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Rose and Thorn

Chapter Text

You love the roses - so do I. I wish
The sky would rain down roses, as they rain
From off the shaken bush. Why will it not?
Then all the valley would be pink and white
And soft to tread on. They would fall as light
As feathers, smelling sweet; and it would be
Like sleeping and like waking, all at once!
~George Eliot

The romance between Ilosovic Stayne, former Knave of Hearts, and Casiphia Rhoswen, attendant to the White Queen, continued apace, baffling many at Mormoreal and charming the few who understood and appreciated their attraction. It seemed they shared a sense of mischief and adventure that kept them both entertained, and this was something of a relief for those who had tired of being on the receiving end of Casiphia's mischief and tart commentary. The world they were building for themselves may have closed them away from regular life, but that could not last forever, and for the time being, those around them humored them.

Casiphia was sound asleep one night when a knock came at her bedroom door. Groggily climbing out of bed, she stumbled to the door to find Stayne outside. “Come outside with me. You need to see something,” he whispered. So she pulled on her old green cloak, found a pair of boots to slide her feet into, and with a yawn followed him out the door and down the corridor and up the spiraling flight of stairs that led up to one of the castle's turrets. Faint moonlight fell through the windows they passed, giving just enough silvery illumination to light their way.

She was still half somnolent when he led her to the window and guided her to sit next to him on the sill, but she woke instantly when she saw the rain of shooting stars overhead, so bright that they made the landscape visible. She gave Ilosovic a brilliant smile and settled into the circle of his arms to watch the meteor shower, not speaking, simply reveling in each other's presence and the spectacle above.

As a means of thanking him, the next day Casiphia waited till Stayne was away riding, and slipped into his bedchamber to sprinkle the petals from several dozen white roses over his counterpane. She couldn't help but chuckle at how ridiculously romantic this was all becoming, nor could she resist the impulse to indulge the whim.

That night Ilosovic came to her room soon after dinner, and as she was greeting him, slipped a strip of cloth that seemed to have been cut from his old cloak, the one he'd worn in service to the Red Queen, over her eyes and blindfolded her. Then he swept her up into his arms, down the hallway, and tossed her lightly onto his bed amidst the rose petals.

She was still bouncing—and giggling—when he fell next to her and began slowly, slowly undressing her. With her vision obscured by the blindfold, her other senses were exquisitely sensitive, and shudders chased up and down her spine as he slid her gown over her shoulders and unlaced her corset. The touch of his long, deft fingers radiated across her skin as he caressed her, and soon she fell back with a moan and moved to help him finish removing her clothing. But he caught her hands with one of his, and completed the task himself.

Casiphia was almost dizzy with wanting him by the time she heard him divesting himself of own clothing. Then his mouth was upon hers, and his hands on her body and hers on his, and she tore off the blindfold so she could see him by the light of the half-dozen candles in the room. By the time he was inside her she was no longer thinking, for once, but was filled only with sensation and emotion.

They moved together fiercely, cresting almost at the same moment, and then collapsed back onto sheets strewn with rose petals now crushed and exuding fragrance as strong as when they were plucked from the blooms in the garden.

Casiphia was dozing off when Ilosovic wakened her gently.

“You know I don't generally sleep with...this,” he said, gesturing to the black leather eyepatch he wore.

“No, I guess you wouldn't,” she said. “I hadn't thought about it, but I can see—I can understand that. So, um...”

“I would like to invite you to stay here with me tonight, but I need to know how you feel about this wound.”

“I don't think it will bother me,” she said, raising herself up on one elbow. “I don't mind scars and injuries; I've had a few of my own, for that matter.

“I don't know if you' ve noticed this one,” she said, gesturing at he triangular mark at her left temple, “but it's where I ran into the corner of a table when I was learning to walk.

“And this one—“ she indicated the line down the outside of her left calf—“has an even better story. I tumbled down a cliff when I was 11 and fractured it, and then made it worse by pulling myself back up the cliff because I was afraid no one would find me if I didn't. It's even more absurd when you realize it was Chessur who found me, and my being at the bottom of a cliff would have made no difference to him. Anyway, it required surgery and I was in a cast for quite a while.

“I was a bit careless as a child,” she admitted. “Luckily I've learned to keep my footing a bit better since then, especially since corsets and high heels came along soon after that.”

“Some might say you're a careless adult as well.”

“I would say instead that I have excellent instincts.”

“I know that's how I'd prefer to think of it,” he said.

“Scars just mean you've lived a real life,” Casiphia said. “There is nothing wrong with that. And yours just makes me more aware of how beautiful you truly are.”

She put a hand to Ilosovic's left cheek. “So how did this happen?”

“When I was capturing the Jabberwock for Iracebeth,” he sighed. “We both know how well that turned out.”

“I suspected as much,” Casiphia said, giving him a gentle kiss. “May I see?”

Slowly he unpeeled the eyepatch, and Casiphia took a careful look at the stitched eyelid and puckered scar tissue beneath.

