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Before we change

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Then let’s sit for a minute enjoying this night before we change. Change forever.

Alice Notley, from The Descent of Alette.

 

It isn’t rare for romance to bloom in the frontier. The heat and the boiling blood in soldiers have led to many a marriage. Alfonso Murillo is a believer in the suggestive power of a wheat field, mainly because he’d come to the borders for a campaign season, twenty years ago, and he’d met his wife. He’s been here ever since.

It isn’t a bad life, but it’s hard-earned at best and gruelling at worst. Alfonso likes the work, and he knows that María would skin him if he ever asked whether she regrets choosing him, but he worries about his daughter.

Maybe it is because she is his little girl, but he thinks Raquel is far too bright, too full of potential to spend her life in the edges of Castile. She isn’t unhappy – she carries her duties out admirably and enjoys the company of that Alicia girl – but sometimes she sits outside on the fields and looks to the horizon, as though she is waiting for someone.

When Raquel comes home bringing a young man with her, Alfonso thinks that this story will be similar to María and his. The man is serving in His Grace’s army and he is from a distant place.

“Have you won honours in the battlefield, lad?” He smiles, coldly, before replying.

“It would be easier, had my father not placed me far from the vanguard and surrounded by soldiers.”

“Oh? And who is your father if we may know?”

“The Count of Vicuña.” Destined for something greater, indeed, Alfonso thinks. Raquel has the barest hint of a smile curling on her lips.

++

 

 

 

 

The wedding is as much of a beautiful, whirlwind affair as every single lady has told Raquel. She won’t remember much, in the years to come: the King’s hand holding Alberto’s and hers together; the feeling of fullness in her belly after the feast. The tight smile with which her husband promises to take good care of her. The gold medal of the Virgin Mary her mother had given her before she left – the most treasured heirloom in their family, although it pales in comparison to the jewellery the ladies in attendance are wearing.

She’ll remember it with bitterness, in the years to come.

++

 

The feast, which is less of a family gathering and more of a necessary show, has Raquel twirling the ends of the long braids falling down the front of her bodice. The rest of her hair is a slight weight down her back - a physical reminder of her purity as a maiden and her transit into a wife. 

The material of her gown is similar, a fine linen overdress dyed a red deeper than anything the Murillos could have ever afforded. There’s a light summer cloak clasped over her shoulders and a belt of interlinking metal rings around her waist - her husband is the only one allowed to undo either of them.

She’s idly thinking about her wedding night, wondering whether Alberto will find her appropriate or not, when she feels a presence behind her.

“Well, if it isn’t the bride herself.”

Raquel feels her body going rigid on instinct as soon as she hears the silky, serpentine undertones underneath that voice. She hasn’t had the pleasure of Lord de Fonollosa’s company for long periods of time, and she is grateful for it. Dear to the King or not, the man poses a serious threat to the Crown’s stability, and he takes pleasure in holding his privileged position as a shield to excuse his arrogance.

“Well met, milord.” Whatever her opinions on the bastard, Raquel won’t be as brainless as to show any animosity towards such an influential man. “How did you find the ceremony?”

“Charming, in all of its quaintness,” he says, smiling. Raquel supposes that he knows what she thinks of him and is amused by her stoicism. He must be used to shows of disrespect, at Court.

It’d come as a great surprise to Raquel, if she’s honest. She’d heard of descriptions of Court as a viper’s nest, but she hadn’t thought them to be accurate to such an extent. There is so much hissing, so much watching her steps so she doesn’t get bitten. And I am the oddity of the year. She’s really lucky to have Alberto help her navigate the finer points of high nobility.

“I’m glad to hear of it.” She hopes that a neutral answer will be enough to lead him away in search of more entertaining conversation.

“It is a pity, though, that this is the last day in which we get to see such lovely hair in all of its glory.” Raquel feels the flush go under her neckline. She was rather content with her reflection the last time she happened upon it - the simplicity of the band resting on her forehead, the heavy, sweet smell of the honeysuckle and mugwort threaded in her hair - but she wasn’t ready for him to comment upon it so brazenly.

You should have, she chides herself. He is the bastard prince; he probably makes a sport out of flustering young women.

“I am glad that my appearance is appropriate for the occasion,” she states. It seems like an answer mild enough not to prompt him into talking about her figure or anything of the sort, and it doesn’t imply any sort of special excitement over his acknowledgment of her beauty.

If Alberto perceived him to be slighting me, he would challenge him to a duel. She knows of the fierce temperament all Vicuñas claim to possess and she isn’t willing to see her wedding end in bloodshed of any kind. Alberto is a gentleman and a fine swordsman, but the bastard probably has all sorts of wicked tricks up his sleeve. 

“Well, I am sure that even the worst hens in attendance won’t be able to find faults in the ceremony or you. I’m sure that my brother would tell you the same, if he hadn’t run into the librarian on the way here.”

Raquel follows his gaze down the aisle and spots a dark-haired man. He would probably tower over most, if not all people around him if he wasn’t folded in on himself. He is gesturing quite enthusiastically at the older man Raquel supposes is the Court’s librarian.

“Oh,” she says after it dawns on her. “The Prince wanted to talk to me?” She should expect being noticed by higher nobles by now, but it is a feeling she cannot get used to. 

“To offer the customary congratulations. I might go down there and remind him to come up here myself, if you do not mind. I’m afraid his love of knowledge much exceeds that of protocol.” Before she can stop him, de Fonollosa darts down the aisle and, after a quick exchange she doesn’t even try to follow, comes back with Prince Sergio.

“Your Highness,” she says, sketching a courtesy. I hope I did that right. After all, she has never met him before in her brief time at Court. When she’d dared to ask Alberto about the Prince, he’d replied with several anecdotes of his reclusive nature.

“Oh, no need to be so formal, milady,” he replies, his voice like soothing balm over her frayed nerves. “After all, it is your wedding day.”

“Thank you, your Highness, but I’m afraid some formalities are to be maintained at all times.” She finishes the phrase with a small smile - using courtly language requires deftness and tact that she rarely made use of back home.

“You could learn a thing or two from the lady,” de Fonollosa mutters, so low that Raquel doesn’t know whether he intended for it to be heard in the first place.

When she finally raises her eyes to meet those of the Prince, she is pleasantly surprised. She had expected him to have the look of a high-ranking member of the Court - hard, with narrow eyes and neat hairstyles. What she finds is a man, two years younger than her, if memory serves her right, with a warm regard. The first thing to catch her eye is his nose, rounded and distinctive, and his thick beard. His eyes are half-closed, but it seems more out of tiredness than anything else. 

She realizes she’s been staring for a little too long when the Prince shifts and coughs.

“Well, my congratulations on your union to Earl Alberto, milady.” His posture is still drooping, and Raquel wants to know why he feels the need to take up as little space as possible.

“And we kindly thank you, your Highness.” 

