La Belle Eliza

by Koizumi Shinme (恋墨新芽)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/35087.html)

We could see the dust cloud from a long way off, and I wasn’t ready yet. Eliza kept moving between the window and my side, touching my shoulder lightly with one finger, then turning back to watch the progress of horses and wagon. Too fast. Too soon.

Vivito,” she whispered in my ear, the old nickname, and then with a final twist and jab the maid pronounced my hair complete, braided and coiffed for the long ride. “Hurry, hurry,” Eliza said, jostling me on the arm. Those were the words her mouth formed, but the tone of them said ‘don’t go’ and ‘I’m sorry.’ “Come, suola.”

‘Clumsy,’ but said with affection. Always.

A dozen small hands bundled me up, closing and latching trunks, tightening my belt and ties, checking my hair. There were murmurs, but no one spoke to me. No goodbyes except the brush of fingertips, over and over. A house full of women who will not speak. My father would have rejoiced.

“Do you remember?” Eliza finally asked, when the snort of horses and the sound of men’s voices filled the air.

“I remember,” I whispered, and the doors were opened.

~~~
The inside of the wagon was dark and cramped, sitting on my trunks with a thin pad over, not thick enough to stave off the bumps and bruises as we were jostled down the road. If our family were rich, maybe we would have spent the first hour rolling over paving stones. I couldn’t imagine that those would’ve been any better.

The air was close and choking, but to open a window was to invite all the dust of Kenarayr in with me. This was where paving stones would have come to good use.

I pushed one of the heavy, top-hinged windows open a crack anyway, preferring a chalky mouth to the horror of dark and overwhelming cloves. I held it there for only a moment before a hand slipped under and caught it for me.

“Oh!” I let go in surprise.

“Miss,” he said – of course it was a ‘he’, all the riders were men – “there is a stay, under here.” His deft fingers flipped out a small triangle of wood, the base attached to the wagon itself, and slotted it into a groove on the window.

I let my hand fall, feeling stupid.

When we stopped, an hour later, to rest the horses and rotate the team, he took a piece of coarse linen from somewhere and draped it over the forward-facing half of the window’s gap, then nailed it into place.
I managed to refrain from spitting as I washed out my mouth.

~~~
The first night was bad. The second was worse.

No one would have spoken to me at all, except perhaps to ask which trunk I wanted (the first night I had told them wrong, so after agonizing for nearly an hour, timidly called out for another – only to find the whole pile inside my tent in a matter of minutes), but as I stepped down from the carriage on the second evening, I stumbled.

The man, who I was beginning to think of as my keeper, caught my arm.

“You must rest, miss,” he admonished, and I thought, ‘yes, yes, that is the point of stopping,’ but apparently, my nod was not enough. He escorted me into the tent (with two guards, so we would not be alone) and ordered food brought.

I thought of insisting on supping outside, with the men, but eating was really my downfall and a thing best done in private.

He did not seem inclined to leave.

From outside came the sounds of men talking, fires crackling, the clatter of utensils against wooden bowls – more life from this two dozen of the Emperor’s finest than from our entire household on a feast day. This was a household in its own right, I realized. A traveling, womanless one, except for me.

When the food came I picked at it, trying to be careful. No sense in ruining my travel clothes or my reputation so soon. It was hard, though, with his eyes tracking my every move. I set the knife and spoon down with a sigh.

“You did not eat enough,” he said with a frown.

“I’m not hungry,” I lied.

His frown deepened.

“I just want to hurry and get there,” I said, but that was a lie, too.

“Lady Eliza-” he began. My eyes darted round of their own volition, taking a moment to realize that no, that was me now. “My lady-” but again he stopped, thought incomplete.

“May I sleep?” I asked, and he bowed his head, retreating. The guards followed.

~~~
“You have to eat,” Eliza said. Pathka said. Nillen said. They came to the room in waves, changed the water in the basin, replaced the rags, left food for me and something mashed for Father – something different every time. Green, orange, white. The color of the food told me time had passed. The stains on my waistcoat and breeches told me I had eaten, and therefore so had he.

I only remembered to eat when Father woke enough for a few spoonfuls.

While I slept, his groans mingled with red-lined account books in my mind, a terrifying combination. I tried not to sleep much.

“Don’t tell anyone,” I urged Eliza. “Bring me the correspondence. I can do his lettering.”

“Is this the way?” she asked. She who asked so little of anyone. I did not appreciate the full weight of it at the time.

“They can’t know. No one can know.” I repeated this even after the village doctor shook his head a final time: no chance. “No one can know yet.”

“I trust you,” she whispered. “We’ll do it your way.”

I nodded and wiped the sweat from Father’s brow.

