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How to Save a Kingdom

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— 1016: CAIRO —

 

“Remember,” Clarke’s mother says, “sit up straight, and if he looks at you, smile.”

Smiling seems a waste of effort, Clarke thinks to herself as she idly watches the ladies in waiting fix her gown and her hair in the mirror. She’s meeting her betrothed tonight, and tomorrow they will be wed. It really doesn’t matter if Clarke decides to flip a table at him; the king’s going to marry her either way.

But her mother seems adamant about giving advice tonight.

“Men are simple creatures to please, Clarke. Laugh when he tells a joke, stay quiet when you disagree with him, and spread your legs when he comes to your bed.” Clarke must make some sort of face, because her mother adds, meaningfully, “If you do those things, marriage can be easier than you think.”

“I can hardly wait,” Clarke responds. Her mother doesn’t miss the sarcasm, and shoots her a look before continuing.

“I’m sorry you didn’t get to meet him before this. But if it helps at all, I’ve been told he’s quite handsome. And you’d be his only wife.” She pauses, as if struggling; Clarke’s mother is only one of many wives of her husband. “You’ll be his queen. Ruler of a kingdom. All things considered, you’re getting quite the deal out of this marriage.”

More like her family is, Clarke thinks sullenly. It’s all an arrangement. Her soon-to-be husband is the king of the city-state named after its capital, Cairo. Cairo wants military support to help fend off the Seljuq army from the East. The Republic of Pisa— Clarke’s kingdom— wants trade without tariffs from Cairo, because recent droughts have spoiled their crops.

A marriage was clearly in order to seal the alliance. More specifically, the king of Cairo to one of the Pisan royal family. Clarke’s the only daughter, so it’s her. It’s a good deal for everyone involved, she reminds herself. Her eyes drift back to herself in the mirror. In theory.

“You’d have to get married at some point,” her mother is saying crossly, while the ladies in waiting are straightening out the dress, doing final touches. “You’ve avoided it for an admirably long time, but no sense in stalling anymore. This is really the best possible match—”

Clarke’s had enough. “You can stop trying to convince me. I’m not angry,” She cuts her mother off. “I know this is my duty. But that doesn’t mean I have to be happy about it.”

Her mother seems to exhale in relief at Clarke’s words. “That’s all I can ask.” She extends a hand. “Come.”

Clarke takes it, and her mother leads her to the doors. Despite the servants fanning at them, Clarke feels a drop of sweat roll down her temple, from both the sweltering heat and the nerves. This is it. Clarke’s about to meet her husband. And he could be any kind of person at all.

The servants push the door open, and Clarke enters with her mother.

The first thing she notes is her own father, standing beside the long, ornate dining table in the middle of a lavish room. Her eyes dart to the man next to him. He is dark-skinned, like most of the people she’s seen in Egypt so far, and he’s wearing an impeccable, almost blindingly white suit. But he’s older, with wrinkles around his mouth, and Clarke had been told the king was relatively young. Which leaves the man standing beside him.

Her mother was not exaggerating in the least about his handsomeness.

He’s quite striking, with inky black hair that curls around his ears; full lips, long-lashed brown eyes. He’s not remarkably tall; the man beside him is a head above him. Clarke wouldn’t have noticed if there was no one standing there to compare against, because he somehow exudes the presence of a larger person. He stands confidently, hands at his sides in a relaxed manner, wearing all the Egyptian finery of royalty. He’s broad-shouldered and muscular. If it came to a fight between them, Clarke thinks it would be difficult to overpower him.

As she draws closer she notes the freckles scattered on his cheekbones, brought out from long hours in the sun, she thinks. It puzzles her. Being royalty, he has no need to be toiling in the sun. There’s a small scar on his lip.It could be from anything. Maybe an accident, or maybe a fight.

She’s come close enough to properly see his eyes, and they are dark, glimmering with intelligence. And staring straight at her.

It’s not the lecherous, slow-sweeping gaze of past suitors, but it is rather predatory in a different way. With a jolt, Clarke realizes he’s looking at her the exact same way she’s been looking at him. Analyzing. Cataloguing.

She wonders if he, too, sees her as a threat.

She’s stopped in front of him now, and her father clears his throat, all smiles in public as usual as he introduces them.

“This is the princess, Clarke. And my wife,” he says as an afterthought, sparing half a glance for Clarke’s mother. “Clarke, this is the king.”

Clarke curtsies, as practiced, without much thought. “Your highness.”

Her soon-to-be husband inclines his head in a slight bow. “Bellamy,” he says, voice deep and smooth like honey. “Call me Bellamy.”

There’s no smile on his face, but his tone isn’t unfriendly either. Clarke puzzles over it a moment, then decides he simply seems rather tense. That makes two of them.

When they all sit down for dinner, Bellamy presides at the head of the table. Clarke is on his left hand side with her mother seated next to her, and across, the man that Bellamy introduces as his uncle and trusted advisor, Ahmose. Clarke’s father sits at the opposite end.

Most of the conversation is held between Ahmose and Clarke’s father. Light topics, like the weather in Egypt, trade routes, and how the trip was sailing over the Mediterranean from Italy. Bellamy is not a talkative man; he speaks rarely, and mostly when asked a question. Clarke rather wants to draw him out.

“Pass the wine pitcher, please,” she says lowly to him, while Ahmose and her father laugh raucously over some joke. She’s just now noticing faint bruising on his jaw now that his profile is turned towards her, but decides it’s too forward to ask about it just yet.

His eyes flicker over, and he obliges. Their fingers brush on the handle for a moment and he pulls away as if burned.

She persists. “Cairo is a beautiful place. I’ve never been over the Mediterranean before.”

He gives her a wry half-glance. “Well, you’ll be here the rest of your life, so settle in.” His tone is, once again, hard to read. She wonders if their entire marriage will be like this. In any case, she’s learned something else about him. When their fingers had brushed, she had felt the rough texture of his skin. He has callouses. Most unusual for a king.

The dinner proceeds smoothly until the end of dessert, at which point Clarke’s father dabs his mouth with his napkin and says, “We shouldn’t keep you long, not on the night before the wedding.”

“A good idea,” Ahmose agrees.

“There’s just one more thing.”

Clarke pauses in raising her spoon to her mouth. She doesn’t know her father too well, but she knows that tone of voice. She glances at Bellamy. His shoulders have tensed, but his expression betrays nothing.

“The terms of our agreement,” Clarke’s father continues. Pauses. “Along with the open trade we discussed, I want fifty percent of your agricultural produce to be delegated to Pisa.”

“Nonsense!” Ahmose says angrily, but Bellamy holds up a hand to silence him.

“That’s enough,” he says. And now he takes charge, and it’s hard not to be entranced by the hard, commanding tone of his voice. “We had a deal.” The words are focused on Clarke’s father.

“The deal is made when you are married to the princess and not a moment before. I have thought at length about this. I’m giving you quite a bit of military resources to keep the Seljuqs from attacking your kingdom. Meanwhile, my people are facing drought. We need more food.”

Bellamy leans back, dark eyes flashing. “Then trade with us for it.”

“We can’t afford to trade for as much as we need. This is my offer.”

“No.”

“Then you won’t marry my daughter.”

“That’s fine by me,” Bellamy says coolly. “My people will starve within the year. I can’t do that to them.”

“And the Seljuqs marching on them will have them die within the month,” Clarke’s father shoots back. “You’re young yet, but you should be able to see I’m giving you an easy choice. You’re getting your military support and a most desirable wife.”

Clarke is irked by this comment and can’t help but interject. “This isn’t fair,” she says angrily at her father, even as her mother pulls her sleeve, trying to get her to shut her mouth. “You can’t bring new terms into it now.”

Bellamy turns to her in surprise, but her father ignores her.

“These are my terms,” Clarke’s father says calmly to Bellamy.

Bellamy’s jaw clenches and Clarke watches as the wheels turn in his head. She sees the instant he relents, his shoulders sagging slightly, because what choice does he have? He glances at Ahmose, who nods and exhales. “Twenty percent,” he says. Clarke’s father’s mouth opens again, but Bellamy beats him to it. “You and I both know very well that if the Seljuqs take Cairo, they will take the Mediterranean next. You’re defending your kingdom as much as you’re defending mine. So take it or leave it. If I fall, so do you.”

Bellamy is just as smart as she thought.

“Twenty-five,” Clarke’s father says after a moment. “And that’s as low as I’m going. I can fend off the Seljuqs for a while. But you can’t. Not without me.”

The tense silence goes on until Bellamy replies, “Fine.” He doesn’t look happy at all. A quarter is still a huge amount.

Clarke’s father grins. “See you all in the morning, then.” He stands, and servants rush to open the door for him. Bellamy throws down his own napkin, his chair scraping backwards. It looks like the dinner has reached an abrupt end. Clarke can’t help but catch his sleeve.

“I’m sorry,” she whispers. “I didn’t know he’d—”

“I’m sure you had no idea.” Bellamy’s glance is nothing short of withering as he steps away. “Goodnight, princess.” He says it scathingly. And then he’s gone, with Ahmose following.

“Oh, dear,” Clarke’s mother tuts. “I’ll talk to your father. Maybe I can convince him to change his mind.”

Clarks sincerely doubts that. She feels her anger mount. What was her father thinking, angering Bellamy like that?

He has just ensured that her life here will be hell.

They are married the next day, and it becomes clear from the way he ignores her during the private ceremony that Bellamy’s resentment isn’t going away anytime soon. He doesn’t meet her eyes even once, and his attitude towards the ceremonial touches and words is barely civil. He holds her hand when necessary and drops it like a dead fish immediately after. Clarke feels decidedly unwelcome at her own wedding.

But she feels a little angry at Bellamy, too. He hadn’t listened to her when she said she had nothing to do with it. Clearly he has his own preconceived notions about her.

And then the wedding is over. Bellamy leaves without a second glance, apparently with other matters to attend to. Clarke is left to bid her entourage farewell as they journey back to Pisa.

Her mother doesn’t appear to have had any success in talking her husband out of robbing Bellamy’s kingdom blind, and when she departs, she hugs Clarke and whispers her apology. Clarke waves it away; it isn’t her fault.

“Remember my advice,” she whispers to Clarke, touching her cheeks. “And when he comes to you tonight, try to relax. It will hurt less. And it becomes easier with time.”

Clarke swallows. She’s been trying to avoid thinking about the wedding night. She imagines it’s horrible enough as is; but now that she’s made him angry, it could be even worse. Clarke’s scared, suddenly, and all too aware of her fifteen years. She’s scared that her parents and entourage are leaving, leaving her in a foreign country with strangers and only a few trunks of her belongings to remind her of her past life. She’s scared to be alone in all this.

“We’ll write you,” her mother says gently. “Your friends will write you. We’ll visit, too.”

It’s not the same. Tears prick at her eyes and she takes deep breaths. This alliance will help Pisa. Clarke will lead her life here for her people. It’s her duty. As long as she remembers that, it won’t be so hard.

She lifts her chin. “I’ll do our family proud.”

“I know you will.” Her mother smiles sadly.

And then she’s gone.

Clarke is escorted to her new quarters. It’s a spacious room, at least twenty paces wide with a large window overlooking a beautiful view from the palace, past the citadel walls and into the heart of Cairo. She can see people moving about their day, although they look very small from here. She turns and takes in the furniture and the beautiful, silk clothes folded on the table. She studiously avoids looking at the luxurious bed.

The sky turns dark. Servants come in and help her peel off her wedding clothes, bathe, and dress in a silky nightgown. They dot her pulse points with a floral-scented oil and brush her hair and then they leave her be. She stays where the servants have left her, staring into the mirror, for a long time.

She goes to the bed and lies down to wait for Bellamy. She has no idea when he might come, but that’s alright. She doubts she will be falling asleep any time soon. She has no idea what to do in this situation. She can only hope it will be over quickly, whenever it happens.

But her husband never comes.

The sun rises, hitting her face, and the door still hasn’t opened. He’s shunned her. Ignored her. She lay awake all night, a wreck from nerves but rooted to the spot by her internal repeated chant of duty, and beautified all for him, and he hadn’t even showed up.

For some reason, that irritates her.

The next morning she doesn’t see Bellamy at all, and no one speaks to her, so she decides to explore the city instead.

However, when she leaves the palace and strides to the gates of the citadel, she’s blocked and told she’s not allowed to leave— on the king’s orders.

There must be some mistake, she thinks. Maybe they don’t know who she is. She glances around the courtyard and finds Ahmose. He’s walking in the opposite direction, so Clarke picks up her skirts and runs after him. “Ahmose!” She grabs his sleeve.

He looks down where her fingers have touched the immaculate white fabric of his shirt, as if she’s left dirt there. There isn’t any, but he brushes at it pointedly anyway.

“Ah, princess. You’re out of bed early.”

There’s a certain implication in his tone she doesn’t like.

“I’m the queen now,” she says sharply. “Where is my husband?”

“Off on business.”

“Where?”

“On business,” Ahmose repeats. “He is running a kingdom, after all. You’ll see him at dinner. In the meantime, I believe there are ample things in the palace to entertain you.”

“I don’t want to see his palace,” Clarke hisses. “I want to see him.” So she can slap him.

“You will. At dinner,” Ahmose says, and continues backing away to the gates out of the palace complex. “Good day, Clarke.”

She goes after him but two guards move in front of her, blocking her way out, her way to Cairo, the kingdom of which she is queen. She fumes. “Get out of my way.”

“We cannot,” the guard says.

“Really,” Clarke scoffs. “Just take two steps to the left.” She tries to push past them again, but again they block her path. She loses patience. “I’m the queen, not some prisoner. Let me out.”

“Orders from the king,” the guard says. “You’re not to leave the palace.”

Clarke can only gape. She considers trying to run past them again, but they must see it in her face.

“I’ll escort you back to your room,” one of the guards says sternly, and that’s that.

She fumes the entire way. Bellamy has made her a prisoner in her own kingdom. The daring of it astounds her. The guards, who have followed her, push her into her room and the door closes. She waits a moment, listening. There are no footsteps going away. She’s not going anywhere

She turns away in disgust and stops to find there’s a box on her bed. She approaches and opens it. Paints and parchment are rolled neatly inside. One of the servants must have been informed about Clarke’s talent for art.

She puts it away. She has no appetite for it at the moment. The only thing she has an appetite for at the moment is dinner, so she can tell Bellamy to his face what a grand ass he is. She doesn’t care what it’ll mean for her marriage. It can’t get any worse than her freedom being taken from her.

At the dinner table, Clarke stands up as soon as Bellamy walks in, crossing her arms.

“You wretched man.”

Bellamy falters in his steps, but then he’s smirking. “Good evening to you too, princess.”

He reaches for the pitcher of wine.

Clarke snatches the pitcher away before he can grasp it because she’s petty like that.

“You’re an idiot if you think for a second I’m just going to sit quietly in your palace and paint pretty flowers for the rest of my life.”

“No one said you had to spend your time painting pretty flowers,” Bellamy replies, sinking into his seat and grabbing a piece of flatbread instead. “Paint ugly ones if you want. See if I care.”

Clarke sees red for a moment, and before Bellamy can draw another breath she grabs her knife and drives it into the table, inches away from his hand. He stares at it. Clarke speaks in low tones.

“I don’t know what you expected— that I’d be happy just sitting in this place while you do all the work— but I’m not. I signed up to be queen of this kingdom. And that’s what I intend to be.”

He doesn’t say anything for a long moment, still staring at the knife. But when he raises his head, Clarke sees a glimmer of respect in his dark eyes.

“There’s nothing for you to do,” he says after a moment. “We already have a system to take care of everything. You’ve got an easy life here. Something you’re used to, I’m sure.”

Clarke grits her teeth at the jab. He has no idea about anything. “I want to help.”

“I think you’ve helped enough, princess,” Bellamy says shortly, and her face burns. She leans in closer.

“I told you I have nothing to do with what my father said to you the other night. If I’d known before—”

“—then what?” Bellamy cuts her off, looking bored. “You would’ve talked him out of it? Somehow I doubt that.” He bites off a piece of bread rather savagely. “Thanks to you, my people are going to starve. And yours are going to eat well.”

Clarke sweeps her hand towards the windows. “I can help think of solutions! These are my people too.”

He snorts. “You don’t even know anything about them.”

“Then let me out into Cairo so I can learn.”

Again, he pauses, but he continues chewing after a moment. Clarke finds it hard to ignore that he looks positively radiant tonight, bronze skin of his jaw gleaming, eyes lit to chocolate in the candlelight. It’s infuriating how attractive he is.

“No,” he says finally.

“Why not?” she nearly shouts at him.

“It’s not safe.”

Clarke gives a snort of laughter. “I’m touched you care so much about my well-being suddenly, but I can take care of myself.”

“Believe it or not, princess,” Bellamy replies, “I am doing this for your own good.”

He reaches for the wine pitcher again and again, Clarke pulls it out of his reach.

I say what’s good for me, not you,” Clarke snarls.

Bellamy picks up another piece of flatbread, ignoring her statement. “You tried this? It’s good. Compliments to the chef.” He turns a grin on one of the servers, and he blushes. Clarke isn’t as amused.

“This is all a game to you,” she deduces, “isn’t it?”

He turns his eyes back on her and his gaze is cold.

“It’s the furthest thing from a game. Which is why you need to stay out of it.” He stands and heads for the door.

“Where are you going?” Clarke shouts, starting after him. He doesn’t even look back.

“Going to find some wine,” he calls. “And better company.”

The door swings shut behind him, leaving Clarke staring after him in disbelief and rage.

There’s a ball held in the palace to celebrate the wedding. Nobles from all over the area and from neighbouring kingdoms are invited to welcome Clarke into the fold. It’s really too bad she spends the entire time cursing Bellamy’s name under her breath, because otherwise she might enjoy it.

With all the hubbub she had figured it might be the right time to sneak out of the palace unnoticed, but Bellamy is keeping an annoyingly close eye on her the whole time, appearing in her line of sight right when she’s close to escape, and she thinks he knows exactly what she’s plotting.

“Tell me something, Clarke. Does it come naturally to you?” Bellamy asks her after her fifth attempt at walking casually by the doors. She blinks, and he elaborates. “Being a difficult person, I mean.”

Clarke sputters an indignant laugh as he takes her elbow and steers her away from the doors. “You won’t let me out of the palace and you’re calling me a difficult person? You,” she fumes, “are insufferable.”

Bellamy merely grins. “Now that’s no way to talk to your husband.”

Clarke forces herself to stalk away before she can give into the urge to throw her glass of wine at him. She doesn’t know why she bothers, though. Somehow, none of their guests seem to notice the clear antagonism between the king and queen, or maybe they just don’t care. And why should they? The two of them are just husband and wife.

They’re not actually expected to like each other.

It’s been a week, and Clarke is finally escaping the palace.

She’s noticed from staring out her window for hours at a time that there are certain times when the guards are changing shifts, and there’s a lapse in security at one of the secondary gates, and she’s noticed that the roof of the palace slopes down to the fence that surrounds the compound in just one place. It would be easy to slip out one of the windows close to the roof and climb down the fence. In theory.

Unfortunately, the location of those windows would be Bellamy’s bedroom.

He keeps it locked at all times when he’s not in there, so she’s been toying with ways to get in. Breaking the lock would prove very noisy. Even getting past the guards would be difficult. Which leaves one other option.

It had been decidedly easy to saunter into the hallway with a shawl wrapped around her bare shoulders, as if hiding something beneath, and smile up at the guards.

“Let me into my husband’s chambers.”

“He’ll be back within the hour, your highness,” she’s told.

She pouts. “But I want to wait for him.” She lowers her eyelids in what she hopes is a seductive fashion. “To surprise him.”

The guards exchange looks and she almost thinks they will relent, but then one says, “Sorry, your highness. We’re under orders not to let anyone into his chambers when he’s not there. You should ask him to give you permission to—”

“Let her in,” another voice calls from down the hall, and she turns to see Ahmose standing there. Clarke must look surprised because he chuckles and strides forward. “I’m glad the two of you are coming to your senses.”

Clarke blinks.

“About what your father said,” Ahmose explains. Clarke still doesn’t know what he means. “About having a child within the year to solidify the alliance. The king seemed reluctant. I’d worried you were the one slowing the process.”

Clarke tries her best not to recoil in shock. No one had said such a thing to her. But she simply smiles sweetly and walks into Bellamy’s room when the door is held open for her.

When it shuts she takes a deep, shaky breath. Even after that first night, Bellamy had not come to her. In those scarce times when they are in the same room, she hasn’t asked about it, and he hasn’t said anything. But he had to have known this stipulation in the alliance. Had her father only told Bellamy, then? The thought makes her face flame in humiliation. She’s never felt more like an object.