Alberto’s voice behind her is as unexpected as welcome - Raquel is still unpractised at holding her own for too long in this type of small talk - and she turns around to give him a small nod of gratitude. 

He clasps her against his side, the very image of the attentive husband. Raquel gazes up at him, smile so wide it might break her face. She’s so drunk on everything - the chatter, the colours, the heavy smell of flowers and life and cooked delicacies - that she misses the cold smile Alberto gives the king’s sons, squeezing her so hard she’ll find bruises the day after.

++

 

“I hope the bastard remembered his manners,” he grits out, once the King’s sons have taken their leave.

“He was surprisingly courteous,” Raquel replies.

“He’d better be.” The sullen expression in his face makes Raquel realize what has him in a mood.

“Are you jealous?” Alberto turns to her, eyes narrowed and face contracted into something that almost scares her.

“Does my worrying entertain you, wife? You don’t even begin to imagine the corruption in that man.”

“I meant no offence, my love,” she says. “I know you only have the best of intentions in mind.”

She bites a retort about him not putting much trust in her down. It would serve nothing – Alberto is a stubborn man, and fiercely protective. It’s good that he thinks I’m so precious anybody would try to take me from him.

++

 

 

 

 

Andrés and Sergio leave as early as they can without being discourteous. The festivities are a touch too tame for his brother’s sensibilities and Sergio doesn’t want to have to speak to half the Court.

There will be some remarks about Sergio leaving soon, but he can blame it on his health. It’s been a long three years since he recovered, but the spectre of illness hangs heavy on the Court’s minds. Enough for them to underestimate him – enough for him to escape most social gatherings.


This isn’t the worst feast he has been to, but still. He doesn’t want to be in the company of Vicuñas for far too long. He could respect their ambition and steadfastness, if it didn’t come with such blatant disrespect to all Crown members other than the King.

 

“And what did you think of the celebration, brother?” Sergio rubs his eyes. I ought to be done with the research on our latest treaty soon. He hasn’t caught a wink of sleep in the last few days, but his father wants his counsel.

“As fun as one ought to expect from the happy occasion, I suppose.” He knows that Andrés has some insight he wants to share – it’s the only reason why he engages in such trivial talk.

“And the bride was beautiful as well, wasn’t she?” Ah. He must have seen Sergio looking at lady Vicuña for far longer than propriety deems decent.

“Every maiden looks resplendent on the day she is wed.” It is true. There is something about merriment that brings a sparkle to the eyes of newlyweds – it’d suited her most finely.

“You ought to be glad you are the Prince, hermanito. The Kingdom would be lost if we had to depend on your ability to court a woman for you to be wed.” Sergio splutters. I should be above and beyond his teasing at this point in time.

“Well then, if it pleases you better, I can say she and her groom made for a good picture.”

And a better catch.” Sergio quirks his eyebrows. He doesn’t listen to much of the castle gossip. “You can’t possibly not know! The lady Vicuña is daughter to an infanzón. She comes from the South-Eastern border, of all places.”

That catches his attention, although he takes care not to show his interest. Last time he mentioned a woman to Andrés, he japed about her for months. It is strange, though, for a woman of her birth to attract an Earl’s eye.

“A fascinating place to grow in, I’m sure. So, the lady is after the title and lands?”

Sergio can’t help but be somewhat disappointed. She wouldn’t be the first woman to enter a marriage contract for selfish reasons, but he’d looked into her eyes and seen no glint of greed in them. Her flushed countenance betrayed no wickedness, no secretive designs. Perhaps I am a bad judge of character.

“Who is to say?” Andrés shrugs. “She looked quite smitten, and she did leave her lands and family to come to a strange court, but I’m sure that the gold must have sweetened her.”

You would be sweetened by gold.”

“Luckily for us, my pockets are already deep enough.” Sergio shakes his head with a smile. Anyone who looks at Andrés, in his fine velvets and furs, can tell just how deep his money goes. We ought to have been born in the other’s life. I have no wish for a high standing, and he has the air of a Prince on his own.

“Are you saying there’s nothing more precious than gold?”

“Power, but they’re usually one and the same.”

++

 

 

 

 

She never thought it would end like this.

Alberto had been nothing but the perfect picture of an attentive gentleman all throughout their courting – giving her flowers, reading poetry to her, making small talk as they walked, chaperone in tow. He’d talked at length about his responsibilities as a Count -to-be and Raquel had regaled him with tales of her more rural experience. 

Despite his initial reluctance, Alberto had seemed interested in her ideas of household management, in her practice at budgeting – born of necessity, not of a desire to entertain her mind, though she doesn’t even dream of telling him that. 

When she went into this marriage, Raquel wasn’t expecting love. At nineteen, she knows what her duties are – producing suitable heirs, helping her husband govern their household and properties, and being a support to the de Vicuña family in any way possible. All of her life, she has been told that upholding her end of the bargain means that her husband will do the same and she will be content, if not happy.

She wasn’t expecting the love she hears about at mass, in songs, but she wasn’t prepared for the cruelty she would find.

++

 

It starts with small gestures. The way he stops listening to her in conversations until she closes her mouth and lets him speak. How he doesn’t talk to her for days and she is forced to play a guessing game of what she did wrong this time – nothing, her instincts scream at her – or endure a cold bedchamber and a turned back. 

The few women she dares talk to at Court reassure her that such is the mercurial nature of men, and recommend that she become pregnant as soon as possible. 

“It does wonders, my dear.”

So she goes to Alberto, night after night, until her monthly bleeding staves off. When she makes the announcement he smiles. For a moment, she thinks that she got it right. 

After the birth, when the midwife announces she has given birth to a healthy girl, she looks at his face and she knows just how wrong she was.

++

 

She thinks that maybe she’ll be able to manage him, now that she has Paula to show for her efforts. They can try for another child; time will be on her favour. Then Alberto’s father dies, and they become Count and Countess.

Her husband starts blaming his outbursts on his newfound responsibilities. Raquel knows he has trained for this moment his whole life. She knows that now he just feels like he is too powerful to suffer any consequences for his actions. This, the escalation of violence to the physical, feels like a celebration of himself. It’s as though he wants to be seen, as though he wants to test the limits to his power.

Raquel doesn’t try to state her case, to call for help. She’s afraid that, were she to return to the frontier, the wheat fields of her childhood would swallow her whole. She’s afraid that, in the deep end, she deserves it. That she hasn’t been a good wife, a good mother, a good woman.

She dreams of screaming in the middle of the throne room. No one turns to look at her. She knows they can hear.

++

 

 

 

 

Two years into her marriage, she has settled into routine, if knowing to interpret Alberto’s moods in order to escape the worst can be called routine.

When she needs quiet, which is fairly often, Raquel’s answer is going to the gardens. The artfully groomed hedges and flowerbeds have nothing in common with the open fields of her youth in Castile, but it soothes her spirit, nonetheless.

