Olivia parked the car on the grass verge. Paul was off work although he negotiated a conciliatory concession to buy the latest edition of the sports game he played on console rather than running around a field aggravating the knee injury which stymied his ambitions. She locked the car and slipped the keys into her pocket, throwing away the unkind observations about him like so much picnic litter.
She took a deep breath, inhaled the faint scent of blossoms and let the warm breeze caress her skin as she walked off the road, looking for the opening through the trees which led to her place.
Their place, she told herself.
Olivia wore her hair down, brushed out until it fell down to her shoulders in a shimmering golden wave. The hints of grey at her temples had never bothered her, although Paul made wobbling asides about trading her in for a younger model, which she ignored with a smile. She smiled at most things Paul said, but he had never figured out there was a lexicon of smiles, each one chosen to reflect her feelings on a particular situation or type of comment. He loved her, needed her but sometimes she wondered if there was any resentment at the need swimming in the depths and whether it would rise to the surface, its eyes bleak with hunger and take her soul between its teeth.
She had to push branches out of the way to make it down the path. It was smooth from countless footsteps, and she knew the way from memory. These little sojourns were small sips from the cup of herself, necessary for her ongoing sanity. Olivia and Paul worked at their marriage, aspiring to the conscientiousness of doctors but neither of them admitting the patient had been brought in on the verge of death, and the heroic measures they deployed were all in vain.
She wiped tears away as she walked, her anxieties hastening her pace in order to be relieved of them.
Paul never asked where she went on her drives. He had been prone to spasms of suspicion, when he was not absent whilst still being in the house, checking her phone to find nothing to warrant his suspicions. She had forgiven him, but not forgotten and it made her drives all the more essential.
Paul’s social anxiety was part of their dynamic. Olivia was the ambassador, and Paul the commander in chief, but over the years she had found managing his moods and other people’s expectations difficult to manage. His arc from brash confidence to wounded reluctance had deepened into a sucking, petulant melancholy and it weighed on her. He promised he would make an effort but after a few times of seeing his pensiveness emerge to sour pleasant occasions, she stopped accepting invitations. They would have friends over, where Paul would hold court with intermittent bursts of gregariousness, but even then, Olivia would see the smeared glass architecture of glasses and plates at the end of the night and fight the urge to swipe it all to the kitchen floor and scream until her throat gave out.
She shook the ugly thoughts out of her head, leaving them clinging to the trees like spider webs as the scent of blossoms grew intoxicating with each step. Olivia pushed through the undergrowth and looked up. Her heart leapt in her chest as she looked up at the overhanging branches, tangled and woven into a perfect canopy, streams of sunlight falling like ribbons onto the soft grass below.
Olivia looked at the world behind her and stepped through, giddy with anticipation. She knew all women entertained fantasy lives richer and more compelling than most men could imagine, sometimes they maintained them with the attention and privacy of an obsessed bibliophile, restricting access even to themselves.
Some women took lovers.
Olivia’s arrangement was somewhere between the two.
She checked her watch, switched her phone off and walked into the clearing, looking at the trees ahead of her, how the branches had curved into an doorway, teeming with leaves and flowers as she stared into the darkness and waited for the feeling to come.
It was a prickling at the nape of her neck, a fluttering in her stomach which danced up her spine and burst in her head like fireworks as she stepped through.
When she emerged, her jeans and hooded sweater had transformed into a gown of silk and cambric, a girdle embroidered with patterns of silver and gold, studded with gems down each side. Her boots had turned into silk slippers which made each footstep feel like a massage from strong, knowing hands. She adjusted the coronal atop her head as Serena, her lady in waiting smiled at her appearance.
‘Your highness, what a pleasure it is to see you.’ Serena said.
Olivia watched her curtsey and fought the discomfort which ran through her but made no comment to avoid offending Serena.
‘Is my king here?’ she said.
Serena blushed and nodded.
‘He is finishing with the petitions for the day. I will send him word of your arrival.’ she said.
Olivia looked past Serena at the four-poster bed, festooned with the furs of beasts he had hunted for her. The memory of how they felt against her bare skin sent blood to her cheeks and throat as she nodded her agreement. Serena hurried away to tell the king his queen had returned.
She walked around the bedchamber, a room as large as the ground floor of her house with Paul. Olivia stared at the trophies on the wall, won by her king in his ascent to the throne.
He was not a king as such, his official title was Prince Consort. He ruled in her stead, with her permission on the matters of court and kingdom. Queen Olivia was beloved, and so her consort, worked to maintain her reputation in her absences, even as his reputation preceded him at each turn.
She looked at the Moon Sword, a weapon forged from metals which had fallen from the sky and beaten into shape by the dwarves, one of their last treasures before their permanent recession from the world into their underground kingdoms. Its blade refracted the light, revealing a tableaux of images, some of her, some of him and the jagged looming shapes of the Elfkind, showing the story of its last usage and how the elves had been driven back by his courage. It hung on the wall and she brushed the hilt with her fingertips, recalling how he had wielded it in her honour as a burst of yearning awoke within her.
‘From such things, memories are made.’
