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Circumnavigate


She dropped the glass.

No. She hadn't. Because dropping implied holding at some point, and she had not held that glass, which nevertheless now lay in shards at her feet, water finding hidden cracks in the tile.

In theory, she was older and wiser. Age and wisdom were to accrue with time, intensifying to a point that was unwise, death or self-knowledge never a pleasing conclusion. But it was not a wise woman who stood there in unmoving shock as the dark haired servants came forth, in their white loose trousers and tight vests, graceful and calm, removing broken glass and spilled water and delivering a replacement. Placed, Ashelia noted, to her good side. Margrace's servants were well trained in avoiding the scars.

But it was a girl who now ran into the garden, out of the cool tiled halls, the girl was young and bitter. Unlike empires, monuments, gods and monsters, the girl had not remained anywhere very long.

She moved among the olive trees that she did not see. She had not even paused long enough to consider the beauty of the Botanicula. It was something described by a poet or a bard to entice old women with shady seats for their habit of embroidery.

There, there was the great bronzed gate, and its great bronzed guards. The shimmering heat beyond changed the truth of distance.

'If you please, your Highness. You must return to the palace. I will arrange an escort if you wish to visit the market.'

They had long since stopped trying to ingratiate her with the women of high Rozarrian society. Ashelia Dalmasca was not a rose.

'I do not need you to hold my hand.'

Her lips curved, a self turned bitterness. The guard's deference did not flicker.

'If you please, your Highness. I would not presume so far.'

But it was not his fault. It was never their fault. It had not even been her fault.

When she grew restless, they sent for Al-Cid.

His heels were loud on her endless echoing marble. She reclined on a couch with a veil over the worst of it. Even the ceilings were tiled, brushed to reflection. She watched him approach on the ceiling. His hair was longer than before. A shot of early grey, or a streak of light in the oiled curls.

'I am tired. I am tired of all of this. I want to go home.'

'I have written Lord Vayne, your Highness, and the Consul. I have beseeched the little Emperor in person. You know I work tirelessly on your behalf. But we are still not confident—'

Ashelia stood. Her veil was silk, and pooled like water.

Archades was no longer the enemy. Rozarria offered succor and shelter to the exiled royal. Her own people wanted to kill her.

These were the consequences for destroying the Sun-Cryst, for taking Raithwall's sword of kings and finding the heart of that stone. Her hand, her face, her youth, her country. Archades had restored peace, held back the plague, offered what Ashelia could not. She had been the insurgent. She had been the reason so many had died. At the head of his table of Dalmascan lords, she was sure Vossler was laughing, if he had since remembered how.

'You should have let me die in the Tower with the others.'

'That is ungrateful, Ashelia.'

'Truth is often ungrateful, Margrace.'

She had asked him before, why he claimed her when she fell, dying and disfigured. The moment before the sword struck the stone, she had been sure, for the only time in her life. All Al-Cid had done was make her uncertain.

Motives are difficult to understand, with distance.

He regretted saving her life, it seemed. She wanted to believe.

'I came only briefly, your Highness, to see that you were well. I must go to my father now.'

'Are you asking my leave?'

'Merely an apology for my brevity. But I would like to have dinner with you tonight. If you are willing. It has been a while since you could tolerate my company.'

There was a slight breeze playing with his hair. She had never gone so far as to throw crockery at him, but it had come close.

'Very well.'

'I will tell the majordom as I leave to make preparations.'

If she were petty, she would have called him out for instructing her servants. But they were his servants, a gift, and she could not order them without feeling the obligation.

'You've forgotten something.'

'Your Highness?'

'You haven't asked my leave to go.'

But she could order him. He had saved her life. He owed her a life.

In two steps he was at her side, head bowed and hair spilling over his collar. There was something eager in his shoulders when viewed from above. Light stubble marked his upper lip, fine gold chain shining against his collar. He was one of many royal sons, in a harem society so far removed from the throne all his wealth was self-made. She was the crownless queen. He touched his knee to the tiles on her right side.

'Your Highness, I am rude. Might I have your permission to leave?'

But he did not ask forgiveness for his presumption.

'Go, then.'

