To call his feelings for the princess love at first sight would have been to underestimate them by a considerable magnitude.
He knew he should be still and keep his eyes focused on the coffin, that the other eyes in the stone-cold church that were not focused on the coffin could just as likely be focused on him, ready to report his lack of decorum at the first available opportunity, but he couldn't help staring. Even with her eyes reddened from tears and her nursemaid's handkerchief constantly re-drying her six-year-old nose, Emmalier was the most perfect woman in the world, standing there so solemnly except for the tears that just wouldn't stop flowing, holding a bouquet of rue and violets, listening as the old priest droned on about what a great man the king had been and how the kingdom was ever to mourn his loss. She wasn't listening, though, Alexei could tell, largely because he wasn't listening either – he was watching her, watching her watch her father's coffin, watching her endure the terrible ordeal of public grief with a dignity uncommon to those her age.
"You can back out now, you know," he heard his foster father whisper in his ear. "The King is dead, may God embrace his soul, and thus no longer compels you."
Alexei straightened his shoulders and shook his head, stirring some of his fashionably long hair loose from its braided moorings. He was only eight, but already had a great sense of duty, one both uncommon to those his age and wrapped entirely around the idea of a princess who had only this morning become a reality to him. His eyes stayed fixed on her, and he could feel himself fall in love, could sense that terrible knowledge seeping from his heart, its origin, out through his blood to take up residence indelibly in his bones. It was the knowledge that an ounce of her happiness was now worth more to him than anything in his entire life, and it was horrible and wonderful all at once. He embraced it.
"I will protect her," Alexei whispered back, gaze following the princess' movements as she stepped to the front, encircled by the late king's personal guard, to entrust the stone effigy resting atop the king's coffin with one final kiss for her father. He knew he could not tell anyone how he felt for her, even his own father, whom he told everything. Even at eight, he knew that holding a secret like that inside was like holding wine, letting it age in dark, unseen places until it was both intoxicating and strong. But he was a master of holding secrets already, and relished the idea that he finally might have one all to himself.
To call the princess' feelings for him love at first sight would have been to give them a sort of purity few thoughts of teenagers of any gender possess. She had been kept out of sight for the last ten years, in the hands of tutors and caretakers and few others, attempting to keep both her and the kingdom to which she was sole heir below the radar. As such, she had heard of the young men training to be her personal guards, but had not seen them until she looked down from the balcony that morning.
His long blond hair, braided down to his mid-back, shone in the pale light as he held his sword aloft, making slow, controlled movements in time with the dozen others around him. They were the best of the academy, she had been told, trained for one thing: to protect her with their lives, to know her as well as she knew herself; they would take orders from none but her, absolutely trustworthy and unfailingly brave. Her father's guard had pledged themselves to her following his death, but they were older men who knew everything about protecting a warrior statesman, and nothing about the habits of young girls. And if she was to debut on her seventeenth birthday, a month away, taking power from the Parliament that had ruled since her father's death, she should do it with her own guard at her side. At least, her aides had told her so.
Watching him move, however, Emmalier could hardly find fault with this plan. She could see the way the muscles in his back rippled beneath his tight tunic, its sleeves rolled high for added range of motion. He was lovely and graceful, and Emmalier felt her breath quicken as she watched him.
"Easy to see how he made captain." The young maid at her left side looked down at him with undisguised want. "Looks like he's handy with a sword!"
"He's a right beauty, isn't he?" The other maid giggled, taking her arm. "I wouldn't mind him practicing in my bed, eh?"
Emmalier's smile did not quite reach her eyes as she strode off with both of them, sparing one last glance for the men in the courtyard as they spun on their heels and thrust in unison, sounding a barbaric cry. She felt a stirring between her legs and quickened her pace, out of the air, into the dank safety of the castle.
When at first she turned down King of Gaphsher's offer of marriage to his son, three months into her reign, the conventional wisdom was that such a move was politically astute – Gaphsher was, after all, hardly a strategic location, remote and landlocked, and besides, the prince was twelve. Surely she would wait for a more appropriate match.
Thirteen proposals later, no one was entirely certain for what she was waiting, or for whom, if that were the case. Thirteen reasonably young, reasonably handsome prospects for husbandhood from near and far had come calling; thirteen had been offered hospitality, given a chance to state their cases, and sent home in due fashion, that none might feel singled out for rejection. Twelve had regrouped to lick their wounds, waiting for a later time, certain that she would come around, that she would need to come around, that she could not hold an entire country's power in a woman's hand.
One, however, had taken great offense at the rejection, and it was his reply she held in front of her now. The words were quite formal – 'greatly disappointed,' 'unmistakable opportunity,' 'unprecedented chance of allegiance' – but she could read the thinly veiled anger that seeped into the paper like the ink. King Saperis had been to her father never an enemy, but never a close ally, and surely he saw himself as the most desirable of all her suitors. And why not? He was older than she, but not white-haired, still strong and authoritative, quite capable of fathering children – and besides, their kingdoms bordered to the east, meaning a not-insubstantial expansion of territory and defensive powers for both.
Emmalier sighed, placing her head in her hands. As always, her personal life came down to politics.
"My lady." Alexei's voice startled her from her daze, and she jumped in a very un-ladylike fashion.
"Sir Alexei." She loved the weight of his name on her tongue, the heft of it, wondered what it would be to say without the formal title. "Is something the matter?"
He gave an awkward little nod toward the contents of her desk, though remained fixed at the doorway to her study. "My lady appeared distressed."
Emmalier's mouth jumped to her automatic defenses – it's nothing, I'm fine, I shall rest better this night – but her gaze caught his blue eyes, and she stopped mid-word. It was scarce wonder that every woman in the castle (and perhaps in the kingdom, for who knew how gossip travelled) was fixated on his beauty, his aloofness, his tightly muscled frame. He was not a large man, standing barely half a head taller than she, but a lack of size meant for great speed, as anyone knew who had ever seen him best stronger, sturdier opponents before they had even summoned the force for a first blow.
