Two young women lay on the bed facing each other. On the right, the half-elf Svetlana had waist-length hair the colour of dark honey. Her elven heritage shone through her fair skin, high cheekbones and pointed ears when compared to her friend and distant cousin. Anya’s hair was shoulder length, light strawberry-blonde and wavy. She was also fair-skinned despite spending much of her time outside: the Brevoy sun is not that strong. Her twin daughters lay between the friends, fussing, sleeping and staring. A small, fluffy black cat was curled up at Svetlana’s feet.
The women had not seen each other in around 6 months, so Anya was filling Svetlana in on life back home and Svetlana filled in details of her travels that Anya had missed: it was well known that Svetlana had risen from peasant-hood to earldom, but Anya wanted to know more details, and particularly the events that had led to her coming to New Stetvon herself. With her small babies, she hadn’t been able to come to the ceremony confirming Svetlana as a Countess a week or so previously and her husband had come in her stead, but there was no way she was going to miss her best friend’s wedding.
“The king, hey?”
Svetlana tried to roll her eyes, but at the mention of Noleski she was smiling too much. “Yeah.”
“So? How’d you meet? Was it very romantic? I’d ask if you love him or are just power hungry – but I know you too well,” laughing as she blocked the friendly slap, “so ‘eyes across a crowded room’?”
“Pretty much,” and Svetlana related that first meeting, waiting to be confirmed as a baron and seeing the Regent, as he was then, for the first time. Her surprise at his good looks (which Anya seconded – the kings in their play had always been old, stuffy and ugly but Noleski was younger, tall and tanned) had made her look more closely and she’d seen the weariness with which he wore his statehood – which endeared him to her. It was then that he’d looked up and their eyes had met; “like being struck by lightning!”
“You’ve been struck by lightning? Don’t wake the babies!” as Svetlana shoved her friend.
Svetlana explained they had chosen to keep quiet about the relationship (“even to me?” “I’d have told you. I just didn’t see you.”) because they weren’t entirely sure where they were going with it and because it scared her to feel that intensely. Anya could understand – “How do you bear to be apart? Being away from Maksim makes me feel like I’m breaking in two!”
“I just have to do it. I couldn’t let anyone else see”.
“So no one else knew you were going to announce an engagement?”
Svetlana shook her head “Even I didn’t expect to be – not til I saw him looking at me when everyone was suggesting people he could marry.” Anya responded with a quizzical look. “Alexei and the others – he was saying about how his sister was all pally with Restocovic – warning us cos our lands border his and he’s, well, not fond of the fact Noleski has the crown and Natalya’s not exactly the biggest fan of the idea either – I think she wants it for herself and I don’t trust her”
Anya thought back to earlier in the day, at the dressmakers where she’d taken Svetlana for her first fitting and the expression that had flitted across her face on seeing the king’s sister. This would be explained by the antagonism between the two, although Natalya had seemed perfectly lovely to Anya; more interested in Svetlana’s companion Alexei than Svetlana. Still, Anya made a mental note to watch her tongue around the woman.
“So anyway, apparently she was trying to marry him off and then Alexei and Keiran were joining in with their suggestions for brides and then they went back to the party and he asked me instead.”
“Not especially romantic.”
“No… but I think it would have been if he’d had the time to do it when he was ready. And he did ask Mum’s permission.”
“And she was ok with it? He’s nearly as old as her!”
“He’s not that old! And anyway, neither’s my mum. And I’ve never felt like this before.”
Anya extricated a finger from her babe’s grip so she could pat her friend’s arm. “I know. It shows. You’d never be happy with … someone else.” She paused. “Piotr doesn’t talk about you. He goes very quiet. What happened?”
Svetlana wrinkled her nose and rolled onto her back. “What do you know?”
Anya shrugged. “Not much. He sulked for a long time after you left, won’t talk about you – had a face like thunder when he heard you were engaged. To a king! ’Lana!”
And again, Svetlana started smiling like a child. She caught herself, though, and turned the conversation back to Piotr. “He didn’t want to come away with me and he didn’t want me to go either,” Anya nodded; this was well-known, “he wanted me to stay, marry him but I couldn’t. I just… I love home but …”
Anya laughed, “you’re too big for such a little place.”
“Something like that. I wish you could have come with me, but with these little ones I get it. It was lonely, though, specially thinking Piotr hates me and Devin not showing up when he said he would.”
“I don’t think he hates you, but he was hurt – I know you didn’t mean to, but you know what he’s like. And then only a few months later you’re marrying a king.”
“Yeah. So he thinks he wasn’t good enough for you – I know, I know, and now I’ve met the king and seen how he looks at you I know it’s nothing like that. But it’s going to take Piotr a bit longer. He feels like you led him on.”
