They have exactly a month left until he is dispatched back to the east, and she sneaks out of the castle every single night to come see him, appearing in the yard well past midnight.
After the first few times he had to sneak her through the entire mansion to get to his room, he gave in and made a ladder out of rope so that she could climb straight up instead without the fear of their being overheard.
If the others knew that Alyssa kept visiting him every night, then they would be most incredulous about the fact that one out of every three times, they just sit together and talk about the future for a few hours, not even touching each other at all.
(The first visit had been one of those times, when Julio had just been so baffled by her appearance that she’d taken all that time to patiently explain why she wasn’t going to get caught—the elaborate ways she’d set up the guard so that she knew exactly how to get out of the palace without being seen. If Robertus was still playing chess with her for control of the country, he was losing badly without even realizing it.)
And then, between three and four in the morning, she will be off again, climbing down out of the window and sweeping her red hood up to hide her brilliant hair. They are both very busy people, and need time to sleep to be able to take care of their routine duties.
About once every week she prods him lightly to answer the question she asked over a year ago, and he tries to tell her that she’s asking too much of her people, and she looks at him stubbornly and replies that she will not settle when she is so certain that this is the most important step, the foundation of her plan to smooth out tensions between the races.
…The rest of the time, though, it’s exactly what people would think.
When they’re naked together—when they’re pausing for a moment to get their wind back—Alyssa always seems to fixate on the brand on his chest, over his heart. She touches at it curiously, runs her fingers over it as if she’s trying to memorize its shape, presses her lips against it with eyes half-open, even licks his sweat away from it—and he feels dirty having her do that, having her touch this part of him. It’s a different kind of dirty from what he feels when her hands are between his legs, or when his are between hers for that matter—because that kind of guilt is a little exciting, and because they are who they are and he knows what Alyssa thinks of what the world would say about it.
He’s grown used to the idea of his affair with the Empress—he cares for her. He knows that she’s slowly wearing down at his resistance to her proposal and doesn’t mind—he cares for her.
He cares for her, and that’s exactly why. The Legia on his breast is the proof that he is cursed, that he will rain down misfortune upon all who become involved with him, that he is the lowest order of being, barely fit to be called human. It’s everything about himself that he wants to deny and throw away.
“But it’s still a part of you,” she tells him, transfixing him with that green-eyed stare; “it’s a part of you, and I want to acknowledge everything that you are, even if the world won’t yet.”
He doesn’t deserve her.