~~~
Lying in my cot with the covers pulled up to my neck, I listened to the soft murmurs of conversation outside: men making ready for bed, horses settling, the occasional sudden rise of laughter, quickly shushed.

A strange thing, this envy that blew through me like a sudden wind. I could pick out the voice of my keeper mingled with the rest, echoing the easy way I’d seen him move among his men, so that it had taken me all day to recognize his position. He may have been their Captain, but they treated him as a brother. And here I lay, brotherless, sisterless, in the empty silence of my tent.

I recalled his face, the first question from his lips after the great door opened. No introductions, merely, “Has she no maid?”

“None as can be spared.” Pathka’s voice wavered, a final effort to save me.

“Hush,” I told her, embarrassed. “I’ll be fine.”

“My baby!” she wailed and threw her arms around my neck.

I sighed and held her, knowing at least half the emotion was genuine. Strange still, after all these years, to feel her so much smaller than myself, her stocky body sliding into age. I had a fear, a real fear, that I might not see her again.

“I’ll return,” I swore, with no basis but my own desperation. “I won’t be gone forever.”

Over Pathka’s shoulder, the guard’s eyes were hooded and unreadable.

~~~
I woke to the sound of scuffles and shouts, feet running everywhere and a strange scream, cut off. Fumbling with the bedclothes, I managed to land on my knees on the floor, crawling for the smallest, heaviest trunk in the tent. I flipped the latch and thrust my hand inside, getting pricked for my incaution. But still I got my hand wrapped round the handle of something and pulled it out, just as the back of my tent ripped with a terrible sound.

I turned, and jerked my hand to my mouth. Two men, wild-eyed and dirty, leering in the gap. Bandits. Dear gods, this close to our lands. My throat went tight.

“Pretty lady,” one of them jeered, and I tried to stand in the stupid gown, getting tangled in it every which way so that when the first man lunged, I fell into him, knife-first.

He went down screaming.

A hot, sharp smell I’d always hated flooded the room, and I gagged. The other bandit hesitated, eyes wide, and then he, too, was screaming and falling, and a blood-soaked sword thrust in the gap, followed by a bloody hand and disheveled head. “My lady!” my keeper croaked, stumbling forward. I reeled back from the sword, and he looked at it dumbly, like he’d never seen it before. It dropped with a dull thump.

He kept coming, and I let him, let the knife slip to the floor as he lifted me away from the bandit’s corpse and set me on the folding cot that was my bed. “Are you hurt?” he asked, kneeling forward to take my blood-soaked hands. For the life of me I could make no sound. He lifted the edge of his tunic – he slept like this? – and tried to wipe the blood away.

My hands. My big, clumsy hands, and he was cleaning them like a cat with her newborn kitten.

I started crying.

~~~
I slept in the wagon. He’d wiped my face, too, with a piece of silk from one of my trunks, and wrapped my injured finger before bundling me into blankets and carrying me there. I slept, and dreamt of men groaning. I woke to it as well.

“We have to go back,” I whispered. My voice seemed to have disappeared in the night. “We have to warn them.”

“I will send three men,” he said, but would not be moved any further. My warmth toward him burned away in the sunlight.

We had wounded now, who could not ride. I saved them the embarrassment by offering my wagon before they had to ask. “Can you ride, my lady?” he wanted to know. I laughed. It was not a pretty sound.

“Tie me to the horse,” said I, “and I’ll be fine.”

He led me to the head of the column, where the dust was less, but I had forgotten that the only saddle I had now was a sideways one. The slick material of my traveling skirt slid against the leather as I clung desperately to the reins. Also, he brought me my thickest veil (“for the dust, my lady”), so I could hardly see past the horse’s ears. It seemed like the day would never end.

At each stop he caught me as I slid from the saddle, his big hands on my waist, and I spared a moment for panic each time, but he never said anything except to ask how I was.

“Fine,” I said each time, then ignored him.

We stopped that night by the rock-bottomed stream that once marked the boundary of the old Empire, before my great-grandfather’s time. The horses drank deeply, and the men, too. My keeper disappeared for a short time, then came back almost smiling.

