Eugenides is gone for a week before the news begins to trickle in. The rebels continue to trouble Sounis, but an attempt to kidnap his heir has been botched and the future king has disappeared. With that danger, Sounis’s attention has been forced to the rebels themselves, rather than finding an easy scapegoat in Eddis. And Eddis has offered her aid to Sounis unasked, cementing an offer to treaty that Sounis would be wise to take.
She never hears a whisper of the Queen’s Thief, not like the announcements and formalities that had accompanied him when he’d brought Hamiathes’s Gift to his queen. But she knows all the while that he’s there: manipulating, negotiating, and advising only those entrusted with the secret of what he is capable of.
She leaves her handkerchief out each night, a crimson flag waving a missive no one who matters will recognize, and spends more time in contemplation in her anteroom than she likes to consider. After several days, she stops removing the handkerchief by morning. She favors the stillness of waiting to the chaos of wondering, and shields uncertainty from her heart.
By day, the Queen resumes her walks with the Mede and takes care in displaying her appreciation for his concern. He speaks often of the perils of an allied Sounis and Eddis and she smiles with practiced grace at his assurance that the Medes would, of course, ensure that their valued friends in Attolia remain uncontested. She is as curt with her people as she is courteous to the Mede these days, a woman’s fear from the danger that now faces her country. The Mede watches knowingly as she snaps out orders and receives her staff with unprecedented stiffness, and she treats him as her only solace from the tensions of the throne.
She nearly shouts at Teleus when he presses her for details on his sole absent soldier yet again and retreats in a whirl of wrathful ice to her apartments, where she squeezes Eugenides’s bracelet between her fingers and struggles to find the balance between her affected tension and the tension she’s summoned forth by sending the Thief of Eddis home.
Teleus comes to see her later, and she has no explanation beyond the one that he sees, Nahuseresh and his oh-so-subtle machinations. He accepts, and he doesn’t ask where she had sent his soldier again.
She has never heard of this Costis before, though Teleus speaks with measured respect of his potential. But she has seen her Thief watching the soldiers spar in the training ground before and knows that his selection would have been well thought out. Eugenides’s moods and chosen missions may be as mercurial as her own are staid, but even a threat to Eddis wouldn’t be enough for him to make a mistake.
For a gripped moment, she allows herself to contemplate the possibility that this Costis would not obey. What reason, then, to follow an Eddisian who no longer possesses his queen’s ring? She had thought her Thief would choose a more experienced soldier, one more reliable than a guard who’d never been his own command.
Trust Eugenides. She’d given him her ring and her faith and sent him back where he belonged, where he had allies and cousins and could be more than a phantom in the night. And she has to believe that he will live up to that faith, that he’ll find what Eddis requires and what Attolia needs and mesh both into a salvageable peace.
She rubs the cool silver of the bracelet against her lips for a moment, thoughtful. Her duties now are to Attolia, to its empty coffers and the Mede whispering promises in her ear. Her Thief is a secondary concern, and if he’s interfering with her judgment, with her patience and her grasp over the barons, she has no choice but to put her worries aside.
She tugs on the handkerchief, freeing it from the window, and slides the bracelet onto her wrist. She has work to do.
Sounis is dead.
She would have implicated her Thief for it immediately, had he not been back in her court long before the news reaches them. He hasn’t come to her, nor has she summoned him, but the young soldier he’d left with had returned days ago, bright and breathless from his journey with her Thief.
They have a private audience with only Relius and Teleus present. She enjoys the shock apparent on Teleus’s face when the truth about the Thief is revealed. Relius is calm and unsurprised and she thinks he must have known for a long time now, since she began asking too many questions about a prisoner she’d barely possessed.
She’d had Costis promoted to squad leader for his work and sworn to secrecy with regard to her Thief. Costis speaks of Eugenides with an odd sort of wonder mingled with frustration, a combination the Queen has come to associate with her Thief. Yes, they had gone to Sounis and met privately with his magus. Yes, Eddis’s men had retrieved the heir to the throne at the same time and brought him back to her. Eddis’s offer for aid had been treated with suspicion from the start, but her men had brought new resources to quell the uprising and Sounis had signed a treaty reluctantly after pressure from both sides. Eugenides and Costis had begun the return to Attolia only once the treaty had been signed and Eddis and Sounis both secure.
Not secure enough, it seems. And this boy heir is far too young to command armies, let alone retake a kingdom that should be his.
“Eugenides,” she murmurs, tapping her fingers against the arm of her chair for a moment, deep in thought. No, even her Thief lacks the resources to take a throne, and if Sounis cannot hold his seat without question, he deserves no aid from she who has.
