halve the guard, he still hadn’t done it, because since then — in between visits from Eddis and Sounis — there had been two attempts on the king’s life: one in the palace, and one on what had been supposed to be a trip to deliver the queen of Eddis back to her own country.
Supposed to be, because that attempt left the king with a twisted ankle from being pulled from his horse (and Costis with the nasty cut on his face), and half of the riding party had been forced to return to the palace so that the king could be attended to by his own physician in his own quarters.
Costis sighed and wiped again at his face ineffectually, and chanced a look at the king, safely in bed and awaiting his physician — to find the king looking at him strangely.
“You’re bleeding,” he said, voice unreadable.
“Yes,” Costis agreed slowly, bewildered. Why was the king pointing out the obvious? “It’s barely a scratch, though.”
The king was silent for a moment, then cleared his throat. He opened his mouth, shut it, then opened it again, his face a picture of discomfort.
“Costis,” he began, then paused.
“The physician will be here in a few minutes,” Costis said, not really wanting to hear whatever had the king hesitating.
“No, this won’t take long. I wanted to say that, well, it seems I have changed your life quite a bit by dragging you into my...earlier plots.” The king smiled wryly, nodding at Costis’s hand, still touched with blood from his own wound. “I think already you have countered three — or was it four? — assassination attempts more than you expected, correct?” The king wiped dried blood off of his hook, shifted his weight, winced in pain.
“It was my duty, your majesty,” Costis said. “And my honor.”
“Ah yes,” the king said inanely, “of course it was. However, if you wish, you may go back to your old position as squad leader, in your old quarters.”
Costis blanched. He had been told by the queen to stay until he was told to go, but, that had been so long ago. “Am I being dismissed, Your Majesty?”
The king smiled crookedly. “You tell me.”
Costis exhaled. Opened his mouth to say — something, but —
“Your Majesty!” the physician said, running into the room.
The king’s crooked smile transformed immediately into a comical pout. “Ah, yes, Petrus, finally! Taking your time, were you?”
“Well,” Petrus huffed pointedly, “I will admit that I was not expecting to be called so soon after the last time.” He advanced on the prostrate king.
“I’ll try not to make a habit of it — ouch, be careful, you leech!” The king kicked his feet and threw his head back like a small child throwing a tantrum, his breath hissing out from between his teeth.
“You’re barely bruised, Your Majesty.”
The king pouted more. “I am very bruised, actually, and my head hurts and I’ve twisted my ankle.”
“Your Majesty,” Costis said awkwardly, backing up toward the door.
The king’s head lifted from the bed, his eyes meeting Costis’s. Costis froze, arrested by the king’s gaze. His eyes were very dark, Costis noted helplessly.
“Think about it,” the king said, completely serious, and closed his eyes, releasing Costis. “You are dismissed.” His head fell back again.
Costis thought about it.
Or, at least, he planned to think about it, but instead he went to his room and cleaned and bandaged the cut on his face. After that, he wrote a letter to his father, asking about how things were at home — and then another letter, to his sister.
Then he went down to the mess hall for supper, where he asked Aris very sincerely to tell him about how his family was doing and how he was settling in to his more permanent role inside the palace. (Aris blinked, asked, “Why the sudden interrogation?” and Costis said “Nothing! Just taking an interest in my friend.”)
Afterward, he returned to his room and folded the clothes he had strewn on the floor, and spotted a pair of trousers with a hole in them that he had been meaning to mend, so he pulled out his needle and thread and sewed the hole shut efficiently. He then took his sword down to the armory to sharpen, then returned to his room to polish it. He noticed that his sword belt was starting to fray, and went down to the tanner to place an order for a new one; it wouldn’t do to procrastinate until it was even more worn. Who knew, perhaps one day Costis would be in a battle and reach for his sword only to realize it had fallen off his horse a mile back, and then where would he be?
For that matter, he hadn’t practiced with his sword on his own for almost a week. It would be nice to surprise the king with his improvement the next time they practiced.
That’s if there’s another practice. The thought came unbidden to his mind, and he physically shook it away. Practice was important no matter — no matter what happened.
Besides, it wasn’t as if he had anything better to do.
However, after a few half-hearted drills, it became clear that he couldn’t focus. He sighed, his sword clattering to the ground, and silently cursed the king for giving him such anxiety, on top of everything else that had happened. Perhaps that alone would be a good reason to go back to his old position: there would be a much lesser probability of Costis having a heart attack. And even though it would technically be a demotion, it wasn’t as if he had ever been a real Lieutenant. He had just done what any self-respecting guard would have done in his place; they all would have protected the king, even if they didn’t like him.
Would they have done it as well as you?
Costis dismissed that uncharitable thought; of course they would have. Aris would have laid his life on the line to protect the king, especially since the queen had ordered it herself, and many others would do the same. Thinking otherwise was just arrogant. Costis was just following orders.
But ten gold cups? Full-sized? Which of your orders called for that?
He sighed, running a palm over his face. Who was he trying to fool? As if he would let anyone else be responsible for his king’s safety. Everyone else would just be following orders. For Costis, there was more at stake.
Decision made, he picked up his sword and returned to the palace, quickly making his way to the king’s quarters. He reached the doors just as Petrus was leaving.
“He’s resting, so you had best not disturb him,” he said.
“Oh,” Costis said, disappointed. “Of course, I’ll just...come back later.”
Petrus squinted at him. “You should also get some rest. You too have had a long few days. Or months.”
“Thank you, but I feel fine,” Costis said, firmly suppressing a yawn.
“I’m sure,” Petrus said dryly. “Might I suggest, however, at least trying to stay out of trouble?” He was much more authoritative when he wasn’t being confronted with their tantrum-throwing child of a king.
Costis huffed. “I’ll try, but I make no promises,” he said as he turned his back, strolling back down the corridor he came from.
He headed to the mess hall, hoping to arrive for supper before it got too crowded, but as he approached the corridor leading to the staircase, he stopped abruptly.
He hadn’t seen or heard anything, but a chill went down his spine.
The corridor had few windows, and was dimmer than most places in the palace, but it was still bright enough in the daylight — no one with any sense would attack at that time. Costis shook his head and continued toward the staircase.
At the top of the staircase, he felt his throat close up with unbidden panic and whirled around, unsheathed sword somehow already in his hand, but before his eyes could focus, he felt two hands plant themselves on his chest and push —
He was falling before he had enough air to shout.
Eugenides woke up to find Irene at his bedside, her hand covering his stump. This on its own would not be a strange occurrence, but the look on her face as she gazed at her fingers was...disquieted. Hesitant.
His queen was never hesitant.
“Irene?” he murmured. Gods, he was sore. “Is something the matter?”
She looked up. “How are you feeling?”
“Fine,” he lied. “Never better. So I know you’re not looking that concerned for me. I was barely bruised, I’m not that injured.”
“No,” Irene said. “You aren’t.” But still, she looked worried.
Eugenides mentally replayed her last statement.
You aren’t. You aren’t.
There was a knock at the door.
“Come in,” Irene called from where she was sitting by her husband’s bed. She had just been thinking about how tired she was of being in that exact position.
Teleus and one of the Guard’s squad leaders entered. “My Queen,” Teleus began, then stopped, glancing at her hand.
Irene looked down at her own hand wrapped around her husband’s, and clutched it more firmly. Eugenides was exhausted, so she wasn’t worried about him waking up. “Yes, Teleus, has something happened?”
“There’s been an attack on one of the Guard,” Teleus said. “Inside the palace. The attacker is still loose, so for your safety, and that of the King, we have stationed a squad outside this door. If I may, I would advise you not to leave until we have sorted this out, or at least put together a more secure detail.”
“I have nowhere to be,” Irene said calmly. “How was the attack made?”
“The guard was found at the foot of the stairs,” Teleus said. “Another saw him fall.”
“Could it have been an accident?” Irene asked.
“If I may, Your Majesty,” the other guard spoke for the first time. “Costis’s sword was out of its sheath, and a maidservant saw someone running down that corridor near the same time.”
Irene stiffened, stomach twisting. “Costis?” The other guard’s eyes widened at her tone, and he looked guiltily at Teleus, realizing that perhaps Teleus hadn’t mentioned Costis’s name for a reason.
“Yes,” Teleus admitted reluctantly. “Costis was the guard who was attacked. Aristogiton,” he gestured at the other guard, “was the man who saw him fall.”
“Why did you not mention this in the first place?” Irene demanded. Teleus gave a meaningful look to the still-sleeping king. Eugenides would not have taken an attack on his personal guard very well, and likely would have sneaked out of his own quarters to the infirmary at the first possible opportunity. And if an attack had been made on Costis, then unhindered access to the King was likely the motive. Irene exhaled through her nose, mouth tightening. “I assure you, he cannot hear a word you say. Have you found the attacker?”
“No,” Teleus said, “but the maidservant who saw him fleeing said that he wore the insignia of the Queen’s Guard on his shoulder. As we speak, the whereabouts of all the guards are being accounted for. Anyone who is missing without a reason will be investigated, discreetly.”
Irene brushed her thumb absently against the back of Eugenides’s hand, thinking. Finally, she said, “Be discreet only until you catch the culprit.” She sighed, finally letting go of her husband and standing up. “After that, deal with him swiftly and publicly. In the King’s name. And, of course, do the same with the most recent assassination attempt.”
“Yes, my Queen,” Teleus said, bowing. Aristogiton did the same.
“Wait,” said Irene. “How bad?”
Teleus straightened and sighed, rubbed his temples. “Multiple fractured ribs, a broken leg, a dislocated shoulder, fractured wrist bones and a concussion; additionally, since his sword was out of his sheath, he collided with it during the fall and gave himself a nasty gash on his thigh.” He cleared his throat and looked up at Irene. “But it could be worse.”
“Yes,” Irene said, mind racing. “Much worse.” Hard as it was to believe, it should have been worse, from the top of the cold, hard, stone staircase. It could have been worse; he could have —
She sat. “You are dismissed,” she said, turned away; she didn’t look away from her husband’s still face as she heard the door open and shut. A frown was starting to form between his eyebrows, an unconscious response to the anxiety in the room. He shifted onto his side, his right arm falling to the bed in front of her. He wasn’t wearing his hook.
Irene reached out quietly and smoothed the frown away with her thumb, stroked her hand against his cheek. Eugenides sighed, leaning into the touch.
Irene laid her hand on top of his handless wrist, and waited for her king to wake.
Eugenides paled. Several emotions crossed his face: fear, shock, anger, remorse, guilt — then anger again, his cheeks starting to flush. “My love,” he said tightly, “would you please be so kind as to hand me that inkpot?”
Irene stood up, slowly, and walked over to the writing desk. She ran a hand over the fine grain of the wood — feeling Eugenides’s eyes on her back the whole time — before resting her hand on the inkpot. “Shall I throw it for you, and save you the trouble?” Irene asked mildly, hefting the pot in her hand. It was heavy, and sturdy; she was sure it would leave a dent in the wall.
“Please,” Eugenides said, tilting his head back and closing his eyes.
Irene threw the pot. It left a dent.
“Damn,” Eugenides said, when she glanced at him over her shoulder. His eyes were half-open. “I was hoping it would break.”
“I think enough things have been broken today,” Irene said. “A leg, a wrist, a few ribs — more than enough, wouldn’t you agree?” Eugenides flinched.
“I’m a fool,” he spat. “A gods-damned fool, to think that this was over. To think that we could have a day’s rest — just a day. It’s my fault this happened.” He struggled to sit up and push his covers back, but winced mid-motion, his face tightening with pain.
“Lie back down,” Irene said sharply. Eugenides frowned at her and pushed himself up on his elbows. She crossed the room, bent over the bed, and planted a hand firmly into his chest. “Down,” she said, and pushed.
He lay down.
“A fool,” he whispered, his one hand clenched.
“A fool who has managed to injure himself three times in six months,” Irene said.
Eugenides huffed indignantly. “It’s a twisted ankle, and it isn’t as if I did it to myself.”
“Yes,” Irene said, “all the more reason to rest, to be vigilant tomorrow,” and did not smile when Eugenides pouted.
“You tricked me,” he said, voice tinged by a whine, and then she did smile.
He smiled too, but then faltered. “How bad is he?” Irene sighed and lay down next to him, pulling his head onto her shoulder.
“They say he was lucky. It could have — should have been much worse,” Irene said. “All the breaks were clean breaks, and his cut shows no sign of infection.”
“And his head?” Eugenides asked.
“They’ll know when he wakes up,” Irene said. “Now sleep.”
Eugenides frowned. “I don’t believe in luck,” he said.
“No,” Irene said. “Most people call it luck, but you and I know better.”
“What most people call luck I call a nuisance,” Eugenides snapped.
“Careful,” Irene said. “You wouldn’t want to offend them; you might fall out of their favor.”
“I only wish they would stop favoring me,” he whined.
Irene smiled. “You’re right. No matter what you do, the gods seem to be very fond of you and those who belong to you.”
“He doesn’t belong to me,” Eugenides said, rolling his eyes. “And neither do you.”
Irene kissed his forehead. “You fool.”
