“The nightbloods are training on the hillside today,” Nyko tells the apprentices as they shuffle in, most of them still bleary-eyed and yawning. “Do I have a volunteer?”
There’s a vague grumble that comes from the apprentices as a response. Clarke casts a look at the wide windows and can’t blame them. Outside has become dark and grey, the wind whipping colder and colder as the nights lengthen.
“Rabar?” Nyko asks, turning to an apprentice with wild brown curls. She makes a face.
“I went to the training area three weeks ago,” she whines. “It’s someone else’s turn.”
“Everyone has taken a turn, so it’s time to start again.”
“Not her.” Rabar points at Clarke, who pauses in the middle of washing her hands. “Send the witch.”
Clarke really doesn’t mind the epithet. Most of the time it’s a joke, with a wink or a raised eyebrow. No one seems scared of her. No one among the apprentices, at least.
Nyko turns. Clarke tries to keep her expression blank as he scrutinizes.
Finally he nods. “Here,” he tosses her the prepared pack of basic medical supplies. “She’s right. It’s your turn.”
The both know why he hasn’t sent her before. The training plateau is high up in the hills. Outside the city walls.
Clarke’s heart pounds as she cradles the pack close to her chest. Hern is whispering in her ear: can she get to the plateau on her own? Does she remember him pointing it out, the direction she has to travel out of the city? She nods at each question until he lets her go with a pat on the back.
Her heart continues to thud in her ears as she rides the elevator down to the ground, even as she makes her way through the twisting streets of the city. She gets turned around a few times, but every time someone spots the green circles on her temple and points her back in the right direction. The same glances get her through the break in the city walls as the guards let her pass out of the city.
And like that, she’s escaped.
She’s not going anywhere, of course. She has nowhere to go.
But it’s nice to feel the fetters of constant watchful eyes and awareness fall away, letting her shoulders slump with release. If she concentrates, walking up the well-worn path that starts at the base of the hills, she can almost pretend she has nowhere to go, no one to be, that she is finally on the ground and truly free. For the first time in her life.
The wind picks up, and she walks faster to keep herself warm.
There’s a ring of warriors standing guard at the training area, and they hold her back from entering until Lexa spots her and waves her through. She sits at the far end of the clearing with the children at her feet. Her blade is drawn and lying naked in her lap. As Clarke approaches Lexa is pointing to designs on the hilt, notches on the blade, as the children lean in close and drink in her words.
“Now that our healer is here,” Lexa says, rising to her feet with her sword in hand, “you may pair off for sparring.”
She throws Clarke a warm look but busies herself with helping the nightbloods find their partners, assembling them in a ragged line so that one child faces another. Clarke tucks herself out of the way to sit on an outcropping of rock. That allows her to keep an eye on the group without getting in their way.
Her presence is pretty much a precautionary measure. The nightbloods are disciplined, and Clarke doesn’t see any of them goofing off or fooling around with their weapons even when Lexa or another warrior isn’t with them. Their young faces are very serious as they go through the demonstrated drills, step by step. Lexa calls out times -- quarter, half, full, double -- and they follow through with surety, hands steady and eyes focused.
It’s the same level of concentration that surprised her watching the children at the river (Baya, Jeffer, Thesda, the others, Clarke hopes they’re all warm for the oncoming winter) but more, somehow. Even when those kids almost frightened Clarke with their skill, she could see they were playing. The nightbloods are not. As Lexa calls out faster and faster times their weapons move so quickly they almost blur before Clarke’s eyes.
What are they training for with such unsmiling determination? If Lexa became Commander because she’s a nightblood, does that mean she has generals or warriors out there, pledged to her, who once trained like this with her? Nyko said Lexa had been chosen -- chosen how?
These are the questions that chase each other around and around in her head, because really, there’s nothing else for her to do. She goes over the supplies in the pack Nyko gave her: basic first aid stuff, all sanitized and organized. She makes a mental note to to show him it’s low on gauze wrappings. Otherwise? She resigns herself to huddling on her rock, cold and a little bored, and develops a new appreciation for the warmth and sheer amount of stuff to do in the infirmary.