“Your Majesty.” The reply comes from somewhere behind her and she twitches, rising in an instant and spinning to face him.
“How long have you been here?” she demands. He’s standing in the deep shadows in the corner of the room, dressed in dark clothes and so silent that he might have been present before she’d entered and she wouldn’t have known. The flush of excitement from a successful trip is still apparent on his face, days later; and he seems older somehow, grown in his weeks away from not-quite-man to something else entirely. She can feel heat high in her cheeks at the observation and looks away.
When she turns back, he’s still smiling at her. “I heard you promoted Costis.”
She shakes her head, quirking her lips in what is certainly not a returning smile. “To spend that much time with you without turning to murder? He deserves no less.”
“Fair enough,” Eugenides agrees, and there’s a moment of companionable stillness between them, the tension seeping away from Attolia as quickly as it had first arrived when he’d left. She flushes again and he watches her in silence, the humor fading from his eyes and replaced with something unfathomable.
“The Mede!” she barks out, remembering her ambassador and the information she’s been lacking since she sent her Thief away.
When he slips out with her newest missive, she closes her eyes, willing herself to remember that she is the Queen, and he only a thief with a gift for unnerving her.
She hadn’t known that along with Sounis’s magus and Eddis’s thief, she’d once held Sounis’s heir as well, and there’s no need to feign the shock and irritation that that news is coming from Nahuseresh and not her preferred sources.
“Regardless, it seems that he is inconsequential,” Nahuseresh says airily, waving a hand. “Sounis’s rebels have risen again with the death of the king, and this child Sounis is merely a distraction.”
“Then Attolia is safe again.” The Queen leans more heavily on the Mede’s arm, her thoughts a jumble of realization and renewed concern. Her Thief hadn’t killed Sounis, nor had Eddis. There had been no need for an assassination once the king had agreed to sign the treaty. No, this is the Medes, interfering again to weaken a newly strengthened Sounis. And she knows from the news Eugenides and Relius both have brought to her that the Mede king is pressing Nahuseresh for more commitment on Attolia’s part, for Sounis and Attolia to be taken at once and Eddis overwhelmed in an instant.
“There is another matter,” the Mede says, placing a hand over hers as they walk. “The Thief you once held.”
She chokes, her throat seized up, and covers her sudden horror with a bout of coughing that has her doubled over, the Mede solicitous at her side and her guards running forward. “N-No,” she manages, holding up a hand, rising back to her full height. “My apologies, I must have tripped.” She smiles at Nahuseresh, ducking her face and looking up at him through parted lashes. “Please, go back to your story.”
“Hardly a story,” he says, his smile returned over that damn beard of his. “But a problem nonetheless. The Thief of Eddis may have escaped your prison, but he remains in Attolia. I have suspected so for a long time, since items in my quarters began vanishing.” He pauses, extending his arm for her again, and she inwardly curses her Thief for his stupidity. “But only last night, one of my attendants caught sight of an Eddisian man in our apartments. They are so much less secure than in Medea.”
“I will speak to Teleus at once,” she promises, tightening her grip on him. “We will double the guard on your apartments and find this Thief.”
“Hm.” Nahuseresh strokes his beard delicately. “I wonder if perhaps Teleus…”
“Your Captain of the Guard is ardent in his loyalty, of course,” he rushes to assure her. “But to allow such a grievous security breach as this? It may be time to find someone more dedicated. Someone younger, perhaps,” he says thoughtfully.
She tilts her head to the side. “Indeed it may. I will consider it. Your advice is invaluable as always,” she agrees.
“I wish only to serve you as I best can.” The Mede presses his lips to the back of her hand, leaving them there a hair longer than is appropriate.
She will have Teleus assign Costis’s squad to Nahuseresh’s apartments, she decides, quickening her step back to her apartments later that evening. Her Thief will have to stay away from the Mede party and she will return to collecting information from Relius’s sources in Medea and Sounis rather than risk Eugenides again. He is too valuable to become a pawn in this game with the Mede.
Her Thief doesn’t come when she lays out her handkerchief, and she stands, still as stone, her back to the window and her eyes on the red and gold tapestry before her. In the shadows, she can almost make out the patterns in the shading, the map of Attolia beneath it. The country that had never wanted her, the one that she’d been determined to take. She has grown accustomed for fighting for what she wants, even with the little joy it brings her when she wins.
“Your Majesty.” He breathes it from her shoulder, far closer than is proper around the Queen. She nods, tight-lipped, and her eyes narrow when a paper is slipped into her hand. “A new message for the Mede from among the rebels.”