“But I am a fool who belongs to you,” Eugenides said, and closed his eyes, burrowing his head further into the crook of her neck, his hair tickling the side of her face. Irene closed her eyes as well, chest tight. She too had hoped that they could have at least one night’s sleep between one crisis and the next.
The first thing Costis noticed when he woke up was an overwhelming sense of pain.
The second thing he noticed was his queen, sitting by his bed.
He opened his mouth to say something, anything, but all that came out was a strangled, wounded moan that faded into a whimper. The queen looked up.
“Good evening,” she said. Her voice was calm, and Costis was grateful; he latched onto her calmness and used it as an anchor in a sea of pain. Eventually, the pain faded until it was bearable, and he lay there, gasping. He couldn’t get enough air, his chest hurt, everything hurt.
Sensing that he hadn’t found the ability to speak yet, Attolia continued, “You fell, and have been unconscious for two days. I won’t ask how you’re feeling, because I’m neither blind nor deaf, but — well.” She paused. “It’s good that you’re awake.”
Costis stared. The queen, at his bedside. The queen, watching him sleep, waiting for him to wake up, glad that he was awake. The queen, thinking that he mattered.
Warmth filled Costis’s chest, and some of the pain faded away for a moment. He blinked rapidly and looked away, face feeling hot. All of the lights in the room were too bright. His head hurt. He wasn’t prepared for this.
The queen smiled. If Costis didn’t know better, he would say it was gentle, but the queen wasn’t gentle. She was steel, not silk, no matter how soft she had felt in his arms once.
“I must go,” she said, interrupting his hugely inappropriate thoughts. Of course, he thought, she would have more important things to attend to. “Besides,” she said, nodding to the curtains separating his bed from the rest of the infirmary, “your friend is waiting.”
The queen stood, and some of the warmth seeped out of Costis, but then she added, “I’ll be back tomorrow, as soon as I can,” and Costis felt his cheeks heat. He closed his eyes, overwhelmed. His head hurt.
He heard her turn to go, but didn’t open his eyes. When her footsteps faded away, he cursed himself, and wondered why she always made him feel so tongue-tied.
Slowly, Costis started picking apart the tangled threads of pain in his mind. It was hard to separate into different pieces, because it was so huge and all-encompassing, but he had to try.
First, his head, a heavy, dizzy, aching thing. When he opened his eyes, even the dim light in the room hurt, and his ears rang. His stomach churned and he felt sick, and his vision was blurry. The last time he had felt like this was when he fell from a horse during the winter when he was thirteen, hitting his head on the frozen earth.
His shoulder ached dully, but that was a mild complaint compared to the sharp pain in his chest. Broken ribs, he noted. His right thigh was bandaged, and throbbed in time with his heartbeat when he focused on it. His left leg was splinted, as was his left wrist.
What had happened to him?
The curtain to his room parted, and Aris stepped in, face pale. “Costis,” he said, choked. “Oh gods, Costis.” He collapsed into the chair the queen had just vacated and, his hand trembling, reached out and touched Costis’s unharmed right hand. “You’re okay,” he whispered.
Costis made a face, and found enough strength to rasp, “Not quite.”
Aris laughed, relieved. “No,” he said, then sobered. “But it could have been much worse, a fall like that.”
Costis frowned. “What happened?”
Aris removed his hand and clasped it with his other in his lap. He stared at them for a moment, before saying quietly, “You were pushed. Down the staircase near the king’s quarters. I — I saw you fall.”
Costis winced. “By whom?”
“We don’t know,” Aris said, “but he had on a guard’s uniform. We’ll find him,” he assured. “Until then, another guard and I will take turns staying with you, and the king and queen will be heavily guarded.”
Costis blanched. “The king,” he croaked, panic rising. “Is he — ”
“They’re fine, they’re both fine,” Aris said, then smiled, and Costis relaxed, heart pounding. “You, on the other hand,” he said mock-sternly, “need rest. You were very lucky, but there’s no need to counteract that by straining yourself.” He pulled up the blanket around Costis’s shoulders.
Costis huffed, but closed his eyes obediently, relief mixing with exhaustion and pain to put him to sleep.
“I’m serious,” Aris said softly. “The gods protected you that day.”
Costis stiffened, remembering that night on the roof, the king falling and hanging, suspended, frozen in midair. The gods, yes, but perhaps not the ones Aris was thinking of.
“I’ll stay here,” Aris was saying. “Do you need anything? Water? Lethium?”
Costis shook his head ‘no’, then winced as the movement made it pound harder. “Sleep,” he said.
“Sleep,” Aris agreed fondly, and settled back in his chair, touching Costis’s hand again and leaving it there when Costis didn’t protest.
The sheets were very cool against Costis’s fevered skin. His head hurt, his chest hurt, his thigh hurt. Aris’s hand was rough and solid. Costis wondered where his king was.
If Costis were being honest, he would admit that he had wondered if the king were going to visit him that night, since he didn’t during the day. As it was, he never found out if the king did visit that first night, because he slept soundly the entire time — they must have given him lethium.
Besides, he had already been visited by the queen — did he really need so much attention? Although he had to admit, if only one monarch were to visit him in the infirmary, he would have expected it to be the king.
It didn’t matter, Costis told himself.
“Costis?” A medic poked her head in through the partition. “You have a visitor.” She twisted her hands nervously, eyes flickering between Costis and the area outside the partition. “In here, Your Majesty.”
Costis froze. The king? “...oh,” he said, stomach fluttering.
“Oh?” the queen repeated, stepping inside and sitting down. Even in the plain wooden chair, she was every bit as regal as in her ornate throne.
“I — my queen,” Costis said, absurdly disappointed. He had thought…he shook his head internally. It was stupid to be so greedy. “You didn’t have to — ”
“I don’t have to do anything, Costis.” The queen was smiling, but the steel in her voice was clear, and Costis closed his mouth so quickly his teeth clacked. She smiled wider. “I’m only here because I want to be.”
Costis blinked, unsure what to say.
“Well, in any case,” the queen continued, her voice mild again, “it seems you are well enough to talk today. How are you feeling?”
Well, currently Costis’s face felt very warm, and his chest felt very tight, but he didn’t think that was what she had meant, so he focused harder. “My ribs hurt less, so I’m breathing easier,” he began, still a little uncomfortable. “My head is a little clearer now, but I won’t be surprised if that isn’t true in an hour. My right leg itches.”
“So matter-of-fact,” the queen mused. “Completely devoid of feeling.”
Costis flushed. “I was only answering your — ”
The queen held up a hand. “No, I know, and you answered it very heroically and not at all honestly. But put aside the armor for a moment, and tell me how you feel.”
“My queen?” Costis said weakly.
“Truly, Costis,” the queen said, “I understand your discomfort with emotions. But I am intimately familiar with such a sentiment, and do not require any more of it.”
Of course, Costis realized, she was talking about the king, who Costis still wasn’t sure had shown his true colors. Still, Costis thought, it wasn’t as if the queen were much different. She too had masks, and in fact shunned displays of true emotion even more fiercely than her husband. She was rarely uncalculated.
Maybe even this gentleness, this interest in his well-being, was nothing more than a facade. But then, if she really didn’t care, why did the queen’s eyes seem so dark, so intense? Costis felt trapped by them, frozen, and he was abruptly reminded of the king.
He felt dizzy. It probably had something to do with how painfully his head was pounding.
Well, that was as good a place as any to start.
“My head hurts,” he said. “I find it difficult to eat or to focus, and it’s very irritating.” He hesitated. “And…”
“And?” Attolia asked sharply.
Costis bit his lip. “I’m worried about the king. I’m afraid what will happen if I’m — ” He cut himself off, feeling he had already said too much.
“Ah,” the queen said, relaxing. This time, when she smiled, it seemed more genuine. “Is that so? You’re worried what will happen if you’re not there, yes?”
Costis stared at her. She seemed almost...pleased. “I know he’ll be fine, I’m sure he’s well-guarded.”
“And yet, you’re worried,” the queen said.
Costis made a face. “Yes.”
The queen leaned back, pensive. “Why? Do you have some reason to question the loyalty of the guard?”
“No, no, of course not!” Costis said hastily. “...my queen,” he added. “I have full faith in the guard; it counts the most noble warriors in the land in its ranks.”
“So?” the queen said, drawn out, eyebrow raised. In that moment, she looked very like her husband. Costis flushed.
“It’s...different. For me. Um.” He winced.
“Oh? How so?” But when she saw his expression, the queen relented. “Shall I guess?” When Costis didn’t respond, she continued, “It seems you hold my husband in high regard — despite the trouble he has put you through.”
“My queen!” Costis protested, because he still had some sense.
The queen waved a hand. “Fine. Despite recent events. You feel protective of him, and think that your...loyalty makes you uniquely capable of guarding him.”
Costis closed his eyes, mortified, wishing he had the strength to cover his face, but he felt paralyzed.
Costis’s eyes snapped open. The queen was sitting up straight, now, hands folded neatly in her lap, regal, beautiful, and completely and utterly impossible to refuse. “The king told me about his offer to you, and I have no intention of forcing your decision, but I believe you are most needed at his side. You are the best for the position,” she continued, failing to notice (or care) that Costis’s face had turned beet red. “My husband trusts you.”
Costis stopped breathing. He does? Costis wanted to ask, but he didn’t know how to do so without sounding pathetic. Instead, he said, softly, “Oh.” It was barely an exhale.
“I trust you,” the queen said, and if Costis had had any thoughts at all about leaving, they would have been wiped away by those three words. He floundered, having no idea how to answer that.
Of course, showing that luck was finally on his side, that was the moment Costis’s head chose to start swimming. He groaned in relief, thankful he wouldn’t have to respond — then groaned again in pain, shutting his eyes and lifting his hands to his head, gritting his teeth when that caused pain to lance through his ribs.
“I’ve overtaxed you,” the queen said. “I’ll leave.”
Costis wanted to deny it, but it was true: he was exhausted, and everything hurt. And he was in shock.
The queen paused in front of the curtain, her back to Costis. “I do hope you’ll consider my input,” she said. “I believe you should stay with the king.” She turned, looked over her shoulder, and smirked. “Besides,” she said wickedly, “I don’t know that even I would promise ten full-sized gold cups for my husband’s safety.”
Costis groaned again. Of course the king had told her.
“Sleep now,” the queen said. “Think about it when you wake up.”
She really was impossible to disobey. Costis slept.
He woke up after a few minutes of pain — during which his thigh had begun to throb, and his leg to ache — and the medic came in and fed him lethium, which he gratefully accepted. Slowly, his eyes stayed closed longer and longer when he blinked, and he slid into unconsciousness. He didn’t remember waking up until the next morning.
Eugenides had taken to not wearing his hook in private, so when Irene entered his room, he was sitting in front of the window, absently rubbing his stump. Without looking at her, he asked softly, “How is he?”
Irene sighed. “How do you think he is? The boy is in pain. And he’s worried.”
Eugenides turned to face her, frowning. “About what?”
“About you, you ninny,” Irene said. “He has no idea what’s happening with the man who attacked him, and he’s afraid of what will happen to you without him near. The first thing you asked me was how he was. Don’t you think he might want to know the reverse?”
“Irene,” Eugenides said, his voice strained. “I don’t want to talk about this.”
She ignored him, continuing, “Why haven’t you gone to visit him yet?”
“It hasn’t been a priority,” Eugenides said acidly. “Besides, I hardly think he’s pining.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Irene countered. “When I visited him today, he wasn’t quick enough to hide the disappointment on his face. I’m certain it wasn’t me he was hoping to see.”
Eugenides ran his hand over his face. He didn’t want to be having this conversation. “Irene, please.”
Irene’s face hardened, and she turned to leave. “I’m going to my rooms,” she said tightly. “Don’t join me unless you’ve seen him first.” The door swung shut behind her.
Eugenides sulked for two hours, staring out the window without seeing anything, before easing out of the chair. He hesitated at the door, then returned to the bed to slide the cuff of his hook onto his stump, fastening it securely.
He made his way down to the infirmary, padding quietly down the stone corridors and sticking to the shadows, so his guards didn’t see him.
When he reached the infirmary, Eugenides froze. There were four guards outside of a curtained-off area, seated around a table, playing cards. They looked up, then scrambled to their feet as one, chairs scraping against the floor in their haste. One of them opened his mouth to speak.
Eugenides shook his head, holding up a hand. The guard shut his mouth. Eugenides gestured to the few occupied beds in the room, the inhabitants of which were fast asleep. He smiled, and hoped it was reassuring — he was out of practice with charm, and couldn’t be sure — before silently telling the guards to sit down.
Slowly, they sat, and Eugenides skirted past them and ducked under the curtain.
Inside, there was a bed, a small table, and a chair. The table held a candle and a book, the chair held a sleeping guard — Aristogiton, Eugenides’s mind supplied — and the bed held Costis.
Eugenides inhaled shakily. Costis.
His face was bruised and scraped and lethium-slack, the hand he left out of the covers was bandaged, and from what Eugenides could see of his torso, that was bandaged as well. But his breathing didn’t sound too labored, and there was healthy color in his cheeks — and Eugenides exhaled; he hadn’t realized he was holding his breath.
