Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Blog fiction: Falling Star

“Let me hold you, please.”

“We can’t. I’m promised to another.”

“Just for tonight?”

She kissed him, fierce and sorrowful. “I love you. Now go.”

As Rigel climbed out the window, a star fell in the distance, the first of a week-long meteor

Lyra leaned out after him. “Don’t pine for me. It has to be this way. I am securing an alliance, and Arthur is not a bad man, so I will be doing my best to be happy.”

Rigel paused on the trellis and met her eyes. The kitchen garden was a long way down. “Does that mean you won’t miss me? That you won’t long for me at all? That you’ll forget?”

She closed her eyes briefly and swallowed. When she opened them again, her eyes glittered with unshed tears. “No.”

Suddenly shame-faced in addition to despairing, Rigel looked away. “I hope he treats you as you deserve.”

Lyra closed the windows reluctantly and watched the moon through the leaded glass. By the time the waning gibbous moon had set, she would be married. She set her forehead on the cool, indifferent glass and prayed for it to stand still.
The morning dawned brilliant gold, the smell of sweet dew and honeysuckle flowing down from the fields. Lyra’s maid, Vega, brought her breakfast and news that Arthur looked spectacularly handsome. Lyra smiled at her, trying to infuse some enthusiasm in the expression. She was not, after all, being forced into this marriage, and Arthur was quite a catch, young and handsome and Lord of the Isles already.

But he wasn’t Rigel. She hadn’t grown up with him, or had her first kiss with him, or spent days with him shirking responsibility by riding off into the countryside. Arthur hadn’t been with her on a summer’s day when she flopped down in a field of wildflowers and looked at her companion and realized she was in love for the first time.

Vega set out Lyra’s wedding clothes while she ate. The kirtle was red, the bliaut a bright blue with tyrian and gold embroidery at the neck and hem. She’d done most of the embroidery herself, and knew which threads had been stained by tears. This was not a day for tears, however. This was her wedding day. Today she would acquire a title not merely honorary, as well as a husband she’d try to craft a life with.

She squared soft shoulders and sought the joy she should rightly feel. She did not let herself pretend it was Rigel she was going to meet.

“My lady, if you’re done, as soon as you’ve changed I can help lace you up”

Lyra made a face at her plate. Everything in her wedding costume was very tight. The end result, she had to admit, was aesthetically pleasing, but she was accustomed to loose tabards for everyday wear. “Yes, of course. Just give me a moment.”

She swept behind the screen and slipped on her kirtle. “I’m ready, Vega.”

Vega set to work lacing her up, a task which took some effort. Then they slipped on the bliaut, and laced it tight with the tyrian ribbons. It pleated fashionably across her stomach and arms. The belt that accompanied it was gold and amethyst and ruby, and framed her well.

Vega dressed her hair, catching it up in a net of gold with small diamonds that would sparkle all the brighter on black hair. Lyra would look well in her role as representative of the Alban throne.
Lyra drew on her own stockings, and then the garters to keep them in place. Then the extra garter, the one she’d throw as part of the wedding feast. It had the year and the coats of arms of both houses embroidered on it.

Applying kohl and rouge was the work of a moment, but she drew it out. Everything had to be perfect.

Eventually, there was nothing left to do. Lyra looked at herself in the glass and reminded herself that it was her wedding day and she would be happy.

Then it was down the stairs and through the halls to emerge in the courtyard on the far side from the steps to the Great Hall. The court and a variety of foreign nobles and every servant not busy preparing the feast crowded the courtyard, ready to bear witness. An aisle had been cleared, leading to where her father and Arthur waited on the steps, the witness from the Holy Roman Empire to the side.

Lyra folded her hands at her waist and tried not to look for Rigel. He’d be somewhere in the crowd, of course. He wouldn’t be able to stay away. She proceeded up the aisle with her eyes on her future husband and her train fanning out behind her.

The stairs loomed far and endlessly farther until abruptly she was ascending the first step.
Her father boomed out, “We are here today to witness the marriage of His Majesty Arthur mac Mordha o Cuinn, Lord of the Isles, High King of Ireland, King of Mann, Earl of Orkney, and Lord of the Blood to Her Royal Highness Lyra verch Eadweard, Princess of Albion and Lady of the Blood. Can anyone name a reason in the law why these two should not be joined?”