Her face hardens. “The Mede knows you’re here.”
He shrugs, unbothered. “I heard.”
“And you went back there?”
Eugenides brushes past her so he’s standing before her, a black figure silhouetted against the tapestry. “Of course. Sophos- Sounis,” he corrects, frowning. “His family is their next target. They’re going to force him into war with Eddis.”
She can’t focus on his words, not when she’s brimming with anger that feels more and more like fear with every moment he stands before her. “You will not go back there. Not even to return that letter. If Nahuseresh seizes you-“
“No one can seize me,” he says, and his confidence has never made him seem so childlike before, has never made her rage more.
“I did!” she hisses, stepping forward until Eugenides is pinned against the wall, Attolia directly in front of him. “Or have you forgotten? I stole you, and you’re still here, and I will not have the Mede take you from me!”
His eyes narrow at her phrasing. “I am here because I want to be here. I do what I want.”
“No.” Her voice is cold, her veins like ice with fury. “Not in my home, in my room. In my country. You are mine now.”
“Am I?” He steps forward, his eyes still hooded with challenge. “You know where my loyalties lie.”
She spits out the words, too angry to formulate them properly, to consider what she’s saying as she does. “To Eddis? Eddis has lost you. I know nothing other than that you have stayed here since I stole you and left only at my behest!”
But he doesn’t take the provocation, only blinks up at her. “Why?”
She is halted in her righteous fury. “What?”
He is barely moving, but she can feel the tension quivering from him regardless and knows that this is a question he has dared not ask until now. “Why steal me, when you know that I am Eddis’s? Did you think I would forget so quickly?” She is silent, her lips pressed together into a thin line, her eyes still fixed on his. “Did you only want to take something Eddis loved?”
Her head feels heavy as she shakes it, slow as molasses, dizzy with his nearness and words so incisive that she can’t quite deny them wholeheartedly. Perhaps, she doesn’t say, and he hears it all the same.
His eyes soften with compassion, and she loathes it and craves it all at once. “Have you stolen a Thief, or have I stolen a Queen?” Warm palms reach up to cup her face, to tilt her head ever closer to him.
“Do you know what I think, Irene?” His voice is coarse and rough with his Eddisian accent, nothing like the polished velvet of the Mede or even the smooth cadence of Dite’s cultured lilt. His hands are like a furnace. “I think we stole each other.”
He bends toward her and the last of her anger fades, replaced with an emotion she barely knows anymore. When he kisses her, she wants to push him aside and deny and reject him and lean in closer, resting her hands against his chest, closing her eyes and kissing him ever closer. She pushes him once, pressing him against the door to her room until it’s open and she can move closer to his wild eyes again, can press her lips to his and forget, for just a moment.
Eugenides whispers her name and Irene shudders.
Attolia awakens to terrible regret and more dread than she can ever afford to feel. Beside her, Eugenides still sleeps, his face guileless and unbothered in the light of the morning sun. Her fingers reach to touch him, unbidden, tracing the lines of his face down to his lips.
They press together and then open in a soft kiss, and Eugenides smiles with all the satisfaction of a tiger replete, his eyes opening only after her fingers linger. He watches her for a moment, catches the coldness in her countenance, and his smile fades. “I see.”
“You should go,” she tells him, and her heart twists at her words as her mind rejects her heart and the bitterness within her is distant and still.
He doesn’t sit, doesn’t move beyond resting his hands behind his head. “I won’t.”
She could order him to leave, could call for Teleus to drag him out and throw him into a cell for disobeying a queen. Could forget about the thief who had never been hers and spend a hundred- a thousand days until she would once more retake what he had stolen from her, if she had ever possessed it to begin with. Instead, she stands, her fingers aching for the touch of his skin again, and says, “Then I will.”
Eugenides is not in her room when she returns there at night, and Relius reports after several days that the Thief of Eddis is back home at last, locked in his library with few visitors admitted. He knows his place well enough to ask no questions, and she says nothing at all.
Attolia visits her own library that day and finds an empty room up a stairway behind the shelves. There is a pile of blankets, sloppily folded, sitting in one corner, and above it is a picture of her, a simple tracing that can be bought in any marketplace. Atop the image is a second golden bracelet, identical to the one encircling her wrist.
She slides it on over the other hand and it catches on her signet ring.
The young Sounis is rallying forces with his magus, but he is too young and his support is insignificant against the rebels and the Medes. Relius reports that the Mede have approached young Sounis, offering him their aid to quash the rebels, but even Sounis is not so naïve as to accept them. Attolia remembers the magus and Eugenides’s faith in him, and she wonders if a king with a trusted advisor would be stable enough to challenge the Mede.
