It started with a glance–a pair of eyes brushing against the fine curve of a neck. A chiffon hand alighting on a knee like a butterfly–just as skittish, fluttering away at the slightest movement.

It continued with chance encounters that were hardly chance at all. They were whispered plots, intricate plans. They were labyrinthine by design, tangled and tricky because complications made the air between them prickly, the thrill more electric. These were deliberate heists where they stole time together in empty halls and darkened corridors.

It grew when they saw each other even when they were apart. She on her balcony, looking out over the roofs of the city, and farther out, over the rolling hills of the moors, and farther out still, over the rolling contours of his arms, his shoulders. He at the Academy, staring intently at the target, perspiration on his brow, the bowstring pulled taut. Her eyes would softly open in his head and his stomach would clutch. He would release, and euphoria would wash over him. The arrow would lance through the air and strike. Crisp. Piercing. Pleasing.

It became real the first time he found himself in her chamber. He had walked over to the crackling fire while she wafted by the bed in her diaphanous dress, its petaled edges shivering–maybe a draft, maybe her nerves. The flames doused him in velvet orange, burnished him like a statue, made him seem surreal, impossible, a figure out of a legend. She had stepped cautiously forward, put her hand to his cheek, made sure he was flesh. Down his neck, and over the chest of his breastplate, down and around his side, where she loosened the straps that held his armor in place, and lower still, into his pants, made sure he was blood.  He lifted the armor over his head, and she followed by lifting his tunic. She slipped out of her dress, and it fell to the floor in a puddle, its lace and organza like lingering vapor. There was a fragile translucence to her beauty, but she led him to the bed with a confident grasp and sharp, unwavering desire. They made love and when they finished, her sweaty, exhausted frame wilted on top of him, her damp blonde hair running like flaxen rivers over his chest and down his sides.

It would end much the same. They had made love, and her soft, swooning body had poured itself over him, her limbs limp, her hair cascading round, her body rising and falling with each of his heavy breaths. He, too, was spent, his body still thrumming with echoes of pleasure. He moved his hand and took hers up, their fingers enweaving. Hers were slender and pale, his heavier and dark, and he liked the way their skin looked pressed together, a perfect complement.

She lifted her cheek from his chest and looked up into his dusty, green eyes. “We could stay like this forever,” she said.

He smiled at her sadly and brushed her matted bangs away from her eyes. “I wish–” but he didn’t know what to say to. So the wish just hung in the air, unsaid.

She wished it, too.

He gently rolled out from under her, and stood, putting his leather trousers back on. He threw his tunic over his head, but it made it only halfway down. She had sat up and caught it, and now pressed her lips gently against his back.

“You mustn’t go,” she whispered into his flesh.

“Ysabelle,” he said, turning and kneeling, taking her cheeks into his hands. “I have to.”

“No. Stay.”

“You are meant for different things–better things. You always were.”

“We could tell my father.” She kissed his palm before returning it to her cheek. “He would be happy for us. He loves you.”

“He trusts me. As a faithful servant. This–us–betrays him.”

“No. He would want me to be happy.”

“I…hope that Holden will make you happy. I pray to the Five every day that he does.”

She jerked her head out of his hands. “Am I meant to be Queen, or am I a pawn?”

“None of this is a game.” He sat on the bed, but stared at the floor, not Ysabelle. “Your father has driven the orcs from their northernmost settlement. He’s preparing to eliminate Aeterneau. He’s strengthening our fortifications, building our armament, training more soldiers than ever. Your marriage is the final piece of it all. The final preparation before he takes Deepvale. Everything hinges on it. Can we be the ones to dash all that? This kingdom has been your life. It’s been my home. Can we deny it?”

“Darwyn…” She ran her finger along the edge of his pointed ear, to his lobe, which she caressed with her thumb.

“You never expected to fall in love with an elf, after all. Did you?” He looked at her, but she dared not answer. She refused to cede him any ground. “Is it so hard to think that you might love again? And you can love in the open. Your love will unite people. What is ours? What has it ever been but a dirty secret. A threat.”

“No,” she said forcefully. “Say what you want of our future–don’t speak ill of our love.”

He stood up and moved toward the door. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I’m sorry–this has to be the last time.” He cracked the door open and slipped out. The last thing he saw as he left was the fine curve of her neck and a chiffon hand wiping tears away.

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