“It's not as bad as I expected,” she said. 'I suppose it's healed well and no longer pains you?”

“For the most part,” he said.

“It means a great deal that you felt safe showing me that,” Casiphia said, giving him a long and slow kiss. “And I would like very much to stay here with you tonight.”

He embraced her, and it was a moment before she felt hot tears on her shoulder and realized he was weeping.

Wordlessly she pulled him down beside her onto the pillows and stroked his hair until he fell asleep. She lay awake for a long time afterwards, thinking, holding him gently.

* * * * *

The next morning she awoke in the circle of Ilosovic's arms, nestled into snowy layers of linen and down.

“Good morning, m—milady,” he smiled.

“Were you starting to say something else?” she asked, raising her eyebrows.

“Well. Yes,” he paused for a moment. “I keep wanting to call you 'my love,' but I fear that may be presumptuous.”

“Not presumptuous at all,” she smiled. “Not at all. My love.” And she couldn't help but grin, and he couldn't help but grin too in response.

“Mmm, I'm glad I agreed to stay here with you last night. Shall we ring for tea and see how long we can make the morning last?”

“That, my love, is a frabjous idea.”

Chapter Text

The eves illumined by the burning coal,
The balcony where veiled rose-vapour clings—
How soft your breast was then, how sweet your soul!
Ah, and we said imperishable things,
Those eves illumined by the burning coal.
~Baudelaire

Because even Underland cannot remain at a standstill for long, and because Casiphia had set events in motion with her request for Stayne's pardon and Iracebeth's return, it seemed only a short time before the next upheaval.

It was just after breakfast on a warm, bright day when Mirana called Casiphia and Stayne to her receiving room. Smaller and cozier than the Marmoreal throne room, it still had an air of formality that lent itself to serious discussion.

Suspecting they knew what this was about, Casiphia curtseyed and Stayne made a polite bow, and the Queen beckoned to them to be seated.

“Casiphia Rhoswen, Ilosovic Stayne, I've called you two here because I believe you may have particular insight into the matter of Iracebeth and what we can do for and with her.”

Stayne visibly clenched his jaw and Casiphia bit at her lower lip, but they remained silent and waited for Mirana to continue.

“My guards have located her in the Outlands, and are ready to bring her to Marmoreal upon my order. I have also sent physicians to give her a cursory examination, and the news is not good.

“Casiphia,” she continued, “you know that I theorize that it is her health that is at issue, and that it's a problem that has been, er, growing for many years now, since her childhood. Ilosovic, would you agree with that?”

“It would not surprise me,” he replied carefully. “She has always been impulsive and somewhat demanding, but when we were younger, I certainly saw no sign of what she would become.”

“I didn't have much contact with her when we were all children,” Casiphia said to Stayne. “She was older, and those of us who are now courtiers here spent our time with Mirana. Of course we heard stories about Iracebeth, and sometimes saw her in passing, but that was really all.”

Mirana sighed. “It was because she was so erratic and unpredictable that our parents passed the crown to me rather than to Racie, although she was the eldest. They feared that her violent streak would end up controlling her, and it seems they were correct. But her anger at them and at me can't have helped matters. How vindictive must one feel to burn down one's childhood home?”

“I met Iracebeth when I was barely more than a boy,” Ilosovic said. “I'd come to the castle from the village looking for training as a swordsman, and she and I struck up a friendship when I was visiting the castle. Later when she asked for my loyalty I gave it, not realizing what that was going to require of me and what I was going to be asked to do.

“And yes, her behavior grew more childlike and more violent as the years progressed. Her impatience and temper became more frightening as she attained the power to enforce her wishes, and that became more alarming still after the death of the Red King. The one she claimed to have killed out of love.”

“She still says that, and from what I can tell, believes it utterly,” Mirana said. “I do not have the final word from the physicians, but it seems she is even more irrational and angry than she was when she left for exile, and it seems that she is now suffering headaches. It seems more than likely than ever that yes, she is ill in some fashion, and that there is not likely to be a cure.”

“Are you saying that killing her might have been a kindness?” Stayne asked, lowering his gaze to the floor rather than meet Mirana's eyes.

“Possibly so,” Mirana sighed. “But that moment has passed, and there will be no killing in my castle, much less of my kin.”

“Can she stay here?” Casiphia said. “In her own wing, perhaps, with locks and guards, but still living in comfort?”

“That is what I was contemplating,” Mirana said. “I suspected you would be the one to agree. It seems a dangerous course of action, but kinder than leaving her in the Outlands to suffer and perhaps die for something that she cannot help, and less of a risk than giving her the chance to gather allies and make another attempt on this crown. All that we can do is keep her here and safe from herself, and others safe from her.”

“I suppose you're right,” Stayne said. “That does seem the best course of action, Your Majesty.”

Casiphia was looking thoughtful. Now she said, “May I do something for Iracebeth, something to welcome her here?”