She should know, after all, having somehow managed to weave her morning constitutionals by the practice yards. Curious how these things simply occurred.
"King Saperis," she offered as point of explanation, lifting the thin parchment. "Disappointed that I turned him down flatter than most."
Emmalier could see Alexei's composure falter a little at her casual speech, and she tried not to crack a smile. He was so curiously reserved, and she stopped her mind before it could wonder for too long what it would be like to get him to let his hair down – literally as well as metaphorically. "...King Saperis is a fine man and a potential ally," he offered diplomatically, displaying his sincerity by standing even straighter at attention.
"And a right bastard." She saw the comical expression of shock that crossed Alexei's face, and couldn't help laughing. "Come in," she waved him closer, "and shut the door."
Such an order was hardly out of the ordinary; the knights, after all, were supposed to be Emmalier's personal guard, trustworthy to guard her life private as well as public, and the young regent liked her privacy. He pulled the heavy wooden door shut, though did not latch it, and strode closer, lowering his voice. "I do not like him," he offered candidly, his expression darkening. "He is powerful, but that power makes him violent. He is not a man who has mastered his rage. I do not trust such men."
"I see." Emmalier stood at her desk, shaking her head. "It's what I sense as well. And yet..." With a sigh, she reached to pull the hair from the nape of her neck. "And yet he is powerful, as well as respected by kingdoms who think my reign a doomed one."
Alexei gave a brief nod, and she thought she saw his eyes follow the curve of her exposed throat, though it might just as well have been her imagination. "I am certain whatever course of action you take will be appropriate."
Emmalier sighed and let her chin fall to her chest, bracing her hands against the writing-desk in front of her. "No one ever asked me about this, you know." She gestured with ink-stained fingers to the documents in front of her. "About being queen someday. I've been shut away nearly all my life, I've spent my days at tutorial instead of at play, and now I'm expected to wed someone for reasons of politics. I've got the prettiest cage in the kingdom, but it doesn't make me any freer."
For a long minute, Alexei said nothing, and Emmalier was afraid her tantrum had upset or even possibly offended him. Then she saw his shoulders relax, and he stepped toward her, lowering his voice against whatever might be listening at the eaves. "If I may, my lady, it is my experience that none of us ask for the circumstances we are given. If we did, the world would be a different place."
She laughed a little, sitting back down in her chair and smiling up at him. "Indeed."
"What—" Alexei started his sentence, appeared to think better of it and fell silent, then looked at her and asked anyway. "What would my lady have been, if you could have chosen?"
The question honestly flabbergasted Emmalier – no one had ever before, to her recollection, given her opportunity to air her flights of fantasy about the life she would have chosen for herself. "A potter," she said unthinkingly, and the words caught her by surprise. "I ... I think I would like to a potter. Have a mother and a father, work with clay, live by myself, fall in love with someone—" She caught herself before she could say like you, and wondered where that brash statement had come from. "...Who isn't a stuffy old king with bad breath. Have a chance to make a choice for myself."
The disapproval she feared she might find on Alexei's face when she looked at him again never materialized; what remained instead was a tender smile, a look that understood perfectly her desire for freedom. She felt her gaze linger on the curve of his mouth, the thinness of his pale lips as they turned upward at the corners, and willed herself not to blush at the accompanying thoughts of what such a mouth might do. "And you, sir knight? What life would you take if you had your choice of occupation and circumstance?"
That beautiful smile faded into a look of honest confusion, as though he could not imagine why she would ask such a thing. "...I have it already."
She was saved having to think of a response to that by the entrance of an advisor, a fussy man with large gestures, and by the time she could extract herself from his imaged catastrophes, another of the guards had taken up post at her door, and Alexei was nowhere to be found.
He wasn't used to this – had, in fact, strictly avoided the act, claiming it first a casualty of crowded dormitories at the academy, and then, as he became old enough to warrant a room of his own, an act of self-discipline; yet he was forced to admit in more private moments that he abstained largely because he was not entirely comfortable with what his fingers found when they strayed between his legs.
Alexei could only barely remember a time before being a boy – faint recollections of dresses, perhaps a doll that had belonged to him or to a playmate. In fact, but for a few incidents past his arriving at the academy when he was two, and the monthly reminder of a biology that worked beyond his control, he might as well have been male his entire life. The precautions had been surprisingly few, and his foster father's standing in the royal courts had made the arrangements for a separate bathing and changing quarters odd but not inexplicable.
The plan had been made increasingly clear to him as the years had progressed. As a mere toddler, he had simply been instructed never to be seen naked (save around a handful of trustworthy nursemaids) and never to reference the life he'd had before becoming Roun Dussandier's adopted son. As he'd aged, the commandments had refined slightly as his purpose had become clear and he'd begun to understand the history behind his enrollment.
The king, he had come to learn, had been a wise ruler and a noble leader, but a less-than-perfect husband, evidencing the twin undesirable traits of heightened suspicion and frequent absenteeism. Though the queen and all those around her swore to her fidelity, he had never seemed entirely convinced, and the mysterious death of the captain of his own guards following the queen's death during childbirth did nothing to alleviate his (or anyone else's) misgivings.
Still, he had loved his wife, and had managed to put off discussion of remarrying until he himself was taken away by consumption one brutal winter. Suitably convinced that the child was his, he had put himself to the task of assuring her succession: tutors to teach her everything from mathematics to philosophy; private instructors to educate her in manners as well as in history; treatises on war and the management of armies in the field. And then there was the matter of assuring her safety and chastity, preferably in one fell blow.
Alexei stretched out on the bed in the darkness, keeping his eyes shut, thinking not of the cold winter the king had brought him to House Dussandier, not of being groomed nearly from infancy to become the captain of the princess' guards, not of how the king's attempts to keep his daughter from the temptation of her mother, but of the princess herself – her soft hair, her dark eyes, her lips, her hands along the papers, her breasts rising and spilling out from the bodices of her dresses.
