The soldier came knocking upon the queen's door.
The queen knew she'd seen his face some place before. There were others like him in her army, men from the north-east: small and strong, with hair straight and black as a chip of obsidian, and eyelids which did not crease. But his face was shadowed, and she was not sure if she had recognized him, or merely his origin.
She took his chin in her hand and tipped his face upward, so that the sun fell upon it. His nut-brown skin seemed pale, enclosed in her darker fingers, and a brilliant spark was reflected in his eyes. He did not blink.
"Come," said the queen.
She did not glance back to make sure that he followed. The sandalwood doors closed behind them in a breath of scented air.
He made his plea in her inner chamber: To end the war. To love him. To change. She did not interrupt his halting words, but let him run down into silence. In the awkward pause that followed, he ran his fingers along her inlaid marble walls. The gems had been fitted into carved grooves and then planed smooth, so even his work-roughened fingers slid easily over the joins.
"It's cold," he said. His fingertips traced a tiger of carnelian and onyx, with slightly yellowed ivory teeth.
"It's meant to be cool. For summer," explained the queen.
"But at night...?"
"The nights are cold," she admitted.
They stood watching each other, the queen and the soldier, across the expanse of marble and gems and tapestries red. The queen had never before done such a thing, but she knew well why a woman of power might invite a common footsoldier into her chamber.
"Strip," she commanded.
He quietly laid aside his sword and long knife, both standard issue, nicked steel without decoration. She wondered why her guards had not confiscated them before he was allowed to her gate, and why she had not noticed their negligence until this moment. But if he had meant to kill her, he would have tried before. With a small private smile, the queen thought that he would not have succeeded. A woman of power has many skills.
Muscle lay smooth along the soldier's chest and belly, and bunched at his shoulders. His hands and forearms were flecked with small white scars, and a longer one, the width of a knife as it joins the hilt, marked the notch at the base of his sternum. His legs were less developed than his upper body: he was merely a swordfighter, untrained in the weaponless arts studied by the royal family and their personal guard. He shivered.
Fully dressed and crowned, the queen took her time looking him over. They were the same height, but she knew that the oiled braids wound atop her head, and her golden crown over those, made her seem taller.
She leaned back against the pleasant chill of the walls.
She lifted a section of her sari, letting the crimson silk float for a moment in the draft. Her hair below was glossy black, nourished by the same coconut oil her handmaidens applied to her braids.
His mouth was hot, hotter than she had expected. She braced her hands against the walls, against the ruby blossoms and emerald leaves of queen-of-the-night, but her fingers slid against the smooth surface, and she forgot which scenes lay under her palms, and finally she clutched at his shoulders. Her nails drew blood.
"Go to the courtyard," she said, when they were done. "Wait there. I'll send you word of my decision."
She needed no mirror to know how disheveled she had become. Her hair had tumbled down, her sari was off her shoulder, and her crown had rolled away into a corner. She couldn't go out like this. She couldn't go out at all. The very thought was absurd.
She got down on her hands and knees, and picked up her crown.
The soldier came knocking upon the queen's door...
In her ice-white marble chamber, the queen's breath condensed in puffs of mist. It was odd that the soldier's did not.
"Is it very cold, where you come from?" she asked.
The soldier gave her a long look. His eyes were narrow, and dark as his hair. "Yes," he said. "Very cold."
"Go to the courtyard," she said. "Wait there. I'll send you word of my decision."
"I know your decision." He picked up his knife, nicked steel blade wide as his hand where it joined the hilt. "You've decided to have me killed. Well-- kill me yourself."
As his knife-hand moved, so did she. Slide to the side and forward, left hand catching his wrist, left knee dropping down, right foot hooking his ankle. He was down on the floor with his own knife driven between his ribs and her hand clutched around its cross-bars before it came to her that a soldier should have fought back.
She jerked out the knife. There was more resistance than there had been when she drove it in, or perhaps she hadn't noticed it then. Air hissed out from between his clenched teeth-- the first sound he had made. Or perhaps she hadn't noticed that, either.
The soldier lay curled up on the floor, his elbow pressing hard into his side but failing to staunch the wash of blood. There was more blood smeared around his mouth and nose, and his skin had paled to an ugly ashen color.
He was clearly no threat, so she tossed his knife across the room. It went skittering into a corner and banged into her crown, which must have rolled there during their brief struggle.
She knelt beside him. "How did you know what I'd decided?"
He was breathing in harsh, irregular gasps, and she wondered if it was already too late for questions. But then he replied, though not exactly to the point.
"Missed the heart," he said. "Your guards were better."
