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I hold with those who favor fire

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You will be my salvation, the wicked Queen told her once in the snow, greedy fingers grasping for her heart; Snow White remembers the shocked relief in Ravenna's eyes as she withered to dust, and thinks perhaps she had been right.

Her crown is made of solid gold, encrusted with jewels. No one ever warned her how heavy it would feel.

"Long reign the Queen!" they shout, and she wonders how Ravenna ever bore the weight of it. But Snow White was a princess born and bred. She lifts her chin and rolls her shoulders back, keeping her head high.

Her neck begins to ache ten minutes into the coronation feast, but her smile never falters.

After ten years spent locked away from the sun, her castle feels more a prison to her than a home. Her opulent chambers are alien; she awakens in the middle of the night swallowing a scream, cowering from formless terrors, shivering under her brocaded coverlet. The fire in the hearth still crackles merrily, but she feels as though she'll never be warm. She gathers her dressing gown about her and paces the length and breadth of her room, stamping her feet to feel her own blood flowing.

A member of the palace guard stands watch just outside her door; perhaps one of the very same men who guarded her prison cell. She climbs out her window onto the battlements instead, breathing in the cool night air. The scent of the sea clears her head somewhat, accompanied by rich undertones of sand and fertile soil. Spring is coming.

She hears the slap of boots against stone, and looks up to see a dark-cloaked figure making its way along the wall. A smile rises unbidden to her lips. Her Huntsman treads swiftly and silently through forest paths; if she hears him approaching now, it's because he wants her to.

"Your Highness," he says, but does not bow. He knelt to her once, when she returned from death; once again at her coronation. It's a look that ill suits him. She does not enjoy the sight of proud men or women bending the knee to anyone at all, least of all herself.

"I was glad to see you at the coronation," she tells him. "Although I was not sure you would stay."

He shrugs, meeting her eyes levelly. "Nor was I. But somehow I could not imagine being anywhere else." His directness makes her skin feel flushed; her words falter and fail her. Conversation came so easily to her as a child, but she has long been out of practice. "I didn't think to meet you here, though," he goes on, deftly rescuing her from her own muteness. "Couldn't you sleep?"

She grimaces. "I slept long enough, I think."

He falls silent, the echoes of remembered grief writ plain across his face. She longs to snatch the words back. She didn't mean to make him uneasy.

They stand together unspeaking for a time, watching the stars slowly wheel across the velvet sky. At length, he turns back to her. "You should return to your chambers, my lady. The night grows cold."

She feels warmer under his gaze than in the glow of any fire. Searching deep within herself for the strength that drew armies to her side, she does her best to be bold. "Does it?" she says, taking a step closer to him. "I hadn't noticed."

He moves as though to touch her arm, then retreats, the gesture aborted. The person of the Queen is sacrosanct, after all. Pure, holy, untouchable. Just like the girl locked away in the tower. "Come, Highness. I would see you safe abed."

She hugs herself tightly, swallowing down her disappointment, and allows him to lead her back inside the castle. She wonders if Ravenna ever felt so perfectly lonely. Is this is a burden all queens must bear? "You know," she murmurs, "I don't believe you have ever called me by my name."

"You never granted it to me freely," he replies. "I have no right to it." His smile flashes in the moonlight, sudden and bright as a blade. "Besides, you've never called me by mine."

It startles her into a laugh. "But you've never told me your name!"

"As you say, princess," he teases, then sobers. He stops in the middle of the corridor and turns to face her, eyes intent, still not quite touching her. "It's yours if you wish it, my lady. You only need ask."

She knows there is nothing he would refuse her. Not tonight. Perhaps not ever. She is Queen, after all; the power is as intoxicating as it is terrifying.

Is this why Ravenna had wanted her crown so very badly?

"Good night, my Huntsman," is all she manages to say.

She returns to her chambers alone. The guard outside her door looks startled to see her there, but does not remark upon it. She wraps herself back up in the stifling coverlet and imagines she can still feel the heat of the Huntsman's gaze upon her, burning her alive.

