Jan lay on his bed with his eyes closed. The curtains were shut against the rain, the fire was banked high and the rich glow from the fireplace shone through his eyelids. The heat was claustrophobic, it felt like waves of it were hitting him as he lay there and tried to collect his thoughts. Every night before he went to sleep, there was a mental ritual that he went through to help him get to sleep. He would walk through his day, remembering who he saw and what they discussed, and he would try to keep it in the same order that it had actually happened. Usually this was a simple task, and would fall asleep fairly quickly, only listing the facts about what had happened that day: training, meeting with Ortil, the cake after lunch, Su’Len’s good night kiss.
But tonight he called everything to mind in vivid detail. He was focusing on not falling asleep as the day unfolded again in his mind’s eye. The meeting with Doriel and Ortil first thing, the way the candle stubs from the previous night littered the guardroom table as they talked. He thought vividly about each headache he had had during the day. Although they seemed to blur together with the remembered pain. He thought about the brief moments of respite he had had and then most of all about what had happened at the dinner table.
His stomach growled at the thought of dinner and he realised that he had not actually managed to eat anything before he was brought up to the room. He gingerly reached up to dab at his nose. His arms felt heavy but he could move alright. His whole body just felt exhausted, as if he had been fighting off a virus. But there was nothing that blinded you as if struck on the head. He had seen stars often enough in battlefield to know what a damaged optical lobe felt like.
His whole body went cold, despite the heat in the room, when he thought about the way his father had looked at him. He thought about what his father was saying. An heir for the family. Poor sod hasn’t got anything else to do. Jan thought uncharitably. He knew it wasn’t uncommon for grandparents to yearn for the pitter-patter of tiny feet. But he suspected something. His father had always been tense, as far as Jan could remember. He had been bitter when Jan had moved east and headed for the capital city, feeling that their own city was just as good, Gierr thought Jan was running away. Perhaps he was.
The sound of the door opening shook him out of his thoughts. He didn’t open his eyes yet though, knowing that the sudden burst of light would bring back the headache that threatened to start up at any moment. He heard the soft bump of Su’Len’s shoes on the boards and the shadow as she passed in front of the fire. He thought that she might lean in to touch him but she didn’t. He opened his eyes carefully. The fire stung them a little and the candle flames flared in his vision, but he blinked it away.
Su’Len was standing at the window and looking out on the court yard. The strong smell of coffee floated over to him from the mug in her hands. She held it between her palms rolling it back and forth, a habit he noticed fondly.
“Come here.” Jan held out his hand to her to bring her to the bedside. She came over but avoided his eyes and looked sadly into her coffee.
“Do you want children?” She asked suddenly and blushed. She started again stumbling over the words she wanted or needed to say. “I mean, do you want an heir like your father does?”
Jan sat up against the pillows and sighed. “I think that Gierr doesn’t need to put so much pressure on us. But yes, I’d like an heir. I have to admit that it’s crossed my mind that we’ve been married a while without any signs…” She flicked him a hurt look and he quickly went on, “But I’m not in any rush.”
Su’Len wandered over to the side board where a bowl of water was standing. She dipped her hand into it cupping the water so that it pooled in her palm. The heat from the fire shimmered across the room. She turned back to the bed. “Well we’ve had a few problems, haven’t we?” She looked accusingly at him. Now it was his turn to blush his stomach churned nervously under her gaze. Their wedding night had not been particularly successful. Su’Len had immediately admitted that she was not a virgin on their wedding night. They had not had much time to talk, before their marriage was arranged, Jan had suddenly found himself married and felt rather bewildered about the whole episode. If he really considered it, he could remember his wedding, but through a hazy memory. After the wedding night before they had been disturbed by servants or family. She cut her heal with a fruit knife and left a bloody smear on the sheets. Red and conspicuous as Jan’s face the next morning. They had not made love on their wedding night, or even six months later. Jan was the problem. Su’Len often crawled into the big bed and snuggled into his side, running her hand suggestively over his skin. But nothing had actually managed to arouse him enough. She had sent Madra to buy an elixir for men, but when she returned Su’Len couldn’t detect anything stronger than rosemary in the little bottle. And it hadn’t worked.
“Well. I’m not sure that all that is anyone’s fault really.” Jan mumbled embarrassed. She liked to see him squirm under inspection. Su’Len knew exactly why he wasn’t able to sleep with her. He wasn’t attracted to her in that way. He appreciated her looks like looking at a painting, abstract and distant there was little emotion for what he considered to be unattainable. He considered himself to be an average man, underserving of her beauty. She hated the disappointment each time they tried. It was frustrating to have to try to charm him into a passion for her.