Lexa’s having fun, Clarke notes with a trace of sourness. This is the most animated Clarke has ever seen her. Lexa comes dangerously close to smiling once or twice. Her cheeks and the tops of her ears are red from the cold, but Clarke doubts she even registers it. She’s too absorbed in the nightbloods. Lexa has seemingly infinite patience with them, correcting their form again and again, taking the time to talk through a particular grip technique and its importance. Sometimes she takes the place of a nightblood to spar with their partner, and she takes small hits to the ankles and hands without flinching. She congratulates them for it. The only time Clarke sees her come close to losing her temper is when a nightblood lets her guard drop early and Lexa has to correct the path of her blow at the last minute to keep it from connecting with the little girl’s skull. That gets a rise from Lexa, and she spends the next minute scolding in such a harsh tone of voice the girl ends up on the edge of tears.
Lexa stops as soon as she sees this, bends close to whisper in the nightblood’s ear. The little girl nods, her straight black hair bobbing, and Lexa straightens with a relieved look.
“Break,” she calls out, and immediately the remaining children freeze in place before stepping back from their opponents. “Lunch.”
The children all dive for the pile of wrapped packs Clarke now notices in a corner of the training area. Lexa clears her throat loudly and they all halt before turning back to pick up their abandoned weapons and hand them to the adult warriors, looking sheepish.
They quickly settle in a group with their packed lunches, normal kids again in the blink of an eye. Clarke has time to wonder if Nyko forgot to instruct her to collect one before leaving, or if he really thought she was going to run off and didn’t bother, just before Lexa walks over and offers half of her own. Clarke looks down at the food and considers making a good show of it, but then her stomach rumbles.
Lexa doesn’t move away after, instead leaning back against the rocks embedded into the hillside as they eat in silence. Clarke sneaks a look at her, catches Lexa with her head tipped back and her eyes closed as she turns her face up to the spare autumn sunlight.
She really is having fun out here, she thinks, and then her attention switches to someone calling out Heda.
It’s the robed and tattooed man she met in the infirmary: Titus. She can already see his frustration in his speed as he strides over to them.
“Has there been trouble?” he demands. “I expected them back for their lesson an hour past.”
“No trouble, Titus. We started a little later than usual -- my fault,” Lexa says smoothly.
Clarke ducks her head down and concentrates on her food, tries not to think of how many times she got lost on the streets of Polis.
“No matter, I wanted the chance to speak with you.” His eyes dart briefly to Clarke, and he dismisses her presence with the same speed. “This coming assembly. Are you sure you’re wise to hold it?”
“The ambassadors called for a hearing. I would be remiss in my duties if I refused to hear their concerns.”
Titus makes an impatient noise. “You are not required to endure their insults and, and insinuations --”
“Titus,” Lexa interrupts. “They’re concerned. They have every right.”
“They want to force the next conclave.”
“That, too,” she says around a mouthful of food. “It won’t come to that.”
“Heda, how can you be sure?”
Clarke looks up at him. For the first time his expression makes her wonder what he feels for Lexa as a person, not as the vessel for whatever mystical forces he imagines himself responsible for.
“Nyko had a suggestion earlier. My plan is to distract them from their fear of the Mountain, to make them focus on something new. Something that will reinforce their faith in me, and the power of the Commander.”
“An excellent plan, Heda,” Titus deadpans. “And how will you execute it?”
“I don’t need to share the details with you, Titus. You will understand when you see it in action.” Lexa finishes her food, dusting off her hands as if to signal the conversation is also finished. “You should hurry back to the tower if you want to make the best use of daylight.”
Titus glowers, but sighs and sweeps over to the nightbloods, robes fluttering.
Clarke turns her eyes on Lexa, waiting until she has the other girl’s attention before she tilts her head and raises her eyebrows. A plan, huh?
“Perhaps I am working out the details,” Lexa admits. She turns her head, raising her voice to call out: “Aden! You will stay here with me.”
Even across the clearing Clarke can hear the boy’s groan.
She understands why a moment later, when Lexa tosses him a quarterstaff and jumps right into sparring. This isn’t like before, with the younger children -- she’s not demonstrating or teaching, she’s testing him. Even Clarke can tell that Lexa is holding back, but Aden is struggling and panting within minutes. At times Lexa will land a hit, or draw back before a crucial blow to the throat or head. Then she calls their fight to a halt as she walks Aden back through his mistake, pointing out how he misused his stance, or the terrain, or his focus. As soon as that’s finished she launches into the next flurry of blows, and Aden does his best to keep up.