On the worst days, after Alberto is gone and her arms are blooming with bruises, she goes a step further and sneaks into the private gardens reserved to higher nobility. Despite being married to Alberto, she doesn’t like to be there on her own.

Most of the noblewomen have been nothing but amiable to her face, yet Raquel doesn’t dare approach them. She feels as though they come from a higher realm, all polished in the ways of wit and courtesy. It might also be because life back at the border deprived her of female friends. Safe for Alicia, who Raquel is loath to use as a model for a proper friendship.

Raquel is especially grateful for these gardens on a summer’s day where the Sun beats down on the stone until it feels like it’s going to melt. The heat makes Alberto more irritable, so Raquel escapes to the central gardens, deciding that she’d rather have her dress sticking to her back because of sweat than blood.

Paula is already in the care of her husband’s sisters, who are kind to her only because of her father. Still, kindness is kindness, and Raquel is in no position to reject it.

The stone arches are beautiful, but offer little shadow, so Raquel holds her light skirts up as to not soil them and darts her way to the far corner, where a magnificent oak towers above a patch of peppermint. Her hair covering slips off her head in her haste, but instead of readjusting it, she unravels it with a tug of her hand.

Raquel shakes her hair out and holds it, regretting that she decided to wear it loose earlier in the morning. There’s a rustling noise behind her, and Raquel snaps around to find – Prince Sergio. Oh, good Lord. She panics and defaults to what she’s learnt in her time at Court: politeness.

“Well met, your Highness.” She realizes how odd she must look at the moment. “Terrible heat this time of the year, isn’t it?”

He looks at her as though he is a deer surprised by a pack of hounds.

“I, uh – yes. This time last year was far cooler, but we didn’t have the barest hint of a breeze.”

“I personally find the breeze that comes with these temperatures either treacherous or plain hot air.” Raquel wrings her hands. I should have nodded and gone my merry way. It’s just that… not answering like the silliest topic in the kingdom isn’t interesting might displease him.

“Treacherous?” Prince Sergio replies, as though Raquel isn’t being an awkward disturbance. “What do you mean?”

“Well, your Highness, when I was unwed and lived near the border, we knew to be more careful in days like this, because the faintest lick of cool will distract a man until he is cooked alive in his own skin.”

“Hm,” he replies. “That makes sense. I always burn my face with the sun in days like this, but I cannot resist the appeal of the gardens whenever I have free time. I enjoy reading here.”

“It seems like a rather pleasant occupation.” Why is he talking to me? Even intimidated, Raquel can’t help but find this human side of the Crown Heir to be incredibly refreshing. His father has a warrior’s way with words, and his brother’s charm is unparalleled, but Raquel prefers a man who speaks plainly and looks you in the eye while doing it.

“Tell me, milady, what are you doing out in the heat?”

She swallows, Alberto’s face flashing in her mind’s eye.

“Looking for the first strike of summer, your Highness. I fear it’s one of the, if not the only one I actually enjoy.”

“Not afraid of darkening your skin with the Sun, are you?” Raquel flushes, unsure of whether he meant it as a jab to her upbringing or not.

“I fear that the Court has little expectations with regards to my following the fashions. It is the one thing that makes me interesting.” The Prince chuckles, and Raquel wonders if he ever laughs and what that must sound like.

“Pray, do not underestimate yourself. You are proving to be an engaging conversationalist, even with such a trivial topic.” Raquel feels the heat rising in her cheeks again at the praise. She looks to the side, and the movement makes her suddenly aware of the weight of her hair.

“But not a proper one, goodness. I apologize, your Highness, but I was so surprised by your appearance that I forgot to do something about my hair.” He blinks, probably taken aback by her bluntness, but resumes speaking.

“I believe I’ve already seen it. On your wedding day, wasn’t it?”

“You remember?” The Prince scratches his beard. I didn’t address him by title!

“Well, it isn’t every day when the firstborn of a Count marries the daughter of an infanzón.” Raquel tries not to bristle. He doesn’t look like he is mocking her origins, but it wouldn’t be the first time someone wraps steel barbs on velvet. “You looked very happy.”

“I guess so.” The day in which she joined her life to Alberto’s has since become a cursed one and bringing it up drags a grim mood with it. “However, it’s been long since I was a maiden allowed to wear her hair wild.”

That being said, Raquel starts braiding her hair so she can twist it into a bun with more ease. It won’t look as good as it would with a handmaid’s help, but she’ll cover it with her coif and hope that’s enough.

“Milady,” Prince Sergio says, “I apologize if I said anything that offended you. I won’t tell anyone about the – “ he gestures to her hair, his face red from standing in the sun “— you know. The heat is harsh today. I do not think any of your actions could be deemed improper.”

He turns around and leaves without saying anything else. This has to be a breach of protocol, somehow, Raquel thinks, mouth agape. The Prince apologizing to her? The Vicuñas must be more important than what I thought.

++

 

 

 

 

The next time she absconds to the garden, she finds herself looking for him. Don’t be silly, Raquel. She still lingers near the oak, brushing her hand against the bark.

++

 

The next time he goes outside to read, he finds that the daylilies remind him of Lady Vicuña’s hair. He pointedly turns his mind to his book. He attends the King’s audience that evening, and feels like the greatest imbecile in the kingdom when he realizes he’s looking for her.

++

 

When they come across each other, they are always surrounded by people. They greet each other by title, the perfect portrayal of formality. Neither stops to wonder why they feel the need to act with such aloofness in front of witnesses. After all, there is nothing improper going on between them.

++

 

 

 

 

It’s almost three weeks before they are alone. They have shared a few conversations, but always careful, measured, mindful of their company. This time, it’s her who chances upon him. He pretends he hasn’t noticed her. He needs to take a moment to gather himself. When he realizes she is studying his sitting form, he can’t help but look up in surprise. She startles.

“Your Grace, I – well met.” Sergio smiles up at her, his pointer finger coming up to mark the line he was just reading.

“Well met, Lady Vicuña.” She is in proper Court attire today, the fabrics richer and heavier and her hair tucked away under a carefully arranged covering. She looks every bit as beautiful as the last time, but he finds he doesn’t care to be reminded of their respected positions. It ruins the idea of their chatter being anything else than a barely adequate pastime.

“I am glad to see the arrival of the colder months doesn’t temper your distractions.” Sergio snorts. He usually doesn’t enjoy to have his reading called a distraction – as though he wouldn’t prefer to be an erudite – but Lady Raquel seems to understand. After all, she comes here to escape as well.

“Only for now. In a few weeks’ time, it will be time to retreat to the quiet of the library.” While he enjoys the silence and reverence one can breathe in the library, it isn’t the same as the feeling of living bark against his back and grass under his shoes. He’d been sorely deprived of them during his youth.

“It is terribly impolite of me to ask, but I fear curiosity has the best of me. May I inquire after the subject of your book? You’ve had the one with this cover for some time now.” The courtly turns of phrase are somewhat awkward in her mouth, but Sergio barely takes note of it. She remembered what book I am reading? Not even Andrés pays that attention to detail, much less if it’s not something that interests him. He’s flattered.