The crowd was silent. Lyra half-wished Rigel would speak out, but even his impulsiveness was not enough to overcome the fact that there was no reason under law: not by consanguinity or affinity or prior promise. She and Rigel had sworn nothing to each other. As a scholar of the law, he had to know his bounds here.

Her wedding went uninterrupted.

Her father gestured to Arthur to proceed.

Arthur took her hand and smiled, a dimple creasing his cheek. “I, Arthur mac Mordha o Cuinn do take you, Lyra verch Eadweard, to be my wife in the eyes of God and the law, to have and to hold through storm and sun, and I pledge to honor and cherish you above all others from this day forward. By the Blood I do swear.”

Her hand convulsed on his, and she looked at him in wonder. In swearing by the Blood, he was making vows truly and irrevocably binding, and thumbing his nose at Rome. They hadn’t discussed this - though there’d been no time, really, with contract negotiations and other formalities preventing their spending any time together. Before the pause could lengthen beyond gravitas, she replied, clear and carrying, “I, Lyra verch Eadweard, take you, Arthur mac Mordha o Cuinn, to be my husband in the eyes of God and the law, to have and to hold through storm and sun, and I pledge to honor and cherish you above all others from this day forward. By the Blood I do swear.”

If Rigel had any mercy in him, he would stay away from her now. It would break her heart, but that was better than breaking her vows.

Arthur produced a ring from his sleeve, heavy gold and diamond, and slid it on her finger. “With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods and estates I thee endow. Let this be a symbol of our union for all to see.”

The Roman priest waited a beat, then cleared his throat and declared stentoriously, "You have declared your consent before the Church. May the Lord in his goodness strengthen your union and fill you both with his blessings. What God has joined, men must not divide. Amen."

Lyra and Arthur turned as one and raised their joined hands to the cheers of the crowd. And there was Rigel, right in the second row, blue eyes anguished.

The bottom dropped from her stomach. It was hard to keep a smile on her face, and harder still to tear her eyes from his. Arthur made it easier when he slid his hand against her cheek and turned her to face him. His eyes were green as new grass, and vivid with energy, and coming closer.

He kissed her, right there in public. He kissed her thoroughly, and she found herself enjoying it. When he drew his head back, her arms were around his neck, and she blushed.

“To the feast!” her father roared.

They swept inside at the head of the crowd, the new Lord and Lady of the Isles. Lyra would need to be formally coronated at the Hill of Tara once they’d returned to Ireland, and then they’d be able to retire to Dublin.

The Great Hall had been hung with fresh greenery and swags of festive cloth and scrubbed within an inch of its life for the day. The high table sat at the far end of the hall, in front of the fireplace which stood empty for the summer. It, too, had been decorated for her wedding day, and her chair had been moved. As Lady of the Isles, she now held the same rank as her own father. With the festivities, she and Arthur held pride of place, so she was to be seated at the center of the table, with Arthur to her right and her father to the left.

They sat, and the lower tables filled, and the first course was brought out, followed by a man with a lute. He played for the duration of the first course, and the second. Then there were jugglers. Then the third course, and a trio with pipes of different kinds. Then a troubadour, with songs to Lyra’s beauty and Arthur’s valor, threads of King Eadweard’s greatness woven in to pay due deference to the man presumably paying him.

There was endless soft white bread and sweet red wine and the fruits of the hunt the day before, including the deer that Rigel had apparently brought down. Lyra didn’t look for him when it was brought out. She looked at her husband, the man she’d made binding oaths to. She had sworn to honor and cherish him above all others, and to be forsworn was to die. The Blood recognized little nuance and no prevarication.

Arthur laced his fingers through hers and lifted the back of her hand to his mouth.

Dancers came in after the venison, flowers in their hair and on their persons. Each of them presented Lyra with a flower at some point during their performance. She laughed delightedly, and Arthur took them one by one and tucked them into her hair.

It should be a romantic gesture. This should be a happy day. But his eyes were too intelligent on hers, and the wrong color. He probably hadn’t phrased his vows as he had just to annoy the Church. They might have to talk about this.