He stepped carefully over to the other side of Costis’s bed, one eye on Aristogiton in case he woke up. Soon, though, he stopped paying attention to anything other than Costis’s sleeping face. His dark eyelashes and parted lips were mesmerizing, and Eugenides reached out without thinking. With his right hand, which wasn’t there.
Eugenides jerked back, heart pounding. It seemed impossible, but he had forgotten. Never — not for a single second since Irene had taken his hand and changed him irrevocably — never had he forgotten that he had a deadly piece of metal where his flesh-and-blood hand should be.
How was it that Costis had managed to make him forget?
Chest tight, Eugenides reached out again, this time with his hand, and touched Costis’s cheek. He knew it wouldn’t wake Costis up, not in that drugged state, but he was still hesitant. Gentle. His heart was still pounding.
He bent down, as if in a trance, until the loose strands of his hair brushed Costis’s shoulder, until he could feel Costis’s slow exhales warm on his own face. He leaned further in, and brushed his mouth softly over Costis’s brow. A blessing, the kiss of a benevolent monarch, perhaps — but more probably, just because Eugenides wanted to feel Costis’s skin against his lips.
There was a rustle from the other side of the bed, and Eugenides straightened and stepped back hastily. Aristogiton had woken up, and was staring at him wide-eyed. “Your Majesty,” he whispered, his sleep-heavy voice a question.
“I — ” Eugenides said, voice cracking. He cleared his throat, cursed himself, and stood taller. “I came to see Costis, but as he’s asleep, I’ll be leaving now.”
“...I see,” Aristogiton said, surprise fading. Confusion edged with something that looked uncomfortably like amusement crossed his face. “Well, I’ll tell him you came.”
“No!” Eugenides said sharply. “No...I’ll come back later. Don’t — don’t tell him.”
Aristogiton blinked, then frowned, amusement gone. “As you wish, Your Majesty.”
“Yes,” Eugenides said inanely, and fled.
That night, he slept in his wife’s bed, but he didn’t sleep soundly.
The next morning, he woke up curled against Irene, hand clutching her waist and stump pressed between his chest and hers. Their legs were tangled together. Eugenides blinked his sleep-crusted eyes open and lifted his head from where it was cradled against her shoulder, focusing on her face.
In repose, there was no one more beautiful than the queen of Attolia. Asleep, her face lost any stains of stress, coldness, or cruelty, and all that was left was the curve of her mouth and the arch of her eyebrow and the contour of her cheekbone — and the way her eyelashes swept against her skin; they were very long, and very dark.
They reminded him of Costis, and how it felt to kiss him, even on the forehead.
Irene’s eyes opened, and fixed on him immediately, taking in the tension in his body, his wide eyes, the blush on his cheeks. She opened her mouth. A frantic need to clear his mind pulled at Eugenides, and before Irene could speak, he leaned in and kissed her. She made a noise of surprise against his mouth and he pressed himself closer, praying that Irene would just let it happen and not ask questions, but knowing that she could practically taste his desperation.
After a moment of hesitation, Irene tangled her hand in Eugenides’s hair and bit his lower lip, making him gasp, breathless, but then slid her hand down to grip his neck firmly, gentling the kiss. Eugenides sighed, and she hummed.
Irene pulled back, kissed Eugenides on the nose lightly, snorting when he wrinkled it in irritation. “Better?” she asked.
Eugenides stifled another sigh. Of course she had seen straight through him. He should probably have just told her from the start, but — but —
But if he had done that, he would have had to acknowledge it himself, and he still wasn’t sure he was ready for that, so all he said was, “No.” And, well, it was true; he could still feel the warmth of Costis’s skin against his lips. Eugenides looked down, making a face.
“No,” Irene said, and grabbed his chin, yanking it up until he had to meet her eyes. She held his gaze for a long moment, during which Eugenides tried half-heartedly to escape her grip, before she finally released him. “Well,” she said inscrutably, “I guess we’ll just have to keep trying.”
“A good plan,” Eugenides said, and pressed a light kiss on Irene’s collarbone. Then he looked up at her from under his eyelashes and did it again. With teeth.
That night, as he made his way to the infirmary, Eugenides kept Irene’s laughter in his thoughts, reminding himself of how much he loved her. His reaction to Costis the previous night had been a lapse in judgment, he told himself, a confused maelstrom of guilt and affection and worry that had manifested as attraction.
And yet, the way his stomach clenched when he had seen Costis’s sleeping face felt so similar as to when he woke up to Irene’s every morning.
It was with that unsettling thought that Eugenides entered the infirmary, his boots hitting the stone floor soundlessly. The four guards — he should probably learn their names, if he was going to make a habit of this — were in the same place as the night before, but didn’t hear him coming until he stopped two feet away from them and cleared his throat. One of them began to rise out of his chair and opened his mouth to speak, but remembered himself quickly, and sat back down.
Eugenides nodded to them and stepped past toward Costis’s bed. Ducking under the curtain, he found Costis asleep again; Aris, however, was wide awake and waiting.
“Your Majesty,” he said quietly, standing up and bowing. Eugenides flickered an uneasy glance at Costis’s sleeping form, but Aris smiled. “Don’t worry, he is sleeping quite deeply even with a lower dose of lethium.” His smile faltered. “He still has a lot of healing to do.”
Eugenides grimaced. “Yes,” he said, not knowing what else there was to say.
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence, and then Aris, still standing, bowed once more. “I’ll give you some privacy, Your Majesty.”
Eugenides blinked, startled. He hadn’t expected that. The thought of being left alone with Costis, even when he was asleep —
Eugenides sighed, rubbed his hand over his face, and shoved aside the anxiety. He could handle this.
He glanced again at Costis’s face, but this time something caught his eye. A thin white line ran down Costis’s right cheek, barely visible in the flickering candlelight — that must have been how Eugenides had missed it before. It was the remnants of the cut made to Costis’s face on that ill-fated trip to Eddis, the last attempt on Eugenides’s life.
“Ah, Costis,” Eugenides whispered, “forever putting yourself in harm’s way. Whatever shall I do with you?”
Costis shifted restlessly, mumbling in his sleep, his forehead creasing; and without thinking, Eugenides shushed him softly, reaching out and smoothing the hair back from his face. Costis sighed, his movements subsiding and his face clearing. He turned his head into the touch — and Eugenides inhaled, exhaled, reminded himself to keep breathing.
He pulled his hand away, embarrassed at his own reaction — it was rather silly to feel so protective of someone who was older and bigger than him — and Costis stirred again, eyes opening a crack.
“Hmm?” he hummed, groggily, and when he spotted Eugenides, his eyes opened further. “My king?” Costis croaked, still half-asleep.
Eugenides’s breath caught in his throat. “Costis,” he said breathlessly. He paused, then smiled. “Did you know that’s the first time you’ve called me that?”
Costis frowned, sitting up. “Is not,” he said, then grinned, the lethium making him stray from propriety. “Although I guess you wouldn’t remember very well, drunk as you were.”
Eugenides laughed, surprised. “I had forgotten that,” he said, then fell silent, remembering that night on the roof, losing his balance only to find himself suspended in midair. He rubbed absently at the place where the cuff of his hook met his wrist.
Costis’s grin faltered, as if he, too, remembered that night. “I haven’t since then,” he admitted. “I didn’t want to presume.” His face, more open than usual, showed all of his nervousness, and he looked down.
“Costis,” Eugenides said softly. “Quite a lot has happened since that day I made you hit me. If I am not your king by now, I don’t know whose king I am.”
Costis looked up at that, wide-eyed and appearing absurdly young. “You are my king,” he said earnestly.
Eugenides swallowed, and didn’t respond. “Go to sleep,” he said instead, voice rough.
A shade of panic came into Costis’s eyes. “Will you be here when I wake up?” he asked, hesitant.
Eugenides bit his lip, something twisting sweet and sharp in his chest. He wanted very badly to say yes — but he didn’t want to lie to Costis, even though he knew that Costis wouldn’t remember it, drugged as he was. Instead, Eugenides pushed lightly at Costis’s shoulder until he lay down, and drew the blanket carefully around his bandaged frame.
“Go to sleep,” he repeated, brushing away Costis’s hair again in a moment of self-indulgence. Costis leaned into it again and closed his eyes, his breath evening out instantly in sleep.
Eugenides stayed there, frozen, for what felt like an eternity, before snatching his hand back as if it had been burned, calling himself all sorts of fool.
He ducked out from inside the curtain, barely nodding at the guards collected there, and left the infirmary in a hurry, half-running back to his chambers. Once there, Eugenides hastily made his way through the passage to Irene’s chambers, shutting the door loudly when he reached his destination. He began to strip off to his underclothes.
Irene sat up in bed, obviously having been already awake. “Eugenides?” she asked, but before she could say anything else, Eugenides pulled on a nightshirt and crawled into bed with her, pulling her down to lie next to him. He buried his head in between her neck and shoulder and threw an arm around her waist.
Irene sighed, and didn’t mention the fact that her husband was trembling against her. She stroked his hair until he settled, his breaths (which were verging on panicked) slowing. “Hush,” she said, and didn’t ask. She didn’t need to.
“Please,” Eugenides said, muffled, “don’t cut off my other hand.”
Irene smiled. “That would hardly be fair, given that I was the one who forced you into visiting him.” She raised an eyebrow. “Besides,” she said, “he isn’t your mistress yet.”
“Nor will he be,” Eugenides said sharply, lifting his head. “Even if he were interested — which he very much isn’t — do you think I’d do that to him?” He laughed mirthlessly. “He’d lose all respect from the guard, who would think that he gained his position by warming my bed; he would be forced to deal with courtiers trying to gain my favor through him; and most importantly, he would be faced with much more danger, only instead of attempts on my life, they would be attempts on his. All for what: a lover with screaming nightmares and only one hand?”
Irene opened her mouth, but Eugenides interrupted. “My love,” he said firmly. “I’m tired. I don’t want to talk about this.” He turned over, his back to her.
Irene pressed her lips together, but didn’t argue. She had done her part. She could do no more.
Aris shifted, restless, as he waited outside Costis’s closed-off bed. The other four men were playing cards, quietly laughing and bantering: mocking Markos, who was losing terribly, and marveling at Legarus, who was winning ruthlessly.
But Aris was not playing cards; however hard his men badgered him, he ignored them, preoccupied. Instead, he sat at the table, eyes on the curtain around Costis’s bed, thinking about the king and Costis — and the queen, as well.
The queen visited Costis whenever she could, or so it seemed, even when Costis had been asleep, banishing Aris with just a sideways glance. What was it about Costis that invited such attention? And why was it that the king took days to visit, and even then only at night, when Costis would most likely be asleep?
Then there was the matter of the king looking so guilty when Aris had seen him that first night, as if he had fully intended to come and go with neither Costis nor Aris ever being the wiser. What was there to gain by visiting and watching a sleeping man?
Aris sat slightly more upright. He could hear murmured voices from within the curtain. Costis had woken up, clearly, but Aris couldn’t imagine he would be very good conversation, drugged as he was.
Scarcely two minutes later, the king exited the curtain like a man being chased, barely sparing a glance for the Aris and the rest as he hurried by. He left so quickly that Aris didn’t have time to do more than stand.
The men looked at him as one, eyes wide, and Aris ducked hastily inside the curtain.
“Costis, what — ” he began, then stopped short. Costis was fast asleep, face relaxed and free of worry. And he was smiling.
Aris huffed and settled in the chair to sleep, until Costis woke up.
Aris was already awake when Costis woke up, but gave him time to gather his bearings. He brought him a pitcher of water and cup, then propped him up on pillows and helped him sit up and wash his face, taking care not to aggravate his wrist and his ribs. After Costis, pale from exertion, settled back down, Aris sat back in his chair and tried to figure out how to broach the topic of the king.
As it turned out, he didn’t have to, because it seemed barely a minute had passed before Costis asked, “Did the king come last night?”
“Yes,” Aris said carefully.
“Oh.” Costis’s voice was unreadable. “I thought perhaps I had dreamed it.”
“Dream of the king often, do you?” Aris teased.
Aris had only meant it as a joke, and watched in consternation as Costis went first pale, then pink.
“Costis!” Aris gaped.
“What?” Costis asked, defensive. “It’s not as if I can help it!”
“Gods,” Aris said with feeling, slouching in his chair. “I can’t say I was expecting that.” There was a minute of tense silence during which Costis squirmed with embarrassment and Aris struggled to comprehend this new revelation.
Then, slowly, a wicked grin overtook his face. “And here I was expecting to ask you about your relationship with the queen.”
“The queen!” Costis exclaimed. “What would make you think that?”
“Well, what would you think if the queen had been visiting me at all times of day, whenever she could,” Aris said, exasperated. “Did you know that the queen was the first person to come see you after you fell? Before even me.” Then, when he saw the look on Costis’s face, he paused. “You didn’t know.”
Costis didn’t say anything.
“There you were, unconscious,” Aris said, “and there was the queen, keeping vigil for over an hour; she practically bullied the healers into letting her stay while they stitched you up — or so the nurse told me.”
“I didn’t know,” Costis said. “Still, I don’t know how you assumed it was — like that. As if the queen would ever want that,” he said dismissively.
Aris frowned. “What about you? Would you want that? At least tell me now, so I can be more prepared.”