“When I’m the Commander,” Aden finds the breath to say, after the fifth or sixth break, “I will outlaw staves.”
Clarke thinks Lexa comes close to smiling again. “You can’t outlaw something because you’re bad at it.”
“Yes I can,” Aden grumbles.
Lexa gives a single shout of laughter, a hah that rings out against the vault of grey sky, the reaching branches of the naked trees surrounding them. Clarke watches as she whirls, parrying Aden’s attempts to pin her. Each meeting of their staffs echoes in the otherwise empty clearing.
“You can do almost anything you wish,” Lexa says. She isn't even winded. Clarke starts rooting for Aden. “But you have to place the needs of your people above your own. The staff is a popular weapon, especially among those who are not warriors.” She dodges a blow, eyes alight with good humor. “Imagine if the Commander was defeated by a farmer with a big stick and a minute’s worth of luck.”
Aden’s scowl deepens. “Then I’ll carry a talisman for protection. It will steal their luck for me.” Clarke, watching his face, sees the moment he lunges for a risk, getting in under Lexa’s guard and making her fight him off as she takes a step back, and then two.
“Commanders cannot rely on luck,” Lexa says. She has the upper hand, but Aden is making her work for it just that little bit more. “And magic doesn’t exist.”
“You have a wood witch.”
“Aden,” with a glance at Clarke sitting on her rock, “you don’t really think she’s... you’re too old for such stories.”
“But everyone says she is.” Aden sounds crestfallen. “She saved you in the forest, didn’t she?”
“You --” Lexa stumbles, surprised, but then returns in force. Her blows are quicker, her movements are cleaner. It puts Aden back on his heels as he struggles to keep up. “You aren’t supposed to know about that. No one should.”
“I don’t think everyone does.” Aden’s growing sloppier, the new pace wearing at him. “But Gustus told Titus about it. Titus is loud when he’s angry.”
“I see.” Lexa is grim as she presses forward. “What else?”
“She -- she saved you after the attack from the Mountain,” Aden struggles to say between blows.
“Nyko saved me. That’s medicine, not magic.” Lexa drives him harder, parrying and striking without pause. The kid can do little besides defend himself, falling back and back until he’s almost exited the clearing and gone into the surrounding trees. “Weak thinking does not serve a Commander.”
“It’s not only me. Everyone thinks she has wood witch magic,” Aden says, sounding already defeated as he dodges Lexa’s attacks. “They say she’s the reason you survived.”
Lexa traps him neatly between a tree trunk and her staff, waiting for him to drop his weapon and surrender. “Do they,” she says drily. Her eyes drift to where Clarke is still watching, become thoughtful. “Do they?”
Clarke shrugs. It’s true that it goes beyond the nickname -- sometimes people whisper and watch as she passes, she’s heard snatches of questions and conversations that make her out to be more than just another apprentice. She ignores it, mostly, and her friends are too protective to let any of it actually touch her.
“Is it really only stories?” Aden asks wistfully. Clarke takes one look at him, his face slightly round with baby fat, and glares at Lexa.
He’s a kid, she tries to tell Lexa with her eyebrows. Let him have magic for a little while longer.
Some of that must come through, because Lexa’s lips quirk. “Maybe,” she says, picking up Aden’s dropped staff. “Maybe... maybe she does have a little magic. Of a sort.”
Clarke has time to wonder what the hell Lexa means by that when Aden’s face breaks into a dazzling smile. “Really?” he breathes. “When I’m Commander, can I have a wood witch, too?”
“When you are Commander,” Lexa says, making it sound more of a supposition than a certainty, but only just. “You’ll have to capture your own, though, this one belongs to me.”
Clarke falls for it, of course, going rigid with indignation before she catches the sly look from the other girl. Clarke rolls her eyes, forcing herself to slump. Lexa bites back a grin as she ruffles Aden’s hair.
“Good work today,” she says. “Run and wash up before the evening meal.”
He bows and exits with visible relief, flanked by a few guards as he departs the clearing. Lexa watches him go, and Clarke watches her.
“Titus thinks I favor him,” Lexa says suddenly. “That I’m too particular in my attention.”
She looks over her shoulder at Clarke. Clarke isn’t sure what she wants in response, and so keeps her face carefully blank.
