He seems so unlike himself. A different man from the one I married. How long has it been? A week? No more than two, for certain. Still, it all seems like a lifetime ago. Just as my husband before me appears. Then again, how well can I say I really know him?
The carriage hit a particularly large bump in the road, sending Taresa up in her seat. Not that carriage rides were ever comfortable, but notwithstanding their jarring nature, when they hit a divot or rise of considerable note, all felt it. Nataliya would giggle, even in the presence of her elders, while Ermesinda would shift in her seat, acting unfazed though every jolt threatened to upend the contents of her stomach. Their mother would huff and sigh, often adding a comment about the tribulations of country travel. Taresa hadn’t a clue how the road affected her father, for he always rode alone, save for the rare instances when he allowed a minister or duke of renown to join him. However, she did know his attendants always supplied a collection of snuff boxes, each with a different strain of crushed tobacco. On particularly rough trips, she would catch him handing an empty snuff box through the window curtain of his carriage, where a servant hanging from his side railing would take it. On some occasions, he would pass several outside. Why he could not bear to have an empty container in his presence stood among many oddities Taresa noted of her father.
Another dip bumped Taresa from her seat; only this time, she heard a crack. The noise resonated beyond the interior of her carriage as well, for within moments, Jameson parted the curtain with his sheathed sword to glance inside.
“Are you well?” he inquired.
Taresa smiled. “Never better.”
Jameson frowned. He shouted to the coachman. “Hey, you there! You call this a King’s Road? I’ve seen rock-strewn hillocks flatter than this path.”
Taresa blushed, embarrassed. She could only assume the royal driver fumed at the slight. “Dear, I don’t believe the coachman understands you. He doesn’t speak Marlish.”
“Oh, he knows. Marlish or not, he comprehends what I’m saying.”
Taresa sat back in her seat. So imprudent. She considered offering another word to her husband. Before she could, he rode ahead, nary looking back.
She reclined in silence, spreading her hands on her lap to keep from fidgeting. Usually, she welcomed the opportunity to ride in a carriage by herself, away from the bickering and idle talk of her mother, sisters, or ladies of the court. Those rare occasions offered her the chance to settle her mind, to peek out the window and admire the countryside without commentary from another, save her own wandering monologue.
The present excursion turned out to be an exception. Not that the road had anything to do with her sudden distaste for solitude. She didn’t mind the bumps and bounces. No, the discomfort came from riding apart from her husband. Not that she expected him to accompany her within, for few men in their prime, whether Marlish or Ibian, rode in carriages with women, be it their wives, daughters, or other kin. Still, ever since the night of their wedding – when all hell broke loose – she found herself without his companionship, as every baron, knight, captain, and even her father required his attention. Conferences in the War Hall, attending sessions of court, private meals with generals and barons to converse on matters of security – those were but some of the events which occupied Jameson’s long days. Taresa had no place in any of them, except when they permitted her to stand or sit in some far corner to watch.
She had accepted the constraints of court her entire life, biding her time through her maidenhood, all the while waiting for the opportunity to broaden her behavior. She thought her betrothal to Prince Denisot would have allowed her more liberty, but with their brief espousal soon dissolved, she never experienced anything beyond scrutiny in the form of hushed whispers at court. Then came her next Promised, Prince Jameson, a regal she believed different from all the rest of the suitors. Indeed, in Arcporte, he had demonstrated himself to be a man of skill and authority, evidenced by his deeds during her first visit to the island. Even in all the formalities of their union ceremony, she held out hope he would be a king apart, a true soul to whom she could finally reveal her true self. But ever since the night of their wedding – with the attack on his men and the royal castle – he had become aloof. Distant even. Every hour and day since, he sullied her faith in him by way of his many responsibilities and meetings. The rare instances when she found herself alone with her spouse hadn’t helped, for he often turned in early, having exhausted himself beyond the point of offering more than a grunt or a nod to her until sleep overcame him. She realized the duties of the Throne weighed heavily on him, as did the sudden death of his father, and now their present circumstances. She wasn’t naïve of any of it. Still . . . she considered, fighting the urge to entertain her grievances. He could try more at this marriage.