But duty was duty. This marriage was a deal, and she was failing to fulfil her side of the bargain she had made with Gierr. She returned to the bed side and turned Jan’s face to her, she kissed him, willing him to yield to her. She felt him respond. When they broke the kiss she handed him the mug of coffee to finish, moving round to the other side of the bed. She shrugged off her dress and left it heaped on the floor. She stepped out of the pile of fabric. She slipped naked into bed while he downed his drink. ‘Good.’ She thought, the coffee masked the taste. She waited a beat after he had placed the mug on the table. His eyes glazed over, turning from their usual light brown to a filmy white. It threw her how quickly it had worked. Gierr had said it would. Jan had slumped back against the pillows. His mind blank behind the milky lenses of his eyes. He was dreaming about clouds.
Su’Len reached for a pot that was in one of the bedside drawers. It was her own blend, beeswax, and a little honey with the scent of roses heavy under it all. She scooped a little onto two fingers and rubbed it in between her legs. She let the bees wax melt with her body heat and thoughtfully spread it in circles. Jan hadn’t moved. She leaned down to kiss him again, keeping her eyes open, watching those unnerving blank eyes.
The response was instant. As if she had flipped a switch. His hands came up under her hair and he sat up to take control. His hands wandered firmly down over her body and she gingerly reached over his trousers to feel the effects of Gierr’s potion. He broke the kiss and awkwardly pulled off his clothes on the bed, bouncing his hips and fiddling his feet out of them. He lay back and dragged her across him until she was sat on top of him. He reached up to touch her breast, squeezing and rolling it in his palm, she knocked it away because it was distracting. “Jan?” She said nervously. Nothing registered. His hands moved restlessly over her thighs and his hips were rocking already. His eyes stared off a little to her right and he was in automatic mode, still dreaming of clouds.
“Well, here goes nothing.” It wasn’t the first time, but the moments she had had with her husband had been so furtive and quick that she wasn’t quite prepared. He had never been so ready for her and she felt a little stab of injured pride that she had needed Gierr’s help to get to this point with a man. She raised herself up and angling her hips to connect, sunk onto him slowly. Easing herself down. He gasped behind his glassy eyed stare and she immediately froze frightened he might have been coming round.
His hips bucked insistently under her and it was her turn to gasp as he hit a tender and familiar spot. His hands dug uncomfortably into the flesh on her hips and he seemed to be scrabbling at her, his fingers dancing and fidgeting on her skin, his fingernails leaving tiny scratches. Suddenly he sat up and wrapped his arm around her and turned to swing her onto her back. As she fell sideways onto her back her head connected with the wooden headboard of the bed. Su’Len whimpered and wriggled in protest, throwing her hand up to feel the bump. He didn’t react. She looked at him in horror as he continued to stare off into space and pull her down the bed a little. He didn’t stop, thrusting blindly with that icy stare.
She twisted away to try to pull herself out from under him. He grunted at the change of angle ane reached up to press her shoulder back into the bed and hold her there. Stuck, pinned Su’Len held her breath letting it out in sharp sobs and gasps. Waiting for it to be over. She bit her cheek to distract from the acute pain on the side of her head. She had the sheets balled in her fists as she clung on, not wanting to touch the sweating man above her. In actual fact it wasn’t long before he rolled away with a greasy stain spilling onto the sheets beneath them. It felt like hours. Su’Len crawled away and sat on the edge of the bed with her legs curled up. Her stomach felt bruised. She pulled one of the blankets off the bed and left the room, looking back to see Jan lying on his back. His arm flung out to the side utterly relaxed and truly asleep, just the way she had left him every night. The room spun and a wave of nausea hit her, she ran down the hall to her room and slammed open the door, probably waking the whole house. She didn’t care, she vomited into the bowl in her room. Her stomach ached in protest against the violent convulsing of her shredded muscles.
Tears squeezed out of the corners of her eyes and she gave in to them. Sobbing hard as she leaned over the bowl. She shivered and pulled the blanket over her shoulders. She should have got into bed, but she sat on the rug with her feet tucked under the blanket unable to move and do anything. Her hands were shaking, she held them in front of her face to try to study them but finding she couldn’t, began to rub and chafe them nervously. She put her head in her hands and gave up entirely. She cried, watching the tears spread in a dark black stain.