Chapter 2

They ate in the great hall, silently. It was, if possible, even colder here than in the little negotiating chamber. There were a few great windows, paned in plain glass, so that the deep shadows of the room were interrupted by long rectangles of severe grey light. There was frost on the panes, within and without, and the air bit like cold water. Parvenia, now, would be at the mild peak of its own short winter: mist on the hills, shot through with the soft gold of early sunset, a faint pleasant nip to the breeze. He wondered what his bride would make of it, brought up all her life in this grim air. And there was not even any wine, only some bitter herbal stuff and plain water.

He caught his bride’s eye and raised his glass to her, politely, and all his men automatically followed suit. Rufus, he knew, was furious with him but courtesy was courtesy and Rufus always did things with a flourish – he was practically brandishing his glass at the girl. She looked at them silently and then at her own glass and then away, to her father. The old man was not looking at anything, his eyes blind and absent as he chewed the tough bread. No one had known the king of Saria was so far gone. He seemed not even interested in the fate of his land, his people or his daughter.

After lunch, they returned to the negotiating chamber to talk dowry. The old men made a shrewd careful bargain for their princess, but it was clear the fools were delighted to get her so well-married. Only the future Empress looked as dour as his own men did.

She wasn’t, precisely, what anyone at home would call pretty. The gods had blessed her with an extravagantly full mouth, like a rose in bloom, but it was incongruous with the thin bladed lines of her nose and cheekbones. She had a good clear complexion but her jaw was faintly squared and her grey-green eyes, long and narrow, were more disconcerting than provocative. Her figure was impossible to get a sense of in the shapeless black sacks these people wore; the thing was like a tent, spreading down over her feet, and so huge that she might have a genuine hump under there for all he could tell.

Julia was prettier, anyhow. Perhaps that would reconcile her to this sudden politic marriage. How could he let a mind like that slip away, he would ask her? It wasn’t as a woman he had chosen her, he would coax. Perhaps it was true. The exhilaration that had fired in his blood, from the first moment he had caught her in the negotiating room and seen the trapped fury in her eyes, was a little like lust but it wasn’t lust itself. It was the heat of the duel, not the bedroom.

Evening was coming on. A man came in with a taper and lit the few candles that stood on the table. By now the negotiations were essentially complete and it was only an exchange of formalities that remained. The wedding, it had been agreed, would take place on the following morning by her rites and within the month by his. She left the room without speaking after all was over, and she hadn’t looked at him since he had toasted her, so it came as a shock when he entered his tent that night and she emerged from a shadow like a cat out of a tree.

‘Your men let me pass,’ she said, interpreting his astonished gaze as chagrin at the security breach. ‘I told them who I was.’

He stared and her chin came up a little.

‘I couldn’t ask you in front of everyone,’ she said defensively. ‘I had to-‘

‘Ask me?’ he said, inquiringly, and she gave him a hard look.

‘Why,’ she said curtly.

‘Why what?’

Her mouth tightened.

‘Why you would make such a foolish alliance,’ she said, with precision. ‘What is it you expect to gain?’

Another woman would have been fishing for compliments. This one –

‘I want you,’ he said for the pleasure of seeing the disgust flash in her face and then laughed and gestured her to a divan. ‘I need a wife with a mind like yours.’

‘What for?’ she demanded, ignoring the divan, and he shrugged.

‘Clever sons,’ he said lightly and saw the small, barely perceptible flinch. There. He drew nearer to her, watching her face tighten and her shoulders stiffen; when he put his hand to the wimple of her veil, she went rigidly still and her gaze evaded his.

‘What colour is your hair?’ he asked, drawing his finger across the band covering her forehead and her breath came with a little jerk.

‘Black,’ she said and then, ‘I don’t understand. Is it only for revenge?’

His blood jumped in his veins. She knew him so startlingly well. He smiled, saying nothing, and she looked up again, studying him for a long silent moment, passive under his touch.

‘I had not thought an emperor could be petty,’ she said dispassionately. ‘You would make such a decision on a whim?’

‘I like my whims,’ he said. There was no give at all in the bands of linen framing her face. He’d have to tug to unloose her hair, and he didn’t want to do violence. ‘They have a habit of turning out well.’

‘Will you divorce me when you get bored?’ she asked and he laughed.

‘Probably not,’ he said. ‘But try not to bore me.’ He put his hand on her hip, making her jerk and recoil, and then drew her in to kiss her brow.

‘Go home,’ he said gently, watching colour suddenly flood her pale skin after the touch of his lips. He thought of the misery of hunching in mud trenches for weeks, of the arrows that woke the men at random through the night, of her somewhere behind the lines coordinating it all. She was so small, barely up to his shoulder in height. ‘It’s your last night in your father’s house, you should say your goodbyes.’

‘I-,’ she said and stopped herself. ‘I still – this is such foolishness, my lord. Your men see it. How can you not?’

‘I see very well,’ he said. ‘Tell me, how old are you? They told me there was a spinster daughter but no more.’

‘Twenty-seven,’ she said.

‘And unmarried,’ he marvelled. ‘How did you contrive it?’

She said nothing, and he let his hands travel a little; under the black voluminous stuff, there was a decided curve of waist and hip. And. He took his hands off her quickly, feeling the blood thunder in his ears. She was shaking, very slightly.

‘Go home,’ he said, and she turned on her heel and ran. Well. That ruled out telling Julia he didn’t see his new wife as a woman. He’d have to think of something else.