She felt like Lady Macbeth.
There were madwomen and manipulators galore in llerkin history and literature, to be sure, but there was nobody quite like Terra's Lady Macbeth, driven mad by her own excesses, excesses realized in her ambitious pursuit of power. The closest, she supposed, was the Lady Canuka, but she had been killed not by her own hand but by the vengeful retaliation of her honor guard, and she had had her wits about her until the end.
That she herself had had the power to begin with mattered not. She looked in her mirror, checking for that paleness of the tongue that might mean her lightheadedness was more than just a passing thing.
A knock came to the door. She whirled and looked at it, not at all sure that she wanted to be disturbed at this moment, but also not unconvinced that she needed this visitor to distract her. "Your highness?"
Why had it been so hard, she wondered. It was only all that he deserved for the evil that he had inflicted on her people and her world, his people and his world. It had been a clever punishment, everyone agreed, including those who had come up with it, but she had never had to pass that kind of judgment before and issue that kind of proclamation. It simply wasn't the kind of thing that happened in this century.
"Anni?" His voice was deep, concerned. It ached with longing to see her. It resounded with a confidence that it did not deserve at his age.
Now he wasn't playing fair.
She went to the door and unlocked it, pushing it open. He was just a bit taller than she, his silvery eyes reflecting her pale expression. "I was getting worried."
She was going to lie and pretend that she had everything under control. That conviction lasted all of a second. She fell into his arms and said, "I just needed some time alone. I... have never sentenced anyone to death like that."
"But you didn't."
"Of course I did, Ruly! He is sentenced to be hanged until dead."
"And to be resurrected every day from that day on until..." He paused. "How did you put it? 'Until We, on the advice of the Exhibits Committee of the Royal Museum of History, decide that you are no longer of interest to the casual visitor.'"
"They will still turn him on for history students and things," she said.
"So, now he is more immortal than most of us. And dead at the same time. It's a very novel punishment." He stepped back away from her, touched his thumb to her cheek and stroked downward to her chin. It was the kind of familial gesture she would have expected from her mother, perhaps, or Ken, but not from Rulyon.
It should have made her angry, but instead she felt touched by it. She stopped his hand and held it to her face. "I wish I had not had to do it."
"And I wish we had not had a civil war. But we did."
"I have been meaning to ask you something." He nodded. "You seem changed since the war. Still handsome, still young, but... changed."
"Did your advisers tell you I was captured?"
"Yes, they did. They also mentioned that you were handled quite roughly." She looked him over, but of course knew not to expect to see any differences on the outside. The medicine was good enough to erase all kinds of scars these days.
"'Roughly' is an interesting euphemism for tortured." He looked away. "They were not looking for information of any kind. They were not trying to get me to say or do anything. They were just trying to soften me up and make me compliant, I suppose."
"Ruly, I... I am sorry. This would never have happened if I had not..."
"Not what? Allied with the Pendorians? My Queen, you know better than that, and you always will. siss-talek wanted your nation one way or another, and your alliance with the Pendorians gave him an excuse the people did not accept and you the power to take back what was rightfully yours." He put a finger to his lips and paused for a moment. "And I will say this. I understand your beloved Shardik even less now: how he stands sodomy is simply beyond me."
"Of course they did," he said, screwing up his face into a grimace of memory. "With a police baton, no less. Very unpleasant."
She grinned, her own imagination battering her with memories of Kennet and the things he did to her. "It is different when done lovingly."
"It shall not be done to me!" he said, smiling back.
"So orders the Queen," she agreed, and they both broke down laughing. "I am glad that you are not scarred too badly by it."
"I am here, now. What did you tell me once? 'Lessons, not scars?'"
She nodded, then pulled him back into an embrace. He recognized immediately what she was after and leaned down to kiss her sharply. She moaned into the kiss, needing his mouth on hers, his body against hers. "Nobody has touched me since the war, Ruly. Nobody. We have all been too busy. I have kept only my shower busy, too."
"Is that why you called me to the palace?"
"No," she said. "But it is what I want right now."
He smiled and kissed her again. She anticipated it this time and let it flow through her from her mouth down to her toes. Rulyon didn't quite fill her with love, the way the romance stories said he should, but it was close enough, now.