Alexei, for his own part, had no breasts – at least, none to speak of, and certainly none anymore. When he had started bleeding, they had come, and he had taken to wrapping his chest tightly in bandages so his silhouette might not give him away; as he had grown, however, he had become lean past his childhood roundness, and they now stood barely in relief against the musculature of his chest. He would, of course, still bind himself when circumstances and attire required even greater stealth than usual, and sometimes just out of habit, but now he lay unbound, stripped out atop the sheets, one hand flicking at one of his nipples, the other reaching down to the wetness between his legs.
This act always made Alexei want to think of himself as 'she' for a moment, and he had once even tried to think of this all as happening to a woman he did not know, a woman who had taken his body's place. But in the end, it had both disoriented and alienated him so much that he could not even achieve release, and so accepted his lot as a man with woman's parts if for no other reason than it was less confusing.
His fingers sought those parts now, his clit, his lower lips, the way they folded softly around his woman's hole. Pinching his nipple tighter, he gasped and arched his back off the bed, unable to keep as silent as he might like as he slipped fingers inside of himself. It hurt, as it always did at first, for he was unaccustomed to such invasion; his other hand abandoned his slight breasts and slipped down to play at his clit, running across it with fingers slick with juices and rough from sword fighting, until it felt good again and his pushed his fingers inside. A low moan slipped from deep in his chest, and he bit his lower lip to keep any others from following it.
There were, of course, a thousand reasons why it would never work – she was a princess and he merely one of her guards, they were both (at least physically) female, it would in fact be the very thing he had been groomed as a guard to prevent – yet none of those things mattered now as he lay stretched wide, knees bent and spread, three fingers now inside him to the knuckle. He fucked himself faster now, hands moving in tandem, thinking only of how beautiful she was, and how desperately he wanted his hands to be hers. He tried to imagine them, smoother, much smaller, a true princess' hands, and thought of how much more easily they would fit inside of him. How easily she, in fact, would fit inside of him, and how she would place her mouth to his long-neglected breasts, teasing with her mouth in the way that seemed vulgar when the other guards told stories of the women they'd bedded, yet would only be beautiful when it was she who lingered above him, wet and soft and warm, and he'd take her own breast in his mouth and reach inside her with his own fingers and push—
It was always this point in the fantasy at which Alexei came, a shuddering rush of quiet (mixed with a disappointment he would only register later at having to stay silent at such a point of intense ecstasy), feeling his muscles squeeze around his fingers, rubbing softly at his clit until they had subsided for good. When he was done, he withdrew his teasing hand to fall beside him on the bed, but left his other hand inside himself, feeling first the gradually slowing spasms, then the soft rhythm of his heart. Were he not aware that he would become very sore very fast, he might leave himself in there all night, sleeping with his knees pointed skyward and his wrist arched, that he might dream again his hands were hers.
With a small sigh – and an accompanying gush of fluid – he withdrew his fingers from himself, grabbing a soiled shirt from the bedpost to dry his hand and the area between his legs (the latter retreating into unfamiliarity, having served its purpose). Fantasies were their own comfort, but fleeting, and Alexei did not even bother dressing again before falling into the slightly more lasting solace of sleep.
(When I Am Queen)
King Saperis had, in fact, taken Emmalier's second rejection a month later even harder than the first. He was a man both powerful and respected, as well as respected for his power, and not well-taken to being told 'no'. He had sent three letters following, ranging in tone from polite suggestion to outright threat; Emmalier's response had been kind but firm on paper, and to strengthen the number of her guard in practice. Surely no one suspected King Saperis might do anything untoward, but it never hurt to be careful.
As the alliance of such a royal wedding would admittedly be beneficial to both countries, increasingly more whispers could be heard in the land wondered why the princess didn't simply submit to the offer. Emmalier created one diplomatic excuse after another, trying to find as many polite synonyms for 'he's a horrible man' as humanly possible, and found that they became less polite as time passed. Her advisors and parliament were willing at least outwardly to abide by her decision, but she wondered how long they would allow her to continue unmarried before forcing the issue.
Only her guards did not judge her decision – in fact, they all seemed of much the same mind as Alexei, considering Saperis a low and dishonorable man. She was glad that they, at least, supported her continued refusals. After all, she had come quickly to realize that they knew more of honor than any of her attendant politicians. They made her feel both comfortable and safe, and as a result, she arranged for their sole company at every opportunity.
Had anyone accused this strategy as being a ploy to spend more time with Alexei, she would have denied such a motivation outright.
Still, she could not deny that his presence made her feel particularly safe; his quiet strength emboldened her, and because he never seemed to fear, she could feel her own fear subside. As such, she was glad that he was the one to bring her the news that strangers had been spotted in the kingdom, three of them on swift horses, riding in from the west. It could be anything, he had told her, and she had so badly wanted to believe his reassurances that there was probably nothing to worry about, but she trusted him, and as such was not afraid to let him see her hands shake. Saperis' lands lay to the west.
"I fear what he is capable of," Emmalier told Alexei. She sighed and took a place by the open window, drawing her knees up beneath her heavy dress. "He is a man of might, not of reason."
Alexei stood inside the candle-lit bedchamber, hands clasped behind his back, spine ramrod-straight. "And you are a woman of both," he said softly, "and thus have no reason to fear him."
Emmalier did not laugh, for she knew the compliment had been intended in all sincerity, and did not wish him to think her dismissive. Instead, she gave him a smile, then turned to the warm night outside her window. "...I may yet relent and tell him yes."
She did not see the look that crossed Alexei's face, but could imagine its carefully muted surprise. "...My lady?"