The healing of her land is slow but sure; she rides out weekly to ascertain its progress. Her advisors grumble about the risk, but none dare stop her. They are wary of the power she wields, these muttering old men, but they grow bolder with each passing day. She is miserly with her trust. Some of them mean well, she is sure; even those few remaining who had also served Ravenna are clearly relieved to see the end of her reign of terror. But none are truly happy to see absolute power of the realm rest in the hands of a young, untried girl.

Snow White can't honestly say she blames them.

Some aspects of regency come instinctively to her: reaching out to the common folk, encouraging discourse and compromise, coaxing life back into the ravaged earth with the natural magic of her bloodline. She makes a most appealing figurehead. But the everyday trials and tribulations of ruling leave her awkward and uncomfortable -- the petty legal disputes, taxes and grain distribution and the correct etiquette for seating arrangements at the high table. A proper princess would have been trained relentlessly as she came of age, but Snow White had been orphaned too young. Ten years in a lonely tower had taught her a great deal about persistence and pragmatism, but very little about courtly manners. Worse yet, she had been born a daughter, not a son. No one had ever expected her to rule alone.

The Queen's inevitable marriage is a popular topic of discussion amongst her councillors.

Ravenna had hated the male sex with an unrelenting passion; never trust in love, she whispers in Snow White's ear, still appropriating William's voice. Snow White has found much to admire in men, but she still can't help but wonder if Ravenna had made a valid point. Many of her advisors have strapping young sons to foist upon her. One or two even seem to hope to be in the running themselves.

Her people, it seems, are most anxious for an heir.

She promotes the Huntsman to Captain of the Queen's Guard; he scowls ferociously at any lordling who attempts to court her. William alone he allows with a curious sort of magnanimity; perhaps because they once fought together at her side. William has proven himself to the Huntsman. Each knows the other would die for her.

William courts her assiduously in public, but is more reticent away from others' eyes. That he loves her is obvious, but it's a strangely childlike yearning, the hero worship of a young boy for his princess. He presses chaste kisses to her hands and follows her faithfully with his eyes. Perhaps this is what her people want to see, this unspoiled, puppyish sort of devotion. Pure as the driven snow.

She remembers their false moment in the snow-covered forest, the dark, honeyed tone of the imposter William's voice, the rich red of the apple, the sweet juice bursting into her mouth as she bit into its flesh, her eyes never leaving his. She remembers his kiss. She remembers choking on dust.

She does love William, in her own way. But she could never marry him. And from the wistful longing in his eyes when he looks at her, he knows it well.

Still he courts her, and kisses her hand, and very publicly serves as her escort, and for all this and more, she is grateful. Because so long as the Duke's son plays the Queen's favorite, no other suitors will force her hand.

Spring is lush, with just the right amounts of rain; all reports indicate that the harvests will prove extraordinarily plentiful, enough to replenish their depleted granaries twice over. Snow White kneels in her chapel and gives thanks to the Lord for His blessings.

The captain of her Queen's Guard is waiting for her at the door, frowning pensively. "Is this where you will kneel to your William, when you are married?" he asks.

She arches an eyebrow. "Did you not marry in a church, Huntsman?"

"Oh, aye," he says. "But the village churches are different. And it was during the Dark Times." This is how the people now refer to Ravenna's rule; no one ever speaks her name. "We didn't have a priest; he'd died in the wars, like so many of the men. No one cared to remember the old vows. No one expected a woman to swear to love, honor, or obey a man who'd like as not be off to battle again before the month was out, and she herself dragged off to meet the Dark Queen. But Sarah and I did the hand-fasting there all the same."

She can't bear the lingering sorrow in his tone, the shadows in his eyes. She'd never meant to dredge up such ill memories. "I am sorry," she says. "I didn't mean to pry."

"Will you vow to obey your husband, to be ruled by him?" the Huntsman presses, strangely intent. "Is that what you truly believe God requires of you?"

"That is what my councillors require of me, it seems," she says wryly. "But what concern is it of yours?"

He meets her eyes with his usual forthright gaze. "I would hate to see you on your knees for any man, my lady."

Her heart stutters in her breast, her breath getting somehow tangled in her throat. He gives her a crisp half-bow and pushes open the heavy oak door for her. The late afternoon sunlight tumbles into the chapel, catching gold strands in his hair and the blue of his eyes. Her crown may be a vise around her skull, but when he looks at her like that, she almost forgets it entirely.

