Aly to Dove, as they both sit in a council meeting, May 12, 464 H.E.
I write this from yet another interminable Queen’s Advisory Council meeting, where I sit down the table from you. Once again, I began the meeting with the intention of taking notes, but as usual, they have devolved into angry scribbles and incomprehensible ink blotches. Writing a letter in cipher should be close enough to a proper secretary’s work to fool these floss-for-brains.
Each meeting reinforces my certainty that the Council only serves to placate the luarin, as it was created to be. I do remember that we intended this, but somehow I still held the foolish hope that the meetings would reveal any stirrings of ill intent, or at least provide hints about which houses we should watch more closely. I don’t believe I understood just how stupefying —and devoid of useful information— these meetings would be.
I am torn between laughing and groaning, listening to Ferdy try to justify his proposal to give his house the exclusive rights to the sunset butterfly trade. He can’t truly think it makes any economic or political sense! It’s almost as if he only agreed to divide his lands with the raka because he thought he would get something in return— though of course, no noble luarin would ever do such a thing, as the sagacious Lady Nuritin frequently reminds me.
Regardless of his motivations, I know that he has not gotten over himself about Sarai, and yes, he lost an eye in the fighting, but he cannot be so self-deluded as to think his was the largest sacrifice. In the centuries since the luarin conquest, countless raka have given everything for this; is he self-deluded enough to think that his tiny sacrifice outweighs so many lives? I write these here, in our private cipher, such that I do not start recalculating the Isles’ budget without his taxes. I fear I might be unable to conceal my glee, and I would like to avoid another lecture.
Perhaps this is an appropriate time to renegotiate my presence in these meetings. As previously noted, no matter what decoy title I adopt, having the spymaster in plain sight is a bad idea and, frankly, makes me twitchy. Da always said “A spy who wins fame is dead,” and besides, I hold out hope that someday I’ll locate the surface of my desk again...
Dove to Aly, as Aly rests unconscious in the Infirmary, August 26, 464 H.E.
I know that Kyprioth has taken you before, but this is the first time since you and I have become ‘we.’ And so soon after! I find it much harder to endure now, even with all of my Queenly duties to distract me. It grates especially that fact that I cannot remain at your side in the palace Infirmary, though I know you have the best care one can, in a situation like this.
Instead, I must receive the Yamani delegation, and play at normal all the while. Why could he not have waited to take you when the Catharki delegation is here? Our relations with Carthak are much stronger, and Sarai could have smoothed over any errors in protocol caused by my distraction. The Yamani place such value on emotional stoicism; I don’t dare think of you while sitting with them, for fear my face might stray from its placid mask.
I am fortunate that the negotiations and formal receptions are broken up by the Yamani’s daily meditation sessions, which allows me to steal away and sit by you. If I had to wait until the palace were asleep to visit, I would surely go mad. As it is, I nearly bit Boulaj’s head off when she suggested I spend these periods resting, instead of on my daily “walk.” She suspects something, though hopefully not the truth. Though, I suppose that assuming your pack are unobservant or ignorant is, at best, a fool’s errand.
I do listen when you remind me of the dangers of revealing our relationship, but I still wish— well, I won’t waste the ink; you know what I wish. Regardless, I haven’t said anything to her, so if Boulaj has sniffed out the truth, you have only yourself to blame for teaching her to do so. I don’t mean that snappishly, I’m just weary. I don’t sleep well without you next to me.
Before you ask, I have requested an explanation from Kyprioth, but he has been stubbornly silent. I assume he’s busy with whatever mischief he’s taken you for, but it does make the entire situation more difficult to tolerate. He’ll return you eventually…
Dove to Aly, while Aly is in Tortall for Alan’s wedding, November 18, 465 H.E.
…I believed I had prepared for your absence, but I was struck with false confidence. I do remember all of the reasons why the reigning queen of a still-settling country cannot travel across the ocean to attend a foreign dignitary’s son’s marriage celebration, but I still wish I could have joined you. I keep turning around to tell you something, before I remember that you are across the ocean.
I know that we have passed messages through Secret and Trick since you have departed, but it’s not the same as a real conversation. Neither is this, but at least there is something nostalgic about writing to you with parchment and ink, in our cipher. It seems forever since we’ve been so far apart as to write long-form coded letters; perhaps the joy of relearning these habits will distract me from your absence.
