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“It’s never going to happen, you know.”

Natalia dressed in the dark. Her clothes rustled along the sheets and against her skin, and those sheets against other sheets. Alyssa must have perceived these sounds all quite well by now; her immutable anxiety would serve her no less. Even so, she had no right to worry about anything. If either of them had to leave, it would surely be Natalia first.

They had exhausted the issue many times before. Certain details of the Empress’s private life could not be exposed for any reason if she wanted to stay in the good graces of “the general public”--and by that of course was meant the nobility, the only people whose opinions ever actually mattered. They would never approve of Alyssa’s personal desires--hence the word “personal.”

“The Empress is a public figure, after all.” She sounded stringent, then. “If you don’t want to conform to the position, then allow Brigid and her merry little band of republicans to restructure the country. I’m sure they would be more than happy to do so.”

“Valery.”

“What about her?” Natalia craned her neck to see past her shoulder. Alyssa’s hair pillowed around her head in the dark. Her eyes glinted in the meager light. She did not look the least bit sleepy.

“I never understood her all too well.”

“She doesn’t support your rule,” she said gruffly. “Why would you?”

“Well... But that’s what makes her interesting, don’t you think?”

Natalia’s shoulders stiffened. She frowned, though Alyssa wouldn’t be able to see it from where she was lying. “Do you have to bring someone else up every time I decide to spend the night with you?”

“Oh, no... I apologize. I didn’t mean it like that...”

“It isn’t that I’m not entirely grateful to you... But merely... Are you really satisfied with the way things are?”

“What do you mean?” More rustling. Alyssa sat up and looked at her. Her figure was painted in swathes of shadow, silken moonlight, and whatever tactile memories Natalia had left of just a few hours ago to fill in the blanks.

“I mean...” She sighed. “What I meant to say is, are you content with the current situation? As much as you can be?”

“Are you asking me to be honest, Natalia?” That stupid white shift she wore to bed left absolutely nothing to the imagination. She briefly entertained the idea of ripping it off again, though by now they wouldn’t have had the time.

“I mean what I say. Are you?”

“Of course, given the current situation. Though if I could change it...”

“Then what?”

The young empress shot her what she assumed to be an accusatory glare. If it were meant to change her attitude about anything, then it proved incredibly ineffective; Alyssa could not make an imperative expression to save her life.

“No.”

“No, what?”

“I can’t... I shouldn’t. I’m not so blind to my role as to...” She shook her head. “If I have any chance of maintaining power in the region, I can’t afford to appear ridiculous. This alone is difficult enough. Besides...”

“Yes?”

“How would you feel?”

“I serve not Gargandia, but you, Alyssa. I am yours to command. If you wish for me to stay by your side, then I shall. If you choose to dismiss me, I will leave as asked. I have no investment in how well this empire fares.”

“That’s not the answer I was looking for...”

Natalia exhaled again. “Truly? I am sworn to you by both duty and affection. But... Being your elder I have to say, you are much too reckless.” She paused again, this time leaning back onto the overstuffed pillows that crowned the Empress’s oversize mattress. “You slept with her, didn’t you?”

She nodded, suddenly red-faced.

“How on earth did you manage such a thing?” She sounded somewhere between impressed and outright disgusted; if she had not decided to follow Alyssa to the ends of the earth at the outset, then she would have left upon hearing what she did with Elise, at the very least. She assumed her own preference was due mostly to having known Alyssa for a great majority of her life, but apparently the girl’s appeal extended further than that. “I thought she hated you?”

Now, obviously, she wasn’t so certain.

-

Valery’s decision to aid the princess in seizing the throne must have seemed irrational at the time, even to herself. She admitted to being supportive of change, but in a much broader sense than simply marching in one monarch after another. Even a powerful individual with good intentions could not quell the rampant corruption and inequality ingrained within the system; it would take someone unaccustomed to (and, preferably, unaffected by) such grandeur to truly enact change.

She did not claim to be one of those people, but she doubted Alyssa was, either. Nevertheless, she tried her hand at bargaining one night.

“You’ll need more confidence than that to run a country,” she said abruptly, startling the princess. They had been in a fort of some kind, tending to wounds after an exhausting battle. Valery had sustained few injuries, and Alyssa, as always, appeared invulnerable. Alyssa owed it at least partially to Natalia, who must have absorbed some of the hits meant for the princess.

Alyssa, 16 at the time, stared at her looming figure in the dark. “Confidence has ruined many a man,” she replied calmly. “I don’t claim to know everything...”

“But you want me to support you still, don’t you?” she asked, taking another step toward her.

“You can leave. I won’t force you to do anything.” She gathered up her cloak in her hands.

Silence.

“Though... You wouldn’t last very long, would you?”

“What do you think would happen if we installed you as Empress? Would anything change?”

“You said it yourself--I am only a single person. I will try, but I cannot guarantee you anything.”