She drank from the nuptial cup. Enough wine would make the impending conversation and consummation less awkward and painful. When a servant stepped forward to refill it, Arthur leaned up to speak to her, and she filled it only a quarter of the way before watering it. When she caught his eye and quirked an eyebrow, he only smiled. She frowned at him in irritation, then smoothed her expression before looking out again at the lower tables.

The entertainment continued, interrupted by additional courses and the occasional speech - from her father, from the Roman emissary, from Arthur, from Philip, Duke of Aquitaine, there on behalf of his brother the King of France. Despite well-watered wine, Lyra’s head grew heavy and began to spin. She would like nothing better than to escape somewhere cool and quiet where she could be alone to lick her wounds. If it weren’t for the Habsburgs, this might have been a very different day.

Finally, finally, the sun began to set, the rays of light through the windows casting amber and long shadows. As the dishes of nuts were cleared away, Arthur took her hand. She swallowed hard. Soon there would be quiet, and no crowd, but she would not be alone.

They stood as one, and Lyra didn’t have to feign the blush that rose in her cheeks. The Great Hall erupted in cheers and whoops as he swept her into an embrace. He whispered in her ear, “Which leg?”

“I - what?” Oh, the garter. “Left.”

Arthur knelt swiftly, and Lyra steadied herself on one broad shoulder as she lifted her leg. He averted his eyes as he reached up her dress, and his fingers were the barest ghostly presence as they slid up her ankle and calf, and they raised gooseflesh on her skin. Lyra bit her lip.
He found the garter and tugged it gently down, and it slipped free, catching only momentarily on the arch of her foot before he eased it off. Somehow the whole thing was more sensual than it ought to have been, especially surrounded as they were. It was worse because he was barely touching her, and hadn’t touched bare skin at all.

Rising to his feet, Arthur cast the garter to the crowd and then swept Lyra into his arms. “Oh!” she exclaimed softly, wrapping her arms around his neck. “Careful.”

“Of course, my lady.” He whisked her from the Great Hall, away and up the corridor. At the stairs he paused to sweep up her train, and she reached for the wall reflexively to steady herself.

Arthur’s arms tightened on her. “Don’t worry, I have you.” He carried her to his room and set her down. Turning, he bolted the door behind them. “We should talk.”

“Yes. I was not expecting the vows to take the form they did.”

He took off his crown and set it on the table, then set to unlacing his tunic. “I can’t have you making a fool of me.”

“I wouldn’t - I’ve never -”

“It’s not something I hold against you, or suspect you of doing deliberately - after all, you repeated the vows. But I know how you look at Rigel of Wembley, and I will not be a cuckold.”

Rage rose in her, and she gripped the back of the chair until her knuckles were white. “I would not dishonor myself or my kingdom that way, my lord.”

“There’s no need for such formality. I didn’t mean it as an accusation, can you see that? I don’t care what you’ve done in the past, and I know it’s not me that you love, but this alliance does nothing if it looks like you’re pulling the wool over my eyes or an heir is born with only a half-measure of the Blood.”

She wanted to kiss him; whether to make him stop talking or to reassure him, she wasn’t sure. He was her husband, and they were alone now, so she could. Prising her hands free of the chair, she took a hesitant step toward him, then another. She raised a hand to his cheek and leaned up and pressed her lips to his. “Arthur, I mean to put all effort into making this not just a political marriage. And there’s no chance - the heir -”

Lyra stopped talking, because she was stammering and blushing and neither was becoming.
They looked at each other, and the silence was overwhelming.

“Would you like me to call your maid to help you undress?” he asked, and his voice was a little rough.

“No. Could you please help me with my laces?” She raised her arms slightly to indicate the ties on her upper arms. Not just their inaccessibility but her own trembling made assistance attractive. Arthur called forth a heat in her that weakened her limbs, and she despised herself for it because it rivalled the effect Rigel’s presence had on her, but on a purely physical level.
She half-feared she’d be unable to hold on to even the memory of her love. Arthur would be present, and he was magnetic, and he was her husband. Even if leaving her love for Rigel behind would spare her heartache, she wanted to be able to ache for him. She wanted to yearn. She wanted her feelings not to be meaningless, and it felt as if they would be if she fell in love too easily with Arthur.

Arthur kept his eyes on hers as he slowly unlaced the right side of her bliaut. “So you never -?”