It seemed ridiculous to say it, yet as she spoke the words, she found she had been considering them more carefully than even she herself had let on. "I simply...." She sighed deeply, considering her words. "...I know that nobles do not marry for love. We marry for reasons greater than personal feelings – alliances, breeding, politics, resources, even geography. But not love. I've known this ever since I was a child, and have prepared myself for it, saying that it is my duty to my people, to my own family, and yet...."
Not a sound came from the room behind her, and presently she turned to see Alexei standing still, a look of almost invisible pain behind his eyes. "Another suitor, perhaps?" he offered, though even this looked to be an unacceptable solution by his standards.
Emmalier shrugged, letting the night breeze blow at her hair. "It would be much the same in the end. Saperis is a good match – he would get the coast, I would get his mountain defenses – and he is the most insistent. There can be nothing gained in delay." It sounded so defeatist, and yet so absolutely true, that the words alone made her heart ache. "He will be cruel, and I will be silent, and everyone else will be pleased and safe, until no one will be able to recall the reasons for my refusal."
She looked up from her misery to see Alexei, his hands at his sides, a small furrow planted between his eyebrows; he looked so vulnerable, such a change from his normal stoicism, that she could not help staring. A wild impulse struck her, and she pulled herself up to stand, letting her bare feet pad across the cool stone floor as she walked to him. This was desperation, of course, she knew before she even began, but desperation born out of real desire, and the hopelessness of her situation had finally given her the courage to voice what she had only half-dreamed before
"Or you could have me," she whispered, feeling her own heart race even as she made the suggestion. "Take me, sully me, ravish me, make me yours so he can't touch me. Have me here, on the bed, on the floor, on the table, I don't care. Fuck me," and she felt the color rise to her cheeks as she heard such words from her own mouth, "and he'll never have me."
To his credit, he hadn't run; in fact, he hadn't moved at all, and she used this to her advantage as she reached up and wrapped her arms around his neck. She felt the muscles of there, reached to touch the blond braid running down his back, marveled even in the dim candlelight at the glory of his features that proximity revealed. He was so beautiful, so breathtakingly beautiful, that she marveled how he might even exist.
She turned her lips to his smooth cheek, brushing his jaw as she spoke. "I want you to have me." Her body pressed against his, and she had a fleeting moment of hoping she didn't look utterly ridiculous, as she'd neither seduced anyone nor been seduced before, and the whole effort was born of a knowledge mostly theoretical. "I want you inside of me." Oh, that image seemed to work, as she could hear his breath hitch. "Push me to the ground, hold me down, take me as you want me, I swear, anything you want from me is yours."
His breathing was rushed, and she could feel his heart beat rapidly against her chest – yet his hands remained by his sides, and he did not speak. Frustrated, she reached down for Alexei's soft-gloved hand and brought it to her chest, shoving it down the front of her dress and moaning as his strong fingers brushed against her hardening nipple. It was not an act – her pleasure was real, as real as her desire for him. "Please," she begged him. "Please." And she could feel him sigh, feel his fingers move against her breast – not pulling away, but touching her, and it was almost dream-like as she let him take the lead, falling under his spell. She moaned again, urging him to continue, and stroked his chest with her free hand, letting her fingers trail lower, down his chest, down to where his—
The strong, leathery grip that caught her wrist was gentle, as humiliatingly sobering as a slap to the face, and she felt her stomach turn to iron. Alexei's hand withdrew from her dress, and he stepped back. In the lamplight, his features looked so sorrowful, so hurt, that she was perversely glad; at least she had wounded him as much as he had with his refusal – a petty victory, perhaps, but the only one she could afford now. He opened his mouth to speak, and she braced herself to hear anything from him – pleasant flatteries, confessions of his love for another, accusations of her being a woman of loose morals, denials, bargains, resignations. Anything, in fact, except what he did say:
With an uneasy stagger did he step backward toward the door, and she had the crazy thought to spring on him, to beg his forgiveness, to swear anything that would make him stay. But her legs were leaden, and her heart filled with shame, and so she fell back against the wall and said nothing. There was nothing left she could say.
Alexei turned away so she could not see his face, taking a deep breath. "I'm sorry, but I cannot." He shifted on his feet, and she could hear even the faint creak of his worn leather gloves as he fisted and relaxed his hands. "...I'm not the man you think I am." And before she could ask what he meant by such a thing, he was gone, disappeared with merely a word to the guard who stood posted always outside her chambers; she could hear his boots retreat down the hall, then the slam of the door and nothing beyond.
Emmalier brought her fingers to her cheek – since when had she been crying? Had he seen? If she knew not when she had started, how then would she ever stop? How was it even possible to live with a heart shattered as soundly as hers had been?
Then her train of impossible questions was interrupted by a pair of hands that grabbed her from the window, pressing a cloth over her mouth. She tried to scream, but was distracted by a medicinal smell, and by the time she thought to wonder what it was, she had already slipped into unconsciousness.
The courtyard had always been his favorite place to think, for though it was a bustling center during the daytime, at night it emptied, until he could sit beneath the great spreading tree in the middle and think his thoughts undisturbed. He pulled his knees up nearly to his chin, breathing deeply and trying to cure himself of the terrible ache that had taken up residence in his chest.
Never before had his identity faced such a stake as this. All the admonitions to keep his true sex concealed lest he be expelled from the academy paled next to the knowledge that Princess Emmalier was in love only with the man he was with his clothes on. A few inches further, and her fingers would have discovered the secret, and he would not allow her to be hurt by his betrayal. Better to let her think that he bore some secret that was none of her concern, than to confess his life-long lie told directly to her face. She would be hurt, of course – she had been hurt, in fact, but she would mend, and her heart would, in time, forget about him.
Now if only he could set effectively about the impossible task of teaching his heart to forget her.
So trapped was he inside his thoughts that he very nearly did not hear the shouts. It took another full breath before he connected those shouts to something with which he should concern himself – something very important, in fact, and he was to his feet and running even before his brain had fully processed the words the princess has been taken.