“No, of course not,” Costis said hastily. “She is my queen, I — I couldn’t — ” he cut himself off helplessly. “The king would kill me just for thinking about it,” he said. “Don’t you remember Dite? He banished him.”
Aris laughed. “I’m fairly certain he wanted to be banished. Still, I take your point.” And he did believe Costis, he had to, even though there had been a slight undercurrent of panic in Costis’s voice. Even though Costis had just said all the reasons he couldn’t have feelings for the queen, not that he didn’t.
Wanting the king like that was crazy in and of itself, but Costis was crazy, so that made a strange sort of sense. But to want both the king and the queen? That would be too crazy even for Costis.
Aris stood up and stretched after an hour, saying, “I need to sleep, Costis, otherwise how will I stay awake to guard you at night? Don’t worry, Elias will come take over. We wouldn’t leave you alone with Legarus, who knows what trouble that boy will get into.” Costis bit his lip, wanting to protest the trouble Aris and his men were going to for him, but knowing that Aris would smack him if he said a word about it.
As he was leaving, Aris shook his head, laughed, and said, “I can’t believe I didn’t know; you’re terrible at keeping secrets.”
“How could you have known if even I had no idea?” Costis said ruefully, and tried not to notice the pitying look Aris gave him. He had a lot to think about.
How had he not known? Or maybe he had, somewhere deep inside, and just not let himself think about it. Now, he couldn’t stop thinking about it, about all the stupidly revealing things he had said to the king, and even just about the king, over the past few weeks.
Costis wished he could just go back to sleep and not have to think about the king, but he couldn’t; thoughts of the king were the very reason he could not sleep. And besides, his head and his body hurt too much.
Costis felt himself starting to panic. What was he supposed to do now? Aris was right, he was terrible at keeping secrets. He had no faith in his ability to keep this hidden from the king — he remembered once when he was fifteen and had a crush on the daughter of a neighboring farmer, and everyone had known. His father, his sister, his cousins, everyone. Costis knew his own strengths, and subtlety was not one of them. The king would know before sundown, and the queen —
Oh gods, the queen, she would absolutely find him out, would know with just one glance, and then she would exile him, cut off his hand, execute him —
“Costis,” the nurse said, and Costis’s terrified thoughts ground to a halt. “The queen is here.”
Costis blanched, and mentally said a quick prayer to the gods — the new ones, and then the old ones too, since he was starting to believe in them despite himself — before he sat up in bed.
“Good morning, Your Majesty,” Costis said nervously, as the queen entered; he didn’t think now was an appropriate time to say “my queen”.
The queen sat down, smoothing her skirts. “Good morning, Costis. You look well.”
Costis smiled crookedly. “You flatter me, Your Majesty.”
Privately, he thought that the queen herself looked very beautiful today: her hair pinned artfully back so that only a few ringlets were free to frame her face, while the rest tumbled down her back; her eyes lined in kohl and her lips painted scarlet red. Costis felt his mouth go dry.
It seemed it wasn’t just attraction to the king that he had been repressing.
He forced himself to look away from the curve of her jaw and the arch of her neck, and said, “Truly, though, I am feeling much better.”
“Well enough to have company?” the queen asked.
“My queen?” Costis asked, startled into making the slip.
The queen smiled. “Not me, unfortunately, though I would enjoy visiting with you.” Costis flushed.
“Actually, I cannot stay,” the queen continued, “but I wanted to tell you to expect a visit from your king today.”
“He’s coming?” Costis asked, then cursed himself for his all-too-revealingly hopeful tone.
“If I have to order him,” the queen said dryly.
Costis bit his lip. “Oh,” he said. “I look forward to it.”
The queen gave him a look that he couldn’t understand. Amused, like she was mocking him, but also pleased.
“Yes,” she said. “You will, won’t you? I don’t know that many would feel the same way.” She smiled, but there was an edge of wryness to it. “You truly do love your king.”
Costis froze, heart pounding. He waited for the recrimination, for the particular brand of wrath that only a slighted monarch could wield — but nothing. The queen just sat further upright, watching, waiting for his reaction.
Under her intent gaze, Costis felt the truth swelling up in his chest, choking him with its enormity, and he wouldn’t — couldn’t lie to her. Or to himself.
“Yes,” he said. But he wasn’t finished, he had to tell the whole truth, even if he damned himself further: “And my queen.”
The queen inhaled sharply, nostrils flaring. Her eyes widened and her mouth parted with surprise, and as Costis watched with a mixture of apprehension and fascination, two red spots appeared high on her cheekbones.
The air was electric, and Costis held his breath, afraid that if he said anything, the sky would come crashing down around his ears. He could feel his heartbeat in his throat, pulse pounding behind his temples, as if he had run a great distance.
The queen pressed her lips into a thin line. “I’ll take my leave of you now,” she said brusquely, and stood up, leaving with such speed that Costis didn’t even have time to blink.
He breathed out slowly when she was gone, the air suddenly feeling heavy and cold around him. He shivered. Anxiety and regret churned in his stomach; he was sweating. Now that the queen was gone, all of his pain washed back in like the tide, until the ache of his ribs and his head and his leg mixed toxically with his apprehension.
Costis’s vision swam nauseatingly. He leaned down and reached blindly for the pot next to his bed, and was sick.
This would end badly for him.
Costis refused to nap that afternoon, even though the nurse frowned at him, even though his eyelids drooped and he stifled yawns every few minutes, because the king was coming. The queen had told him that the king was coming.
But afternoon faded into evening, and he finally gave up hope, realizing the king wouldn’t come. Maybe the queen had forgotten; he was sure she was busy, and had more important things on her mind — she and the king both probably did.
Still, he had hoped, and he could taste the disappointment, bitter and sharp.
“Aris?” he called, feeling abruptly lonely.
“Yes?” Aris came in, looking harried, and Costis forgot his own troubles.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. Now that he wasn’t preoccupied, he could hear that the infirmary was much louder than it normally was.
Aris sighed, running a hand over his face tiredly. “Nothing,” he said. “It’s just that, with the preparations for the visitors, there have been more accidents among the servants, so there are more people in the infirmary than normal. The men and I have been taking turns running errands for the nurses when we can.”
Costis sat up, frowning. “Visitors?”
“Oh damn,” Aris cursed. “I never told you.”
“Told me what?” Costis demanded, anxiety twisting in his stomach.
“The queen of Eddis announced her engagement to the king of Sounis the day after — after you fell. You were asleep most of the time, and I just...never remembered to tell you.” Aris ducked his head, shamefaced.
“What does that have to do with what’s happening today?” Costis asked.
“Eddis arrived earlier this afternoon,” Aris said, “and the king and queen are having a feast in congratulations for the engagement. She also brought the Eddisian minister of war with her, so everything’s even more frantic.”
“Ah,” Costis said, feeling a little forlorn. The last time there had been a feast, Costis had stood along the back wall, guarding his king. He could still remember the king laughing with surprised delight when the queen had said something particularly dry, white teeth flashing against brown skin, head thrown back.
Costis’s chest clenched at the memory. Oh, what he would give to see the king now, with his family so near. Even after all these months, Costis barely knew anything about the king, and had only seen him with his relatives for minutes at a time. The last time Eddis had visited, the king had been too busy being king to pass time with his cousin, and when he had stolen time, it had been behind closed doors.
And the time before that had been after that first assassination attempt, in the garden, when the king’s cousins had been his nursemaids — and, well, Costis had been too worried about Aris and the king himself to pay attention then.
Now, though, he found himself sorely missing the prospect of seeing the king. What was he like with his father, his cousin, his family? What was the king’s personality truly like? Costis was desperate to see a part of it, and he wished he were well enough to guard tonight.
He paused, a thought occurring to him: “Aris,” he said, slowly, “if I’ve been here for — what — five days, and you and the rest have been guarding me, then who’s been guarding the king?”
Aris blinked. “The rest of the squad,” he said. “The men take shifts between guarding you and guarding the king. And to make up the difference, we’ve borrowed a few men from another squad.”
“But — why?” Costis asked, perplexed. “Why are you guarding me when you should be assigned to the king?”
“Why, Costis,” Aris said, with an injured look. “Do you not want me here? Have you tired of me so quickly?”
Costis opened his mouth to protest, but shut it at Aris’s grin. He huffed, exasperated. “What I meant,” he continued, ignoring Aris, “is that surely you have more important things to do than guarding me? Why assign men from the Third — one of the best squads — to me of all people, and the leader of the squad, as well?”
Aris snorted. “You flatter the squad, Costis,” he said. “And while I’m sure you believe in your own self-deprecating nonsense, I rather think the queen disagrees. In fact, I’m sure of it.”
Costis’s confusion must have been apparent, because Aris continued: “She was the one who, the day after you were injured, ordered me to guard you while you recovered, at least until the man who attacked you was caught. Said that you must have five men from the Third guarding you at all times.” He shrugged. “It seems you are more important than you know.”
Costis slumped, stunned. “But why?” he said. “You said she gave these orders when I was first injured? She had barely said two words to me before that day!”
Aris shrugged again. “Don’t ask me,” he said. “She still hasn’t said two words to me.”
A voice came from outside the curtain: it was one of the nurses, calling for Aris. He grimaced. “I had better go,” he said. “At least one of the men will be here at all times,” he added, “so let them know if you need anything.” Aris frowned sternly. “No brooding,” he ordered.
“No brooding,” Costis promised. Aris nodded, satisfied, and left.
Costis sat back, closed his eyes, and tried to fall back asleep. No brooding, he thought to himself.
An hour later, his eyes were squeezed shut as he tried to ignore his pounding head and his growing nausea. The discomfort was keeping him from sleeping, but staying awake was getting more painful by the second.
He groaned weakly.
“Are you all right, Lieutenant?”
Costis opened his eyes, startled, and inhaled sharply when the sudden brightness made his head throb. The curtain was open, he realized, letting in the light from the rest of the infirmary. And there was a girl standing in the opening.
Costis breathed deeply — in, out, in — and opened his eyes more slowly. This time, his head didn’t hurt as much, so he sat up hesitantly. No dizziness, good.
“Pardon me, madam,” he said softly. “I’m not feeling my best.”
“It is I who should be sorry,” the girl said, coming inside and hovering nervously. “I didn’t mean to startle you.” She bit her lip, hesitant. “Perhaps you are not feeling up to visitors?”
“No!” Costis said hastily. He wasn’t going to refuse company when he had just been feeling so lonely. “Please, my lady,” he said, for she was clearly nobility, “sit down. May I ask your name?” Now that he thought of it, she looked rather familiar.
“Heiro,” the girl said. “You may know my older sister,” she added, face tightening.
“I’m afraid not,” Costis said, finally remembering the girl’s face. “But I do remember you, now, Lady Heiro — the king has spoken of you.”
“Oh,” Heiro said, obviously pleased. “Truly?” She ducked her head.
“Well,” she continued, after a moment, “the king is actually the reason I’m here.” She smiled ruefully. “I’m afraid I have been rather unsubtle in my distaste for feasts and balls and the like. The king mentioned that you might be feeling the lack of company tonight, with everyone so busy around you — and in the process, very kindly gave me something to do instead of attending the feast.”
Costis blinked, then felt his face grow warm. “That was very kind of him,” he said, looking down at his hands. Well, he thought, at least the king hadn’t forgotten him, even if he hadn’t come himself. And Costis truly would enjoy having company.
Still, he didn’t want to impose, and had just opened his mouth to say as much when he noticed the way Heiro was fidgeting, her face hesitant, as if she were just as desperate for company as him. It was true, there were many acquaintances to be made in court, but none of it was real — and fake relationships could cause one to become very lonely.
“I would greatly appreciate the company, my lady,” Costis said, and Heiro’s face lit up.
“Please, Lieutenant,” she said, making a face, “call me Heiro.” She looked so disgruntled that Costis had to laugh, and she grinned at him.
“Then I am Costis,” he said, then added, mischievously, “Lady Heiro.” She huffed, but she was smiling.
After three hours, it became clear to Costis that he had made a friend, and a very good one at that. Heiro was kind, witty, and whip-smart; he could see why the king enjoyed her company.
Her intelligence was being squandered as a younger daughter whose father clearly believed her only purpose was to offset her sister’s beauty and further the family name. Costis wondered whether the queen would enjoy having an attendant like Heiro. Perhaps he would mention it next time the queen visited.
If she visited again, Costis thought with a pang. She hadn’t seemed very happy when she had left that afternoon. Had he said something, done something wrong?
And the king — it had been a week since Costis had fallen, and the king still hadn’t come except that one night. Was the king angry with him? Perhaps he didn’t want Costis to stay as his guard, after all.
His expression must have darkened, because Heiro paused mid-sentence, looking at him sharply. “What’s wrong?”
Costis shook his head. “It’s nothing, I was just thinking of — ” he flushed. He couldn’t very well say I was just thinking of the king. It would be too telling.
Heiro gave him a look. “I won’t push if you don’t want me to,” she said, “especially since we’ve only known each other a few hours — but I hope eventually you’ll be able to trust me.”
Costis swallowed. “Thank you,” he said softly. “And it — it’s nothing so dire. I was just thinking of the king.” At Heiro’s startled look, he hastened to add, “It’s just that I haven’t seen him in a week, and I have no idea how he is.”
