“She’ll take the same,” he said, in a voice so careless, so quiet and easy and unconcerned, that it made me want to scream. It was the first time he’d openly referred to me since we’d formally met half an hour ago. He hadn’t turned to me, hadn’t looked at my face, hadn’t stooped to ask me a question himself; he gestured with his long, elegant, ring-bedecked fingers behind him and to his right, where I stood with my hands clasped and my mouth shut. As though it were only natural he should speak for me without my consent.
The servant only glanced at me before bowing his head. “Two cups of lemon tea. Do you need anything else, your majesty?”
“Nothing else. My wife and I would like some time in private.”
I wanted to say something; words rose from my chest into my throat, but they crowded and stuck there, silencing me and restricting my breathing for a moment. The servant stepped smartly past us, and King Tyris - my conqueror, my enemy, my betrothed - led me down the hallway toward an open door.
He still didn’t speak to me as he passed through the door, a single crooked finger inviting me to follow him. It led to a small, warmly lit room with two plush chairs situated around a circular table; he sat in one and nodded for me to take the other. I tried to catch his eye, but he was staring a little above me, into space, as though even here his thoughts were too high for me to disturb.
The words in my throat twisted and swirled, fighting toward my mouth. When they came out, before I’d taken his implicit command to sit, they were barbed. “I hate lemon.”
He glanced at me briefly, as though I’d said something silly and of no consequence. “Have you ever had lemon tea? It’s not like eating a lemon. You’ll like it.”
My jaw clenched. It shouldn’t have mattered; over the last week hadn’t I seen enough horror to expect offhand rudeness from King Tyris? Shouldn’t I have expected much worse than being treated to tea I didn’t like? But the way he spoke to me without quite looking, without quite hearing, as though he knew everything about me already and wasn’t interested -
“I’ve had lemon tea,” I said resolutely. “I hate it.”
“You can put some sugar in it, if the taste is really too much for you.”
“We have sugar in my kingdom.” I took a heedless step toward him, thinking stupidly to look intimidating; he didn’t move a muscle, didn’t react with more concern than he would to a buzzing fly. “Sugar doesn’t change what kind of tea it is. I hate lemon.”
At last, with a longsuffering look, he turned and leaned on the arm of his chair to face me. Something gleamed at his throat, and my jaw clenched tight again; a sharp, pure silver triangle hanging from a simple copper chain. The necklace my father had worn, the symbol of his royal house. King Tyris had plucked it from his corpse after the battle was finished.
“My esteemed lady,” he said, only a touch of sarcasm coloring the words. “There’s really no way we’ll be able to live together if we argue over petty things like tea flavors.”
“You could have asked me what I wanted.”
His thin lips curled up into a patronizing smile. “Is that how the monarchy operates in your country? Did your king hang on his queen’s every tiny command, and refuse to make any decision unless it was hers?”
“I’m not making any demands of you.” He had no right to talk about my father and mother that way. Something burned in my chest. He had them both killed; he struck the blow himself at my father; he watched the light leave his eyes at the moment I became an orphan. “Your servant asked what kind of tea you’d take. I could have spoken my own request, that’s all.”
“Well, what does it matter?”
“What does it matter?” My hands curled involuntarily into fists. I hated him, hated every line and plane of his face, those eyes that were so nonchalant and free, the throat that held my father’s chain. “It matters because I hate lemon.”
He exhaled, a dignified, kingly version of a laugh. “Your hatred is noted.”
“When the servant comes back here, I’m sending him for peppermint tea.”
“The servant has other duties.”
“You sent him for your tea.” I’d taken another step, hardly knowing myself; blistering heat was thrumming up from my insides, shooting out into my limbs, making me feel on the verge of an explosion. “I’m the queen, I’m entitled to send for my tea as well.”
“So, you’re determined to become a nagging wife.” He released that little half-laugh exhale again. “Always sending the servants about to cater to your every whim. You’ll not be satisfied with them unless everything is exactly as you wish it. Spoiled daughters do turn out that way, I’m told.”
It was another dig against my parents. I packed as much venom into my words as possible; I spat them uselessly out at him. “If you’re so concerned for the servants, go and get me my peppermint tea yourself.”
“Now, now.” He turned to me with a raised eyebrow, as if imploring me to hear the ridiculousness of my words.
“Well, then, I’m sending the servant for it!” My voice rose along with my temper.
“Really, my lady, there’s no need to get hysterical.”