“Well, I damn well wish he’d grow up a bit. It wouldn’t have worked and he threw that at me from nowhere. He never told me how he felt and if he’d let me know I’d’ve let him down gently. He talked like it was his right that I stay.” Her eyes flashed anger. “I never wanted to fall in love and not with Noleski. It’s not that he’s a king; it’s that he’s him. Piotr’ll find someone who suits his life and be happy with babes of his own and I couldn’t ever give him that. We’d be miserable.”
“I know. Like I said, I saw the king’s face when you got back and I see your smile every time you mention his name. It’s like me and Maksim; made for each other.”
“It’s not the wedding I wanted. It’s too big and pompous and silly.”
“You should get him to marry you again, back home.”
“I intend to. A nice wedding, like yours. And Misha can oversee it. And none of this stupid multiple dress fittings and frettings about flowers and who likes whom and who will sit where. We can have a picnic and they can sort themselves out.”
“Ha! At least your fittings are consistent,” Anya indicated her post-partum figure and the twins, “I’m shrinking and growing every visit!”
“I was surprised by Natalya. Is that how she’s been the whole time?.. I mean, nice! And as if she’s actually interested in being involved?”
“And all lovesick for Alexei? Yeah, pretty much. What’s Alexei like? He sounds amazing!”
Svetlana pulled a face. “You remember the straggly guy who cleared that ghost out of the pub cellar? Yeah. That’s him.”
“Really? Natalya makes him sound to be someone more handsome than her brother and kinder than, well, anyone – and talented and all these things.”
“Hmmmm. Talented, yeah. But not nice. He had a guy kept alive whilst the skin was stripped from his body as a lesson once. I mean, the guy was spying on us for Pitax and treating the people on his land abysmally, but still.”
“Why do you stay with him?”
“We fell in together. And don’t get me wrong, he can be lovely and he knows a lot and he’s a very useful companion, but he does creep me out more often than he doesn’t. I just don’t understand this change in Natalya – not just the whole obsession with Alexei but also that she isn’t making a fuss about the wedding. It makes me anxious; like she’s going to try something.”
“I don’t know, she seems pretty genuine.”
Svetlana suppressed a shudder: it was a dangerous game Alexei had played when he seduced the queen Svetlana was to replace. “Well then, we’d better hope he continues to play nice with her until after the wedding,” and realising that Noleski would have to put up with her without Svetlana, “until we’ve left for the Crusade.”
“You’re still going?”
The half-elf nodded, “I have to. This was all agreed too long ago. It’s why the wedding’s so soon. I’ll be well protected.” The cat at her feet stretched and settled back to sleep.
“I’d have thought he might not want you to.”
“I don’t know that he exactly does, but he’s all tied up with the bureaucracy and that means it’d be politically awkward for me not to go. Some things are just easier to go with. Going official has meant he can insist we take more army than we were originally going to. I dunno, having a queen might inspire the troops. Or some such bullshit.”
“Are you scared?”
If almost anyone but Anya had asked, Svetlana would have lied and laughed and said it was an adventure. But Anya was one of her closest friends, so she nodded and whispered back, “I don’t know enough about it. All I know is the people who went from home last time never came back. I don’t want that to be me. And it’s going to be dangerous and difficult and I’m going to get hurt. So, yeah, I’m terrified. But I have to do this. And I’ve done scary and difficult things before, and I’ve been hurt before. So I can do this. But I am scared. Just, don’t let anyone know.”
Anya promised and admitted her own fear at her friend going to fight a war before turning the conversation back to more mundane topics (wedding dresses and bridesmaids and so forth) and eventually drifting off to sleep. Svetlana waited until she was sure Anya and her daughters were not going to miss her before easing herself off the bed and putting on a tunic – more robust and practical than the dresses she’d worn so far since returning to New Stetvon. As she rose, the cat also woke and sat, yawning.
“You stay there,” she whispered.
The cat stared back, “where are you going?”
“Where do you think?” She listened at the door briefly as the cat blinked his acknowledgement. She moved to the window and carefully eased it open. He padded over to join her. “No, stay here. I need you to watch Anya.”
“The guards can keep her safe. Noleski would never forgive me if anything happened to you.”
“I’m alert and in disguise. She’s asleep in my bed where any assassin can creep in the window. I’ll never forgive you if anything happens to her. Please look after her. It’s not as if I’m going far. I trust you more than the guards – see how they don’t notice me leaving?” as she pulled herself out of the window, casting a quick spell to make sure if she fell her landing would be soft. “If they don’t notice me leave, how would they notice someone else arrive?”
Mr Tiddles, as his collar proclaimed him, acquiesced with some reluctance. He had further arguments to make but realised he was not going to change her mind. Instead, he leapt back onto the bed and curled up in the space Svetlana had left.
Svetlana, meanwhile, carefully began the climb towards the window where she was sure her fiancé would be.