“That would be most generous and thoughtful of you,” Mirana replied. “What did you have in mind?”

“I would like to bring red roses from her old castle to her chambers here.”

“That's a beautiful idea,” Mirana said. “I will provide you with whatever help you require.”

Casiphia realized that Stayne had risen to his feet and was now standing behind her chair.

“You're not going alone,” he said, protectively folding his arms across Casiphia from the back. “Nor are you going unarmed.”

“Then, Ilosovic, you shall accompany Casiphia to the Red Castle. And Casiphia, you have a sword—make certain it accompanies you as well.

“And Ilosovic, I do hate to ask this of you, but I know Iracebeth will request an audience with you, and I ask you to agree to that when she does. You may have guards accompany you, if you like.”

“Your Majesty,” he said with a bow of his head, again not meeting her eyes. “I do not believe I will need guards, and I would prefer that our conference be private that we may be honest with each other.”

“As you wish,” Mirana said.

“Is there anything else you would ask of us, Your Highness?” Casiphia asked.

“I believe that is all for now. You may go about your business.”

Ilosovic offered his arm to Casiphia, who rose and accepted it. They were leaving the receiving room when Mirana intercepted her at the doorway and drew her back in with a question.

“He's good to you?” she asked Casiphia softly.

“Yes, he is,” Casiphia said with a smile.

“No regrets?”

“Not a one.”

“May it remain that way,” Mirana said, giving Casiphia a quick hug and releasing her to join Ilosovic again.

He quirked his eyebrow at her, and she explained. “Mirana is being protective. I hope I was able to set her mind at ease.”

“I realize my presence here can be somewhat uncomfortable,” Ilosovic said, with something approaching an apologetic tone.

“I think having you here is good for us,” Casiphia said. “We have a tendency here to focus too much on the light and push the darkness away, where it never stays and where it sometimes creeps back to surprise us. I wonder if we might not have been taken so unawares by Iracebeth if we'd been more attuned to that balance.Your presence reminds us that there are many colors to existence and that they all require and deserve attention.

“My personal feelings aside,” she added, squeezing his arm.

He pulled her into a quick, tight embrace, then rested his chin upon her head. “I can't do this with most people, you know,” he said. “Generally they aren't tall enough.”

“I feel so honored,” Casiphia said dryly, ducking and moving to one side. “Come now, let's go and be idle somewhere while we still have the opportunity.”

* * * * *

It was another bright, warm morning, and Stayne and Casiphia had ridden to a grassy hill not far from the castle. Quill and Brautigan lazily cropped grass and occasionally whickered to each other, while the humans sat on the damp soft grass, Ilosovic with his head in Casiphia's lap watching the clouds billowing overhead.

Casiphia plucked tiny purple wildflowers from the grass around her, first making a circlet for her brown hair, then tucking them randomly into Ilosovic's dark curls.

A small procession in the distance made its way towards Marmoreal, a double row of knights preceding a small carriage and another squadron following. As the cortege drew near the castle, they heard a faint but outraged call of “Off with his head!”

“She's here,” sighed Casiphia as Stayne sat upright, a few purple blossoms tumbling from his hair.

“No need to rush back,” he said. “It will be some time before she's settled and the physicians can examine her.”

But the peacefulness of the morning was ruined now, and with only a glance needed to communicate, the two got to their feet and went to their horses. A hard, fast gallop seemed suddenly far more in keeping with the mood of the day.

Chapter Text

The Rose said, "In the shade
From the dawn's tears is made
A perfume faint and strange,
Amber and honey sweet."
~Victor Hugo

Ilosovic and Casiphia set off early the next morning upon their horses to collect roses from the gardens of the abandoned Red Castle. It would be only a brief time before Iracebeth was ensconced in her new quarters, and it seemed a good day to be away from Marmoreal, what with the unavoidably widespread upset caused by the former queen's arrival.

From the saddles of their mounts they hung large wicker baskets lined with cotton batting, to be dampened in the moat waters that were now happily free of severed heads. Brautigan had some caustic commentary about both the baskets and the purpose for which they were intended, but Brautigan was a horse with a sardonic bent at the best of times. Quill's only comment was a gentle whinny, which Casiphia took to mean she wasn't entirely opposed to the adventure. Regardless, none of them, human or equine, was opposed to venturing out on a long ride, and the early summer weather was ideal for that.

As they rode through Tulgey Wood, they noticed new green shoots erupting from the trees and bushes, clear signs that there was change afoot in Underland. There were even birds and insects to be seen, something which had not been the case in a number of years, and something that seemed to be a rath snortling in the undergrowth.

All found themselves heading towards the ruins of the old castle as though they had discussed it beforehand. Stayne and Casiphia wanted to revisit their old trysting site, and the horses were attuned enough to them to anticipate their wishes. Across the chessboard battlefield they rode, and all looked to see the further destruction of the old castle since Alice's battle with the Jabberwock.