“Does the queen not mention it when she visits?” Heiro asked, puzzled, then colored. “I’m sorry, Costis,” she said, abashedly, “should I not have mentioned it?” The emphasis on ‘it’ made it clear what she was talking about.
Costis, mortified, covered his burning face. “Gods,” he said. “Does everyone think it’s...like that?”
“It isn’t?” Heiro asked. “Well, that explains it. I had wondered why the king seemed to still be so fond of you, given that, well —”
“Please,” Costis said, voice still muffled behind his hands, “don’t finish. Can we talk about something else?” he begged, ignoring the small, nasty voice in the back of his mind that asked What? Too close for comfort?
Heiro hesitated, clearly unsure of her next words. “Would you like me to talk to you about the king?”
Costis bit his lip, uncomfortably aware that no matter what he said next, he would give himself away — that he probably already had.
“Just,” he said, “how is he? Does he seem — all right?”
Heiro smiled. “He tries not to show it, but he’s pleased the Queen of Eddis is marrying the new Sounisian king.” She faltered. “The past few days, though, he’s seemed a little...preoccupied, in court. Instead of pretending to not listen and looking bored, he really hasn’t been listening, like something has been worrying him.”
Costis felt his chest get tight with worry. Calm down, he told himself. “But you said he seems better now?”
Heiro shrugged. “Today he looked fine. He started to act that way a few days ago, so it may just be that whatever it was has passed.”
A few days ago, Costis had still had lethium in his veins, clouding his mind; he couldn’t think of what might have happened.
Except — two nights ago had been when the king had snuck into the infirmary like the thief he had been and always would be, watching Costis, and probably never intending to have Costis see him. Costis didn’t remember what had been said, but he remembered the king’s voice, low and soothing, and strangely gentle; and he remembered a cool hand on his brow, pushing away the headache. And then the king had never come back. And, apparently, he had been acting strangely ever since then.
Costis sighed, suddenly exhausted. He looked at the candle by his bed, and saw that almost three hours had passed since Heiro had arrived. “It’s getting late,” he said quietly. “Don’t you want to go the feast at all?”
Heiro smiled ruefully. “Not really,” she said. “I’ll just sit there, bored stiff and looking pathetic.” She frowned, serious, and said, “Are you tired? Please, don’t let me keep you up.”
“I don’t want to leave you without company,” Costis said, but he was very tired. His head was starting to hurt again, and his leg — which, unlike his ribs, hadn’t been bothering him very much — was throbbing.
She grinned. “Now that the feast is underway, and most of the injured have been patched up and sent home, your friends from the guard are done with their errands. I think I’ll go outside and see if they shall let me beat them at a game of cards.”
Costis grinned. “I envy you,” he said, missing the familiar camaraderie of the Guard. He hoped he’d be able to go back to duty sooner rather than later. He missed the rest of the men.
After Heiro bade him farewell and promised to visit the next time her family was in the palace, Costis lay down, brooding. Perhaps he would get his wish of being with the rest of the Guard again, if the king didn’t want him near anymore. Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad.
He closed his eyes tightly. Maybe one day he would believe his own lies.
Eugenides knew he was being a coward, but he didn’t go see Costis that night, sent Heiro in his place, even though he had the perfect excuse to go — not enjoying feasts, not wanting to see his father, not being happy with Helen’s marriage (although that last one wasn’t true, it still would have been plausible). Irene had been perfectly ready to forgive him slipping out midway through the feast; in fact, she had encouraged it.
And still Eugenides stayed. He did his diplomatic duty, perhaps for the first time in his life, and he could see the people around him growing worried. Helen frowned at him the first time she teased him and he merely smiled absently; Sophos was tense; Ornon had been watching him intently from the first moment.
The dancing was supposed to have started half an hour ago, but since the king and queen hadn’t stepped out onto the floor, no one else had dared. The chatter was beginning to sound nervous, and the lively music was dwindling.
Even Eugenides’s father seemed concerned, if a little irritated. After a bit more socializing, he pulled Eugenides aside, and said, “You are doing your queen a great disservice.”
“Which one?” Eugenides said, smiling wryly.
“Both,” the minister said. “Don’t be impertinent. You’re acting as if you care not a bit for your cousin, and making everyone think you’ve been turned against her by your wife.”
“She wouldn’t,” Eugenides said, startled into paying attention. Had he really been so bad?
“I wouldn’t know,” the minister said blandly, “considering she’s been like marble the entire evening.”
Eugenides wanted to smack himself. He hadn’t even noticed Irene not eating more than a few bites, not touching her wine, not speaking more than she needed to. No dry comments from her, even though she almost liked Sophos, as much as she liked anyone, and was starting to like Helen too.
“I’ve been failing in my duties,” Eugenides said, voice light, but he meant it.
“Yes, you have,” the minister of war said. “Now fix it before my job becomes more important.”
So Eugenides went back, and made distasteful jokes about his fake hand (the hook had been too much for a celebration like this), pretended to drink too much, and relentlessly teased Sophos until his cheeks were as red as the wine.
After a few minutes, he felt Irene reach underneath the table to grab at his thigh, her grip a touch too firm for comfort. Eugenides slipped his right arm casually under the table and laid his fake hand across Irene’s real one. She circled his wrist with her fingers, hand warm against the place where his skin met the wood. She inhaled slowly, next to him, face impassive. He strained to listen until, nearly half a minute later, she finally exhaled, equally slowly.
Eugenides had seen Irene that afternoon, just after she had visited Costis. She had been tense, eyes a little too wide, posture a little too straight. When she had reached up to smooth his shirt down, her hands had been trembling with suppressed emotion. He had wondered, then, what had happened, but had been afraid to ask. She had kissed him, as if grateful he hadn’t asked, and didn’t press him to visit Costis that evening — like she had forgotten, or like something had changed her mind.
Eugenides hadn’t thought what she had been feeling had been anger, and by now he felt he could read his wife’s emotions relatively well. He didn’t know what Costis could have done to make Irene tremble like that, to make her not want to even speak of him. Her face had been smooth as still water, but there had been tightness at the corners of her mouth, a slight furrow between her brows.
Now, as Eugenides spread his legs to press his thigh against Irene’s (still automatically nodding and injecting affirmative noises into the conversation), he wished he could hold her hand with his wooden, useless joke of a limb. He wished they were alone, so he could kiss her and make her forget whatever troubled her, and maybe he would forget, too.
He wished, he wished, he wished — so many things, big and small, but he also wished that they would talk about this thing that had been brewing between them, ever since Eugenides had gone to the infirmary that first time. Since before that, probably, since before Costis had even fallen — perhaps since that first assassination attempt, in the garden, when he had kissed Irene on the stairs with one arm still around Costis, sides pressed together, the three of them all close enough to be breathing the same air. After that, every time Costis had come up in conversation, something electric had filled the air, like the beginning of spring, full of newness and excitement.
This afternoon had felt like that, too, but with the sharp edge of a storm brewing. Irene had looked like Eugenides had felt after realizing that he felt...the way he felt.
He froze, heart stuttering. Did she — ?
Someone nearby laughed loudly, and Eugenides snapped out of his thoughts. He realized with a jolt that it was past midnight.
“My queen,” he murmured, touching Irene’s arm with his left hand, “forgive me, but I am too tired to participate in the festivities much longer.” Around them, people were out of their seats and mingling, but still too uncertain to cross the floor and dance. The room was too loud, and at the same time too hushed; too hot, and too cold.
He was desperate to get Irene alone.
Irene looked at him intently. “Yes,” she said. “Me too.” She turned to the rest of the table, and smiled for the first time all night. “Forgive us,” she said, “for taking our leave so soon.”
At her smile, Sophos looked relieved, while Helen merely looked amused. “No matter,” was all she said, and bade them good night, before taking Sophos by the hand and going to dance.
The entire hall seemed to breathe a sigh of relief, and just as Irene and Eugenides left, the strains of a traditional Eddisian tune began to permeate the air. They made their way back to their own separate chambers, attendants and guards in tow, before parting ways to continue on to their separate quarters.
When he reached the guardroom outside his bedroom, Eugenides turned sharply on his heel, startling Hilarion, who was following too closely.
“You are all dismissed,” Eugenides said to his attendants, impatient to have his privacy.
Hilarion opened his mouth to protest, but closed it after one look at Eugenides’s face. “Very good, Your Majesty,” he said. “Good night, Your Majesty.”
The rest of the attendants chorused “good night” and hurried out, probably back to the festivities.
Without a word to the guards, Eugenides entered the bedroom and shut the door. He didn’t even bother taking off his rings before he was through the hidden door, thoughts already in Irene’s bedchamber.
Irene didn’t look up when she heard the door open and shut. Calmly, she took the rings off her fingers, the circlet off her head. Methodically, she undid her hair, ringlets falling heavily around her shoulders, a small pile of pins forming on the dresser.
She reached behind herself for the clasp of her necklace, but Eugenides was already there. She steadied the chain with her hands while he flicked the clasp open one-handed. His deft fingers slid down to untie the laces of her dress, palm warm against the bare skin underneath. His hand lingered on her back, smoothing a path from her shoulders to her waist, then back again.
Irene felt goosebumps rise in the wake of his touch, and said, “I thought you were tired,” her voice dry.
“You should know better, my heart,” Eugenides replied. The back of her dress was fully open now, leaving her torso bare, but his hands were gone, waiting for something.
“We should talk — ” he began, and Irene spun around and kissed him fiercely to shut him up.
“Don’t,” she said, when she released him a few moments later, both of their breathing grown harsh. “Leave it.”
Irene reached down to pull at the ends of Eugenides’s sash, yanking it open. “Irene,” he gasped, still breathless, but not so much that she couldn’t hear the note of reproach in his voice.
“I said leave it,” Irene said flatly, and stepped matter-of-factly out of her dress, leaving it in a puddle on the floor. “Quiet,” she ordered.
Eugenides obeyed, eyes dark, mouth open. He let her keep him silent with her mouth, let her strip him efficiently and bear him down onto the bed.
He didn’t say anything even when she straddled his hips and grasped his length, just closed his eyes and tipped his head back and breathed. His hand was white-knuckled, grasping at the sheets. Still, he didn’t make any sound beyond a gasping breath, a broken moan — until he came, face turned to pant into the pillow, eyes squeezed shut.
Even then, all he said was, “Irene, Irene — Irene, I — ”
And Irene kissed him silent again.
There was something intoxicating about the misery Costis lived in for the next couple of days. Probably it would have been easier to forget the king and forget the queen and forget the particular pain of wondering whether he’d ever see them up close again (whether they’d still want him). He could have occupied his time with reading or writing letters to his family — surely, it would have hurt less.
But there was a strange twisting in his chest that came when he thought of them, when he wondered what they were doing, a sensation at once acutely painful and unbearably sweet.
Where he drew the line, however, was imagining them together. And it was so difficult, ridiculously difficult to stop, once he started. Every time he closed his eyes, there they were: a flash of bare skin, a glimpse of dark hair, heads thrown back, limbs entangled, hands pulling, grasping —
Costis broke on the second day.
“Legarus?” he called pathetically, and the boy came in, his beautiful face worried. “Is something wrong, Costis?”
After Costis had convinced the king to save Legarus and the rest of Aris’s squad from execution, the squad had taken a particular liking to Costis, treating him almost as another member of their group. Legarus, who had blamed himself for the whole damned situation, had been particularly grateful, and had a solemn respect for Costis.
A respect of which Costis took ruthless advantage now.
“Legarus,” he said, “could you get a nurse for me?” He exhaled. “I have a request.”
After almost an hour of pleading and cajoling, Costis managed to convince the physician, Sophia, to let him try standing up.
Legarus, for his part, was skeptical, but wouldn’t say so outright, instead making comments such as, “But Costis, you only just stopped taking lethium,” and, “Costis, you still get headaches,” and, worst of all, because it was so reasonable, “Costis, you almost died.”
“Almost is a rather foolish concept when it comes to death,” Sophia said, “but the boy has a point. It’s only been a week; your brain is still bruised, and your ribs are still healing. I’m not going to just let you get up and walk around like you never fell. Especially since one of your many injuries was breaking your leg.”
“I just want to stand,” Costis said desperately. “Just for a moment. I have to try at some point, don’t I? I’m going to have to walk at some point.” And he would, to be a lieutenant — or even just a squad leader again, which was an option that was starting to look more and more attractive.
“Maybe I should get Aris,” Legarus said doubtfully
“No!” Costis said, not wanting Aris to see if he fell. “My leg barely even hurts anymore,” he said, maybe exaggerating a little.
Sophia frowned, thoughtful.
“Please,” Costis said softly, “I’m losing my mind.”
Legarus looked at him sympathetically, and even Sophia seemed to soften. They probably believed Costis’s words were those of a restless soldier unused to sitting idle, rather than those of a foolish man helplessly, pathetically in love with his monarchs.
“Please,” Costis said, letting them believe what they wished.
Costis almost fell that first time, but somehow managed to stay upright. The next day, he did it again, arms around Legarus and one of the other men; and the next, he stood on his own (if only for a few moments).