She forces the problem from her mind for the time being, though, and seeks out the large window beside the bed that overlooks the roof. She’s less delighted about her plan when she leans out Bellamy’s window and realizes the way down suddenly seems much farther than she’d originally thought.

Well, there’s nothing for it. She slides the shawl off, pulls her shirt sleeves up back on her shoulders, carefully slips through the window legs first, and slides slowly down the roof to the fence. Her dress catches on a wire, ripping a bit, but she pays it no heed. When she has to drop to the ground, she falls on her hands and knees, bloodying them. She ignores the pain and straightens up. She’s outside the citadel, and Cairo awaits.

Cairo is beautiful, a thriving, bustling city, and for a while Clarke goes unnoticed in the streets. She fans herself in the sun, simply taking in the sights, the children laughing and playing in the sand, the traders setting up their booths, the people walking up and down the streets. Women here walk freely by themselves, she notes with some faint surprise, and no one pays them any mind. Clarke likes that.

“Your dress is beautiful,” says a voice, and she whips her head around until she finds the source. A girl, not older than eleven, she would guess, is looking up at her, eyes full of wonder.

Clarke is glad she paid attention in her Arabic lessons because this girl talks fast. She just smiles down pleasantly. “What’s your name?” she asks.

“Shiba,” the girl says instantly. “Where did you get your dress?”

“I don’t know. Someone gave it to me. I don’t know where he got it.”

“Oh. Your sweetheart?”

Clarke wrinkles her nose. “I wouldn’t go that far.” Shiba laughs into her hands, and Clarke smiles mischievously. “But he gives me nice presents, so that’s one thing to his credit.”

With that, she reaches up to her head and pulls the ribbon from her hair. It’s cut from the same cloth as her dress. Her hair falls over her shoulders, and she hands the ribbon to Shiba.

“I have a lot of them,” Clarke explains, and the girl smiles adorably and thanks her before running off. Clarke watches the direction she goes, and sees a large crowd at the end of the street. She wanders over.

Roars of excitement and laughter filter into her ears. It looks to be some kind of competition. There’s a target board mounted on the wall of a building, and people are having a go at the bull’s eye. There appears to be prizes involved in the form of fresh cuts of meat from the seller nearby. Clarke watches as person after person has a go, each one unsuccessful.

Then she spots Bellamy step up to the plate.

Her heart drops for a second and she tries to shrink away into the crowd to avoid being seen. She’d not expected to stumble across him here, in a busy, muddy street in Cairo. But it’s the king, in the flesh, and he’s not wearing the finery she’s seen him adorn in the palace or when he’s out doing business. He’s wearing a loose tunic and pants rolled up at the ankles, completely barefoot. There are no guards to be seen around him. He might be mistaken for a commoner, except there’s a respect in the eyes of those that watch him. He smiles with the others as if he’s one of them and Clarke realizes that he is, or at least his people see him as one. It’s completely unheard of where she comes from for any nobles to do this, to interact so freely with their people.

His gaze swings around the crowd before fixing on her. His smile disappears. Oh no.

She looks for an escape route, but he’s already heading towards her, and the crowd is parting for him, watching with curious eyes. He grabs her arm and for a second she thinks he’s going to try and drag her away— just let him try— but instead he does something very different.

His hand slides down her arm to her hand, and he smiles at the crowd.

“This is Clarke,” he introduces her. “The new queen of Cairo.”

The crowd explodes with jubilation, cheers, and well-wishes that Clarke can barely keep up with, and questions bombarded at her that she definitely can’t keep up with, like why haven’t we seen you before, where are you from, what’s your stance on so-and-so

“How the hell did you get out?” Bellamy mutters so that only she can hear.

“I’m a little insulted you think you could’ve kept me in.” He turns to her then, and Clarke meets his gaze head-on, lifting her chin. Unexpectedly, he smiles again. It’s feral.

“I’m going to play,” he announces to the crowd, gesturing at the target on the wall. They shout their approval. Bellamy tugs on Clarke’s hand. “And you’re going to help me win.”

“How sweet,” an elderly woman near Clarke says.

Bellamy speaks in rapid Arabic with the man who’s in charge of the competition, and the next thing Clarke knows, she’s being led to stand in front of the wall. Now she starts to feel nervous.

“What’s going on?”

Bellamy stands something like ten meters away, producing knives from nowhere. “There’s a reason I don’t want you in the city,” he says in Italian. The crowd can’t understand him, but he’s using a deceptively friendly tone while he talks to her. “There are Seljuq spies everywhere, even here in Cairo. They know that our military alliance with the Pisans depends on you staying alive.” As he speaks, a man situates Clarke on a small marked spot on the ground and puts an apple on her head. It’s perched rather precariously on the top of her hair.

Clarke feels her palms starting to sweat. Bellamy’s holding his knives with ease. Then, without any warning, he lets one fly.

Clarke squeezes her eyes shut, sending a prayer up in her head, and she hears the schick sound. She waits for pain, stupidly, before becoming aware of the crowd cheering. She opens her eyes to find him staring at her, dark eyes hooded, expressionless. She looks behind her to find the apple pinned to the wall.

“Two inches lower,” Bellamy says, and although it’s almost a whisper it still carries through the crowd to her. “Two inches, and the alliance would be broken. No more military support. Seljuqs take over. My kingdom destroyed. It’s that easy.”

She’s speechless at his dramatics. He continues, sounding irritated.

“But go ahead. Keep playing with the fate of my people. I know it doesn’t matter to you.”

“That doesn’t even make sense,” she finally gets out, as he’s walking away. “It’s my life. I don’t want to get killed just to— to—” she laughs in disbelief, “spite you.”

“Really. You’ve got a funny way of showing it.”

“You’re ridiculous.”

“And you’re careless.” She sputters at him, but Bellamy doesn’t react. He’s too busy accepting a large basket of meats as his prize. He shakes hands, and smiles, and talks with them, while Clarke waits with her arms crossed.

He stalks off with the basket afterwards and Clarke follows doggedly.

“So what, were you just planning on keeping me cooped up in your palace for the rest of my life? A prisoner forever?”

He barely pauses. “No, of course not. Maybe just until…” His voice dies away, and Clarke picks up.

“Until what?” He doesn’t answer. “Until we produce a heir?”

He blinks, faltering in his steps, and Clarke knows she’s hit the mark. She grabs his arm; he wrenches it away and keeps walking.

“When were you planning on telling me that we had to have a baby?” she fairly shouts in Italian. “Or were you planning on telling me at all?”

He averts his eyes, suddenly looking abashed. The change in demeanour surprises her a little. “I don’t know. I didn’t want to pressure you,” he mutters. “I thought it’d be better if I… let it come up on it’s own.”

She overcomes her shock enough to say, “Oh, trust me, it wouldn’t have come up on it’s own.”

Bellamy barks out a laugh. “Good to know.”

Before their conversation can continue further, he steps inside another doorway. Clarke makes to follow, stopping only when she hears a chorus of childish voices shout his name.

She peers around his shoulder to see a room full of children, and behind them all, a pretty Egyptian woman with a smile on her face.

“Your highness,” she says. “Always a pleasure.”

“I told you to call me Bellamy,” he replies good-naturedly, striding across the floor and handing her the prize basket. “Here. Cook something good for the kids.”

“Now where’d you get all this?” she asks.

“I’m the king,” he says, as if that’s explanation enough.

“And I see it’s not going to your head at all,” she replies wryly, and finally notices Clarke in the doorway.

Bellamy glances back. “Clarke,” he says. “This is Miu. She runs this orphanage. Miu, this is the queen.”

“Oh!” Miu says with obvious surprise, bowing slightly in respect. “Congratulations on your wedding. I hope you’re enjoying Cairo?”

She smiles. “It’s beautiful.”

Miu smiles back, polite. “I’ve been waiting to see you around the city. We all have.”

Clarke crosses her arms and glares at her husband. “Hmm.”

Bellamy is spared from answering when another voice pipes up from the doorway in from the kitchen.

You’re the queen?” It’s Shiba, looking astonished. Clarke feels equally so; but the girl must be one of the orphans here.

Shiba turns to Miu. “This is the lady that gave me the ribbon.”

Miu looks back at Clarke with new eyes. “A queen, giving away her finery to begging children on the street?” She offers her another smile, this one less formal, more a secret. “Maybe you’re a good match for our king after all.”

Clarke barely has a moment to sort out those words when Bellamy glances outside and says, “We should go.” The kids whine in disappointment.

“But you never go this early!”

Clarke shoots him a look, sure he’s cutting his visit short because of her, but she says nothing. This confrontation had to happen at some point.

Bellamy more or less drags her back to the palace as the sun sets, and then he puts a guard on her until he finally emerges to meet her at dinner.

“My guards let you into my room because they thought you were waiting to surprise me.” He lifts a brow. “Well, you definitely did, but probably not in the way they were thinking.”

Clarke wills herself not to blush. “You can’t keep me locked up forever. You know it and I know it.”

“Well, your little trick through my window won’t work anymore, princess. I’ve told all my guards not to let you into my rooms.” Bellamy pauses, and amusement filters into his voice. “We’re all aware now that you’re more likely to slip me poison than sleep with me.”

“I don’t need to go through your room. I’ll find another way out.” Clarke shrugs. “I refuse to live like a pet dog in your house while you go rule a kingdom that belongs to both of us. If someone wanted to kill me to break the alliance, they could probably kill me from within the palace, too. Your concern is misplaced.”

He considers her for a long time. “You’re not what I expected.”

Clarke blinks, unsure as to whether he’s just delivered her a compliment.

“I also told the guard you should be free to go where you please in our kingdom,” he says carefully. “As long as you have an escort. One of the palace guards, or me. You agree with that?”

She thinks about disagreeing just for the sake of it, but it sounds reasonable enough. She nods, and he turns to his dinner. She thinks about what they talked about earlier— about the heir. But he’s not bringing it up, so there’s no reason to remind him. Instead...

“One more thing,” she says. “I’m one of the two rulers of this kingdom. Meaning no decision is made without passing through me first.”

He looks at her. “You sure about that? It’s not a thrilling task most of the time. Boring more often than not.”

Clarke knows that. She grew up in a castle, where she watched her father make these decisions day in and day out. It hardly seemed glamorous; when in peacetime, it was mostly about settling disputes between feuding farmers and the like. But it only seems right somehow that if she’s to be queen of this kingdom, then she should not only reap the benefits, but take on the responsibility. She nods firmly.

“Not every decision is easy,” he replies, and he doesn’t sound condescending, just tired. “It’s hard, running things. More often than not.”

“Then wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t have to do it alone?” she responds, softly.

He locks eyes with her, and some sort of understanding passes between them. Clarke’s hardly recognized it before Bellamy warns, “You’re going to be so damn busy.”

She smiles, big. “Good.”

He sighs and reaches out with one hand, beckoning. “Then pass the wine.”

She stares at him hard for a moment. He stares back. After a long moment, Clarke slides the pitcher over, and that’s that.

The next morning, Clarke pushes through the doors into court. There’s a long line up of people hoping to see the king— to air their grievances, have their arguments settled, all of it. They all seem to hush when Clarke steps in, head held high although her heart is thundering.

Bellamy’s sitting on his throne, looking ever-bored, and his eyes raise to meet hers. Everyone is silent, as if waiting for what will happen next.

Then Bellamy speaks.

“Princess,” he says pleasantly in Italian, one hand propping up his chin. “This man—” he points, “says this man stole his cow—” again, he points, “and slaughtered it for meat. What should the punishment be?”

Clarke considers the problem. Bellamy’s eyes are bright, and she thinks it may be a test.

“Are we sure what he says is true?” she asks after a moment. “Did we ask both parties what happened?”

The glimmer of a smile seems to pass over Bellamy’s face before it’s gone. “Think so. And there were witnesses.”

She finds herself trusting his judgment. “If you’re sure,” Clarke says, walking over to him and standing beside his throne, and he looks up a little to meet her eyes— “Then I think he should have to give a cow back.”

Bellamy nods most solemnly. “A cow for a cow.”

“And something else,” Clarke adds. “To make sure he doesn’t do it again.”

“Maybe a flogging,” Bellamy suggests.

“That would work.”

They stare at each other another moment, then nod simultaneously. Bellamy turns to the delegation and relays the message in Arabic.

It seems the delegation is happy enough with the ruling, and they leave. As the next people step up, Bellamy looks her up and down, in all her royal finery. “You can still back out, princess,” he says.

“In your dreams only,” she replies. Bellamy huffs a laugh and his gaze flicks past her to one of the palace guards.

“Bring another chair in here, will you,” he calls, and then his eyes return to hers, brown on blue. “For our queen.”

After that, they settle into something of a routine.

Mornings always start with them holding court and hearing out the people. Then a break for lunch, where Clarke tends to sit near one of the palace fountains and talk with some of the kitchen servants. She’s learned everyone who works in the palace is paid in some form or another. Bellamy doesn’t have a single slave. Her respect for him increased by leaps and bounds when she was told that.

Then there’s diplomatic meetings.

Diplomats from neighbouring kingdoms who seek an audience, and advisors to Cairo bringing forward proposals for laws, amendments, and the like. The first few times Clarke sits in on these types of meetings, she’s largely ignored. At least until she can’t help but speak up.

“You can’t put in that amendment.”

All the men at the table look up, surprised to hear her talk. She hasn’t had need to before, simply observing and learning.

“And why not?” one of them demands irritably, like she’s wasting their time by speaking. Bellamy, meanwhile, leans back in his chair and folds his arms to hear what she has to say.

“To divorce, you cannot always have the agreement of both parties,” Clarke says. “It doesn’t make sense. What if one of them is perfectly happy and the other is miserable?” Divorce is a new concept to Egypt and laws have had to be put in place quickly. But they’re not thinking it through clearly enough, in her opinion.

“Then they work on it,” is the retort, bringing forth several chuckles. “Is that all, your highness?”

“No, it’s most certainly not,” Clarke says, this time bringing an edge to her voice. “This is the most ridiculous proposal I’ve seen come to this table.” It gives them all pause.

“We’ve already had several advisors look over this amendment, your highness,” another says with deliberate slowness to his voice.

“If it passed all of them, then maybe you need a new point of view,” Clarke says calmly. Silence. She goes on. “If, for example, one partner is abusing the other, obviously they won’t agree to divorce. And the victim will never be able to escape. You need to make it possible for only one to want divorce.”

“Are you looking to divorce, your highness?” More chuckles.

Bellamy’s expression darkens, and Clarke speaks quickly before he does. “No one will be happy with this amendment except for abusers.” She surveys them all coolly. “We need to come up with a different process for filing for divorce. I reject this amendment and propose we return to it later.”

A long pause. Clarke’s tone has left no room for argument. One of the advisors turns to Bellamy, looking a little lost. “Your highness?”

Bellamy shrugs. “Seems to me she’s made a decision already.” He directs his next question at her. “You’ll want to head the next meetings for developing divorce proceedings?”

“I will.” Clarke pauses, then adds in Italian, “Give me a more intelligent group to work with next time.”

He grins fleetingly. “Consider it done.”

And after that, her word is as good as his at the round table.

After the various meetings, it’s evening, and that’s when Clarke and Bellamy go into the city.

In her first few visits, Clarke had gone with one of the palace guards, as she didn’t want to ask more from Bellamy than was strictly necessary. They are, after all, just two people in a political marriage. They don’t owe each other a personal relationship.

But she quickly realizes going with a palace guard doesn’t give her what she wants. The guard just ends up following her as she meanders aimlessly through the streets, drawing stares and whispers but unsure of where to go, where to start in meeting people. The only place she can really go is the orphanage, and that’s only because Bellamy took her there in the first place. She finds herself wanting to explore the city with him more and more.

So, just when he’s leaving his rooms one evening, she goes to ask if she can accompany him. He’s running a hand through his dark curls, looking almost boyish in his simple blue tunic and pants in a way that he doesn’t in his finery.

“Princess,” he greets her, casual, stuffing his hands in his pockets. He looks much more relaxed now that the day’s business is done. And she realizes it’s that, not the clothes, that make him look younger. “Going out for a walk in the city, then?”

“I am.”

“Well, bring a guard.” He makes to brush past her. Clarke grabs his arm before she loses courage.

“Or you,” she counters. He pauses and stares. She hastily goes on. “Isn’t that what you said? I have to go with either a guard, or you. I’d like to go with you this time.”

He blinks. She can imagine why. This would be the first time they do something together that isn’t strictly business, or tradition, like their shared evening meal.

“You seem to know the city better than I do,” she continues, for some reason feeling the need to explain herself, “and the people.”

“Maybe I’d rather be by myself.”

She has a feeling he’s being difficult on purpose, but she plays her last card anyway. “It’s my birthday,” she tells him, and watches surprise flicker over his face. “Consider it your gift to me. I won’t get in your way.”

He watches her silently for a moment. “You never told me.”

Clarke shrugs. Birthdays aren’t a big deal where she comes from. Her last fifteen before this one have passed with very little fanfare.

He strolls onwards. “Let’s go, then.”

So she goes with him, and this time it’s better. He ducks into an armoury, shouts a hello to the storekeeper, and introduces her. He returns to the orphanage and Clarke talks to Miu for a good half-hour while he tells stories to the children. Bellamy buys kebabs from a vendor (“Birthday present,” he informs her as he hands her one, and she rolls her eyes) and then they sit silently, people-watching for the next little while, and passerby occasionally stop by to say their hellos. Clarke can feel them warming up to her and it makes her giddy. She’s starting to grow very fond of these people. They seem… lighter, somehow, than the Pisans back home. More welcoming.

It’s almost with comedic timing that as soon as that thought crosses her mind, a man shoots them a very angry look from across the dusty street. Clarke recognizes him as the man who stole a cow a few weeks ago and was flogged for it.

She tenses up and glances at Bellamy. He’s looking in the same direction, expression carefully blank, but she knows him well enough now to see the tension in his jaw. “Should we leave?”

“We’ll leave if he tries to attack us,” Bellamy replies, twiddling the wooden kebab stick between his long fingers. “If I ran the other way every time someone sent me a dirty look, I’d never visit the city.”

Clarke feels somewhat alarmed by this news. “Do you normally get attacked when you go into Cairo?” She hadn’t considered this. But of course. He’s the king— for every person who loves him for what he’s done for them, there must be another who hates him for what he’s done to them. That’s the curse of being in charge.

He sounds amused at her alarm. “Not that often, no. Enough times that my uncle disapproves of my visits to the outside. But it’s a small price to pay to be able to live outside the palace.”

Meanwhile, the cow thief moves on through the crowd, and Bellamy sighs and stretches his legs.

“You had a bruise on your cheek when we first met,” Clarke remembers. “Was that…”

“Someone was very angry about being forced to pay their rent.” He cracks a grin, still staring off into space, and she can’t help but smile tentatively with him. His smile disappears a moment later, though. “I told you it was dangerous in the city. And now that you’re ruling with me, you’re a target too.”

“Like you said, small price to pay,” Clarke replies.

He snorts. “Could end up being a big price for my people to pay, if you die and the Seljuqs attack.”

Clark remains silent. The alliance is so very fragile. Which brings her back to the recurring thought she’s had over the past month. “About that.”

He turns to her at her tone of voice.

“I’ve been thinking,” she says tentatively. “About… the heir everyone wants us to have. To strengthen our alliance.”

He turns away, swallowing. She watches his Adam’s apple bob in profile. His voice is softer when he says, “I told you, it can wait.”

“Not for long,” Clarke shoots back impatiently. “Ahmose said by the end of the year. We’ve been married nearly two months. That doesn’t leave a lot of time to…” she trails off, but they both hear it. Get pregnant.

“So what,” he says lightly, playing it off, “You saying you want to sleep with me? Is this the real birthday present you were looking for, then?”

Clarke’s lips flatten. She’s not taking it as a joke. “It doesn’t matter how I feel. But it’s duty. And that comes before any personal feelings about it.”

“Duty,” he echoes. He sounds a little bitter as he settles back on his hands. “Always, duty first.”

She can’t help but share his bitterness, a little bit. She absentmindedly smooths a hand over her own belly. She’s sixteen— well into womanhood, by society’s standards— but she can’t imagine carrying another life inside her. Can’t imagine being a mother. But she must. The Seljuqs will be watching their marriage closely, too. The first sign of weakness in this alliance and they may strike. And this kingdom— well, Clarke’s grown to love it as much as the one in which she grew up, even in this short time.

“Don’t you want to?” she asks him, curious at his apparent lack of enthusiasm. “Your kingdom hangs in the balance here.”

He doesn’t answer right away, but when he does, the words come out hesitantly. “I guess you’re right.”

“Then let’s do it.” She mulls it over for a moment. Best to get it over with, before she can overthink it. “Tomorrow.”

He lets out a long sigh. Despite her own nervousness, she almost thinks she should be offended at how reluctant he seems. “Whatever the hell you want.”