The very next morning, when one of her advisors once again raises the issue of her marriage in the middle of a completely unrelated and vastly more pressing discussion of market prices in the capital versus the neighboring villages, she dismisses him from her Council on the spot.

Summer arrives with the festival of Beltane, a peasant practice long scorned by the Church yet affably indulged by the nobility. Snow White remembers the bonfires from her childhood; only now is she old enough to understand the subtext of the festivities. Her handmaidens giggle and gossip about the handsome young men whose eyes they hope to catch over the fires.

That was another tradition Snow White had defied; traditionally, the Queen's retinue would be composed of noble daughters hoping to curry royal favor for their families. But instead she'd offered the positions to the young women whose stolen youth had been restored by Ravenna's passing. Far too many of her victims had died of premature old age; the lucky few remaining were all welcomed into Snow White's service, if they so chose, or offered purses of silver in recompense. Surprisingly, most had chosen to serve their new Queen rather than the coin.

"Will your Highness be leaping over the cauldron in the main square?" one girl asks, with a saucy wink. "With that Lord William, perhaps?"

"The Queen doesn't hold with your silly superstitions," another argues huffily, braiding blue ribbons into Snow White's long black hair.

"I'll have the young lord, if she won't," the first remarks. "Wouldn't mind his noble bastard in my belly!"


Snow White just smiles wistfully and lets them chatter. She knows what her councillors think of this particular tradition. They'd be horrified to know such rough peasant talk was staining the Queen's virgin ears.

"My lady?" Greta whispers, later that evening, when they've all been dismissed for the festival. "I know it's your purity destroyed the Dark Queen, but no one expects you to be the blessed Virgin reborn. They won't think less of you for enjoying Beltane. If you want to, that is, begging your pardon."

"Won't they?"

Greta looks at her with compassion, not pity. "I'll be heading down to the bonfires in a moment," she says. "If you'd like to join me."

Snow White shoos her on, and does not make an appearance in the main square that night. But she does watch the festivities from the castle wall, and if she catches sight of her Huntsman down by the flames -- well, she has to admit he looks particularly fine by firelight, hoisting a tankard and joking with the other guardsmen.

But despite all the pretty young girls in attendance, the Huntsman never pays a one of them any particular attention, and he never goes near the cauldron.

One of the smallfolk catches sight of her upon the ramparts, and calls out a blessing to his Beltane Queen. The shout catches fire amongst the crowd: men and women, young and old, singly and in pairs, all crying out their blessings upon the Queen of Spring, the Lady of Light, their shining girl. Snow White raises a hand in acknowledgment, tears springing to her eyes, startled and touched.

The Huntsman shouts nothing, but he raises his tankard to her, and smiles with his eyes.

She retreats alone to her empty chambers, feeling a fire burn low in her belly, and aches to take a leap of her own.

She remembers hearing his voice in the darkness of death, like a single guttering candle lit against the chill, naming her Queen in Heaven. She remembers how startlingly warm his lips felt pressed against her own cold ones. She remembers waking to his tears trickling down her cheeks.

Ravenna had never believed in true, unselfish love; her dark magic, in all its terrible strength, had crumbled against the onslaught of a single kiss. That simple power had transformed Snow White from a frightened child into a Queen; it could just as easily become her own undoing. As with all magic, she both respects and fears it in equal measure. Life-giving fire, unchecked and untended, can yet wreak unspeakable destruction.

But oh, Snow White's traitorous heart whispers, what a way to go.

An idyllic summer yields to autumn. The Queen presides over the harvest festival, as expected, and rides out in person to assist with the labor in the fields, as certainly not expected. But wherever Snow White wields a scythe or carries a basket, whether wheat field or apple orchard, the harvests are particularly bountiful. And speaking in person with each farmer, every village headman, yields far more accurate reports than any of the royal tax collectors present to her Council.

