The state of affairs was well-known to the king and to her spouse before the night of a particular feast when bonfires would burn high throughout the country, blanketed not only by a moment of peace but also by a pitch of warm, seasonal fever. Safe in the walls of Camelot, fires also burned, and both the king and the queen were at home. A night of feasting and of pleasant drink had, on this particular day, a certain and expected conclusion.
The queen's attire was fine and ever as decent as befitted a lady of her stature and honor, but on this night her arms were utterly bare. Flowers had been plaited into her hair. The king's attire was no less lavish for this night – a pale shade of blue which suited his – her – eyes and hair and handsome features. If seasons of conflict and unrest had ever caused the united country to doubt the beauty of their king and queen, this night would chase away any of that apprehension.
Only, there were things that the people did not know, must never know, even on a night of celebration like this. Hidden away in the king's chamber, the king and queen were both held in familiar, cautious silence even as the sounds of music, dancing, and other forms of merriment could be heard within and without the walls. Artoria sat at the foot of the fine bed she slept in each night when she was safe within the walls of Camelot's castle.
Her legs bent and her feet kicked back and forth against the floor as if it might have been the edge of a little pond. Anxious and at ease at once, it was hard to decide if she was uncomfortable. Her wife was seated further back on the bed, oriented to one side so that she might sleep there. On a night like tonight, it was entirely expected that the king and his wife would share his bedchamber.
If she listened closely, the sounds of merriment elsewhere in the castle were of a more bawdy and reckless tone than was typical on a feast day. No matter how young the king looked, she had lived too long and seen too much to be counted naïve. As she perched there, her face colored, and she scarcely wanted to think whether it was her mind or some effect of drink that was the cause. She swallowed tightly, wishing for a moment that she had taken another sip of something before she had retired to bed. Only, Guinevere had looked a bit weary of the drunken men in the hall, no matter how much she might have laughed at them.
It was Artoria's duty to protect her. It was the least she could do. There was little else she could do to fulfill her duties as a husband, and as the thought occurred to her – certainly not for the first time – this night, she felt the heat in her face rise to her ears. She looked around, over her shoulder, to gaze at her wife.
“Did you have a good time tonight?” she asked. It was a strangely formal question between them, when they were alone, but it seemed that the awareness of what her people expected them to be doing now weighed more heavily on her mind than it usually did. More than it ever had.
When Guinevere met her eyes, she laughed. Artoria felt her blush deepen, along with her self-consciousness.
“Of course. It is not every night that all of my husband's friends are drunk and so... intent,” she said, delicately but with a quirk of her lips.
Artoria's gaze quickly shifted toward the bed and she picked at the blanket draped over it.
“What is it?” Guinevere asked, as patient with her situation as she had ever been.
Artoria turned herself and drew her legs up to fold them together, facing Guinevere before she could speak again. She pressed her lips together, frowning at her shins rather than looking at her wife. If any of her knights saw her now, she knew they might laugh, but there were many things that most of her people could never see.
“I asked if you enjoyed tonight,” Artoria said, precise in her tone but doing her best to avoid scolding.
Guinevere sat up straight and slid down the length of the bed toward Artoria. She reached toward her and look hold of her forearm. She rubbed up and down and Artoria noticed the warmth of her hand. She wondered if the heat of her own skin is more evident tonight than it would be on any other.
“There is something troubling you,” Guinevere chided gently, so softly that even if there had been others in the room, none but Artoria could hear.
“Not troubling me exactly,” Artoria replied, so grateful for the assistance that it helped her manage to look Guinevere in the eye. For a moment, she held her breath. It was only right to ask her. It was only right to try. If she was ever going to be more of a husband, at least in this respect, she believed that she would never have a better opportunity than right now. For a moment, her eyes flit down to the front of Guinevere's body, her form just a little more bare than it typically was. Over time, and whether she would ever have learned to otherwise or not, Artoria had learned what it was that men found desirable in women. Traits of which, she had determined, she had none. Such was not the case for her wife, and in this moment she believed that it was somehow unjust that Guinevere might never know that if she did not tell her.
“Did you truly have too much to drink this time?” Guinevere teased, affectionately.
“Our people—” Artoria began, but somehow even that seemed too personal to bring into this conversation, even though everything she did was both personal and impersonal. Perhaps her wife was right. She must have had too much to drink. This was a moment of weakness, a moment of feeling and of humanity which she should not purpose to have. Only, she reasoned, her role as a husband was one she had committed to, and Guinevere had no such high commitments as she did, however dutifully she performed her role as a wife and a king. It was an act of fairness, one of kindness, that she tried to ask. “... Everyone,” she mumbled, then recovered her tone of speech, “believes that we are like every other man and woman brought together in bed on this night. I... was wondering if you ever regret that we are not.”
Her eyes searched Guinevere's, and for a moment she saw nothing. Then, eyelashes which she noticed more keenly than she usually allowed herself to shaded her eyes as she blinked very quickly. Her gaze settled on Artoria's, as familiar as it had become over the course of their young but not entirely new marriage. Her lips parted – to speak – and Artoria felt that she was glancing at them with treacherous hope. Her heart beat a little quicker than it should have in her chest anywhere but on a battlefield.
“Are you... asking me if I would...” Guinevere asked, and Artoria gave her her gaze and attention. She gave her every piece of her concentration, so that the castle might have shaken apart and gone up in flame and, in that moment, she would not have noticed. If she was going to ask such a thing of her, she could bear to give her no less. “... If I would like to... be a maiden no more?” she asked, in that same delicate and wry tone that she had always needed to reserve for talk of others, until now.
“Yes,” Artoria said, and then she felt that it was a little too quickly. Looking away from her wife again, her gaze darted around the room as if looking for some defense or some apology. “... Yes,” she repeated, because she could not lie to her. “It is only that... I cannot be a husband as others believe I am, but I have thought about it. I could... give you—” She struggled for the words for what she wanted, though she knew them. She did not know words gentle enough for it, not to speak in the presence of a lady.
“... Yes,” Guinevere said. Artoria looked at her and for a moment it was as if she had forgotten how to understand simple agreement. “Yes,” Guinevere said, her breath releasing as if she were relieved to find her eyes again. “If... you would like—we could... try... to pretend,” she suggested, giving her a hopeful, reassuring smile.
To pretend . It was not quite what Artoria had hoped. She felt a little weight in her chest, pressing in the same place where she felt the beating of her heart, still pounding away. Was pretending not what they were already doing? Here in her bedchamber, clothed and innocent and, in some way, utterly alone. It was not what she wanted – to pretend . She wanted to stop pretending. Only, she supposed, it was only a quibble of a word, and the familiar stab of guilt, of regret in her chest was a kind of reassurance that, for tonight, this was what she needed to do as a king. Being a king and being the kind of girl she might have been, had she never been a king, were never things that went together naturally. One or the other, the thought of both, would always hurt.
And with that thought in mind, the king took a breath and leaned in as she had seen knights do. She leaned in as she had seen country farmers do and their wives and youths hidden away in tree lines, all across her country. She did as she had never done before, and tilted her head, and felt her wife's breath so close to hers that they were inseparable forms of energy. Then, their lips touched, and she tasted Guinevere's like water, drank them as she thirsted, and when she felt the other young woman lean back, her posture giving way beneath her in gentle increments, she let her. She leaned over her, she held her own weight, and she gave herself – if only for this one night – to find out what it might be like. To pretend. Not to pretend.