Dinner is a tense affair the following night. They’re both wearing casual clothes, and neither of them eat much. Clarke gulps down large quantities of wine, and Bellamy keeps knocking over his soup dish.

He’s muttering curses under his breath after the fifth time, mopping up the mess even as servants hurry forward to help, when Clarke speaks up.

“On our wedding night,” she says. “You never came to my room.”

Another servant offers Bellamy a fifth refill of lentil soup, but he waves it away, eyes now fixed on Clarke. “Do you have a problem with that?”

“I expected you to come, is all,” Clarke says defensively. “It’s tradition.”

“So you did have a problem with it.”

No,” Clarke asserts, and chews her lip. “But I thought it might be because you don’t see me as desirable, and we won’t have much luck having a child if, um, you’re not able to see me that way.”

Twin pink spots appear on his cheekbones under his freckles, and he rubs the back of his neck. “That’s not going to be a problem.”

“Are you sure?” Clarke asks lowly, quite serious now. “There are certain herbs I’ve heard of that—”

“I said,” Bellamy cuts her off, sounding flustered or annoyed or both, “you don’t have to worry about it.”

“Fine.”

A pause.

Bellamy clears his throat. “For what it’s worth, I think you’re beautiful.”

“Oh.” Not that it matters, but she’s pleased nonetheless. “Thank you.” She coughs into her fist. “You’re very handsome.”

“Thank you,” he replies, straight-faced. They stare at each other for a time. “Now that that’s done, should we move on to the sex?”

The tension breaks, and she can’t help it. She laughs with him. Thanks to the wine, they both sound on the verge of hysterics. The servants, meanwhile, remain standing at the walls of the dining hall, blank-faced. She’s very used to castle servants listening in on her private conversations, though, so it doesn’t bother her at all. But she can only imagine what they think of it.

“I think we should go,” she replies when she’s recovered, and pushes her plate away from her and stands. Bellamy mirrors her.

“Your room or mine?” he asks, a little wryly.

“Yours,” she answers without hesitation. That way, she won’t have to face potentially painful memories every time she goes to sleep.

She follows him to his door, trying to ignore her own mounting anxiety. It’s been easy enough to think of it as an abstract task before this, but now that it’s actually happening it’s becoming difficult to stay distant. The guards step aside for them, and Bellamy pauses before the open door. “You sure?”

His eyes are on her hands. She realizes they’re clenched at her sides. She takes a deep breath and unclenches them slowly. Nods.

He watches her carefully. “After you.”

She goes in, and he follows. Once the door shuts behind them, Clarke takes in his bedchambers.

The last time she was here she was only interested in escape, but now she takes it in ravenously. It’s clean, of course, but that means nothing. Servants would keep it tidy. He has very few decorations. There’s a bow and arrows slung on a nearby hook on the wall, and a shelf is filled with books. She strolls over and runs her fingers over the spines. Some are old classics that she’s heard of, like the Odyssey. Others appear to be native to Egypt, written in beautiful lettered Arabic, which she can’t read very well yet.

She turns to see Bellamy watching her.

“I never saw you as the type,” she explains, unable to keep surprise from her voice as she holds one of the books up.

“What, the type to be literate?”

Clarke rolls her eyes. “The type to read.”

“Well, you don’t know me all that well, do you,” he replies wryly.

She glances into his dark eyes and feels a strange inclination, for the first time, that she would like to. Finally, she puts the book down and turns back around to the bed. It’s enormous, just like hers. She wonders if his bed is as lonely as hers is, too, or if he has other lovers. Ones he’s more interested to turn to for fun than his wife. It wouldn’t be unusual; it’s common among royalty, in fact. But for some reason, the notion still bothers her.

He takes her hand and she jumps a little. His hand is warm, and for some reason the sensation of his skin sliding against her palm floods her cheeks with heat. She grips his fingers and moves his hand up to the first button on her dress.

Bellamy gets the message loud and clear, tugging her closer to work on undoing the clasps. His knuckles brush against every inch of her skin they uncover as they go down, sending both anxious and giddy butterflies leaping through her stomach.

She wants him to get it over with, and she wants it to last forever, all at once.

“Couldn’t you pick a dress with more buttons?” he mutters, and she opens her eyes.

“You gave me this one as a wedding gift, you ass,” she snaps.

“No one said you had to wear it today. I’ll be on my deathbed by the time I finish getting this thing off you.”

“I’m so sorry,” she shoots back. “I guess I should’ve just shown up naked at your door, to make it easier for you?”

“That’s right. My wife is so thoughtful.” He finally succeeds in freeing her of the last clasp, and yanks it over her shoulders. Then he reaches around her and unhooks the button at the back of her neck. The dress pools at her feet, leaving her in her underthings. His large hands radiate heat into the skin of her waist.

Bellamy doesn’t try to push her on his bed, or look her up and down. Instead, his dark eyes fix directly on hers, as if looking for cracks in her armour.

She hardens her gaze, ensuring he won’t find any. And indeed he doesn’t. He leans in, touching their foreheads together. She puts her hands on his face, trying to appear calm even though it feels like a vise has closed around her insides. Their lips are only an inch apart. She’s afraid of what she might feel if that distance closes.

And then it hits her.

Just when they’re sharing the same breath, she whispers, “Wait.”

Bellamy freezes and pulls away, just a little bit, so she can see how the dark brown of his eyes has been reduced to a thin ring.

“Yes?” he says, in the casual tone he’d use in a conversation with diplomats.

She takes a deep breath and steps away from him completely. It’s distracting to think when his thumbs are pressing circles against her hips, and she doesn’t even think he realizes he’s doing it. “The thing is, I don’t really want to have to get pregnant.”

“I’m shocked,” Bellamy replies, crossing his arms.

Clarke resists the urge to hit him. “Very funny. Well, I just had an idea.” He cocks an eyebrow up at her, and she goes on, feeling tentative. “We fake the pregnancy.”

Bellamy uncrosses his arms.

“We’ll announce that I’m pregnant,” Clarke hurries on, “And then, in eight months time, we announce that I miscarried.”

“And what good does that do? They’ll just want us to get back on it right after.”

She looks him in the eye. “If they’re appeased for eight months, it gives us time.”

“Time to what?”

“Time to solidify the alliance in ways other than an heir. Like trade. Good relations with Pisa.”

He remains silent. Clarke has no idea what he’s thinking.

She bites her lip in consideration. “I’d need to stay hidden for the last few months, so that people don’t see that my body hasn’t changed. And— we could blame the miscarriage on the Seljuqs. We’ll say they poisoned me, and I barely survived. The baby didn’t. That should garner sympathy.” She pauses, because he still hasn’t said a thing. “What do you think?”

He studies her for a moment more before he unexpectedly breaks into a grin. “You’re crazy, princess.”

“Are you saying yes?” Clarke asks impatiently.

“Guess I’m just as crazy as you.” He rubs his jaw with one hand. “This is a dangerous game.”

“If it doesn’t work,” Clarke feels the need to say through her rush of relief, “then we’ll— we’ll really have a baby.” It’s difficult to get the words out, but she must.

There’s a beat before Bellamy replies, dryly, “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.” Despite all her posturing, he’s sensed her trepidation. But somehow, he doesn’t make her feel all that bad about it. At least until he goes to pick up her dress and give it back to her, and his hand brushes her bare arm by accident.

Clarke wasn’t expecting the touch, so she can’t help it. She flinches away. Just a little bit. Not even noticeable, if you weren’t paying attention. But he is.

Bellamy steps back and slips his hands in his pockets, face a mask. There’s a long, sticky moment between them as she clutches onto the fabric of the dress and stares at him wide-eyed, a moment where she feels very much like a terrified girl in a slip standing in front of a man five years her senior. And she thinks he knows it. She doesn’t know what to say, beyond the burn of her own humiliation that her armour cracked, so she says nothing. And he doesn’t touch her again.

Within the week, the news that Clarke is pregnant is announced, and it spreads like a plague in no time. Clarke receives congratulations from neighbouring kingdoms and gifts from no fewer than twelve diplomats, mostly flowers and perfume oils.

Several weeks in, she’s waiting in the room they use to hold court when a servant hurries over with wine. Clarke goes to accept it when she hears Bellamy’s voice boom from the doors.

“Stop.”

She looks at him. He’s got a rather cross look on his face. “She can’t drink that,” he says. “She’s pregnant, remember?”

Clarke had almost forgotten. She retracts her hand as the servant begins to apologize profusely. What the servant doesn’t realize, of course, is that Bellamy’s stern expression isn’t for him, but for Clarke for forgetting.

“It’s alright,” Bellamy tells the servant good-naturedly as he strolls over. “I brought her some water.”

“Probably for the best,” Clarke adds, fanning herself for extra measure. “I’ve been throwing up so often, I’m not sure I could hold anything else down anyway.”

The servant looks concerned.

Bellamy appears to be fighting off a smile as he sits down on his throne next to her. “We’ll have to get you some medicine for that.”

“Some medicine would be nice,” Clarke agrees wryly, and the servant nods rapidly.

“We will find some, your highness. Apologies again.”

Clarke and Bellamy fall silent until the servant leaves. Only a small circle of trusted people know the truth, including Ahmose, so they have to be careful.

When they’re alone, she raises her eyebrows at him. “I think you’re enjoying this too much.”

“Don’t know what you’re talking about,” Bellamy says gravely, but the mischief in his eyes tells a different story. He goes to offer the water out to her, but then stops, uncertainty flickering over his face, and instead he simply places the cup on the table between them.

Clarke swallows. Things haven’t exactly been… tense, between them, but he’s now a little hesitant around her. Before, he’d touch her thoughtlessly, like a hand on the small of her back as they walked, or a pat to her shoulder to get her attention. She finds herself missing those little gestures now.

“Thank you,” she says primly, taking the cup off the table for a long sip.

He nods once. “Speaking of your sham pregnancy, I had a thought.”

“Is that so.”

“We have to keep you hidden during the last months of your pregnancy,” Bellamy says, “so I think we should keep you in quarantine. Tell everyone you have a contagious sickness. No one will bother you, and it will help sell the miscarriage story later.”

“After I barely survive,” Clarke agrees. “I like it.” She pauses. “Maybe the Seljuqs purposely exposed me to the sickness.”

His lips quirk up. “You really just want to blame them, don’t you?”

She scoffs. “What I want is to secure our alliance, and that’s the way to do it.” She takes another sip, leaning back in her chair. “So, what’s on the schedule?”

Bellamy shrugs. “I didn’t get a chance to look at the list today. Probably just the usual…” His voice trails away as the doors open and the first delegation walks in. Clarke’s mouth goes dry at who she sees.

There’s an angry looking man, accompanied by a woman with her wrists bound in front of her. It’s Miu, the woman who runs the orphanage that she and Bellamy frequent so often.

She hears Bellamy curse under his breath as the man angrily exclaims, before he’s been called, “She stole from me! Three loaves of bread, without payment. She sneaked them through my window when they were on my cooling rack!”

“Miu,” Bellamy says. “What’s your version of events?”

Miu holds her chin high. “I did it, B— your highness.”

Clarke takes over. “And why did you do it?”

“My children were hungry. Food prices are much too high these days, because of the Pisan Tariff.” This causes a stir in the crowd; this is the name given to the quarter of food that Clarke’s father demanded. “I couldn’t afford dinner for all of them, and we’d already skipped so many meals.”

Although Clarke had nothing to do with it, she can’t help but feel a little guilty. It’s only been a few months, and this is just the start of what’s shaping up to be a famine.

She glances at Bellamy beside her. He’s rigid in his throne. Clarke looks back at Miu, who simply stares back, unrepentant. She feels the tug of indecision. She knows Miu pretty well by now, spent hours in her orphanage. She might even call her a friend. But she can’t talk to her like that, not now.

There’s a long, long pause where neither Clarke nor Bellamy speak. Everyone is looking at them expectantly, waiting for a decision, and at last Clarke takes a deep breath.

“I understand why you did it,” she says slowly, feeling torn in two different directions. “I do. But thievery is punishable no matter what the circumstance.”

“I know that, your highness,” Miu replies. “I accept my punishment, whatever it is.”

Clarke glances at Bellamy. His expression is cold, but the muscle ticking away anxiously in his jaw betrays him.

“Firstly, you’ll return what you took,” Clarke tells Miu. Pauses. Bellamy takes over.

“There’s a precedent in this situation. Flogging. Ten lashes.” His voice is curt.

Miu sighs and bows her head. The baker looks triumphant, and the delegation is escorted out. And that’s that.

Except it’s not, because for the next few hours of court, Clarke’s mind keeps straying back and feeling awful. Miu will be flogged. The children at her orphanage will have to see their caretaker in pain for weeks. And for what? For food that Miu had no choice but to steal.

As soon as court is over, Bellamy disappears into his own chambers and doesn’t come out. Because he’s not around to reprimand her, Clarke sneaks wine from the kitchen and tosses it back.

A few days later, Clarke catches Bellamy arguing with Ahmose about the palace donating to the orphanage.

“Not a good move,” Ahmose is saying firmly. “Your personal feelings cannot rule your decisions, Bellamy. If we start doing handouts now, everyone will be at our doorstep. We don’t have the funds.”

“These are kids. Miu and this orphanage is all they have.”

“I have to advise against it,” Ahmose replies, a small trace of sadness in his voice, and Clarke finds herself agreeing with him.

Bellamy notices her in the doorway, and his eyes narrow. “And what do you think?”

Clarke draws closer, folding her arms and admitting, “It sounds like a slippery slope.”

“Of course it does,” Bellamy scoffs, venom in his voice, and turns away from her to the window, hands on hips.

Ahmose slips from the room as Clarke draws closer to her husband. They stand in silence, both looking out the window together at Cairo, until Clarke says, “I’m sorry about Miu.”

“Tell that to her, not me,” Bellamy snaps. “When she and the kids starve in a few months, after the tariff really takes its toll.”

Clarke feels her eyes start to burn, and resists the urge to place her hand on his shoulder. “Please don’t think I’m heartless. I care about her. But you have to see the logic in what Ahmose is saying. I just… don’t know what to do. I’m sorry.” He doesn’t say anything for a long time.

When he does turn around, his eyes are unusually bright. “I know it’s not your fault, Clarke, you know that right?”

She blinks, inhaling sharply. He rubs a hand over his face. Drops it.

“We’re going to sell the palace’s extra food back to the city at low prices,” he says abruptly. “And we get only as much to eat as our people do. If they have to suffer this food shortage, so do we. I don’t plan on being a hypocrite.” He says it like a command, but his eyes flick to her, as if asking her opinion again.

She nods. “That sounds like a good plan.”

“Wish I’d thought of it earlier,” he mutters, and she knows he’s thinking about Miu again. She wants to comfort him somehow, but doesn’t know if she should touch him. So instead she leaves, feeling miserable; and she leaves with the knowledge that this is not the last time they will have to make a decision like Miu’s, which makes it all the more awful.

Clarke spends the next few weeks visiting the city with a guard, rather than Bellamy. Despite what he says, she gets the sense that when he sees her, he is reminded all over again of the famine looming over their kingdom. She can’t blame him.

Which is at least partly why she begins giving her own food to other people.

It starts one night when she’s out in the city and a man goes stumbling by, clearly emaciated, probably from even before the tariff began. She can’t help it. Her feet move her to him, and she thrusts the bread and grapes she’d carried out of the palace for a snack into his hands, clothed by a napkin.

And then it becomes more; she doesn’t take extra from the kitchens, no. She carefully allocates part of her own meager meals to give to the people, the children, she sees in the streets with their hungry eyes and hollowed out cheeks. They need it more than her.

Several nights later, Clarke walks into her chambers, exhausted from the day. Her stomach growls a little bit as she moves around and as always, she ignores it in favour of collapsing in her bed. It always takes longer to fall asleep now, but eventually, she does. And it feels like only a moment later when she’s woken up.

Her eyes fly open when a hand clamps around her mouth. Instinctively, she screams, but the sound is muffled, and a gag is forced in her mouth. Another set of hands grabs her around her middle and hauls her up, kicking and thrashing, from the bed.

“We should knock her out first,” she hears one voice say in Arabic. It’s too dark in the room to see who they are, but they’ve got a tight grip on her wrists as they bind her. She struggles anyway, at least until she feels cold, biting metal press against the side of her neck.

She stops making noise.

“No need,” another, deeper voice says calmly. “Look at that. Silent as a lamb. Now walk.”

The last part is for her. She’s given a rough push on her lower back, and she stumbles after them. The guards aren’t in the hall. She glances back at her captors and with a shock, realizes that she recognizes them. They are guards that she’s seen around the palace. The one with the knife to her neck, she’s pretty sure, has escorted her to Cairo at least once.

But they’re not truly from this kingdom, she realizes with horror. They’re Seljuqs, aren’t they?

But if they were Seljuqs coming to kill her, wouldn’t they have done it already? She wills herself to keep calm. If she could just distract the one holding the knife long enough, then maybe she could overpower him. Take his weapon. Kill the other one.

She recognizes where they’re taking her. It’s the wing of the palace where the king spends most of his free time. They even pass Bellamy’s bedroom door. She gives the wood a longing glance, and the knife digs deeper into her skin.

“Scream and I slit your throat right here,” the man hisses into her ear. She glares at him.

They lead her to another room and close the door behind them. She’s never been in Bellamy’s washing chamber, but it looks the same as hers. Tile floors, in which the large bath is inset. Moonlight spills through the large, open window, a breeze lazily wafting in. It’s almost peaceful here.

Except for the third man, who’s filling the bath with bucketful after bucketful of water, the sloshing being the only sound in the room.

That’s when she stamps on the foot of the man holding her. He yelps in pain and she runs, making a break for the door. She doesn’t get more than three paces before one of the others tackles her to the ground, and then they’re dragging her back by her kicking feet towards the bath.

She screams in desperation through her gag, and one chuckles.

“Sing if you’d like. We’re far enough away that no one will hear you with that gag in your mouth.”

“Your husband’s a temperamental man, isn’t he,” another croons, and she’s confused for only a moment. “He invites you for a secret midnight swim, and it’s all lovely until you get in a spat. Not surprising, considering everyone knows you don’t get along.”

He tuts as Clarke fights, scratching him, and they force her on her belly, dragging her by her bound wrists to the lip of the tub.

“Then he drowns you in a fit of anger, and your unborn child along with you. When you’re dead, he tries to get rid of the body, blame it on someone else, the Seljuqs maybe, but—” he reaches forward and takes hold of Clarke’s collar, pulling sharply until the material tears. He straightens with a strip of cloth from her nightgown in his hand and grins ferally. “You don’t go down without a fight, and there’s evidence left behind. The maids find it here, in the king’s own bath chambers. ”

Clarke can only stare in horror, and scream uselessly against her gag. He goes on, voice most calm against her desperate noises.

“Word spreads far and wide. The king of Pisa is so infuriated about his daughter’s death, that he not only breaks the alliance, but he joins the Seljuqs in declaring war on the city-state of Cairo.”

They force her head down, until she’s left staring at her wide-eyed, bedraggled and terrified reflection in the calm waters. And her captors behind her, smug expressions clear.

“And then we finally conquer Cairo,” he finishes, and then his hand is on the back of her head. She knows in the next instant she’ll be underwater, so she takes a deep breath while she still can—

There’s a loud shout from the door, and everyone looks.

It’s Ahmose, eyes wide in alarm. He’s backing up.

“Kill him,” barks the one who’s holding Clarke.

No— but Clarke only gets a glimpse of the man lunging at Ahmose before she’s shoved underwater.

The moments she spent staring at Ahmose were a waste of her air. And now, she’s been shoved underwater on an exhale. She struggles in a frenzy, kicks her feet wildly, connecting with a shin, and the grip falters and strengthens again. Another hand wraps around her throat underwater, squeezing, and Clarke is forced to let go of her last pocket of air. He lets go of her throat then, although his grip on the back of her head remains firm. Clarke knows what he wants her to do.

She’s fighting with every last instinct of her being not to inhale, not to inhale, not to

She inhales. All is lost.

A sharp, wracking pain like a knife slides into her chest. Dimly she’s aware her body has gone limp.

And then all at once the pressure is gone from the back of her head. A new set of hands is there, grabbing her shoulders and pulling her out and—

Air.

She gulps it down, then abruptly coughs up water. She bends over double on the tiles, her hair dripping in tendrils, and wheezes and coughs violently. Her gag loosens, then falls away.

“Cough it out,” says a gentle voice in her ear. So very close. “You got it.”

She can’t say a word, but she looks about as she coughs to find the three men who’d captured her motionless on the floor, surrounded by their very own pools of blood. And there’s an arrow in the left eye of each. Her eyes are drawn to the quiver and bow scattered on the tiles right next to Bellamy where he’s sitting on his haunches next to her, peering at her with concern.