Before you ask, yes, I have governing to do, and I have been doing it, but somehow everything seems calmer without you around. Not that I don’t appreciate the quiet, but it does amplify the empty space where you belong.
The moments of turbulence that do occur I find harder to tolerate. I have no one with whom I can share my frustrations. I am so used to turning to you, to hearing your incisive commentary and gentle commiseration, and your ideas about how to bridge the gaps between everyone’s needs and opinions. No one else occupies the same position we do: you, because of your heritage, and me, in between the luarin nobles and everyone else. I know it isn’t true, but it often feels it.
Today I met with grain merchants from Imahyn and Lombyn about crop yields (they ran a surplus this year!), followed immediately by luarin nobles from Tongkang about what percentage of that surplus they believe should be theirs (accompanied by a truly phenomenal headache). After all of that, I finally met with Quedanga, Chenaol, Nuritin, and Duke Nomru to discuss the reality of the Isles’ economy, in light of this news. I am grateful that we are debating over a surfeit of resources, rather than the shortages immediately following the rebellion, but somehow the excess seems to have made people more greedy, rather than less.
This is all to say, by the time I returned to our rooms I had no patience for anyone’s desire to undress me, and I may have offended Lady Obeliten. I’m sure you can help me smooth it over when you return...
Aly to Dove, as Dove lies surrounded by healers, ravaged by a flu acquired from Stormwing-feather-contaminated fish, April 30, 466 H.E.
I don’t believe I’ve ever felt this terror. The idea that you might not wake makes it hard to breathe. I think it’s time— that when you’re better, we should tell everyone about us. The only thing that makes this bearable is anticipating being able to share quarters without pretense.
I’m useless right now; I can’t focus on work, and every code but ours slides out of my head as soon as I try to picture it. I suspect that my most recent message to Yoyox was gibberish, but he’s been kind enough not to mention it, or to ask where I left my mind.
Others have noticed, though, I’m fairly certain. After three days of this, I am unable to wear any face but one wracked with fear. I do believe Nuritin, at least, suspects that I am afraid not only for my Queen, but for my— for you.
I know that I have resisted speaking of our relationship openly with others, but I cannot delude myself any longer. There is something about the imminent threat of losing you that makes me want to hold your hand and declare my love to the entire Isles. The idea of announcing my suit still makes me anxious, but it now pales in comparison to the terror of losing you.
There is a fist strangling my heart, a pit in the bottom of my stomach that threatens to devour me from the inside, a sick parody of healthy hunger. I dare not think of anything but your complete recovery. I never thought I would be one of those women who fell apart without their lover, yet here I am.
You must wake up soon, so that I can return to my normal, practical self. I don’t recognize myself, without you.
The Palace Infirmary
May 1, 466 H.E.
When Dove wakes, after four days of dangerously-high fever complete with thrashing and incoherent mumbling, she has eyes only for Aly. She blinks open sweat-gummed eyelashes and looks around, gaze skipping over the cup of water the healer holds to settle on Aly.
“Al—,” Dove tries to speak but finds her throat too dry, breaking off into a coughing fit before finally accepting the cup of water in an unsteady hand. The healer helps her to sit up slightly, and she swallows the water as if she’s impatient for the cup to be empty so that she can talk to Aly.
When the healer eases Dove back down to her pillow and takes the empty cup to refill it, Aly takes the opportunity to perch on the bed and take Dove’s hand.
“You have no idea how glad I am to see you awake,” she says in a rush, grasping Dove’s hand tightly with both of hers.
Dove is struggling to keep her eyes open, the seconds spooling out between blinks. She returns the squeeze weakly, whispering, “You’re here...but...suspicious?”
Aly smooths a hand over Dove’s tangled hair, surprised to see it trembling slightly.
“I think it’s time,” she admits. “I can’t go through this again, not without being able to express my distress for you as my—” here, she falters momentarily, “—my lover.”
Dove holds her gaze, though her eyelids droop.
“Now...you see,” she says.
Aly risks pressing a kiss to their joined hands.
“I’m so sorry that I didn’t listen, when you tried to tell me before. I don’t know how you did it without telling someone.” Aly glances over her shoulder, but the healer is still out of sight. She’s probably gone to alert Winna and the others. She takes advantage of this to physically check Dove, confirming the healer’s assessment for herself.
