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Between the Wolves

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"I don't like it," Buri muttered as she held out Thayet's wedding-night robe. It was heavy quilted silk in imperial crimson, embroidered thickly with leaping deer and wolves, surrounded by elaborate scrolling foliage; Saren work, with a hint of traditional lowland motifs, and not a bit K'mir except in its cut.

Thayet ought to have some of her waiting-women to do this, but she hated it enough already. She was the Great Chieftain of the K'miri Empire, going into a marriage she had never wanted, and she would be damned if she would suffer anyone but her faithful Buri with her right now.

The robe, settled on her shoulders, weighed heavier than her lacquered leather armor ever had.

"No one likes it, Buriram," she said, carefully not looking at Buri. "The Tortallan king least of all, maybe." She remembered how Jonathan IV of Tortall had looked at her earlier in the audience chamber, the first time they met. The marriage had been by proxy, and somehow had failed to become real to Thayet until she saw him, tall and arrogant and staring at her with all the mingled rage and fear of a caged animal, unable to either cower away or reach its captor.

Jonathan had worn stark, unrelieved black: the curious narrow hose and tightly fitted doublet that most of the Tortallan delegation wore. The Tortallan ambassador, Sir Alexander of Tirragen had leaned over to Buri with his secret cat’s smile and murmured something. Buri later told Thayet that black was the color of Tortallan mourning.

Well, Thayet could not blame him for that, although she hoped he did not think her too stupid to notice the insult. She herself had nearly worn white for the long-delayed wedding feast, and had lingered so long over the saffron ribbons in the morning that the woman who dressed her hair had nearly dared to say something. But in the end, she had decided that such a petty gesture was unbefitting a chieftain, and the more so when she held the reins of power. Jonathan was trapped and knew it; there was no need to rub his face in it. She had gone to the feast with her braids woven with Father Storm’s celestial blue-gray.

Buri snorted, as if she did not believe Jonathan could possibly dislike the necessity more than she or Thayet. "I still think we ought to have invaded," she said, but her hands were gentle as she unbraided Thayet's dark hair and combed it out to lie in soft crinkled waves over her shoulders. She did not linger as she normally might, or allow her fingers to brush against Thayet's skin; she would not make this more painful for either of them than she had to.

"I have been watching our neighbor to the south," Thayet said. "We have made a great peace in the Eastern Lands, but peace is fragile, and I see more provinces about to slip from Ozorne's imperial hand every year, even as he turns his eye to Tortall's borders. No, Tortall is caught between us and Carthak and the Scanran wolves, and so long as it is, Carthak and Scanra do not turn their eye to us. I will hold what we have and not seek more than we can hold. Let Carthak eat its young. We will raise ours up."

Buri said nothing more, but Thayet knew she was thinking of the Warlord, Thayet's father, of K'mir driven from their ancestral pasturelands and slaughtered, and of Kalasin's death-song, and of her own mother and brother, buried with Kalasin. Thayet had done her best by the lowlands, and had permitted those Saren and lowland nobles who would give oath to her to retain their lands and titles. It had always been a point of argument between her and Buri.

Thayet took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. "I am ready." She was not, and did not think she would ever be; but they only had to do this until there was a son for Tortall and an heir for the Empire, she told herself. Perhaps, someday in the future, a spare or two: but it was not as if she would have to sleep beside the Tortallan king every day, to wake to his blue foreigner's gaze, to be available to him whenever he wished it. It was better than marrying Dusan zhir Anduo would have been.

She was Her Celestial Majesty Thayet of the Hau Ma, Great Chieftain of the K'miri Empire, and with the Dominion Jewel she had brought justice for her mother's people and peace to the Eastern Lands. Under her hand Sarain prospered, K'mir and lowlander and Saren alike; a girl could walk naked with a bag of gold from the Roof of the World to the Tortallan border and come to no harm.

She could conquer a husband.

Jonathan was waiting for her when she entered the bedchamber. It was a spare chamber kept for visiting dignitaries, and not the imperial bedchamber, for Thayet did not think she could have slept there, afterwards.

He waited as a Tortallan or Saren bride might wait for her husband, and yet it was entirely different. He stood in front of the fire with his hands clasped behind his back, feet braced apart. Broad-shouldered and tall in his black he looked like a leopard, all leashed physical strength, and Thayet had to take a deep breath and remind herself of the magical wards on the room, keyed to her distress, and of Buri outside the door, armed and ready to rush in if Thayet screamed. Jonathan could not hurt her physically, no matter how angry he was.

He turned a moment later and favored her with a bow just this side of mockery. "Your Celestial Majesty," he said, "or do I call you wife?" He said the word like an obscenity; Thayet almost found it in her to be offended.

"You may call me Thayet," she said, "and I like this no more than you do."