She looks at him wildly, finally getting words out. “S— Seljuqs—”

“I know,” he cuts her off, and smoothes back her hair from her face. His expression is soft in a way she’s never seen. “I know. I heard my uncle yell for help.”

Ahmose— Clarke remembers with a start and looks around, only to find Ahmose in the doorway, talking with a guard. He’s alright. She exhales in relief.

Bellamy pulls her gaze back to him. “You alright?”

She nods.

He hesitates, and when he speaks his voice is hoarse. “When I came in here… you weren’t moving. I thought you were dead.”

“I’m alive.” She coughs. “The alliance is safe.”

“I wasn’t thinking about the alliance, Clarke.”

Clarke feels a flutter in her chest. Tries her best to swallow it down. Tries to stop herself from drowning for the second time tonight, only this time in the depths of his dark eyes.

“Well, you don’t have to worry,” she replies after a long moment, and pats her stomach. “The baby’s going to be fine.”

He blinks, and the tension leaves his eyes. He huffs a laugh. After one last brush of his knuckles down her cheek, he pulls away. She finds herself missing his warm touch, but she won’t ask for it. She’s beginning to shake. It’s only now beginning to settle in. They just tried to assassinate her. It’s one thing to hear it said as a hypothetical threat and quite another to have the evidence lying around her in blood, in the bruises that will form on her body.

Bellamy’s studying her closely.

“Go ahead,” Clarke says with a sigh, drawing her legs up to her chest. “Say I told you so.”

His lips quirk up slightly. “That would be a waste of breath.” He drapes a heavy blanket over her shoulders and sits opposite to her on the tiles. “But since we’re on the topic, I think it’s time we moved you into quarantine.”

It’s a few weeks earlier than they’d scheduled, but they do it. The palace announces Clarke has fallen prey to a mysterious illness and is being transported to healers. She won’t be seen here for the next few months.

In reality, Clarke is moved into a tower in the palace, one that used to be a guard watch spot but is no longer used. The circle of people who know the truth is tight, and the guards who patrol this area are close to Bellamy.

It quickly becomes clear that living in a tower by herself is going to be very difficult. It’s just so… boring. And lonely. She’s never really felt lonely after she moved here, but it hits her hard when she’s got hours of staring out a window and painting and nothing much else. She finds herself thinking of home, of her mother, of her friends.

An attendant comes up to deliver her food a few times a day— at first, it’s more than usual, and she realizes he’s probably noticed how skinny she’s been looking— and clean up around the place, which doesn’t take long considering it’s a circular room only about ten paces wide. And in the evenings, Bellamy comes by.

She always looks forward to his visits. He can’t be here otherwise, as he’s busy doing double time as ruler of a kingdom, but sometimes he’ll come and sit on the edge of her bed and talk to her about some dilemma with the diplomats, ask for her opinion. Other times he comes with books, and they read side-by-side, Bellamy with his mythology and Clarke with whatever else he’s brought, trying to get better at reading Arabic.

One night, he comes to find her sitting and painting the starry sky. “How’s my seven months pregnant wife doing?” he asks.

“Well, I’m bored, bedridden and cranky,” Clarke says without turning around from her parchment. “So about as expected.”

“Your painting looks good.”

“Nothing much to do here except get better at it.” She paints another swirl of black on her canvas.

His voice is wry now. “I’m sensing some irritation.”

“Never.” She puts her brush down and turns around. He’s standing in the doorway, looking devilishly handsome as always. Her heart sings to see him. “Happy birthday, by the way.”

He blinks.

“The attendant told me when she was giving me dinner,” she explains. “I have a gift.” Before he can even ask, she bends and reaches under her bed to pull out the scroll. Hands it to him.

Bellamy unfurls it, his expression of confusion giving way to amusement. “Finally got around to painting those pretty flowers, huh?”

She grins and scoots to the edge of her seat, giddy for her nightly talk with him. “So, what’s happening on the outside?”

He shrugs. “The usual. But I have something else in mind for tonight.”

For some reason, maybe because she’s watching his full lips form those words, Clarke’s imagination runs wild.

He produces a set of keys with relish. Clarke stares in confusion until he elaborates. “We’re going out,” he says in a whisper, and Clarke’s out of her seat in an instant.

“Really?”

“Yeah, really,” he grins.

She tries to make herself think logically, which is difficult when facing the possibility of going outside. “Wait, what if I’m seen?”

“You won’t be,” he says firmly. “It’s dark. Besides, you’ve been in here too long. Don’t you wanna stretch those pretty legs?” His eyes twinkle, and Clarke finds herself flushing. She doesn’t wear many layers in this tower. Why should she, when she’s the only person around most of the time? She wears her simplest underdress, which is short, and because of the heat doesn’t bother to cover her legs for modesty. And he’s noticed.

The thought sends an unexplained thrill through her.

She gets to her feet, and he leads her out of the room.

He doesn’t just take her outside, no; he makes a beeline for the stables. “I’ve seen you ride,” he tells her. “Want to go?”

She can only nod in excitement.

The stables are quiet, and the horses stare curiously from their stalls as she and Bellamy pass. There’s a white stallion in one of the end stalls, the one that Clarke has ridden before.

But when she gets on, Bellamy doesn’t make a move to get a horse for himself.

“Aren’t you coming?” she asks from atop her horse, frowning down at him.

He has a rather queasy expression, and she realizes she hasn’t seen him ride a horse before. “No.”

“You don’t like riding?”

“I do, but I try to avoid it,” he responds at last.

“Bad experience?’ she inquires.

He grimaces. Clarke laughs and extends a hand. “Then get on mine. I’ll take you for a ride.” He stays rooted to the spot. “It’s your birthday. Consider it another present.”

He takes her hand after a moment, and helps himself onto the back of her horse, feet in the stirrups.

Clarke snaps the reins, and the horse obediently clops along. Bellamy is seated behind her, and she feels him tense.

“Relax,” she tells him.

He leans forward, lips brushing against her ear as he says, “You should probably know, I’ve told Ahmose that if I die, you become sole ruler of the kingdom.”

“You’re not going to die,” Clarke scoffs. “You’ve got me. Put your arms around me and you’ll be fine.”

But once he does, Clarke realizes she won’t be fine. His arms are strong as they wrap around her waist, and then his entire front is pressed against her back as they set out in a gentle trot around the yard. She can feel his hot breath on her ear, and all of a sudden she is far too aware of Bellamy, Bellamy, Bellamy surrounding all her senses.

She cuts the ride a little shorter than she would’ve liked, mostly because she can’t handle his closeness anymore. Bellamy doesn’t seem to notice. His face is practically glowing in the dark when they get back to the stables, and Clarke is overjoyed that she was the one who put that look there.

“Happy birthday,” she tells him when they leave the stables.

Bellamy tugs at a strand of her wild hair affectionately. “Thanks, Clarke.”

He escorts her back to her tower, and when he’s gone she flops on her bed and recalls the feeling of his arms around her waist, his hands tucked against her sides, his chest pressed against her back, his lips inches away from her ear. If only he’d bent a little closer…

That hot flush rises up her body again, and, well, she’s alone, and bored, and can’t sleep because every time she closes her eyes she sees his instead. So she may as well do this. She lets her hand slide down her stomach, hiking up the thin material of her cotton dress around her waist, and gets herself off, easy and slow, imagining his deep voice in her ear coaxing her on, his hands branding her hips, his curly hair between her fingers.

She lies there panting afterwards, pushing her sweaty hair away from her forehead. And then she starts to giggle to herself in the dark. Because it’s funny: she feels strangely guilty using the image of her own husband for sexual pleasure.

“Clarke, what the hell are you doing?”

She doesn’t turn at the sound of Bellamy’s voice as he comes up behind her.

“Should I be worried you’re going insane up here?” he asks over her shoulder. And then, with revulsion: “What is that?”

Clarke pokes at the insides of the earthworm she’s been dissecting for the past half hour with a metal probe and smiles. “I think that’s its gut. It travels from the mouth all the way to the place where its waste comes out. And food gets digested as it goes through.” When Bellamy says nothing, she presses on, nodding at her paper and brush beside her. “I’m documenting everything I see. I’ve always wanted to look into anatomy.” So when she’d found the worm, dead on the windowsill, really, there was no choice to make.

Bellamy surveys her careful drawings of the worm’s innards for another long moment. “I hope you’re not expecting me to hang this in the great hall.”

Clarke laughs, some anxiety she hadn’t realized she was holding unravelling itself. She hadn’t known how he might react. Dissections and the examination of cadavers are still quite taboo, not only where she comes from but here as well. It’s a relief that he’s taking it in stride. “Oh, come on. It’d be educational.”

“I’ll be sure to use that point when I argue about it with Ahmose. Want to go for a walk?”

Clarke notices he’s holding something— a flask, dangling from his fingers. “What’s that?”

He holds it up. “Wine.”

She puts down her utensil. He laughs.

They go for a walk then, outside, but keeping to the shadows. Despite his reassurances that they’re alone, that the only guards even in the vicinity of the area are ones that he trusts, he’s constantly glancing around. They drink, and they talk, mostly about their day, and Clarke explains how she’s always been fascinated with anatomy even back home, and Bellamy tells her about the letters of concern the palace has gotten about Clarke’s supposed sickness.

“One even came to court the other day,” Bellamy recalls. “He said he swore there was a magician on the mountain that cured his foot warts and we should take you to him.”

“Maybe it’s worth looking into,” Clarke says seriously, and he grins.

She sighs when they’ve nearly completed their round around the tower. She doesn’t want to go back in. Bellamy seems to sense it, offering her the flask again.

“Your father sent me a letter, too,” he says. “He’s angry about you being sick.”

Clarke rolls her eyes as she drinks. As if her father actually cares. He’s more concerned about the loss of his hypothetical grandchild. “Tell him I’m getting better.”

She hands the flask back to him and he tips it back, finishing it off. “Don’t want to get his hopes up. After all that, what if you miscarry?”

“That would be a tragedy. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen,” Clarke responds, and they both laugh.

Then they hear a sound, and instantly their laughter dissolves. It’s the sound of feet moving in sand. Rounding the corner of the tower.

Clarke stares, wide-eyed, at Bellamy in silence. No one’s supposed to be here. The footsteps are coming from the direction closest to the door; she can’t escape back up the stairs. And Clarke is, officially, with healers in another part of the kingdom. If she’s seen here by someone—

Bellamy points at the stables, where the white stallion Clarke rides is watching them with bored eyes. Clarke nods and they run, darting across the sand, across open ground. Bellamy closes the door behind them.

It’s a tight fit with the horse here, and the horse is doing absolutely nothing to give them more space. He hardly even reacts to the extra people in his stall. Clarke ends up pressed against the wall, and Bellamy right with her, his hands braced against the wall on either side of her head, nose an inch away from hers.

Then they hear the footsteps come closer. As one, they slide into a crouching position, their bent knees barely brushing.

The footsteps pause. Clarke knows it’s probably a guard, but he’s taking his time. Sweat rolls down her temple and she squeezes her eyes shut before opening them. It’s hot and humid in here, and Bellamy being in her space, his body heat radiating against her, does nothing to help. His head is ducked slightly, so she’s staring at the top of his curly head, and can see his eyelashes fluttering, and feel his breath hot against the top of her chest.

She feels an all too familiar tug between her legs. Wishes he’d move his hand, just a bit, from the wall and to her skin instead. She can’t help but stare at him when he lifts his head to look at her— brown skin of his cheekbones gleaming with sweat, same as her— and for an instant, she sees his eyes darken too.

He licks his lips, leaving them wet and red. Clarke looks down at them too, blatantly, because she can’t help it. She wants to kiss them. She wants to press her hands against his torso, she wants to touch him, to ask him to touch her. She wants, wants, wants.

Bellamy stands up and steps back.

She blinks, coming back to herself. He’s looking down at her, head now silhouetted by the moon. “He’s gone,” Bellamy says. The words are casual enough, but she’s sure she doesn’t imagine the way his hands tremble.

Clarke hadn’t even noticed the footsteps leaving. She stands as well. Bellamy’s already moving out of the stall, away from her. The coolness of the night rushes back the moment she steps out, but there’s a fire under her skin now that it can’t quell.

She waits until they’re back in her tower room before she kisses him.

As always, he brings her to her door, lets her go inside, and then turns to leave. Tonight, Clarke catches his wrist, and, when he turns, she spins him all the way so she can grab him by the back of the neck and pull him to her lips.

He’s startled, she can tell; he doesn’t respond at first. But she wraps the other arm around his neck too, and finally, tentatively, he kisses her back.

She becomes frustrated after only a moment— he only follows her lead, letting her kiss him, letting her touch him, but he doesn’t touch her anywhere else except where their mouths meet. His hands remain at his sides. He doesn’t press closer. She reaches down to grab his hand, only to find it’s in a fist at his side.

His fingers loosen upon her touch, and she brings it to her waist. Touch me, she wants to say, but she’s busy, so busy kissing him.

His hand drops back to his side.

Discouraged, Clarke pulls away. They’re both breathing hard. Despite his reluctance, his hunger is written all over his face, dragging over her as she pulls away and backs up to her bed, sitting down on it.

Bellamy doesn’t follow. He just stands there, eyes dark, hair tousled from her hands.

“Come here,” Clarke says, and she hardly recognizes her own voice.

His feet move forward as if jolted into movement for only two steps before he stops.

Clarke lies down on her pillows. He’s so close and it drives her crazy. It’s only fair to return the favour, so she lets her hand slide down her body, spreading her legs as she does. His frame goes rigid when he realizes what she’s doing. His breathing becomes shallow, as shallow as hers as her fingers graze herself.

“I thought—” His voice is halting— “you didn’t want me to touch you.”

And there it is. Clarke understands; she’d flinched away from him a long time ago, and he’d never forgotten. He’d misinterpreted what it meant, thought it had something to do with him. She thinks about what to say. It’s hard to explain. Back then, it was her trepidation over their whole situation, over being forced to have sex with a man she barely knew. Now, it’s the burning, heavy need that’s settled between her legs, and a man that she dearly loves the company of who she would like to take care of it.

In the end, Clarke just holds his gaze and whispers, “I want you to touch me everywhere.”

Clarke hardly registers his movement. One moment he’s across the room; the next, he’s on her, so close that she’s pushed onto her side, his chest against her back, his nose against her hair, his hand sliding down her stomach.

When he pushes her hand away and replaces it with his own, she gasps. She’s lit aflame where his fingers press inside her, and automatically tries to spread her legs further, to grant his hand better access. It’s not easy to do on her side, so she rolls partly to her stomach, and Bellamy follows with her, body draping over hers. His fingers reach a place she’s never been able to and she can’t keep from moaning.

“Got all lonely up here in your tower, huh, Clarke?” Bellamy murmurs while his fingers stroke her, voice low and deep and sending another frisson of desire down her spine. She writhes under him and gasps and grabs at his forearm, pushing his shirtsleeve up to feel the sinewy muscle of his forearm as it works.

His other hand squeezes her breast, and he kisses down her neck and down her shoulder while she gets closer and closer. And then she’s tumbling over, pressing her face into her pillow to muffle herself.

Clarke pushes his hand away when it starts to feel like overstimulation. His fingers pull away with a wet sound, but she doesn’t even have the capacity to feel embarrassed right now. He’s pressed so close that she can feel that this encounter hasn’t left him unaffected.

She’s about to turn around, wanting to offer him the same relief, when he pulls away.

She does roll on her back then, to see him standing, adjusting himself. He’s breathing hard. The lighting isn’t good through the window, but she would wager she would see a flush on his skin if it was.

“I should go,” he says, gruff. Pauses. A muscle ticks in his jaw.

“Bellamy,” she starts, reaching for him.

“If you want,” he interrupts, sounding a bit flustered as he backs away, “if you want, when you’re out of this tower and you want— this kind of thing, you can arrange for escorts. It doesn’t have to be me.”

Clarke stares at him, even while he avoids her eyes. He can’t really be that dense.

A horrible thought strikes her right then. Maybe he doesn’t want it to be her. She is inexperienced, and has only been in his life for a year, and most of the time he’s been taking care of her, really. She’s five years younger, which means nothing to most people but Bellamy’s always been a little different. What if he just— sees her as a child, or someone to be taken care of? What if he doesn’t want her like that?

After everything she’s fantasized about him, this thought is too humiliating; her cheeks burn. She draws her legs up to her chest. Doesn’t trust herself to say anything. An awkward silence hangs between them.

Bellamy takes a deep breath when she doesn’t speak. “Good night.”

“Good night, Bellamy,” she replies after a pause, and he’s gone, and Clarke is left staring at the doorway.

The next night, when Clarke hears footsteps on the stairs, she scrambles to her feet. She’s been working up the courage, to just ask him—

The door opens, and it’s Ahmose. She can’t help her own face from falling.

“Not who you expected?” he asks wryly.

She struggles to compose herself, clasping her hands behind her back. “Where’s Bellamy?”

“He had other business tonight.”

Her heart sinks. He’s avoiding her. Her courage goes out the window, and she sighs. “What business?”

“He didn’t say,” Ahmose replies. “He just asked me to give you this.” Clarke looks down and notices for the first time that he’s holding a basket in his hand. It’s full of parchment scrolls.

“What are these?” she asks slowly.

“Books. They’re from the library of Alexandria, before it burned down. The king collects them, and thought these in particular might be of interest to you.”

Puzzled, she accepts the basket. “Thank you.”

After Ahmose leaves, she unfurls one of the scrolls. It’s a drawing of the human body, detailed and labelled. Even more fascinating— it shows the insides. Labels them, and the function that the author has guessed at. She bends closer. Looks through the rest of the scrolls. They’re all on anatomy. Bellamy got them for her.

Bellamy.

Clarke slowly rolls them up and falls into bed. She can’t look at them, not right now anyway.

But eventually, curiosity wins over humiliation and she does. The next day she spends hours bent over the scrolls, trying to understand, trying to reconcile their content with what she knows. Most medicinal knowledge where she comes from is based off Aristotle, and she’s starting to think he was wrong, totally wrong, about how bodies work.

She’s so engrossed that she hardly notices when the door opens the next night.

“Clarke.” She jumps at the sound of her own name, at the fact that it’s Bellamy’s voice.

But she wills herself not to turn around. She won’t be that desperate. She smooths her hand over the scroll she’s examining, tilting it more into the moonlight streaming onto the windowsill, and says evenly, “What is it?”

“Good news,” he says, and she can tell he’s smiling. “You didn’t miscarry.”

There’s something about his voice that makes her whirl around.

Bellamy is standing there with the widest grin she’s ever seen on him and— a baby in his arms.

It’s so tiny, and swaddled in blankets, she hardly recognizes it for a human being. But then it moves, a chubby little brown arm, and she sucks in a breath.

“Bellamy, who is this?”

Bellamy won’t stop smiling. “This,” he says, “is our son.”

She registers that. Moves closer, without even realizing. “What…”

Bellamy steps forward, letting Clarke touch the baby’s little head. He’s small, with dark eyes, and a swath of black curls on his scalp. “He looks enough like me,” he says softly as Clarke touches the baby. “I figured… actually having a kid would be one step better than a miscarriage.”

Clarke strokes the baby’s hair one more time and then realizes how closely her head is bent forward to Bellamy’s. She steps back and folds her arms.

“Don’t tell me you stole a baby.”

“Oh, please,” he scoffs. “There was a pregnant woman at Miu’s orphanage yesterday. She went into labour just as I was leaving, and…” He sighs, “She died in the morning, right after delivering him. And then I thought, Miu has enough kids on her hands. And we’re on the market, aren’t we?”

“I guess we are,” Clarke admits, staring down at the baby. It’s a good idea. But... “He’s not going to look anything like me. People will get suspicious.”

“Let them,” Bellamy replies airily. “It’ll take years for anyone to notice. And by that time, our alliance is solid anyway. In theory.” He holds out his arms, and Clarke realizes he’s holding the baby out to her.

Clarke sighs. They’re really doing this. She carefully accepts the bundle in her arms. The baby opens his eyes— dark, of course— and she reaches out a finger to touch his lip. He immediately latches onto it with his mouth. It’s endearing.

“What’s his name?” She can already feel herself softening.

His voice is equally soft. “Ibn.”

“Gotta say, Clarke, I didn’t expect we’d be spending one of your first nights as a free woman in a morgue.”

Clarke doesn’t look up from her work. It’s late at night— she’s spent the past several days back in the public spotlight, fielding congratulations after the announcement that she, along with her child, has recovered from her illness.

Things have died down somewhat, which is why she’s here. She’s been dying to dissect an actual human body, and now she finally has the chance. In the middle of the night only, of course. Her husband might be willing to help her in her scientific pursuits, but most people would find it utterly distasteful.

