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The Landscape After Cruelty

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This is a story, says his mother, of Eugenides, the god of thieves. He was unlike the other gods, for though his mother was Earth, his father was a man, a woodcutter with rough hands and tired skin. He grew up in a cottage, but he had the eyes of a god, and the skill – he could steal anything.

"And I'm named for him," says Gen, who has heard this story before, knows its seams and cracks, both believes it and doesn't believe it.

We are all named after him, says his mother, because we scratch against the ground and take what does not belong to us, because nothing belongs to us at all.

*

They were married at a makeshift altar to the new king's gods.

It was customary for the bride to be veiled, but Attolia had chosen to forsake tradition, wearing instead her heavy crown with her hair pulled back from her face. She was already Queen, not some blushing maiden, and she would not hide herself – not from her country and especially not from this bright-eyed mountain boy who knew, better than anyone, how innocent she was not.

"All the better," Eugenides whispered irreverently, as they kneeled together on the altar. "I want to be sure I get the right bride. Not that you'd try and pull any tricks."

"No," she agreed sardonically, "no one could possibly want to feign their way out of marrying you. You are such a catch."

"It is true, I have been well and truly caught," he said.

The wedding ceremony called for the joining of hands; Attolia pressed her right hand against her husband's, her left against his wrist; against her own wrist, his wooden fingers were stiff and cold inside the glove.

*

The first time he saw the Queen of Attolia she was not the queen, just the shadow of a princess on the edge of the throne, a lanky, awkward thing who sat with her head down while her father and brother fought tiredly with the barons. He did not think much of her then, no hint of the fascination that would come later – she was just small and grey and quiet, all clasped hands and bare bowed neck.

Eugenides was crouched in the crawl space overlooking the throne room, peering through the ornate screen down onto the stiff and political figures below. He probably would not have noticed her at all, except for the fact that his grandfather was watching the king argue with the barons, and Eugenides had yet to learn that knowledge was as worthy of his skill as the most precious of jewels. He had grown tired of listening to their talk, and the princess looked like she cared as little for it as he.

Later that night his grandfather let him go, and he crept out into the gardens where the air was not so heavy. She was dancing in a white dress, her dark hair bound by golden threads, feet bare and smooth arms outstretched. Eugenides had never seen anything so beautiful, or so sad.

It was neither the beauty nor the sadness that drew him nearer. He knew many beautiful women and he didn't much care for most of them; nor was sadness a particular attraction, for he was a boy who loved to laugh. He watched because she was alone and it was something he understood, the way she stretched towards the stars, sorrowing in it and reveling in it. He loved her because she was free and barefoot and smiling at the sky, her fingers caressing the olive branches, the strong defiance of her.

(Years later he bled on a dungeon floor and dreamt of that night, the yawning moon and silvered olives, the soft curve of her wrists, and her bare feet, moving quick and soft in the dewy grass.)

*

After their wedding it was Eugenides who sat listless in the throne room, though he was no shadow as Princess Irene had been; he lounged across his seat, obvious and obtrusive in his disinterest, all expensive clothing and foppish disdain.

Attolia sat straight-backed and tall, and did not look at her husband. She wore her hair the same way she had worn it as a child, bound back in a net of golden threads. She looked like a queen, like a goddess, like Hephestia herself, untouchable and intractable and remote.

(She had shivered when he touched her. Eugenides, who had seen the goddess, had wept for the humanness of his queen, and loved her for it.)

Gathered around the throne, the court looked at the ornately carved ceiling of the megaron. They looked at each other. They looked at the king and pretended to hide their smiles. They looked at the queen's red robes, at her bound hair, at her lips and fingers and jewels, and when she looked at them they lowered their eyes.

At their firesides, they told stories of the queen – she felt the bitterness of the poison on her own lips, she raised one hand and stopped the arrows, she hung the traitors from the walls, she stood fierce and cold before her council of barons until they too bowed down to her. They told stories of her, but facing her was much less comfortable, so they turned away and watched her hands and her husband and her palace instead.

Since she had become queen, only one person had ever met her eyes carelessly. He was slouched in his carved throne, petulant and childish, and as the last of the supplicants filed from the room, he met her eyes. "I am thinking," he said, "of instituting my first royal decree."

"You wish, perhaps, to pit yourself against the Baron Susa?" she asked, raising one eyebrow. The final supplicant had been the Baron's neighbor, seeking royal support in a never-ending feud over the pasturing of their goats.