The captain of her guard accompanies her wherever she goes, of course, ever watchful, and she sometimes catches him smiling at her out of the corner of her eye, when he thinks she's not looking. She knows he loved her before she was ever a queen, but still, she can't help but take a girlish pride in the ever-growing respect she sees in his eyes. She's not doing this for her Huntsman; but in a way, perhaps she is. For the embittered soldier he had once been, the grieving widower, the angry drunk, the desperate lout. For the women with scars cutting down their cheeks and the children orphaned by endless wars, for the men who'd stared at her white horse with hungry eyes and the Huntsman's wife who'd fought so valiantly and so futilely against Ravenna's desires. She avenges them with every stalk of wheat, every apple and every pear, every child who no longer has to go to bed hungry.

She wears a finely wrought golden diadem in her raven-black hair, and hardly even notices the weight of it anymore.

The autumn is long and prosperous, but the nights soon grow cold, and in the mornings, frost stains the grass in the main square. She was named for a rose that bloomed in the deepest snow, but though she does not fear the cold, she can no longer fully embrace it. She spent far too many years shivering in solitude atop that tower.

She thinks that the cold was all Ravenna had ever known, and grieves for the young girl who'd only ever been taught to turn her heart to ice.

Snow White's own red rose flowers in its monthly course one morning in late November; that afternoon, her councillors once again bring up the topic of marriage. "A spring wedding would be a true blessing for the realm," one of her lords remarks, with a significant glance in Duke Hammond's direction. "We might then have an heir before another year is out."

Snow White smiles, holding her crowned head high, and makes no promises. Somehow, in that moment, it's as though a veil is lifted from her eyes. The people of her realm yearn for security, after ten tumultuous years under the Dark Queen; but at the same time, they have no desire to see their storybook princess bend the knee to any of these grasping, manipulative old men. They would celebrate her marriage to William, if it came to pass; but they would equally rejoice to see her leap over the cauldron at Beltane hand-in-hand with a strapping young village lad. She is their Queen. So long as the harvests are bountiful and the markets lively and the realm at peace, none of the common folk give two figs for a royal marriage. The only people so deeply invested in her marital affairs are those who wish to control her.

She has spent far too long under anyone's control but her own.

Her courses pass in three days, more quickly than usual, as though her own body is urging her onward. Greta finds an unexpected patch of wildflowers blooming in the tall grasses by the sea, and fills a vase in the Queen's chambers with a fresh-scented bouquet. The colorful blossoms look particularly lovely by firelight. Late that night, when all her handmaidens are long abed, Snow White twines a sprig of lavender into her long, dark braid. She slips on a dark red robe over her nightgown and climbs out her window onto the battlements. The stones feel like ice under her bare feet, but she doesn't mind. There is a fire burning in her blood tonight; she scarcely even notices the cold.

She meets no one along the castle walls. The quarters reserved for the Queen's Guard are within the tower nearest her own, and the path along the ramparts is both the quickest and the least observable. The captain has his own private rooms that open directly onto the wall. As a child, she knew all the secret passageways of her castle; although she has never once before visited her Huntsman's chambers, she could find them now even if bound and blindfolded. It hardly requires any conscious thought on her part.

The warmth that greets her when she slips into his chamber is startling; her blood pulses hot beneath a fragile layer of skin, her heart hammering so fervently within her chest that it's a wonder he can't hear it. A fire crackles brightly in the hearth, the room's only visible concession to comfort; the stone floor and walls are bare, devoid of decoration. The bed is neatly made and empty. A simple wooden table and chair huddle by the fire, where the Huntsman sits with his back to her, brooding over a flagon of wine. Perhaps the door scrapes faintly as she closes it behind her, perhaps he hears the light tread of her bare feet on the stone, or perhaps he catches scent of the lavender in her hair. Whatever it is, he is on his feet at once, turning to meet her.

She wonders what sort of picture she must make at this moment: wide-eyed, her blood-red robe pulled tightly about her, pale cheeks flushed from the sudden heat, a few dark curls flying free from her windswept braid. His blue eyes seem to sear into her; she drinks in the sight of him just as thirstily. He's barefoot, dressed simply in worn brown trousers and a loose shirt that's open at the neck, his tanned skin nearly golden in the firelight, hair loose around his face. When he sets his flagon carefully down onto the table, she can see that it's still nearly full. Sober, then, as he has been more often than not of late. She wonders if that's a good or a bad thing tonight. His gaze never leaves hers for an instant.

