“I will drape you in flowers and silks when we marry,” Maleagant whispered into her hair, running the backs of his fingers down her cheek. “I will crown you in silver, like the moon.” Guinevere was so tired of this feast, but what could she do? Maybe it really was his birthday. No one could refuse him regardless. Their subjects, peasant and nobles alike, had looked uniformly hollow-eyed as they laid out their tributes to their self-proclaimed new ruler, while his terrifyingly masked personal army accepted them on his behalf. Every time one of them deliberately frightened some poor girl, touching her hair and giggling, standing too close to her, Guinevere died a little more inside. One man had nearly come to blows with one of them, infuriated by the treatment of his fiancée. Guinevere could do nothing but pray silently, while beside her Maleagant laughed into his mead with delight at the show. When the girl herself had inserted her body between them, ignoring the man touching her familiarly on the shoulders behind her, staring her lover mutely in the eyes, he had finally backed down. He would doubtless have lost his life otherwise. A little humiliation for his sweetheart now, versus a lifetime without his protection? It was a cruel choice, but an obvious one. Guinevere was glad, she thought, her eyes creeping anxiously to the man to whom her father had been forced to betroth her, that some men in the world were still sane.
Torchlight bloomed beneath the stars, musicians played for their lives, and dancers flung themselves about in desperation. Guinevere kept looking down the line of the feasting table to where her father sat. Maleagant separated them whenever he could have time alone with her. He had not taken any liberties… so far , she shivered… but he spoke to her often as though they were already married, and his hand, whenever he took her arm, brushed against her bodice too often for her to think it an accident more than once. She was in some ways thankful that her father, like that poor man, was spared the provocation; she lived in terror for her family and her loved ones, and woke most mornings anxious to see them and know they had survived the night. But she wished her father were at her side all the same. Perhaps his presence would stifle Maleagant’s attention. She was not a little girl, and knew her father could not save her from every monster… but when afraid, she still longed for his protection all the same.
Maleagant took her face then with an iron hand and such a longing for safety flooded her she could hardly keep from trembling. His thumb was tender as it brushed over her lips, but that almost made it worse.
“As a matter of fact, my love, I have a gift for you as well,” he said, with one of those tosses of his hair that she supposed she would have to love someday. If he had been a different man, it would have been easy.
She was reluctant to speak when he touched her face, but she could see he required conversation from her now.
“Have you, my lord? It is… so generous of you, when the party is in your honor,” she managed, and his thumb brushed just once over her lower lip, where it was damp. She saw the corner of his mouth tighten, and an explosion of butterflies went off in her stomach.
He snapped his fingers over his shoulder, and one of his men brought him a box. It was painted periwinkle blue. She was frightened of what she would find in it, but lulled herself with the thought that it would be a scarf or a shawl. Probably stolen goods from some other noblewoman, she thought, but chastised herself; even Maleagant had not, so far, given her the impression of such pettiness. He was a prince himself, and loved to flaunt his own wealth.
But the box was too heavy to contain a shawl. Gingerly she held it in her lap, and then opened it. The sound of the lid shutting again felt so loud, it was like a boom. She buried her face in her hands, and Maleagant said promptly, “So modest, my lady. You were brought up so well. Do you truly like it so much? Come show me your gratitude.”
“Sir… Sir Avaret,” she gasped. “Our castellan. I’ve… I’ve known him since I was just a girl…”
Her hand clenched over her mouth, or she would have screamed. She was shaking so badly from head to toe she thought the box would have fallen off her knees if it had not been able to rest against the table.
“Yes,” he said feelingly. “I knew betrayal from one so close to you would be profound. You have such a tender heart, my lady. You feel with such passion.”
Dimly, she noted that he was not insincere, and when her frightened eyes turned to his in mute supplication, he seemed to be begging her too. To… what? To feel that passion for him? Did he think he could buy her heart with this kind of coin? But the moment in which she could, presumably, give him what he wanted passed by, and with a tight press of his lips, he sipped mead, then carried on as though nothing else had happened.
“We discovered them at dawn, attempting to send a small force to the wretched false king . I’m afraid he forced my hand,” he said with real-sounding sadness, which was quickly punctured by a mockingly sweet laugh. “I would have loved to pardon him for your sake, my love, but he did not repent.”
A hand fell on her shoulder, fingers questing in her hair.
“I can give you his eyes too, if you like,” he said musingly; “I don’t mean to be so stingy, my darling one.” Guinevere covered her face with her hands, and the man who would be her husband laughed with giddy abandon.
Please. Oh, please , she prayed fervently, as he pulled her against him, rubbing her back in a sickening pretense of comfort. King Arthur. Save us, save us. Save me. Please.