“There is a bathing pool just north of here. A few minutes walk. Would you like-?”

“Yes,” I said, without thinking. “Now.”

“My lady.” He bowed from the waist, and my painted trunk was lifted by two uninjured men. “Keffer and Heeley will take you and stand guard on the path.”

“As long as they don’t peek,” I muttered, realizing the risk.

Shock and amusement warred on his face as he turned away.

~~~
The water was cold, but I didn’t care. I scrubbed under my fingernails like a madman, desperate to remove the last traces of blood. The stench of it had lingered all day, spiking whenever I moved my hands; it had been inescapable. My sister always said I was too soft, that way. Today was the first time I might have agreed with her.

I had the only unbroken lantern in the encampment sitting on a rock by the bank. Pale golden light flickered from it, casting more shadows than it illuminated, doing more to battle with the blue wash of the three-quarter moon overhead than to increase my safety here.

Yet I did feel safe. Dark water lapped at my waist, tugging gently downstream, and smooth pebbles tumbled easily under my feet. Watersnakes were unheard of north of the Aniean Ridge, and I trusted my keeper well enough by now: he would not have let me be here if it were dangerous.

In my hands I cupped cold water, let it pour over my head, running in rivulets over my shoulders and back. The touch of it was like ice rimming the well in late autumn, numbing my cut finger, and so I knew this stream was fed from mountain snows. Still, it felt good. I did it again and again, losing myself in the hypnotic motion, tipping my face up to let some of it splash down past my eyes, cascading over my cheeks and down my neck. A cleansing, such as a holy man of the mountains might take on himself to shed the unclean touch of the world.

A sound behind, a boot scraping on the path. I froze.

My hands, which had been lifted above my head, jerked to my chest in reflexive defense; otherwise, I stood utterly still. Had I been able to think, perhaps I would have ducked lower in the water. But no, at that moment, all my being was tied to my ears, stretching, listening for another cue, no sense of what I would do if I caught it.

I did catch it. A nervous cough, then softly, “You have been gone long.”

My breath came out in a rush. Relief made me giddy, short. “Are you looking?”

“No,” he swore, in a voice that needed no reference to Emperor and empire to be adamant. I believed him.

“Go,” I ordered, the first time I had given an order in all my life. “I will follow soon.”

“My lady,” was all of his response, and boots upon the path again, unstealthy, moving away.

The water that had been a strange pleasure now sapped the heat from my bones, turning my heart chill and tightening my sinews into knots. When I knew he was gone, I turned and staggered up the pebbled bank – hands still crossed over my chest – to where the towels and my second, unbloodied nightdress lay, all still flickering, flickering in the empty lantern light.

~~~
For two days we followed the ancient road south, me clinging to the old mare’s back and lifting my veil surreptitiously to watch the countryside change. Old names whispered in my head, family names and lands that up to now had been nothing more than that – names. I took it all in with wide eyes, in case I should never come back.

“We’ll make an excuse,” Eliza assured me as we traipsed through the north pasture. “Somebody will be sick and demanding you.”

“Pathka would do it,” said I, trying to copy her walk.

“Pathka thinks if only she could get you out of the house, she can retire to the old cottage out back.”

“She tried to marry me off last year.”

“I remember that.” Eliza’s eyes sparkled. “Of course, now she knows the error of her ways. You were always meant for an-“

“Be quiet!” I ordered, slipping on the wet grass, and sat down hard.

She came back laughing, and if I couldn’t walk properly yet, well, I never could wrestle. She laughed again as I clambered to hands and knees and plowed into her. Her wiry arms flipped me back gently, so as not to bruise my face. I struggled a brief moment before admitting defeat, then let the smell of grass and bright blue sky and the sounds of her settling beside me make a stain upon my memory that time could not wash out.

“Old nurses never retire,” I told her as I caught my breath. “They just turn into matchmakers.”

“You’ll see the world,” she countered. “I think I might be a little envious.”

“As long as it’s only a little.” We watched the clouds go by overhead and listened to birds singing in the lengthening grass, as spring turned to summer with the kind of desperate speed that only happens when you know there’s an end coming.

Eliza called back to the birds, each whistle like an old friend in her throat. I listened and tried to name the shapes of the clouds. Would they look different where I was going?