Even in an agony of embarrassment, she couldn’t pry her eyes from his. She reached desperately for dignity, but managed only a soft-voiced sort of shyness as she said, “I knew my duty, my lord.”

He smiled wryly, and leaned in to whisper in her ear, “I thought we were disposing of formality while we’re alone.”

At the touch of warm breath, a shiver ran down her spine.

“Do I make you nervous?”

“No,” she breathed, and he drew back to look at her face. She knew her eyes were shining gold even as his were over-vivid emerald.

He touched his lips to hers, gentle and exploratory. Oh, if only she had fallen in love with him, this would be perfect.

Her laces were undone enough that her bliaut loosened seemingly all once, slipping from her shoulder and exposing the kirtle underneath. Lyra slid her hands into his hair and threw herself into the kiss. His lips, and the heat from them, were her lifeline against the paralyzing chill of nerves. She needed something to distract herself as he slowly undid the laces on the other side.
Arthur nipped her lower lip, and she trembled; once, all over, and quite hard.

Her bliaut loosened enough to slip free completely, and she lowered her arms to let the sleeves fall and to help it slither from her hips. She stepped back out of it, and then picked it up and draped it over the chair. She slipped out of her shoes as well, and stood barefoot on the stone floor.

He was looking at her hungrily. Lyra swallowed hard. This would be the time to put the effort in, to show that she could do this. She reached for the laces of her kirtle. Arthur reached for the laces of his tunic again.

They peeled themselves out of their clothes until they stood their in only their undergarments, Lyra feeling very exposed in a chemise that covered her from chest to ankle. Arthur drew her into his arms again, and all was thunder and lightning.
If he had not been Lord of the Isles, it would have been sensible to ride to Holyhead and cross from there to Dublin. It would have given Albion more of a chance to see them and celebrate the alliance and generally throw a party.

But it had been determined that a coronation would be more auspicious if it occurred during the meteor shower, which gave them only a week to get to Dublin and thence to Tara. So the practical result was that they progressed in state to the Thames, and their way was lined with people armed with flowers and well-wishes. A state wedding was next best thing to a holiday, and Lyra and Arthur scattered coins in return for the flowers.

King Eadweard followed behind them, and most of the court behind him - including, far back, as was appropriate due to his rank, Rigel. Rigel’s eyes felt hot on the back of her head.

It made her feel dirty, though she hadn’t at all last night despite everything that had passed, and she’d bathed only this morning. At the river, Arthur helped her on to the little boat that would convey them down to where his ship was anchored. It was decked in ribbons and garlands, to announce their presence to anyone who wanted to observe their progress from the shore. Numerous other small craft were tied beside theirs, to convey baggage and servants and accompanying dignitaries.

They cast off, and drifted out towards the middle. Then, without discernible change in anything but the vivacity of Arthur’s eyes, they were clipping along at high speed towards the Channel. Lyra grinned as she gripped his arm. When she was coronated Lady of the Isles, they’d invest her with some of his powers. She’d hold sway over storm and sea as well as her own smaller purview over living things: the same purview that told her that the night before would bear fruit.
She’d have to consult with Arthur before exerting her sway, though: too many conflicting influences made systems wild. She’d learned that on the herb garden, thankfully, and not on anything more irreparable. Her mother, who’d taught her before she’d passed, would have had her hide if it had been the roses rather than the basil.

They would see how much influence she could wield when barricaded by water. As her father’s heir and now Lady of the Isles, she’d be enriching the harvest on all of the islands in both kingdoms, and the prospect of constantly being on progress did not appeal. Lyra wondered how the Greek Lords and Ladies managed it, though they feuded and diluted their blood enough that they might just be one per island at this point.

Arthur asked, “Does the speed distress you?”

“No, it’s exhilarating.”

He laid his hand over hers on his arm, and squeezed. “I asked Rigel to join our train.”

She stiffened, enraged. “Do you seek to punish me, my lord?”

Confusion flitted across his face, then hurt and disappointment and understanding all bundled into one. “No.”

“If I fail to honor and cherish you above all others, my blood will boil in my veins, driving me mad before it kills me along with your heir. And yet you bring along temptation, in full knowledge that by his presence you make me a starving woman at a poisoned feast.” She turned to smile and wave at the people gathered at the banks of the Thames who waved so enthusiastically at them. That duty discharged, she turned back and added a belated and withering, “My lord.”

