The next morning was much the same. I awoke bathed in my own sweat with the bedsheets peeling off my back.
Théa had while I slept and had returned when I woke, carrying in a waterskin. She tossed it to me and I gulped it down greedily. “What news?” I asked, breathlessly.
“Father still wants the Queen to apologize. He says he owes her a debt that must be repaid one way or another.”
I barked out a laugh. “One way or another? Our options are little and less.”
“That is so. I must tell the High Queen of this news. Or lack of it”
“She won’t like it.”
“I’m not asking her to.”
“Mayhaps the wind will return tomorrow?”
“Mayhaps,” she said and then withdrew. I was smart enough not to ask if I could join her.
The wind did not come the next day, nor the day after that, and the High Queen returned to the center of camp each midday to announce our lack of progress. After the third day Théa had challenged her to commit troops, but the Eldish were already assembling their archers, and her threat was emptied.
Soon, she promised, again and again, the wind will return, and we’ll resume our attack, retake my daughter, my treasure and theirs—then leave as Morgad, one empire, united.
Untied, most like, I would think as she finished her speech. Théa had little to report on council session, save the bickering. Lines were being drawn amongst the Kings and Queens as the whose side they would be on in this war: Maev’s or Théa’s.
The wind would not return return and we were hot all the time. It was beginning to burn even to breathe.
“Have you asked your father to let the debt go?” I would ask Théa. She wasn’t enjoying the situation as much as she used to, of late.
“He says the gods don’t forget their debts. He won’t listen to me.”
My senses expanded in the days to come. I started to notice how hot the sand could be–and how scratchy my clothes. Men and women alike had stopped wearing shirts altogether when some ended the day with their chests bleeding from them.
Tempers frayed among our ranks. In the beginning it would come to blades at least twice a day.
Every day Théa waded into the sea and watched the horizon, waiting for his father to bring her his news.
After a month, our anger had increased but our fights were gone. It was too hot for that.
At last, Théa returned to camp, and sat on our damp bed, far from me. I didn’t mind–it was hot enough without her closeness.
“My Father has relented…somewhat.” She said. The words tip-toed from one to the next. She didn’t look me in the eye and was quick to fidget. I felt my stomach rise into my throat.
She was keeping something secret, I knew. But I was too weary to ask what it was.
I would come to regret that decision.
“Should we go to the High Queen?” I asked.
“We should,” he said and set out.
We met Maev in the center of camp. Her mood was as irritated as her skin, red and raw and sweating. He glared hatred at anyone unfortunate enough to look him in the eye.
“I’ve spoken again with my Father, your Majesty.”
The High Queen snarled, but quickly regained his composure. “What news?” Her voice sounded thin.
“My father and cousin ask a high price. May we speak in private?”
Maev glared at me. “The bitch stays.”
“Fitz comes.” Théa had her hand on the hilt of her longsword.
Maev mirrored the motion. “Don’t be a fool, Lordess.” The two glared at each other, neither drawing their sword. Muscles tightened. Knuckled whitened. Both of them assessed the other.
“I’ll go,” I said, and turned away to be by myself before Théa could protest.
I waited alone by the shore; heard men arguing amongst themselves. Some put their blades to whetstone; others diced or played cards. I heard two men shouting, far off, and then the scrape of steel against leather, and then one man made a wet sound, like a bucket dropped into a well.
There was no more arguing after that.
Théa returned after sunset, silhouetted by moonlight.
“The High Queen and I have reached an agreement.” She stopped, looked down and collected her thoughts.
I could fell something like a fish wriggling in my stomach. “Tell me more.”
“The High Queen and I have spoken. It is generally accepted that royal blood has power,” she said. “And the blood of two royals—however petty they may be, could produce a…desirable heir.” Her voice cracked. “The High Queen has a son.” She murmured the rest, but I knew what she would say—and that she was asking for my permission.
“Our agreement hinges on this,” she explained. “The wind must return.” She looked like she wanted to kiss me—an undesirable thought. I’d seen some try it. The heat had made all of us sticky. “What will become of me?”
“There’s no dishonor, Fitz. We do our duty, nothing more. We will still have each other. Nothing will change but names and titles.”
“A wedding would do us all good,” Théa said. Her fingers curled around the back of my head. My thoughts frayed held me by the back of my head, such that his breath tickled my lips. “You need not be jealous. Nothing will change, save morale.”
She was waiting for my consent, I realized. “You haven’t given the Maev my answer yet?”
“It is not my place to speak for you. Give me your decision and she’ll have her answer.”
I turned her words over in my mind, and then: “Tell her I consent to the arrangement.” A fish wriggled in my stomach as the words left my mouth. Before she could respond, I kissed her, despite the heat. I could not let her have doubts about where my loyalties lay.
We parted. Breathless, Théa answered, “I will.” But wasn’t smiling. He kept his gaze on the ground, lost in his own thoughts.
I would come to remember that look.