Aeris wasn’t sure exactly when she’d fallen asleep. All she knew was that when she woke, Zephyrs was gone. Her weary eyes opened fully, with pupils dilating to take in what little light the morning sun gave. The room was empty. She sat upright, ignoring the way her dress peeled away from her back like a second skin. Faolan was awake, his watchful eyes lingering on her as she tried to stand on her tired legs.
His voice no longer had the undertone of a man plunged into a world that wasn’t his own. The original tremble that manifested deep within his throat had been replaced by a melodic, silky tone that lured her onto the balcony where he stood. He didn’t turn around. His eyes continued to sweep across the horizon, drinking in the sight of Slazen, his new home. It was only when she reached him that she realised she was yet to reply.
“Good morning. How did you sleep?”
“Soundly, my Lady.” His eyes said otherwise. “And yourself?”
Aeris smiled. “Surprisingly well.”
At last, he looked at her. There she was with tangled hair, wearing last night’s dress, with creases on her cheek from the bedsheets. The regal woman who sat proudly on her throne was now a tired girl with no crown. Both had a strange effect on his heartbeat. His night of broken sleep had given him time to think, really think, about his Matriarch. Could he love her? Would he, in time? No answer came, not when he was so close to her in her most vulnerable state, so captivating.
“Who will come for us, my Lady?” he asked.
“The Cardinal, and Celeste – my maid,” she answered. “Why do you ask?”
His lip quivered slightly and she knew his nervousness had returned. A sense of dread came over her as she waited for his response.
“The Cardinal… he would be disappointed,” Zephyrs said as his cheeks turned pink.
“I don’t understand.”
“We were supposed to…” He bit his lip as his voice trailed away into nothing. “My Lady, we never finished the ceremony.”
All at once, she understood. She glanced down at her dress, heavily creased. Anyone who saw her wearing this would surely know that she had slept in it. Her hand moved to the back of her neck to loosen the knot, but then she remembered Zephyrs, whose face was flushed crimson.
“I’ll remove the dress in my chamber and get under the sheets.” Aeris rushed through the words, desperate to get them all out before her voice cracked. “When I’m done, I’ll close my eyes and you can…”
“I understand.” He cut her embarrassment short and turned his attention back to the awakening city.
She slipped back into her chamber, letting the gold material pool around her ankles. The morning air sent shivers down her arms, making braille on her skin. She checked that her shoes were still at the foot of the bed, one lying on its side, before slipping under the sheets. With both hands, she pulled them up to her chin.
Taking a deep breath, she called out to Zephyrs. “Ready.”
He almost laughed to see her with her eyes tight shut. As he removed his shirt, he wondered if she’d ever seen a man’s body before. She was the Matriarch, she could see as many as she wanted to, but that didn’t mean anything. Especially not after her unease from the previous night. He discarded his clothes as quietly as possible, leaving them scattered on the floor like tell-tale signs, and then froze as Faolan let out a soft growl.
“Get in,” Aeris hissed with eyes still closed.
There was no time for shyness as he leapt into her bed, doing his best to cover himself with the sheet. Her eyes snapped open but she wasn’t looking at him. Instead, she stared straight at her wolf-dog.
“Good boy,” she whispered. “Easy.”
Although the growling had stopped, the wolf-dog was still on edge. His fur stood straight on the back of his neck, forming a line along his backbone that was unnerving too see. Sharp white fangs protruded from pink gums, no longer hidden, with sharp eyes that were fixed on the doorway.
Instead of waiting to be invited in, the Cardinal barged into the room. His attention went directly to the clothes on the floor, and then to the pair that occupied the bed. A solemn expression became a smile.
“My Lady,” he said in greeting, “and her royal Consort. Good morning. Celeste will arrive shortly with a change of clothes. The Council would greatly like to meet with you both this morning, to discuss public interaction.”
“The Council can join us for breakfast,” Aeris replied in a smooth tone, calm and in control.
The Cardinal bowed his head. “Thank you, my Lady.”
Her exhale was loud and expressive as the door closed again. Faolan was peaceful once more, and Aeris let her shoulders sink into the soft pillows. Zephyrs licked his lips, brimming with anxiety. Meeting with the Council was one challenge, but the people of Slazen was something else. His behaviour would reflect on the young woman clinging precariously to the edge of her bed, either strengthening or destroying her reputation. It was already damaged from her dismal of the suitor of Cristael. He was charming, a favourite of the people, and yet he had been rejected by their ruler. What must they think of her?
“M’lady.” Another voice, softer this time, came from outside of the door.