Al-Cid's hands were fine and tanned on the scarred skin of her forearm, his lips pressing the part of her wrist which remained. It would have been her right hand that wore the seal of rule, if she had been in a position to claim it.

She was cruel to him. He could have been worse to her.

For some time after he left, she stared at the catfish-mouth scar sealing the stump, and puckered her own mouth to kiss it, in mockery.

The wardrobe had been stocked with the half-masks of high Rozarrian fashion, and with the asymmetrical gowns of drape and fine embroidered fabric which could have so easily hidden the scars. Ashelia wore instead clothes cut like a servant's, the loose trousers and sleeveless vests, if in a much finer fabric than they. She did not deviate from her standard for their supper.

Everything came cut into small pieces. Not obtrusively; they did not serve steaks in Rozarria. But there were never pies or tarts, no long noodles. Nothing which needed two hands to eat. Ashelia held only a thin fork and fed herself briskly. She had developed a grave contempt for cutlery.

Al-Cid drank a lot of wine.

Gradually, his persistence overcame her island in the dining room. They conversed. His dark vanity was soothed, smoothed at last, her aimless anger dulled by the sound of forks. Outside, a little boy was singing. The walls had been folded back, and night permitted to enter.

Under the pressure of what they did not say, the darkness expanded.

Outside, the little boy who sang thought he was unseen, but was caught in the light cast from their lamps. In the pauses of his song, he was playing with a kitten. For his whole, short life, he had been raised to sing. He was singing for them. But he was singing to that careless, uncaring kitten, who wanted only his hands.

It was hard not to smile.

Al-Cid's breath caught audibly.

'Ah, you smile again. So you are not so ungrateful now.'

Ashelia bowed her head.

'I am sorry for my moods.'

'Do not apologise for your grief.'

'Might I then apologise for the hurt I cause, in my grief?'

His lips quirked in acceptance. His eyes were unshadowed with his glasses, slightly hazed with alcohol nonetheless, his expression softened.

'You might, beloved, but you won't.'

Ashelia bowed her head again, this time to hide another smile.

Walking slowly they meandered through that garden Ashelia never noticed, until they found a bench beneath a bush with red thorns. She folded her hands — her hand, in her lap. The stump she held with her hand, in holding a hiding.

Al-Cid still had his glass of wine, and sat on her scarred side.

'I wish you wouldn't do that.'

'Should I ask your leave to sit?'

'No, it's— Every time you look at me, even in profile, you must see it.'

His finger was blunt and burning hot. He touched her crumpled cheek.

'Battle scars are no shame.'

'Even if the battle was lost?'

'Survival is a victory of its own.'

Then, then his wine glass was falling and he was reaching for her hair.

Her hair, which was long and which she could not allow the servants to touch. Her hair, which took longer to brush than expected in the mornings, which she could not braid or tie with one hand, and so it fell loose, in defeat. Her hair, which was being brushed back from her profile, to bare her skin to his lips.

'You must look in a mirror again one day. It is not so bad as your imagining.'

In response, she raised her wrist. But he held her forearm and kissed the puckered scar, where the flesh had been cut away, the bone sawed neatly and the remnant skin tucked over and sewn, all in his airship after he claimed her from the tower's destruction.

'I think you have pretensions above yourself, princess.'

'What! I lost a hand! A nation—'

'A father, eight brothers, many friends, your ancestral home. Which grieves you more?'

'All of it.' She was glaring now.

Al-Cid met her eyes gravely, and brought his lips to the absence of her hand.

If she closed her eyes, she insisted on feeling it. His fingers were firm on the underside of her arm, where he must feel her pulse racing. His hands were warm. His lips tingled on the back of a hand not there. Her nerves told her she was making a fist. He stroked her skin, and her skin jumped. Then her nerves told her she was relaxing into his grasp.

Ashelia made a soft sound, for all the weeping was long since done. His arms came around her.

The boy who had sung for them was long gone. His kitten was eating the remnants of their dinner. Droplets of dark wine had caught on the grass.

Because there was grass, watered at great expense, soft against her bare heels. The vests here laced at the back, not the front or sides, and he had to undo it for her, picking with manicured nails at the knots. His lips pressed a pattern down her ribs, and eased satin over her hips, her buttocks. The cool air was sharp where he had touched, soothing everywhere else. He licked his mouth. He licked hers.