Bellamy makes a noise like he’s going to throw up when Clarke snaps off the rib she’d been sawing at with difficulty. “Hold this,” she says, reaching her hand back.

He takes it, gingerly. “You know, most people would probably say opening up human bodies would make the gods angry.”

Clarke reaches into the chest cavity of the body she’s working on. “The gods won’t be angry. I’m helping the field of medicine.” Her hands are bloody as she examines what she’s looking at, glancing back at the scroll laying on the ground to compare.

“What exactly are you looking for?” Bellamy asks.

Clarke smiles and pulls it out. Just a bit, because it’s still attached in the body by various vessels. “This.”

A pause. “Am I supposed to know what that is?”

“The human heart,” Clarke explains. “That beating feeling in your chest, it’s this.”

Some of his revulsion is replaced with curiosity as he crouches beside her. “What’s it do?”

“It pumps blood all around the body. And here—” she gestures to where she’s cleared the area of the lungs, where blood vessels are branching out into tinier ones that cover the surface of the organ, “is where that system meets the air you breathe. I’m not sure why. Maybe the blood needs something from the air, or the air needs something from the blood.”

“I’m not going to pretend like I understood any of that.”

Clarke rolls her eyes. “This,” she simplifies grandly, “is how you stay alive.”

“Is that right.” He peers at it, this limp thing resting in Clarke’s hand, and his lips quirk up. “Somehow I expected it to be more... magical.”

“Want to hold it?”

“No.”

She can’t help but tease him. “Oh, come on. Your hands are already as bloody as mine.” She brandishes the heart at him, and he leans away, looking slightly green.

“I’d rather jump into the Nile with a boulder tied to my leg.”

Clarke huffs and turns to place the heart back inside.

Bellamy stands and leans against the door, glancing through the open crack to make sure no one’s coming. “Should I be worried this is what you’re going to do to me when I’m dead? Cut me open and examine my organs?”

“Normally I would,” she mutters, “but I’m not sure you have any organs. You’re already so full of shit.”

Bellamy laughs, the skin of his eyes crinkling at the corners in a way Clarke adores. He shakes his head before picking up another piece of papyrus from the table next to him and unfurling it. He’s spent most of the past few hours reading his mail.

“What’s that one?” Clarke asks.

He glances at her. “It’s from your father.”

That makes her pause. “What does it say?”

“Don’t know. I’ve been avoiding reading it.”

She turns and gets up, snatching it from him with no care for her bloody hands. He makes a noise of protest, and she ignores him, scanning the page. Her heart starts beating faster.

“What is it?” He asks, coming up behind her.

She takes a moment. “He’s inviting us to Pisa. He wants to see Ibn, and meet with us.”

Bellamy reads it over her shoulder in silence. She knows what he’s thinking, from the language of the letter. It’s not an invite. It’s an order, and one they won’t be able to disobey. Her father wants to see with his own eyes that they’ve covered their end of the deal. The people of Cairo are still under threat from the Seljuqs. They can’t afford to decline this.

Bellamy’s the one who finally speaks, grimly: “Guess we’re going to Italy.”

It’s a long journey. They take a ship across the Mediterranean; her, Bellamy, Ibn, and Ahmose, along with several guards and attendants.

Clarke becomes more anxious with every passing day that she won’t be able to pull off the charade. That her father will take one look at Ibn, at her, and announce that it was all a sham, that he’s pulling the military from Cairo.

“Relax, princess,” Bellamy says, and she starts a bit. He’s across the room, striking a most amusing sight under normal circumstances, with his hands on Ahmose’s waist. Clarke’s been trying to teach them how to slow-dance for whatever ball her family has planned back in Italy. It might be easier if she just danced with them herself rather than giving instruction from across the room, but then she’d have to dance with Bellamy, and she’d really rather avoid that as long as possible.

“You’re supposed to be focusing on the steps,” she says sternly, “not looking at me.”

“You’re thinking so loud it’s drowning out the music.” He pulls away from his uncle and strolls closer.

She chews on her lip, looks down at Ibn in her arms. He’s sleeping soundly, head resting against her chest. “I’m just worried.”

Bellamy just looks expectantly at her.

“That I’m not going to seem motherly enough,” she confesses in a whisper, so Ahmose, who’s now sitting at the table, won’t hear. She feels awkward, shifting Ibn in her arms. “It’s too soon. I— I’m not ready for this.”

He doesn’t say anything for a long moment. When he does, his voice is exceedingly gentle. “Clarke, you remember how you left your life behind more than a year ago and married a complete stranger?”

She shifts her gaze to his.

“You never complained. Not once,” he continues. “You never acted sad or scared, even though you had every right to. Hell, I wouldn’t have even known if…”

If she hadn’t flinched. When he touched her. When she’d let her guard down for one moment, and he’d seen just how scared she was, of everything her life had become. Clarke can’t hold his gaze anymore, and looks back at Ibn.

Bellamy clears his throat. “The point is, if there’s one thing I know about you, it’s that you adapt real damn quick to new situations. This isn’t any different. You got it?”

She takes a deep breath and nods mutely.

Then Bellamy reaches out and touches her shoulders, lightly. “Hey. We can get through this.”

Her heart swells up with strange emotion and she has to pull away before she does something stupid. “We should eat. Dinner’s getting cold.”

They settle down at the table where Ibn’s been playing by himself, and Clarke sets out the soup she’d been stirring while she’d been instructing Bellamy and Ahmose on dance. They both take one sip and put down their spoons immediately.

“Interesting taste,” Ahmose says delicately.

Clarke bangs her fist on the table in frustration. “I knew I added too much salt.”

“Disgusting,” Bellamy agrees, in his typically straightforward fashion. “Clarke, where the hell were the actual cooks when you were trying to make this?”

She bristles only a moment before sighing. “They looked tired,” Clarke admits, stirring her dismal bowl. “I sent them to bed. I thought it couldn’t be too hard to finish cooking it. Guess I was wrong.” Bellamy stares at her for a moment before smiling, eyes full of endearment.

“This is the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted in my life,” he declares, and Clarke laughs until he adds, “so far.”

Clarke stops laughing. She’s sure she hasn’t imagined the way his voice deepened, or the way his smile, just moments ago full of endearment, has shied on the side of predatory.

After a long second, Ahmose stands up. “I’m going to get biscuits. Would either of you like some?”

That snaps them out of it. Bellamy blinks and leans away. Under the table, Clarke crosses her legs together tightly, trying to rein herself in.

Bellamy may be her— best friend, if she’s being honest, but he also confuses her like no one else.

They arrive in Pisa on a bright, cool morning. All of them get more and more quiet on the way to the castle, which is situated on a hill overlooking the city, a stark contrast from in Cairo, where the citadel that houses the palace is at the heart of the city.

Bellamy and Clarke are announced as the king and queen of Cairo before they enter, and they walk in together. Not holding hands, as that’s inappropriate, but side by side. Clarke holds Ibn, trying her best to project a maternal look. Ahmose trails behind.

They stop before Clarke’s waiting parents. Her mother has a huge smile and eyes for Ibn, who simply yawns at the proceedings as if bored before burying his head back into Clarke’s chest.

After initial pleasantries, her father says, “This is the crown prince of Cairo?”

Clarke nods. “Our son.”

He peers at Ibn, who is currently drooling over Clarke’s dress front. “His colouring is quite… dark. Doesn’t take after you at all.”

Ibn frowns as if understanding the comment and taking offence.

“Oh, I don’t know. I think he’s got his mother’s chin,” Bellamy says. Clarke’s hopes no one else hears the mockery under his words.

“And look at you,” Clarke’s mother says, beaming. “You look so healthy!”

Clarke takes a moment to understand what she’s talking about. Right. She’s supposed to have been sick. “I had some great healers.”

“Well, we have a lot to catch up on,” her mother says, and extends a hand to her. “While you get ready for the ball tonight.”

For the rest of the morning, and spilling into the afternoon, Clarke is scrubbed, washed, plucked, and generally beautified by her mother’s large team of attendants. During those long, dry, and occasionally painful hours, Clarke catches her mother up on her life, and is caught up in return.

“I see you took my advice,” her mother says at one point. Clarke frowns.

“What?”

“What I said about pleasing your husband.” Her mother is holding Ibn, and tickles his chin, smiling while he laughs. “The king looks at you very fondly. Means you’re doing something right.”

“Oh,” Clarke manages to say. Swallows. “I think he just sees me as a child to take care of.”

Her mother laughs. “That’s nonsense. You’re almost... too old for him.”

“Not sure he sees it that way,” Clarke mutters, and then straightens. “I, um, need some air.”

They all step back. Clarke leaves the room and then goes outside, hoping the fresh air will loosen the sudden tight feeling in her chest.

Of course she finds Bellamy there.

He’s lying in the grass by himself, right on the top of a small grassy hill, his hands behind his head with his face tipped up at the sky. He’s already all dressed, and there’s a bored expression on his face, although his eyes are closed. Clarke is about to turn around and go right back inside when his eyes open and he sees her, so she has no choice but to make her way over.

“You look nice,” he says quietly when she flops down next to him.

She realizes this isn’t the best place to sit while wearing a nice dress, but she doesn’t care. She lies down next to him, their arms barely brushing.

“Thank you.”

A silence hangs between them.

“Any tips for this ball?” Bellamy asks. “I’ve never been to Italy. Don’t know your customs very well.”

She realizes he sounds a little nervous. She hadn’t realized his tension about being here, preoccupied as she was with her own troubles, and feels guilty.

“You’ll be fine. Just don’t step on my feet when we dance,” she adds, and he barks out a laugh. She turns to her side to watch his profile, the silhouette of his long eyelashes, the freckles splashed on his cheeks, his strong jawline and throat. She’d like to paint him like this. Beautiful, strong, but vulnerable, and somehow boyish, all at once.

She clears her throat and looks away, trying to push down the sudden and unwelcome rush of warmth in her chest. “And it would help if you weren’t so obvious about how much you dislike my father.”

A darker expression crosses his face. “Can you blame me? After what he’s doing to my people? After what he’s done to you?”

Clarke turns to him again, startled. “After what he’s done to me? What does that mean?”

He purses his lips, and she has the feeling he’s let something slip he hadn’t meant to.

Bellamy.”

“I just meant,” he begins gruffly, “that he forced you to marry me, when you clearly didn’t want to. That’s all.”

She stares at him. He won’t look at her, but there’s tension in his jaw, and she realizes that yes, he really is that dense.

“It’s not like that,” she tries, and a bitter smile crosses his mouth.

“You don’t have to lie to make me feel better, princess. I get it.”

“No, you don’t,” she says with frustration. “Look at me. I wasn’t forced into anything. I could’ve run away if I wanted. But I chose this.”

He nods. “For your people.”

“At first,” she agrees softly. “But I’m not lying when I say that now… I’m really, really glad you’re my husband.”

Bellamy’s lips part as he stares at her.

She’s feeling bold now, and she reaches out to touch his hair, his silky black hair that curls over his forehead, to stroke it, and his eyelashes flutter upon the contact of her fingers. He leans into her hand a bit, and she goes on, braver now. “That night, in the tower… you know, the one…” She trails off, unsure of how to put it.

“I know the one,” he reassures her. His eyes are impossibly dark.

She swallows. “You said it didn’t have to be you. Well, I want it to be you.”

He sucks in a breath, and he doesn’t say anything for a long, long moment. So long that Clarke loses courage and quickly adds, “Bellamy, I just wanted you to know. It’s alright if you don’t want—”

“I want,” Bellamy cuts her off, his voice ragged. “I do want.”

And then he’s kissing her, leaning across the miniscule distance between them to press his lips to hers, soft and warm and inviting and loving.

It’s a slow press of lips against lips. She grabs onto his shirt to pull him closer, and she feels his hand on her cheek as they kiss again, and again, small, careful butterfly kisses that make her heady.

When they part, it’s just a breath away from each other. He says nothing, but his eyes are beaming at her and Clarke feels indescribably happy.

She tries her best to play it off. “This is the part where you say you’re glad I’m your wife, and that you’d do anything for me.”

Bellamy leans forward to nudge his nose against hers and sighs. “I would.”

He says it so earnestly that it tugs at her heartstrings. He’s not hiding a damn thing from his voice. It’s almost overwhelming, all the emotions she hears there all of a sudden, now that she’s listening. “But you wouldn’t hold the human heart for me,” she says lightly.

He scrunches his nose a little, and it’s adorable. “But I’d drag a thousand cadavers up to your tower for medical examination, if that’s what you wanted. And I think that’s even better.”

She grins, giggles a little. “And they say romance is dead.”

“If it is, you can dissect it in the name of science.” She rolls over to hit him, but he dodges, rolling away and laughing, and when she keeps rolling to catch him he grabs her and holds her close, so that they roll down the grassy hill in a tangle.

She’s still laughing once they’ve gotten to the bottom. Her hair’s in her eyes and she’s pinned beneath Bellamy. She’s still laughing when he leans down and kisses her again, right there in this grassy field, right there under the afternoon sun.

He kisses her like he’s trying to bottle up her laughter, like he wants to inhale her joy into his own lungs. He tilts his head and so does she, deepening the kiss. Her mouth opens a little, and she feels the brush of his tongue against hers, sending a little jolt down her spine. Clarke wraps her arms around his neck, tugs at his hair, runs her hands down his broad shoulders. Bellamy’s hands are on her face, thumbs stroking her cheeks, and although they are as close as they could be with their clothes between them, still they try to pull each other closer. They kiss, and kiss, and kiss again, and Clarke thinks she’ll never have enough.

Then Clarke’s mother calls.

Distantly, but it’s enough to make them part, to gasp for air. Clarke had forgotten she needed it for a minute.

Somehow, they’ve rolled so that Clarke’s on top of him, and she rests her forehead on his. “We probably shouldn’t be seen like this.”

“Probably,” Bellamy agrees. Even between married couples, handholding in public would raise eyebrows. Kissing in public would be highly inappropriate, scandalous even. She supposes that nearly molesting her husband in public would be the talk of the town for centuries after. And yet, neither of them move.

“Clarke!” Her mother yells again, and Clarke gets the feeling in a few moments her mother will reach the hilltop and only have to look down to see the two of them, so she quickly gets off him.

And with not a moment to spare, her mother’s face appears at the top of the hill. She looks around and then down, sees them at the bottom of the hill, covered in grass and hair mussed, but thankfully sitting apart.

“You’re going to be late for the ball,” is all she says, and Clarke scrambles to her feet.

She can’t tell what her mother is thinking until later, when the attendants are fixing her hair, brushing out the grass, and her mother leans in and says slyly, “I think he’s very fond of you indeed.”

Clarke wills herself not to blush.

The ball is a boring affair. Clarke’s attended far too many of these by now. Seeing Bellamy is the highlight, but they barely get to do more than connect gazes across the room before some diplomat touches his arm and he’s engaged in conversation.

She curses whoever he’s talking to internally. She wants to talk to him. Instead, she makes her way over to a chair to sit down, but then there’s a voice behind her.

“May I have this dance?”

She turns to see someone she vaguely recognizes; a man with blond hair and blue eyes like her own, that she’s seen around the castle before, even spoken to a few times before she left Pisa. It takes her a moment to place him.

“The prince of Genoa,” she says politely. It’s a neighbouring kingdom to Pisa. “A pleasure.”

“The king now, actually,” he replies. He’s very handsome, and his smile is too. Clarke is not interested. She glances behind him to see Bellamy is still chatting away. The king of Genoa goes on. “But haven’t I always told you to call me Antonio?”

Clarke looks down at his extended hand. Traditionally, she’d dance with her husband first before anyone else, but he’s preoccupied and it’d be rude not to accept from such a high-profile guest. So she takes his hand and lets him lead her to the floor, where the music is playing at just the right level of volume to allow for talk but also for dance.

As they assume a rhythm, both of them practiced at it, Antonio says, “You look beautiful tonight.”

The comment itself isn’t out of the ordinary, but Clarke doesn’t miss the way his gaze flicks over her entire form, lingering on her chest. And his hand is rather low on her waist. “Thank you.” Perhaps later she’ll spill some wine on his pristine white shirt, she muses.

“So, you’re the queen of Cairo now,” he says.

“Yes.”

“I met your husband earlier. Seems a bit uptight.”

Clarke frowns, even though this is something she would’ve said herself upon meeting him. “He’s just a little reserved, that’s all.”

“I hope he’s not too reserved with you,” Antonio replies, boldly. “You deserve… better.”

Clarke stares at him. There’s a clear proposition in his voice. “You can’t be serious. I’m married now.”

He chuckles. “Let’s not kid ourselves. That doesn’t mean anything, when it comes to this.” As if to illustrate his point, he pulls her closer. “Marriage is business, for all of us here. If you want fun, well…” He leans in closer, “you have to go elsewhere.”

“Well, not for me,” Clarke says with gritted teeth, and pulls away from him. Hard. He doesn’t stop her. In fact, there’s admiration in his voice instead.

“You’re loyal to your husband,” he says with a grin. “I like that.”

She stomps away into the crowd blindly. A hand catches her elbow and she whirls on her attacker. It’s Bellamy, his eyebrows raised.

“Who was that?” he asks, mildly. “Think I’ve met him before.”

“Antonio, king of Genoa,” she snaps. “He’s even worse than I remembered.”

He frowns and looks up, hair falling into his eyes a bit as he searches the crowd. “Want me to hit him?”

Clarke rolls her eyes. He sounds dead serious. “You’re a king. You’re not supposed to be a bad politician.”

“I’m not an idiot, I can make it look like an accident.”

She smiles despite herself. “No, thank you. I would’ve just done it myself if I really wanted to.”

His eyes dance with amusement and something more. “I know. Now, can we please just get this dance over with already?” He extends a hand, and she doesn’t hesitate this time to take it.

Then they dance.

They don’t talk for most of it, because Clarke can tell he’s concentrating on the moves, especially with everyone watching them, the king and queen of Cairo that they’ve not seen before.

She’s perfectly practiced in this dance, which means she’s not similarly occupied. She has nothing to do but watch him, which turns out to be a mistake. Bellamy in the throes of concentration— eyebrows slightly furrowed, eyes focused on nothing, full lips pressed together— is a sight, especially up close. She finds herself obsessing over the heat that his hands sear through the thick material of her dress. She wishes they would slide lower. Or higher.

Then he looks up, meets her eyes, and stumbles.

It’s a slight stumble, so it’s probably gone unnoticed. And most of the people who were watching them have lost interest, but still, he curses.

“Clarke,” he mutters, “stop that.”

She bats her eyelashes innocently. “What?”

“You know what. Looking at me like— that.” He yanks her closer. “You’re killing me.”

“If I succeed,” she teases, delighted by the closer proximity, “will you donate your body to science?”

He laughs breathlessly, and buries the sound against her hair. “Damn, princess. If you wanted my body so bad, you didn’t have to kill me for it. You just had to ask.”

She runs her hand down his shoulder, fingers tracing a path down his arm, and then leans up in the middle of their dance, to whisper against his ear. “Maybe I’m asking.”

His eyes are impossibly dark when she leans back. He licks his lips, and then he takes her hand that’s resting on his other arm, and deliberately places it on his chest, over where she can feel his heart is beating frantically. “Is that answer enough for you?” he asks, quietly.

Her throat feels dry. “I want to hear you say it,” she replies, and some part of her is shocked at her own forwardness, but the way he’s staring at her makes her emboldened.

Obediently, he leans forward until their foreheads are touching, until they share the same breath. “Tonight,” he murmurs in his deep, delicious tenor, “I’d like to show you exactly how glad I am that you’re my wife.”

She exhales. They’re not even really dancing anymore, just swaying in place, but she can’t find it in herself to care. “I thought you didn’t see me that way,” she admits, feeling exposed. “You never seemed interested.”

His lips quirk up. “Really? Not even after I finger fucked you?” His hand flexes on her waist, as if remembering.

She flushes at his wording. “I thought you just did that because you thought I needed it.”

“Partly,” he admits. “And partly because I thought that once you walked out of that tower and had your choice of anyone you wanted, you’d never ask me for it again.”

She’s on fire everywhere. “Don’t be stupid,” she tells him. “You’re the only one I want to touch me like—”

They’re interrupted by her father, of all people, saying, “May I borrow my daughter for a dance?”

Luckily, they’d both been whispering so quietly to each other that it’s unlikely he’s heard, but he’s definitely watching how closely they’re dancing. This, Clarke realizes, is definitely scandal material. She steps away from Bellamy with an awkward cough. Bellamy gives a short, wordless bow in her father’s direction and strides off without another glance.

Dancing with her father is an immediate turn off for more reasons than one.

“You and the king seem close,” he notes, close to the end of the song. Clarke’s sure she’s flaming red.

