Before, in the woods, when she stared at him through her long lashes, he thought he saw longing in her eyes. Now, surrounded by her guards in her palace hall, as she stares at him from above the dais, he realizes he mistaked longing for him with longing for power.
“What are you saying?” he asks, even though he understands what’s going to happen. The guards around him are unfamiliar, and it occurs to him that he’s alone there – Noah, Jake and Tycho were organizing the few remanences that support his cause, since most lost faith in him after they lost a battle near Blind Hollow.
“I’m saying our alliance is off. I don’t need your help anymore”, she replies, loud and clear. Her sister, beside her, looks at him nonchalantly.
He can’t breathe. When Courtney and Talfor knocked on his door that morning, saying that the Queen wanted to see him in the palace’s main chamber, the last thing he thought she would say was this. The last thing he thought Rhen would do was set up an alliance with Syhl Shallow, giving up the waterways in exchange of the rogue – and rightful, that treacherous corner of his mind said – heir.
“So you’re going to call off your support on my claiming?” he asks, hoping she would remember those weeks traveling through the forest, that night in the inn, by the fire, all those nights after her coronation, when she showed up on his doorstep exhausted and hungry for the comfort that his arms had never denied. “For months you told me you believed we could bring peace to this land, that we could make a solid alliance to last longer than one lifetime. And now you tell me you’re going back on your word and settle for something that could end in months, if Rhen wants it that way?” he continues, staring at her from his spot below her throne.
“Yes,” she answers abruptly, as if the word needed to be pushed out of her. “You know my situation here, Grey. You know my noblemen don’t quite accept my position yet. You know my people are tired of fighting, and your people are regretting the support they initially gave you. I can’t send my men to fight for a lost cause. I can’t risk my position as queen just so you would have yours as king.”
Her eyes are inscrutable. For the first time since she become Queen, he really notices the change in her – the square of her shoulders, the hard expression on her face, the way her hands twitch in distress – and he suddenly realizes he was a fool for not seeing it coming. They barely talked about their situation in the last couple of weeks. She would come to his chambers seeking his lips – his whole body – and would leave once she was satisfied, claiming she had political affairs to take care of before sleeping. Maybe this treaty with Rhen wasn’t news. Maybe she knew for a while and was only testing if she could let him go.
Apparently, it wasn’t a hard decision.
“What about us, then?” He decides this is the closest to begging he would get. Her eyes flicker, and for a moment he gets a feeling that this actually is being hard for her. Well, what a shame, he thinks bitterly. It’s even harder for him, since it’s not him doing the betrayal.
“Leave,” she says to the guards surrounding him. They obey with a brief curtsy. “You too”, she looks at her sister.
“Lia Mara-“, her sister starts, but she cuts her off.
“He won’t hurt me.” It’s true. He won’t, and he doesn’t want to, and even if he wanted to, he still wouldn’t be able to. This single thought irritates him. When did he get so infatuated? Oh, he knows. She sneaked her way through his skin so easily – all it took were a few kind words and a few shy glances when she thought he wasn’t paying attention. Or maybe she knew he was paying attention. Was that even real?
When her sister closes the doors behind the dais, she turns back to him. For a moment, neither of them speaks.
“It’s an opportunity of peace that I can’t refuse, Grey.” She finally says, and his heart breaks a little bit more when he notices she avoided his last question. He nods. If she’s not going to acknowledge what they had, he wouldn’t do it again.
“Do you know what he is going to do with me, once he gets me?” he asks.
“No”, she answers, and there’s a hint of sadness in her voice, even though she doesn’t waver.
He nods again. That was it, then. “Maybe he’ll decide to keep me alive, and we’ll both come to your lands when he decides he doesn’t want to share his trading routes anymore”, he says out of spite, even though he knows it’s not true.
She knows it, too. “Maybe.”
They stare at each other. “Well, if that is all, I assume I’ll be on my way tonight?” he asks, because he is afraid.
“Yes,” she replies, “right after sunset.”
He turns to leave through the main entrance without another word. “Wait-“, she says behind him. He turns to her once more, and curses himself for doing it so fast. He wants to hide how much he hopes she’d regret and ask him to stay, to continue this path, even to marry her without having a throne of his own. He would say yes to all of that.
But that’s not what her eyes tell him. As she steps down the dais, he sees that she doesn’t want to turn him in, but she’ll do it anyway. He is well aware of the sadness in his own face as she approaches him, raising a hand to touch his cheek. He lets her, because he is weak.
“I thought maybe I could love you more than I love my people. But it turns out that I can’t.” Her voice is full of sorrow, and her eyes are full of unshed tears. He swallows thickly, fighting tears of his own.
“I could. I did,” he manages to say. “But it wasn’t enough, was it?”
“It was – for a while”, she says while the first drop falls from her lashes. “In the beginning, I didn’t understand what it took to rule a country. I thought I could give all of myself to my people and to you at the same time. But I realized it was just an illusion. Just a wish that could never come true. We could never come true in the way we first imagined. How would it even work? We would be apart for most of the time.” Her other hand snakes to the nape of his neck, tangling in his hair, as an apology for the rambling excuses she’s giving him in hope he would accept. “I’m so sorry, Grey. I love you. But I have to do this.”
“I understand,” he says, and he does, even though he doesn’t want to. “I hope you find peace for your people.”
“I hope that, too.” His hands are in her waist now, because he just can’t help himself. Her eyes flicker to his mouth.
“Just one more time.” She says it like a question, and he wants to say no, no because she betrayed him, because she had said they would do this together, because for months she had put him against his brother in his own mind, but he can’t say no. He could never say no to her.
Her lips find his, and his breath hitches at the familiarity of her kiss, the memories it brings back, her body flushed against his. He wants to push her away, to scream at her how this is not fair, for she is making it harder to hate her, to be angry at her. He also wants to pull her closer, to rip the clothes between them and to change her mind. But he knows it wouldn’t work. So, he settles for the crumbs of herself she’s allowing him to have now.
As they departure, him to his chambers – now, a prison – and her for whatever business she has now, he considers his fate. Back to Rhen’s hands. Back to another prison, most certainly death. He considers all his path until this very moment.
My fault, he realizes, as he opens the door to his prison. His fault for not trusting Rhen with the truth right when he found out. All of it would be avoided if he had trusted Rhen back then. My fault, he tells himself again, as he steps into the room. His fault for realizing too late that he needed support, that he needed to put his trust on someone other than himself. My fault, he thinks one last time, as his guards lock the door behind him. His fault for putting it on the wrong person, and for allowing himself to be broken again.