“Oh. Well, it just came from the Translator’s School in Toledo. The conflict in Constantinople has made access to the ancient teachings of the Greek and the Romans easier – it might be the only good aspect of this situation, truly – and I couldn’t wait to commission a compilation of Plato’s dialogues.” Raquel, as his treacherous mind decides to call her, steps closer.

“What does he say? It must be interesting, if it fascinates Your Grace so.” He wets his lips, trying to gauge how plain his explanation should be. Ancient philosophy isn’t a matter of common discussion, but he doesn’t want to underestimate her ability to understand and offend her.

“Plato lived four centuries before the birth of Christ, our Lord. He was the disciple of Socrates, a man of renown who unfortunately didn’t record his teachings in writing. Plato believed there are two realities: the one we see, which is false and physical, and the reality of Ideas, which contains the Truth of things. He developed many ideas from that fundamental tenet, but I fear I wouldn’t do the subject justice if I attempted to explain it.”

Raquel gives the grass by his side a questioning look and, after kicking a few leaves to the side – Sergio averts his eyes when he glimpses her slippers and the pale skin of her leg – sits down.

“I like him. He sounds like a visionary. Like a holy man.”

“Well,” Sergio says, somewhat discomfited by her introduction of religion into the conversation, “I suppose he had innovative ideas. I wouldn’t go as far as to call him holy but, well.”

He doesn’t know what to say. She managed to bring up the one polite topic I can’t discuss at ease.

“I was somewhat hasty in my judgement,” Raquel says, looking slightly abashed. “I suppose I’ll have to read something of his before passing sentence.”

“You would?” Her eyes cut to him. She raises an eyebrow – Sergio feels as though he is standing before his father’s throne with no idea of what the reason is.

“I might have been raised in the frontier, but I know my letters." Sergio blinks and releases a breath of relief.

“Oh, I did not doubt your ability to read his texts, Raquel, it’s –” Her mouth opens in surprise at the same time he realizes what he’s said. “I apologize, I –”

“Don’t, please. It is the name my mother gave me and you didn’t mean to say it.” Sergio realizes she hasn’t used any formal address. He can’t ask her to call him by his Christian name – they don’t have that degree of familiarity and they shouldn’t have it – but he wouldn’t mind the lack of Your Graces in every phrase.

“Right. As I was saying, it’s a dense text, and the metaphors are lengthy and heavy-handed, perhaps. I wouldn’t want to bore you.” She grins.

“I see, then. I must recognize I’m a slow reader, but winter is closing in on us, and the other Vicuña ladies manage most of the household responsibilities.” She says this last part quickly, as though it pains her. “I think I’ll find enough free time.”

++

 

He called me Raquel, she thinks. It might not mean anything, but it’s nice. The only other person to call her Raquel nowadays is Alberto. It sounds better when it comes from the Prince’s lips.

++

 

 

 

 

The months pass. He and Raquel start maintaining a steadier rapport. They talk about everything and anything as long as it doesn’t veer into something too personal. She gets through some of Plato’s shorter texts. She says she still stands by her definition of Plato as a holy man. He finds himself thinking of the glint on her eyes and the way she waved her hands when talking about the marriage of the soul and the body, the physical and the spiritual.

She is the first big secret he keeps from his brother. It isn’t as hard as he’d expect – Andrés has spent quite some time away from Court, gone on missions first to the North and then a full month to Salerno.

When he comes back, he is almost unrecognizable. There is something new to him, a restless energy that seems to both have settled and woken up inside of him. Sergio can’t help but notice there is an addition to his crew.

He summons him in private as soon as possible. He wants to learn everything that happened from him. With Andrés, the way he tells things is often more important than the things he is saying.

He isn’t expecting the murder attempt. It takes the breath out of him for a moment. He would have died and I could have never done a thing.

“Don’t fret, hermanito.”

“Your life was threatened, Andrés!” His brother shrugs.

“Occupational hazard. I took care of the problem myself. Well, with Martín’s help, that is.” Sergio rubs his temple.

“Ah, yes. The mercenary.” Your new pet, he bites down. “A clearly trustworthy figure.”

“Sergio, por favor! I am an excellent judge of character, and Martín proved his loyalty to me almost instantly.” Sergio raises his arms.

“I wash my hands off this matter. If you wake up to his dagger on your throat, it will be your problem.”

Good,” Andrés scoffs.

++

 

 

 

 

Winter is upon them, so few dare to brave the outside. It’s perfect. Raquel wraps the dagged sleeves around the length of her arm and rolls the lighter ones underneath up. They won’t probably stay like that for long, but she enjoys letting the winter air nip at her fingers.

Sergio, despite all his talk of not liking the cold, is still in the gardens. Raquel forces herself not to read into it. She pulls her cloak around herself and goes to meet him.

“Well met, Your Grace. How is it that you are here?” She knows her voice comes out light, teasing. Warm. She shouldn’t be so carelessly past the point of propriety – she is still the Countess from the frontera, the low noble raised past all expectation. The wife of Alberto Vicuña, who doesn’t stand any slight to his image.

“If I am to be King, I must be able to withstand the inclemency of our weather,” he answers in good spirit. “I wanted to talk to you about the new requests I’ve made from the Translation School. Aristotle.”

“A compatriot of our dear Plato, I take it.” He smiles.

“One of his students. I brought you a commentary on his main ideas, in case you are interested.” He stretches his arm out to reveal a slim book.

“Of course I am!” She takes the book, forgetting that her sleeves are still rolled up.

“What is that?”

Sergio’s eyes flash, and Raquel curses her own stupidity. Colder weather means multiple, heavy layers. It means Alberto’s less careful, and it means she still has bruises from last week, rot-black on her forearms.

“Who did that?” Raquel wants to laugh. For all his disinterest in gossip, and her efforts to keep appearances up in public, it’s no secret that the Count and Countess of Vicuña do not spend much time together. And, when they do, it’s quite clear that there is little love or tenderness lost between them.

They haven’t talked about Alberto, skirting around her marriage as if it’s a sleeping bear.

“We do both know there is only one person who can do this, your Grace.”

“Don’t call me that. Not now. Call me Sergio, or by no name nor title, if you will.” The strength behind this request – this order – allows her to see the point to which he is struggling to keep his composure.

“What I call you won’t change anything,” she answers. Calling him by his Christian name will only feed into the dangerous fantasy that they are in similar stations. That they can address each other as though they are intimate.

“I know, but – I could have never imagined. Raquel, you don’t have to go through this. It you bring your case before the King’s justice. I’m sure he will –”

“It is a beautiful thought, but that’s all it is. My husband is one of the most influential men in the Kingdom. I have no noble titles or money of my own to sway any possible judge, much less the King. Even if I were to win, what would happen to me? To my daughter? I won’t leave her alone here, and the frontier isn’t a place for a child grown in Court.”