"Your Highness?" he says, voice rumbling low in his chest. There is a question implied in his tone, wary and hopeful and uncertain.

She steps toward him. Her hands shake as she fumbles to untie her robe, but her voice remains blessedly steady. "My name," she tells him, "is Snow White."

"Snow White," he echoes, like a prayer, like a benediction.

She stands nearly toe to toe with him now, has to tilt her head up to meet his eyes. His hands drop unbidden to her waist, and the heat of them makes her shiver even through the layers of cloth. She remembers how tightly he gripped her as he carried her to safety away from the burning village; she no longer needs rescuing, but her yearning for his touch is another sort of need, just as desperate.

He doesn't need to ask why she is here; surely he can read the answer in the thrum of her blood, the quickness of her breath, the way her body curves to meet his. But still, he asks, "Are you sure?"

She withdrew from him once, the night of her coronation, still skittish and uncertain, and he has never once pressed her, or even mentioned it since. But that feels like a very long time ago. She's a different woman now; she is a woman now, a queen in her own right. She has grown into her rule like a blossom gradually unfurling; after nearly a year, she possesses a confidence and self-assuredness that the pure but frightened girl she'd once been could hardly even imagine. If she trembles at his touch now, it's no longer born of fear, but anticipation.

This is uncharted territory for her, the relations between men and women, but far less daunting than the regency of an entire kingdom. He is only a man, after all. If she could learn to rule, she can learn this as well, and hopefully take far greater pleasure in her education.

"I am sure that you love me," she says. "Do you?"

He bows his head, his brow pressing against hers. "Willful, stubborn girl," he murmurs. "I always have."

"Not always," she teases, pulling back enough to meet his eyes properly. "But long enough."

He reaches up to trace the curve of her cheek, his rough fingers shockingly gentle. "What would you ask of me, my lady?"

"Your name," she whispers. "Granted freely."

He gives it to her, freely, and she catches the sound of it as it tumbles from his lips to her own. Then they truly are kissing, gasping with it, drowning in one another. She thought she had been kissed before; the false William in the woods, the press of lips against hers as she slept like death. But now she realizes that she'd had no idea what kissing really was. This is something else entirely, his mouth open and hungry on hers, lips and teeth and tongues meeting in a true communion, hot and wet and yet still somehow reverent, holy.

He doesn't taste of apples at all.

He kisses her until she's forgotten how to breathe and then pulls back as she gasps, and she nearly thinks it a mercy until he begins kissing his way down the side of her neck, the line of her jaw. Somehow the heat of his mouth at the curve of her collarbone sends liquid fire surging through her entire body; she very nearly cries out with it. The clinging weight of her robe and shift are positively suffocating. She can't bear to go another moment without feeling his skin against her own, but if she weren't clutching onto him for dear life, she might not be able to remain upright.

"Please," she begs, and has no idea what she's asking for, just that she needs it more than breath, more than life itself.

He pulls away from her, and she does cry out at the sudden loss. But he just chuckles, regarding her with such naked affection that it nearly takes her breath away again. She might almost be embarrassed if she couldn't see the raw need in his own expression, eyes heavy-lidded, his chest heaving as he breathes. "God in Heaven," he says. "Do you have any idea how beautiful you are?"

She can't help but think of Ravenna, her porcelain skin and golden curls, her desperate quest for eternal youth. "I have no desire to be the fairest of them all."

"Not like that," he says, taking her meaning at once, cupping her face in his broad hands. "It's your spirit that makes you so beautiful, Snow White. Your soul."

She catches his hands in her own, smiling up at him. "Not my body?"

"Well," he admits, eyes hot on hers, "that, too."

"Show me," she whispers, and he does.

He gently slips her robe off her shoulders, leaving it to pool on the stark stone floor. Her shift is next, pulled up over her head and off, tossed aside. She'd thought she might be self-conscious at this, shy, but all she feels is gratitude that at last she can feel his touch all along her bare skin. He kisses her again, holding her close, one hand cupping her neck while the other fumbles with the ribbon at the end of her braid. Her hair tumbles loose down across her shoulders. His trousers feel rough against her bare legs, and she runs her hands up under his shirt to trace the strong planes of his back, then tugs it off him entirely in her impatience. She's so lost in this new universe of sensation that she only realizes that he's guiding her toward his bed when she backs right into it.