“He’s the best of them, though. The brightest at lessons, and staff work aside unmatched in combat. And he’s a natural leader, the others look to him and follow. He’ll be the one to ascend, I know it.”
Clarke wonders that Lexa should look so sad when she says that. Shouldn’t she be proud to see her favorite pupil take the prize? Why does she look like the idea pains her, instead?
“It’s not easy to be the one left standing,” Lexa says softly. “I don’t see why I shouldn’t favor him now, when I’m here to --” She breaks off with a huff, looks down before saying: “You are far too easy to talk to, sometimes.”
I wish, Clarke thinks, looking at her downturned face. I wish... She doesn't know how to finish the thought.
“You also did good work today, thank you.” Lexa raises her head, her expression smooth and sure once more. “You will be escorted back. It should be a quicker journey this way,” with a ghost of her former teasing.
Clarke rises to her feet, makes it three steps when she realizes Lexa is staying in place. She turns with a questioning look.
Lexa shakes her head. “I’m staying here a while longer,” she says as she looks about the training area. “I want some time to think.”
Clarke leaves her like that, alone in the clearing except for the cold wind and the lengthening shadows as the sun fades weakly from the sky.
She gets no warning at all.
The next day Clarke is halfway to the infirmary with Hern, the two of them returning from the afternoon meal and still swallowing down the taste of their food. Someone reaches out and touches her shoulder. Clarke turns to find a young woman, almost head and shoulders taller than she is, regarding her with cool and dispassionate eyes.
Right away Clarke knows two things. One, she’s never seen this person before. She would remember. Two, whoever she is, she’s important.
It’s not only the quality of her clothing, the dark richness of the color and the close cut which tells Clarke it’s a custom fit. It isn’t even the sheathes displayed openly on her forearms, or the hilts of the slender knives below her elbows, even though the only other people to openly carry weapons in the tower are guards. Mostly it’s the design in deep ochre that spiderwebs across the girl’s left cheek, a design which Clarke has only ever seen one other person wear, though not with paint.
( Three, Clarke thinks. She has something to do with Lexa.)
“Come with me,” the young woman says. She speaks like someone with no conception of being disobeyed.
Clarke looks back at Hern, who’s as surprised as she is. He nods at her questioning look. “She’s a handmaiden,” he tells Clarke in a low voice. “Do as she says.”
The handmaiden doesn’t give her name. She leads Clarke down unfamiliar hallways and flights of stairs, eventually taking her to a section of the tower with higher ceilings and more open spaces than the common areas. There’s a sense of grandeur here, even with the walls still stained with the smoke of the ancient fires that must have ravaged through, back when the world ended.
The people gathered in this section of the tower are different, too. She catches snippets of conversations conducted in wholly new languages, or maybe a dialect she isn’t familiar with. She sees more warriors than usual, sporting tattoos and leathers. But these seem different from the guards around the tower -- the construction of their armor is more complicated, or is decorated with more furs and medallions, and they hold their heads higher. Some of them have an air that comes dangerously close to arrogance.
All of them make way for the handmaiden as soon as they see her approach. A few of them even nod their heads in deference as she passes. If she notices, she doesn’t give any sign of it. A few of them eye Clarke in curiosity as well.
Clarke ducks her head down and makes sure to never be more than a step or two behind her escort.
The handmaiden leads her beyond these crowds and deeper into the tower, past so many checkpoints where guards stand sentry Clarke begins to feel uneasy. Sure, they let Clarke through as soon as they see who’s accompanying her, but how is she supposed to find her way out again? Why is this part of the tower such a labyrinth, with enough twists and turns and barred doors to make her dizzy? Why haven’t the walls been knocked down to clear the space, like she’s seen elsewhere?
She gets an itch of insight when she spots a few of the nightbloods racing through the hallways, laughing and carefree, without reserve she’s seen them wear like an extra layer of clothing. A few more sets of guarded doors and the itch grows more persistent. Especially when they enter a room with wide, arching windows that let in so much sunlight it leaves Clarke blinking away the brightness. There’s a bed against the far wall, elaborately carved wood at the base and rising above the head, heaped with more furs than she’s seen in once place since... since...
Oh, no, Clarke thinks. There’s definitely been a mistake made somewhere.
