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queen and country

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Queen and Country


The real problem, Beatrix thought with uncharacteristic despair, was Adelbert.

Anyone else when saddled with name like Adelbert might conceivably allow it to be neatly truncated to "Bert". If he were a particularly earnest young man desperately in search of the goodwill of his peers, he might even acquiesce to "Bertie." But then there was Adelbert, a man who so steadfastly embodied the stodgier aspects of his own name that any attempt to prune it into a more socially acceptable shape was doomed to failure from the very outset.

She had a sudden, searing mental image of a young, square-headed boy with rumpled dark hair answering solidly to Adelbert on the very first day of term and subsequently unable to comprehend why the other children pelted him with their textbooks.

Even then, it was difficult to picture him in circumstances as normal as a school room. It wasn't as if the facts of his life were an mystery; it was just that very little about Adelbert Steiner invited curiosity. One look at him answered all the questions you could possibly have. That wasn't to say that she hadn't looked- after all, Beatrix prided herself on her thoroughness. She'd had one of her lieutenants bring up his file from the Castle archives once under the tacit understanding that this was never to be mentioned if the woman did not wish to serve out her commission on the Burmecian border. To Beatrix's disgruntlement, this shameful indulgence had neither confirmed nor added anything substantial to the list of things she already knew, other than he had been issued one citation as a lowly recruit for flouting the grooming standard.

(Steiner was the only man she knew that scrubbed his neck twice a day and gargled with salt water only to blissfully not notice that his armor would have to be scraped down a riverbed to remove all of the rust. Beatrix couldn't decide how she felt about that. She was sometimes annoyed by how often she swung over to finding it endearing.)

She learned, later, that he had a mother in the city whom he visited weekly in order to report on his physical and emotional well-being, and (once a year) to unclog her storm drains. He also told her once, over dinner, that the princess had bade him at a very early age to read every one of Avon's tragedies, and that he had been stalling on General Magdalene's March ever since. Beatrix very kindly did not tell him she was descended from Magdelene's line and that her grandmother had funded the play's release. The evening stalled when Steiner became flustered over the restaurant's strict dress policy- they had not, to date, allowed anyone in regulation plate mail to violate their law of strict formal ware and had only been discouraged by the slow, careful rise of Beatrix's eyebrow- but it had ended surprisingly well outside of her door, where Steiner had stammered what a very satisfactory congress it had been before bending down to kiss her clumsily on one cheek.

That was the rub of it, Beatrix thought. He could show up to a romantic evening in his work uniform, accuse three waiters of attempting to poison them, and spent all evening blushing to his hairline whenever she leaned across the table to reach the breadbasket, and still come away as… well. Gallant.

She couldn't fault his name, in any case. 'Beatrix' could not be shortened with any dignity, and she knew, grimly, that the name rather suggested someone who wore a great deal of leather and ran a very discreet business in Treno. She did not know if she resembled her name. She did not know if any name could call up the image of a one-eyed swordswoman who had torn through entire armies and still found herself inexplicably charmed by gallantry.

"Adelbert," she said, trying out the full weight and heft of it on her tongue, like turning a new sword in her hand.

He looked up, surprised. His hair was unkempt and richly black; he had yet to put on his helmet. She decided not to tell him where she has hidden it this time. It made it so difficult to run her fingers idly through his hair just to watch him flare red down to the roots.

"Yes?" he said, cautiously, and then his face firmed. "That is- yes, Beatrix?"

The trick was, she thought very distantly, to interrupt him before his bluster rose. She wondered if a kiss would work.

It helped her somewhat to know that she could not help her role as a conqueror any more than he could help his as a storybook knight.

"Nothing," she said smoothly, and when she smiled at him he rocked back from a blow soundly struck.