Her calloused hand closed on mine, gripping hard. No, then. Not in the ways that mattered.

~~~
An odd thrum of excitement rippled through the camp the next morning – a rise in voices, a quickening of feet – warning me before my keeper could put in an appearance. He kept his eyes up, but the set of his shoulders had drooped. I had not taken him for cheerful, before, except perhaps among his men.

He brought me breakfast and word that the men who had been riding in my carriage would be leaving it today. I set my spoon down and stared.

“They are not well enough.”

“They insist, my lady.”

“I can insist just as much. More.” I folded my arms. “I will be riding a horse today, whether or not anyone is in that carriage.”

“My lady-” He stopped and looked away.

Oh. Sweet rains, what had I become? Eliza’s pronouncements always left such muddy tangles to unwind, and she never had the cleaning of them.

“I’m sorry,” I said, my hand hovering by his arm. “Tell them – tell them they were wounded defending me, and that it would be a stain upon my honor to treat them less than I would my family’s own retainers.” Not that we had many of those left, but I kept that to myself.

He looked up, thin lips twisting in a smile. “Thank you, my lady.”

We set out shortly thereafter, me riding with sweaty palms, the injured still bumping along in the carriage. Soon, though, the road smoothed out. Through the mare, I felt more than saw the moment paving stones began to spring up beneath the dust.

The sun lifted early and the day grew hot. A distant buzzing sound enveloped us, held at bay only by the stifling shade of my enormous hat and veil.

“My lady.” A voice, a hand on my elbow. “Are you well?”

“Fine,” I whispered through parched lips, but he did not pull away.

“Call a halt,” he ordered one of the men, and steered my mare off the road.

We had been walking up a great hill for what seemed like hours, occasionally catching the sound of water splashing nearby. Now I could see that a stream ran roughly parallel to the road, flowing gently downhill between grassy banks and bare tree roots. With a little help, I made it down from the saddle and directly onto the grass, skirts billowing out on every side as I pulled my hat off and reached for the water-

-and saw my face, reflected back like a stranger’s, dark kohl around my eyes and lace at my throat.

So it was, the first time I stood before the mirror.

The old seamstress was tucking me in at the waist, grunting and sniffing and muttering all at once, and I was staring at the wall to the left of the mirror, so as not to have to see myself. Eliza came in quite suddenly, all in breeches and dirty vest, from some problem in the field that she would doubtless never trouble me with, and stopped. Stared. Her eyes widened, and her mouth might have rested slightly open for just a moment. Then she grabbed my elbows and spun me around, to the tune of the seamstress’s wordless curses. “Ow!” I complained as a pin slipped, and she stopped. Held me at arm’s length. Grinned.

“You look better than I ever could have,” she laughed.

“I hate you,” I said, without any heat but that of embarrassment.

Timpali,” she said. Butterfly. That was a new one.

“I can hardly breathe,” I complained.

“Learn to breathe with your eyes,” she said and turned me so I had to look.

Oddly, she was right. I looked like my head was just emerging from a pale yellow cocoon, one my body had not yet shed. “Does it have to be so tight?” I asked.

“They always are,” she said, as the seamstress caught up with us and jabbed me again.

“-my lady, please answer. My lady-”

I lifted my hand, a palmful of cool water, and stared as it trickled over my wrist. A larger hand came under mine, catching the escaped droplets.

“My lady?” The words were softer but no less worried.

“I don’t know where I’m going,” I whispered. “Or why.”

“We’re going to the Imperial Capitol, where my lady will be married.”

“Will I?” My voice felt detached.

“So I am told.”

“Me, too.” I snorted and reached for the water again, but he produced a tin cup from nowhere and scooped a drink for me. “My lady should not be seen drinking from her hand.”

“Probably not,” I agreed and let him hold it for me.

The men looked everywhere but at us as he helped me back onto my horse. I thought they were embarrassed, but later, as we topped the hill, Heeley rode up and murmured softly, “Luck be with you, Lady Eliza.”

“Thank you,” I whispered from beneath my veil.

Then we were cresting the hill and watching the sun beat down from the west upon the valley below, turning all of Alineal a brilliant shimmer of orange and gold, trimmed with blue shadow. My eyes watered; I turned my head.

The men formed round me in a phalanx with the carriage behind, and we rode toward the City of Gold with swords held high and scars displayed, until I felt myself dressed plainly in mere silk and taffeta, not a brass button nor buckle in sight.

They saw us coming long before we arrived, so that as the necks of the first horses passed under the Northern Gate, bells began to ring somewhere off to our left. Another tower took up the call, and soon a cacophony of chimes in all speeds and notes spilled out into the streets, no rhythm nor harmony to any of it, and the people spilled out, too, seemingly from nowhere. They crowded the doorways and the alleys, leaving us barely room to pass three horses abreast. Strange faces whirled in and out of my sight, blurred by the veil, expressions curious, greedy, awed, knowing, hopeful, calculating. More people than I had ever seen in my life. More than I would see, once the harem doors closed behind me.