"Is that so," he said softly, and for the first time she wondered if Jonathan of Conté was more dangerous than she had assumed. There had been stories about his cousin Roger, even in Sarain, and there had always been a strain of darkness in the Conté line, all wrapped up in their Gift. "We thought it was Tortall, caught between Stormwings and wolves and the barbarian horde. We thought it was your ambassador who offered Us a bitter alternative to going down fighting." He laughed, sharply and without mirth. "We are well aware that We have become your vassal in all but name, Thayet. Do not think me a fool."

"I am not fool enough to ignore my own advisors," Thayet said. "It is a matter of expediency."

"I don't doubt it. But you cannot deny that regardless of your personal feelings on the matter, the Empire has the better end of the bargain."

There was nothing Thayet could say to that which would be neither a transparent lie nor too truthful, so she shrugged and reached for the fastenings of her robe. "Let us be done with this, then. I am sure you have no more wish for talk than I do."

She spared a moment to wonder if he would even find her attractive; her body was hard with muscle and scarred from campaigning, and while she had been a beauty in her younger days, since then she had seen more than a few men look away from her face and the deep red scar down her left cheek, when they thought she was not looking.

But that was his concern. Whatever or whoever he had to think of to bestir himself to his duty, she did not care, and it was not as if she had any desire for him. All else between them aside, he was too arrogant, his eyes too pale. Too foreign, she thought, thinking of Buri's fierce black eyes and golden K'mir skin, her broad steady features.

And then she pushed that thought away, too. "The room is warded," she said, "and my guard outside will hear if I scream."

A look of distaste crossed Jonathan's face. "I suppose it is well to know how little you think of me, wife."

"You also set a guard.” As Thayet had entered the bedchamber earlier, Buri and the Tortallan Champion, Sir Alanna of Pirate's Swoop and Olau, had been stalking around each other like two bristling steppe wildcats.

He laughed again, and began unbuttoning his doublet with such viciousness that a button snapped off and went skittered across the hearth, and Thayet had to restrain herself from flinching. "So I did, lady, so I did."

Buri watched Sir Alanna sidelong out of the corner of her eye. The Tortallan knight stood on the other side of the door with her feet braced, staring straight forward at the embroidered hanging on the wall opposite them, although Buri did not really think she saw it, or would understand if she did.

The hanging showed a scene from an old K'mir story, about a woman of the Raadeh captured by a lowlander and forced to wife, who had prayed to Bian North-wind for freedom, and been transformed into a yellow mare. The lowlander had hunted her down and put her to bridle, and so Vau East-wind had changed her again, into one of the wind-horses that could never be bridled by mortal hand, and so she ran forever, through all the lands of the world, wherever the east wind blew.

Buri had never been able to decide if the woman was truly free in the end, or only bound by different chains.

A lot of the old stories were like that.

She would tell one of the servants to replace the hanging tomorrow--perhaps with something from Thanhyien, with cranes and rice paddies. Thayet would like that.

Buri looked back at Alanna again. The Tortallan woman fascinated her: they had heard of her deception and unmasking, in the Saren court. Most of the court thought she should be burned; no one had dared say she should keep her knighthood, but somehow the Tortallan king had allowed it. Buri had wondered if one woman, no matter how extraordinary, could change the weight of centuries of tradition. But that had been before Chitral, before the Dominion Jewel and Thayet sweeping across the eastern lands at the head of a K'miri army, beautiful and terrible as a storm.

Alanna did not look extraordinary, aside from her foreign looks. She did not have that spark in her that made people not only follow Thayet but love her. But the Tortallan king had made her his Champion, and the Tortallan ambassador had made a dry comment on their first meeting about Buri being far more daunting than that girl squire the king had allowed, who nobody had thought would make it so far (Buri was not entirely sure she liked Alexander of Tirragen, and she certainly did not trust him, but talking to him was always educational).

Thayet had been in the bedchamber with the king for half an hour. Buri did not think they would take overlong about the business of breeding, but perhaps they were talking first. Her heart ached for Thayet, who she knew was afraid, even though she would never say it, even though she was the Queen of Queens. It was no easy thing to go to a man for the first time, Buri imagined, and how much worse when you disliked each other?

"He knows he has to do this," Alanna said suddenly, with a great deal of feeling in her face and voice that Buri was not sure how to interpret. If Alanna were K'mir, she might be able to guess, but the Tortallan knight wore her temper openly and guarded her other emotions fiercely close.

Buri wondered, looking at her set jaw and the fire in her strange violet eyes, if the rumors about Alanna and the king were true. But she was married now, wasn't she, to some new-made coastal baron?

"Everyone has to do this," Buri said, thinking of her conversation with Thayet earlier. She had wanted nothing more than to take Thayet in her arms and cling, as they had clung to each other in the convent when they heard the news of Kalasin's death, and how Buri's family had died. But tonight Thayet had been so brittle, so carefully controlled, that she had dared not.