He rounded the corner and slammed into three other guards, all looking about as upset as he. "What has happened?"
The tallest of the knights stepped forward. "The man at the watchtower saw figures moving from her window and gave the call. They're nowhere in the castle grounds, however; two washerwomen at the river say they say them pass."
"Three." The second knight held up three stocky fingers. "One had the princess in his arms."
Alexei felt his grip tighten around the sword that hung at his side. "In which direction?"
The third knight, an older man from the days of the former king's guard, frowned. "Who was on duty at her chambers?"
"Sir Kael," answered the first. "He swears on his life that he heard nothing, and was startled when the watch came running to him. They found nothing disturbed, only the window open."
The second knight reached for a map from his pack, unrolling it beneath a nearby table as they spoke; he pointed again with a meaty finger to the forest along the river. "They'll take this way. It's a full day's ride to safety, and they like as not won't want to stray too far from water."
"Do you think they'll camp tonight?" The first knight leaned over, squinting in the too-dim candlelight.
"Aye," the eldest nodded, stroking his fine beard. "They've no way of knowing they've been spotted, and though she's a slight girl, the horse that carries her will still not appreciate the added weight. They'll camp under darkness, then begin to move again at first light."
The tall knight nodded again, casting a glance at the night sky. "They were likely waiting for the full moon tonight. But clouds have covered it – they won't get very far not knowing the terrain."
"Still, they may have others as yet unseen hiding in the woods. I wouldn't put it past Saperis to keep his most formidable force in wait, in case of disaster." Shaking his head, the second knight tapped the forested area of the paper. "Awaiting your orders, captain."
But the orders went unspoken, and the three knights looked up from their geography lessons to find that their captain was missing, having slipped out on his own as soon as a direction had been given. They rushed to the stable, but found his stallion's stall empty, the stablehand dreadfully confused, and only the faint outline of a man on horseback visible on the horizon before both mount and rider disappeared into the cloud-dark night.
Undoubtedly, Saperis had ordered her retrieved unharmed. Her bruised eye and split lip led Emmalier to conclude that these men were not precisely the kind adept at following directions, and the way that the ropes that bound her to the tree cut into her wrists did nothing to dissuade her of this notion. Her good eye closed, her bad eye puffed shut for her, she chose to listen and to breathe easily, continuing the illusion of her unconsciousness and doing nothing to incur further injury.
They had, in fact, been sent by Saperis – they did not say his name, but spoke with the accents of the western kingdom, and did so rather candidly when they believed her unable to listen. After their ostensible leader had crippled his horse – and nearly himself – riding breakneck through the unfamiliar woods, they had stopped for the night, two staying with her and the third riding ahead (at a more reasonable pace) to the promise of reinforcements hiding in the woods ahead.
So this was how her decision was to be made for her. She felt ill, and it took all her concentration to keep herself from vomiting. Damn it all, they might have her like this, beaten and bound and disheveled, but she was not going to afford them the satisfaction of seeing how they sickened her. She was royalty, after all, and even with her face covered in her own blood and her dress ripped to shreds, she could be expected to behave like nothing else.
One of the men who had stayed snored by their small campfire; she could hear the other, the one on whose horse she had been carried, tossing his knife repeatedly into a nearby tree. He laughed occasionally, madly and to himself, and she did not like the sound of it. He had been the one who had split her lip for making unkind comments about his (undeniably) poor parenting and blackened her eye for saying even worse about his employer, while the others had merely laughed. The situation was dangerous, and she had to think her way out of it, or she might not make it to Saperis alive, orders or not.
A hand grabbed her skirt, and she jerked away without meaning to. "Oh ho, is she awake?" It was the knife-wielding man, who might have been handsome were he not missing several teeth and stinking of alcohol. "The little hussy's been playing possum at us!"
"Cut it out, Dievan," mumbled the leader, though he sounded as though he didn't rightly care what happened to their cargo in transit.
"Aw, come on, boss. Just a little taste?" Emmalier kept her eyes resolutely shut, though she could not help wrinkling her nose as he shoved his face right up to hers.
The leader shuffled, and she could imagine him sitting up now, unhappy to have his slumber disturbed by his out-of-control colleague. "She arrives intact – down below especially – or it's our heads."
"I'll only take an ear. Or a toe. There's something you don't see every day, a princess toe. Might catch a fair price at market, if I told people it was a good-luck charm." He laughed, and she bit her lip to keep from gagging, no longer bothering to pretend she was asleep, yet still unwilling to look. "It'll bring you fortune and wealth! ...Though what it won't do," she could feel the cold steel of his knife blade pressed flat against her cheek, "is keep away the ravishers."
"No," said a third voice from out the darkness, "that's my job."
Emmalier closed her eyes again as quickly as she opened them, but the instant was long enough to see a flash of steel cross the knife-man's neck, leaving a thin red line in its wake, while mere inches above his mouth hung slack. She felt his breath brush her face, then heard his body collapse somewhere near where she huddled, bound; the other man barely got out a coherent sound before whatever word he might have said was swallowed in a sick gasp, and then he, too, collapsed. Panicked and horrified, she held her breath, not knowing what other monster had found her this terrible night.
Yet the next blow severed not skin, but rope. Her arms free, she slumped forward, only to find herself cradled in arms that seemed impossibly familiar. "I have you," she heard the voice say again, and she wept to hear his words. "I swear I shall never let them touch you again."
Exhausted and weak, she wrapped her arms around Alexei's shoulders and wept, burying her injured face into his long golden hair.
The approach of daylight had done little to improve his mood, for he had changed course no fewer than a dozen times, unable to tell friend from foe in the wood and unwilling to take the chance, and now felt rather lost himself. Emmalier had clung bravely to him for as long as she could, but had soon succumbed to sleep, and he held her in front of him on his horse, tucked against his chest; if she felt anything lacking from his body, he trusted that she was too tired to care. Her injured cheek, her left one, lay tucked against his shoulder, for as much as such a position might pain her, it was better than leaving her exposed. Thus he tried to move slowly, as carefully as he could while making haste.