“I don’t want your guarantees,” Valery scoffed. “I want your honesty. Even a fringe of it. If I’m going to risk my life putting yet another member of the royal family on the throne I’d like to know whether or not it’s worth doing. If all you’re going to do is appease the sycophant nobility, I don’t see why I shouldn’t strike you down now.” She paused and looked around the empty hall. “Where’s your bodyguard?”

“Natalia is severely injured. She’s receiving treatment, and she’ll be recovering for at least another week or so.”

“Then... You’re really alone?” Valery glanced around at the ceiling, the walls, the windows, and the floor. “Some princess you are.”

“This wasn’t intentional, but... I do want to be seen as your equal, rather than your superior. You’re allowed to disagree with my ideas without fear of being hurt.”

“Hm.” She eyed Alyssa loftily. “If that were the case, then perhaps you would secede the throne to the citizenry?”

“I intend my reign to be a peaceful one. I believe the last thing the general public wants after the war is another transfer of power, and I cannot see it being bloodless.”

“Entertain me, at least...” She clenched her crossbow hand into a fist, as if to fire off a bolt. It looked odd without the corresponding glove. “You have an entire reign to consider it. Might there be anything we can do to change your mind?”

“No.” Alyssa’s voice rang clear and direct--in a word, commanding. “I may have my doubts, but my interests lie in what is best for my country. I must bring stability before I bring change. And in order to do that, I have to assert leadership.”

“You’re lucky people still see you as a legitimate heir.” Valery walked expressly toward her, backing her into a wall, and put a hand on her shoulder. Alyssa’s shoulders were stiff. The applied pressure only made the knots more obvious, and she squirmed.

“I understand that you wouldn’t see my rule as legitimate, however...” she kneaded her free shoulder, “others would not necessarily agree with you.”

“You’re quite tense.”

“I have a question for you, actually.”

“Hm?”

Alyssa stared at the hand on her shoulder. “Well... Despite what you said about my vulnerability, you don’t seem to have any intention of harming me. Am I correct?”

“No.” Valery traced along Alyssa’s collarbone, up her neck, and settled her hand at her cheek. “Not particularly.”

“Was there some other reason you came to see me, then?”

“Frankly, I hadn’t expected to run into you. It was pure coincidence that we met tonight.”

“Is it?”

“It is,” she said, fiddling with the tie that held Alyssa’s cloak in place.

Alyssa undid the knot and let it fall to the floor. “There are easier ways to go about it, you know.” She sounded nonchalant. People could be so transparent sometimes.

“I hate you” Valery pinned her to the wall and kissed her until they were both out of breath. “Just... shut up already...” she breathed as Alyssa tugged off the kerchief around her neck, “and let me do something stupid for once. I know this isn’t going to help anything...” Alyssa buried her face into her bare neck. Her hand started hiking up the princess’s skirt. “But you only live once, right?”

Alyssa shuddered as she felt a hand slide up her thigh. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” she managed, strangling a gasp. “At the end of the day,” she shifted more of her weight onto Valery, shaking as her hand found its way between her legs, “we’re all animals.”

-

“You really do have that kind of effect on people then,” Natalia mumbled, still slightly bothered by the fact that Valery did sleep with her, however meaningless their relationship might actually be.

“Well, that was only once. We never discussed it again; she said she had no more room to show weakness after that...”

“So it was just some urge to rid herself of... Are you OK with being used like that?”

“I never saw it as being used.”

“What about Elise? That relationship lasted longer than a couple of days.”

“Ah...”

In a stark contrast to her charge, Natalia could produce the most piercing of glares. She typically did not fault Alyssa for anything, but she had assumed this to be a relationship, after all. She expected to see her again after one night. She would not approve of Alyssa running off with some other woman out of whimsy. And to some extent, she knew that Alyssa would likely come running back asking for forgiveness; that was the girl’s nature. “It’s a little ridiculous that we have to be having this discussion... There isn’t something wrong with your head, is there?”

“I... What?”

“I mean, these escapades, I can only hear about so many of them before I start to worry about you. Is it pathological, do you think?”

“Uh, no, I don’t...” Alyssa clenched the sheets. She looked anxious. “Is it a problem?”

“You’re going to be expected to marry, you know,” Natalia said quietly. “There are ways around it, I am certain, but you’re going to cause a scandal if you don’t keep your desires in check. All the women in town are going to be asking each other if they’ve slept with the Empress yet.”

“It’s not that severe, I promise...” Her voice faltered. Was she actually beginning to realize how unseemly it all was?

And in that vein, did miracles truly exist?

“You’re overstating the problem, truly.”

“I just want you to consider your sexual behavior over the years, that’s all,” she replied. Her voice dripped acid. She lay her head on the nest of massive pillows beneath her and sighed. “Hardly anyone would assume you were into such things; you’re fortunate that way.”

“Men do it all the time!” she reasoned. “I don’t see why women shouldn’t be able to do the same.”

“You’re starting to sound like Elise.”

“Not even; Elise doesn’t care much for appearances. As long as she can still carry out whatever task has been handed to her from the authorities, she’ll do whatever she wants in the meantime.”