Another bump in the road befell the carriage. The inclination to squirm proved almost too much to endure. Then she heard him. Again.
“I told you to watch the road –”
Taresa stuck her head out the window. “Stop the coach.”
The servant hanging from the carriage railing nearly fell off at Taresa’s sudden appearance. “Beg your pardon, Your Majesty?”
“I command this coach to halt this instant!” she shouted, loud enough for the servant and the coachman to hear.
“Whoa, whoa,” the coachman said to the draft horses before him as he leaned back on the reins. The carriage barely rolled to a stop before Taresa opened her door to descend. She waved the attendant off as he brought the step stool, choosing instead to hop down from her perch.
Landing on her feet, she stared up and down the road, acutely aware of the ruckus she had caused. The sudden stop drew the attention of all in their small caravan, from the squires to Jameson’s Right Captain to the King himself. Good.
Jameson, all of the sudden less assured, trotted up to her on his horse. “Something the matter, my wife?”
“I need some air.”
“Oh, well, we can stop for a spell –”
“No, let’s not stop. I only want to breathe as I ride.”
“The servants can tie back the curtains.” Jameson tilted his head to study the gray sky. “Though it threatens to rain.”
“I have a better idea.”
Taresa marched to the front of the carriage, not bothering to lift the hem of her dress as it dragged over the dirt. She came to stand beside the coachman, who rose from his seat awkwardly to lean over and offer a near-bow.
“You have done well, Royal Coachman. Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll drive.”
Agape, the driver stared at her, frozen in his hunched stance. As did the servant who had hung from the carriage railing. Then there was Jameson –
“Well?” she asked.
The driver looked to the King, who dismounted.
“Dear,” Jameson said, concerned. “I think this may be improper. I mean, if it begins to rain, or the wind picks up –”
“Do you think me incapable, husband?”
“Why, no. Never!”
“Then I shall do it.”
“Have you ever driven a coach before?”
“Once, when I was twelve. The Royal Coachman then allowed me to drive once, around the bailey almost three times until Mother came out to chastise me.” Taresa climbed the footholds to the driver’s seat as the Royal Coachman hopped down from his perch. This particular carriage lacked the width of others in their collection, so only one person at a time could fit in the front seat.
The coachman scarcely had a moment to step away from the front wheel when Taresa braced herself on the footboard before snapping the reins. The four horses jolted ahead. Taresa lurched forward in response, prompting everyone in their caravan to reach out – albeit with none within arm’s length – to catch her. She quickly composed herself, though, even managing a chuckle as she hurried down the King’s Road.
The retinue in her wake scrambled to chase after, with Jameson being the first to catch up to Taresa. He trotted beside his wife, just across her left side, as she gave the reins another quick snap.
“A bold move,” he commented.
“You think me foolhardy?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You’re thinking it. If not, the others are.”
“Why the sudden, um, change in demeanor?”
The clattering of the carriage wheels, the vibrations of the seat irons, along with other sources of commotion, put Taresa in no mood to shout the particulars of her thoughts. “We’ll speak about it when we arrive at the manor.”
They needn’t wait long, as the bend in the hedge-lined road revealed the gatehouse of Manor deila Krestta Deorro, a country estate that had been in her family for over seven generations. Originally a vineyard and winery whose operations dated back to ancient times, the previous proprietors had begun to outfit the grounds with defenses at the outbreak of the Century War when her kin took it over. Her ancestors had undoubtedly finished the job yet left much of the millennia-old enterprises intact, such that ramifications overlooked or stood beside vineyard rows, storehouses, and winepresses, making for a juxtaposing sight.
Perhaps anticipating their arrival, the drawbridge to the manor laid before them, as the awaiting attendants and guards of the royal residence stepped aside upon seeing the royal carriage approach. Their shocked looks at spotting Her Majesty atop in place of the Royal Coachman brought a glimmer of amusement to Taresa’s face, so by the time she pulled to a stop in front of the carriage house within, she beamed.
