An excerpt from my Fantasy Romance, "The Queen's Blade", with some editing to cut down on spoilers.
Still includes a few spoilers, though, so read at your own risk...
The bulk of the royal suitors, less the few who lived closer or had faster means of transport and were staying with their embassies until the formal presentations, would arrive tomorrow. The following day, they would be presented to Queen Alexandra of Dorion, Overlady of the World and Ruler of the Alexandrian Empire, and offer their petitions for her hand in marriage. There would be festivities on par with any of the great religious feasts, and the selection process would begin from there.
Ramessu watched the preparations with an amusement that made both Alexandra and Sayfiya wonder if he planned to deliberately sabotage his own petition, or if he had somehow missed that he was going to be one of the suitors on offer. Alexandra’s outer circle of handmaidens were twittering like birds during mating season, hoping to catch the eye of one of the rejected hopefuls. The Queen’s core handmaidens were more watchful than normal, on the alert for anyone who might try to tip the scales via underhanded means.
Sayfiya had a special poison ready for anyone who tried that, but was more concerned with Alexandra herself. This much stress couldn’t be good for anyone.
Helping her Queen dress for bed, Sayfiya asked the question that Alexandra had probably heard a thousand times, and so far had avoided answering. "How are you feeling?”
Alexandra fiddled with her customary nighttime braid, the only sign of anxiety she would allow through her serene facade. Sayfiya sympathised. She had her own opinions about the unfairness that Alexandra was the only one of them who would be forced into marriage, even if she had made arrangements that gave her the greatest amount of freedom of choice.
She couldn’t be looking forward to it, though, and Sayfiya felt an uncomfortable twisting in her own stomach at the thought of someone else laying hands on Alexandra, loving her, heedless of how much Alexandra would hate every second of it.
Alexandra had already spent weeks praying to every goddesss of fertility, pregnancy and motherhood that she could reasonably call upon, in the hope of concieving quickly, so that she and her husband could go back to separate beds. Sayfiya had never been particularly religious (though it was harder to deny the existence of gods when surrounded by their offspring), but she resolved to add her own prayers for a son. Alexandra might be proof that women could rule just as well as men (if not better), but a male heir would still be more acceptable to the conservatives.
They were alone in Alexandra’s room, Thalia circulating around the court in her albeit infrequent role as Alexandra’s body double, Agathe securing the ruse as her ever-present bodyguard. The other handmaidens would not return for a while yet. Perhaps it was the not-so-hidden misery on Alexandra’s face, or merely some wild impulse, but Sayfiya couldn’t bear to let it continue.
Sayfiya had been grateful when Alexandra had not only spared her life, but given her the chance to achieve a lifelong goal. She hadn’t expected that gratitude to blossom into attraction, and from attraction to what Sayfiya thought might be love. Love - at least the romantic kind - wasn’t an emotion that Sayfiya had a lot of experience with, but the quiet contentment that came with being in Alexandra’s company, the warmth when she smiled... honestly, just the young Queen in general, seemed close to what it should feel like.
Sayfiya knew that Alexandra had grown up expecting a political marriage, but her father had made it equally clear that he would accept her input into the arrangement.
Then he'd gone and died before any such arrangement could be made, leaving a young Queen more concerned with the state of a new empire than her marital status.
Without his clout to back her, as fathers were expected to be the ones arranging marriages for their children, Alexandra's choices were far more restricted. Surrounded by women who had chosen their lovers, or chosen not to take a lover or husband at all, it was understandable that she would wish for the same.
Well, that, at least, Sayfiya could do something about. She rose to her feet. “Stand up.”
Alexandra raised an eyebrow, but did so willingly. “A bit late for sparring, isn't it?”
Sayfiya had found herself enjoying those sparring sessions rather more than someone bound to a vow of chastity should - even in a fight, Alexandra moved with a willowy grace that hid an admirable willingness to go for the kill, and Sayfiya suspected that she might have a badly-hidden competency kink - but sex was not the only way to be intimate. She let her fingers trail down her love’s arm, feather-light but tactile enough to make Alexandra shiver lightly. “Not quite what I had in mind. I’m going to show you how to disarm me. Entirely.”
Both of her Queen’s eyebrows shot up at that statement, conscious of what that kind of vulnerability meant to Sayfiya, and the level of trust and intimacy it implied. Alexandra visibly bit back her initial startled response, quiet for a long moment, before her eyes met Sayfiya’s, hopeful and uncertain in a way they had never been before. “Are you sure?”