“Say the word and I’ll back you.”

You are the most wonderful fool in Castile. Once he is King, she is sure they’ll call him the Wise, the Fair, the Just. The Kind, the Gentle. She just hopes he learns to temper it by learning to look at the grit of reality.

“I wish it were so easy, Sergio.” The name comes out of her mouth unbidden. All her wistful thoughts, exposed through a single phrase. “If you help me in any way, it’ll be my ruin, and your shame. They’ll assume we are involved, and I can’t stand for it. Not only for your sake, but for my pride as well. I might be the upstart daughter of an infanzón, but that doesn’t mean I am without honour.”

He meets her eyes. His face is cut from stone, but his gaze burns into her. She has to make a conscious effort to hold it, to maintain her own expression impassive. She can’t crumble, not after the words she’s said.

“I understand,” he says at last. “Is there anything you will allow me to do to help you?”

Raquel swallows. She doesn’t know the point to which she can trust him but God, she wants to.

“Talking to you… about Plato, about the weather, about the Sunday’s homily. About anything, really. I appreciate and cherish our conversations.” She isn’t sure of what else will come out of her mouth if she keeps talking.

“I can do that.” He takes a hold of her right hand, slowly, carefully. She knows that if she were to reject his touch, he would let go of her and step back. His palm is far larger than hers, warm, more calloused than what she expected.

Raquel waits, with baited breath, as he uncovers the marks on her arm again. He touches a large one, near her wrist, with the pad of his thumb. She hisses, more out of fear than real harm. He moves his finger away immediately.

“There look painful. I know of someone who can make you a soothing balm.”

Raquel considers it for a moment. She hasn’t dared to go to the medic for fear of gossip spreading around Court. While she isn’t particularly keen in letting a stranger take care of her, she’d like to have a way to lessen her physical pain.

“Can I trust this person to remain discreet?” Sergio – she cannot bring herself to call him anything else in her head – nods. “Then I’d like to try this balm you speak of.”

++

 

 

 

 

“Good morning, milady.” Raquel blinks. The woman before her is dressed as a maid, a few wisps of blond, curly hair escaping her otherwise immaculate head covering. She has never seen her around.

“Good morning. I –”

“I know your Ladyship called for me three days ago, and I apologize for my lateness. There was business I had to take care of in my previous household.” She looks into Raquel’s eyes, her face open with urgency. I talked to Sergio three days ago.

“What is going on, Raquel?” The maid bows at the sight of Alberto. Raquel wishes he would just spurn her for other lovers. It would be humiliating, but she’d rather play the bitter, unwanted wife than suffer him. “Who is this?”

“My new maid, milord. The last one was lazy in her duties, and one of the Lara women recommended I send for a new one.”

The topic of servants did come up last time Raquel talked to Isabel Lara. Raquel is, and will remain, against treating servants as harshly as some of the noblewomen advice, but Alberto doesn’t have to know that was the main issue they discussed.

“Huh. What is your name?”

“Mónica, milord,” she says, head still cast downwards with the barest hint of a stammer.

“Good. Mónica, I hope you make my wife happy.” Raquel tries not to stiffen. She hates the most when he plays the doting husband. Mónica nods. “I’ll see you later, Raquel. I have meetings to attend.”

Once the door behind them closes, Mónica raises her head. Her lips are tight.

“He does sound like a cruel man.” Raquel raises an eyebrow and goes to pour two cups of water.

“It’s the first time I hear someone say that.” Mónica shrugs, and takes the beverage.

“I have trained ears, and knowledge most others don’t.” She gives Raquel a knowing look.

“So he sends you.” She doesn’t specify further. Even the walls have ears.

“I owe him a great debt, and I’m happy to pay it helping another woman.” She draws a small tin from the folds of her apron. “First things first, though. I heard you had some bruises in need of softening.”

Raquel smiles, and rolls her sleeves up.

++

 

 

 

 

“I hadn’t realized the depths of the Count’s ability for evil. It is increasingly clear to me that he is mistreating Raquel in a most horrific way.” The bruises on her arms are still vibrant in his mind’s eye. Sergio rests his fists on the table – he doesn’t want Andrés to notice his anger.

“So now it’s Raquel, huh?” Sergio can hear the raised eyebrow in his brother’s voice.

“Countess de Vicuña, if you have a problem with it.” Andrés slides on the bench until he is close enough to sling an arm over his shoulders.

“Me? No, brother, it is you who have a problem. When I asked for you to be selfish, I didn’t mean for you to become obsessed with a woman.”

“I am not obsessed, Andrés. If your mother, or mine, were being treated so, wouldn’t you be as wroth as I am?” He shrugs offs his brother’s arm before he is tempted to elbow him.

“That would be a different situation.”

“Yes, because those are the only women you seem to consider as human beings worthy of respect.” Andrés breathes in deeply, but he doesn’t deny it.

“She is wed, Sergio. This is a bad idea – Vicuña isn’t the type of man to tolerate any trace of indiscretion.”

“There have been no indiscretions of any kind! We’ve barely talked!”

Andrés goes pale but, before he can reply, there’s a knock at the door. The servant opens without further asking, which must mean he comes from Father.

“Lord de Fonollosa? The King requires your services.”

Andrés rises, brushing inexistent dust off his clothes.

“Nice chat, hermanito. Now, if you excuse me…” he nods and leaves.

Sergio sighs in the empty solar. Andrés affection towards him means he is safe, but it also comes with a degree of condescendence. He only obeys the King, and that’s because he likes being a Lord far too much. Anyways, Andrés doesn’t seem likely to be swayed to the cause. What can I do? Nothing, for now.

Mónica reports are like tenderly drawn miniatures of Raquel’s life. She describes things with a care for mundane details most informers lack and, despite the fact that she doesn’t outright give an opinion, she manages to make him aware of what she thinks.

 

This is how he knows that she has grown fond of Raquel – the worry in her eyes, the softness in her voice. When he found Mónica, Sergio knew that she needed to take care of someone before she let go of her guilt. They are helping each other. Raquel is strong, but she also needs to have somebody to be strong for her, to hold her when her spirit breaks. Sergio can’t be there, as much as it pains him. Raquel doesn’t want him to see her in her darkest moments.

++

 

 

 

 

The Court sees all, and it has certainly taken notice of Andrés’ new shadow. Everyone watches Martín hanging by Andrés’ side, drinking in any word he says, drawing laughs and smiles out of him with ease. No one has said anything yet. They fear him too much, but there will be talk, if there isn’t already.

Sergio talks to him. He wants him to reign his impulses in.

“But I am your rotten half, Sergio. They expect the worst, and I’ll give it to them.” I worry about you, Sergio wants to say. Andrés enjoys his villainous persona far too much, but he doesn’t see how it could turn against him on a moment’s notice. “Don’t care so much. As long as their eyes are on me, they won’t look at you.”