She could swear he was jeering at her. "Why did you want me to kill you?"
"Can't explain now." She had to lean in close to hear him. "Too..." Could that huff of breath actually be a laugh? "Too complicated."
The intervals between his breaths stretched out, and it was obvious she'd get nothing more from him. She had ordered many deaths, but this was the first time she'd killed with her own hands. It felt... strange. She knew what he knew now, this man who must have killed many times, with the very blade she'd used on him. Though she supposed that on the battlefield there would be no time to sit and watch your enemy die.
"So cold," he muttered.
His eyes were closed now. She had no reason to bother making his last moments more comfortable. But then, she had no reason not to.
She pulled a tapestry from the wall. It tumbled into her arms, heavy and rough with golden brocade. She laid it down beside the dying man, and tried to tug him onto it. The floor must be drawing the heat from his body. But he cried out in pain when she tried to shift him, so she covered him with it instead, and sat watching until he breathed no more. It didn't take long.
The queen picked her crown, and settled it firmly on the top of her head. She would call for the guards to dispose of the body. It was a wonder they weren't here already. She would have words with their captain.
The soldier came knocking upon the queen's door...
The sweat on their bodies cooled as they lay together on the floor. The queen lazily traced the scar beneath the soldier's sternum.
"You were lucky," she remarked. "That should have been a killing blow."
"It was." He caught her hand and held it to his chest. "You killed me. I came to you and you had your men kill me. And then I was back, back at your door, looking up at you, asking you what I asked just now. And every time, no matter what I do, I end up back there, at your door, looking up at you and your crown so bright..."
As he spoke, desperate words tumbling out upon each other like pebbles in a landslide, the queen noted her own lack of surprise. A ghostly visitation was more likely than that an armed stranger had walked through her door and into her chamber, by her own invitation and unnoted by her guards. Her fingers stole from his chest to caress the underside of his jaw. But her fingertips were numb with cold, and she mightn't have felt anything anyway.
"You have to stop this," he insisted. "I can't. I've tried everything."
"Have you ever tried to kill me?" asked the queen.
He shuddered. "The dead can't kill the living. At least, not permanently."
The queen had only baited him with the question because she had expected this answer. And because of the possibility that she was caught in a dream of guilt, and that her own death might awaken her.
"Very well. I won't kill you this time. Go free."
He shook his head. "That's not enough. I've told you before, and you said that before. All that happens is we wait for a while, and then I'm back at your door, looking up at you all glorious in crimson silk, with your crown shining atop your braids like a sun in a midnight sky..."
"You should be a poet."
"I would be a very bad one."
"Most of them are."
His lips turned upward for a moment. It was the first smile she had seen from him, or at least, the first she could remember. "I think you have to agree to my proposal. Sincerely and completely, and thinking it's the first time you've heard it. That must be it. It's the only thing that's never happened."
"You will be a long time waiting," said the queen drily. She could not imagine such a thing. "Have you considered that I am not the person driving this... this chariot race around a circular track? You're the one who wanted more time with me. Maybe this is Hell. Or Heaven. In some stories, which is which depends entirely on whether or not you're enjoying yourself. Are you sure you want this to end?"
The queen could not help but be amused at his look of horror.
"You are a very uncomfortable woman," he said, after an unhappy pause.
"But surely that's exactly what you like."
"Maybe... Maybe you're right." He wrapped his arms around his chest; he was shivering so hard that the queen could hear his teeth clicking together. She had expected him to vanish like smoke at any moment, but he was still here, solid and unpredictable and inconvenient.
"Get dressed." She tossed him his shirt and lower wrap. She herself was not cold, as she had never taken off her sari, and in any case was accustomed to the chill of these chambers. "You're freezing... Can a ghost freeze? Besides, I thought it was cold where you're from."
"It's been a long time since I've lived in the mountains. I've gotten used to the heat." There were awkward pauses between his words, and his hands shook. It was annoying to watch him fumble with his uniform.
"Here." The queen tugged down a pair of tapestries. When he stood dumb, staring down at them, she impatiently took him by the hand and pulled him into the makeshift bed. She was not entirely sure this was not some dream of guilt or pleasure, so she coiled herself around him and linked her arms behind his back. It was the sort of thing one might do in a dream. His skin warmed under hers, until he could lie still.
"You won't free me like this." His voice was muffled; his mouth was against her hair. "You've covered me with a tapestry before."
"I didn't do it to free you," she pointed out. "I did it because you were cold."
The soldier came knocking upon the queen's door.
"Where is your crown?"
"It was too heavy."
And slowly she let him inside.