The Queen’s Armor
By Brianne McDonald
Princess Amara did not turn when the door to her private chambers opened in the half darkness of a swiftly falling, winter night. Her fingers, pale and long with no ordination save her marriage ring, clutched the cold stone inlay of the windowsill with sudden, but contained, desperation. The moon, near full, was high in the sky and it held her gaze. The touch of its cold, silver rays chilled her far more than the snatches of frozen air that swept across her skin from the edges of the window-glass. It was a chill that dove beneath the surface of her skin, past bone and steadily thrumming blood, to the core of her.
The Capital stretched out from the roots of the palace in long, cresting waves and eddies that spanned toward the distant, shadowed mountain peaks of the south. Those peaks were violent and jagged, razor teeth in an angry, eager maw. She had never liked the look of them, not since she’d first laid eyes on them shortly after her hasty marriage almost five years ago. The city though, so vibrant, so full of life and variety, –so unlike the world she’d grown up in– she had loved almost instantly. Within its many turns and folds she’d often stood where she stood now and imagined a simpler life. A happier one that was not so far removed from everything she wanted. But the twinkling lights of thousands of homes and the lives they encompassed could not draw her away from the damning eye of her Goddess, hung like a noose among velvet and diamonds.
Amara felt the pressure of his gaze between her shoulder-blades, drawing her attention as the door closed softly behind him. Muscles tensed beneath a cotton nightgown and a fur lined, heavy winter robe. Her heart stuttered traitorously and her breath caught as the familiar, heavy press of his boots across lavish rugs neared. The smell of him hit her: leather, sweat, horses and spice. Her eyes fluttered helplessly, a desire that she’d long suffered pressing in on her and she wished him gone with an intensity matched only by her desire for him to stay.
“Amara, we must-“
“Don’t,” she said, her voice broken, “Don’t say it. Don’t say anything. I can’t bear it.”
She heard Brant’s steps falter and then stop. He was close, so close she could turn and stare up into his eyes that were as familiar to her as her own. Close enough that she could press her lips to his as she had imagined in weakened moments, alone at night when her husband had been away and her hand could slip unseen beneath her gown. Close enough that she might reach out and trace his jaw with her finger tips and catch the warmth of his skin against her palm as she’d long dreamed of whilst lying next to the man who had been her husband. Not her husband anymore, no, not after the terrible message they’d received the night prior.
The moist heat of Brant’s breath gently parted the loose falls of her hair and skittered across the back of her neck, effectively weakening her knees and quickening her breath. Her subjects called her cold, aloof, unfeeling; and it was a reputation she’d acquired through hard work and perseverance. Her mother had helped her to cultivate it and her husband had both appreciated and despised it. A façade only one man, one person, had ever torn away from her. And she could almost hate him for it.
“Tell me what I should do then, Amara. Tell me how I can best serve you. If it is to be in silence, then so be it, but don’t send me away, not again.” His voice carried a raw, desperate quality she’d never heard from him before. Her heart, already unsteady, pounded against her ribs in protest. She couldn’t speak the words she knew she needed to say, for her, for him, for her son and daughter, and for the kingdom she was now expected to rule. She couldn’t speak them because she knew the hope that echoed from him now. It was the same hope that had spread through her like swift poison at the awful news. The news broken to her, to their entire court, over the lavish Winter’s Feast, to a series of gasps, cries and shouts. The same hope that had overwhelmed her shock, loss, and terror for one bright, dreadful moment before reality had snatched her back up in its unforgiving wake. It was a hope, though short lived, that had been replaced by an all consuming guilt.
He grasped her suddenly, ripping a soft cry from her startled lips, and spun her fiercely around to face him. The touch of his hand, not felt for nigh on three years, burned through her thick robe like a fire too close to fragile skin. He pressed toward her and her hands, trembling now, caught at the stone weakly to brace herself.
Brant’s face was ferocious in the silvered darkness, the heat of his eyes battling the chill in her soul like a spark in an empty hearth. He gripped her arms in his large, rough hands and she hissed in pain and pleasure. The pain was far removed from physical expectation but was more akin to a near-frozen limb subjected to warmth, only rather than a limb, it was her heart. And she couldn’t bear it, not now, not ever again. If ever she’d needed her armor of snowy expressions and winter stares, it was now.
She opened her mouth to banish him from her presence, this time for good, but he was too quick for her, too determined and stubborn. He’d always been so damned stubborn. His lips bruised hers with their force and his teeth clashed against hers so hard her ears rang, but nothing could dull the sweet pain that rose up in her unbidden and unwanted. She tasted blood as his tongue pressed forward like a battering ram, not requesting, but demanding entry into her mouth.
Amara had seen men break. She’d watched as the world had taken them apart one small, almost forgettable piece at a time, until they were little more than flesh and weary bones. Her mother had taught her that women, though rarely physically superior to men, could build themselves emotional armor and weapons stronger than almost any plate-mail or sword. She’d crafted her armor and weapons carefully, learned to use them with wisdom and care. Now she felt the pieces of them break down around her as Brant’s grip on her loosened and her arms rose to draw him in closer.
She had loved her husband, Vrance, the Heir Apparent to the throne, now dead somewhere, likely loaded on a creaking cart alongside the body of his father, the King, on his way back to her with a beaten, ruined army trailing behind. She had loved him as much as she could love a man after her heart had already been taken by another. He had been good, kind, and honorable, a competent warrior, and a fair tactician with an even, merciful hand. The type of man doomed to die, her mother would have said. In comparison, Brant was not often kind, he was harsh and blunt, his honor he wore like a gilded cloak, to be tossed aside when necessary, and mercy was a thing to be avoided unless entirely warranted. He was also, more than likely, the father of the three year old Prince who would tomorrow be crowned King, making her the Queen Regent.
When he pulled away from her, their heavy breaths condensing between them, her back was against the wall and her legs around his hips. He set his forehead against hers and said, “You’ll rule this kingdom with a cold, iron fist. You’ll save them from the armies in the south and make this city stronger than it has been in two hundred years.” His hands slid her gown up her thighs as her fingers scrambled against his shoulders and gripped at the unruly lengths of his inky hair. Vrance had been golden, like the Prince’s in all the tales and songs, bright and shining. Amara had always found him too bright to look at for long.
“And I’ll be here,” he said. “I’ll stay in the shadows as I always have. I’ll protect you from anyone or anything that dares get too near.” These words he pressed like brands against the rapid thrum of her pulse where it sped along the white column of her neck. His teeth bit down and Amara let the last of her defenses go with a soft cry.
She had loved her husband and his father. She had respected them and admired them for what they were. But they had notions of honor and peace that dark times always ignored. Raised in a country that had been war torn long before her birth, Amara understood the reality of violence that a place like the Capital had long forgotten. What her country needed now was a ruthless detachment that would save them from the evil that crept toward them a little more each day. What her country needed was a few shadows to combat the tide of darkness before it swallowed them whole.
With the watching, glowing eye of the Goddess she had once served looking on in silence, Amara opened her arms to Brant, once the King’s closest friend, and the steward of their kingdom, and let herself become the Queen she knew she had to be. She would protect and save them, and he would protect and save her.