They moved as one toward the bed, where he found himself confronted with the ruffles and restrictions of her formal court dress. "Those buttons, there, first, then that zipper, then those straps..." She giggled. "Oh, Ruly, you really must master all of this. However shall we be husband and wife if you cannot get me naked?"
He barely paused in his work when she said 'husband'. "I could fetch a knife."
"Have you any idea how expensive this dress is?"
"I have an idea, yes. And how precious the fem within it can be."
She smiled down. "Do you say that as my subject?"
"No, as your lover." He pushed the dress down off her shoulders and it fell halfway down her waist. She pushed at the elastic waist-holder and it slumped to the floor, a compressed version of itself. She stepped out of it wearing only her knickers.
"Now you must undress," she said.
"You say that with such a practiced voice." He sighed. "I hope someday to have the kind of voice you have."
"Be my husband and you shall."
He had been unbuttoning his shirt when she said it. "Is that a formal request?" he asked. "Because if it is, I must inform my father immediately."
She reached out and resumed undoing the buttons on his shirt, exposing the hide underneath. "You will do no such thing without attending to the satisfaction of the queen first," she said with a grin. "And yes, this is a formal request." He was staring at her, and she stared back. "Rulyon, would you be my husband? Would you marry me?"
"I would, your highness."
"You answered so quickly!"
"I have had months to think about it. Ever since the ball. And I have consulted with my own collection of gossips and spies. There really hasn't been anyone else, has there? Your 'short list' was shorter than you pretended."
She looked away. "No, there really wasn't."
"Because... because." Her feelings in her heart were hard to put into words, but it was those feelings, and not the rationale, that really needed expression. She sought help. "Because while there were others whose political value would enhance the throne further than your father's small duchy, none of the men I could have married from those families had any hope of making me happy."
"Do I?" he asked, the smile on his face evident.
"You know you do," she said. "You did the first time. All of those tales of falling in love at first sight, Ruly... they're lies. It's not love, it's lust. Love takes willingness and dedication. And sacrifice, I think."
"More from me than from you?"
"You have grown," she said. "I don't know the answer to that." She finished taking off his shirt. "Now, my handsome young man, I want you to make love to your queen until she is satisfied." She grabbed him by the arm and pulled him toward her bed, the huge bed in which she felt lonely most of the time. Even Pal's gentle playfulness did not erase her waking hours when she rose, to be attended by servants and AIs, all of whom she knew by name but few of whom she liked or loved. She cynically believed that many of them were here just to be close to the fire that was Queen Anlestin, the Queen of Troubles, who inherited her throne in an alien war and in her first months upon returning to it had to quell a civil one. She hoped that that was not the beginning of a trend.
As they fell to the bed, however, his mouth was on her chin and her neck, the warm kisses against her cool skin encouraging sighs from deep within, and she could feel herself becoming swollen and wet between her legs. It was a pleasant feeling, the kind she didn't feel often enough. "Oh, Ruly, when we marry you shall have to do this every night."
"Yes," she sighed. "Kiss me. Kiss my body."
"As you command," he said. He said it simply, but his mouth on her chest and belly left little trails that in her mind's eye glowed with desire. Her legs were twitching, she noticed, trying to eek out a little sensation from that simple motion, a little more to get her closer to her climax.
"Part for me," he whispered, and she opened her legs. She was still wearing her panties and the socks with the reverse garters, the absurd little attachments that kept her dress from blowing up and revealing her legs to the audience. As if that alone would be enough to drive watchers into a frenzy. But then his finger touched her panties.
She tried to pretend that she was a cosmopolitan, experienced woman, who had had both mel and fem, llerkin and alien, but despite her relations with Ken and Pal and the rare few others she had allowed over the years, she had never quite gotten over the shame and vulnerability of exposing herself. She felt her face flush with heat she couldn't afford to lose. She was starting to feel cool already when the heaters in the palace moved to compensate. She quietly thanked Reeds for his attentiveness and was shocked back into reality by the pinch of his fingers about her vulva as he took hold of the thin, white cloth and pulled it down her thighs.
"So beautiful," he said, his eyes searching along the length of her body. She was afraid that he would see flaws where no one else ever had, would see through her into the sham little girl pretending to be a princess pretending to be queen.