When she says nothing, he adds, “I’m glad you’ve adjusted well. The king giving you a leadership role is even better than I’d imagined. It’s good that we have some sway in the South.”

She nods, wishing she could say that she’d demanded that role, that she’d worked for it, not passively been given it. She simply answers stiffly, “I do what I do for my people.”

He seems pleased at that. “Good. I hope you’ll continue to.” They dance for another minute, and then he lets go of her. “I have some important news to share. Come find me after the ball.”

And then he’s gone, and Clarke is left with a sour taste in her mouth.

The ball is over near midnight, and Clarke’s lips are tired from smiling. She’s certain she has a grumpy look on her face when she appears in the meeting room. Her hair is falling out of its updo and the kohl around her eyes is smudged, but she can’t find it in herself to care. Politics is exhausting. Her mood is marginally improved to find Bellamy in the room as well, along with her father and several of his advisors.

He looks just as tired as she feels, but when he catches her stare across the table his eyes seem to brighten a bit. She finds herself able to send him a small smile.

“Thank you for coming,” her father says, as if they had any choice. “I have news.” He pauses. “A trade and military alliance is in the making, between Pisa, Genoa, Corsica and Sardinia.” All European kingdoms, so she’s surprised when he adds, “possibly even Cairo, if you would accept the offer.”

Bellamy and Clarke exchange looks of puzzlement. Clarke speaks up. “We already have a military alliance with Pisa,” she says wearily. And they’d paid enough for it.

He nods emphatically. “Of course. But we’re talking an alliance of greater proportions. Trade and military, even food. Genoa will provide Pisa with the food we desperately need in these times of drought, so we wouldn’t even have to take from Cairo anymore.”

Clarke bites her lip. The prospect of their people no longer starving? It sounds too good to be true.

Bellamy shares her concerns. “What’s the catch?”

“Nothing you’re not already familiar with.” He pauses, and everything seems to hang in the balance for a moment. “The king of Genoa would like to take Clarke as his wife.”

Everything comes crashing down.

“What?” Bellamy says sharply, and Clarke just hears ringing in her ears.

“Those are his terms.”

“What if we traded with him instead,” Bellamy starts, but he’s cut off by Clarke’s father again.

“I’ve tried discussing this with him. Even though I told him that my daughter is not only already married, but also— used,” Clarke’s hands clench into fists under the table, “and has a child. But he didn’t seem to care. He just wants a Pisan wife.”

Bellamy glances at Clarke, but she’s still frozen in her seat.

“Of course,” her father adds, “she doesn’t have to do it.”

“Damn right she doesn’t,” Bellamy snaps hotly. “We’ve been married for over a year. We have a kid. You can’t ask us to—”

Clarke’s father interrupts. “It’s your choice. But I should point out that your people will have to live with whatever choice you make.” He directs this at both of them.

There is a long silence. Clarke can see Bellamy’s tension in the way his hands are gripping the sides of the table. She knows he’s thinking about it too. Maybe that famine isn’t so inevitable after all.

“I’ll do it,” she murmurs, but she may as well have shouted, for how quiet the room is right then. She hears Bellamy’s sharp intake of breath but focuses her eyes on her father, who smiles. It’s not just about Cairo; agreeing to Genoa’s terms will allow Pisa to have a better trade relationship with them, too. It’s just a tangle of politics and Clarke hates it, hates that she has to barter with her life.

“I’m glad to hear that you still understand that your duty comes first,” her father says softly.

“Clarke,” Bellamy says tersely, “I need to talk to you. Alone.”

She hardly glances at him. She fears that if she does, she will splinter. “What about Ibn?”

“You choose what you’d like to do with your son, of course,” her father says. “You can take him with you, or leave him here in Pisa with your mother. I’ll have the divorce papers ready by morning,” he adds, standing. “I’d advise that you… sort it out, between the two of you, if you want to go through with it.”

Clarke nods, taking that as a cue to go, and stands to leave. Bellamy follows her out.

They barely make it a few steps down the hall before he grabs her arm. “Please tell me you’re not actually doing this.”

“I’ve made my choice.”

“This isn’t just your choice, it’s ours,” he barks at her. “It affects me too. It affects Ibn.”

She wrenches her arm out of his grip. “I’m not even his real mother, Bellamy. And you’re forgetting one important party in this equation. This affects everyone in our kingdom. Our people, Bellamy. You want them to starve? Or you want them to be able to live without the fear of going hungry?”

His hesitation is all she needs to fully make up her mind. She turns to head to her rooms. “I’m doing this.”

He’s silent for a long moment. She thinks he’s stewing in anger, but instead, when he speaks again, she’s surprised to find that he’s close to tears. “But you said you didn’t like him.”

She doesn’t answer right away.

“Clarke.” His voice is pleading.

“I don’t like him, really,” she admits quietly. “But he’s bearable. I’ll live with it.” She turns to give him a look, which is a mistake; looking into his too-bright eyes makes her want to start crying too. But she can’t. They can’t both break down at once. One of them has to be strong.

“For the rest of your life?”

His broken words hang in the air. And it’s no question; this decision is one she’ll have to live with forever after. To lose Bellamy as her husband, right when she truly got him.

It’s funny, she muses. How one day can be both the best and worst of your life.

“Tell me honestly, Bellamy,” she says. “Logically, does it make sense for me to stay married to you while our people to die of starvation? If there’s something we can do about it?”

He stays quiet, eyelashes sweeping down, that familiar muscle ticking in his jaw. He understands just as well as her that this is the only choice. And it’s killing him.

“You know I’m right,” she says to the silence. “We can’t keep fighting on two fronts— the Seljuqs outside our walls and the famine within them. Something had to give.”

They’ve finally reached Clarke’s door. Clarke had found it puzzling that, at the beginning of the day, they were given separate rooms. Now she understands. This visit was never about seeing Ibn. Never about them. It was about their separation.

She pushes the door open. She is ready to bid him a good night, to close the door. But then Bellamy speaks again and she stops. Stops at the sound of his voice behind her, the most strong, defeated, sweet, painful thing she could hear right now.

“All you have to do is say it, Clarke,” he says, desperate. “Just say the word, and we’ll figure something else out.”

“Like what?” she replies, trying to keep steady. No reply.

There is no something else. They both know it. Just like how they both know that Clarke will never say the word. They both love their people far too much.

“Good night, Bellamy,” Clarke replies after a long silence, and the sound the door makes as it closes is like a heart breaking.

The divorce papers are signed the next morning. Clarke signs them, and then Bellamy does, and they both have equally blank expressions while doing it.

“I’m sorry about the situation of your child,” her father says, as if he cares. “It’s unfortunate. But you’ll have to choose, either here with your mother or with you in Genoa—”

“I’ll take him,” Bellamy says, the first words she’s heard him utter all morning.

Clarke’s father shoots him a look, clearly thrown off. “We’d never expect the king of a busy state to take on such a responsibility as raising a son, not without a woman around. We assure you he’ll be well taken care of here—”

“I’ll. Take. Him,” Bellamy repeats, and some distant part of Clarke is satisfied to see her father pale slightly. And the most present part of Clarke is thankful— because he understands, he understands the difficulty associated with wanting to take Ibn with her to a European nation that won’t care for him. And she’d rather not have him under the watchful eye of her father, either. At least with Bellamy, she can count on Ibn being safe.

She shoots him a grateful look, and he barely inclines his head in response as he turns on the heel to leave.

“Then we’re done here,” her father says after an uneasy silence, after the door’s closed behind her husband— her ex-husband, she reminds herself, and feels a pang. “Clarke, you’ll be leaving this afternoon.”

She has to make sure. “And you’ll no longer be imposing a tariff on Cairo for military support? They’ll be protected from the Seljuqs anyhow, under this alliance?”

“You have my word,” he says. “And even better, documentation. Now go pack your things.”

Clarke nods robotically. He chuckles.

“Don’t look so grim, my dear. Won’t it be nice to marry someone, hm, more civilized looking?”

It takes her a moment to process his words, and all she feels is a hot flush of anger. Despite his dealings with the Egyptian nations, he still doesn’t respect them.

It’s this realization that makes her say it. “You should know I’m not doing this for you.” She looks him in the eye. “I’m doing it for my people.”

He doesn’t seem bothered. “The people of Pisa will thank you.”

“The people of Cairo,” she corrects, and stalks out.

Her bags are all packed already; there wasn’t much to pack. Just one thing left— to see Ibn.

He’s with her mother, who says nothing, only presses a kiss to her hair that seems to say everything, every apology, and hands off the baby to her.

She doesn’t expect herself to crumple so much on the inside when she sees him. But when she sits beside them, and tickles his belly to make him laugh, a strange amount of heavy emotion settles in her chest. Ibn isn’t really her son— didn’t come from her, technically— but, he’s still one of her people. He represents them. He is them. And although she’s only known him a short time, he’s become hers. And now she’s abandoning him.

“I’m sorry,” she whispers to him.

“It’s the worst feeling in the world, isn’t it,” Clarke’s mother murmurs. “To be helpless to help your own child.”

Clarke looks up to find the older woman watching her sadly. She looks away immediately, back to the baby in her arms. And Ibn just smiles, so innocent, so untainted. She can’t stand it. She hands him back to her own mother and gets up to leave.

But she only ends up continuing to watch from the doorway. Her mother pretends not to notice her still dwelling there, and she’s thankful.

“Don’t worry,” says Bellamy, and she nearly jumps at the sound of his quiet voice at her side in the doorway. “He’ll be okay with me. Ahmose was practically my second father, he knows what to do. And Miu will help—”

“I know,” Clarke says. Her throat feels tight. “I know he’ll be fine with you. I’m not thinking that.”

They both stand there in silence, watching her mother play with the baby.

“Then what are you thinking?” Bellamy asks at last, and Clarke turns to look up at him, tries to memorize his features.

“Something selfish.”

He exhales and blinks a few times. Rubs his jaw. His hand, she notices, is shaking. The same hand he signed the divorce document with.

She takes it without thinking. Draws it to her own mouth. Kisses his palm.

Bellamy draws in a shaky breath, watching her. His fingers curl to cup her cheek.

She closes her eyes, squeezes them shut, revels in the touch of his calloused skin. She wants to tell him she’ll miss him. But that’ll make it harder.

It’s like he reads her mind, though, because he says, almost to himself, “We’ll see each other now and then.”

That prospect almost sounds more painful than never seeing him again. She opens her eyes to look at him again.

He stands there, a mile away from her, and all she wants is to be close to him. She takes a step forward, hugs him.

He falls back into her, and she revels in his welcoming arms, against his safe body where nothing can touch her, at least in this instant. She hugs him around the middle and she holds him tight as she can to her, interlinking her fingers around his back and pressing her teary eyes against his shoulder. He smells good and he feels good and he’s— so good and she never wants to let go.

“Clarke,” Bellamy whispers, lips brushing against her hair. His voice is steady, because he knows she is not. “I don’t care that we’re not married anymore. If you ever need anything— ever— you tell me.”

She’s so weak, especially when she’s being held by him, that she almost does it right then, almost begs him to make her stay, to not let her go with the king of Genoa. That hope that they could— figure something else out. It would be so easy to fool herself into thinking it.

But then she hears Ibn squabble nonsense behind them, and she snaps out of it, takes a deep breath and pulls away from him. Looks Bellamy right in the eye, right in those brown eyes that are the opposite of steady.

She can never put him in that position. Can never ask him to make his people suffer— for her.

“Take care of yourself, Bellamy,” she tells him, brushing her hand over his arm once more. And then she does the hardest thing she’s ever had to do.

She leaves him behind.

Clarke has been to Genoa before, and it’s in the same geographical area as Pisa, so it’s not quite the culture shock Cairo was. Antonio is indeed bearable most of the time. Kind, even. And she’s only one of his three wives, so at least she doesn’t have to entertain him very often.

There are times when he’s less bearable, though.

Like when he says something, then turns to her with a grin on his face, and she realizes she’s expected to laugh. She forces a giggle, hating herself.

And she’s got no say in ruling the kingdom. She’s tried to tell him she wanted to help, but he and the rest of his advisors are much less welcoming to the idea. Clarke almost finds herself missing Bellamy’s stuffy advisors. At least they’d— occasionally— listened to reason.

But she does what she needs to, wanting to keep him happy, to keep his generosity flowing to Pisa, so that Cairo won’t have to suffer. She does absolutely everything she needs to do for her people, and because it’s for them, she does it happily enough.

Her mother’s words from a long time ago echo in her head in times like these. Laugh when he tells a joke, stay quiet when you disagree with him, and spread your legs when he comes to your bed.

She’s certainly become a perfect trophy wife.

The other wives are nice women, although they seem more content to live on the sidelines. They share with Clarke a tea to prevent pregnancy— “Antonio’s got enough kids running around,” they giggle— and welcome her to play backgammon every afternoon. She still feels lonely. She still feels like she’s missing her right hand.

Despite her efforts to forget her ex-husband, she finds herself comparing Antonio in every way to Bellamy. To his sense of humour, his physical attractiveness, to his manner of speaking, his respect for her, his intelligence, even his sexual prowess, or at least as much of it as she’d experienced. In every way, Bellamy is just… better. It’s almost infuriating how she can’t seem to let go of him.

The fact that he sends her letters doesn’t help.

Or rather, Ahmose sends her letters, letting her know that Cairo is doing better now, that Ibn’s doing well, and inquiring as to her own health. The letters never mention Bellamy himself, which is why she suspects he’s a large hand in crafting them. And that they’re his way of asking her if she’s alright, if she needs anything.

She always writes back formally, letting them know she’s fine— which is, technically, true. The life she is currently leading is exactly the one she expected she would live after getting married the first time.

Then the first summit meeting of what they’re calling the Mediterranean Alliance is set, three months later.

“I’d like to go,” she tells Antonio formally. He just raises his eyebrows.

“Why?”

“To see my son,” she replies. “The king of Cairo is going, is he not?”

“He is,” Antonio agrees. Pauses. “If you miss him so much, why don’t you just keep your son here? I wouldn’t mind.”

I would. Clarke folds her hands in her lap. “I thought it would be better if he were raised with his father.”

“If the king of Cairo’s alright with bringing your boy along, I don’t see why not,” Antonio says with a shrug, and it’s settled.

She’s going to see Bellamy again.

Her first glimpse of him is in the meeting room, situated in the capital of Corsica.

As always, his hair is a mess, and his clothes are relatively simple to the finery of other nobles. He’s holding Ibn in his arms. Ahmose is next to him and when they walk in, he frowns at a bit of dirt smudged on Bellamy’s shirtsleeve, reaches forward to try to brush it off. Bellamy wrenches his arm away, and gives Ahmose a look like, Really? Here?

She has to bite her lip to keep from smiling.

Then Bellamy looks up, meets her eyes, and she can’t stop herself anyway.

His lips part. Ahmose follows his nephew’s gaze and sees Clarke. Shakes his head and turns away. Clarke doesn’t pay him any mind. She’s seeing Bellamy for the first time in months. The feeling is like breathing fresh air outside after she’s spent the day cooped up in her tower.

The nobles are all mingling still, so she sashays closer, and he steps casually in her direction, so they meet halfway, facing each other.

They stare at each other, and finally Clarke inclines her head. “It’s a pleasure, your highness.” And goes to curtsy, but his hand shoots out to stop her.

“Please never bow to me,” he says, voice husky. His eyes fall on her body, drag over every inch.

She might have primped up just for this.

He swallows and brings his gaze to her eyes. “How are you doing?”

“I’m fine. You?”

“Fine.” A faint smile is playing on his lips, and then his gaze slips over her shoulder. Clarke knows he must see her husband somewhere there. “How’s Alberto treating you?”

“Antonio,” Clarke corrects him, smoothing over her dress. “He’s fine. Everything is fine. I promise.” her eyes fall on the four-month-old baby yawning in his arms. “How is he?” Her voice becomes a whisper; it’s easier to hide the break that way.

Bellamy offers her Ibn in response. She takes him, and without a spoken word, the two of them drift to the balcony, for a little bit of privacy.

While Ibn tugs at her gold necklace curiously, Bellamy leans against the railing. “Are you sure you’re alright?”

“Of course I am,” Clarke replies evenly. “How’s everyone back home?” She bites her tongue right away at her own wording.

His hands, she notices, seem to grip the railing a little tighter. “Well, they’re not starving anymore,” he manages to respond. “And I made sure they know who to thank.”

Something warm swells in her chest. “Did you make sure they knew who’s fault it was that they were starving in the first place?” she asks dryly.

His eyes shift to hers. “It was never your fault, Clarke.”

She wants to touch him. To trace away the tension in his shoulders, to kiss away the frown, to hold his hand so that he will stop clenching it into a fist.

Instead, she shifts Ibn in her hands. The silence builds between them, and Bellamy finally pushes off the railing. “I’d better go,” he mutters. “Get through this stupid damn meeting.”

“It’s not stupid,” she says mildly. “This alliance is keeping the Seljuqs away from Cairo.”

He continues like she hadn’t spoken. “You hold onto him until it’s over.” He pauses, hesitant. “I’m glad you’re here.” He touches her shoulder and then he’s gone.

The next few days are full of meetings. Since she’s not allowed inside, Clarke spends most of her time painting or with Ibn. She’s only able to catch brief glimpses of Bellamy between meetings until a morning later that week.

She’s walking into one of the rooms of the castle, looking for Ibn and the caretaker who’d been holding him, and instead she bumps into someone.

Her first thought is Antonio, and her mouth almost forms the shape of his name before focusing and looking up and realizing it’s Bellamy.

Some kind of pain crosses his face before he shuts it down. They stand in the doorway. It’s too quiet here. She fills the silence with his name. “Bellamy.”

He squeezes his eyes shut at the sound of her breathy voice. “Good morning.”

Silence. She should move. She should go, to the public area, to eat, move away from Bellamy, who makes her skin dance with sensation without even touching her. But instead, a different feeling niggles away at her; this is the first time they’ve been alone at this summit. And she suddenly remembers Antonio’s words from months ago.

Marriage is business, for all of us here. If you want fun, well… you have to go elsewhere.

So she says, “Go ahead and ask.”

He opens his dark eyes and fixes them on some point above her head. “Ask what?”

“Ask the question you’ve been thinking about this entire week.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

She raises her eyebrows. “Really? You’re not wondering how he fucks me?”

A blush rises to his cheeks. He stares and stares in shock, clearly never having thought those words would ever leave her mouth. She enjoys his speechlessness. When he does speak, it’s low, hesitant. “All I care about is if you’re okay or not.”

“Liar.”

He flushes more, down the neck, and she loves the tint it brings to his skin. “It’s none of my business.”

“Isn’t it?”

He’s watching her warily now, trying to figure out her game, her frame of mind. She lets it shine through her eyes defiantly. She wants him. Just because they’re not in a political marriage doesn’t mean…

“I may be, technically, married to the king of Genoa,” she tells him lowly, “but you’re the only man I consider my husband.”

He licks his lips, considering her once more before seeming to come to a decision. Stepping closer. His voice is pitched lower when he speaks. “You shouldn’t say that.”

“Why not?”

“I might do something stupid.”

“Like what.”

“Like give you something to compare him to.”

She tilts her head up, lowers her eyelids. “Took you long enough to offer.”

His eyes darken, and in the next instant he presses her against the wall.

“You really wanna do this, Clarke?” He grinds against her, showing her how much he likes the idea. Instead of answering she grabs his chin, bringing him to her for a kiss.

There’s no hesitation on Bellamy’s part when their lips meet. They kiss instantly and furiously, and she bites at his lip, and then their tongues are sliding against each other, teeth colliding in their haste. It’s messy and it’s hot and it’s exactly what she wants.

But it’s not enough.

She pushes him into the room— he slams the door shut with his foot— and pulls him to the couch. She clambers onto him, hands everywhere, places she’s only allowed herself to fantasize about.

He makes a sound, low in his throat as she leans down to mouth at his jaw, her body moving against his. His hands grab her hips, trying to make her still.

“You wanna, princess?” he gasps, voice a little strained. “You sure?”

“Yeah,” she whines, “yeah, I am. If you’re up for it.” She raises her eyebrows, and Bellamy laughs like it’s the best joke she’s made.

Then they’re kissing again, and his hands slide up her back, and down her ass, and she hikes up her skirts up a little so he can slide his hand between her legs, where he’s only touched her once, but her body seems to remember him anyway.

“Damn, Clarke, should I be rethinking our past marriage? I didn’t know you get off on cheating on your husband.” He grins, snapping his teeth close to her ear as he touches her.

“I get off on you,” she gasps, gripping his shoulders. Her world is focusing in on just his fingers on her, in her, everywhere.

He growls, seeming to like that, and his grip on her hip becomes almost bruising. In one movement, he grabs her and rolls them over, so he’s on top, none too gently. His physical possessiveness thrills her. Feeds into her own desire. She wants him now.