The handmaiden is unfazed by the sudden dragging of Clarke’s feet, simply reaches out to grab her elbow and haul Clarke where she wants her. Which is, thankfully, nowhere near the bed. Instead she leads Clarke behind a partition of yet more carved wood to an area of the room where several other handmaidens -- all armed, all wearing the same design on their faces -- and a tub full of steaming water are waiting.
Up until she sees the bathtub, Clarke is fully prepared to throw down and make it clear that whatever nonsense is happening isn’t about to happen to her. But that tub -- she’s always wondered what it felt like to climb into one of those. What Ark kid hasn't after watching countless old movies where the characters did so with blissful looks on their faces. Clarke makes a split-second decision before she starts shucking off her clothes: this is Lexa’s problem, it can be her misunderstanding to clear up.
It takes a little maneuvering to get into the bath, and the handmaidens have to grab at her shoulders and elbows to keep her from slipping on the polished metal tub. But once she’s settled in it’s so good. The initial sting of heat dissipates into gorgeous, slow-burning lassitude throughout her entire body, settling deep into muscles she didn’t even realize were aching. The hot water feels like an actual pressure against her lungs, expelling all air in one long breath as she settles back against the edge of the tub. Whatever they’ve added to the bathwater makes it milky and opaque, and it feels silky-slick when she rubs her fingertips together. It smells nice, too. Some kind of herbal ingredient: spicy, but not too medicinal. She can scootch down until the water covers her from toes to collarbones and, yeah, she’s staying in here forever.
The handmaidens have other ideas. They coax her head back until it’s resting against the edge of the tub. Another girl brings a pitcher of steaming water. They must be heating it somewhere separately, and Clarke wonders if it’s pumped directly into the room or if someone has the unenviable task of carrying it up to the top of the tower. They pour the fresh water over her head, hands at her hairline to keep it from running into her eyes, and the excess is neatly caught in a basin beneath. One of them massages something into her scalp -- it lathers, unlike the stuff they use in the showers -- and Clarke would moan, if she could.
She lets herself drift into the center of that moment until it feels like an eternity: swallowed up in steaming water, soothed by clever fingers. After they’ve rinsed her hair clean and dried it lightly one of the handmaidens settles in a chair behind Clarke and starts on, well, Clarke can’t see it for herself, but it feels like one of those elaborately braided hairstyles she’s seen on Lexa. Every now and again another handmaiden will check the temperature of the water and ask if Clarke wants it freshened. If she nods they remove a few pitchers of cooled bathwater to who knows where, and replenish the tub with scalding additions.
They’re lucky Clarke can’t talk. If she told the other apprentices about this set-up, there’d be a riot.
“Is she ready?” Lexa asks from the corner of the room.
Clarke starts so violently she nearly slips below water level. Boundaries were important on the Ark -- policies had been established early by psychological advisors recommending that, as cramped and limited as their space was, inhabitants should invest twice as much of their emotional and mental energy in respecting both their own personal bubble of space and that of others. She never questioned it, growing up, and kids as young as four were allowed to request “privacy” at school (limited if blissful time in a darkened space, empty of anyone but themselves) whenever they felt the walls begin to cave in on them. It’d taken a while for Clarke to adjust to the openness of the ground, the sheer amount of room -- plus the easily-shared space and casual nakedness that came with it. Grounders don’t seem to have any boundaries, but Clarke has gotten used to it, mostly.
Or she thought she had, because right now she’d give anything to be able to duck into the bathwater and disappear.
Lexa doesn’t notice her discomfort. She isn’t even speaking to Clarke -- the Commander’s gaze goes over her head to the handmaiden who led Clarke to this room. She’s been stationed in the corner ever since, one hand resting on the hilt of her knife.
Lexa’s now in that same corner. Clarke can see the open door of her rooms beyond, and the guards as their arms reach inside to close them. Her thudding heart slows as she realizes Lexa only arrived seconds ago.
“Almost ready,” the handmaiden answers. “She’s in no hurry to get out.”
“Is that so.” Lexa shifts her gaze, and Clarke sinks down until the water laps at her chin. The handmaiden behind her has to hold her hair up to keep it dry. It’s only out of consideration for her handiwork -- and a vague instinct to not give Lexa the satisfaction -- that keeps Clarke from dunking under as Lexa approaches. The water is still thankfully opaque.
Clarke’s hands are curled over the edges of the tub to keep her from slipping, and Lexa gently pries her fingers loose. Clarke’s worried for a second that Lexa wants to pull her up, but the Commander is only interested in inspecting Clarke’s fingertips.
