Peace took up more time than war. The duties that came with being Queen made every opportunity a stolen one for her. She would have found it easier to keep him by her side, to call on him at a moment’s notice and receive the gift of his attentions.
Duty had him go out as her envoy, sometimes with a blade in his hand, other times letters of treaty as she sought to crochet together a broken kingdom. He was deadly with them both, and would return to her safe although not always unscarred. She worried that her neglect and silence would add to those wounds he bore but hid it from everyone but herself. She would watch him sleep, her fingers playing through the neat curls of fur on his broad chest and ache with a want for him that made her expansive and almost violent with it.
Her patchwork knight. Born from common stock but risen to nobility by her father, and by his own actions in his service. She was a bee, needing the sweet honey of his eyes, his voice and his touch and resigned to never having it as she needed it. Duty called her name, drowned out the whispers of her heart and left her wracked with torment, unable to speak it aloud. She did her duty and she resented it for what it cost her more than what it had given her.
She had been sewing in her chambers, using the last of the daylight to allow her to finish a pattern that had proven a challenge for her focus and dexterity.A knock at her door lifted her chin. He was abroad, gone to negotiate a trade deal with Amber Home, a race that resembled insects and spoke in piping, musical voices. They made weapons and structures from a resin they farmed from grubs, light and as close to invincible as anyone had seen since the departure of the dwarves deep beneath the earth.
‘Enter.’ she said.
The door opened and a guard stepped forwards, bowing at the waist.
She stood up, her work trailing from her fingers as she saw movement behind him.
‘What is it? I hope it is important considering the hour.’
The guard, a slight and attentive young man by the name of Percival, swallowed and his face turned pale.
‘I have news, your highness, from Amber Home.’
She flinched at his expression, a mask of duty from which upset and concern leaked through his eyes and the cast of his mouth.
Amber Home was inaccessible on horseback due to the propensity for the younger drones and queens to attack such animals for their blood. This led to a quiet, lengthy exile from the other races until an enterprising young merchant, desperate to source a supply of the golden, versatile amber, sketched out a design one night, whilst unable to sleep and found a carpenter willing to do the work of translation.
The queen hid her excitement as it unsettled the air of careful dignity she wielded when presented with such solutions. Even the knight found his stoicism challenged by her, but his reasons were of a more personal nature than the device.
‘He did not tell me he rode through there in one of these. I would have insisted on going with him, had I known.’ she said.
Oscar, her chancellor, narrowed his eyes and pressed his hands together in contemplation.
‘His reaction was similar. How sweet.’ he said.
The device was two wheels connected and moving inside one another. She drove by making adjustments to the wooden pedals and two large sticks that moved in different directions. The inner wheel moved and kept the occupants stable in one position, almost comfortable, Oscar offered with a hint of the subtle disbelief that afflicted him like a stammer. The outer wheel protected the inner and also to allow for a smooth, controlled movement. She insisted on having a test drive around the courtyard, and after a few false starts, had the vehicle under her control and even pulled off a sharp stop and retreat, which made Oscar roll his eyes in paternal disdain.
The queen stepped out from the wheel.
‘Your highness, must you go? He is being well tended to. The Queen itself has gathered the finest physicians to treat his wounds.’
‘As she should.’
The assassins came to kill her and he had interceded, killing three of them in a matter of seconds. The fourth wounded him with a dagger tipped with a rare poison. Before he lapsed into unconsciousness, he had gripped the assassin by the face and twisted his head with enough force he died looking backwards. He stood there, looking over the corpses of the men and women he had killed then said two words and collapsed to the floor.
Oscar was not frightened of the queen, only the misuse of her potential. He held his own fondness for the knight, even sharing his poetry with him. This presented a terrible risk, for their enemies were watching. This act itself could have been a feint, designed to prey upon her feelings and draw her out.
Her forehead furrowed with irritation.
‘I will not be attending as a head of state, Oscar. A woman visiting a man.’
Her man, she thought. Her pupils dilated at the thought or mention of him. She was not insensible about him, which would have been awful for the kingdom, but he made her bold, daring to dream with a robustness he had not seen in her since youth. He decided that some arguments were not worth the fight, and so he bowed and wished her well.
He insisted that she travelled armed and armoured. She patted her tunic and the faint chink of mail, muted by the cloth and boiled leather, travelled to his ears. She turned her right wrist and a serrated black blade slid into her hand.
‘If you’ve anything else hidden, your highness, please spare me the trouble.’
The wheels moved in perfect rhythm and once she had grown used to the devices that controlled it, the queen decided that she would have one of these built to her own needs and dimensions. She hurtled over the hills, gripping the ground thanks to a hundred small tiny fungoid growths grown into the wood that kept the ride smooth. The interior wheel moved in such a way that the driver remained stable and the passenger seat allowed for a companion to travel in similar comfort.
The hives of Amber Home laid before her and she heard the hum of industry that was the source of its power. She saw the winged guards swarm overhead and she reached for her seal of office, mounted on a chain beneath her cloak and tunic.
She raised it so it caught the sunlight and they landed before her. Their jointed limbs slid into sheaths of chitin and they stood there, chattering to themselves in a shrill buzzing language that sounded like tautened string instruments. They stood aside and pointed to a wooden longhouse at the foot of the hill.
She rode towards it.
The insect queen was eight feet tall, with crystalline wings that folded behind her and shimmering eyes that took in everything with a graceful detachment.
‘He has survived, your highness.’ she said.
He laid on the bed, his eyelids closed and chest rising in easy rhythms, flushed with sweat and trembling as though he fought some terrible adversary within his dreams. Perhaps he was bargaining for his life and it would be typical that he did so without calling for aid.
The insect queen assured her he would recover. The poison had struck a blow against him. She was there with him. That mattered in the silent judgement of the gods.
The insect queen hovered away and the doors closed. She waited until she was alone and then crawled onto the bed and rested her warm hand against his cheek. He burned to the touch but did not respond.
‘I have left you too long, haven’t you?’
She brushed the stubble on his cheeks, dark brown and soft against her fingertips.
She spoke to him. Queens did not speak such things aloud, but women did and she laid there, as she said, a woman visiting her man on his sick bed.
Not a death bed, she thought, not yet.
She leaned over and kissed him. His lips were soft and warm, and his beard brushed against her face.
‘If you do not wake, I cannot say I will follow you into sleep, my love. But most of me will and whatever rules the kingdom, with my face and my voice.’
Tears streamed down her cheeks and she patted his hair away from his face.
‘It will not be this woman, I swear. She will be duty and dust shall flow in her veins.’
She sobbed and wrapped him in her arms, pulled him to her bosom and wept with a force that made the hive shake.
His hand smoothed along the length of her forearm and she drew back, gasping as his eyelids raised and he smacked his lips with thirst.
‘I thought I was dreaming.’
She planted kisses all over his face and he opened his eyes to gaze into her, not her mind but her soul. No matter the depth of her silence or the height of the walls that duty put between them, he knew the way past them. It was the knowledge and certainty he had of himself, and through how it informed his love and duty, that kept them together.
‘No, you are very much awake and when you are well, I have something to show you.’
He closed his eyes and groaned, turning his head to nestle into her bosom.
‘If it’s the wheel, I can’t wait but there was one thing more I wished to see more than anything.’
She stroked his face, kissing him over and over until she needed to breathe. She asked him what it was and he smiled before his fingers curled into the hair at the nape, cropped for the season and he drew her down into his kiss.