Yet he knew he hadn't imagined the hoofbeats behind them ten minutes ago, and he wasn't even surprised to hear them return, louder now, in pursuit. Emmalier stirred against him, whimpering in her sleep, and he wondered if she heard them too.
It was folly to think he could outrun them – not with a mount already pushed to its limit simply catching up to the princess and her kidnappers, then burdened with the added weight of a second rider; as Alexei was not a heavy man, his chosen steed was a correspondingly small stallion, full of fire for the sprint, but easily tired over the long haul. He might pray for reinforcements, but could not swear how close he was to the castle, much less to his fellow knights, and was not willing to risk their fortune on the slim chance they might be saved by chance encounter.
If outrunning was out of the question, then, it was his job to outthink. And as he passed a small pool of water, the opportunity for their salvation passed before his eyes, so ridiculous that he laughed aloud and woke Emmalier. It was absurd, of course, but necessity's second child was absurdity, and these times called for measures more desperate than most.
"Alexei?" she mumbled as he pulled the horse up to a stop.
He steadied her with his hand as he swung down from the mount, then eased her in his arms to the ground. "Strip," he ordered breathlessly, looking around in the early grey dawn for immediate sight of their pursuers. Finding none, he smacked his horse on the haunches, sending it galloping into the distance and trying not to see her horrified gaze. "Take off your clothes and get into the water!"
Her lip quivered, and he felt bad at having yelled at her, especially at a time like this, but he knew the effects of shock, and had to make her understand. "The horse—"
"He'd give us away. Now get undressed and into the deep water. Leave your underdress on the shore, hold your outer garment with you, but don't wear it, and don't let it be seen." Alexei unsheathed his sword and pressed its hilt in her hands, watching her stagger under its unexpected weight. "Go!"
She didn't hesitate beyond that, but waded into the pool, shedding her clothing as she went; he followed, stopping only knee-deep into the water, and pulled off his boots. Under literally any other circumstances, Alexei wondered, he might have let his eyes follow her every move, memorizing her skin as she bared it to the dawn. But now was not the time for such luxury.
Nor, he acknowledged, unfastening his scabbard and belt, and weighting them with his boots underwater beneath a rock, was this the time for modesty from either party. He would take whatever shame and horror his body's confession provoked, and take it gladly, if only revealing himself could keep Emmalier alive to chastise him when this was all over.
"Keep silent. Whatever happens, say nothing." Alexei did not turn to face her, though he could feel the ripples of the pool around his thighs as she waded in deeper. "You are mute; you have no voice, neither to speak nor to cry out. Do you understand?" He turned briefly and saw only her head and shoulders above the water – saw her, true to her instruction, nod silently. She trusted him, then. He could only pray that her trust had not been misplaced.
"May the saints protect us all," he muttered to himself, and lifted his shirt over his head.
Emmalier trembled beneath the water, looking anxiously to the trees that surrounded the small clearing, working with her hands her sodden overdress. She now heard the footsteps that must have alarmed Alexei far before, and even remembering what he had told her about silence, she turned to ask him what, exactly, could he be thinking.
Her line of inquiry died in her throat, however, as she saw him cast his crimson shirt onto the shore. Any further words were entirely forgotten as he stepped out of his trousers, tossing them carelessly next to the shirt. He reached for his hair, grabbing at the bottom of the braid and working his fingers through it until what had once been a thick cord of heavy blond strands now flowed in golden waves down his shoulders. And then he stood before her, bare in the grey dawn, all his secrets finally revealed. Certainly, everything about him remained the same – the same face, the same muscled frame, the same hands – yet everything had changed.
In short, by the simple act of undressing, Alexei Dussandier had become a woman.
Bruised and aching as she was, Emmalier thought briefly to ask him if this was some sorcery that he had mastered, this art of appearing to others as the opposite of one's natural sex. Yet even her wearied brain knew this was not the case. She thought on him, on his delicate face, on his slender frame, on his smooth jaw, and thought it a wonder that no one had seen it before, what had been right beneath their very noses. In that sense, at least, what she had interpreted as a maudlin dismissal hours earlier in her chambers had been the unvarnished truth – he was in a very literal sense not the man she thought he was.
"My sword," demanded the woman with Alexei's voice, the lady Alexei, and Emmalier found she could do nothing but give it to her. Alexei took it and nodded, and despite all her best efforts, Emmalier found herself staring at the hard nubs of Alexei's nipples. Oh, this was awkward. "And remember, silence." Alexei stepped forward until the water was only to her navel, her right hand and the sword it clutched still beneath the surface. "...And if this doesn't work," she breathed, turning her face away, "I'm sorry that I have failed you. I've been in love with you from the first moment I saw you. I've given myself for you, and would gladly give everything again. Including my life." The surface of the water surrounding Alexei rippled as she gripped the sword more tightly. "Including my life."
Emmalier had no time to respond to this before a clutch of four soldiers wearing Saperis' colors came riding into the clearing, their horses' mouths flecked with froth, their own eyes weary. And on the heels of their appearance came Alexei's astonishingly girlish scream.
"Woah, there, girly," said the man at the lead, waving his hands and pulling his horse up to a halt. "Have you seen—"
"Brutes! Brutes!" Alexei took a step back into the water, shooing them with her free hand, but made no further steps to cover herself from their eyes. Her voice rose two full octaves, nearing a shriek. "Be gone with you!"
The soldiers looked amongst themselves, sharing a wicked grin that made Emmalier's skin crawl. She felt completely exposed here beneath the surface, and only the staunch figure of Alexei standing between her in the men kept her still and silent. In the end, she knew, all that mattered was that she trusted him – her (did it matter?).
