She wonders if the court notice a difference, if they see the change in her. Magdalena plainly sees some alteration, of course, but Magdalena sees her in private. Magdalena knows her better than most. Magdalena has the dual securities of being blood kin and sharing complicity in treason, which together offer an alliance secure enough to justify a lowering of masks.
So yes, it is very likely that Magdalena notices in part the way widowhood has freed her, finally, from the constant, careful balancing act that has worn away at her for years. Sees that she is happier and more relaxed now, with Augustin and his eldest son both dead.
Magdalena may suspect Ana had something to do with the King’s death, but she is a good sister; if she has suspicions, she never hints at them. What she doesn’t know, she cannot betray.
And what she does not know cannot trouble her sleep.
She doesn’t know about Tomas. Ana cannot bear to tell anyone of that, not now. Not yet. Someday, she may be able to remember it without trembling with rage and the desperate desire to cast Death Curses until she burns through the last of her power and is left scraped clean inside. Someday is not today.
In public, she must still pretend to a degree of mourning she cannot feel through the impossible weightlessness of relief. Free; free of Augustin, for the first time since she was just a child herself; free of Tomas and the threat of a thousand things even worse than her own death; free of the threat of privation and the weight of expectations that must be met.
She does pretend at gravity and sorrow. She cannot afford to do otherwise.
But in her chest is something light and fluttering, flying, free.
There is a period before the investiture in which she is very busy and must appear not to be, in which Luis is indispensable and she tries very hard not to look at him for more than a moment at a time. She does not have time to think about that night, what might have been. What might, just possibly, yet be.
Iberia does not have time for her to think on it.
But in the evening, taking her hair down, she is surprised to see a girl she recognizes in the mirror, rather than the strained stranger of the last several months (years). She looks younger; stress lines around her eyes are not so deep, and she needs less cosmetic artistry to cover the dark circles of insufficient sleep. Years’ worth of tight-wound tension finally unspooled from her shoulders give her a softness she’s never seen on herself as a grown woman.
She is impossibly busy, but she is no longer drowning.
The first insinuating offers were, she had assumed, because she is soon to be Regent. Because she is soon to be Regent, she can pretend not to notice them; no one may take offense, and no one has the power to push or to insist. Tomorrow she will officially become the greatest power in Iberia. For the rest of her life, if things go according to plan, she will be the Queen Mother. She will never be powerless again.
She sold herself very dearly, the first time. No one would have called it that, but she knew what it was. Knows what is being hinted at, now, when people approach. So she keeps her face remote and polite and oblivious, and settles in to wait it out; eventually, if she is a blank wall for long enough, it will become understood by all but the most insipid idiots that she means to refuse them all.
And she does, truly, only–
But he has said nothing. Perhaps he has forgotten it, boxed it neatly away. Perhaps that one blurring of boundaries is all there will ever be.
She cannot ask without exerting pressure, and she is too keenly aware of the cruelty inherent in that act, from one who has much power. She cannot ask.
He looks awkward as she has never seen him.
Or, no, not quite.
He looks awkward as she has seen only once before, and her heart trembles under the sudden almost crushing grip of hope.
“–or in other ways.”
He cannot state it outright, is too aware of their positions and propriety to do such a thing. But his words invite a declaration she could not have otherwise given. He knows her; knows she would not make an overture without some encouragement. So he has taken this opportunity, this privacy, in her moment of triumph, and has gifted her that.
It is so many kindnesses, all at once.
He starts to say more, but she is free, now, to be that graceless girl she was when she first came to court, the one she has started to catch a glimmer of in the mirror again, that girl who knew nothing of intrigue at all, who said what she thought and felt;
“Luis. Will you marry me?”
He plainly did not expect that offer; reasonable, perhaps, when she has spent years being endlessly, painfully careful, circumspect to the point of neurosis. Guarding her reputation because it kept her safe, kept her children safe. It is certainly too soon, unseemly haste on the heels of her bereavement.
But she is now as safe as she will ever be in her life. She can obey her heart rather than bowing to necessity. She can be as reckless in pursuit of joy (of love) as she was in pursuit of power.
She watches his face soften, before he takes her into his arms, and she feels as if she could fly.
The first ball after the investiture is full of the usual suspects and dozens of just-familiar faces, those who have been presented at court and can come up with some pretext for returning in haste, many looking at her with calculation or hope or speculation.
She ignores them all.
Instead, she turns to the man at her shoulder, the man everyone overlooks because he has been beside the throne nearly his entire life, invisible in serving Iberia. She stretches out her hand.
“May I have this dance, Luis?”
She says volumes with that sentence. She has already made an offer. She has already been accepted. They will understand; their cautious Queen, with her careful words and her cultivated reputation, would never use his given name before the assembled court were she not certain of him.
Reckless, reckless, beats her heart, and she knows it is true. Knows, and cannot bring herself to regret - especially not when he takes her outstretched hand.
They look at her as something to be won, but her heart is already given.
She sees the furrow between Luis’s brows, sees the way his eyes dart over her shoulder to pick out faces from the crowd, always assessing, always calculating. There is bound to be speculation, now. There will be rumors to deal with, and fires to put out.
But that is for later, and they will face it together. They have never faced a crisis they could not conquer, together.
“Luis,” she murmurs, and his eyes meet hers. She holds his gaze and smiles at him, knowing her whole heart is on her face and for once not needing to care. She’s been careful, always, not to look too long, to keep her face still when she let herself look at all.
She was fascinated by him, her first Season; thrilled, when she managed to win his approval. They have been allies for years, friends nearly as long.
She has always loved him, has always known it was dangerous, and has been careful to skirt the line between loving and being in love because the second could have destroyed them both.
If Augustin had known what happened after Sophia died, it would have destroyed them both. One kiss, but it had set her aflame. If her husband had known, he would have made those flames literal.
Fire is a terrible way to die.
Instead she is here, in warm candlelight and the circle of beloved arms, alive and safe and free.
And he looks at her and his own mask slips, as well. She has seen him impassive in the face of plots and cruelties and outright treason, but being loved slips through a gap in his armor. He does not let the armor fall away, resettles it quickly, but his lips turn up, and that is enough.
“It is a rare thing,” she murmurs, knowing he will understand; he was drunk, but he will remember. He inclines his head the barest fraction.
He understands her. She understands him.
“Twice, you said.”
She wonders if she dares admit it.
“Once, for me.”
She has never had anyone else who understood her this way, who she could be wholly herself with, who she trusted like this. She was, very briefly, infatuated with Augustin, but he never understood her, and she certainly never let herself be seen without her mask; she was enamored, briefly, with his power, but she never trusted him to use it wisely, not even in the very beginning.
She cannot regret her marriage; she loves her family, elevated and protected by her own advancement, and she loves her sons, who would not otherwise have been born. But now–
Now, she might be able to love her life.
The dance comes to a close; when Luis would pull away, she clasps his hands, instead, wanting to keep him close just a little longer, adoring and so lit up inside with joy that it feels like she must be giving off visible light.
She looks into his eyes again and realizes what kind of smile she’s wearing only when his hands tighten on hers and he looks wide-eyed back and her expression begins to slip in the face of his shock.
(He’s never seen her smile like that, she realizes. Even with him, she’s always been careful. Sometimes especially with him.)
They must all know, now. Well: Let them know.
She brings his hands up to her smiling mouth and presses a kiss to each set of knuckles.
She has better choices, now; she has chosen the best. When she looks up again, he is smiling, too, like he doesn’t care who sees.