In response, Sayfiya unlaced her bracers, never looking away from Alexandra’s lovely eyes. “Thin blades, concealed in the boning, here and here. The first inch is blunt enough to grasp, but the rest is razor sharp.”
Alexandra's hands were gentle against Sayfiya’s skin, massaging away the marks where the ties pressed into the flesh of Sayfiya's arms, as she drew the blades out, slow and careful and reverent, setting them on the bedside table. Sayfiya restrained a light shiver of her own; vulnerability was as intoxicating as it was terrifying. Next, she indicated various hiding places in her outer layer of clothing. “Knives, here, here and here. Twin daggers, triggered when I bend my knee at a certain angle. The prongs on my fastenings are sharper than they look, and detachable. Careful with those, they’re tipped with poison.”
Slowly, Alexandra knelt on the floor, something she barely did for even the gods, carefully finding and removing each one with a deliberate care that made Sayfiya’s breath catch in her throat. Willing her hands to remain steady, she reached down, raising Alexandra to her feet, removing her shirt to reveal the hardened linen beneath. Not quite on the level of a linothorax, it provided a larger degree of protection than the average underclothing. Linen layers shaped better to female curves, anyway.
Sayfiya indicated where the vest laced at the sides, the ties easier to pull free than they looked, and actually composed of two separate cords. “These can be pulled out and used to strangle someone, or tie them up.”
Alexandra pulled the cords free, setting the hardened vest to one side and hesitating for permission before binding Sayfiya’s hands securely in front of her. “Is that all?”
It wasn’t the first time Alexandra had seen her unclothed, or nearly so. Sayfiya shared the Queen's bed at night, and in summer even the nights were too hot for clothing. Besides, at least three would-be assassins had tripped over their own feet and bought Sayfiya several seconds of time when greeted with a full-frontal view of naked female skin.
Even so, it was a struggle for Sayfiya to keep her voice steady. “Almost. Spikes sewn into the toes of my sandals. There's a knack to curling my toes to release them, but it makes for a very unpleasant kick.”
Alexandra smiled, so soft and loving that Sayfiya nearly fell to her own knees as her Queen - hers, and hers alone! - knelt again, carefully unlacing the sandals and setting them aside with an attitude that bordered on reverent. She rose again before Sayfiya could do anything, opening the box containing her golden laurel wreath, and the hairpins formed in tiny sprays of olive blossoms that she used to hold the wreath in place, a homage to her mother’s sacred bough and symbol of peaceful intentions. Lifting one of the pins, she carried it over, holding it carefully.
Never helpless, but vulnerable in a way that Sayfiya had never been to anyone else, she looked at the hairpin. Clusters of four silver petals, each cradling a bronze olive bud. Alexandra twisted the bud, revealing that it was attached to a thin needle, sharp enough to penetrate an artery.
Alexandra replaced the needle, tucking the hairpin carefully into Sayfiya’s hair. “It’s not the token I wish I could bestow, but I would like for you to wear it.”
Sayfiya leaned forward, brushing her lips against Alexandra’s in a gentle kiss, her heart swelling with more emotion than she had words to express. “Then I will bear it with me always, and treasure it as a symbol of all that we share.”
They had never needed words to understand each other, and Sayfiya swallowed hard. “There are words, affirmations, that I recite each morning. It's supposed to be a call and response between partners. I’ll teach them to you.”
Alexandra smiled again, unbinding Sayfiya’s hands and carefully lacing the cords back into place in the vest. “If I can’t swear myself to you before the gods in one way, we can do it in another.”
Part of Sayfiya wanted to burst into tears, of grief or of joy, she wasn’t sure. Another part wanted to fling herself into Alexandra’s arms, to hold her tight and never let go. She did neither. “I’ll make you some poisons for your hairpins. Different effects, depending on placement. A part of me to carry with you, all the days of our lives.”
It was something that Alexandra’s soon-to-be husband would never share with her, even if he wanted to. It was enough.
The next day, Sayfiya watched her beloved Alexandra stand next to a priest, discussing the intricasies of a wedding potentially between opposing religions as they waited for the suitors to arrive.
In a month or so, Alexandra would stand before the same priest, side by side with a man who might love her or might only love power, and swear her hand, body and loyalty to another.
Sayfiya reminded herself that she and Alexandra had recited vows of their own first, vows that they would repeat every morning for the rest of their joined lives, sworn in far more meaningful ways.
It was enough.