The soldier who had spoken dismounted first, the other three following his lead, and he padded across the grass. "What're you doing out here, missies? Don't you know there's dangerous men around?"
"Like you?" Alexei asked, and the men chuckled in reply. One took a great step forward, rubbing at his lower parts, but Alexei stood her ground. "My cousin and I are here to bathe, nothing more. Leave us be."
"Here to bathe!" One of the soldiers guffawed, and all joined him. "Maybe they'd like us to scrub their backs!"
"What's wrong with the other one?" asked a fat man.
Emmalier was still mostly disguised by the water, though she figured no one at this point would take a sodden, beaten thing such as her for royalty of any stripe. "She is mute from birth. And frightened of you." Alexei lifted a hand to her breast, almost an afterthought to modesty, and shifted her hips in a way either meant to be seductive or casual, it was hard to tell; Emmalier figured that if there was any humor to be wrought from the situation, it was from what a perfectly terrible impression of a woman Alexei did. Fortunately, the men did not seem to notice the flaws in her performance. "Please leave us."
"Aww, the little mouse can't talk!" They were approaching now, a posse with their original purpose forgotten, detained by the women in the lake with no apparent comprehension that the bathers and their quarry were one and the same. "'Course, means she can't scream, neither."
One of the group remained cautious. "You think it's okay to stop? They're still out there."
The leader waved his hand; he looked as though he'd been up all night and more, and seemed to have little patience left for re-kidnapping kidnapped princesses. "And we heard them go south, didn't we? There are more of our men south. We'll say we scared them right into the trap. It'll make us heroes." His boot hit the pond's edge.
Alexei lowered herself into the water, though Emmalier could tell her feet had not moved – only her knees had bent. "What would you want with two defenseless women?"
"We'll show you, missy!" This brought a laugh from all the men, a laugh so great and distracting that not one of them saw Alexei move until she had planted her sword through the middle of the speaker. The rest watched with dawning comprehension, but they had let their guards down before the prospect of ravishing the beauties, and before they had even started for their swords, their heads had parted from their bodies. They fell to the ground in heavy thuds, not even having time to cry out, and a silence fell over the clearing.
When it was all over, there stood only Alexei – beautiful, powerful Alexei, standing ramrod-straight on the bank, naked in the morning light. There stood the same muscles the women had admired during practice, the same sword that had sworn to protect the princess, the same body Emmalier had pressed herself against what seemed like a lifetime ago.
Yet now, without the armor, Emmalier could see what perhaps should have been visible all along: the slight curve of hips on which Alexei's belt normally rested, the twin hints of breasts easily mistaken for muscle under the heavy uniform shirt, the soft curve of a jaw attributable to youth and vigor. And in that moment, she wondered if she hadn't known all along, somewhere deep inside where patterns converged and the invisible became apparent. It only took seeing with her eyes to bring awareness to the surface.
Alexei reached for the underdress and beckoned Emmalier out of the water. "Come," she smiled, holding it out for her. Emmalier raised her arms like a child, and Alexei slipped it over her damp body, then reached out and caught the princess up in her arms. "You can ride a horse." It was hardly a question.
Emmalier, too exhausted to speak, nodded. "I can."
"Then we'll ride." Alexei placed Emmalier on a small grassy mound near the soldiers' horses, going back to the water briefly for her own clothes; it seemed mutual, then, the agreement that further discussion of Alexei's gender could wait. "I believe I know where we are. We'll bring all the horses with us – they're listening for one, not many." Alexei pulled on her trousers and tunic, then belted her sword to her hips.
She – he (it didn't matter) reached for Emmalier, and she scooped her arms around his neck, letting herself be carried and lifted onto the smallest of the mounts. She settled both legs to one side of the saddle, summoning what little strength she could muster to keep the reins tight, watching as Alexei fastened all the other reins quickly together and mounted the horse in the lead. "Alexei...." she began.
The knight shook her head. "No. Now we ride." And they took off for the castle as the morning sun ignited the treetops.
(You Shall Be King)
For the next week and a half, no one saw the princess save physicians, and even they had to face a rigorous screening process by the guards. Her absence, however, did not prevent the political storm that followed the news of her kidnapping, and Saperis's denials did not stand long in the face of bodies both dead and alive recovered wearing his colors where they should not have been. The captured mercenaries sang to save their own skins, and the general diplomatic consensus among the kingdoms was that Saperis was no longer to be trusted. Of course, having been kidnapped did not reflect particularly well on Emmalier, but the tale of her swift recovery made up for much of that, and the egregious nature of Saperis' transgression distracted most from laying blame at the victim's feet.
Alexei, for his own part, nearly paced a path with worry into the stone floor before finally being summoned to her chambers. The doctor who met him at the door frowned sharply, clear that this was against his best wishes for his patient, but warned Alexei repeatedly that she still needed rest; he stepped out and closed the door behind him, but Alexei could swear he felt the doctor's disapproving eyes boring through the stone wall.
All this was forgotten, however, as he saw Emmalier sitting up in bed, sheets pulled to her waist, smiling; except for the ghost of a purple halo around her left eye and the not-quite-healed split in her lip, she looked the picture of health. "The doctor worries too much," she explained, patting the bed beside her.
Still uncertain as to how to proceed, Alexei moved closer, but did not sit. "Your health is important," he offered lamely.
"Why did you do it?" Neither Emmalier's expression nor her tone of voice changed. "Why do you cast yourself in the role of a man?"
It was honestly a question he had never been asked before, and Alexei took a moment to gauge his response; he half-hoped Emmalier would break the silence and spare him, but she seemed content to wait. "...Because it is who I am," he answered finally, and the words sounded good to say, like stretching one's legs after a long time sitting. "Your father the king took me when I was a child of two, gave me to my own father to be fostered, and enrolled me in the Academy shortly thereafter. I was told to excel, that one day I might be allowed to protect you, and I did so of my own free will."