She smiles slightly at the pruned skin there, wags her own finger back at Clarke. “You might grow scales if you stay in there any longer.” She only chuckles at Clarke’s glare in response.
... okay. Fine. Now that she knows where Lexa’s bed is, she can always leave something gross in it.
“Commander,” the head handmaiden (Clarke is guessing) says, appearing at her shoulder. “Perhaps while she finishes preparing I could fix your braids.”
“My braids are fine, Jollett.”
But Lexa allows herself to be led away to the other side of the partition, and Clarke is grateful. The other handmaidens help her out of the tub, and if they exchange knowing smiles at Clarke’s sudden eagerness to dry off and dress, well.
(She doesn’t let herself pause to think about how she hasn’t, even for a second, felt herself to be really worried about what’s happening. First she thought it was a mix-up she trusted Lexa to fix. Now that it’s clear this is a situation Lexa designed, she still isn’t concerned about where it’s going. Curious. But not concerned.
Not yet, anyway.)
The clothing they bring her is unlike anything available to her in the tower. She has a sneaking suspicion it’s new. The fabric is smooth, the weave tight, the color crisp. They bring out two pieces: a skirt to wrap around her hips, and a top with sleeves long enough to cover her hands but ending high on her waist to expose a thin strip of pale stomach. It’s all a beautiful deep blue, like the sky just before the sunlight completely disappears and leeches all color with it. Beautifully soft, too, and it stretches with her enough to be comfortable. There are boots made of yielding leather, not cracked and worn like the ones she’s worn every day since arriving. As the final piece they place a matching length of fabric across her head and shoulders, fussing with the drape and pinning it where needed until they’re satisfied with the effect.
They lead her back out to the main area where Lexa is letting Jollet draw dark lines right up against the edges of her eyes. Her head is tilted back, neck exposed, in order to allow for the candlelight to best reach her face. Jollett leans over her with complete assurance. The two of them exchanging quiet words as she works. Clarke is struck by how relaxed Lexa is; not preening, like she’d been with her admirers in the infirmary, and not happy, the way she was with the nightbloods. But loose-limbed and easy, looking for the first time since Clarke has met her like a girl without the weight of the world on her shoulders.
She trusts these handmaidens completely. She must trust them -- considering the nearness of Jollett’s hands to her neck and eyes -- with her life.
They must be pledged to protect her. Clarke guessed that when she glimpsed Jollett's knives. She wishes she knew what safeguard is in place to make Lexa so certain those weapons would never be turned on her.
Clarke thinks of the layers and layers of protection of this place -- the rigid protocols of face paint and identification rituals, the guards, the sectioning off of the tower floors, "this is the last place I’d be in danger" -- and wonders if it’s all for Lexa.
Wonders, if it is, what would happen should they ever discover Clarke’s true origins, and how close she was allowed to get to their Commander.
“Do you like it?” Lexa asks, raising her head.
Clarke twirls. She can’t help it, it’s fun seeing the hem fly out in a perfect circle around her ankles. She catches Lexa’s eyes afterward and slowly raises her shoulders, lets them fall. She pantomimes confusion, using her hands to indicate her new outfit.
“Come sit, and I’ll explain.” Lexa rises from the chair so that Clarke can sit instead, Jollett moving away. She waits until Clarke is settled and looking up at her. “You heard Aden earlier.”
She seems to be waiting for a response to that, so Clarke nods. Lexa clears her throat, hooks her hands in front of her -- if Clarke didn’t know better, she would say Lexa is almost nervous.
“I believe you also heard Nyko and I, the other day, speaking about the ambassadors,” with a quick, sly look, and Clarke tilts her chin up as if to say, yeah, yeah, you got me. A smile flits across Lexa’s face.
“Sometimes,” she continues slowly, “a leader commands not through action but by... suggestion. Sometimes, even powerful warriors can be like children, wanting a story to chase away the shadows.”
She dips her head down, lowering her voice. “You will be that story. You will stand behind me, silent but seen, and remind them of what I am capable of surviving.”
Clarke’s eyebrows shoot up. Lexa can dress it up any way she wants -- she’s dragging Clarke into her assembly to say “look at my wood witch! I captured her fair and square, and now no one can hurt me.” Clarke allows her face to fall into an exaggerated frown. She’s not special. She’s not magic. She and Lexa know that, whatever anyone else thinks.