It takes them several clumsy minutes with their clothes, and then, finally, they’re skin on skin. He kisses up her thighs and everywhere he’s already touched her with his hands until she’s got begging words on the tip of her tongue.

She doesn’t need to use them. He knows when she’s ready, exactly what she wants, and when he doesn’t, she tells him with her gasps and her moans and her giggles and her hands, urging him on.

Mostly, through the haze of pleasure, it just… feels right, to be doing this with Bellamy. It intensifies everything she’s feeling when she’s feeling it with her best friend.

The summit ends the next day. Clarke sends Bellamy off with a kiss, stolen against the wall in the shrouded darkness.

Leaving him, and Ibn, is still just as painful.

But a few months later, the alliance has another meeting. This time in Genoa. They don’t waste time. They catch up. They have sex. Honestly, it’s probably the best arrangement they could hope for.

“Ibn got into your paints the other day,” he tells her one night, while they’re both hastily tugging on clothes. “Tracked all that black paint in the great hall.”

“Ahmose must’ve had a fit.” She struggles with her necklace, and he latches it for her before grinning.

“I think he had to lie down for a few hours when he saw the mess.”

She misses Ahmose, too. God, she misses all of them. But they don’t talk about that. They don’t talk about the lack of future between them.

The next time they meet, Ibn can talk.

Sure, it’s mostly jibberish with a few “toot toot”s in between, but Clarke still gasps in joy. She spends that summit with him, trying to teach him new words.

Bellamy finds them playing in the sand that day after whatever meeting he’s been in and sits down next to her wordlessly.

“How’d it go?” She asks him.

“Fine.” He pauses, and clears his throat. “I wish you were in there with me.”

She pretends she’s okay. “I am here.”

“You know what I meant.” A gentle breeze picks up his fringe of dark hair, so she can see the way his brows are furrowed. “You’re a leader. You should be at that table.”

She shrugs. “Maybe. Maybe not.” She’s not sure she makes the right decisions most of the time, anyway. “But I’m not just sitting around in Genoa. I’ve been helping the healers,” she tells him in a rush. “I’m trying to compile all the knowledge I can about anatomy. All the information and drawings. It might help people, later on.”

He sits back and his eyes glow with pride. “That’s good.”

Ibn sits up and utters a long string of gibberish at them.

“Is that his way of complimenting me?” Clarke laughs.

“How the hell would I know?” Bellamy picks up the baby and bounces him on his lap, making him giggle. “Ibn never says anything that makes sense. Takes after his grandfather that way. Isn’t that right?” he coos. Bounces him higher. Ibn shrieks in laughter.

Clarke watches fondly, and draws her knees up to her chest. “When did he start talking?”

“About a week ago. His first word was mama.”

Bellamy’s words are offhand, casual, but Clarke freezes up. A lump rises in her throat. Ibn never said that word to her. She will never truly be his mother, not like this, seeing him once every few months. Maybe he said it to Miu. She’s been helping with him when Bellamy was busy, after all. A bitter taste is in her mouth suddenly.

“He said it to me, you know.”

She looks up to find Bellamy watching her. Completely serious.

“Really?”

“Really.”

She laughs, some of the tension leaving her. “That’s perfect.”

Bellamy sounds disgruntled. “The hell it is. I keep trying to teach him that it’s wrong but he won’t listen. I told you, he never makes any damn sense.”

“I don’t know about that,” she teases him. “You’re very motherly.”

Before he can retort, they both hear footsteps scuffling through the sand towards them from behind, and fall silent.

It’s a few moments before Clarke hears Antonio’s voice. “Ah, Clarke, there you are. I was beginning to wonder.”

Clarke keeps her eyes fixed to the sand, ignoring Bellamy’s suddenly heavy gaze on her. “Can I have a few more minutes with my son, please?”

“Of course.” A pause. “Bellamy, I wanted to speak to you.”

She feels the man in question tense beside her, but probably not noticeably.

“Something you need?”

“Just want to go over this trade agreement one more time, if you don’t mind.”

“Okay,” Bellamy says easily. “Give me a minute and I’ll be right there.”

Antonio pauses at the dismissal in Bellamy’s voice. “You don’t need to be here while Clarke’s with her son, you know that, right?”

There’s a long silence. Clarke holds her breath until Bellamy answers.

“Normally you’d be right, Angelo—”

“Antonio.”

“—but Ibn gets nervous around Clarke when I’m not around. He doesn’t know her well enough. So I’ll stay another minute.”

Antonio hesitates only another moment before saying, “Very well.”

Clarke doesn’t look up, but hears him walk away, and Bellamy exhales, leaning towards her.

“That wasn’t true, by the way,” he says. “Ibn loves you. Cries whenever you have to leave.”

“I know.” She fiddles with the hem of her dress.

A long silence. Their previous illusion of peace has been shattered.

“God, I hate this,” Bellamy says in a rush, scrubbing a hand over his face. “I hate that you have to— be his wife—”

“I’ll do whatever I have to to protect our people,” Clarke says with steel in her voice.

“That doesn’t stop it being wrong.”

She shrugs, wishing she could stop feeling so numb. “It’s worth it. Every bit, if our people don’t have to die. Isn’t it?” She tosses him a look.

He gazes back unflinchingly. “Sometimes I’m not sure.” Then he gets up, dusting sand off his clothes, and walks away.

On the way home from that particular summit, Antonio says to her, “Did you have feelings for your last husband?”

She nearly chokes on nothing. “What makes you think that?”

“You… seem close.”

Clarke considers her next words carefully. “We’re friends,” she says after a moment. “We have a child together. It’s hard not to be.”

“I see,” he responds, and to her relief that’s the end of it.

But it’s not, really, the end of it.

Because Antonio’s other wives like to gossip, and one day they’re playing backgammon and Clarke’s deliberating her next move when she hears his name.

She perks up immediately. The other women don’t notice, as animated as they are in their talk, and Clarke struggles to catch up. Something about the kingdom of Nri, which is southwest of Cairo from what she remembers.

“The crown princess of Nri would like to marry him,” one of them says, and that’s when Clarke speaks up.

“Marry who?”

She looks a little surprised that Clarke’s asking— she usually doesn’t talk too much, just listens— but answers anyway. “The king of Cairo, of course. For a political agreement for Nri.” She chuckles and gives Clarke a knowing look. “Lots of that going around these days.”

Clarke tries her best to return the smile and probably fails. Bellamy had never mentioned such an offer. “Is it happening?”

The other wife tuts. “Who knows? He’s been strangely hesitant. It can only be good for Cairo, from what I hear.”

Clarke settles back, a knot forming in her stomach. One of the other women jabs her in the arm.

“My theory is he’s still holding a torch for you,” she giggles. “How wildly romantic.”

“How impractical,” scoffs the other. “What do you think, Clarke? You know him better than most. Will he marry again?”

Clarke feels like her face is made of porcelain. The rejection of this notion wells up in her chest, the automatic response to this question. She merely says, “Maybe.”

But by the end of the day, it’s become clear what she has to do now.

The next time she sees Bellamy, it’s in Pisa again.

There’s an expression on Ahmose’s face when he sees Bellamy stride over to her in the great hall. It takes her a moment to place it.

Disapproval.

She wonders how she hasn’t seen it before. Maybe she’s just been too wrapped up in this lie she’s been living.

Bellamy is ignorant to her inner turmoil, and bestows on her a half smile. “Dissected any interesting animals lately?” he asks her in greeting.

“No,” she says flatly, and his smile disappears. Clarke’s finding it painful to look at him, and she marches from the room to the hall, only to have him follow.

“Clarke, wait.” She doesn’t. He catches her arm. “Did I do something wrong?”

She blinks away tears. Yes, or no, and she doesn’t know. She doesn’t know if it’s wrong or right, what he’s doing. Her heart and her head say two different things. “I heard a rumour,” she says instead, casually, “that the crown princess of Nri is set to be the next queen of Cairo.”

His hand slips away. Moments of silence wedge between them.

When he speaks, his voice is quiet, sad. “Clarke.” He reaches for her, then drops his hand again. “You’re the queen of Cairo.”

His words make her heart flutter desperately. She tamps down the emotion and turns to face him. “Are you going to marry her or not?”

Bellamy stares at her, wide-eyed. “Of course not.”

She exhales and closes her eyes. The answer she’d been afraid of. “You should.”

“What?” he snaps. “Are you out of your mind, Clarke?”

She opens her eyes, narrowing them at him. “Are you? I’ve heard only good things about what good could come from it for Cairo. You shouldn’t— you shouldn’t hold back from making decisions because of me.”

“Believe it or not, I’ve thought about this. The benefits of a marriage to Nri aren’t good enough to consider.” He stares at her for a long time before asking, “Do you... want me to marry her?”

There’s hurt somewhere in his words. Vulnerability. The smart thing to do, Clarke thinks in this moment, would be to tell him that she doesn’t want him anymore; to push him away, so that it’ll be easier for both of them to walk away. It makes the most sense.

But she can’t bring herself to do it, in the end. In the end, she can only tell him the truth, and hope he will understand.

“No, I don’t want you to marry her,” Clarke tells him finally, and watches him release a breath. “But maybe someday she’ll come up with a better offer, and it’ll make sense to. Or maybe it’ll be someone else. Some other reason. Some other opportunity that you have to take, or that I have to take.”

“Clarke.” Both a warning and a plea.

She steps away from him. Struggles not to cry as she says, “We can’t do this anymore.”

His hands twitch at his sides, like he wants to reach for her. There are tears in his eyes, and although he’s silent, she knows he’s thinking.

And then he does reach forward, to touch her cheek. A cool wetness comes away on his thumb. Clarke blinks.

Bellamy doesn’t move his hand. “I miss you every day,” he says lowly, “and that’s never going to change.”

It breaks her a little, because him saying this means he agrees with her. Bellamy might rule with his heart, but in the end his head always listens to hers.

She just smiles. Leans forward enough to kiss his cheek. She leaves her lips there, against his skin, several beats longer than necessary.

When she pulls away, neither of them walk away from each other. No; they walk back into the room together, as if nothing had happened at all.

And maybe nothing really had, Clarke muses, as Bellamy takes his hand off her back and makes his way through the crowd, and her heart aches. Maybe Bellamy’s right, and some things will never change.

For the months afterwards, Clarke throws herself into her duties in Genoa, into her social life as a royal, and generally being the perfect wife; all the while, pretending not to listen closely to every shred of news she can about the kingdom of Cairo.

The letters from Ahmose continue, but they’ve taken on a more detached edge, mostly centered around Ibn and how he’s doing. Clarke, in return, makes her replying letters just as professional. The relationship between herself and her ex-husband must become a business one from now on, for this to work. And as time stretches between them, she can almost pretend it’s become that.

But then she’ll hear someone mention that the king of Cairo still hasn’t re-married, and she can’t hide, even from herself, the flicker of relief.

Then the next summit is announced— and it’ll be in Cairo itself. The prospect of seeing the city again, the citadel, Ahmose, Miu, and the rest of them that she’d left behind is almost too intimidating for Clarke. She thinks about making an excuse not to go; she could see Ibn later, at a meeting somewhere else, after all. But in the end, she reminds herself that she can’t avoid it forever, and forces herself to go. It’ll be a test.

She and Antonio are only one night to Cairo when she wakes up suddenly in the middle of the night.

She’s not sure why. There are no sounds to be heard, except for crickets. Clarke stares at the ceiling of the tent, blinking, and then turns onto her side.

She draws in breath to scream.

There’s a knife through Antonio’s eyeball. Blood spreads over his pillow. The remaining eye stares up at the ceiling, glassy, and—

The scream rising in her throat is muffled by the hand that clamps over her mouth.

“Shh, now,” croons an accented voice behind her as she fights, her hands reaching behind her to claw at her attacker’s face as she’s dragged out of bed.

It’s too reminiscent of the time she was almost drowned in Bellamy’s bath. The hand against her mouth is holding a cloth and its strong scent makes her eyes water. “We’re not killing you yet. Tughril just wants to see you.”

Tughril? She thinks, trying to recall if she’s heard that name before. But her mind is becoming cloudy. There’s something about the smell of that cloth. It’s meant to… meant to…

She can’t even form words in her head anymore. She’s pulled into a thick, deep, remorseless sleep.

She wakes up with a start; the ground is hard on her back, and her eyelids feel like weights sit on them when she tries to force them open.

It’s dark here and it smells damp. She’s tied up, but there’s no gag. She pushes to roll onto her stomach, to survey her surroundings, only to realize there’s someone in here with her.

The figure leaning against the wall stirs. “Relax,” Bellamy says, and she does, infinitesimally, upon hearing his rumbling voice. “It’s me.”

Her eyes are adjusting slightly now, enough to see that he’s tied up, too, his simple tunic torn in places, and a light sheen of sweat across his skin.

For a moment she can’t help but just gaze upon him, because it’s been too long apart. She can’t help but let her heart swell at the sight of him, even though the last time they’d met, they had agreed to break it off for good.

When she takes a deep breath she notes that he’s looking at her the same way. She struggles to find logic, to find sense again, to focus on their situation. “Bellamy,” she breathes, trying to struggle into a position sitting up. It’s harder than it looks. “Where are we?”

“No idea.”

“What happened?”

“Got knocked out, found myself here, same as you I’m guessing.”

“They said Tughril wanted to see me. Who’s Tughril?”

“The bastard that’s commander of the Seljuqs. If he’s here, this close to Cairo, it can’t be good.”

She considers this. By all rights, they’re well and truly fucked. So… “Why are you smiling?”

Bellamy’s half-smile breaks into a full-on grin now that she’s noticed. “You look like a goddamn fish out of water, flopping around like that.”

Just like that, the tension breaks and it’s like nothing has changed. She huffs in annoyance. “As if you weren’t probably doing the same thing while I was out.”

His amusement fades. “Wouldn’t I know it.” He leans his head back and closes his eyes. “Took me an hour just to get against this wall. There’s a sharp rock embedded in it,” he explains. “I’ve been trying to use it to cut the rope.”

“Is it working?”

He grimaces. “Well, it’s shredding up my arms pretty well, but so far I can’t tell anything about the rope.”

A silence between them.

“What does Tughril want with us?” Clarke asks him. “He killed Antonio—”

“—and everyone else he could find that was part of the Mediterranean Alliance,” Bellamy informs her. “I saw the king of Corsica’s dead body before they brought me in here— ”

“—but not us. Why?” Clarke whispers.

Bellamy sits in silence for a moment before clearing his throat. “My guess is,” he tells her, “there’s a ninety percent chance Tughril wants you tortured and killed in front of me before he kills me, because I’ve been the biggest thorn in his side from the start.”

Clarke swallows. “And the other ten percent?”

Bellamy’s gaze is heavy on her. “If he figures you’ve been a bigger thorn in his side, then he’ll torture and kill me in front of you instead.”

“Charming.” She grimaces.

“He is,” Bellamy agrees. There’s something to his voice.

“Have you— met him?”

“Course I’ve met him,” Bellamy mutters darkly, and then there’s a pause, one in which Clarke is sure he’s weighing his next words before he says them. “He did that with my parents, you know. Tortured my mother in front of my father. I was next, but I escaped and lived on to rule Cairo. Kind of took the wind out of his sails, considering he was planning on taking advantage of the power vacuum.” He gives her a wry smile. “Like I said, thorn in his side.”

Clarke’s mouth has dropped open in horror. “I didn’t know that.” No one had ever told her about how his parents had died. Somehow, she’d assumed it was natural causes.

“Yeah, well, I don’t like to talk about it.”

A long silence. She can tell he’s still trying to tear the rope binding his arms.

“Bellamy?”

He inclines his head to show he’s listening.

“Why would Tughril want to torture me, a princess of Genoa, in front of you, king of Cairo?”

Bellamy takes a moment to answer; when he does, it’s carefully casual. “Because he must know how I feel about you.”

Clarke has to remind herself to breathe. “Or he knows how I feel about you.” He jerks his head to look at her, and she forces herself to look him in the eye. “Right?”

His eyelashes flutter. “Right,” he croaks.

Clarke nods. Briskly. “So how are we getting out of here, then?”

As it turns out, there’s not much they can do in this cell. There’s no windows, only a metal door, locked from the outside. They spend the next few hours looking over every square inch, looking for something that might help them. There’s nothing, and with every minute Clarke finds herself becoming increasingly desperate. Bellamy’s talk isn’t really helping.

“If Tughril’s here, his army’s here,” he’s saying grimly. “He’s taking Cairo. Our armies will never be ready in time. We didn’t expect an attack like this.”

“Unless we get out to warn them,” Clarke reminds him. Inspiration strikes her. “Hey, that sharp rock in the wall— it’s not sharp enough to cut through the rope, right?”

He shakes his head in response.

“But the rope is strong enough to pull it out of the wall,” she says excitedly, and his eyes liven up just a little.

“You might be right.”

It takes a few minutes of manoeuvring, but then they’ve got the ropes around the sharp jagged edge of the rock, and he pulls, pulls, pulls until with a thunk sound it falls onto the floor.

Clarke bends over backwards to pick it up in her bound hands. Passes it to him. Tries not to grimace at the blood on his hands from the rock biting into him. The ropes around his red-stained wrists are frayed, but not frayed enough.

“Great,” Bellamy says. “We’ve got a weapon. Now what?”

She’s about to suggest they keep working at the rope on his wrists when they hear footsteps, scuffling from not far beyond the door. Clarke’s heart stops. They’re not ready. She turns to Bellamy, wildly. “What do we do?”

He shrugs, giving her a weary half-smile. “You distract them?” he suggests. “I stab them?”

She can’t help but smile back, even though it’s absurd, considering their current state. That’s all there’s time for before the door scrapes open.

One man steps in. Clarke glances wildly at Bellamy, but his expression hasn’t changed. This isn’t Tughril.

“Up,” he barks.

Neither Clarke nor Bellamy move. Clarke is thinking fast. The door is ajar. There’s no one outside— just one guard to collect them, maybe they can—

He brandishes a knife now, the sharp edge glinting. “I said, up.”

“We’d love to,” Bellamy says. “But we can’t.” He looks down pointedly at his feet, bound together. The guard sighs, barks behind him another name. Two more guards scuffle in.

“Untie their feet. Only their feet,” says the first. His next words are directed at Bellamy and Clarke. “Try anything, and this,” he holds up the knife again, “finds a home in your stomach.”

Clarke holds still while they cut at the ropes around Bellamy’s feet. Those knives are sharp enough to cut through the rope. She just needs to get her hands on one.

“Please,” she says, soft as she can, when one of them approaches her with a knife, “please don’t kill me, I’ll do anything—”

“Anything?” he laughs darkly, and the others do too. Clarke suppresses an eyeroll and makes her lips tremble instead. It’s not difficult, if she just thinks too hard about their current situation. One of the guards kneels to untie her feet.

“Please, just—” She cuts herself off in the middle, and right when she makes her move, kicking both her feet up like a kangaroo at his nose, Bellamy makes his.

He’s a blur off to her side, and she’s distracted with the crunching sound of bone breaking, the guard falling back with an agonized scream. She rolls away from the schink of a knife as it swipes at her neck.

Her feet are untied now, and she backs away from the one charging her with a knife. Backs right into the other guard’s chest.

He goes to tighten his arms around her. The other rears his knife back. Clarke manages to dodge away at the last second, and the knife sinks into the guard’s shoulder. He drops away, leaving Clarke facing one more guard.

She’s panting, blinking away sweat, when Bellamy comes out of nowhere— his hands completely free too, somehow— and wraps an arm around the guard’s neck, dragging him down.

Seconds tick by. Bellamy’s mouth is a thin slash as the man he’s choking kicks and gurgles, and he looks at the floor dispassionately until the guard finally slumps.

The two of them breathe heavily for a second until the breeze outside kicks into the cell, stirring the sand at their feet, and brings them back to life.

“Let’s go,” Bellamy says curtly. “There’s going to be more.”

She notices that his hands and wrists are smeared with his blood. Wet, glistening in the moonlight she can now see pooling from the outside. She realizes that’s how he got out; his hands were slick enough to work them out of the bonds and give him the element of surprise.

He notices her looking and smiles. “Maybe bleeding’s not such a bad thing after all, huh?” He’s breathing too hard, face pale. She wonders if he’s lost more than he’s letting on. But he looks fine, with just a few shallow cuts from the blade.

They take a few steps out of their prison and find themselves in the middle of the desert. There’s a trail of smoke in the distance, from the east. From the north…

“That’s Cairo,” Bellamy says, pointing. “It’s only an hour away. The Seljuqs are here, Clarke, it’s going to be war. They’re here.”

And with that, he collapses in the sand.