After a few more days, he ventured to take a few steps, just from the side of the bed to the curtain and back. He wasn’t able to truly finish, instead catching himself on the back of the chair and collapsing into it.
“Drink,” Sophia said, handing him a cup of cold fruit juice. After a minute, Costis’s head stopped spinning, and the grey faded from the edges of his vision.
“I feel better now,” Costis said. “I’d like to try again.”
“Absolutely not,” Sophia said firmly. “You’ve already made a great deal of progress as it is.”
“I can barely take four steps,” Costis said bitterly. “Please don’t lie to me.”
Sophia huffed, clearly barely refraining from rolling her eyes. “I don’t make a habit of lying to people, Lieutenant. I’m a physician, not a courtier. When I say you’re doing well, do me the honor of trusting me to know my own craft, if you please?”
Costis shifted. “My apologies.”
“Yes, well,” she said. “What I meant is that you are healing incredibly quickly. You seem to be weak, muscularly, and easily exhausted, but that is to be expected. But we’ve already seen today that your leg is well enough to walk on, if a little shaky. We’ve weaned you from the lethium, your wrist is nearly healed, the wound on your thigh is starting to close, your other leg is entirely unbroken, and your ribs are barely impeding your movement.”
Costis frowned; when Sophia laid it out like that, it did sound rather unusual — almost impossible.
“Even your head doesn’t bother you nearly as much as it used to,” Sophia added, and shrugged. “If you ask me, you’ve been blessed. And I, for one, am not going to ask the gods for any more miracles than they’ve already seen fit to give. You’ll stay in bed for the rest of the night.”
Costis had stopped listening after ‘blessed’, remembering again that night on the roof with the king.
Yes, the gods had saved the king’s life, but Costis didn’t want to believe that anything like that could have happened to himself — he was still acutely uncomfortable with the idea of divine interference in human lives, and terrified one of those lives could be his. It made sense for people like the king to have conversations and pacts with the gods, but Costis? That didn’t make sense.
And yet, even though he couldn’t remember falling, he remembered right before it: sensing danger behind as clearly as if someone had yelled “Look out!” in his ear, spinning around, drawing his sword, and then — nothing.
As much as he didn’t want to admit it, the gods were as good of an explanation as anything else.
There was a woman sitting in the chair by Costis’s bed. A tall, impossibly majestic woman, and suddenly the chair was no longer a chair but an ornate throne, higher than Costis’s shoulders, the infirmary instead a great hall, with vaulted ceilings and a marble floor and arched windows.
Costis himself was no longer lying in bed, but rather standing at the front of the hall, at the foot of the woman’s throne. He struggled not to gape, staring around at the rest of the room. There were other thrones — although the woman’s was the largest — lining the walls of the hall, occupied by other tall, stately people.
Costis turned back to the woman in the center. With her red dress, her dark, circlet-bound hair, and her beautiful features, he almost mistook her for Attolia; but however much he loved the queen, this woman was infinitely more beautiful, uncannily beautiful, power and majesty emanating from her in an overwhelming, dizzying aura. No one could be so radiant, Costis thought, or at least no one human.
Finally, Costis recognized what he was seeing and who he was with, and cursed himself for not realizing sooner. He dropped to his knees so quickly they thudded against the floor, and bent to the ground, his forehead pressed against the cool marble. He shivered from more than the cold.
Hephestia spoke: “Please stand,” she said. “I would see your face.”
It was not a request.
Costis stood hastily, half-expecting his head to start spinning. It didn’t, and he realized with a jolt that none of his other injuries were there either. They had all vanished. His ribs and his wrist didn’t even twinge when he moved, his leg had no stiffness, and he knew that under the fabric of his pants, the skin of his thigh would be unblemished.
“How — ” he gasped.
“It is only temporary,” Hephestia warned. “Upon your return to your own world they will all still be there.”
Costis had expected as much, but the disappointment still hit him. He hadn’t even noticed the pain in his head until it was truly gone, and he desperately didn’t want it back, could only imagine all the things he could do without it.
Still, he wasn’t an idiot, and remembered that he was only even as healed as he was because of the gods’ intervention. “Thank you,” he said, “for healing me. I owe you a debt.”
Laughter echoed around the hall, and Costis startled. A strange look crossed Hephestia’s face, and Costis recognized it, with surprise, as the expression of someone who was trying very hard not to roll their eyes. He had seen it often enough on people’s faces when they were around the king.
“A debt!” A man’s voice, light and mirthful, spoke to Costis’s left. He turned, and saw a young man sprawled artlessly in his throne, laughing at him. Costis took in the liquid posture, the catlike grace, the dark features, and knew this was Eugenides.
Eugenides grinned at him. “Do you know, Lieutenant, what you offer when you say that? You shouldn’t be so quick to sell your soul, not even to us.”
Costis bristled. “I only meant that — ”
“Yes, yes, I know, your honor and all that nonsense.” Eugenides abruptly grew serious. “Listen, boy,” he began, and Costis stiffened further, not accustomed to being addressed as such from one who looked so much younger than him. “It wasn’t about you. It was never about you.”
“Eugenides,” Hephestia said warningly.
Costis frowned. “I beg your pardon?”
Eugenides sighed. “You must know that when you fell, when that man pushed you, that wasn’t about you, correct?”
Costis nodded, slowly. Yes, of course it hadn’t been about it. It had been about the king, about doing away with the king’s guard, and getting one step closer to the king, to hurting the king.
The thought made Costis sick, especially since the man was still out there.
“Well,” Eugenides continued, “when we warned you he was there, when we kept you from dying in that fall, when we healed you faster — that wasn’t about you, either. It was about your king.”
“The king?” Costis said, but he didn’t know why he was surprised. Of course it was about the king, it was always about the king. The gods, for whatever reason, were intensely preoccupied with the king’s life.
What Costis didn’t know was why he was relevant to that, and said as much.
Eugenides huffed. “If you don’t understand by now that you are important to him, I don’t know what to say to you — ”
“Eugenides,” Hephestia snapped.
Costis had frozen in place. Important, to the king? What would make a god think that — and why would a god even care?
“What my brother means,” Hephestia said, “is that your destinies are intertwined.”
That didn’t make things any clearer for Costis.
“And what my sister means,” Eugenides countered, “is that you matter to Eugenides, and he matters to us; if we hadn’t helped you, he would have never helped us.”
Costis didn’t believe that. He knew the king, now, better than he did before. He knew Eugenides would always do what he thought was right, no matter who was telling him to do it. Besides, while Costis knew that the king was amused by him, and seemed to genuinely like him — he wasn’t that important.
Still, he couldn’t help but remember the hazy sensation of a hand brushing his hair from his brow, Eugenides’s voice, low and sweet, his smile warm and comfortable.
Despite himself, Costis felt a kernel of hope come to life in his chest.
He shook himself. There were more important things to focus on, right now. “If I may,” he said, “why have you called me here?”
Eugenides stilled, and glanced at Hephestia, who smirked and gestured, as if to say, You interrupted me, so finish it. He grimaced. One of the other people in the room — one of the other gods — snickered.
Costis’s eyes flickered between them, confused.
“Well,” Eugenides said, abashedly, “maybe it was a little about you.”
Costis froze. “Pardon?”
“Partially,” Eugenides said. “You’re a little more important than I let on. It’s not just that Eugenides is rather...emotionally attached to you. It isn’t even that our Attolia — who is also quite important to us — is starting to feel the same way.”
Costis, who had already been pink, turned red.
Eugenides continued, “It’s more that he’s capable of doing all sorts of reckless, self-endangering things, and without you, he might actually succeed in killing himself, one of these days.” He smiled humorlessly. “And I think you’ll agree, we can’t have that.”
“No,” Costis rasped, mouth suddenly dry with fear at the very thought. “We cannot.”
Eugenides smiled grimly. “What am I saying? I’m sure you wouldn’t even think of leaving their side.”
Costis blanched, recalling his earlier doubts about staying a lieutenant. Oh, but he had been so selfish, to even consider taking back his old position. “Not even in death,” he promised. He couldn’t trust their safety to anyone else.
“Besides,” Eugenides continued, sitting back, “we aren’t above taking advantage of the power you hold over Attolis and Attolia.”
“What power?” Costis said, then winced. The bitterness of his tone had been, he imagined, a little too telling.
He knew he was right when Eugenides rolled his eyes. “Don’t be a fool,” he said impatiently. “There are already too many of those in that blasted palace of yours.”
Costis opened his mouth to protest. Against what, he didn’t know, but he felt the need to protest something. Besides, all Eugenides had done was make him even more confused.
“Don’t ask,” Eugenides said. “You should be grateful we’ve even been as forthright as we have. We’re normally much more cryptic.” He grinned.
Costis frowned at him, but didn’t reply, realizing it wouldn’t be a good idea to answer back.
“You should leave, now,” Eugenides said, as if Costis had come to them, instead of being brought forcibly. “We can only heal so much; sleep will do the rest.”
Costis sighed and bowed once more, before turning around and starting to walk away.
“Wait.” Hephestia’s voice was sober, steely.
Costis froze, slowly turning around. Had he done something wrong? These weren’t his gods; he didn’t know them well, didn’t know how to address them or salute them, and maybe they could tell that he still only believed in them halfway. But if they were inclined to strike him down with lightning, wouldn’t they have done it by now?
Still, Costis steeled himself, waiting.
Hephestia sat impossibly taller in her throne, eyes and skin seeming to radiate with inner light, and when she spoke, her voice echoed with the sounds of erupting volcanoes and crackling fire and falling rocks. Costis’s eyes and ears hurt terribly, but suddenly he couldn’t move to cover them. “You may not believe in us with head and heart and body just yet, but believe that we have the power to remake your fate if need be.”
Costis trembled, still frozen in place.
“We have told this to your queen, and to your king,” Hephestia warned, “and now we tell you.” The echoing grew louder until there was a steady, painful ringing in Costis’s ears.
“Be careful,” the gods intoned as one, and Costis cried out, the sound pressing in on him like he was drowning. “Do not offend the gods.”
The room erupted into bright white light and Costis, finally able to move, squeezed his eyes shut and covered his ears, dropping to his knees and —
He sat up in bed, gasping, the pain in his eyes and ears fading and slowly being replaced with that of his now-familiar injuries. He took a deep breath, and looked at the candle, which had been blown out by somebody. It was morning.
Aris ducked under the curtain. “I heard you shout — is everything all right?”
Yes,” Costis said, still out of breath. “Yes, I’m sorry, it was just — a nightmare. I didn’t mean to bother you.”
Aris rolled his eyes. “As if, after all the stupid things you’ve done that I’ve put up with, a little nightmare would be the thing to irritate me.” He grinned. “Go back to sleep, idiot. You’re delaying our card game.”
“Actually,” Costis said, realizing he’d never get back to sleep now, “I’d like to try walking a little farther. Would you help me?”
Aris hesitated, then threw up his hands. “Why not,” he said. “Legarus keeps taking my money, anyway.”
Later that day, lying down after wearing himself out, Costis asked Aris a question he had been holding inside for a while. “Aris,” he said, “what happened to the man who — who attacked me?” He cleared his throat. “Has he been caught?”
Aris’s eyes widened, and he looked away. Costis’s own eyes narrowed.
“He has, hasn’t he?” Costis set down his cup of water and sat more upright. “Aris, why didn’t you tell me?”
Aris shrugged. “It only happened a couple weeks ago. And it just...never seemed the right time.”
Costis frowned. “Still,” he said. “I wish you had told me. Who was he? What happened to him?”
“He was a guard,” Aris said, “evidently acting out of jealous ambition, and a lingering loyalty to the Baron Erondites. Teleus said that the man was acting alone, though, and that he confessed as soon as they cornered him.”
Costis didn’t miss that Aris was avoiding speaking of the man’s punishment. “Did they — ” He swallowed. “Did they execute him?”
Aris fidgeted. “Yes,” he said, “about a week ago. But not until after they — ” He paled, very slightly. “You know. They had to know, if he was working with someone else.”
Costis closed his eyes. “They tortured him.”
“The queen’s orders,” Aris said quietly. “The king watched, too.”
Costis’s mouth went slack with shock. “The king never watches,” he said.
“No,” Aris said. “But this was different.” He looked at Costis meaningfully.
Costis shut his mouth and ignored him, reaching for another glass of water. Then, he had another thought. “Wait,” he said. “If he’s been caught, why are you still guarding me?”
Aris shrugged. “Teleus said the king and queen were still concerned.” He raised an eyebrow. “If you ask me, I don’t think they’ll ever stop being concerned.”
Costis rolled his eyes and ignored him with more force.
Another week passed without a visit from either the king or the queen, but Costis didn’t dwell on that. Instead, he comforted himself with the knowledge that he could now walk to the table on the other side of the curtain, where the guards played cards. Sometimes, if he wasn’t feeling too tired, they would deign to beat him in a round — he was out of practice.
After a fortnight, he could walk the length of the entire infirmary and back; Sophia assured Costis that this was just as miraculous as his previous healing, but Costis wasn’t satisfied. He just wanted to go back to his duty — as long as the Guard still had a place for him.