I wanted to shove him, wanted to grab him by the shoulders and shake him, but he was relaxed and easy in his chair and I stood tense and brittle over him. I shook myself with all the pent-up fury in me. The blistering heat was cracking across my skin. I wanted to smear away his cold indifference, leave him raw and bloody and vulnerable; I wanted to show him I wasn’t so easily beaten into submission.
But wasn’t I? I was an orphan. He’d conquered my kingdom. That I was at his mercy as his wife was only the way of things.
A soft knock sounded at the door. King Tyris called the servant in, and he appeared with a tray - milk and two teacups, nothing more. I turned to watch as he crossed the room and placed it delicately down on the table between our two chairs. The tea was a strange golden color that caught the light in a way tea shouldn’t. Instinctive mistrust swelled like poison through my anger.
“Take a sip, now,” said King Tyris, picking up one of the cups and offering it to me. “I think you’ll find it’s quite to your liking.”
I took a tiny sip. The sweetness was dizzying as it rolled over my tongue; the tea was at least three-fourths honey.
“Not like eating a lemon after all, is it?” he said, reading my expression.
I could barely swallow the sip I’d taken. The bitter lemon taste had been masked well enough, but nothing of the tea remained underneath it; I might as well have been eating straight from a honeycomb. It blocked my throat off for a moment with something far more tangible than too many words.
“There,” he said, settling back into his chair as though every problem between us had just been solved. “I told you you’d like it.”
It felt like a slap in the face. He hadn’t even let me respond. I hated him more each second, every molecule that made up his form, every fold of his clothes, every strand of his hair. My heart thundered in my ears, and my good sense was left far behind - I knew what this man was capable of, had seen it with my own eyes, but it couldn’t stop me carrying the fury within me to its conclusion.
I flung the teacup across the room and it shattered, spraying honey-tea around it, on the opposite wall. “I despise it!”
Fear spiked through me the moment after I did it. He could have me killed even more easily than he’d killed my parents. I wasn’t armed, wasn’t trained in war; I didn’t have anyone around me on my side. He could snap his fingers and end my life, and find another helpless princess to be his bride.
But along with that fear, spiking in tandem with it and keeping my heartbeat high and loud, there came the certainty that I didn’t care. That if he had me killed for defying him I would welcome it, I’d prefer it to a lifetime of being a quiet, conquered woman, a submissive prize for him to flaunt over others who’d dare imply his power wasn’t absolute. I whirled around again to face him, prepared for his fury, prepared to be unswayed by it.
He hadn’t even looked up. He was still taking the first leisurely sip of his own drink.
My shoulders rose and fell as I stared at him.
“A servant will clean that up,” he said, tranquil. “And I’ll send for another cup for you. In the meantime, you’ll simply have to be thirsty.”
At another moment, his utterly unruffled demeanor might have broken me. I might have collapsed against the tide of just how powerless I really was, how easily he could ignore my wrath and my pain - how stupid he made me look, made me feel, throwing a fit over tea, even though he knew what we were really arguing about. I might have sunk to my knees and wept until he thrust another cup into my hands, and then I might have choked it down, three-fourths honey or no, to sweeten the ordeal that would be the rest of my life.
Only the certainty was still pounding through me. I still knew I’d do anything rather than surrender to him. And the helplessness was mitigated by a single, tiny thing.
A silver thing on a copper chain. The triangle, knife’s-edge sharp, that hung around my king and husband’s neck.
For a moment I was cobra-still. He still wasn’t looking at me. He thought nothing of me, hadn’t even considered to fear me; he thought gripes over tea were the greatest fight I had in me. But that, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, was a lie.
I stepped forward, and forward, and still he was unfazed. I plucked the teacup from his hand and he looked up at me with nothing but a lazy smirk. Then I pitched myself forward into his lap, leaning in so our faces were only inches apart; this drew a raised eyebrow, a little acknowledgement of my apparent change in mood.
“My king,” I said quietly. “You’re cruel to me.”
“Not at all,” he said. “I know what’s best for you, that’s all.”
“Do you think so?”
“I’m sure of it.”
My eyes focused on the necklace. His chest was practically bared to me. I would do anything rather than give in. I would commit any crime, any treason, I would condemn myself to any punishment rather than submit to what he thought was best for me.
Before he had the chance to register what I was doing, my hand had already whipped up and grabbed hold of it. Warm between my fingers. Warm with the heat of a man my husband had murdered. Warm with the pride of generations of my people, strong and unbroken in the face of all our enemies. Warm with the blood of the dead, and the blood of the living, too, whose hearts beat to protect it.
Before he had the chance to stop me, before he could fight back or cry out or plead for his life, the deed was already done.
“I hate lemon tea,” I said, and killed him.