His mouth touched her cunt and her worries were washed away by the flood of pleasure. It wasn't the slow, gentle build-up that happened with Ken or Pal, but an instant tidal surge, an ocean of need that coursed through her from her sex down into her soul. She ached with need for him. She wanted him to fuck her. The foreplay-- oh, she could wait on it but it was not what she wanted. Not now. Suddenly, after all of the pain and suffering, after all of the confusion and discord, what she needed more than anything was to feel his cock within her.
She grabbed him by the head and held him there because it was what she wanted. His tongue created magical dances on the outer bowl of her vulva, but she was hungry and wanted the feast, not the ball. She groaned as her need rose, and her pleasure, and she wanted him, wanted him more than she could describe.
She came with a groan, the pleasure arcing through her, pleasurable but distracting, almost annoying. "Fuck me, Ruly," she said.
"I want you to fuck me, Ruly. Please."
He struggled out of his pants and fell between her legs. They merged together, mel and fem, belly to belly. His cock slipped into the funnel of her cunt and they sighed as it slipped down the sensitive walls and into her body. She felt the sudden tension of muscles about her opening as they closed down on him and held him almost hostage. He could have pulled out, if he wished, if he was truly disinterested.
But he only smiled as he pressed deep into her body, then pulled up, to do it again. She gasped with incoherent pleasure as his cock found the little places inside her once more, where he had been before. He knew how she responded, he had learned, and his belly pressed against hers in that way she loved as her pushed her down to the mattress, held her down to the softest, most embracing bed her people had ever made and kissed her cheek, her chin, as his cock stroked and swayed within her, finding all of the little places in its back-and-forth motion sweeps within the narrow funnel of her cunt.
She groaned without words as she came once, twice, her body pulling him on. She thought of Ken and Pal, and their differences, and the way Ruly truly was for her, truly was made to her body the way mels and fems were made, and she cherished and adored him as he came himself, a hard, final pull up, pushing his cock down into the base of her cunt, the well where his seed collected and her body held it. A sense of satisfaction soaked deep into her, a happiness profoundly different from anything she felt with anyone else, and she knew she had found a mel she could adore.
The look on his face was just as precious, the lost, distant, gone look of a mel who had satisfied his very need at that moment. He withdrew from her and lay down beside her, his breath coming in the deep, long gasps of one in excellent health, and she admired him. "You're the one," she whispered.
"I think... I believe you are one as well," he said. He smiled at her and she returned it gleefully.
"I've heard it said that it's just chemistry. I don't care. You fulfill me. When you came... I knew."
He nodded. "I did too."
"Marry me, Rulyon, and I shall keep you happy and give us heirs and there will be banquets and feasts in your honor and... " She turned to him, putting her arm over his shoulder, "And I shall do everything in my power to make you the most well-loved man in history."
He smiled shyly, and blushed, and the Rulyon she had seen once, a short time ago, only a few years ago, when he had first come to her chambers, was visible in the mel who lay beside her. "I love you, Ruly."
His eyes jerked to hers momentarily. "Is that... "
"You don't have to say it to me," she said. "I'm not some little girl with but two decades of life behind me. I'm the Queen, with three centuries and two wars behind me. I know what I said, and I know what I meant."
He nodded. "I'm not so old or so experienced, but... I shall accept what you say as true."
"That would be for the best," she said. She glanced up over his shoulder and saw a full-bodied decanter, glass stoppered, with something red in it, waiting on the bed stand. A sheen of condensation collected about the base. "Reeds has left us wine," she said.
"Oh, smart AI," Rulyon said. "That is one luxury I wonder how we survived without-- the AI."
"I feel a bit bad about the AIs, myself," Anni said. "Their presence wouldn't have been accepted by the common folk unless they were already accepted by the nobles, but few realize just how used nobles are to living in constant observation, watched at every angle."
"No," she agreed. "Not enough to stop siss-talek and his cadre. But... enough that the AIs feel like just another adviser, another overseer making sure that my life is as comfortable as is possible."
Ruly nodded. "I hope that you are comfortable with your life."
"I am as comfortable as is possible for my post. I think my mother felt much the same way," she said. "But I shall certainly be spending most of my life second-guessing my past."
"Lessons, not scars," he repeated.
"Oh, you," she said, butting his shoulder with her chin, then sliding up to kiss his lips. "You know what I mean. You do it too. Especially if this marriage doesn't work."
"It will. We will make it so."