(During that time, he also had four visits from Heiro, whenever she came to the palace. As it turned out, the Queen had been looking for a new attendant, and the King had recommended Heiro. Costis was pleased, but he wished Heiro would stop mentioning the King and Queen, and how interesting and “almost sweet” they were once you saw them with each other away from prying eyes, how lovely a ruling couple they made. It was starting to make Costis uncomfortable.)
A month, and Costis had progressed to sitting outside in the public gardens, occasionally strolling down to the end of one row and then back to a bench. The fresh air and sunlight were doing him good; he had been afraid the overstimulation from the outdoors would make his head hurt, but it rarely did that anymore.
“You know, Costis,” Aris said, one day, as they were passing through an aisle of roses, “I could get used to this. Being ordered to stroll around in the gardens and play cards all day by the queen herself.”
Costis frowned. “Don’t,” he said. “Get used to it, that is. I’ve every intention of getting better as soon as possible.”
Aris glanced sidelong at him. “Well,” he said, “I guess there are some benefits to that, too.”
Legarus coughed, on Costis’s other side. “Will you be staying in the palace, then?” he asked hesitantly.
“Legarus,” Aris said reproachfully, when Costis winced.
“No, it’s fine,” Costis said, resigned. “I...don’t know.” He rubbed a hand over his eyes. “I don’t know if the king will want his personal guard to be an invalid, I don’t know if the other men will respect a lieutenant whose leg and wrist stiffen up every time a storm comes, and worst of all, I don’t know what I want.”
Feeling very tired, Costis headed toward the nearest bench.
Carefully, Aris said, “Costis — do you not want to stay in the palace?”
Costis sighed. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’ll miss it, miss them, but it...” He glanced at Legarus, who was standing a foot away and pretending to be very interested in a rosebud. “But it hurts. To think about them.”
Aris reached out and tugged Costis gently into a sideways hug. “Well, I obviously can’t tell you what to want, but I’m fairly certain the king likes you too much — and isn’t stupid enough — to think less of you, and I’m absolutely sure that the men will love you either way.” He ruffled Costis’s hair and Costis squirmed out of his hold. Aris laughed.
“Besides,” he continued, “there are plenty of men in the Guard with little injuries like that. War heroes, and the like. You’ll be fine. I’ll even let you join my squad — but I’ll be your squad leader, and I won’t be having any insubordination.” He grinned half-heartedly, but the joke fell flat.
Costis bit his lip, uncomfortable; he wasn’t telling Aris quite the whole truth. He still remembered the dream he had had of the gods, telling him to stay by the king’s side. Costis didn’t think he was any more skilled than the next guard, but he knew he cared more — and the gods apparently knew, very well, that Costis cared much more than was good for him. It would be the height of selfishness for him to go back to being squad leader and tell the gods “no” and maybe put the king and queen in danger.
“No,” Costis sighed. “I promised myself I would stay. I had a reason for staying — I can’t change that now just because I’m — ” He broke off, face red, and Aris rolled his eyes.
“As if Legarus doesn’t already know what’s going on,” he said impatiently. “Stop blushing.”
Costis punched him weakly in the arm, and Legarus, still pretending to inspect the flowers, snickered.
“Have you given thought to a replacement, my queen?”
Irene looked up from where she was writing a letter at her desk. Eugenides stared back at her from his chair, face wide-eyed and innocent, but something hard lurking underneath.
“A replacement,” she said. “For?”
“For Costis.” Eugenides’s voice was deceptively casual. “It’s obvious that keeping him so close would cause some...discomfort, yes?”
Irene pressed her lips together. “It’s been two months,” she said. “I’m sure we’ve all moved on.”
Eugenides leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “Have you?”
Irene gritted her teeth, opened her mouth to give a terse “yes,” but —
“Because I’m not sure Costis has,” Eugenides continued.
“I’m sure you know that he and Heiro have become somewhat close.” Eugenides smiled. “It seems she has been rather pleased with us lately, since being appointed your attendant; she has been laying it on quite thickly: told Costis how happy she is, how lovely we are — all that sort of fantastical foolishness.”
Irene remained silent, but slowly put her quill back in its inkpot, clenching her now-empty hands into fists.
“She told me that the look on his face was a poem of itself.” He smiled wryly. “‘Like an epic tragedy,’ I think she said.”
Irene closed her eyes. “I do believe that’s an exaggeration, my lord.”
“No,” Eugenides said, voice steely. Irene opened her eyes. “It isn’t.”
“Why the sudden interest in revisiting this subject?” Irene said, voice raised. “I thought we had laid it to rest.”
“We cannot just pretend it doesn’t exist, Irene,” Eugenides replied, just as testily. “This — tension, this heartsickness. It won’t just go away if we ignore it.” He stood up, frustration clear on his face, paced to the window and stared outside it, never mind that it was near midnight and there was nothing to be seen.
“Isn’t that what you were planning on doing, just a few months ago?” Irene said pointedly. “You are many things, my love, but a hypocrite is not one of them.”
Eugenides rolled his eyes. “And a few months ago, you were planning on forcing me to talk about it. But now it’s different, just because your feelings are involved? Who’s the hypocrite now?”
Irene gritted her teeth silently.
“Besides,” Eugenides continued, “this is different, you know it’s different.”
“How could it possibly be any different?” Irene demanded.
“Because it’s you,” Eugenides snapped. “It’s you,” he stressed, “and that makes it different.”
Irene blinked, looked away. She could feel her heart beating faster, emotion clogging her throat. Her face felt too hot.
“You know he loves you, and that scares you,” Eugenides said, coming closer. He paused directly behind her chair, hesitated. “And you could love him, too, and that scares you even more. And if it was just want, just lust, maybe we could leave it be and it would go away — but this is love, and it’s not that simple, and I’m an idiot not to have seen it before now. I guess I didn’t want to.”
Voice strained, jaw clenched, Irene said, “It can’t be love. He knows nothing of Irene, only Attolia.” And that was the crux of the problem — no one could love someone who was just a queen, and she wasn’t willing to let anyone see beyond that.
But Eugenides didn’t agree: “It doesn’t matter — he’s been half in love with you since he joined the Guard, and he’s only seen more of you since then. He couldn’t help but fall for you.” He reached out and touched her shoulder.
“And how could you possibly know that,” Irene whispered. She was afraid she knew what his answer was going to be.
Eugenides came around the chair to face her, gently touching her face. “Because it was the same for me.”
Irene reached up and gripped his hand, gripped it until her knuckles were white. “I don’t know,” she began, pained. “I don’t know how to do this.” She hadn’t been prepared to navigate feelings like this — this longing, painful and frustratingly melodramatic and so, so impractical. The last time, she had been married before she had felt the same depth of emotion, and at least those had made sense; irritating as Eugenides could be, there was something magnetic about him, something that dug its claws into the hearts of perfect strangers and refused to let go.
This didn’t make sense. This was an alien, unfathomable flood of affection and want for a man she still barely knew — who barely knew her. It was like a ballad, a poem — foolish and nonsensical and nothing more than fantasy.
Except it felt real.
“What of your reasons for leaving it alone?” she asked, a last desperate denial. “The rumors, the remarks, the reputation he would have?”
“That was when I had hoped foolishly that his feelings were malleable,” Eugenides said, smile bittersweet. “I had thought that if I left it alone, he would move on, realize his own folly, congratulate himself on a near miss.” He smiled wider, showing a glimpse of teeth. “But with you, Irene, I know that could never happen. There’s no moving on from you, my queen.”
“Self-deprecation isn’t attractive,” Irene said, knowing she was deflecting and not caring.
“No one loves a martyr,” Eugenides agreed. “So don’t let me be one, and I won’t let you.”
“All this will do is hurt Costis,” Irene said. “He’s so young, he has too much of a future to get caught up in our beds.”
“He isn’t so young,” Eugenides said, deliberately missing the point. “He’s older than me, did you know? And I think we should trust him to know his own heart.”
“Besides,” he continued, “I think that what will hurt him most is not having you.” He grinned. “The poor lad will never recover. So why hurt him and yourself? Give him what you both want.”
“And you?” Irene asked, the vise around her heart starting to ease.
“I told you, no more martyrdom for me,” Eugenides said, smile wicked and reassuringly irreverent. “I’m much too selfish to leave myself out.”
“Good,” Irene said. “I have no use for a selfless king.”
Eugenides made a face, then sobered. “So?”
Irene sighed. “I’ll think about it.”
“Really?” Eugenides said suspiciously.
“Yes, Eugenides,” Irene said impatiently. “Now go to sleep.”
And maybe — she thought, as she doused the lamp — maybe she would think about it.
Three months, and Costis was ready for duty. Legarus told him how much the Guard had missed him, and Aris told him how sad he was that he would “have to do real work” now, but Costis didn’t respond to either of them. He was just happy to have something to do again.
Even if that meant seeing the king and queen every day, and spending most of his time in one of their presences.
Costis took a deep breath, pausing at the entrance to the king’s quarters. Then he told himself he was being foolish and overdramatic, and stepped past Aris’s squad to rap the door firmly with his knuckles.
“Come in,” the king said lightly.
Costis pushed the door open to see the king being dressed by his attendants. “My king?” he said hesitantly, and the king looked up from where he was pondering two yellow sashes.
Eugenides seemed to freeze for a moment, an unreadable emotion passing his face, before his expression softened. “Costis,” he said, voice inappropriately fond, and Costis felt his ears grow warm. “It is good to see you.” He grinned. “I’m sure my dear attendants will appreciate having a scapegoat that isn’t among their number.”
Some of the attendants smiled thinly, while others shifted awkwardly.
“Thank you, my king,” Costis said, and blushed further. He should stop saying His King, if he wanted to pretend things were normal, as it seemed Eugenides wanted. Still, he didn’t know what he had been expecting, but it wasn’t this — this warmth. “It’s good to be back,” he said, to cover his embarrassment.
“Is it?” Eugenides asked, not looking at him. “Why Costis, did you miss me?”
Yes, Costis thought. “I’m sure I couldn’t say, Your Majesty,” he said stiffly, uncomfortably conscious of the attendants’ eyes on him.
Eugenides laughed, voice too light. “It’s probably better that you don’t,” he said, “for the sake of my ego.”
Costis smiled ruefully, opening his mouth to say something ill-advised, when one of the attendants cleared his throat.
“Respectfully, Your Majesty,” he said, “you’re going to be late.”
“Well,” the king said, picking up one of the sashes and letting an attendant tie it about his waist. “Let us be on our way, then.”
So much had changed since the first time Costis had attended the king and queen’s breakfast, but the breakfast itself was almost the same.
It was comforting to know that no matter how many inconvenient revelations Costis had, the sun would still warm the stone of the terrace, the smell of the food would still make him ravenous, and the king would still kiss the queen at the end of the meal.
Costis looked away when he did it, feeling the familiar tightening of his chest. Before, it had been irritation, that the king would claim his ownership of the queen in such a public, disrespectful way, but now —
Now it felt unsettlingly close to jealousy, and Costis didn’t know if he was jealous of Eugenides, Attolia, or both. But the worst part was that it still didn’t feel very different from what he had felt before, which made him wonder just how long he had been harboring such foolish feelings for his king and queen.
Court hadn’t changed, either — the king’s sprawl in his throne as irreverent, the queen’s stern gaze as captivating, as always.
And even the minutes afterward, upon returning to the king’s chambers, evoked months-old memories, to Costis’s surprise:
“You’re all dismissed,” the king said pleasantly. Then, with mischief glinting in his eyes, “Except Costis.”
The attendants floundered — the king had not done that for a long time, and even when he had, it had been in fits of ire. Costis didn’t think the king was angry, and he could usually tell.
Of course, he still followed Eugenides into his room, and latched the door behind him at the king’s gesture.
He waited for instructions, maybe to move the chair to the window like before, but none came.
Instead, the king sat down at his desk, and, with practiced motion, smoothed open a scroll one-handed, and put weights at the side.
“Your Majesty?” Costis asked, confused. Why was he here?
Eugenides looked up from where he was removing his hook. “Hmm? Oh yes, Costis, you can go if you wish.”
But when Costis, perplexed, turned to leave, Eugenides added, quietly, “But I’d like it if you stayed.” There was the sound of him placing the hook on the desk.
Costis stilled, face heating. He ducked his head, feeling irrationally shy, and cursed himself for the thousandth time.
“I do believe your Mede might be a little rusty,” Eugenides said lightly. Maybe he didn’t notice how electric the air was, how it felt tangible against Costis’s clammy skin. Maybe he was just ignoring it. Maybe he didn’t care.
But he wanted Costis to stay.
Costis silently pulled a chair closer to the light from the window and sat down, accepting the notes the king offered him. He knew he wouldn’t be able to concentrate, when his nerves still felt like they were buzzing, but instead pretended to study while sneaking looks at Eugenides’s profile.
It was almost soporific: the warm sunlight streaming through the window, the peaceful stillness of the room, the soothing sound of Eugenides’s quill scratching the papyrus. It was...nice.
There was something that Costis needed to ask, though, and he might never have another chance.
He cleared his throat. “My king?” he said weakly.
Eugenides looked at him quickly. “Yes, Costis?” he said expectantly.
Costis’s tongue felt too big for his mouth, but somehow he managed to get out, “I — are you sure that you want me here?”
