“I love you.” It was all I could think to say. Then desperate, I asked, “Do you want me to risk war for you? Our very lives? Because I will. I’ll get out of this marriage before a judge. I have enough to be released, and we’ll see what happens.”
“No?” I shook my head. “What do you mean no?” I was tempted to scream, unable to figure out what he needed. “It might not come to any of that, but should it happen, I wouldn’t care—”
“Stop.” He grabbed my face, his eyes boring into mine. “I just want you. Just Audra. So stop closing doors. Stop playing with me only when you see fit. Stop running from me and just be with me.”
Relieved, I nodded, knowing he was right. I could do that. For him, for what I’d almost lost, I would try with all I had to do that. My lips wobbled, the command leaving me on a shaken breath. “Then you must never deceive me, and you must stay. You must stay and never leave.”
“Audra,” he said, throaty and heated. “When are you going to see that is all I’ve ever wanted? That you are all I need.” Tears escaped, slipping down my cheeks. His hands tightened. “Better yet, when are you going to finally believe it?”
“When it happens,” I said, for there was no mistaking what he felt, what I felt, but I couldn’t lie, and I didn’t want to. “When I see it with my own two eyes. When it becomes so normal it’s bothersome and magical and tedious and all consuming.”
His expression gentled, a laugh coating his exhale. “Okay,” he said, lips grazing mine as he repeated himself. “Okay, my queen.”
The carriage rocked as the drivers climbed into their seats outside, and we began to roll forward, dipping over tree roots and crevices until we reached the road. But his lips never parted from mine.
They refused to as he accompanied me home, where he remained all winter long.
Three months later
Across a field of frosted wildflowers, the queen of winter twirled, her fingers dragging over ice-crusted petals and sweeping them up into the wind.
It followed her command and sent them high above her head. They fluttered to her awaiting beast, and he tensed in anticipation, his large claws digging giant trenches into the soil beneath us.
Vanamar’s eyelids drooped as he caught them and swallowed, the steam from his nostrils clouding the air before us. Then he gazed back at his queen, content to watch, but hoping he’d be fortunate enough to receive more than just the sight of her.
I knew exactly how he felt, and with a sigh, I handed him the apple I’d been eating.
He licked it from my palm, teeth far larger than my hand appearing and gently grazing my skin.
I ran my hand over his soft coat, watching Audra weave a chain of wildflowers on her walk back to us.
“Can we sleep up here?”
I bit back a smile. “We would turn to ice. Besides,” I said with a heaping dose of reluctance. “The king arrives tomorrow.”
Much to his eternal annoyance, the king and queen continued to live separate lives. He would visit when needed, and she refused to step foot in the Sun Kingdom unless necessary, of which, thankfully, it hadn’t been. At least, not yet.
I preferred her where I could see her, and not because I did not trust her or because I doubted her ability to fend for herself. There wasn’t a creature in this land unaware of her prowess. But because a love like this necessitated closeness.
The king could have her in small increments, but never in the ways that I could.
I was happy to be nothing, so long as she was mine and mine alone. Besides, I would never be nothing to her, and that was all that mattered.
I was hers, and she was mine, and not even her rightful husband across the border could change that.
Approaching Van, Audra held the chain above his head, pouting. “He better leave when hinted at this time.” She tutted when Van made to lunge for the flowers, and he huffed, plonking his rear to the ground once more. She gave them to him, and he carefully slurped them from her palm.
I doubted the king would take the many hints sent his way. His extended stays were mostly out of spite, empty minutes spent in endless stare downs with me over the dining table.
“What is this visit for?” I was beginning to think he’d make whatever excuses necessary to situate himself before the queen.
Audra scratched the underside of Van’s chin. “To finalize the new trade route deals we’ve brokered.”
I refrained from growling and rolling my eyes, knowing that could’ve been done without his presence.
Sensing my annoyance, Audra slunk toward me, a gleam in her sapphire eyes that never failed to make my heart stomp like a wanting, eager child.