Sergio knows that this is his father’s doing. King Jacobo raised Andrés to play the part of the overreaching bastard, and he does it too well. I ought to talk to him. The idea of the black-hearted prince has outrun its usefulness. I am old enough to win the Court’s approval on my own, and not in opposition to him.

The King is busy now that there is unrest in the Eastern borders. He insists in travelling there himself. He is looking for a good fight. Sergio will raise the issue once that those problems are dealt with. If his father is in a good mood, he is more likely to listen.

I should convince him to grant Andrés a proper title, and land to back it. If all he has is Court, he’ll have no escape once it turns against him.

++

 

 

 

 

The thing Sergio remembers the most about the day when his life ends is a children’s ditty that the youngest members of Court had begun singing recently. Talking about bears and wolves and killing, can you believe it? Some ladies are discussing. What are children doing these days?

In his father’s absence, Sergio holds Court, Andrés by his side, Martín lurking around the room. Sergio still doesn’t like it, but it is still better than having the Salernitan right beside his brother.

There is a great commotion from the hallway outside of the Throne Room. The doors open, the crowd parts. A courier collapses into the room, falling to his knees.

“Bring water for this man! What happened? What drove you to us in such haste?” The courier dry heaves. He smells of sweat, his eyes are crazed. He is the picture of desolation.

“King Jacobo is dead.” A ripple goes through the room. Sergio’s heart freezes. I should have been told in private. The nobles are all looking at him now.

“Well, brother. It seems your time has come.” He tightens his hand on Andrés’ arm, just outside of view.

“What about –”

“Later,” Andrés whispers. “We need to make a clean transition before we seek retribution. Give me an order, tell me to make preparations for anything. They need to see you lead now.” He is right.

With his father dead, the old rumours and plots trying to pit him against Andrés will resurface. There are those who doubt his ability to govern. There are those who think Andrés gullible, a better figurehead. Intrigue is the enemy with a hundred generals, all differing in their motives and strategies, but all devastating. Quelling the most doubts possible is the best course of action.

“Brother,” Sergio says, making the word ring through the room, “make sure this man is provided drink, food and rest. Go, give the word to ring the bells, and make the preparations for the funeral.”

“Yes, my King.”

++

 

Sergio holds his first council – without Andrés, so they don’t deem him a puppet. It’s a nightmare.

There are men who shouldn’t be in the room, whose positions were gained through hunts and feasts and battle feats instead of merit. There are men with heads filled with sawdust, and ones too clever to be fully trusted. There are men here who’d conspire against him and should be neutralized, and there are some for whom the only way to be neutralized is to be kept here.

I have my work cut out for me.

It takes them a few hours, but he manages to work the finer points of the new power balance and the measures that should be taken to find and punish King Jacobo’s killers.

After, he summons Andrés.

“Here I am, brother. I apologize for the delay, but something –“ Andrés’ voice quiets when he spots the signet ring. Sergio is glad for his sharp eyes; leaving the crown on to prove a point would have reeked of insecurity.

“Well met, brother. I stand before you as your king and liege. As such, I have a mission for you.”

A spark of hate flickers through Andrés’ eyes. He’d truly thought himself free after Father’s death. As Andrés’ brother, Sergio intends to treat him tactfully. As a man in possession of a sound mind, however, he knows how dangerous an unfettered Andrés would be, what with the tremors of instability still rocking through the Kingdom. His attachment to Martín has made him more unpredictable and careless, which suits Sergio fine but could spiral out of control at any moment. No, the safest bet is reminding Andrés of his delicate position early on.

“Very well, my King. Your wish is my command.”

“Good.” He drops his voice. “I am going to ask you to do something morally aberrant for me.”

Andrés quirks his brow, probably guessing what kind of request Sergio has. Whatever his thoughts are, he wisely chooses not to share them.

++

 

 

 

 

The feast goes smoothly. Sergio doesn’t enjoy such displays of ostentation, but he understands the necessity for them. Andrés, however, is having a wonderful time. He’s seated on the high dais – though not directly by Sergio’s side, no need for the rumours that would arise – and eating some of everything. 

Martín is shadowing him tonight, going as far as to pluck a raising or a bite of meat from his plate here and there. No discretion for them tonight. It might be on purpose, for all that he knows. After all, Andrés’ status as a bastard excuses most of his proclivities and the greater show they put on, the less chances anybody will dare accuse them of wrongdoing. It might just be Andrés indulging his right hand man. It might be Andrés making sure there are eyes on him at all times which can testify to his innocence.

Silene is working the high tables like the lords are bar patrons who might tip her, her gown laced this side of too tight and her smile blinding every man that looks at her. There’s a handful of nobles vying for her to refill their cups, which she’s probably not enjoying, but will be useful.

Sergio barely darts his eyes towards Raquel, even though he feels her gaze on him. He could feel it with a stone wall between them. He longs for nothing more than to hold her face in his eyes, but he must restrain himself – today especially.

++


They are midway through the third course when it happens. There is a great commotion at the table. Sergio looks away from his interlocutor and allows his eyes to widen in horror. He rises, his chair scrapping against the stone.

“What is happening?” He shouts, voice deep but allowing the slightest tremor to creep into it.

“My husband! I don’t know what – someone help!”

Alberto must have fallen from his chair, because he sees Raquel kneeling by his side. Their daughter is with the other children, thank the Lord.

“Andrés, get my medic!” Andrés, to his credit, doesn’t even roll his eyes before doing as he’s told.

“Get him on his side! Is he choking?”

The medic rushes in with a stretcher carried by Andrés’ mercenaries.

“Let me go with him.” Raquel is doing her best to remain composed, but fear seeps through her every word. Clever woman. No matter her true feelings for Alberto, in public she must still act as though he is vital to her. Which he is, in a way. A few of the Vicuña men accompany her. Good, that’ll lend the story more credibility.

It’s a pity I couldn’t warn her, but I don’t know if she could have feigned surprise well enough otherwise. Sergio rubs a hand over his face and looks around. The room is in dismay, and his subject’s eyes are on him. They are like lost sheep in need of a shepherd.

“Fret not, my friends. The medic is caring for the Count as we speak. Rest assured, if there is anything that can be done for him, it will be done. Let us eat, and pray for his speedy recovery.”

++

 

The notice of Alberto’s death comes just as they are finishing the last of the meal. Convenient, Sergio thinks. The cooks had outdone themselves today.

The medic wrings his hands as he talks of Alberto’s heart giving out. No way to restart a silent heart, sadly.

“One of his uncles passed in the same manner,” one of Alberto’s relatives points out. Sergio could kiss the woman right now. A family condition – perfect alibi. It also helps that the medic is completely unaware of what is really going on. Unless Andrés decided to switch plans. Unlikely. He seemed to trust his poison supplier.