Eugenides smiled slightly, confused. Something like disappointment crossed his face. “I asked, didn’t I?”
“No,” Costis said, frustrated with his own clumsy communication. “I meant here as your guard. I’m not as...useful as I used to be,” he said, looking down as his hands. He felt as if he was baring his entire heart, while at the same time not saying nearly enough. “I’ve healed, a lot, but my leg is still stiff and I’m always going to be a little weaker. I’m so out of practice, it’ll be months before I’m even close to where I used to be. There’s no way I’ll be an adequate guard until then, and even then — wouldn’t you rather have another guard?”
Silence greeted him at the end of this little speech, and after a pregnant moment of emptiness, Costis looked up.
Eugenides was looking at him with an expression of such wistful sadness that Costis couldn’t look away. He wanted to say something, anything to distract from the fact that he had just put all of his uncomfortable doubts and emotions out into the open air.
“Costis,” Eugenides said, voice still touched with that uncharacteristic gentleness he had been wielding all day like a sword, as if he were trying to cut Costis to the quick. “Costis, do you want to go? I did give you the option.”
Costis bit his lip. He could say yes, and everything could go back to a year ago, when he had never experienced how young the king looked when he was sleeping, how warm the queen felt in his arms, how breathtaking they looked together — or at least an approximation of that time. But he would hate himself for being such a coward, and for giving up the two most important people in his life. A little was better than nothing.
Besides, the gods had asked him to stay. And more importantly, so had his king and queen.
“No,” Costis said.
“No,” Eugenides repeated, voice a question. “So you want to stay, then?” His voice had a strange note of urgency to it.
Costis swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry. He couldn’t help but feel as if they were talking about more than just today, more than even just his position. Still, he said, “With all my heart.” It was true.
Eugenides’s face lit up, and he seemed years younger. His eyes crinkled and he smiled broadly, and Costis felt relief punch him in the stomach, felt light-headed with it. His heart pounded, and everything seemed too bright. “Come here, then,” Eugenides said, beckoning, and Costis rose out of his chair as if pulled by strings, stepping forward to stand in front of Eugenides’s chair, looking down at his upturned face.
“Ah, Costis,” Eugenides said. “What a fool I’ve been.” And he reached up and pulled Costis down swiftly with a hand to the back of his head, kissing him sweetly.
Costis gasped into his mouth, eyes wide open with surprise. His back was awkwardly stooped from the angle, and his arm was awkwardly twisted to balance himself on the arm of the chair, but Eugenides’s mouth was sweet, and his hand was warm and solid where it had slid down to Costis’s neck. Costis closed his eyes and kissed back as best he could.
“Oh,” he said stupidly, straightening, when Eugenides pulled back. Costis’s eyes were still closed, but he didn’t think he could open them just yet.
“Oh,” Eugenides said, the air of mockery back in his voice. Costis smiled and opened his eyes, the familiarity of the tone too comfortable for him to be indignant.
Maybe, he started to think, maybe this would work. Maybe he could have kisses and lingering touches and still be a good guard for his king and queen —
“The queen,” Costis said, feeling cold. “Your majesty, I — ”
“Shh,” Eugenides said sharply. “Don’t be silly. You think I would do this without her permission? I’d rather not have my other hand cut off, thank you.”
Costis scrubbed a hand through his hair. “Ah,” he said, but couldn’t keep the slight disappointment out of his voice.
“What is it?” Eugenides asked.
Costis shrugged one shoulder uncomfortably. “I just,” he began, then stopped, not sure how to ask. “Her permission?”
Comprehension dawned on Eugenides’s face. “I take it that isn’t good enough — why, do you want more?”
Costis blushed, stomach turning anxiously. What if the king laughed at him? Worse, what if he was angry? “I couldn’t say.”
“Please do,” Eugenides pressed.
Costis shifted, hesitant. Well, he thought, there was no sense in pretending; he had never been very good at keeping secrets. “Yes,” he said. “I do.”
Eugenides grinned, mischief coming out in full force now. “Well, then,” he said. “Irene won’t return to her quarters for another hour. Shall we go wait for her there?”
Costis’s eyes widened. “Really?” he said breathlessly, and flushed further when Eugenides laughed at him. But it wasn’t an unkind laugh, and so Costis smiled back, and took Eugenides’s hand when he reached out.
He didn’t know what he was expecting, but it wasn’t for Eugenides to pull him to the back of the room and push at a panel of the wall until it swung open, revealing a hidden passage. Costis stared, open-mouthed. “You’d take me through — ” he said, unable to believe that the king would take him somewhere that felt so private. The secret passage belonged to the king and queen, not to their guards.
Eugenides rolled his eyes and yanked at Costis’s arm. “I’ve used up all my patience for a month,” he said, and took them both into the passage, pulling the panel shut behind them.
Irene froze when she heard voices from within her bedroom, heart rate accelerating nervously.
“Out,” she said to her attendants. After a token protest — which was quelled with one glance at her face — they left the room. As Phresine left, she gave Irene a meaningful look, which went ignored.
Irene had been expecting this, or at least that was what she told herself. She was prepared.
She opened the door.
“Ah, Irene,” Eugenides said, greeting her with a smile from where he was sitting cross-legged on the bed. “We’ve been waiting.”
Costis, who had stood up quickly, ducked his head, but she could see that his face was pink. After a moment, he met her gaze.
Irene swallowed. “Costis,” she said.
“My queen,” Costis said weakly. He was still standing.
“It’s — good to see you,” Irene said hesitantly, still not sure what this was, what she should be doing.
Costis flushed, but firmed his gaze, lifting his chin. “It’s good to see you too, my queen,” he said. “I’m glad to be back on duty.”
At “duty,” Irene’s heart rate slowed, as she realized that this wasn’t going to be some big confrontation after all; that Costis still thought of this as his duty, and her as his sovereign, and nothing was changing. Relief and disappointment warred within her, and she exhaled in a rush.
She tried to keep it quiet, but obviously didn’t succeed, because Costis looked at her, concerned. “Are you all right, my queen?”
Eugenides rubbed at his handless wrist for a moment, eyeing them thoughtfully, before nudging Costis with his foot. “Irene,” he said.
“What?” Costis said, at the very moment, Irene was saying “Don’t — ”
“Eventually,” Eugenides said lightly, ignoring Irene, “you may want to call us by name. At least in private.”
Costis went pale, his eyes wide. “No,” he said, voice high. “You’re my queen. I couldn’t, I — I can’t.”
Irene’s pulse accelerated again. “No,” she said woodenly. “I supposed you would not.”
Costis looked at her, confusion edged with panic etched on his face. “I don’t understand,” he said. “Why would you ask me to — ” He cut himself off helplessly.
When Irene didn’t answer, Eugenides rolled his eyes. “Irene is under the — very mistaken, I’m sure — impression that you only see her as your queen, and hold no affection for her. She thinks you’re confusing patriotism with love.”
Costis stared at him for a long moment, before looking at Irene. “Forgive me, my queen,” he said slowly, “but with all due respect, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Irene jerked back, stunned. Eugenides smirked at her. “I told you so,” he said, and Costis rolled his eyes.
“You aren’t helping,” he said, before turning back to Irene. “I can’t,” he said earnestly, “you have to understand that I can’t.”
“I understand,” Irene said.
“Costis,” Eugenides pressed.
“No, I,” Costis began, then cut himself off with a frustrated noise. “Gods, this is all coming out wrong.”
“You don’t have to — ” Irene said, desperate for this conversation to be over, but Eugenides cried out with impatience.
“Irene!” he said, with deep aggravation. “My love, I believe we agreed to keep from martyring ourselves.”
Irene opened her mouth to snarl something back, temper flaring, but Costis cut her off.
“Will you both just — ” he said angrily. “Please, let me try.”
They shut their mouths, and Costis seemed to deflate, almost looking surprised at his own outburst.
“The truth is,” he said, waveringly, clearly terrified by the look on his face, “the truth is that I love you.” Costis swallowed, a determined look crossing his face. “I do, and I don’t care if you believe me, because I know it’s true. And I love the king too,” he added, looking down at his feet, and then meeting Irene’s eyes again, as if he needed her to know he meant it. He looked so young, with his face red and his eyes bright, and Irene’s heart clenched. “I love him, and I love you, and I may not have realized it at first, but I’ve loved you both for a long time.”
Here, he seemed to lose the battle with his own determination, and dropped his gaze to the floor. “I don’t know what to do about it,” he said softly, “but that’s okay. I’ll do anything, whatever you want.” He looked up at Irene pleadingly. “I’ll be whatever you want, if you’ll let me. If you’ll have me.”
Costis’s words struck like arrows, and a hot rush of emotion — sweet and painful and terrifying — welled up wherever they struck. Irene felt like she was choking; she couldn’t speak.
Even Eugenides, seated on the bed, was speechless when she looked at him, his face open and young. He had been all impatient, sarcastic wit before, but now he seemed as shocked by the moment as Irene. He recovered after a moment, however, and looked at her meaningfully, tilting his head toward Costis as if to say, If you don’t, I will.
The irritation this aroused in Irene was...soothing. Steadying. Never one to be bullied, she tilted hers right back. Go ahead.
Eugenides sighed and kicked Costis in the back of the leg again, effectively breaking the tension. He smiled when Costis huffed in irritation and turned around to face him. “Don’t be an ass,” he said sweetly, and grabbed Costis’s hand. He turned it over to expose the wrist, where he gently pressed his lips. “We can’t all be idiots. What would we do then?”
Costis frowned, but Irene saw his expression slide into fondness, eyes crinkling slightly at the edges. He didn’t blush this time, Irene noticed. Perhaps he was getting used to it?
Maybe she should do the same. She was being foolish; she and Eugenides had barely known each other when they had married — for a long time, she had been the woman who had cut off his hand. Any beginning to any relationship would be an improvement to that.
Still, she was afraid. For all of them. But it couldn’t be any more painful than this, this fraught purgatory between yes and no.
Eugenides raised an eyebrow at her, and she set her jaw, accepting it for the dare it was.
“Costis,” she said, and was pleased to hear that her voice didn’t waver. “Come here.”
Costis looked up at her, eyes wide like a startled horse. He came closer, hesitantly, stopping a foot away from her.
Irene stepped up to him so that they were toe-to-toe. Absently, she noted that he was taller than her, unlike most men, but his expression when he looked down at her made him seem much smaller. Costis dropped his gaze, face turning red again.
“Costis,” Irene said, “you are sure — absolutely sure that you want this?” She reached out and lifted his chin with a finger. “Please,” she said, “look at me. I need to know you’re certain.”
Costis blinked, swallowing hard, his eyes still wide — but they stayed on her face. “More certain than I’ve ever been in my life, my queen,” he said hoarsely. “Please believe me,” he pleaded.
Irene searched his face for any trace of doubt, but his gaze was unwavering and bright with emotion. Slowly, the last vestiges of reluctance faded from within her, and she smiled. Removing the hand from Costis’s chin, she cupped his cheek, rubbing a thumb over his cheekbone.
Costis shivered, and his mouth parted on an exhale. “Please,” he said again, his voice breaking.
Irene went up on her toes, leaned in, and kissed him. He made a quiet noise into her mouth, and she felt hands grasp hesitantly at her waist.
She reached back and pulled Costis’s arms tighter around her. “Don’t balk now,” she said. She didn’t think she’d be able to stand it if he did.
“I won’t,” Costis promised. “I swear I won’t.” This time, he kissed her. He pulled her flush against him, and she sighed, put her hands on his broad shoulders.
“May I cut in?” Eugenides’s voice was soft, but the only other sound in the room was that of their breathing. Irene pulled back from the kiss.
“Go,” she said. “Before I change my mind about sharing.”
Costis looked concerned for the two seconds it took for Eugenides to laugh and say, “She means with me.” Then he blushed for the thousandth time.
But he was smiling.
The assassination attempts didn’t stop.
Not on the king, not on the queen — and not on Costis.
Once, he found burrs stuck in the saddle blanket of his horse. Once, he found poisonous berries floating in his wine.
Twice, Eugenides tried to end their — whatever they had — out of “fear for Costis’s safety,” or so he said.
Both times, Irene called him an idiot and told Costis to kiss him until he shut up. (And, well, Costis couldn’t say no to his queen, could he?)
It would probably happen more in the future, but Costis was careful: he always checked his food, his gear; he carried a sword and three knives wherever he went; he never went anywhere alone if he could help it.
And every week, he left an offering at the altars of Hephestia and Eugenides, as insurance.
Heiro learned to throw knives, and took to carrying them whenever she was around the king or queen, which was often these days. Aris and his squad hardly left the king’s side. Costis knew that they were all as safe as they could possibly be, and he was happy.
Besides, it didn’t matter if one day, he missed a deadly mushroom being slipped into his stew, nor did it matter if he was pushed down the stairs again, and this time, wasn’t so lucky.
Just to have Irene and Eugenides, to belong to them — to wake up to their faces when they were still asleep and almost peaceful in the dawn’s light, to hear the court’s whispers about the three of them and know they were right, to have everyone look at them and know, know that they all belonged to each other —
It didn’t matter if Costis died because of his love. He would die happily, just for having seen it returned, seen it grow.
It was worth it.