'I want—' She plucked at the pins which held his elaborate shirt closed. 'Let me do it.'

'Very likely you cannot.' His voice was rough, fingers shaking with haste as he struggled himself with the ostentation of his garb.

For a moment, the anger took her outside herself. But perhaps lust was more powerful, or the wanting. It would be very easy to allow his kindness, if it was kindness. Instead it felt like fact.

Very likely you cannot. Very likely she could not.

'I don't care,' said Ashelia. 'As long as you take it off now.'

He smiled, then he laughed.

His back was very broad and golden, and peppered with scars so familiar to her. Some had come close to taking his life, and they were ugly, hollow, puckered. She touched them with her lips, and he pulled her damaged arm over his shoulder.

'— it feels strange, when you touch it.'

'The nerves will take a long time to settle, if they ever do. I have asked others, soldiers, who suffer the same. They say you will feel this forever.'

'Strange, to feel an absence.'

'Absences always hurt the more.'

She thought of long months, near a year, when she could not speak to him.

'Why did you save me, Al-Cid Margrace?'

'Sometimes,' he almost looked shy. Ridiculous. 'Sometimes actions are the question. I do not know why. But I did it, and now I wait for an answer.'

'What answer? Affirmation? Your family will not be pleased if I give you an answer of any sort.'

'If I had cared for my family's thoughts, you would not be here now.'

His lips moved over the truncated bone. He lay on his side, and pulled her to lie against his curve, cream and gold. Her hand was caught under his arm and against the blade of his shoulder. She moved the other between them, against the hard flesh of his stomach, the fine hair curling there. Surely damaged nerves should not feel this sensitive. Surely she could not count each hair as it curled against her scar.

Al-Cid made a soft, startled sound as the length of her forearm pushed against his erection.

'I cannot do more. You've pinned my hand under you.'

'So peevish, my princess.' Amusement, rich and lush. '—oh. Again.'

Would she laugh about this, one day? She thought, maybe. She moved her arm again.

Now Al-Cid lay on his back, knees slightly spread, a startled expression on a face which wore deception as easily as glasses. She knelt between his knees and moved her arm, again. One of his hands, his big, golden hands, curled around his prick and her forearm both, holding them side by side. She moved, he held, and his prick was as hot as his hands.

'So soft,' Al-Cid said gently. 'I cannot even call this a scar.'

'Call it what you like,' said Ashelia Dalmasca. 'It used to be my sword hand.'

Whatever his sorrowful noise, he had no way to hold her when she drew out of his grip. His thumb slipped over the edge, rough with his desperation, then she was free.

With no command but the implicit, she brought her elbow to his mouth. Obedient regardless, he kissed it. His tongue moved wetly along the length of her bone, pressing against her skin with remnant grace. She had always liked her wrists. Fine and graceful, with slight tendon and vein, never thickening whatever her years in weapon practice, only refining. Even handless, she supposed the grace was still there.

His mouth closed whole and hot, so hot, around the end.

'Oh.'

His tongue curled and flicked, almost cat-rough, against the puckered seal. His eyelids fluttered closed.

'No—' Ashe wanted to run.

'I think, yes.' His lips were swollen, hair mussed. Ashelia had never seen him so aroused. 'There are always advantages, in survival. Do you startle for the sensitivity? Do not tell me is it shame.'

It's shame, she thought, but did as he asked. Shame was just another battle. Shame was something people felt to provoke them to change.

His mouth was surreal.

'It should not surprise me, what you do with your tongue.'

'Is it surprising?' Al-Cid could barely pause to speak.

'On the contrary, it's fantastic.'

Then he was smiling, around— around her.

'Is it truly so good?'

'Never did I think,' he was so hoarse. 'Never did I think you would want me to touch you again. I mourned, too.'

'Touch me, then. Touch me everywhere.'

He sat up to claim her mouth, then lay back again.

'Beloved, if I may entreat the same, first?'

'Margrace?'

'Touch me,' said he. 'Touch me everywhere.'


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