“That wasn’t my intent.”

“What was your intent, then?” she hissed.

They lurched forward suddenly, a sign of uncontrolled emotion on Arthur’s part. “I didn’t want you to feel alone. You’re only bringing one personal maid, and you’ll be expected to collect ladies-in-waiting from my court and you won’t know anyone. And, aside from everything else, he cares about you and will try to see that you’re happy.”

Even in the face of his awkwardness and apparent care for her well-being, her voice dripped ice and ichor. “Is that not what my husband is for, my lord?”

He stared at her in frustration. “I’ll be busy.”

She tightened her lips and looked back at the banks.

He took his hand from atop hers to wave at the observers on his bank.

They had passed Dartford and were well on their way to Gravesend by the time he spoke again. “How sure are you, about the heir?”

“My Blooded talents lie in living things, my lord. That doesn’t just mean crops and trees and flowers.” He should have known this.

Suddenly he dropped her hand where it rested on his sleeve and slipped his arm around her waist, instead, drawing her flush against his side.

Lyra looked at him, too surprised to elbow him as he deserved for grabbing her so suddenly. He looked gleefully satisfied, as if all his wishes were coming true. Which she guessed they might be - he had a wife who broadened his base of power, he was now heir to Albion, and he would have an heir nine months after his wedding night. An heir with a healthy measure of the Blood, and more than Arthur would expect. Powers of life were often forgotten, because as long as the Lords and Ladies didn’t do something dramatic, the crops would flourish and come in, only slightly more generously than an un-aided good season. Some didn’t push things to that extent, though, or didn’t have the power to. Lyra had been able to assure that Albion didn’t starve since she was twelve years old, and they’d only grown more fruitful since.

Until she was invested with a measure of his purview by dint of the ceremony at Tara, Lyra would not have easy access to anything dramatic, but drama was the only thing her power lacked.

She settled her arm across her stomach, content that the thing inside her, barely a whisper more than potential, would eventually be a Lord or Lady of frightening reach and breadth.

Standing and waving had become boring but not unduly tiresome by the time they arrived at Southend-On-Sea; the benefit of being wed to the Lord of the Isles. Another water Lord might have been able to perform the feat of bearing them this quickly, but it would be illegal to do so. Her cousin Philip, Albion’s own water Lord, had been notified well in advance, and had made sure nothing he was doing would interfere with her and Arthur’s passage.

The estuary opened up, and the water was less smooth than the Thames proper had been. Lyra was glad for Arthur’s arm still wrapped around her, as it would be tremendously undignified to stumble.

Arthur’s ship rose in the harbour, a trireme with his pennant flying high. A ladder dangled from the side.

Lyra paled and asked, “Will we need to climb?”

“No. There’s a platform they can lower. You don’t like heights?”

“I am not overfond of them, no, my lord.”

“Fascinating,” he said. “It will be an interesting experience, getting to know the woman behind the frosty formality and snarling.” He was smiling as he said it.

“I don’t snarl, my lord,” she protested without force. She could get used to this sort of banter. It was almost comfortable.

The boat came to rest on the port side of the trireme, and a platform, sure enough, was lowered. The platform was wide enough to stand on with Arthur, with excess enough that their boatman could have come with them if it would not have been excessively familiar.

The platform rose surprisingly smoothly, and Lyra looked up and saw pulleys easing the way. It was still a relief to set foot on the comparatively much steadier deck of the ship. Arthur introduced her to the captain of the ship, and escorted her to the stateroom that would be their home for the night.

She heard the rising noise of others coming aboard - amongst them undoubtedly Rigel. She wondered what premise Arthur had used to invite him. A study of Irish law? Or had he been more straightforward, and invited him to be his wife’s lover. She wished she knew what he was thinking. No matter what his plot, he kept her occupied as they cast off, showing her the small shelf of books and the collection of charts and where her clothes would be stored when the servants eventually caught up with the baggage.

“What would you like for dinner tonight?”

“Salmon,” she replied instantly, with Rigel’s favourite dish.

He kissed the side of her head. “I will see to it before I send us off.”