Casiphia rode to the foot of the long flight of stone stairs that curved up the castle's left side. “Look, several of them are broken away now, and we can't use them to reach our old picnic spot.”

Ilosovic and Brautigan trotted to the Queast side of the structure and the knight gestured to her to join them. “We might have better luck climbing up the fallen bricks,” he said as Casiphia and Quill drew near.

“I'm disappointed,” Casiphia said as she and Quill joined the others and she regarded the blocks of stone that had been broken from the building during the battle. “And all those pillars knocked down. I know these are ruins, I know they weren't going to last for always, but I didn't expect this much damage. I was hoping for a bit of nostalgia, visiting here with you, but it seems Time has moved along too far for that.”

“If it helps,” Ilosovic said, “circumstances are so much better overall than they were the last time we were here. Is that not worth the sacrifice?”

“You are right,” she said. “That's a better way to think of it.

“Oh, follow me. I don't think I ever showed you this. Over here is the wing where my parents and I lived, along with the other courtiers. Not that there's much left of it now.”

“That must be sad for you, seeing it like this,” Stayne said. “And hells, I have responsibility for this. Knowing you makes it real to me in a way it never was before. I am so bloody sorry. I don't how I can ever make amends for this.”

“I do not blame you. You were part of the coup, but without Iracebeth, none of this would have happened. With or without you, I'm certain she would have acted the same. There would always have been someone to help her accomplish her aims, whether through love or loyalty or fear.

“If it helps, it's been a long time since this village was burned down. I've lived at Marmoreal for nigh on ten years now, and we all moved to Marmoreal years before my parents retired. For what it's worth, they're living in a nice little house in the mushroom forest now, and they seem quite content.

“We've not talked overmuch about our families, I realize,” she added. “Will you tell me about yours?”

“I was an only child and my parents died of a fever when I was about twelve,” he replied. “That is what brought me to the castle looking for sword training. I'd shown an aptitude for it, and it seemed a better life than relying on the kindness of distant cousins.”

“I think I'm understanding you a little better now,” Casiphia said softly. “That's a difficult age to go through something like that, to suddenly have to be so independent.”

Ilosovic guided Brautigan over to her, and took her hand, and gave it a little squeeze. “So, do your parents know you've taken up with the dreadful Knave of Hearts?”

“I imagine so,” Casiphia said wryly. “It's not as though anything stays a secret long in Underland. I haven't told them, if that's what you're wondering. Why, are you ready to meet them?”

“Only if the rest of you are so inclined,” he said. “But I admit I'm curious to know more about what made you the woman you are.”

“Sheer pigheadedness, if you ask my father,” she said. “But I suppose that gives you an insight in and of itself.”

“Would that trait make you amenable to looking for a way to climb up the ruins?”

“We can try,” Casiphia said, swinging down from Quill's back. Ilosovic dismounted as well and the two wandered along the side of the ruined castle in search of a passage up the rubble that wouldn't be too hard to navigate.

As they passed an archway where once a door had been, Casiphia took Stayne's hand and drew him inside with her.

“We talk around this and aren't specific,” she said, suddenly serious. “But I want you to know—I love you. I love the person you truly are, despite what you may have done in the past. I know you've had your reasons and motivations, and I don't need to know what they are unless you want to tell me. I believe that you will live a different kind of life now, and I trust you.”

“I love you too,” he said, looking intently into her gray eyes. “For your generosity and your trust and your kindness, and because you are good to me.

“You've never asked me to risk life and limb for you, for one thing, and I thank you for that.”

“That would be ghastly. I don't want you to put yourself in danger on a whim of mine.”

“Dearest, there are any number of deeds I would gladly perform for you.”

“Most of which I would never ask,” Casiphia said.

“That is part of what makes you so exceedingly easy to love,” he said, taking her into his arms. “There is one thing I now know for certain—it is better to be loved than feared.” They shared a deep, sweet kiss and a long embrace, and then returned to their search among the ruins hand in hand.

Eventually they did find a slope of rubble that was possible for them to ascend, although the last few feet to what remained of the second story was a bit treacherous and gave Casiphia a moment of vertigo. Ilosovic held onto her as she navigated the sliding stones, and took her hands to help her gain purchase at the top of the climb.

More evidence of the battle between Jabberwock and Alice was present (“Jabberwocky” was Iracebeth's pet name for the creature, and one Stayne refused now to use), broken pillars that had been upright before and purplish blotches underfoot that were undoubtedly Jabberwock blood.

“I don't know if I needed to see this,” Casiphia said. “Maybe I should have left well enough alone and been satisfied with my memories.”

“At least come and look at the sea with me,” Ilosovic said. They did, and Casiphia realized that this, at least, brought back the heady emotions of their first trysts together. Watching the sun glimmer off the Crimson Sea reminded her so strongly of meeting Ilosovic here and how intoxicating their forbidden meetings had been—and also of the anxiety that had accompanied them.