This much, she knows to expect, from her handmaidens' whispered confidences. She lies back on the coverlet and parts her legs, trembling a bit at being so exposed. He stares down at her reverently, his gaze scorching a path down the curves of her body and then back up again to her face. But then he does a curious thing; rather than press himself upon her, as she'd always been warned a man would, he simply stretches out alongside her on the bed and kisses her again, slowly, tenderly. The only points of contact between them are his mouth on hers, and his hand running lightly up and down her arm. He's near enough that she can feel the heat rising off the length of his body.

"Why do you not touch me?" she finally demands.

"Because I would be sure you want me to." She's used to his mercurial moods, his sardonic humor; she has only rarely seen him so strangely serious. I would hate to see you on your knees for any man, my lady.

She reaches out to him, twining her arms around his neck. "I want you to."

Now he rolls on top of her, taking care not to crush her; he kisses her again and again, on her brow, her earlobe, that marvelous spot at her collarbone that makes her entire body go limp beneath his. He worships her with his mouth, mapping out a path down between her breasts to her navel that makes her squirm pleasantly; he rubs her nipple lightly with his thumb and she arches up off the bed. Every touch, every kiss is new and astonishing. The princess locked in the tower, the stainless Queen -- those women were untouchable, impossibly pure. But she is his Snow White now, and it's as though a whole new world has opened up to her, full of heat and wonder and sensual pleasure. It's overwhelming in the best way imaginable; it's all she can do just to hold on while the wildfire rages between them.

He slips a hand down between her legs and she really does cry out; she'd touched herself there before, on occasion, and knew that it sparked a pleasurable heat deep in her belly, but she'd never felt it like this. Perhaps because the firm stroke of his fingers down there is now coupled with his mouth on her breast, the full hard length of his body pressed along hers, his natural scent of leather and sweat and woodsmoke mingling with the lavender now crushed against the coverlet beneath them. Her whole body feels taut as a bowstring. She presses desperately against him, breath coming in heaving pants, running her hands along every inch of his skin that she can reach. There is a storm building within her, blood pulsing like waves along the beach. He brings his head up again to kiss her on the mouth, swallowing her gasps, and then his hand is stroking along her side instead, and she keens at the loss. He pulls away, sitting back on his haunches, smirking down at her. But when he kneels to grip her waist in both hands, bending his head to meet the dark curls there, she can find no fault in his obeisance. This time, the storm crashes over her, wave after wave of it, until she realizes her throat is hoarse from crying his name.

She comes back to herself to find his arms wrapped tightly around her, his lips pressed against her brow. He's still half-dressed in his trousers, she realizes, though she can feel his hardness press against her thigh through the worn fabric. Her pleasure left her feeling loose and languid and open, dispersing any anxiety she might have had at allowing him to enter her. She curls into him and tugs lazily at his trouser laces. "Come, my Huntsman," she murmurs. "I would not leave you unsatisfied."

He trails his fingers down along her spine. "Seeing you like this is satisfaction enough. I would not trespass further."

"And what sort of poacher would you be, if you did not?" She arches her eyebrows and smiles up at him.

The heat in his eyes makes his desire clear, but still he hesitates. "My lady, when you take a husband...."

"I will never marry," she says firmly. The certainty in her tone takes him by surprise, she can tell; and yet, at the same time, it does not seem to shock him. "I cannot afford to ever give one man that sort of power, over my kingdom or myself. In that, perhaps, Ravenna knew what she was about."

He shudders at the mention of the Dark Queen's name, pressing a kiss against her brow and tugging her closer still. "Your advisors will not be best pleased with that choice. Nor will Lord William."

"William already knows he will never be king," she says. "And I find myself caring little and less for the marital advice of my Council." She deliberately unlaces his trousers, allowing herself to enjoy the new expanse of skin available to her touch as she tugs them down his hips. "I have only room for one man in my heart and in my bed, and dearly though I may wish it, you and I both know I cannot give you a crown."