~~~
A bell had rung out on that day, too – a single, mournful note from the tower, echoed and re-echoed until it sounded like dozens. When Nillen grew tired, old Stodger would take it up again. They would feel no pain, as long as they rang the bell, the seventh-day bell, until my father’s soul went to rest with the setting sun.

I sat in my father’s old study and stared at the desk, wondering, bemused, with no sense of what to do next.

Eliza had finished yelling thirty-three tolls of the bell ago. How many minutes was that? Who knew? But she had stalked her stalk, her pacing stomp, and settled in a chair like a puppet with its strings cut. The letter with its red wax seal remained on the desk in front of me.

“They could have waited a week,” she said finally, looking away to the window.

“They couldn’t have known,” said I. “The city’s too far to have heard, yet. And we have lied so very well.”

“Yes, the whole world must think it sudden.” Her laugh held no humor.

“We’ll buy some time,” I said. “He bought it for us.”

“Mourning, yes. But when that’s over?”

Eliza always had the answers. Me, I had nothing but the ledger-books and more questions than the world could hold. Nonsense, nothing practical, and I certainly would run the estate into the ground faster than Father had if she left.

“You can’t go. Maybe the maid? That new one?”

“As if they wouldn’t check her hands. Do you think we’re the first ones not to want to give up a daughter?”

Hearing her call herself that – a daughter – was a slap in the face of everything we two had been, our silent agreement since Mother died. It stung. “Your hands are probably just as bad.”

She smiled ruefully. “Yes. Not like yours.” And that was it, that was my Eliza back.

“I’ll go,” I said impulsively, sure of her place in the world, even as mine had never appeared. Hers was here, on this land she loved so much, knew so well. “He has three wives and twenty-seven concubines. He’s past fifty. He’ll never know.”

“Suola,” she whispered, in our mother’s tongue, then put her arms around my head and held me like a child. “You can’t.”

“I will,” I whispered into her shoulder. “They’ll have books. I’ll be fine.”

Eliza didn’t move her arms, so I was never sure if those silent shakes were laughter or tears.

~~~
Still as a statue I sat my horse in the courtyard of the Emperor’s summer palace, wishing I could dip my hat to block the too-bright sun. But I seemed to have frozen, waiting on the next signal, waiting for someone to tell me what to do.

White-gloved hands reached for me, hands attached to strangers; I let them help me down to the portable mounting-block, then down the three little steps to the ground. Then the hands went away and there was just the sun and the sound of hoofbeats moving away until Heeley was standing beside me and murmuring under his breath, “My lady. Are you well?”

“Can we get out of the sun?” I whispered.

“Soon now,” he promised. I wondered where my keeper was.

We did go in soon, myself flanked by those of the soldiers who could walk, their familiar faces an unexpected comfort as we entered through the great doors.

“The Lady Eliza of Kenarayr!” The Herald’s voice would have boomed, but the heat and the cloth-covered bodies packing the main hall swallowed up the sound until it only reached halfway to the dais. Or so I hoped.

Now was not a good time for regrets.

The man in the distance might have been the jovial, fifty-plus graybeard depicted in fond gossip, or he might have been an iron-hardened warrior. I could not tell, nor did I especially want to know. The further away, the better. Maybe he would decide I was ugly.

My honor guard approached and so, perforce, did I, until we knelt at the base of the steps. Now I could have looked my fill with the veil acting as a shield, but my eyes stayed on the ground. Aside from the obvious problems, there really was no way I wanted to become the twenty-eighth concubine of His Divinity the Emperor of the Known World. Maybe if I didn’t look at him, he would let me go away.

“We are informed,” said a casual voice, much more cheerful than my own father’s had been, “that you killed a man on the way here. Happily, he was not one of Ours.”

Under the veil, I turned red.

“We are further informed that you are nearly the worst rider to ever sit a horse, showed some kindness to your escort, and do not wish to be married. Is that the sum of things?”

“Yes, Your Majesty.” My voice was barely a whisper.

“Well, that’s good, then. We can’t afford another wife.”

I blinked and looked up. A reprieve?

“Our son, on the other hand, could really use one. People are beginning to talk.” I boggled. “Oh, not to Us, of course. But We are not deaf.”

Around us, beautifully dressed people stood as still as dolls. I darted glances left and right, wondering if I was being mocked.

“Oh, don’t worry about them. They hear everything anyway. This way, everyone gets it straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.” He paused. “On the subject of mouths, you can close yours now. Or leave it open and tell me your answer.”

“I- I do not know His Highness.”

“Oh, but you do.” Finally, I let my eyes settle on the throne, catching the blur of a man gone slightly plump with age, beard neat-trimmed and eyes sparkling. “Come on out, Espen. Time for your dramatic entrance.”

A curtain billowed to the left and I watched my keeper come out, bathed and redressed with his face clean-shaven and his dark eyes worried, as he took up position to wait for the prince. To wait, and wait, and wait.

Blinking, I looked from the curtain to my keeper. He stood there scuffing the toe of one boot in a very not-Captain-of-the-Guard manner.

“Oh,” I said, when what I meant was, You must be joking. “In that case-”

“Yes?” my keeper-turned-prince asked, looking somewhat hopeful.

“You have to let me change first,” I insisted, “and possibly yell and throw things.”

“Before you decide?”

“Before I stand in front of a few hundred strangers and say things I can’t take back.”

“But you will?”

I loosed one of Eliza’s not-laughs. “It’s better than being number twenty-eight.”

Later, I wondered if the Emperor might have taken that as an insult. But if so, why had he smiled while his son’s face fell?