He snaps out of it the moment he spots the brass shine of Raquel’s hair. Her eyes are red-rimmed, and she seems incredulous. There is a looseness in her shoulders he’d barely seen in some of their garden chats.

“Milady,” he says. Raquel’s gaze cuts to him. He’s never addressed her with such an ample public before, and he can read her reluctance. “I’ve never been as close with the Count as out dear fathers were but to honour what would have been his desires, I will ensure that your daughter and you never lack for the Crown’s help, should you ever need it.”

Hushed whispers ring across the room. Good. Might even build a reputation as a gracious man yet.

“Thank you, your Grace.” She bows down, skirts spilling across the floor. A bolt of – longing? Want? – stabs him. He wishes to sweep her off her feet and into his arms. He wants to memorize the angle at which the stem of her back arches. He – he can feel control slipping from him. He has to get a hold of himself before anybody else looks too close.

“It’s the least I can do.” Her eyes are on him, concealed from everyone else by her angle. She knows it was me, he realizes. He can see it in her gaze. There’s steel in it, and he fears the edge might be pointing at him. Is it so wrong for him to want to bare his neck?

++

 

 

 

“The mission was carried to term successfully, Sergio.” The use of his Christian name is anything but coincidental, but Sergio ignores the slight. His orders were followed to the letter, which is what matters.

“It seems so. I trust your woman is free from suspicion?”

“Silene is fine. She scurried out of the castle without anyone noticing. Your woman gave a good performance once dear Alberto kicked it. I was a little afraid she was going to tear her hair out.”

“She knows I was the one who did it.” Andrés sighs.

“So you told her?”

“No,” he grits out. “Raquel just happens to be in possession of a brain.” Andrés affixes him with scoff of indignation. Sergio is sometimes very tired of having a brother that acts like a put-upon tomcat graced with the ability of speech.

“Well, then I suggest you come clear to that brain of hers before the funeral where, in case you don’t remember, you have to offer your condolences again.”

Although he knows he has to explain himself, Sergio’d rather not. He has the suspicion Raquel won’t stand down and praise his decision-making.

“How do you, master in the arts of soothing women, propose I do it?”

Andrés takes a long sip of his drink, making Sergio wait as a punishment.

“If you and I were more similar, you wouldn’t have to ask for advice. Cross that out – we wouldn’t be in this situation to begin with. I suggest honesty. You do eagerness rather charmingly.”

++

 

 

 

 

“Come, come,” Mónica whispers. Her eyes are very wide and bright. “I brought you a change of clothes. Lord de Fonollosa arranged for the guards to look the other way. You know the way to his solar?”

“Yes,” she replies, not too surprised by this turn of events, “if only for all the times I’ve been warned about not going near.” She catches the heap of clothes Mónica throws her. Maid’s clothes.

“He wants to have an audience with you. In private.”

Raquel doesn’t ask and starts disrobing. She knows who he is and what the purpose of this visit is. She doesn’t know how to feel about the fact that he is behind her husband’s death – she knows this as surely as she knows that the Sun rises from the East every morning, but she wants to hear what Sergio has to say.

“I’m done,” she says. The hem of her dress comes down to her ankles, and it’s slightly pinched at the armpits. It’ll do.

“Turn around,” Mónica replies, twisting her hair and arranging it under a simple head covering. “If you keep your head down, you should be unrecognizable. Oh, and hide your chain.”

Raquel slips the medal inside her bodice and readjusts the kerchief tied around her shoulders.

“Thank you, Mónica.” She clasps her hands. “Truly, I don’t know what I would do without you.”

“Oh, shush,” Mónica says, her face pink and pleased. “Go now, I’ll make sure nobody bothers you.”

++

 

“Well, well, dove. How come I haven’t seen you around?” Raquel fixes him with her most scathing look. Fonollosa draws back, laughing. “No sense of humour, I see. You are well-matched, in that regard.”

She ignores the rush of blood to her face.

“Where is he?”

“Inside. I lent him my solar for a couple of hours.” So we’ll be alone. Somehing flutters in her stomach, both scary and exciting. “I’m sure I’ll find some manner of entertainment during that time.”

This last remark seems more for the man shadowing him, the one with the pretty eyes, rather than her.

“I’m glad to hear that. Now, if you excuse me…”

“Of course, of course. Just remember: my men will be watching the door and there are other courtiers in nearby quarters. Don’t get too loud, if you please.” The implication in his words strikes her as a sledgehammer.

“I’m not a concubine.”

“No, darling,” the other man says, unprompted. “You are free now. Do as you will with that.”

She smiles at him, sensing that he means well, and turns around to enter the solar. Her hand shakes around the door handle.

++

 

Sergio has been pacing the solar half an hour before he hears the door handle moving. He scrambles for an appropriate way to greet her. Andrés keeps a bed in his solar – mostly for late nights, no matter what he lets people think – but he steers clear of it. He leans against the desk just as Raquel, tugging her wimple off, comes in. Her hair falls down in the most glorious way when she turns around.

“Well met.” Her face is set as a statue, her posture ramrod. Her voice and word-choice makes it clear: in this room, in this moment, he isn’t King.

“Good night.” He doesn’t dare to say her name. “I suppose you already know the reason why I called you.”

“I want to hear you say it.” Her voice is steady, the crumpled wimple in her hand the only sign of tension she lets him see.

“I had your husband killed.”

“Why?” He looks up at her. You would have been a perfect Queen.

“Because he was a cruel man.”

“The same should be said about your father. About your brother. About… most of the Court. Why?

“Because he hurt you, and I care for you. Far more than what I ought to.” The words leave him in a great rush of air.

“Don’t do that again without warning me.”

“I thought –“

“I don’t care. He was my monster. I ought to have decided how to kill him.”

“Does that make me your new monster?” She doesn’t expect that. Her mouth opens like a bloom.

“Maybe. But different.” He nods, earnest. He could never hurt her.

++

 

“You’ll stay at Court. You won’t marry again.”

“I will never bend to a man’s wishes again.”

“And what about a King’s?”

“You won’t remain unwed forever. I won’t dutifully watch as another woman bears you children. Widow’s grief will run its course, eventually. We could find a discreet man; make an arrangement.”

“I suppose it could be done, but adultery is still –“

“I could always become a nun.” His mouth shuts. Hers quirks. “See how we can agree? We’ll discuss the finer points other day, though. This isn’t a night for business.”

++

 

When she takes Sergio’s face into her hands, he stills. He’d shared innocent kisses with a few noble girls in his childhood, chaste presses of lips that he doubts can convey the depth of his feelings.

“Raquel,” he says, just as she brings their mouths together, “I never –“

“Shhh,” she answers, the sound vibrating against his lips and expanding until he can trace it through every vein in his body. “Don’t think. Just follow me.”

She could be standing on the edge of a cliff, and he’d jump without hesitation. Raquel moves her mouth against his, parts her lips and Sergio falls falls falls down.