The King, not one to be outridden, dismounted right after Taresa stepped down from the coachman’s step. He offered her a hand to escort her from the shadow of the carriage. In turn, she didn’t so much refuse it but ignored it. She pressed on without so much as offering a glance to her side.
“Princess, I, pardon, my Queen –”
“Oh, so I am someone to you.”
Jameson looked around, not accustomed to the curious looks of so many servants who respectfully kept their distance while remaining within earshot.
“A word?” he pleaded.
Very well. She offered a curt nod to the reception hall bordering the bailey. He followed beside her until they reached the entrance, which he opened for them.
Modestly furnished with waiting chairs and sofas, the reception hall offered a respite from the watching eyes beyond. Taresa marched inside, waiting for Jameson to close the door behind him before turning with arms crossed.
“Forgive me,” he started once they stood alone, “did I do something to offend you.”
“I don’t know, did you?”
“Think upon the details of the past several days, James. In all that time, what happened between us?”
“Why, nothing . . .”
“Precisely! Nothing. Not a damned, bloody thing.”
“Well, I, I had duties.”
“Duties aplenty, I realize, as you always have. But now add to that one wife, whom you hardly have spoken to since . . .”
Her voice trailed off. She blushed. The near-union of their bodies on their wedding night flooded her memory. So tender had he been with her, so unlike what she had imagined. Then poof, it had disappeared. An instant of love replaced with an eternity of formalities. Back to the life she had always lived. A statue, one of beauty, though of stone nonetheless. Just like her mother, or her grandmother, and every regal woman before. Robbed of a voice, of life, merely a pawn of court. Again. Forever.
Jameson withdrew a handkerchief from the inside pocket of his doublet, offering it to Taresa. She paused to question why, before becoming aware of the tears cascading down her face. Reddening further, she took the silk square to wipe her cheeks dry.
“Of course,” he said. His mouth chastened into a grin. Suddenly, the King who had upset her converted into a figure more diminutive, almost . . . approachable. Hadn’t he just been more regal? Stronger? Taller? The one she presently saw appeared as none of those things. Instead, he stood in the guise of an ordinary man. A kind soul. Perhaps, a loveable one?
Taresa, not knowing what to do next, looked down. “What happens now?”
“I have a private meeting with His Grace, the keeper of this manor and your great uncle, I believe?”
“His Grace, the Grand Duke of Ryncon.”
She offered the handkerchief back to Jameson.
“Please,” he said, gesturing for her to keep it.
Jameson twisted as if to turn when he caught himself. “What if, say, I didn’t meet with the Grand Duke?”
Taresa perked for an instant before remembering her family’s reputation. “That would be most unwise. My great uncle would never forgive such a slight. The men in my family are, how should I say, a proud line.”
Jameson chuckled, allowing Taresa to catch a glimpse of his boyish demeanor. “Oh, if you only knew my family!”
“I hope to, soon.”
“Yes, well, at least join us.”
“In a session about the matters of the kingdom?”
Shame washed over Taresa as she realized her behavior had shifted her husband’s entire focus away from his duties. While she desired nothing more than for them to run off, to enjoy each other’s company for the first time in their marriage, she knew in practicality such childish wants were unwise.
“You go ahead,” she insisted. “I’ll be fine. Honestly, I could use a fresh bath and some rest after that horrific coach ride.”
“Well, at least the last bit of it roused the both of us.”
Another smile? Is he bantering with me?
Taresa offered a grin, accepting his playfulness. Satisfied the tension between them had diminished, Jameson finally did turn, finding his Right Captain and guards behind him, waiting.
Who is this husband of mine? Really?
Taresa’s fingers lingered, intertwined with the stretched curls of her hair. Her comb lay suspended in her right hand as she waited, listening.
The echoes grew louder. He’s coming.
Taresa stood from her nightstand. She glanced around the chamber.
“This is ridiculous,” she told herself.