~~~
Father always laughed at me for studying logic, but I had it figured like this:

1) Five women had been added to the Emperor’s harem in the past two years. He was a man over fifty, and none of them were political arrangements, or they would have become wives.
So, 2) these were probably failed brides of the heir, who had escorted each and found them wanting.
3) He’d decided he liked me, or perhaps the pressure was increasing for him to start acting like a future Emperor.
So, 4) he was in no position to reveal my secret or go back to Kenarayr and demand Eliza.
Also, 5) he did not exactly have the moral high ground on which to stand, sneak that he was.

I ignored the little voice in my head that said, 6) he’s a prince and he can do whatever he wants, because I had told the truth before: being number one was better than being number twenty-eight (or thirty-one, technically). Not just as a bargaining chip, but because of the practical benefits of having a whole harem to myself, as opposed to being stuffed in the back corner of the current one with jealous brides all atwitter in every direction. At the very least, I would have more space for books.

What I failed to deduce was the existence of my new maid, whose name was Leonore (“Noré,” she said, with a bobbing curtsy), and her grandmother and two aunts, who were in charge of getting me to the church on time.

In a little over an hour, in fact.

I demanded to dress myself. Noré looked horrified, then desperate, then pleading. Her grandmother (whose name was also Leonore and who did not bother to curtsy) raised one wrinkled eyebrow and looked straight through me.

“We can keep a secret,” she creaked. “Have been for years.” Which was when I discovered that Leonore the Elder had been Prince Espen’s nurse since birth.

“Help me,” I begged her. I knew enough about nurses to cast myself completely upon her mercy and hope she decided I was worthy.

“Do you love him?” she asked, eyes sharp.

“I hardly know him,” I wailed, and her face softened.