“I prefer now to then,” she said. “For so many reasons. I think it's time to move on into the future now.”

Descending the crumbling stonework was both easier and more alarming, as they managed to skid and slide partway down and ended up nearly falling as the momentum carried them downwards. They were both laughing as they reached the bottom of the scree, and returned to their horses both feeling lighter, as though something new had been constructed amid the ruins.

Chapter Text

From the bloom and the gloom that encloses
The death-bed of Love where he dozes
Till a relic be left not of sand
To the hour-glass that breaks in his hand;
From the change in the grey garden-closes
To the last stray grass of the strand,
A rain and ruin of roses
Over the red-rose land.

~Algernon Charles Swinburne

The lands outside Saluzen Grum had been a blasted wasteland for years, but life was beginning to show its traces there too, if just in straggling groundcover and nettles. A few spiky birds hunted for insects and flew away with rattling cries as Stayne and Casiphia galloped to the former Red Castle.

Up to the castle they rode and across the drawbridge, now permanently lowered. The moat was indeed now free of floating heads, and the water now a brownish riverine color rather than murky red.

As the two pulled their horses to a halt, Ilosovic noticed that Casiphia's hat was askew and strands of hair were straggling out of her braid. She was also frowning.

"What's the matter, milady?" Stayne said, riding up beside her.

"I'm bruised from this wretched sword," she said. Then she pulled up the leg of her divided skirt and the bloomers under it, and rolled down her stocking, to show him where the skin underneath was already darkening.

"I'm sorry, my dear, but I'm going to insist you continue to wear it," Stayne said. "I don't plan to make a habit of telling you what to do, but I agree with Mirana on this. We don't know who or what might be lurking on these grounds."

"I know, I know. Doesn't mean I'm going to be happy about it," Casiphia complained. "Oh well, I do bruise easily, this isn't anything new." Catching a glimpse of her consort's expression, she added, "So be ye gentle with me, Ilosovic Stayne!"

"I don't foresee that being a worry," he responded. "You courtiers do seem to wear a great deal of clothing."

"But so much of it is white, which is practically see-through."

"Oh, would that it were, milady," he leered at her. "Would that it were."

Brautigan rolled his eyes at this and snorted, and Quill laid her ears back and tossed her head.

"We're offending the horses," Stayne said. "We mustn't do that, it's a long walk back. So we must get to work now, I guess."

Casiphia gazed up at the high turrets and walkways of the Red Castle. "I always thought this was a beautiful castle," she said. "It's a shame it has the history it does and now stands empty. I wouldn't care to live there now, and I don't know who would."

"Let's cut roses while the light is still good and then I'll give you a tour," Stayne said. "You didn't get to see much of it before, as I recall."

"And you can see if there's anything here you'd like to take back with you, maybe from your quarters."

"If they haven't been ransacked. We'll know soon enough, I suppose."

The two dismounted and took the baskets and the pruning shears they'd brought for the purpose of procuring roses, dampened the cotton batting in a fountain that still held some water, and hiked to the rose garden, whose former manicured state was now devolving into a more overgrown and natural condition. Topiaries now sprouted tendrils of leaves, including the one that had been sheared into the shape of Iracebeth's head ("I'm glad she can't see that," said Ilosovic), and pathways were tufted with grass.

"Why don't you start with the bushes, and I'll clip the rose trees," Ilosovic said.

Stayne made faster progress as he was clipping with his riding gloves still on, but Casiphia felt clumsy in hers and had pulled them off soon after starting her work. Crimson rose after crimson rose fell into her basket, and she was nearly finished with her first row of bushes when she saw a rosebush of a kind she'd never come across before.

"Ilosovic! Come see this," she called to him. As he approached, she held out a rose that was a pure and snowy white on the outside, but a rich scarlet on its inside petals.

"How curious," he said, leaning to contemplate it more closely. "And how strangely appropriate."

"I wonder if we can send someone to bring us the entire bush," she said. "Just for us. Our own roses."

"I'd like that," he said. "White and red together mean 'unity,' did you know that?"

"Yes, I—ohh!" Casiphia exclaimed, holding up her hand to display the blood dripping from the finger that a thorn had gashed.

Ilosovic, keeping his gaze intently on hers, took her hand and guided it to his mouth, tonguing the blood from her finger. Then he put a gloved hand to either side of her face, bending to kiss her deeply. She tasted her own blood in his mouth and felt her heart quicken.

"This might be why people don't trust you." She inhaled sharply. "It's entirely too hard to keep one's head around you."

"I've been behaving," he said.

"Only in public. I think it makes you all the more wicked behind closed doors."

"Do you think we might find a closed door right now?" he asked.

"I think I know exactly the one," she said. "And I wonder if you're thinking of it too."

Stayne still had his castle keys, as no one had bothered to take them from him when he was exiled, but the front door was not locked. Inside was the atmosphere of any deserted building, air cool and dank despite the warmth of the day. There was no sound, but they kept their hands to their sword hilts just in case.

