‘I saw pale kings, and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
Who cried—“La belle Dame sans merci
Hath thee in thrall!’ – La Belle Dame Sans Merci, John Keats, 1884.
I must be a woman without mercy. I have no other choice.
In Faerie, in matters of the throne, there is no room for sentiment, for softness. I have invented myself. A mortal woman gave birth to me, to Taryn, but to survive I have had to create myself. Taryn and I, once links in a chain, now severed forever. I am entirely alone. I have crafted myself from ice and stone, and there has been no fire with the heat to melt me, no landslide forceful enough to fell me. I thought that no-one could ever truly touch my heart.
Which is why this rush of tenderness when I look down at the sharp planes of Cardan’s face, the equine profile, the porcelain softness of his skin, is fairly terrifying. It’s also pretty embarrassing for the self-styled ice queen. I hated him, but hate is a passion too.
He looks softer in sleep. Beautiful. Younger. Less annoying.
“Do you make a habit of watching people in their private rooms sleep, or has voyeurism become a hobby of yours only recently?” he asks in a deceptively pleasant tone, eyes still closed.
That didn’t last long.
“I’m hardly a voyeur,” I snap back. “I came in here on…state business. Besides, I wouldn’t have had to trespeass into your precious ‘private chamber’, if you’d only get up at a reasonable hour. It’s way past noon.”
“Hm. Mulberry wine does not make for early rising.”
“Try not drinking three buckets of it then,” I reply tartly.
He finally opens his eyes, glaring mutinously up at me. He pouts, his lips incongruously rosy in comparison to his pallid complexion. I move my gaze hastily from his lips, focusing instead on the burning glare directed my way.
“One would have thought that lie-ins were a perk of being High King,” he bit out acidly. “Besides, how else am I meant to relieve the pressure of bearing responsibilty for every Sidhe and slimeball in the whole of Elfhame? The burden of responsibility truly does weigh so heavily upon my shoulders.”
He smirks insincerely at this, and makes to burrow under the sumptuous silken sheets. He pulls the covers over his head, effectively blocking my view of him. One white, slender foot protrudes from the end of the bed.
Eyes narrowing, I grab his foot and yank it viciously, practically yanking him out of bed.
“Ow,” he yells, furious. “Your hands,” he mutters mutinously, are “like ice.”
“‘The burden of responsibility on your shoulders.’ I scoff, suppressing the unwelcome guilt bubbling in my stomach. “I do everything. The world on your shoulders, don’t make me laugh. You paint yourself as a veritable Atlas.”
This was intended to provoke him into action, but he does not look as angry as expected.
“You know your mythology,” he observes, seemingly interested.
“Contrary to what you seem to believe, I actually do have two brain cells to rub together. Now Get.Up. You have things to do, things which, surprisingly, don’t include sleeping the days away and stumbling around in a fog of wine and powder until dawn.”
I have still not removed my hands from around his ankle. It does indeed feel warm, his skin smooth as silk. He does not resist my clutch, but instead makes to sit up and shifts slightly, his face now unnervingly close to mine. I try not too look at his smooth bare chest, his blood crimson nightshirt cut low. I move my gaze hastily to his face. This is not much better. Guiltily, I take in the purple shadows under his eyes, the slight swelling of his lips. I have noticed that he has a nervous habit of biting his bottom lip, sometimes hard enough to draw blood. Not that I’ve been staring at him. Much.
“You really are a woman without mercy, Jude Duarte,” he states darkly. A mischievous smirk plays upon his face, disarming me. “La Belle Dame Sans Merci, in fact…” he muses. He peers up at me through disgustingly full and long eyelashes. “Yes…’full beautiful’…though you are certainly not and are never to be a ‘faeries child’…” He stretches regally, like a smug black cat, and trails a long elegant hand over mine, still circled loosely over his ankle. I drop my hand like I have been burned, and back away in what I hope is an imperceptible admission of my discomfort.
My retreat did not escape his notice. He grins wolfishly, sharp canines visible, and I am furious. I do not care to decide whether I am angry with him or with myself.
I blush, angry against my will, my guilt ebbing away and replaced by something more familiar – irritation. He is needling me, trying to entice me into a furious verbal sparring match. I won’t give him the satisfaction. His words, spoken months ago now, ring in my ears. ‘I will be your puppet’, he had promised, his words laced with disgust. I have manipulated him, certainly, anticipated his every move and maneuvered him like a piece on a chess board. So why does it still feel as though Cardan will forever be the puppet master? I certainly do not feel as though I am the one pulling the strings.
I grit my teeth. “Get. Up. Now,” I repeat more firmly, hoping that the sharpness of my tone masks that I am floundering, that he renders me defenseless and lost with his winged words. I feel as though I am a sheep pretending to be a wolf, running with the pack and hoping desperately that no-one will notice that it’s howl is actually a baa.
“Now Jude, is that any way in which to address your sovereign?” he drawls, flicking a lock of midnight black hair out of his face. He is the picture of bored indifference.
“Get up, your majesty, or I swear I’ll schedule a royal appearance. Every goblin baby in the Kingdom bestowed with a kiss and a charm from the High King Cardan, I can just picture the excitement now…
“I know that you have taken it upon yourself to become some kind of…Royal Aide…but continue to be a royal pain in my backside and I will become very difficult indeed. I may not be able to directly defy you Jude, but I assure you that I can annoy and needle you until it feels as though one year were twenty. Continue to irritate me and I will do all in my power to frustrate your plans. Unless…”
My voice betrays me with a quiver, my throat dry as the wood we burn at Summer Solstice. “Unless?”
He finally moves from the bed, stalking towards me until we are nose to nose. I stare into his crow black eyes. They are an abyss and they are infinite. I could get lost in them and I am not entirely certain I would be able to find myself again. His breath is still sweet from last nights wine and tickles my cheek. I feel drunk from the pure nearness of him.
“Unless you learn…to be nice. A woman without mercy you may be…but I might suggest you learn some, ah…what is the word? Cordiality. I suggest you learn some cordiality in order to ensure my continued benevolence.
You may be the belle dame sans merci…but do not forget that you have cast me as the wicked king. Rule me with a will of iron and mortal or not, you will burn.”
I hold my breath. After a moment, the tension passes and a familiar smirk plays upon his face like the first freshness in the air after a heavy thunder storm.
“You had better lead the way. I have, apparently, much to do.”
“I’ll uh, let you get ready.”
“That is good of you,” he condescends, tone thick with sarcasm.
“I’ll see you in the throne room?” I stutter, half request, half demand. “Come down as soon as your finished. Please.”
“It will be as you say. Keep my seat warm.”
I guess that’s what I set out to accomplish. Funny how an invisible crown can weigh so heavy and cost so much.