“Good answer.” And I was stripped.

~~~
What followed was a fragment of images to my later mind because I could not breathe. Apparently, the seamstress at home had never pulled my corset fashionably tight. I thought I might start a new fashion. Tomorrow, perhaps.

My feet hurt rather distantly, and my head was stuck emerging from another cocoon, this one white. At one point I found myself standing beside Espen.

“Are you alright?” he whispered.

“Just make the man speak faster,” I growled.

He blinked, and said something, and the man did. I decided maybe this concubine idea was worth something after all.

The man spoke, we spoke, the Emperor spoke, people cheered. Jewelry was exchanged. My veil was lifted by shaking hands, and Espen caught my eye.

I decided to have pity on him. “On the cheek,” I said, and he looked relieved.

More cheering, the flap of birds’ wings, the ringing of bells, and walking in tiny shoes to sit down at a table full of food I could not eat because I had no stomach anymore. It had been squeezed out of me.

Which was for the best, truthfully. Eating was still my downfall.

Espen kept giving me worried glances, which I ignored in favor of sipping tea very, very carefully. Elderberry in a white dress? Were these people mad?

I used enough sugar that Pathka would have tutted. Espen said nothing.

Then more whirling and movement in tiny shoes and voices rushing back into the gap as someone loosened the ties on my corset.

“Oh,” I sighed. “Oh, that’s better.”

A gnarled hand patted my arm with white silk. “Put this on now, there’s a dear. We’ll put out all the lamps but this one. Climb in under the covers-” for which it was much too hot, but I didn’t complain, seeing as how I could finally breathe “-and don’t tell him a thing. Let him figure it out for himself, he needs the practice.”

And I was alone.

For about two minutes.

Enough time to begin a good panic, but not to finish it.

The door creaked, then a shadow slipped inside and cleared it’s throat nervously. Well, here it was.

“Come over here,” I said, in what I hoped was a suitable voice. Not that I knew what a suitable voice was, never having even the slightest conception that I might end up in a place like this, in a position like this, and really, was he going to stand by the door all night?

“Are you as nervous as I am?” he finally asked.

“Probably more,” I answered, then sighed. “I’m sorry,” I whispered. “But the dithering? Isn’t actually making this any easier.”

“No, you’re right,” he agreed, moving forward one slow step at a time. “There are a few things I should tell you. One thing, really. I just-” He stopped, blinked. “Are you under the blankets?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Your nurse put me here.” I wriggled slightly, trying to get comfortable.

“But it’s blazing hot-” He stopped again, eyes flickering up and down at me in the dim light. When he spoke again, it was slowly, as a man who is putting together the pieces of a map and realizing it points to his own house. “Would you – mind if I – pulled them back?”

I shrugged. “Be my guest.” It was a bit too late to be coy.

He did so, slowly, as if half afraid of what he might find.

“Well?” I asked, when he was staring down at what little the nightgown covered. I had thought I could not be more nervous, but found I was wrong. His eyes were unreadable, dark and flickering in the light. Then he closed them and let out a great sigh.

“I don’t deserve such mercy.”

“You have a good nurse,” I whispered huskily.

He chuckled. “Yes.” His eyes opened once more, and now the look in them was less stunned and more dark, avid, sliding across my skin. “I was prepared,” he murmured, “to treat you like a stained-glass madonna, and never touch you at all.”

My breath caught in my throat. Would he-?

“But I do not think – don’t think – if you would let me, if you want me to-”

Yes,” I hissed, and stretched. He made a strange sound; his hand closed on my hip, bunching fabric.

“I don’t think I can do that now.” And he tipped forward to press my body to the bed, rubbing satin on satin until fire sang in my blood and every part of me stood to full attention.

“Please,” I whispered, “please,” and dug my fingers into his shoulders.

“Sh,” he murmured, soothing me with gentle hands and rough kisses. I groaned and shifted my legs until one of his was in between, then moved against him, desperate and whimpering.

“Sh, yes, shhhh,” his voice trailed off with a groan as his hips sped on, faster and more perfect, until I felt my body tighten and my voice go high, saying mad things like “You” and “Oh” and “There.”

He shuddered against me and lay still a breath or two, then pushed up, pulling away. “Nng,” I protested wordlessly, tugging him back down. He resisted a moment, then laid his head beside mine.

“How am I the luckiest fool in the world?” he whispered against my skin.

“Tell you in the morning,” I promised.

~~~~~
We must have fallen asleep for hours, because I woke to a stiff leg, a numb arm, and the sensation of silk sticking to my body in strange places. I groaned and shifted. Espen seemed to wake all at once, rolling away before I could protest. I did make a sound, though, and tugged on his arm with the one of mine that seemed to be working.

It was drafty in here without my human blanket.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I never meant to fall asleep on you.”

“C’mere,” I grumbled. I was not at all awake enough to deal with this nonsense.

He came, finally, and pressed up against my side, massaging my arm. I squeaked a little before settling against him, almost burrowing beneath for the warmth of him. He had just slid an arm around my waist, settling into the perfect position for another nap, when the side door flew open with a bang.

We both jumped. I had no time to cover myself before Leonore and her cronies were upon us, yanking open the curtains, straightening the bed, pulling me from Espen’s reluctant arms to stand me in the too-bright sunshine and strip off the ruined white silk. They replaced it with something heavier, stiffer, and so covered in lace that I itched in places it didn’t even touch. I whimpered.