Clarke is with him in an instant, shaking his shoulders. “Bellamy. Bellamy.” She’s frantically checking him over with her hands, trying to find a wound, but there’s nothing past shallow cuts and bruises as far as she can see. Bellamy’s choking on a laugh, batting her hands away as he falls fully into the sand. She’s so desperate that it takes her a moment to realize he’s saying something to her.

“Poison.”

She freezes. The blades— they were dipped in poison. How had she not considered that possibility?

Bellamy’s grinning a big maniacal grin like it’s all some kind of big joke. “Tughril’s poison,” he says, casual, like it’s one of his mythological stories that he’d tell her to entertain her on hot nights in the tower. “Made from a snake’s venom, but worse. He distilled it for years to make it just perfect for his enemies. Immobilizes you first, then leaves you in indescribable pain, then—”

“I don’t care!” Clarke shouts at him, terrified by the way he’s acting. “Just tell me where we can find a cure.” She doesn’t bother asking if there is one. If Bellamy knew so much about the poison, then he must’ve taken steps against it.

He blinks his eyes several times faster than normal. “In the palace. I had Ahmose make the antidote a long time ago. But that doesn’t matter. I want you to go to Cairo right now, Clarke,” he tells her, growing serious. “I want you to run. You can make it there in under an hour. Warn them that the Seljuqs are coming. Bring the citizens into the citadel and prepare the troops, or it’ll be a bloodbath.”

“I’m not leaving you.” She grabs him, under the arms, and tries to drag him forward. She staggers under his weight after a step.

“You have to,” he murmurs.

She tries to drag him another foot. He’s dead weight and the frustration makes her want to cry. “I won’t. This place is crawling with Seljuqs. I can’t leave you. Bellamy, I can’t.” She starts crying despite herself. If the poison doesn’t get to him, then some guard will find him here, helpless. She can’t abandon him.

“You have to,” Bellamy repeats with surprising volume. “Aren’t you always the one telling me to use my head? Don’t be a damn hypocrite, Clarke. Our people are going to die out there if you don’t run. Right. Now.”

Her vision blurs with tears even as she registers the truth of his words. That there’s nothing to be done. Yet she remains rooted to the spot.

Bellamy studies her before adding softly, “The antidote is fast-acting. If you can run to Cairo in time…”

She nods frantically. “I will. I will, Bellamy. I’ll run fast and I’ll deliver the message and no one will see you here and I’ll bring you the antidote.” She’s jibbering now, but she doesn’t care. Too much could go wrong. She drags him back to the mouth of the cave where the cell was. She can at least leave him somewhere slightly hidden rather than out in the open.

His head lolls when she props him gently as she can against the rock wall. “Then go,” he says.

Clarke turns on the heel, only to hear his voice again.

“I love you.”

She wheels around, frantic all over again. “Don’t say that. Don’t you dare say that to me now,” she half-spits. “You’re not dying, you hear me?” When he doesn’t answer, she grabs his shoulders and shakes him. “Promise me! Say it!”

Bellamy licks his lips and looks straight into her eyes. “I promise,” he replies, “We will see each other again.”

She exhales. Lets go of him.

“Everything is gonna be fine,” he adds. Smiles, gently. “Now run.”

She does.

Halfway, she’s spotted by a scout on a horse. He’s Seljuq, and doesn’t bother hiding it with his war colours. She throws the rock she’s been clutching in her fist at him when he comes too close. It glances off his shoulder— she’s not as good a shot as Bellamy— but it does the job. He’s thrown off balance and falls off his horse. Clarke darts forward, kicking him when he tries to get up. She mounts the horse herself, snaps the reins, and rides the rest of the way to Cairo with the soldier shouting abuse at her from behind.

The city is quiet save for the chirps of crickets; it’s not quite dawn yet. As she rides through the streets, she’s hit with nostalgia for the life she used to have here. The memories of strolling through these narrow alleyways, bumping elbows with her subjects and jostling through crowds as she bought kebabs and haggled on prices like the rest of them. As if she weren’t a queen, but just another person. She remembers teaching Miu how to make a rock skip on the water in the pond near the orphanage; she remembers Ahmose helping a half-blind shop owner to clean his windows; she remembers Bellamy giving piggyback rides to any child who asked— Bellamy.

She has to save him.

So Clarke puts on blinders the rest of the way and simply focuses on getting to the palace, rather than getting caught up in memories. When she gets to the walls of the citadel that houses the palace, the sky is just light enough so that she can make out the faces of palace guards.

She rides right up to the gates. Someone shouts at her to halt.

Clarke doesn’t have time for niceties. “Let me in!” she shouts, and she sees them pause at the sound of her voice. They remember her. “I have urgent information!”

“Like what?” They call down from their posts.

“Like the Seljuqs are attacking soon, and your king is dying in the middle of their camp!” she shouts back. “Bellamy sent me!”

There’s a long pause. Clarke’s chest heaves from exertion, from stress. She doesn’t know what to say to make them believe her. She is, for all intents and purposes, not someone to be trusted, not even a citizen of Cairo. But they surprise her.

“Let her in!” someone shouts.

“Who is it?” yells another voice.

“The queen of Cairo! She’s returned!”

The doors start to creak open, and Clarke lets out a breath she didn’t know she was holding.

Part of her is dazed as her horse trots in. Dazed at what they just called her. Bellamy wasn’t exaggerating— she still is the queen of Cairo to them, and no divorce document could change that.

Guards crowd around her, shouting welcomes and questions all at once, and she bats them away. “Take me to Ahmose,” she tells them. “Take me to your war generals. War is coming. You have to be ready.”

She briefs the generals as quickly as she can, just enough to tell them what’s going on, and they’re all in movement. There’s nothing more she can do.

Clarke turns to Ahmose, who’s still in his nightclothes and looking grumpy about it. Ibn is with him, which is a relief. He’s safe, at least. “We have to get Bellamy,” she says. “He was poisoned, and he’s dying out there in the desert. Where is the antidote?”

“Which poison?” Ahmose asks.

“Tughril’s poison,” she explains. “Where’s the antidote? Bellamy said you keep it here.”

Ahmose’s entire form seems to sink into exhaustion. He sighs deeply, closes his eyes. “There is no antidote to Tughril’s poison.”

Her heart stops. “What? That can’t be right. He said— you must’ve made one—”

“We tried,” Ahmose says tiredly. “For years. Nothing worked. And nothing can be done for Bellamy, if what you say is true. He’s probably already dead.”

She gapes at him. “How can you say that? How can you just—”

“I can say that,” Ahmose barks, “because Bellamy and I have discussed this exact situation, Clarke. Cairo needs someone here to lead the troops, to lead the kingdom. And if he can’t be saved, then I must stay. For him.”

She’s in tears, only now realizing what Bellamy had done. He’d told her about there being an antidote so she’d have hope, so she’d stop stalling at his side and go quickly to warn the city of an impending attack. He’d— he’d lied to her to get her to leave.

She wants to be angry with him for it, but she knows there’s only one reason he did it. To save their people. And she can’t be angry at him for that.

Ahmose is still watching her, but she can see the sadness in his eyes now. “You may find it hard to believe, but I love my nephew dearly,” he tells her. “So I will respect his last wish.”

She takes a breath. “If you’re not going to help, then tell me what you can about the poison. What does it act on? I know things, I can save—”

“It acts on everything,” Ahmose says flatly. “Attacks all the systems, until the body gives out. It’s very effective, very lethal. I’m sorry, Clarke.”

His last words are lost on her. She’s already charging past him, back outside of the palace. She stops in the healer’s rooms and rips a med kit off the wall, full of instruments and maybe something, something that can save him.

And then she rides back out of Cairo.

To Bellamy.

Against all odds, he’s still there. Exactly where she left him.

But he’s not alone.

There’s a man standing over him, boot on his torso. Bellamy’s slumped in the sand again, and she almost thinks he’s dead until he lets out a strangled scream when the man grinds his boot into his chest.

Clarke sees red. He’s being tortured. She charges her horse forward.

The man looks up, his maliciously twisted expression turning into one of surprise when he sees her charging him. He takes a few steps back.

Clarke’s horse is trained military cavalry; he knows what to do to an enemy. He rears on his hind legs and gives Bellamy’s attacker a mighty kick with its front ones.

The man goes flying backward, head snapping against rock, and falls still.

Clarke dismounts, fists clenched, and leans over him, pulling the knife from his belt. Despite the ferocious blow, the man’s chest still rises and falls. Not for long, if she has anything to say about it.

She hears a weak cough behind her. “Don’t,” Bellamy mutters, head still lolling at the sky. His voice is slurred. “That’s Tughril. He says… he says his armies are hidden in different locations. Need to interrogate him first… where they are.” He falls silent.

Clarke stares at the unconscious man. So this is Tughril. The one who ruined Bellamy’s life, and her life, and the lives of so many others in his quest to take the north shores of Africa. The one who’s responsible for the fact that her husband is dying.

Wait.

She bends down back to his belt frantically, looking in all the pockets. Because Tughril would have to be completely stupid not to carry an antidote to his own poison on him.

She shakes out his pockets, pats his belt, his torso, and leans back on her heels, heart racing frantically, painfully aware that Bellamy’s breaths are getting shallower and more unsteady by the minute. It’s a miracle he’s even held on this long.

Where’s that antidote?

Then she spots what she hadn’t seen before. A thin black string, tied around his neck, disappearing into his shirt.

She grabs it and pulls until the string snaps, and she’s left dangling a small bottle, not any taller than her thumb, in front of her own eyes. It’s full of clear liquid that sloshes like water. This has to be it.

She scrambles to Bellamy’s side, uncorking it. The sky is starting to lighten more, and she can see that his face is too pale, dark hair sticking to his temples, and he’s not moving at all. She can hardly hear him breathe. He barely seems to react when she uses her fingers to pull open his lips and unceremoniously dumps the antidote in his mouth.

“Drink,” she coaxes. “Bellamy, please drink.”

It dribbles over the sides of his mouth. Clarke strokes his face with her free hand. All at once, his eyes flutter open and he swallows, every drop of it that she’s poured into his mouth.

She wants to laugh. She wants to cry.

Bellamy’s eyes finally focus on her, where she’s hovering over him, her blonde waves cascading over them, cutting the two of them off from the rest of the world.

He smiles and whispers, “Told you we’d see each other again.”

And then he dies anyway.

His breathing shudders to a stop, and his dark eyes fade and turn glassy, and Clarke can scarcely take in what just happened.

“N— no,” she mutters wildly, her hands scrambling to feel his pulse at his throat, at his wrist. Nothing. “No no no—”

Her voice is rising in volume, but there’s no one to hear it, no one to hear her scream at him to wake up, to see her pound her fists on his chest. No one to see her begin to cry.

Bellamy’s eyes are still open, but unseeing. She can hardly process it. Her best friend is gone and his eyes will never soften for her again. He will never tell another stupid joke, or give her a comforting hug. He will never be there to listen to what she has to say, never smile at her again, his heart will never speed up under her fingers when she kisses him—

His heart.

She straightens up. It feels like a lifetime ago that she was showing Bellamy the human heart in a morgue.

She remembers telling him about how it worked. Him giving some cheeky reply back. But the important thing is this: As long as the human heart beats, so does the human.

It’s stupid. She’s never heard of it done before. It probably won’t work. If it could, you could wake any dead body up, couldn’t you?

She tries anyway.

She traces her fingers over where she knows the heart sits in the chest, slightly off-center. Then she folds her hands and straightens her arms, and pushes down on his chest as hard as she can. She has to be able to reach through layers of tissue, bone, and other organs to touch his heart. To make it pump.

Then she sets a rhythm. Presses down with every one of her own heartbeats, which are painfully loud in her ears.

After a minute, she pauses to gasp for breath. He’s completely unresponsive. Hopelessness crawls at her vision again, but she fights it off. There must be something she’s missing.

She remembers Bellamy telling her he had no idea what she was talking about. She scrubs her hands over her eyes, telling herself to think. What had she been talking about?

She drops her hands from her face almost at once. Something about the lungs. They— and the blood, and the heart— they were all connected. The blood needs something from the air, or vice versa, to work; wasn’t that what she’d guessed?

There’s no time for doubts. She has to get him to breathe.

Impulsively, she leans down, presses her lips to his. It takes her many, many tries to get it right, to get his chest to rise. She has to pinch his nose closed, so that the only source of air is her, blowing it into his lungs.

She waits a second, does it again. And again. And again. Tries to tamp down on the hysteria rising in her. Maybe she she should try and pump his heart again. Maybe she should check Tughril for more antidote. Maybe she should—

All at once, his chest rises of its own accord.

She rears back, eyes wide. She’s not touching him. But his chest is falling up and down, albeit unsteadily.

She stares at it happening in front of her, hardly daring to believe it. It seems almost otherworldly.

Then Bellamy opens his dark, warm, so very alive eyes. He blinks and takes her in, in all her teary, bloody, dirty glory. She must look like a frightful mess.

His brow furrows in alarm. “Are you okay?”

Clarke bursts into tears and laughter at the same time, touching his cheeks, his shoulders, and finally pressing her ear against his chest, where his heart beats once more. She can’t imagine a world where it doesn’t.

His hands encircle her back, holding her to him until she lifts her head and lays into him.

“You’re asking me if I’m okay? You died, you ass!” she shouts. Her emotions are teetering dangerously from one extreme to the next. “You left me. You’re not allowed to do that ever again.” She pauses. “And you’re not allowed to lie to me, either.”

He’s blinking, still taking it in. “I died?” he manages. “Then why…”

“I brought you back,” she replies with a watery smile. She holds up her hands. “I made your heart beat again.”

Bellamy stares at her, now trying to sit up in the morning sun. After a moment, he says thoughtfully, “You know, that doesn’t surprise me at all.”

Clarke chokes on another sob and hugs him again, nearly knocking him back.

“I feel like there’s a camel sitting on my chest,” he comments into her ear. “I’m guessing I have you to thank for that, too.”

“Shut up,” she half-cries, half-giggles. He’s alive and he’s with her and she wants this every day for the rest of her life. “I love you, Bellamy. I love you so much.”

Bellamy hugs her tighter, a shudder seeming to pass through his frame at that, as if her ineloquent words have somehow still shaken him to the core.

Then she hears something else. Tughril stirring.

In an instant, she’s on her feet, and so is Bellamy, to her surprise. He’s already looking better. That antidote was fast-acting; it just needed long enough to work.

Tughril rolls over where he lies, spitting out blood. He doesn’t look good; his head is bleeding from the blow from the horse. It’s a wonder he’s not dead yet. He catches sight of Clarke and Bellamy and laughs, madly.

“So this is your pretty little wife. I had such plans for you, darling.”

Bellamy’s on him in an instant, slamming him against the wall. Full of fury and strength. “Well, I’ve got plans for you,” he snarls at the other man. “I’m going to hurt you until you tell me exactly where the rest of your troops are hiding, and I’m going to enjoy it because of every goddamn depraved thing you’ve ever done to my family and my people. How does that sound, you sick son of a— ”

Clarke jumps in as Tughril laughs madly. “Bellamy…”

Bellamy doesn’t look at her. His focus is solely on Tughril as he snarls, “Clarke, don’t try to talk me out of this. You can leave if you want, you don’t have to see this if you don’t want to. But I have to see this through.”

Clarke takes a step forward. Bellamy glances at her now. “Clarke, I said—”

She offers out her hand, opening her fist. Bellamy’s eyes fall on what’s resting in her palm.

A long, sharp probe from her med kit.

His gaze comes back to hers, full of understanding.

“If you run that through a human finger,” Clarke tells him, voice cold, “it will cause a lot of pain.”

“Is that right,” Bellamy says, voice equally cold. They both turn to Tughril. For the first time, Clarke sees a glint of fear in the man’s eyes.

Needless to say, they get the information they need.

ONE MONTH LATER

Clarke is lying next to Bellamy in bed.

It’s not like that. They’ve been fighting a war and it just ended yesterday. The Seljuqs had retreated, put up their white flag, all their advantages overcome— Tughril, their bloodthirsty leader, dead, along with their element of surprise. The armies had been ready for them. Rumour has it that their new leader isn’t so bent on conquering new kingdoms, anyway.

When they heard the news that it was over, the two of them had simply collapsed in his bedroom. Bellamy’s been on the front lines with his men, and Clarke had been helping the generals with tactics day and night, for too long.

They haven’t had a moment to really talk since they got back.

It’s morning now, and Clarke has been awake for a while. She just hasn’t moved, instead taking the time to think. And watch Bellamy sleep. He looks at peace here, on his stomach with his face turned towards her on the pillow. His brow is unfurrowed. She can’t resist the urge to stroke his hair away from his eyes.

His hand reaches out blindly to wrap around her waist and tug her closer.

She draws in breath in surprise, and his eyes open.

They focus on her, and he releases her immediately. “Sorry.” His voice is rough with sleep. Maybe something else, too.

She takes his hand as it’s drawing away and places it deliberately back on her hip. “Don’t be.”

He stares at her. She stares back meaningfully.

“So,” he says after a long moment. His hand begins to run tentatively up and down her side. “It’s over.”

Clarke nods. “Every king in the alliance is dead, except you and my father.” Tughril had tried to kill them all, waiting until they were all in one place, the summit in Cairo. It had been a smart move.

“Antonio’s dead.”

“Yes,” Clarke confirms, and arches a brow. “I knew you knew his name.”

He shrugs, unabashed, and at once grows serious again. “What now?”

“What now with what?”

“You know what.” He hesitates. “Are you going back to Genoa?”

She thinks about this. Looks at him, at his carefully arranged expression that is ready to take whatever blow she delivers today.

But she has no plans to hurt either of them anymore. She’s been thinking about this all morning, ever since she woke up, and if she’s not lying to herself, for weeks before that. “No, I’m not,” she tells him. “I’m staying in Cairo, with you.”

He sucks in a breath. “The alliance—”

“The alliance is done,” she says firmly. “Most of the leaders are dead, and the war is over. I’m not needed in Genoa anymore. One of Antonio’s brothers is going to take his throne, anyway. What would I do over there? Be his bride?” She rolls her eyes. “No thanks.”

“You’re a free woman again.”

“I am,” she agrees. “And I’m yours.”

Bellamy’s eyes warm. His arm reaches fully around her to draw her to him. “Your father?”

“Can mind his own business,” Clarke mutters. “He has no hold on me anymore. No more alliances sealed with marriages. I’m sick of using myself as a bargaining tool. From now on,” she tells him, “we make alliances by agreeing on things and sticking to our word.”

He leans in and nuzzles his nose into her neck. “Damn straight.”

As Clarke tilts her head up to allow him better access, another thought strikes her. “What about Ibn?” He’s currently with Miu, as he has been through the duration of this war, but she expects today that the two of them will pick him up and bring him home.

“What about him?”

“Do we tell our people the truth about him?” He’s been their chess piece through all of this, part of a lie, but that’s technically no longer needed now that the alliance is all over anyway. She knows what she wants to do, but...

Bellamy pauses and says, “As far as I’m concerned, Clarke, the truth is that Ibn is our son. Agreed?”

She smiles, having expected nothing less. “Agreed.” She hesitates, and Bellamy goes back to kissing her neck. She hums in appreciation, but as much as she wants to fully surrender to the pull of his touch, there’s still something niggling away at her. “One more thing.”

Bellamy groans dramatically into the crook of her shoulder. “Your idea of pillow talk needs work.”

She jabs his chest in retaliation and says, “There’s one alliance we should make right now.”

He pulls away for a second in confusion.

“An alliance just between the two of us,” she tells him softly.

Bellamy’s lips part, and she knows he understands what she really means. She’s no longer talking politics, diplomacy or trade agreements. This alliance is a personal one. A promise to each other that from now on, no matter what, they face everything with the other by their side.

Instead of answering, Bellamy kisses her.

Clarke kisses him back with uncontained zeal, grabbing his collar with one hand and tugging on his hair with the other, making him sigh into her mouth. She hitches her leg onto his hip to bring herself closer to him; one of his hands cups the back of her calf and slowly slides up, up, up the full length of her leg to her inner thigh, at which point they finally run out of breath and part.

As far as alliances go, it’s a much better confirmation than a drop of hot wax on a document.

The corner of Bellamy’s mouth ticks up suddenly. “Will this alliance be sealed by marriage, at least?”

“I never stopped being your wife,” she reminds him.

He grins widely at that, skin around his eyes crinkling. “But we just won a war. Our people need an excuse to celebrate.”

She thinks about it. A public wedding, this time. For their people, and for them. “Okay,” she decides, and is unprepared for when he rolls on top of her, tackling her back into the mattress with enthusiasm.

“Can’t wait,” Bellamy says huskily, his hand spanning across her front, “to be your husband for the rest of my life.”

“You always were,” she murmurs. Then she reaches down to press her hand on top of his, interlacing their fingers on her stomach. “And this is just the beginning.”