Raquel tastes of tonight’s dinner, the wine and the meat making him heady and hot. She sucks on his tongue and he needs her closer, needs her bare as the day she was born, needs her – oh.

“Raquel,” he says, holding her gently but firmly, “there are lines we cannot trespass.”

“But… I can’t understand. I thought you wanted –“

“Yes,” Sergio reassures her. “Far too much. I’m sorry, but your husband’s body is still above ground.”

It is nothing but the truth. He wants to become one body and one soul with Raquel, he wants to drive himself into her so deep they can never separate again. He wants to be like Plato’s primigenial humans.

Oh.”

++

 

“I meant what I said before. Ask for anything – if it’s in my power, I’ll give it to you.” Raquel looks up at that, her mouth slightly open.

“Anything? Her voice is delighted. Does she like that I’d offer this to her, or does she have something in mind? He doesn’t think Raquel would use him in such an open way – not because he knows her entirely, but because she knows he is too intelligent to fall for it.

“Yes.”

“I want the Vicuñas.” Her voice is unyielding. So she had thought about this. The bloodlust takes him aback. He’d expected her to want to retaliate against her husband’s family, but not to this extent.

“Arranging a reason for their execution might be time-consuming. I’d suggest pruning the junior branches as well. It’ll save you trouble in the future.”

What?” Raquel breathes out. “I didn’t mean – oh, no, not killing them.”

“Of course not. I’m sorry I jumped to conclusions.” He curses himself. I’m clearly spending too much time with Andrés.

“I want to matter. I want to never feel powerless again. And taking over Alberto’s family is the best way to do it.”

“There are other ways to do it.” She laughs softly.

“Yes, but this is the one I want. I’ll never depend on someone else’s mercy or pity.” Not even yours, she doesn’t say. Sergio won’t deny that he would like to make sure Raquel stays tied to him, but not letting her have this will separate her from him.

“Very well, Countess. We’ll make sure you have a seat on the inner circle of the Vicuña house.” It’ll take months of fiddling with the embroidery of the Vicuña tapestry: the inner alliances, the deals and dynamics, the needs and wants of every important player, the ability to influence the heirs and the newer generations. She will be a force to be reckoned with once they are done.

“Good, then.” She gets up and his heart drops for a moment, before he sees her squinting at the hourglass. “How much time do we have left?”

“An hour or so.” She returns to his side. He drapes an arm over her, enjoying her warm weight.

“It seems like too little. Oh, well. What do you want to talk about?”

“You want to talk?” She turns around, the ends of her hair tickling his face.

“And kiss, if you wish to.” She caresses his face. “I didn’t come here to seduce you into helping me. I want to enjoy the time we have together.”

++

 

When she slips into her own bed, her room warmed by braziers, she feels as though the river of time had reverted its flow, just for one night, just for her. She almost wishes the Sun would never come up. She wants to live in this night until the day of her death.

++

 

 

 

 

“Don’t you ever feel as though you could run to the end of the land?”

I’d been an innocuous conversation. Why do I remember it so clearly?

“I barely know how to swim,” Alicia had answered, pragmatic as always. “What’s with you and the daydreams, Raquel? We have a life here. A future. You marry Ángel. I’ll marry one of his friends, Óscar or Luis. Maybe Germán. We’ll stay together.”

Raquel smiled and leaned in to shut her up. Alicia was right.

It still stung. Raquel wanted more.

++

 

 

 

On the morning of her husband’s funeral, Raquel wakes up as though she has been born again. The last of her bruises have faded, taking the aches of her body with them. The pains she recalls will stay in her mind far longer but, without Alberto to rekindle the flame of fear, it will pass.

She feels as though a dove hiding under the crow’s wing – peace borne by death.

“Wait,” she says when Mónica goes to hide her hair under the black fabric of her coif. “I want to wear it unbound.”

“Are you sure?” Mónica looks at her as though she isn’t sure Raquel is in her right mind.

“Put two plaits down the front. Leave the rest free. No point lowering my head for a Court who never saw me as a proper Countess to begin with.” Mónica smiles a bit at that, and does as she is told.

++

 

 

 

 

The funeral is a carefully crafted affair, more of a performance than anything else. The funerals she remembers were raw: you cried through them, or you held someone who cried through them. Here, to shed more than a perfunctory tear would be to invite looks and criticism. Oh well, she thinks. I won’t be responsible for such a lack of decorum today.

The Court is in full attendance, the sober greys and black a contrast to the rich materials and jewels. She spotted Sergio as soon as she entered. He must have been here before most of the Vicuñas, before the most pious. He is that kind of man. She supposes Fonollosa will keep to the back pews – Alberto’s animosity toward him was notorious – but she doesn’t really care.

++

 

The bishop is doing his best to keep the rhythm of the mass up, but it’s one of the first warm days of spring. The courtiers are antsy. The death of a Vicuña patriarch has attracted quite the crowd, and there is already a faint smell of sweat in the air.

Despite what he might have thought, the psalms and homilies are having a soothing effect on his conscious. Yes, he has killed Alberto. But how is it any different from killing an enemy in battle? Sergio is King. He is the Lord’s sword on earth, and he has passed sentence on an unfair man.

At the same time, he is perfectly aware that his main reason for felling Alberto was separating him from Raquel. He could have designed some other way of neutralizing it, but they wouldn’t have been as easy. As satisfactory. He’d dared to hurt the woman Sergio cares about.

++

 

“Thank you for coming, Your Highness.” It takes him a moment to place her attire but, when he does, it hits him like a punch. It’s her wedding dress – with an altered bodice and dyed a darker, richer shade of red, but the structure underneath is the same. Her hair is styled in the same way, except for the flowers. A golden medal glints at her throat.

“Do not thank me, milady. It is my duty to accompany all of you today. I trust you and your daughter are settled?” This is the first obstacle. They must arrange for Raquel to remain at Court, and for her allowance to be good.

“We are to convene this evening, but my relatives are generous men and women who loved Alberto dearly. I am not worried.”

Said relatives are listening to the conversation. Half of them probably want to send her packing to the frontier. Half of those would keep Paula to match her to one of their sons.

“I am glad to hear that. In case any of you are discontent with the result of the negotiations, please remember that the Crown is always willing to act as an impartial arbiter.” That should be enough to discourage most of her detractors.

++

 

 

 

 

 

The King’s bed, which he’d previously thought inviting, feels cold and unforgiving ever since the night before Alberto Vicuña’s funeral. Raquel has been gone for three weeks. It is her duty, after all, to be a part of the Vicuña retinue who will take the Count’s mortal rests to his house seat.

She wrote she would be back tomorrow, if they had trouble with the journey, but we haven’t heard they met –

The door creaks. A woman dressed as a servant enters, her head lowered. A gold medal rests against her breast.

He stands up, clearing his throat. Raquel’s eyes are even more beautiful than what he remembered.

They look at each other for a moment.

“Well met, my King.”

She smiles.

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