Taresa had done far too much to cater to his whims, and she knew it. Their room spanned the width of the tower, allowing space enough for a dining area, hearth, a canopied bed, and a small nook by the entrance where they could receive guests. In every parcel, she had laid out some token to satisfy him. On the dining table, she had his Marlish attendants arrange his favorite foods and spirits. In the receiving area rested volumes of manuscripts and books from her great uncle’s library, with titles in Marlish and Ibian for his reading pleasure. She had his chest brought up so she and her handmaidens could refold and stack his clothing, even adding sprigs of evergreen or mint for a pinch of aroma. The shuttered windows lay open, as the clouds of earlier had dissipated to but a few, giving way to a warm breeze that she allowed to filter through their quarters. Finally, on the bed laid their nightclothes. His, a pair of trousers and a nightshirt, both of fine, downy wool. Hers, a nightgown, which by comparison appeared a thread to his wardrobe.
She nearly hastened to clear some of the embarrassment when Jameson arrived. He came halfway through the door and paused, his hand still on the handle as he looked around. Taresa, caught in the act of covering her tracks, stood with her hands by her sides.
“Welcome,” she said.
“For me?” Jameson asked.
“Ummm, why, yes. I suppose.” Stupid, stupid girl. Why is this so hard? “I wanted to make you feel at home.”
“Oh,” he replied.
The boy she had glimpsed earlier, small and unsure, returned. He admired the contents strewn about, but in essence, she understood his feigned attempt to avoid looking her in the eye. Because – if she had to be honest with herself – she pretended to do the same.
A boy. A girl. Wed. Yet still they did not know each other.
We must change that.
Taresa marched forward. She grabbed Jameson by the hand, noting how much softer it seemed than the last time she held it weeks before. She pulled him out of their royal chamber to find a Voiceless stationed outside in the hallway.
“No, no,” she insisted, her hand gesturing him back. “You stay. We’ll be right back.”
The silent knight, who would have otherwise followed, stared at his King. Jameson offered a slight shrug as Taresa continued to keep him in tow. To her content, the guard stayed, as did her own guard – a Realeza – posted at the bottom of the stairwell.
“Where are we going?” Jameson asked as they passed through the kitchen.
Taresa had a faint idea, though she voiced it not in case her memory failed her. “You’ll see.” As will I.
Thankfully, her mind served her well, for the game trail she recalled from the days spent playing outside the castle in her youth remained. Its path clear from the light of the full moon, she traversed it, all the while tugging at her husband’s hand to ensure he kept up with her. After a while, the touch of his palm in hers felt natural, less foreign. She suspected he felt the same, for the stiffness of his fingers lessened as his grip eased.
The game trail wound its way beneath the leafy canopy of ash and rowan. Her slippers met short grass as the trail thinned and the trees closed in, offering less dappled glow from above. The prospect of enveloping darkness quickened her heartbeat, as did the thought of that to come.
Resistance shook her from her musings. “Should we . . . be out here?” Jameson had turned wary on her.
“The attack on my camp and the castle.”
She hesitated herself at the mention. No. She dismissed their vulnerability.
“It will be fine. Only the guards saw us leave. And the game trail is little known, except to some of the castle servants and the nearby shepherds.”
“Well, if you really want to –”
“Yes,” she insisted. For they needed this.
The path twisted from under the moonshade toward a small plateau, which overlooked the gentle slope of a hillock. Yes, she told herself, this is it.
In childhood, the outlook had offered her and her sisters the perfect vista of the countryside below. Rolling fields of every crop imaginable spread before them in those days, as the waning reach of the Century War allowed farmers to return to their lands to grow once again. Her great uncle, Omarr Garsea, encouraged the peasants of his dukedom to plant variety rather than focus on one staple, so as to provide for the range of tastes the coming peacetime would cultivate. In response, alongside fields of wheat and barley rose vineyards and orchards. Even nonedibles and spice crops arose, such a lavender, tarragon, and mustard tress. The result became a cornucopia of hues at harvest time, though now the season for such brilliance had yet to arrive.
No matter. For with the night came a welcome benefit: solitude.
