Things had continued to grow stranger as time went on.
For one, he actually found himself enjoying time with Zardria. There were things he disliked about her, but on the whole, her company was something he liked.
She was funny, for one. That same caustic humour he’d first noticed in her had proven prevalent throughout her life, and she was continually making jokes. Usually no one else noticed them for what they were, however. Once he got used to her sense of humour, which, if somewhat skewed from the way Yarrow saw things, seemed quite familiar, he found himself chuckling quite a bit.
She was also very intelligent and loved to discuss things like history, politics, religion. He had little to contribute himself, but her voice was pleasant and so he just happily listened to her talk over their evening meal.
He had the feeling that was something she’d been sorely lacking before he came along. Someone to listen.
There were times, as they sat at the table in her drawing room and spoke, that one or both of them would stumble over a subject that brought a change to her, and she would stare at the table for a moment, a sadness to her face, and then a second later the storm was over and she was smiling again.
He wished to know what troubled her, as he flattered himself that if she told him, he could help.
Strangely enough, he wanted to help.
This he could not figure out.
Another thing he couldn’t figure out was why she’d still not had him fulfill his full role of Consort. Over a tredicem had passed and still they had not bedded. Not that I’m eager, he thought quickly. No. It was just that her offer to him back in Decima – was it already almost two months past? – had led him to believe that as soon as the doors were closed she’d rip his clothing off and claim him for her own.
She’d put him off each night, saying she was tired or had some other ailment. Until the night before, when she’d turned to him and said:
“Stop trying so hard. I know you do not wish to touch me.” Then had gone to her room, closing the matter with her door.
Or so she thought.
Tonight he sat determinedly on a klina in the drawing room, half-heartedly looking through a book he’d found in the library, though he wasn’t really reading it. Not now. He was free most days, and had taken to spending his time in the castle library, painstakingly reading old texts about mythology and legend. His mind was on other things at the moment; he was just giving his hands something to do.
He’d sworn an oath, and he was going to keep it – even if only because she’d have reason to punish those he cared about if he didn’t, he reasoned. Only for them.
It was a sacrifice he had to make.
Yes. A sacrifice, he thought, but his mental voice sounded unsure.
A few minutes before their evening meal was to be served, the door to the drawing room banged open and in stormed a furious Empress. She was muttering loudly to herself as she strode to her vanity, nearly tossing down the Sceptre in her rage. It was only when she glanced in the mirror that she saw him and stopped.
“Rough day?” he asked unnecessarily, setting his book to the side.
She made a noise in her throat. “Infuriating! Petition after petition after petition after petition – you would think they had nothing better to do with their lives. One man actually asked me why did I not just cede the Sceptre to my sister – can you imagine the absolute gall of that?” She was flailing her arms wildly in her rage now, and trying to undo her bodice but failing in her anger. He rose and came up behind her, gently moving her hands away to undo the laces himself.
“What did you do?” he asked, trying to get her to expel her anger in ranting.
She snorted. “What could I do? The man is a metal-worker in the smithy, so I couldn’t kill him. I may need his skills. He’s cooling his heels in the dungeon right now, but I daresay that won’t fix the underlying problem.” She sighed, looking exasperated but not spent of her anger just yet.
He finished removing her bodice and started to knead her shoulders. “And what do you think is the underlying problem?” he said gently.
She rolled her neck. “Oh, well, of course it’s that the Goddesses dared to make me heir and not Yarrow. Of course they can’t see that I didn’t choose my life any more than they chose theirs, but common sense is not so common with commoners – Oh!” she exclaimed as his hands found a large knot. “Mm. You’re very good at that.”
She leaned forward to give him better access to her back, and he worked diligently to relax her tense muscles. Soon he could feel her relaxing, her anger seeping out as he worked the knots out, and as she stood up straight again his hands slipped to her hips and encircled her waist, pulling her close to him. He dropped his head to the curve of her neck and placed a heated kiss against her cool flesh.
Her eyes had closed as he’d massaged her. Now her eyelids fluttered open and she regarded his visage in the mirror, her eyes searching his face with a near desperate quality, looking for something she did not appear to find.
“I don’t disgust you?” she asked it calmly, but he could hear the years of pain built up underneath the words.
“No,” he said, moving his head to plant another kiss under her ear, and then nibbled on her earlobe. “Why would you?”
She said nothing and instead turned in his arms, a guarded wonderment in her eyes. He kissed her lips then, pulling her hips flush with his as her arms floated up to wrap themselves around his neck. He could tell from her shy hesitancy that she was inexperienced, which came as an honest surprise to him. She was not an unattractive woman – on the contrary, her features and form were quite pleasing to the eye. He thought that someone would have surely have sought her favour long before now.
As his hands found their way to the buttons of her peplos and slowly started working them through the fabric, his mouth made a trail of faint butterfly kisses down her slender throat and to her breasts, still sitting high though her bodice had been removed.
She gasped then, a small sound that seemed surprised to have left her mouth. A smile curved his lips briefly, and he raised his head to regard her. Her eyes were glassy with desire, her breathing short.
“Shall we retire to the bedroom, Highness?” he breathed against her mouth, giving a soft nibble to her lower lip.
She nodded and made a sound like a whimper, more animal than human. With swift gentleness he picked her up and carried her into the adjacent room, where Empress and Consort both allowed the supper served in the drawing room a few minutes later to get very, very cold.