The only light in the throne room was sun seeping in through dusty, spattered windows adorned with stained-glass hearts and swirls, leaving ghosts of their colors and patterns across the gray marble walls and black-and-white checkered floor.

Ilosovic drew his sword and cut down a red velvet drapery from one wall. "So there isn't a cold, hard floor against your back," he told Casiphia.

"Who says the cold, hard floor will be against your back?" she replied, and he responded with a raised eyebrow and a smile. With a snap of fabric, he spread the velvet on the carpet leading to the throne, right up to the base of the heart-shaped dais where the throne resided.

Suddenly there was a scuffling sound in one corner, and their hands flew to their sword hilts. A second later there came a sort of squeal—and a pig fled through the room and out the door.

"I didn't know there were any of them still around," Ilosovic said, gasping with relieved laughter.

"I hope the poor thing hasn't been trapped in here for weeks with nothing to eat," Casiphia said.

"Oh, I'm sure he or she managed to find something in the kitchens. Better that, in fact, than all the food going to waste. I don't know what might have been looted or abandoned since this castle was left for empty."

After that, they were sensitized to the idea of being discovered, so when they reposed on the velvet curtain, they took off just enough clothing to engage in the intended activities, but still be able to defend themselves if necessary. That meant Ilosovic lay on his back with his shirt and breeches unbuttoned, while Casphia straddled him in stockings and boots and an already abbreviated shift rucked up around her waist. His sword and hers flanked them on either side.

Casiphia slowly drew her dark-lacquered fingernails down Ilosovic's chest. She pulled the ribbon from her braid and shook her brown hair down around Ilosovic's face as she lifted herself up and began teasing him with a mischievous grin on her face, almost letting him enter her but pulling away at the last second each time.

With a groan he finally threw his arms around her and maneuvered her onto him, and they began to pulse in rhythm together. When she reached her peak, she arched her spine and threw her head back, and watching that was enough to bring Ilosovic right after her.

They lay entwined for a time afterwards, skin damp, her hair tangled about them both, watching the rays of colored sunlight seeping through the windows.

But soon, conscious that the afternoon was not far from its end, they reassembled their clothing and Casiphia rebraided her hair, and both buckled their swords back on. Then Stayne took her about to quickly show her some of the more interesting places in the Red Castle, such as a balcony overlooking the moat and the former queen's bedroom.

"How much risk do you really think there is of anyone attacking us here?" she asked him.

"Now that we're here, I suspect not much. Any individual intruder would be foolish to take us both on, and I think any organized group would have revealed itself by now. Nevertheless, it's not something to take a chance with. And you're not taking off that sword again," he grinned, "no matter how pretty an argument you present."

Stayne's quarters had been on the fourth floor, with wide windows looking out onto the courtyard and over the castle wall. The door was still locked and intact, and everything inside untouched. From the bookshelves in the sitting room to the large bed with its red velvet curtains in the bedroom, all was dusty and still.

"We could send someone back for your belongings, if you like," Casipha said. "If there's more that you want than we can take back ourselves tonight."

But Ilosovic was preoccupied, searching through a gold-plated box that stood atop an elaborately carved desk. Finally he found what he was after, and motioned to Casiphia to join him.

"Close your eyes," he said, and she did, feeling the weight of cold metal and a fine chain circling her neck. She opened her eyes to find she was now wearing a silver pendant in the shape of a raven.

"That is my oldest possession," Ilosovic told her. "It is from far back in my childhood. And now it is yours."

Casiphia bowed her head and smiled, then turned to give him a tight hug.

He then handed her a fine chain strung with rubies and a large gold ring set with an oval onyx, saying, "I don't know what you can do with these, but they're yours as well."

"For the time being, this is what I'll do," Casiphia said, stringing the ring on the chain and fastened it about her neck as well.

"And I believe I might have a few poetry books that you might appreciate," Stayne said. "Aside from those, I don't think there is anything here that I want. I don't want clothing in Iracebeth's colors, and there is nothing I need of which Queen Mirana hasn't provided as good or better.

"There is only one more place I'd like to see, and then it will be time to leave."

With that, he pulled a few books from the shelves in the sitting room and handed them to Casiphia, then took her hand and led her back down sweeping staircases to the first floor of the castle. Then down shadowed corridors they went till they reached the chamber where they had had their first tryst, the room filled with abandoned treasures.

That door had been broken in, and much of the art and furnishings were missing now, obviously having been taken by courtiers and townspeople after Iracebeth was banished (and better to be appreciated by them than left to moulder in isolation, Casiphia thought), but being in that room still brought back the memories of that day. She remembered her first conversation with Stayne, and their impromptu tryst, and her flight after their encounter to avoid being caught together by the Red Queen.

"Here you are," Ilosovic said, interrupting Casiphia's contemplations. A tapestry of Iracebeth hung on one wall, and he slashed it down the middle, handing her half. "You can wrap this around your scabbard to protect your leg against your sword, should we do any further galloping."