His voice was soft with delight, but he never relinquished his poetic sensibilities. She turned and looked at him in the hallway. There was more silver than brown in his beard, but his eyes were bright and his smile unabashed as he undid the clasps of his feathered cloak.
The Crow King, borne from need, the first thief and warrior to steal the secrets of flight and theft from the birds, now a king.
No, Olivia thought, not just a king.
He let the cloak fall as he moved towards her, taking in her arms, kissing her with a frankness and hunger which overwhelmed her nerves as he rubbed himself against her. The soft scratch of his beard against her skin made her tongue swell in her mouth as she surrendered to his embrace. He lifted her as she wrapped her legs around him, letting him take her to the bed.
To take her as she yearned to be taken.
He grunted as he pushed her gown up her thighs, his hands were rough and strong as he tore her undergarments away, and massaged her with a greed which made her breathless. She never assumed his loyalty through words, for his tongue was glib and knowing but by his actions. His touch never wavered as he stroked her until she was boiling with desire as he kissed along the line of her throat. She came twice against his fingers before she pushed him back to shove his leggings down his thick, furred thighs and then pull him on top of her. She reached between his thighs and guided him where she needed him.
She shut her eyes as she lifted her legs to allow him deep.
Afterwards, she laid across him, stroking his beard as he stared at her with wonder.
‘You cannot stay?’ he said
His confidence verged on arrogance but it was a necessity to navigate statecraft. Even a thief and a killer could be undone by a poor choice of words and confidence gave him the courage to challenge the rivalries and defuse the tensions within the court.
She shook her head as she fought her tears.
He sighed and raised himself up on his elbow. He stroked her cheek with his fingers and kissed her again. They were well met in such matters, and his mouth said things too large for words.
‘I still work to undo the -‘ She put her finger to his lips and shook her head.
He sighed and gritted his teeth.
‘You’re my queen. I want you here with me.’ he said.
She kissed him, small desperate stabs of comfort as she sought to reassure him.
‘And I want to be here with you, my love, but we know what hangs above us, don’t we?’ she said.
He lowered his chin to his broad chest and closed his eyes before he pulled her into his arms. When conversation failed them, he knew what she needed.
Possession. Touch. Contact.
The curse had been a wedding gift. Lady MIngrid had designs on the Crow King since adolescence, seeing a value in the young twitching nerve of a man with quick hands and mind, before he grew bulk and fur. When he had met Olivia, she had proven to be a better thief and so Ingrid had travelled the kingdoms for the perfect gift.
It was set in a scroll, a sigil drawn in blood which was a mockery of the Cradle’s works, purchased from the Dark Markets for unimaginable coin. Ingrid had arranged it to be presented in a case of burnished copper, and had positioned herself to watch Olivia’s face as she unrolled it. She stared into it as it washed over her.
The court had watched her fade from view. Ingrid’s triumph lasted just long enough to feel the soldiers at her side before she was escorted to the dungeons underneath the castle.
He oversaw the interrogation himself. What surprised most people was that she emerged alive.
Not unscathed, judging by the limp she walked with and the layers of cloth bandaging her hands and mouth as she was helped into her carriage. She died on the journey home.
Olivia emerged at a kitchen table, an open book before her. She checked the cover, rubbing her gritted eyes as she brushed the sleeplocks from her face and looked around her. The book was called To Love A King, and it had the much loved signs of wear a book should. She did not awaken confused or frightened. She held her life in her head, but she knew the names of things around her and their uses. She knew the boundaries of her life here, measured out in tea and task and she lowered her head to her chest and wept.
It took the combined efforts of the Caliphate and the Cradle to work around the problem and even then, it took months of dreams sent into the gaps between worlds, a major revision of their theologies just to get Olivia to the meadow where she could return to her world.
A day at a time, here.
An hour there.
Olivia had asked her lover what would happen if she stayed and he turned pale with concern, shaking his head as he held her in his arms. She would not exist in either world, left between the two to exist in perpetual torment. Her sobs subsided and he looked her in the eyes, told her he would die trying to bring her home.
There was time enough for a meal, a bath, to make love again and to walk the gardens which he had maintained to her standard before she felt the familiar, awful tingle of impending departure. He walked with her to the portal in their chamber and kissed her until her lips were raw.
‘I will see you soon.’ she said.
He nodded as he brushed her hair from her face. In the most intimate moments, he was silent and spoke through his touch, his actions towards her stayed with her as she slipped into shadow.
Back into summer.
Beneath the sun, with the smell of blossoms in her nostrils, she wept for what might have been.
What might come to them.
She wiped her eyes and followed the path back to the car.
She got in, found the wipes in the glove compartment and cleaned her face before she saw the battered paperback and pulled it out. Olivia turned to the page she had left it on, where the magicians had gathered to widen the bridge between worlds and undo the curse. It was the ending of the book, and there had been an announcement of a sequel on her Amazon wish list pop up but it had no date forthcoming.
There was hope of the story continuing, and she would return to her kingdom and remain there. For now though, there was her other home to return to and the memories of summer would perfume her thoughts on the drive home.
She promised herself to pop into the mall on the way back and see if Paul’s game was in stock. With each mile, she found resolve to bear through this time with the grace and strength, she believed was part of her, now and forever.
She ached for her king.