"I am glad," Alanna said quietly, "not to be a queen."

"Or a king." Buri essayed a tentative smile, and Alanna smiled back, but there was no joy in it.

She liked the Champion, she decided. If things had been different, she rather thought they might have been friends.

They spoke no more, but waited in grim silence. Buri recited old poems in her head, the kind which spent fifty stanzas listing the name and color of every horse in the chieftain’s herd. She tried not to think about Thayet, in the room which was not the imperial bedchamber.

Thayet emerged from the room wrapped in her crimson robe again, with her head held high, and Buri thought that likely no one but her would notice her pallor, or the the faint air of exhaustion she carried.

Her eyes fell upon the wall-hanging and her mouth twisted for a moment, and then she squared her shoulders and said, “Come, Buri.”

Alanna hesitated for a moment and then went into the bedchamber, where the Tortallan king remained; Buri was glad not to have to see him.

She ordered the first passing servant to have hot water for a bath sent to the the queen’s rooms, and ordered the two women waiting to help Thayet prepare for bed out, with a little more snarl than she meant, for they both paled and nearly tripped over each other in their haste to leave.

Thayet sank onto the bed, her shoulders slumped. She looked drained and exhausted; she had clearly been holding herself together through sheer force of will.

“Did he hurt you?” Buri asked, before she could stop herself. Her fists were clenched; of course Jonathan was not supposed to be able to hurt Thayet, but--

Thayet shook her head and gave Buri a weak, tired smile. “Not on purpose,” she said. “It was...not entirely unpleasant, physically. Bodies do not always obey the desire of the heart and mind.”

Buri swallowed hard; she was glad, of course she was glad, she did not want Thayet to suffer. Yet still it was a little hard to hear.

“Mother of Mares, I hate this,” Thayet said, lying back against the pillows and closing her eyes. “We must do it again tomorrow, and again, until the healers say I am with child. And then again next year. I wish--” she broke off, but Buri thought she knew the words Thayet did not speak, would never speak.

Someone knocked at the door, and Thayet sat up, at once composed and queenly, if still pale. Buri went to let the servants with the bathwater in, and then locked the door behind them. In the court, they called her the Queen’s Wolf, and said she slept across Thayet’s door, and would tear out the throat of any who threatened the queen. It was half a pun on her name, buri ram, the blue-gray wolf of the high K’miri steppes, and half a mark of grudging respect.

They were not far off, except it was not across the queen’s door that she slept.

Thayet let her robe fall to the floor and climbed into the water with a sigh, and a wince that made Buri very much want to punch the Tortallan king, preferably with the hilt of her dagger. She said nothing for quite some time, only held out her hand for soap and cloth and pumice stone, and scrubbed herself until her skin was pink, with a sort of furious concentration that made something in Buri’s chest hurt.

At last she set aside the soap and leaned back in the cooling bathwater, eyes closed. “I was thinking earlier,” she said. “Would you like to be Duchess of Thanhyien, Buri?”

Buri felt like Thayet had slapped her. “Am I permitted to decline, Majesty?” she said, sharply, glad she was the one person who could speak to the Great Chieftain like that.

Thayet sat up with a slosh of bathwater that dampened the carpet, shock clear on her face. “Of course! But I thought you might like it--all those summers we spent there--and be a good lady to the land. And you have served me faithfully for so long. I can’t imagine that anyone would argue you did not deserve land and title.”

Thanhyien had been Kalasin’s duchy, granted to her by the Warlord upon her marriage. The three of them and Buri’s mother and brother had spent every summer there until Thayet was old enough for the Warlord to begin speaking of her marriage. They had been golden and jade summers, Buri and Thayet and Pathom returning to the great house every day muddy from the rice paddies or covered in red earth from climbing in the hills. Buri had seen her first crane there, and caught her breath at its unexpected grace, until Pathom threw a rock at it and it flew away; she’d hit him for it, but in the end there were other cranes, flying through Thanhyien in late summer every year, white and black and scarlet against the deep blue of the sky. Thanhyien was the only place in the lowlands that Buri loved, the only place that might tempt her to accept everything else that came with a noble title.

“I won’t--” she said, and then tried to swallow through the dryness in her throat. “You can’t buy my approval of this marriage. And I’m not--angry with you, or jealous, so don’t think it’s that.”

Thayet reached out and clasped Buri’s hand. Her hand was wet, but still the same familiar, sword-callused hand Buri knew so well, the squeeze of her fingers granting the reassurance Buri hadn’t realized she needed. “I know,” she said. “It’s not about that, please believe me. I only thought you and Thanhyien would fit together; it needs a proper lord, and I have never been that for it.”