He closed her in the state room, and she wasn’t sure if he’d meant her to stay. She took one of the books from the shelf and admired the marginalia as she thought. He kept touching her. It was his right, of course. He was her husband. But she was already working on providing the heir, and she was unsure whether marital duties included letting him take her hand and touch her hair and all the little things he’d been doing. They were possessive and almost affectionate and they unsettled her deeply.

It’s what she would expect from Rigel, almost. Or maybe expect in a few months, when they’d been married longer and she’d had time to foster an affection for him. It wouldn’t be hard - he was clever and seemed to want to make her happy, even if he was going about it in strange ways.

She concluded there was nothing she could do about it, and it would be better to take her mind from it. Arthur would not be available for a detailed conversation until after they’d made landfall in Dublin, and that would be the morrow. It was nigh-miraculous, the speeds they could make with him aboard. Without him, it would be weeks by sea.

The marginalia on this page were really quite strange: a river inhabited by weird creatures meandered down the page. She turned her attention to the content itself.

She closed the book very slowly, and put it back. It was possible he thought she could not read, but it was still strange to keep a book of dark pattern-magic in his chambers.

She drew out another book, a history of Roman highways.

It was a much more soothing read.

Eventually, she was called to dinner, asked very politely by the ship steward to dine with her husband and the captain in the greatroom.

When she joined them, Rigel was there at the far end. She tried very hard not to catch his eye.

When the meal was over, she retired with Arthur. He wooed her again, and drew her to him, even though it was not necessary.

She did not sleep easily.
He rose before she did, and they once again picked up speed. It was only mid-morning when they passed Land’s End, and Lyra gazed at the rocky desolation she had thought truly the end of the world when she’d been young.

Ireland began looming at noon, and they had docked by early afternoon. When someone had sighted their ship, runners had been sent, so there were carriages waiting to meet them when they alit.

When they had travelled from the din and dirt of the dock, Dublin proved a fair city, with cobble streets and white buildings. It put her in mind of Oxford, though the streets were not as narrow.
They did not go straight to the palace, but directly on to Tara, on roads rougher than those found in Albion.

The hill itself was greenest emerald, and ringed in celebrants and holy men. The rites there were strange and old, and their secrecy weighed heavy as a shroud.

At the height of them, Lyra stared at Arthur in wonder, because she could feel everything. The earth in its soft verdancy was a constant, but joined now by an awareness of the rivers and fish and lakes and ocean. She swayed on the spot, but Arthur’s hand on her arm kept her upright. He touched her, he was always touching her, and she found herself drowningly not minding.
She leaned on him as the coronation ended.

The journey back to Dublin was slower, more processional, partly to allow for the guards who trickled in to accompany them. Because she was Lady of the Isles, now, she was privy to Arthur’s meetings with them, which weren’t about security at all but about reporting everything they’d learned on a reconnaissance mission to the Holy Roman Empire.

One night a man with a German accent was brought in, and he was filthy and Lyra hated the way he smelled.

“He has been - uncooperative,” one of the guards said. “But he was a servant at Habsburg castle. I thought Your Majesty might like to - talk to him.” The guard shot Lyra guarded looks all the while, and she was utterly unimpressed.

She set aside her embroidery and stood and put a hand on Arthur’s shoulder. “If you need him tortured quietly, husband, I can suck the life from him.”

Arthur squeezed her hand, pleased and reassuring as the guards and the prisoner all showed fear. It’s good, she thought, because she would not be undervalued in this new life. “It’s not necessary, my Queen. I think our guest will volunteer any information in his possession in hopes that we grant him amnesty.”

Lyra took up her embroidery again, and listened to the interrogation. The servant answered everything he was asked, even giving up those names he’d heard as Habsburg sympathizers in the Irish court. There weren’t many, but Lyra gathered from the hard glint in Arthur’s eyes that at least some of them were well-placed.

It was late by the time they let him go, and Lyra was tired - too tired to be shocked when Arthur drew her to him for sleep, wrapping his arms around her and burying his face in her hair.

She’s unsettled in the morning, and hadn’t much slept. They were to be one more full day on the road and then the next morning to Dublin, but she wished forlornly for four walls and a real bed. The meteor shower was over, so there was no lure to the outdoors after dark.

Rigel rode up next to her, stopping a distance away that wasn’t quite improper but wasn’t ideal, either. “You look unwell,” he said, his voice pitched low and concerned.