"Oh," she said, surprised. "Thank you. I was merely considering what transpired from a whim to visit the Red Castle."

"A very lucky whim," Ilosovic replied. He pulled her to him fiercely and once more they shared a kiss long and sweet, appreciating how very fortunate they had been, and still were.

* * * * *

As Casiphia and Ilosovic rode back to Marmoreal, the afternoon dwindled and gave way to dusk, and a gold and purple sunset flamed and faded over their right shoulders. On the approach to the White Castle, petals blew from the flanking trees in a growing breeze and showered down upon them through the purple air. Stablehands came to take their horses, and staff carried away the baskets of roses, with the exception of the bloom that was both white and crimson, which Stayne wore at his belt.

Rosalba, Casiphia's closest friend among the ladies in waiting, was hovering less-than-innocently near the front door and came to greet them. As she embraced Casiphia, she noticed the new jewelry she wore, and gave her friend a wink and a smile, which Casiphia returned.

"I want to hear about everything," Rosalba said.

"Tomorrow, when I'm not so tired," Casiphia promised. "And maybe not everything."

"Oh, really?" Rosalba said with raised eyebrows.

"Throne room," Casiphia mouthed silently.

Rosalba grinned. "And is that half an Iracebeth?" she said, noticing the tapestry remnant.

"Yes, it is," Casiphia said. "I promise, I'll tell you all about the castle, but it seems I don't have the stamina I thought I did, and I'm just too tired for anything right now."

"Milady, you do look weary," Stayne said, noticing that Casiphia was in fact drooping a bit. "It's been a long, warm day and taxing in more than one sense. Your stamina is in fact impressive. If you will go to your quarters now and rest, I'll bring you some salve for your sword bruise and arrange for dinner to be send up."

Casiphia's response was a yawn and a wave of her hand, and to her quarters she went.

When Stayne went up to check on Casiphia and possibly join her for dinner, he found her sprawled across her bed, already asleep. So he gently roused her, just enough to get her out of her riding clothes and into a nightgown—at one point she mumbled something that was almost certainly "Ilosovic"—and tucked her into bed.

"I'm glad I didn't suggest you take a bath," he whispered. "I've woken up in a cold tub, and it's not something I recommend."

He then unfastened the ruby necklace from her throat and left it on her bedside table, but chose the presumption of leaving the raven pendant where it was, nestled between her breasts.

Crawling into bed beside her was almost unbearably tempting to him at that moment, but he knew taking time alone to marshall all his resources for seeing Iracebeth again was his best course of action. With a sigh, he gave Casiphia a gentle kiss on her temple, and blew out the candles next to her bed.

Chapter Text

Chapter 5: Game of Hearts

You are responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose.
~Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Casiphia woke late the next morning smiling, realizing that someone had put her to bed and suspecting who it had been. But when she went looking for Ilosovic Stayne, he was not to be found. Finally one of the rabbit footmen told her that, as Stayne had expected, this was the day he had been summoned to meet with Iracebeth.

Wondering what was transpiring between the former queen and her knave created challenges for Casiphia. After pacing her chambers and failing utterly to lose herself in a book, she went down to one of the castle gardens and told the gardener at work there that he was welcome to take the rest of the day off. Then she set herself to pulling weeds with a vengeance.

“Stealing work from the staff, I see,” came a voice. “Or is this your new position?”

“Oh, hello, Chess,” Casiphia said, slumping down on the grass, heedless of the possibility of stains on her pale skirts. “I needed a distraction, and this was the best I could think of.”

“Ah, because your, er, friend is meeting with the former queen, I suppose,” said the cat, crossing his front paws and making himself comfortable in mid-air, as he was wont to do. “Worried?”

“Not that he would join forces with her again, or for that matter, leave me for her,” Casiphia said. “That would show a weakness of character I'm sure I would have observed by now, and which I wouldn't care to live with anyway.

“No, I'm worried about what she might do, and how he's going to react. I don't see how anything good can come of this. And waiting to hear what's happening...that's the hard part.”

“Cheshire cats make the best spies, you know,” came the response, with a slow wink of a turquoise eye.

“You were just there?” Casiphia sat upright.

“Until Iracebeth saw me and threw a shoe at me, yes,” the cat purred. “Then I removed myself. Up till then there was merely a lot of shouting and recriminations on her part, and your man was standing there without saying a thing.”

Casiphia grimaced. “I'm not sure that sounds good at all,” she said. “But better than the two of them shouting at each other, I suppose.”

“I'd say that would be good fun,” Chessur said. “But no, all I heard was a monologue, most of which didn't make a great deal of sense. Not that this is anything new, mind you.”

He rolled over on his back and tilted his head to look at her. “Feel free to rub the belly. I hear it's relaxing.”

“For whom?” Casiphia said. But she stretched out a hand to stroke the striped fur, and found that indeed it was rather soothing.