“Hush, dear,” Leonore’s sister said. Her wrinkles made her face angelic, but I was beginning to suspect trickery. “His Imperialness will be here in a moment.” Behind her, Noré was sprinkling something on the sheets, dipping her fingers in a small bowl before flicking them out and down.

It looked like blood.

Then I was being turned and Noré was flicking at my backside before finally, finally, I was bundled back into bed with Espen, the covers pulled up to our chins.

My husband – husband? My heart sped up – looked at least as scared as I.

The maids disappeared in a whirl of dove gray and a subtle click of the door, so unlike their dramatic entrance. Espen and I were alone again.

We stared at each other. It was all so amazingly ridiculous. His father was going to barge in to – what? Check that we had consummated the marriage? How simply. How. Oh! I started laughing and, after a moment, so did Espen.

That was how the cream of the court found us, laughing so hard tears trickled down our cheeks, clinging to each other and trying to breathe. I don’t recall them even checking the sheets.

I do recall his father’s deep chuckle, and how it made the glass shake.

~~ ~~~~~ ~~
Epilogue (Four Months Later)

  Dear Eliza,

I am glad to hear about the horses. You will have to explain it all in ordinary terms sometime, so I might actually find a place for you to sell them. Please also tell Pathka she has my complete sympathies. A woman should never have to raise something that starts off larger than herself.

As to your question (the same one you repeat every time), yes, I am well, we are well, he is an excellent husband and a more than halfway decent human being, which I hear is extremely rare for men who have been married less than five years and even rarer for heirs. He treats me like I am the one with royal blood. You can stop worrying now.

To tell you true, I probably already loved him (or liked him very much) before that silly theatrical in the Audience Chamber, but I was too stubborn or too embarrassed to say so in front of all those useless people (and they are useless, let me tell you), not to mention being so annoyed with the way he went about it. Even though it was successful. No, especially because it was successful. He reminds me of you in that regard. Only the two of you have ever made me angry or frightened enough to do something stupid.

Speaking of which, the other day (and I promised Leonore I would stop complaining, but this is the last time, I swear!), the utter fool decided to build me a palace, which is plain silly except I suspect he desires a retreat, and the ridiculous, unspoken code between men says he cannot build one for himself

I became aware of the room again when something tickled my ear. I swatted at it, only to have it yelp.

“Oh. Sorry!” I said without much penitence.

Espen glowered. “You all but took my eye out with that quill,” he grumbled.

“You should know better than to disturb me while I’m writing,” I returned primly, and there, that broke out the grin I knew was hiding underneath his stern prince-face.

“Can I disturb you now?” he asked, bundling me into his arms without waiting for a reply.

I pushed at his chin with two fingers. “Who asked me to write out the story of my life?”

“Who said you had to do it now?”

“Mmm,” I agreed as he cupped a warm palm between my legs. Noré had disappeared, probably to lock the doors. I called down blessings upon her.

Espen lifted my skirts – all six layers of them – growling by the time he reached bare skin. “Do you have to wear all of these?”

“If you don’t want me tossed out of the palace, yes.”

His face softened. “We’ll change the fashion.”

I didn’t tell him I already had.

He looked around the room, eyes lighting when he saw what he wanted. “Sit,” he said, steering me into a chair wide enough to fit my skits and let my legs sprawl. Which I did, groaning, as he knelt between them. “I skimmed that book you found,” he said. “You were right. Those weren’t wrestling poses.”

“Could you read it?” I asked breathlessly. The corset was looser but not gone.

“Most. Enough.” He lifted my skirts higher and sank his mouth down on my hardness.

“Oh,” I gasped. “Oh. More than enough.”

He hummed happily, setting my body on fire; I had a moment to wonder if Eliza might notice a change in my handwriting, if I would have to finish the letter much later-

-and I lost that thought, along with all others, as he swallowed me down and made my heart turn over.

“Espen,” I rasped, stroking his hair. “Fool. You. Love you.”

“Hm,” he agreed and kept at it.

Oh, he was so much smarter than he pretended to be.

~~~And They Lived Happily Ever After~~~
Author’s Apology: Dear Isak Dinesen – yes, I know that’s not your real name, and that you are very much dead, but – I promise to pretend you never inspired this if you promise not go all ‘vengeful ghost’ on me. Also, sorry for ripping the title. ~ xoxo, K.S.

P.S. But come on – crossdressing!

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