“I’ll think about it,” Buri said, squeezing Thayet’s hand back.

“Will you kiss me?” Thayet said, with something raw and stricken in her eyes that Buri never wanted to see there again, so she leaned over and pressed her mouth to Thayet’s, and kissed her until she sighed into Buri’s mouth and brought her hands up to hold onto her tunic.

“I got your tunic wet,” she said, when they separated, but she looked far better than she had in weeks.

Buri snorted. “Do you think I care?”

They slept curled together in the middle of the bed, pressed as close as they could get, with Buri’s hand laid over Thayet’s heart. Thayet would survive this, as she had survived everything else, Buri told herself, and whatever happened, she would still be Thayet’s faithful wolf.

Alanna found Jon standing before the guttering flames of the dying fire, in shirtsleeves and breeches. He stood like he had been beaten.

“Jon,” she said, and he turned.

“Oh, it’s you,” he said, and then to her shock he had crossed the room and caught her up into a hard, desperate embrace, his face buried in her hair. There was nothing of the passion they had once shared in it, but no one had ever really expected Alanna to be comforting. She had been putting George off about children for years now, because the idea of being a mother, of having to comfort skinned knees and baffling childish tears, terrified her more than the battlefield ever had.

This was, she thought, quite possibly worse.

Jon was shaking, his voice near to cracking like a boy’s. She had never seen him like this before, her confident king. Even as word of Thayet’s conquests came ever closer, the Carthaki raids worse, he had always remained calm as he sought out the best course of action. It was why he was a good king, the king Tortall needed, caught between wolves as they were.

“I never expected to marry for love, not since I was a boy,” he said into her hair, so quietly she could barely hear him. “But I did not expect to have to marry a--a ravening wolf--to keep Tortall safe. To keep our freedom on her sufferance. If I had married you--”

“I would have been a terrible queen,” Alanna said, awkwardly patting his shoulder. She wanted to cry, but she did not think Jon could bear that, so she blinked the tears away. “And Tortall would have been overrun by Carthak and Scanra between them by now.”

Jon drew back, visibly pulling himself together, although there was still something a little wrong about his eyes. “You’re right,” he said, reaching up to rub his temples. “Of course you’re right. I’m fine. Just--tired. Walk me back to my quarters, my Lioness?”

Alanna, who had seen how the K’miri queen had walked out of the room, like someone made of glass who had to step with utmost care to avoid shattering, could not even find it in herself to be angry at Thayet. Vicious the woman might be in battle, and a land-hungry conqueror (oh, she and the Old King would have been a pair!), but she was still a woman, and this had not been easy for her either. Alanna didn’t imagine it would be easy for anyone. “Of course,” Alanna said, and helped Jon into his doublet, patting his hair back into order before he had to face the halls of the Saren palace. “Jon, you know I--I will always love you, right?”

He brought a hand up to cover hers and smiled, tiredly. “I have never doubted that.”


“I am fine,” he said, like he was trying to convince himself.

The halls were blessedly empty, which Alanna thought was a bit odd for a royal wedding. But then, everything about this wedding had been odd, and the real wedding had taken place months earlier, by a proxy sent to the K’mir--Saren--whatever it was--court. There had been the minimum witnesses necessary for the bedding. One of the privileges of being Queen of Queens was to make one’s own rules, she supposed.

Alex was waiting outside Jon’s door, which surprised her. She still didn’t trust him, not since he’d become Roger’s squire, but he had been loyal in the end, and it seemed unlike him to be cruel to Jon.

He wasn’t: his dark narrow face looked--concerned, Alanna thought, although with Alex it was always hard to tell when he was being sincere. But he said, “Your Majesty,” and Jon at once squared his shoulders and straightened up, the handsome, perfect profile on a Tortallan coin, putting on kingship like a robe. Her rush of relief nearly made her stumble: this was Jon the king, and Tortall was not lost.

And yet--as Alex bowed and said goodnight, there was still a faint wrinkle of concern between his brows. He had wanted to know if Jon was going to break, too, but he could not ask, no more than she could. Maybe Jon himself didn’t even know, and that thought made Alanna shiver a little.

Jon clasped her arm and said “Thank you,” very low, and then went inside and closed the door, leaving Alanna standing in the corridor, wishing for something to hit. If it were not so late, she might have gone after Alex and suggested fencing; a good thumping in the practice salle would make both of them feel better.

She hated all this nasty political business, all the veiled words and meetings behind closed doors and marriages of obligation between people who hated each other. This was Alex’s kind of work, not hers, which was why he was an ambassador and she rode around killing things that needed killing and providing a handy political distraction when Jon needed one. That was straightforward, most of the time.

Jon would be fine once they were home, away from this viper’s nest of a court, she told herself. He had to be.