She shook her head slightly. “Arthur was interrogating a Habsburg servant. It took some time.” She looked at him and ached. “I’m fine. You should go.”

He fell back, but she could feel his eyes on her.

One of the benefits of taking this journey more processionally was the fact that they stopped for lunch, that servants had set up a picnic on a hill, with linens that only faintly bore the creases of storage. Arthur helped her down from her horse, and said quietly, “I saw you speaking to Rigel.”

She looked at his face, held impassive but for slightly overbright eyes, and raised her chin. “Yes,” she said, matching his tone, and did not elaborate.

Arthur dropped his gaze first, and looked at where he still held her hand. He led her to the table, and she let him. She carefully moderated her breathing as she sat, because she didn’t want to give away any emotion.

The attempt was apparently unsuccessful, as he squeezed her hand reassuringly as soon as he was seated across from her. When she looked at him, he smiled a little ruefully, and she smiled back, just a bit, just as a conciliatory gesture.

Lunch was almost pleasant, and not just for being a change from road fare, with apples and well-watered spiced wine.

When they got back on their horses, Lyra was almost pleased with the world.

That ceased abruptly when the first arrow flew, striking the ground in front of Arthur. Arthur’s horse shied and reared, which was the only thing that saved Arthur from the second volley. Guards were already springing into action, driving their horses towards the woods from whence the arrows came.

The third volley, though, was swift, and accurate. Arthur fell, an arrow through his throat.

Lyra was dismounted and running before she quite knew what she was doing, racing for her husband. Guards stopped her, shielding her with their bodies.

“Move!” she screamed, all dignity forgotten. If she could lay hands on him, if she could just touch him, she could fix it. She could save him, if she caught him before he bled out.

The guards, confused, move sluggishly, and she shoved them out of the way. More arrows flew, and she couldn’t do anything, because they were neither alive nor of the water, and one struck her in the shoulder.

Everything went grey and hot and cold, and Lyra couldn’t tell which way was up.

She woke hours later, in the tent she’d shared with Arthur, and sat up. Her maid and a guard are the only ones in the tent. “Arthur?”

The guard looked down, and away, and silence fell in the tent.

Her throat closed. She lay back down. “We’ll move out tomorrow, when I will be recovered from the attack. Send runners to Dublin with the announcement, and to Albion.” She took a deep breath, because she had hoped to keep word quiet until she was closer to showing. “Send word also that I know by my Blooded gifts that Arthur’s line continues.”

The guard made a soft noise. She didn’t look at him. Eventually, he left.

That night, Rigel slipped into her tent, and was clutching her hand ardently before Lyra was even properly awake. “You’re a free woman, now,” he said earnestly, his fingers laced tight with hers.
Understanding dawned violently. “Tell me you didn’t.”

“You’ve fulfilled your promises, and now I have an established channel for negotiations, if you want more guarantees of your security.” His eyes went soft and liquid, the way she remembered liking them best. “And it means, if you wish . . .”

Her throat worked a moment soundlessly before she could shout, “Guards!”

Two burst into the tent, obviously alert at their posts.

Lyra kept her eyes on Rigel and voice steady. “Rigel has just confessed to conspiring with Habsburg agents in the assassination of Arthur. Take him away, extract the names of his co-conspirators, and execute him by beheading.”

The guards hesitated, perhaps taking in their intimate positioning.

“Do it,” Lyra said.

They dragged Rigel out, and he didn’t even protest, just stared at her.

She stared at the ceiling and waited for tears to come. They didn’t, though, and eventually she rolled out of bed. Arthur’s book of pattern magic needed to be discarded completely, rather than secreted in the chest where she’d spotted it the night before. Very carefully, she peeled up one of the rugs that formed the floor of the tent, and asked the grass to move out of the way.

It did, and she moved the dirt with her bare hands and buried the book, then asked the grass to grow again, and to send its roots deep enough to start eating at the book. She put the rug back and washed her hands and turned her attention inwards, checking that healing the wound to her shoulder hadn’t harmed the hint of possibility that she would have to rely on now for political capital. Her shoulder was mostly fine, her belly in perfect health, and she sighed in relief.

If only she’d been able to reach Arthur sooner - no, that was an unproductive line of thought. She had a war to plan, and a long dark night to make it through alone.

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