“Do it...now,” Dove whispers, licking her chapped lower lip. Her voice gains strength as she continues, “They’ll be...kinder, with me like this.”
Aly frowns. Dove has a point, though she hates to admit it.
“Are you sure?” she asks. “There’s no reason to rush now; we can at least wait until you’re capable of standing.”
She has to offer Dove the out; she can’t be sure that Dove is making a fully-informed decision, even though the healer told Aly that Dove’s fever had broken during the night.
Dove shakes her head stubbornly, seemingly keeping her eyes open by will alone.
“Now,” she repeats.
“Now, what?” asks Fesgao, who, along with Winnamine and Chenaol, has somehow managed to sneak up behind Aly.
Spy’s reflexes keep Aly from betraying her surprise, but internally she’s appalled that she’s let herself get so distracted. If they had been assassins, Dove would already be dead.
She forces herself to turn around slowly, keeping Dove’s hand in hers, instead of giving in to the urge to spring back and shove her hands in her sarong. She meets each of their eyes in turn before looking back at Dove for final confirmation. She isn’t sure which answer she’s hoping to receive— both make her feel equally panicked.
Dove meets her gaze and nods her head regally, as if she were wearing a crown of precious metals instead of disheveled braids, sweat-dark and frizzed from feverish agitation. Aly dips her chin in acknowledgement and returns to facing the others.
“We have something to tell you,” she says, observing detachedly that she feels an unreasonable amount of panic for someone of her experience. She picks up speed as she continues, “I know that I’m a luarin and a foreigner, and the spymaster besides, but I love her, and I have accepted the political implications of—” here, she falters briefly, “—of becoming the Queen’s Consort. And we’re prepared to face them, and the court, if only we can rely on your— support. Your acceptance, I hope, eventually. I love Dove with everything I am, so please— give me the chance to prove it to you.”
She forces herself to breathe, bracing for judgement, before she realizes she has forgotten a crucial part. Eyes widening in an uncharacteristic tell, she hastens to add, “We are sorry to have hidden this for so long, but I’ve been— worried, about your reactions.”
There’s a long silence, then Chenaol snorts. “You shouldn’t doubt our allegiance, girl. Once again, you tie yourself in knots over things no one else cares about. And what is this ‘hidden’ nonsense? Anyone with eyes could see there was more steeping between you two. Though of course, no one ever claimed the Court can see past their own noses.”
Winna’s eyes have filled, and she steps closer to cup both of their cheeks, addressing them together. “I’m so happy for you both, though I am sorry that it’s taken this illness for you to share your joy. But I must agree with Chenaol: a mother always knows.” A tear spills down her cheek as she continues, “I hope you know— I will always champion you, as will Nuritin and Petranne. Even though this family lost so much, the Isles have blossomed under your care, Dovasary. You are a remarkable young woman, and I am honored to call you my daughter and Queen. I know that Mequen and Sarugani watch proudly from the Black God’s realm and that they, too, would be overjoyed to welcome Aly to our family.” Her smile is tremulous but genuine as she embraces them, kissing their cheeks.
Fesgao has crossed his arms over his chest. “Since this is settled, am I now allowed to discuss military actions with Aly?” he asks, ever the pragmatist. “There have been rumblings of discontent from the far side of Malubasang. I would appreciate being able to do something about it.”
Aly squints at him, startled to realize that she hasn’t heard anything about this from her pack, or any of her agents on Malubasang. How long has her mind been at Dove’s bedside, instead of her own desk?
Fesgao notices and smiles, wry. “Usually I’d expect you to have already heard and dealt with the issue by now, but you’ve been a bit occupied, these past few days.”
Everyone looks at Dove for a response. She has let her eyes drift shut, apparently satisfied with the reactions.
“Dove?” Aly asks, hesitant to ask her to remain awake any longer than necessary.
Dove tilts her head up, slitting her eyes back open and smiling slightly.
“I trust her,” she says simply, and sets her head back down to sleep, thoroughly worn out by all the excitement.
It could be coincidence that her head ends up nearer to Aly’s thigh, tilted such that her breath tickles their joined hands with each exhale. But none of the others (nor indeed even the healer who lurks unobtrusively in the background) truly believe any affection between the two, no matter how subtle, could ever be accidental.