“It’s not a deception,” Lexa murmurs in response. “We will simply change their focus: from what hurt me, to what healed me.” Her gaze, heavy-lidded, slides down to the floor. “I won’t force you against your will. But I would ask this, not for myself, but for the sake of the Coalition and the Woods Clan itself.” She raises her eyes. “Will you do this for your people?”
Lexa doesn’t know her people. Point of fact, she had them massacred.
... well. Not all of them. Maybe Clarke feels completely alone, maybe she feels like she might never be among old familiar faces again -- but the truth of the matter is, her people are where they’ve always been. Orbiting the Earth.
Clarke failed the rest of the hundred sent to the ground. She wasn’t there for them when... and she failed the people on the Ark, too, the thousands whose lives depend on knowing the Earth is now habitable.
She has debts to repay. Maybe not now but maybe... maybe... it won’t be such a bad thing, to position herself closer to the seat of power. She’s more visible that way, exposed. But it will help her understand these people better, and pass that knowledge on when her people finally come to the ground.
She holds Lexa’s eyes and nods. Lexa doesn’t smile, but contentment spreads across her face almost as if she did.
“Good,” she says.
There’s a small curio cabinet in the corner, salvaged who knows how many years ago. The bright blue paint only remains in the whorls and cracks of the wood. Several spaces are missing their drawers, several drawers their knobs. Lexa reaches for one of the few that are intact and pulls out a circular container and a small brush.
She brings these both back to Clarke, who can now see that the container is made of that old, once-valued material called porcelain, and the brush has a long handle of ivory. The container is covered in a fine layer of dust that Lexa brushes away with her fingertips before twisting off the lid.
It’s more paint. But it’s not a color Clarke has seen on anyone’s face in the tower before -- not black, green, yellow, blue, or grey.
This is gold.
True gold. Not the dark goldenrod she’s seen “gold” given to certain paints or chalks, but metallic and glittering. She’s seen it used as shielding on the Ark, but she wonders where this came from, if the Grounders mine for the stuff. There must be actual gold flakes or dust mixed in, that might explain why this is kept in a pot instead of the usual stick form, it must require a softer and more malleable binding agent to hold the solid particles in homogeneous suspension.
Clarke’s so wrapped up in her reasoning it takes her a second to notice the reactions of everyone else in the room.
First it’s Jollett, her face going white and still as she sees what Lexa has in her hands. The other handmaidens follow after, each slowing in their tasks until they come to a complete stop, eyes wide and staring. One of them drops the empty pitcher and basin in her hands and they clatter across the stone floor.
The noise draws Lexa’s attention, but it’s Jollett she turns to face.
“Heda,” the other girl says, hesitant. “Is this wise?”
Lexa straightens. Clarke can’t see her eyes at this angle, but the way she’s holding her head, the set of her jaw -- it all brings back vivid memories of Lexa as Clarke first knew her, the girl who swept her up out of the forest and commanded Gustus to his knees.
Jollett, to her credit, holds the Commander’s gaze without flinching. Even if the line of her mouth wavers a bit.
They stand facing off in this manner for moments that stretch, uncomfortably, until the other handmaidens shift with nervousness. Clarke can feel the mounting energy like the build of electricity in the air before a storm.
She reaches out to touch her fingers lightly to Lexa’s wrist. It breaks the other girl’s focus as she looks back at Clarke. She doesn’t lose the arrogant set to her shoulders, but much of the tension drains from her body.
“I suppose there’s no reason for anger,” she says to Clarke. “Jollett is only worried for you.”
“For you both,” the handmaiden says, too softly to be heard beyond the three of them.
Finally, Lexa’s expression softens. “She misunderstands. It isn’t -- this is for your protection,” still speaking to Clarke. “There is a risk in putting you before the ambassadors. These are powerful and sometimes unscrupulous people. I would never place you in their company without making it clear that anyone who raises a hand against you will answer to me.”
“Heda.” Even at a whisper, Jollett’s voice is so heavy with regret it has an almost palpable weight. “That did not save the last person who wore that paint.”
Lexa makes no movement in response, but Clarke has the distinct impression of her withdrawal. She keeps her eyes on Clarke. “Commanders have claimed dozens as their own with no incident. Slaves, favorites, concubines. It’s a respected tradition, and it will protect you. I promise.”