Just out of reach of the shade, summer clover spread the width of the plateau. Taresa led Jameson there. She sat first, glad to discover the nightly dew had not settled yet.
Her husband, as though a sheep seeing pasture for the first time, looked to and fro as he knelt beside her.
“Your uncle, pardon, great uncle, sends his regards.”
“He said while he was surprised by our excursion, he understands the need for us – the newly minted King and Queen – to escape Arinn for a spell. He feels there were too many eyes on us in the city and agreed with your father’s suggestion that we step away from public life, given the tragedy in my camp and at the castle. He went on to say some time to ourselves will serve the Throne well, make our subjects forget the tragedy only to embrace our union upon our return. He even went so far as to suggest we put on a display of sorts when we go back to Arinn, perhaps a jousting match or a parade of some sort –”
“Would you mind if we didn’t speak about royal affairs? Just for one night?”
“Oh,” Jameson paused, realizing his folly. “Of course, my dear.”
An awkward silence settled between them for a bit. Taresa smoothed out the folds of her dress. Jameson shifted to sit on his rear, bending his knees before resting his arms on them.
“This, this is nice,” Jameson commented.
He continued to scan their surroundings. She did the same for a bit, before considering what to do next.
“Sorry. Go ahead.”
With her hands in her lap, she fiddled with the folds of her dress. “The night . . . of our wedding.”
“We didn’t . . .”
He reached out to take her hand. He trembles. “I, I don’t . . . there was much that happened. Horrible things I saw at that burnt camp. And I don’t remember as much as I should. So please, forgive me if I ask about events I should know.”
“In our chamber? Did we kiss?”
“You undid the straps of my nightgown. You laid on top of me. We almost, say, sealed our union.”
Jameson looked away. His head turned quickly, but in the flash of an instant, he appeared . . . Jealous? Of what?
“And for you?” she pried. “What was the night of our wedding like?”
Jameson, his gaze still away from her, paused to dwell on her query. “It was as though . . . I wasn’t there. Like I was some guest at your wedding, so it felt as the night unfolded. I watched you come down the aisle from among the pews. I saw you say the vows before Mar and the High Bishop. At the ballroom, I gazed upon you as you danced.” He turned. Moonlight coalesced in his eyes, encapsulated by tears yet to fall. “I have never seen a bride, nor anything, so lovely.”
“The same. I was a man apart. Not fully present, not quite there. Then the fire beyond the walls raged. And I was gone, scared, for the dream of our wedding had passed.”
Taresa wrapped her other hand over his. “Nothing has passed. Nor has it gone. All we’ve been since we were wed is ours: your pain and worries, my frustrations and sorrows, along with our dreams and hopes, and all that will come. We will face the realm of all futures, in this life and the next, together.”
A tear streaked down his left cheek. “We will? Us. Just us?”
“Only you and me.”
He leaned in with a force that threw her back. Awkwardly, she landed on her back. Instinctively, she opened her mouth to scream.
Her cry stifled, his lips encased hers, wanting. Desiring. Consuming.
Then, also without warning, he withdrew.
“I’m, I’m sorry.” Jameson propped himself on his hands, concern awash on his face as he stared down at Taresa. For her part, she remained down. “Are you well?”
Stunned was more like it. However, she had also found what she had been searching for.
The boy and the man. Compassion with passion. Vulnerability paired with strength. How could one man be all that plus more? She knew not the answer to such a question. Or any question. Nor did she want to know anything else save for the man before her.
She leaned on her elbow to wrap her hand behind his head. She pulled him close, her lips finding his again. Then again. For a third time followed by a fourth.
She reclined on the ground, the spread of clover serving as a bed to her and her husband. As they kissed, she undid the buttons of his doublet and the strings of his shirt, while he unlaced her corset and all the ties of her dress.
However slow or fast they went, eventually her hands found his bare torso. Then his back. As he did hers.
Above, the remnants of the clouds which had accompanied the day dissipated, allowing the stars to join the moon. Taresa admired the canvas of the night, its brilliance unveiled. At last.182Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡ3vCmdgprOM