Perhaps. Perhaps there would still be hope, had Sounis had an army.
But the situation is grim and the hope of preserving her kingdom with minimal bloodshed even less, without the three countries of the peninsula united. She finds herself watching Nahuseresh more speculatively than ever before, and though all of who she is rebels at the thought of an alliance with the Mede that would bankrupt her country of even the money Nahuseresh courts her with and turn them over to an empire that cares not, she wonders-
She is no Eddis, connected so intimately with her people that she would save them and lose her country in the process. She is ruthless and powerful and Attolia itself must come first, even if thousands of men will die to preserve it. There must be a country to rebuild if they do go to war with Sounis and the Mede.
Eddis sends messengers and she hears them out and sends them back, tense and proud and unwilling to yield to an alliance with the other country, either. Attolia cannot afford an alliance, not as it is now, and not when trade with Sounis has been nearly impossible since the civil wars there had begun. She will not suffer her country bled dry for Eugenides’s-
For Eddis’s aid.
Until the day when messengers send forth news and Eddis herself arrives, surrounded by her guard and much pomp and ceremony, Eugenides sitting comfortably beside her in her carriage. He scorches her with his stare and says nothing while Eddis speaks tired words of peace and a unified army to quash the rebellion in Sounis.
“And how would you accomplish this?” she demands scornfully when they’re all in her throne room together, the Mede ambassador standing in a corner looking uncharacteristically disgruntled with these developments. “Risk ourselves for Eddis’s treaty with Sounis? We have no money to pay tribute, no space for your men in our armies. And we want nothing of Eddis that you can offer as collateral.”
Eddis turns, her eyes bright. She glances once at Eugenides, subtly enough that Attolia is certain only she had been meant to see it. “Nothing?” she repeats.
Attolia is stunned immobile in her seat. Across the room, Eugenides is equally taken aback, and she is comforted by that, at least, that single implication that these are far from his machinations. “Please,” Eddis says, waving a hand. “Let us speak privately, queen to queen. There are matters that must be decided.”
Attolia gives the order and the room empties until only Teleus stands beside her, a wary guard, and Eugenides and Eddis alone remain in their seats. Eugenides has recovered, but he is the first to speak, irreverent as always of the royalty in the room. “What are you proposing, My Queen?”
She remembers once he’d called her his queen, had touched her hands with tenderness and wonder, and old bitterness rises within her. “I will not be sold to Eddis,” and she remembers their last night together, scathing and furious. “Nor stolen,” she adds, refusing to look to Eugenides.
“No,” Eddis agrees, reaching over to wrap her hand around Eugenides’s arm. “But until you find a king, you will never hold your barons, and certainly not enough to mobilize them against the Mede on your own.” Until now, they had spoken only of Sounis, and Attolia automatically glances to where Nahuseresh had stood moments before. “We must be unified if our countries are to survive.”
A shadow crosses her face for a moment, but then she is standing, walking toward the entrance. She pauses for a moment. “We can make this alliance, perhaps equally long-lasting, without a king. But it must be made.” Eddis is shorter than Attolia, perhaps less impressive, but in that moment she is equally queen, imperious and commanding and every bit the monarch that would have inspired such love from her people. Attolia hates her and envies her and likes her more than she would have expected, and she can only nod numbly at the other woman’s demand.
Teleus glances at her for confirmation before leaving, and then it is only Eugenides with her, sitting across from her, silent again. She rises gracefully, making her way across the room to stand before him. “You would be king?” she asks him, arching an eyebrow. He has been thief and advisor and confidant, but never left the shadows of her palace to the kingdom beyond it.
He shrugs helplessly. “I would be yours,” he whispers.
“Oh.” Her fingers find their way back to his face, and all the reasons she’d come up with- all the prideful, terrified, vulnerable lies meant to justify sending him away- are suddenly meaningless before his simple words. “Oh,” she repeats, leaning in to press her lips against his cheek. “I sent you away.” It’s an apology in all but word. She must learn to apologize, if this is what comes next.
He meets her gaze, defiant as always in the face of her tentativeness. “I came back.”
“Good.” They speak around the truth, drawing pictures that have yet to be filled in with color but are clear all the same, and she’s overwhelmed at the thought of this, at her Thief and his Queen and Eugenides and Attolia and even Irene, burrowed beneath the surface. And again, she desires nothing more than to run, to hide her heart far from where it remains vulnerable in his grasp.
“I love you,” he says, and the picture turns bright with glittering color.
Her Thief awaits His Queen, and she comes to him with a final whisper of words.
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