Then she finally turns and says to Jollett, the words so stripped of emotion it takes Clarke a moment to register their meaning: “Costia died because I loved her. Not because she was mine.”
Jollett bows incredibly low, almost kneeling, and the other handmaidens echo the gesture. With a last look at Lexa’s face Jollett herds them all from the room. She meets Clarke's gaze as she closes the door behind them, as if in warning.
Lexa dips the brush into the glittering paint. She has to pass the soft bristles against its hardened surface a few times before the pigment begins to cling, as the friction begins to warm and soften it. When she raises the brush again, the hand holding it shakes.
Clarke doesn’t think about it. She puts out her own hand, reaching up to cup the side of Lexa’s face.
Lexa’s eyes widen as they hold hers. They’re already emphasized by the soft outline of kohl Jollett put there, and now they look almost comically big. Clarke finds she likes them better without the embellishment. Lexa doesn’t need anything more to look beautiful, though Clarke thinks it must help with the sense of occasion.
She takes her hand away from the other girl’s smooth skin, curling her fingers against the urge to rub away the dark lines with her thumb.
Lexa swallows, looking a bit startled. “It was a long time ago,” she says. Clarke doubts that -- Lexa isn’t much older than her, she’s sure. But then she thinks back to her father, how her life feels divided by his death: everything she knows either Before or After, and how everything on the other side of that dividing line feels so very distant from the person she is now.
Lexa takes a steadying breath. “It taught me a very important lesson.” Her eyes linger on the glittering flecks at the end of her brush. “So don’t worry. I would never put you in danger by repeating past mistakes.”
She raises the brush as if to trace a pattern across Clarke’s forehead, hesitates.
“But perhaps,” she says to herself, “I can do a little more to make that clear to others. Close your eyes.”
Clarke does, feels the cool sweep of paint below her right eye and then a smooth steady line up to her temple. Lexa repeats this for the other eye, fussing a little with perfecting her new design before standing back with a sound of satisfaction.
“Wait,” she commands. She puts back the paint and brush. The handmaidens arranged a length of fabric around Clarke’s head and shoulders earlier. This Lexa pins so that it falls loosely across Clarke’s nose and mouth.
She takes a moment to examine the finished effect before nodding, satisfied. She picks up a mirror lying on top of the curio cabinet, the glass cracked and pockmarked with age, and holds it up so Clarke can see for herself.
Clarke’s breath catches.
She should have expected Lexa to be good at this. She remembers what it was like, seeing that painted face emerge silently from the forest, eyes ferocious amid false shadows. Lexa understands symbolism, and ceremony. She has a talent for it. Clarke wouldn’t be in this room right now -- or even in Polis -- if she didn’t.
It’s still strange to see herself like this. The play of her dark clothing and light skin and hair creates a stark contrast, and to eerie effect. She looks like something you’d find hiding in the forest: pale and secretive, shrouded. The cloth draped about her head forces focus to her eyes, and the gold paint there only enhances the sense of the otherworldly. It picks up the glints of gold in her hair like sunlight dappling through trees, makes her eyes look almost bottomless. Even the design -- the careful sweep across her eyelids, the angle point beneath the pupil -- looks less stylized than the usual patterns she sees inside the tower, more like warrior's paint. It's like a part of her.
Lexa puts the mirror back, reaches out her hand. “Ready?”
Clarke places her hand in the Commander’s and rises to her feet.
Lexa smiles -- Clarke almost pulls back in surprise to see it. But she does. Nothing like the smile in the infirmary, though. This one is a pleased curl of lips, satisfied and bordering on smug.
That’s what she looks like when she’s about to win a gambit, Clarke thinks as Lexa’s fingers tighten around her own.
Clarke is familiar with very different games: the maneuvers of the Council, the black and white of a checkered board. But she knows the first rule of playing is to watch, and learn.
She lets Lexa lead her out of the room and onto the field of battle.
“The ambassador from (word) speaks,” Lexa says. From her tone, she’s not thrilled by it.
... and that’s it, that’s a word that Clarke has never been able to place in context. She knows the pieces -- “ice” and “gather” -- but she could never understand why the two words together would deserve to be spoken with such vitriol and fear.
Azgeda. It’s a place, then. Or a people.