“That’s how Asgard works, apparently.”

“Mm-hm.”

“She approached you first as well, didn’t she?”

“Yes...”

-

It was fair to say that Elise knew what she was doing when she left Alyssa slicked with sweat and gasping on the ground, debased to nerves and feelings and little else. In turn, Alyssa learned quite a few things from her. Not only did she speak with authority, which Alyssa liked, but she also did not claim to know the best way to do things, which Alyssa liked better.

She could not impress Elise. No one could. She betrayed very little emotion, if any. When indignant, she tended toward the sarcastic, and when content she tended slightly less toward the ironic. She lived by her own obscure moral code, and rejected all others. (Such petty concerns were below her. Her perspective was exponentially broader compared to those scurrying around down here.)

If anything, Alyssa wanted to rule with the same impartial judgment that Elise leveled on everyone and everything. One could find fault with this approach at times, but what about fairness wasn’t respectable? The republicans asked for it. The Leonica asked for it. The least she could do was lend a willing ear. She could say in earnest she learned that much from Elise.

The Grim answered to an even greater authority, after all.

-

Repeating the story made her feel better, for some reason, though she had told Natalia a little bit before. “I know you’ve already accepted this; I’m not trying to justify it either, it’s just...”

“I will concede,” Natalia said finally, looming over Alyssa like some faceless judge, “that you feel you have something gain from these relationships. I’m not dismissing their legitimacy in any way. Clearly they are mutual. However,” she tilted Alyssa’s face upwards so they were seeing eye-to-eye, “I will say it as many times as I have to: you cannot continue to do this without expecting some sort of consequence. It would be foolish to assume that everyone has you in their best interests.”

“I thought you had more faith in me,” Alyssa mumbled.

“Alyssa, you are much more intelligent than most people your age. One need only look at where we’re sitting right now as proof; I’m not trying to insult you.” She brought Alyssa’s knuckles up to her face and kissed them. “I just want to give you advice, as your friend and as your trusted servant. Is that all right?”

“I understand. I’m listening.” She fidgeted.

“I am your bodyguard. My job is to protect you for the rest of your life. I can protect you from many things, but I cannot always protect you from your own decisions. All I ask is that you take responsibility for your actions. Can you do that?”

“Yes, I... I’m not blind to the consequences, and I’m not a sex addict. I don’t go out my way to look for these things...” She yanked the covers up to her neck, as if she were trying to hide herself. “A-at any rate, you are correct. The situation is different now; I am no longer a rogue princess.”

“Can you tell me about the rest of them, then?”

“I doubt you would find it very inspiring.”

“I’m looking for honesty, rather. I believe in you already; I need no inspiration.”

“I thought you wanted assurance!”

“I know you. I’m not going to get it.”

“Then why stay? Why bother?” Alyssa asked nervously. “I’m not very dignified; I realize that. You don’t have to pretend that I’m worth your affections, knowing that I’m going to look toward someone else if it pleases me. Aren’t you being too hard on yourself?”

“I’m working to change that. If I leave you, then I can’t do anything about it. Is that what you want? I’ll do it.” A small, wicked smile bloomed onto Natalia’s face. It suited her much too well.

“Ah...”

“You seemed to be doing fine on your own before. Are my services worth the anxiety?” Natalia stood up and took a step from the bed.

“Do you honestly see them as ‘services?’ Can’t you say that you actually love me, that I’m not just paying you to do this? I don’t want you to see yourself as some kind of prostitute. That isn’t it!” Alyssa gripped the sheets and craned her neck toward her.

“Then how on earth do you expect to explain yourself? You can’t say one thing to me and then another thing to Valery, and something else to Elise. What, do you love us all?”

“I can’t!” Alyssa bit her lip. “I really... I don’t... I never planned...” Her shoulders sank. “I’m sorry, Natalia. You ought to leave. You deserve someone better.”

“I’m not going to listen to you,” she scoffed. “Your decisions tend not to be the wisest.”

“Then...”

“If I wanted to leave, then I would have already. You could go and marry Julio and improve Leonica and Daltanica relations. In fact, if you choose to do so, then I would heartily support it. I know how you to want to change Gargandia for the better.”

“I love you,” Alyssa said with a sigh, “but I really don’t understand what kind of strange logic keeps you here.”

“No one knows you as well as I, I believe. If I left then I would be doing a great disservice to myself and to my country. You seek my counsel, don’t you? The benefits are mutual.”

“You have no responsibility toward me, you realize. You were free the moment I was crowned.”

“No, I don’t, and I know that. This was never a matter of purely business. I don’t have sex with you because you ask me to.”

Harsh words coming from the one who knew her best. “Do you love me, then?”

“If you will try, then I will as well.”

Alyssa stared at her. The sun was rising through the drawn curtains, barely peering out from the thick fabric. “It’s morning; you should be off. Tell the others I will be there soon.”

“By your leave.” Natalia bowed to her, and left Alyssa to her own thoughts and concerns.