"Nor would I ever want it," he says vehemently. And she knows it to be true. Her Huntsman is a man of strong desires, but a lust for power has never been one of them. He only endures his position at the castle for her sake; had his Sarah lived, he would have been far more content to live simply with her in his village, hunting and drinking and coming home to a warm fire and a happy wife. But his wife is forever lost to him, and his second love is a very different sort of woman. Still he chose her, will continue to choose her day after day after day. Snow White has no doubts on that score. She loves him all the better for it.

She smiles up at him, gently tugging him down to rest between her parted thighs. "So I shall never take a husband. But I do intend to give the kingdom an heir." She has to laugh at his startled expression. "Not today! My courses only just ended; it's unlikely I will conceive a child tonight. But someday."

"A child?" he whispers, his calloused palm tracing the smooth curve of her belly. His breath is warm against the shell of her ear, and she shivers with it. The longing in his voice is plain as day, as is the regret. "Your lords will never bend the knee to a child bastard-born."

"So long as I bear her, none will be able to deny her royal lineage." She begins following his earlier example, pressing kisses against every inch of skin she can reach. "I'd like to see them try."


"A daughter, I hope. Someday." She smiles and spreads her legs wider still, drawing him down inside her. It hurts, as she'd been told to expect, but only for a moment; and well worth the pain to feel him filling her, completing her. She'd thought she was already sated, but when he thrusts carefully within her, the banked embers spark again into flame. She clasps his neck and pulls him down to kiss him deeply, their bodies moving together in perfect synchrony, while outside the castle walls waves crash against the causeway and late-season wildflowers are startled into a riot of sudden bloom.

She holds her weekly public audience the next morning, submerging herself in the everyday business of ruling a realm, settling minor disputes and hearing petitions. She once dreaded these all-too-public affairs, but nowadays she finds them strangely invigorating. Once the last of the petitioners is dismissed, she looks up to see the captain of her guard awaiting her at the door, as always.

"Your Highness," he says, but the smile in his eyes calls her by a different name, and she returns it willingly.

"My Huntsman," she agrees, taking his arm. "Shall we ride out to the fields? I hear the farmers outside of Leyton village have been blessed with a second harvest."

"As my lady wishes."

As they make their way across the castle, they happen to pass the boarded-up doors that lead to what had once been Ravenna's private chambers. No one had been willing to scrub the floors clean of the Dark Queen's dust, nor could anyone bear to touch that awful mirror, so they'd simply locked it all away. Snow White regrets that decision somewhat; it isn't right that Ravenna should be so thoroughly dismissed. Evil she had been, and destructive, and cruel -- but also deeply, desperately unhappy. All the power and beauty and wealth in the kingdom, and still, it could not buy her joy.

Snow White reaches up unthinkingly to straighten her golden crown. It still does not quite sit comfortably on her head. She hopes it never does.

She feels his touch at the base of her neck, warm and light. "Snow?"

"It was my heart she needed," she says softly. "Not my youth, or my beauty, or even my purity. My heart. For she had long since lost her own."

He will never be able to think of the Dark Queen with anything but hatred, she knows, but he gentles his tone for her sake. "You pity her yet."

"Of course." She closes her eyes a moment, remembering. "She never understood. She could have had it. When I was still a child, before she became a bride. I so loved the way she brought light to my father's eyes again. I loved her for it. She seemed so kind, and beautiful, and understanding -- oh, my Huntsman, I would have given my heart to her freely, with a smile. But she never asked. She never knew how to ask. She only grasped, and plundered, and stole." She turns away, reaching up to clasp his hand in hers, twining their fingers together. The corridor is empty; he bends down to press a kiss into the dark hair curling behind her ear, just below the curve of her crown. "And by the time she came for me, I had already given my heart to you unasked-for."

They stand together in silence for a time. The fire that so raged within her blood last night now spreads slowly within her, a gentle, creeping warmth, glowing embers coaxed lovingly to flame. It will not consume her the way Ravenna's ice did her. She is a different sort of queen.

She finally lifts her head from her Huntsman's shoulder, calling him by his name. She smiles softly when his eyes meet hers.

"Come, my captain," she says. "There is much yet to be done."