Emmalier smiled and bowed her head, and it took a moment before he realized she was hiding a laugh. She caught his perplexed expression and smiled. "You make a terrible woman."
Alexei stared at her for a moment, not sure what to make of any of this, then relented and laughed with her. "I suppose I've had no practice."
"I want you to remain my guardian. You may reveal your sex, or not, as you wish, but should you ever try to leave my side," she poked a finger menacingly at him, "I will track you down myself. I know all your tricks now."
"I assure you," he bowed with a sly grin, "my cleverness is inexhaustible."
"Then I will learn as I go along." She looked so beautiful there, even rumpled and in her bedclothes as she was – the consummate queen. "Now get undressed."
Alexei stared at her dumbly. "...My lady?"
"You heard me. The doctors say I should not leave this bed, or I would come over there and do the job myself."
It had been different in the forest – he had ordered her to strip only because he had seen no other way to save both of their lives, and survival had been chief in his mind. But here, in the less life-threatening but no less perilous setting of Emmalier's bedchamber, he found his fingers shaking as he lifted them to the buttons of his jacket.
Emmalier sighed. "Oh, come here." She again patted the bed, and he followed her instruction dutifully. One slender hand began unfastening his coat for him. "Did you refuse me that night because you did not want me?"
Alexei's mouth felt terribly dry. "...No, my lady."
"Because you do not desire me?" Two more brass buttons slipped open.
"No, my lady."
"Because you were afraid of what I might find?"
All the air in Alexei's lungs had grown leaden, and he found he could only nod as her hands pushed the jacket away from his shoulders, revealing a white undershirt through which was visible the faint outline of bindings.
"But I have found it at last," Emmalier smiled, pulling him closer, "and so there is nothing to fear."
He was not prepared for the kiss, and their lips bumped together awkwardly before settling in, moving together; he learned quickly to follow her, to mirror her movements, to let her tongue into his mouth when she thrusted, and to follow her back when she retreated. She tasted of cinnamon and summer, and he briefly wondered if he had somehow died and simply neglected to notice. But her body was next to his, and she broke the kiss only to coax his shirt over his arms and head.
Alexei felt himself blush as she reached for his bindings – he had worn them ever since their return that early morning, feeling even more self-conscious than usual about his appearance – but Emmalier smiled as she unpinned the first wrapping. "You're so beautiful," she murmured, urging him to lift his arms as she unwound the fabric. "I want to see you again."
Not as beautiful as you, he wanted to protest, but his tongue refuted all attempts at using it, and he could only hold mute as the last of the bandage came away, and she beheld the slight contours of his breasts. Her fingers traced over them, and his nipples stood at attention, little soldiers themselves. Emmalier smiled. "Would you take me?" She shifted forward, swinging her bare legs from under the covers. "Or should I have my way with you?"
With a deep breath, Alexei shut his eyes. "I am always yours."
He could feel her smile as she pressed her lips to his ear. "Then be mine," she whispered, pushing him back against the bed and leaning over his body. With a single efficient gesture, she pulled his pants from his hips and sent them ankleward; he conceded to wriggle a little, pushing both pants and boots to the floor. He found the sensation of being naked beneath her intensely erotic, so much that he almost felt panicky, like he wanted her to stop until he could become more comfortable with the arrangement.
Then her mouth was on his nipple, and her hands had sought the source of wetness between his legs, and he found himself in no position to complain. He did the only thing that seemed appropriate in the situation, and reached for her nightdress; she let him, and when the white linen garment was gone, he finally came into awareness that she was entirely naked and straddling his thighs, and had to take measures to convince his heart not to stop entirely. Unsure of what to do with his hands, he put one against her thigh, and when she moaned pleasurably, he felt encouraged forward.
Her breasts were beautiful and heavy, the same dusky color as the rest of her skin, with nipples slightly darker and erect; her stomach was full and soft, as were her hips, the latter of which looked intoxicatingly beautiful arched over his body. "My lady," he whispered in awe-struck tones, trying to take in the sight with merely mortal eyes.
"My knight," she smiled back at him, reaching for his free hand. "My Alexei." Then she brought his fingers to the small tuft of hair between her legs, encouraging him deeper even as her own fingers played with his clit.
Whatever uncertainty he might have felt at the prospect was erased by how amazing she felt – and how amazingly like himself. It was not so difficult, then, though the geography was slightly altered. He simply reached for where he himself liked to be touched, and watched her respond enthusiastically.
When her fingers slipped inside him, he cried out softly, for there was no pain with her fingers, as trim and delicate as they were; indeed, he found himself wanting more, lifting his hips to meet her. She moaned and shifted her own hips, and then he was inside of her too, his fingers stretching her soft hole, his thumb rubbing against the tiny nub of her clit. She began to rock up and down atop him, her breasts bouncing as she fucked herself on his hand, and though he wanted to keep looking, he closed his eyes, letting his other senses find her, letting them catalogue the moment as he came in a white rush that barely obscured her own orgasm mere seconds later. He felt himself call out her name, and did not care who heard, only that she did, that she was with him, that she made him finally free.
And then she collapsed atop him, breathing heavily, her hair falling around their bodies in a dark curtain. "...The doctors may have a point," she panted, tucking close to him. "I think staying in bed is vital to my recovery."
Alexei had expected that this moment might be a solemn one, and as such, was startled into laughter by her candid comment. She kissed his cheek in return and slipped his fingers out of her with one wet motion – though he did not respond in kind, and so her hand stayed tightly inside of him, holding him deep inside his secret. "I will stay," he promised her, kissing her hair. "Always by your side, for as long as I am able, I swear."
"And I'm glad." Emmalier leaned up to kiss at his lips again, sucking at the lower one in a way that made his lower flesh throb around her hand. "Now kiss me back, or I shall be forced to take drastic measures."
"Yes, my lady," Alexei murmured with a smile, joining their mouths together again.
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