“Enter, Celeste,” Aeris answered.
The girl peeked around the door, entering on her tiptoes. She did not look once at the bed, busying herself with collecting the garments from around the room. Her head was bowed low as she scurried over to the bedside table, on which she placed a small stack of linen clothes. Before leaving, she knelt in front of Faolan. He sat up expectantly. His ears were low and tail whacked against the wall with delight. She produced a chunk of cheese from her pocket and then made for the door, leaving the wolf-dog with his treat.
“Your bath, m’lady,” Celeste mumbled.
Aeris stiffened up. Zephyrs sensed her hesitation and reached for her hand under the sheet, running his thumb across her wrist. Worry played on her face as she tightened her grip on his fingers, unsure of what to do. You can do this, she thought. She took a deep breath and went to move the sheet.
“If it would be preferable, you could share the bath, m’lady.”
Of all three people in the room, it was difficult to tell who was the most uncomfortable. Aeris shook her head, pulled back the sheet, and stood with all the pride she could muster. She watched him fight to keep his gaze away from her, and then give in, taking in every little detail from top to toe. He couldn’t stop himself.
“As you wish, m’lady.” Celeste said.
Neither of the women looked back as they left the bedchamber, leaving Zephyrs in the company of his conscience and the distrusting wolf-dog. Some fortune had smiled upon him last night, he thought to himself. To have such a beautiful Matriarch to care for was truly an honour.
The warm water soothed her from the inside out. Celeste was gentle as she washed away any trace of dirt on her skin, leaving her to drown in her thoughts. Her maid was not the type to make small talk. Maybe that was why Aeris liked her so much. She found it difficult to talk sometimes, and the quiet that same with her morning bath was a relief. There was no Council, no guard, and no worry. Here, she felt at ease.
However, today was the day that she needed to talk.
“Celeste,” she said quietly. “Were you surprised by my decision last night?”
If the young maid was shocked by her sudden question, she didn’t show it. “Everyone was, m’lady. Although, I am awful grateful to only have two baths to fill. I’d have nightmares over five.”
Aeris chuckled at her brazen honesty. “Do you see me in another way now?”
“Yes, m’lady,” she replied, hesitating. “I s’pose what people expect and what people actually get are different. You’re just different.”
She liked that answer; she wanted to be different.
“And I know for sure that he likes you.” She bit her lip as she grinned.
Aeris raised her eyebrows. “Go on.”
“M’lady, please.” Celeste’s face lit up with excitement. “His stare was locked on you all the way out here. You might not o’ wanted him to join you, but I’m sure he would’ve.”
Aeris was stunned. She couldn’t imagine anyone feeling desire for her. It felt even more surreal when he was still such a stranger, a stranger with whom she had shared her bed and slept alongside until the early morning. Had he ever seen a woman so bare before? Her stomach turned at the thought. She didn’t understand why it could bother her; they knew nothing about each other. Yet, he occupied her thoughts like a disease, infiltrating the darkest corners of her mind. Is this what men were?
“If I’ve offended you, m’lady, I’m awful sorry.”
She shook her head. “No, Celeste. Can I dress now please? I’d really like some breakfast.”
Her outfit of choice was midnight blue, less formal than her evening gown but just as flattering. The Council always spurred her into looking her best, and preferably ruthless. Her maid darted back and forth, hanging jewels around her neck and wrists. When she reached for her hair, Aeris pulled away.
“I want it to stay down today,” she explained softly.
There was a flicker of confusion on the maid’s face, replaced by a half-smile. Whatever her implication, it was purely her own decision. It had definitely not been influenced by the man in her chambers with his green gaze and truffle hair. Not at all, she thought, you liar.
When they arrived in the bedchamber, Zephyrs was dressed. Faolan had him backed up against a wall, forcing his spine to mould to the exact shape of the stone. His nose was pressed against the man’s knee, inhaling the unfamiliar scent of Estaroch skin and fresh linen. Aeris snapped her fingers at the sight.
Reluctantly, the wolf-dog retreated to his bed. Aeris’ apologetic expression made up for the words she failed to offer. The ends of her hair were still slightly damp from her bath, curling around each other at the small of her back. However, it was her shoes that caught his attention. They were brown boots made of worn leather, complimentary to the shape of her foot after regular wear. The edges were tatty and rough, a contrast to her clothes.
“Do my boots amuse you?”
Once again, he’d been staring. “A little, my Lady.”
“You’ll get used to them,” she said with a giggle. “Now, let’s go for breakfast.”