“It'll all work itself out, it always does,” purred the cat.

Suddenly hearing a muttering, Casiphia looked up to see Nivens McTwisp scurrying by, looking even more nervous than usual, holding his ears down at the side of his head as if to muffle outside noise and muttering under his breath something about “bloody big head, won't leave and stay gone.”

“I think this is going to be the most difficult confrontation Ilosovic will have here,” Casiphia told Chess.

“Unless Alice comes back. And of course there's still Tarrrant to contend with, and Mally. But no, I don't imagine much could be worse than meeting with Iracebeth after she's lost the throne and you've tried to kill her.”

“Precisely,” Casiphia said grimly, setting to pulling weeds again.

Before too much longer, they were joined by the man in question. Evidently the footman had told him where to find Casiphia, and he had gone there straightaway, once his audience was complete.

He dropped onto the grass next to her, bending his long legs and resting his chin on his knees. Ilosovic Stayne had been much chastened since the overthrow of the Red Queen, but Casiphia hadn't seen him apparently battling so many contradictory emotions at one time.

“You might try decapitating some weeds,” Chessur suggested. “Although I'm not sure Casiphia has left you any.”

“You were spying,” Stayne said curtly to the cat.

“If a cat may look at a king, a Cheshire feline most certainly may observe a deposed queen.”

“And then he may spread rumors and gossip around the kingdom. You had best not try it.”

“You don't think much of my reliability, do you?” Chess grinned even more widely than usual, rolled over in the air, and evaporated.

“So,” Casiphia said.

“So,” Ilosovic replied. “Seeing her again was about as bad as I expected, with the caveat that one could not possibly be fully prepared for it.”

“What happened, exactly?”

“Oh, first there we had screaming and tantrums and threats. Then she tried to rationalize her actions. Then she apologized. And then she cried.”

“What did you do?”

“Stood there with no sword, wondering if she was going to fly at my throat, feeling hideously guilty at the same time.”

“Ouch, sweetheart,” Casiphia said. “How are you feeling now?”

“Numb. That was a lot of emotion to take in all at once. I think I'm angry with myself as much as anything.”

“Ugh, this is my fault,” she said. “I'm the one who asked Mirana to show her leniency.”

“Milady, you like to find the good in everyone.” He gave her the crooked smile she loved so much. “Sometimes it works.”

There was silence as they sat looking out over the hills and waterfalls.

“She's in love with you, you know,” Casiphia finally said.

“I know,” Ilosovic said. “It makes all of this worse.”

“You didn't mention me, did you?”

“No, I am not that foolish,” Stayne said.

“I'm sorry,” said Casphia, affronted. “Just wondering if I'm going to need to sleep with a sword under my own bed.”

Ilosovic sighed. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean to snap at you.”

“I know,” Casiphia replied. “It was just an emotional reaction on my part. It's all right.”

She put an arm around his shoulders and they sat quietly again, amidst the remains of the weeds that Casiphia had plucked with such vengeance.

“She likes the roses,” Ilosovic said at length.

“Good. I'm glad,” Casiphia replied. Then she said into his ear in a low voice, “Tell me the truth. You were thinking 'Off with her head!' every time you snipped one of those roses.”

“I can neither confirm or deny such a statement,” Ilosovic said, but now he was smiling. “You are determined to find the humor in a situation, aren't you?”

“Some would say it's not one of my more endearing traits,” Casiphia said.

“Well, it's one I appreciate. Particularly under circumstances like this.” He kissed her cheek and drew her closer.

“Oh, love. I want to make it all better for you, you know I do, but I'm not sure what I can do besides draw you a hot bath and ransack the kitchen for treats,” she sighed.

“I would be willing to find out if that works,” Ilosovic said.

“Then that is what we shall do,” Casiphia said, getting to her feet and shaking grass and weed bits off her skirts. She took Ilosovic's hand and pulled him up, and the two walked hand in hand to the castle, in defiance of what anyone might think or say.

* * * * *

“Lemon tarts and Devonshire cream,” Casiphia announced. She had Ilosovic ensconced in her own deep marble bathtub, with its gardens and waterfall view and soft lights, and had added a liberal amount of lavender bath salts to the water before heading to the kitchen to see what treats she might find.

“Also chamomile tea, because I imagine you need it,” she said, setting a silver tray by the edge of the tub.

“Mmm, well done,” Ilosovic said. He was reclining back in the steam with his good eye closed, doing his best to release the events of the day. “I can think of only one more thing that would make this ideal.”

“And what would that be?” said Casiphia, surprising him by slipping into the bath next to him, having quickly discarded her clothes across the room when he wasn't looking.

“Very well done,” Ilosovic reframed his comment as she stretched her wet body the full length of his.

“The tea is terribly hot,” she said as they folded their arms about each other and relaxed into the embrace. “I think we should wait a while to drink it.”

'I'm glad you're here,” he said.

“I am too,” she replied.