"Cushions," said the king, imperiously. "We should implement the Median style for the throne room, it would be much more pleasant."

"For your naps, you mean? I am fairly sure that even Baron Ormentiedes could not have failed to hear your snores."

"Of course," he said affably. He hooked his legs sideways over the seat, heedless of the exasperated look of the attendants. "After all, what's the good of being king if you can't be comfortable?"

"If you wanted comfort," said Attolia, at her most regal, "you should have stayed an Eddisian Thief."

"Who says you can't be comfortable and king?" Eugenides complained, and then, "I don't see why I should be forced to attend every session at court. Don't we have advisors for that?"

Someone in the court snickered.

"Must I remind you," Attolia asked, "that you were the one who wanted to be king?" She could have said, the one who stole me away from my own palace, the one who pulled me into the mud and rain and asked me to trade my hand for my life.

"So, so, so," the king said crossly, folding his arms. He was sagging in his chair like a bag of grain, or a boy from the gutters dressed in stolen clothing. He looked like a fool, and everyone in the room knew it, although no one so well as the king and queen themselves.

She leaned closer and spoke low enough that the eager ears of the court could not hear. "You play the buffoon exceedingly well."

"I know," he answered, smugly pleased. He grinned at her, sweet and young, and met her eyes.

*

Attolia was scarcely ever without her attendants. It was one of the burdens, Eugenides found, of being royalty; the constant shadow in his footsteps, the complete loss of freedom. Irene had been born to it; she wore her retinue like her ceremonial jewelry, heavy and purposeful and never without thought.

It rankled Eugenides, who was unused to the limitations of court life. He thwarted it whenever possible, slipping from place to place alone; he left his attendants outside empty rooms, or standing guard over passages they knew nothing of.

"I want to see the roofs," he told Irene one night when he was – her sources told her – safely tucked into his own quarters. "Come with me."

"I have seen the roofs before," she said. "So have you."

"You have not seen them tonight," he said, almost coaxing, except that he would never try to coax her.

Because he did not try to coax, she allowed him to take her by the hand (her right hand, his left, the empty space between them always uncertain).

Irene had not moved unnoticed inside her palace since she had been a girl of fourteen, ungainly and unwed. He knew the contours of her palace better than she did, so she allowed him to lead her through the winding passages, equally wary and trusting. It had always been this way with them – they knew the things they ought not know about each other, the secrets which should not be told: her tears on their wedding night, and how he sounds when he is dying.

High above the palace, they sat on cold roof tiles and watched the moon turn the leaves of the olive trees into silver.

*

There were the moments like this: waking with Irene's hair in his face, the curve of her back against his side.

There were the moments after, when he lifted his arm to caress her with a hand that was no longer there.

"Use the other hand," she said, and did not move when he brushed the stump of his wrist against her shoulder. They never shrunk from what they had done; it was the only way they were able to know each other.

They lived moving from gentleness to cruelty and back, in the fragile spaces between love and fear and forgiveness. They ached with it, the rawness of it all, and the tenderness.

They woke tangled together in the mornings.

*

The wedding celebration lasted long into the night, the music winding up from the streets through the window of the palace. Eugenides could see the lights as he lay on the unfamiliar bed, Irene soft and still beside him. His shoulders ached from the long day spent standing in the heavy ceremonial robes. He still did not want to be king.

He could leave, he thought. It would be the easiest thing in the world to slip out through the window, off across the roof and down to the river. He had done it many times, as a child, as an injured man, during daylight and in the dark moonless nights.

Two weeks ago, he had walked down the banks of Seperchia and lodged a tree trunk against a convenient stone. Always have an escape route, his grandfather had taught him, never allow yourself to be cornered, keep your back to the open sky.

Next to him, Irene lay silent. He thought she was asleep, but he could not be sure; she was as good at pretending as he was. Her hair was loose and splayed across the pillows. There was a single dark strand caught around the ring on his thumb. She looked not like a queen but like a girl, sharp angles smoothed, lashes dark and curved.

He stayed, to watch her breathe.

*

A story, say the people, of the god Eugenides, how he came down from the mountains – not in a blaze of flames, but with an outstretched hand. And how the goddess cut him open and stitched him together and broke him and loved him, how they wept on each other's wounds, and how the very mountains bowed down to them, crumbling into fire and ash and stone in their presence.

*

("That," says Gen, "is not how the story goes at all."

"Hush," says his queen. "It is how it goes today.")