Hunter stopped on the cobblestone patio which used to hold the princess’s tea table during the summer. Belle sat against my calf and leaned her head on my knee.
“Not much, is it?” I said, a little bitterly. The gardens had changed with the regime; the wild roses near the sculptures had been trimmed down to the ground, revealing a bronze army of angels the last queen had sworn were constantly watching her. I understood her paranoia now—the eyes and teeth were turquoise with tarnish, and with dramatic poses, it was as though I could not escape their dark-eyed, sneering faces. They were angles gone horrific, and I was relieved when we passed an evergreen hedge into the herb garden, a muddy pit hosting barren twigs which last year had been lush and bountiful. Amongst the dead, I did notice the stronger plants laden with buds on the brim of bursting, awaiting only one more sunny day to plough into bloom. I longingly glanced at the rockface with dried hops clinging to it; if I could make Hunter go away, I could slip through the cave and be gone before anyone knew where to start looking.
“It will need new planting this spring, but I think the real gems survived the winter.” But Hunter’s gaze wasn’t on the twigs, nor was it on my finger breaking a brittle stem in half. His gaze was straight on me, and I fought back a blush by responding with a sharp voice.
“That is a major attitude change from our last meeting.”
“I think we’ve both had some time to think.”
I narrowed my eyes, regarding him with suspicion. “Meaning you’ve talked with the camp members. Talked, not interrogated.”
“No one talks with the king’s assassin,” he said, dismissing my comment by bending down and digging through the dirt with two fingers.
I shook my head. In order to be good at his job, he had to be able to disguise not only his appearance but also his voice, accent, and demeanor. There was no doubt in my mind he had talked with my campmates; a part of me yearned to know if they had said anything good, but the rational part of me knew better than to involve myself in gossip. I let the subject slide. “Then what do you mean?”
Hunter stood again, brushing his fingers on his leather pants and revealing a row of finger-length knives at his belt. “I mean that you cannot ignore your traditions, but I cannot ignore mine, either. I have been thinking that there has to be another way, a way down the middle…but I don’t see it.”
His shoulders sagged, and just like that, the raw strength he carried on them dripped away to the ground, leaving behind a lost man with the weight of the world pressing in on him, leaving worry lines beneath tired eyes, and grim, pale lips that had not smiled in much too long.
For an instant, I fingered the dead plant, got a grip on it, and pulled it up out of the ground, rotted roots still clinging desperately to fertile soil even as I shook it off. I remembered this plant; I’d spent the entire summer admiring its orange, purple, and pink blooms, its silver leaves. It was the pride of the princess, and every visitor took their time admiring it. Pride. Vanity. Things better left in the past. Hunter was right—the real gems were still alive. This place was going to need both kingdoms cooperating to make it glorious again. An idea occurred to me, a wild, crazy idea best left in my own head.
“Marriage is the woman’s way of power. If you could offer me a position equal in authority to yours, I think both myself and the public could accept it.” Such a thing would never have happened under the old king, and it was a dreamy prospect. I bit my tongue. I shouldn’t have mentioned it, but I couldn’t help staring hopefully at Hunter.
For a full minute, he pursed his lips and stared at a volunteer pussy willow growing out of a thicket of tangled limbs. He spoke haltingly, “And puppies would be acceptable?”
I was not positive about that myself, but onlookers would not believe the change in standard unless I lead it with my head held high. I would face a good deal of questioning, and it started with Hunter. “They will happen if we are seen as equals.”
Hunter exhaled, and I wished I could admit how relieved I was, too. I wished I didn’t have wild moths beating to get out of my stomach. He shook his head, but he didn’t seem so tired anymore. “It’s a tall order, but I think I can convince the king you are the best candidate for liaison.”
“Liaison?” I knew what it was, but had assumed the position had ended with the occupation.
“Organizing festivals, enlightening me on your mysterious ways, that sort of things. The job has never been given to a woman before.”
“I think,” I paused, my head swimming with the weight of the tasks before me, “I think that would be acceptable.”
“You—we—would be responsible for merging customs and cultures.”
I was not convinced he planned to follow through on merging; he had uprooted every city dweller to provide housing for his citizens. Or maybe it was the king’s choice, and Hunter had no voice in the matter. I could hope that a merging would happen, and I was going to do the best I could.
“Do we plan the spring festival? I’ve heard it is supposed to be soon,” said Hunter.
I shook my head. “It is, but first, I want your best cook. One that isn’t pigheaded.”
He smiled. “After that hunger strike, I’m sure you are famished.”
“Fusion food. If you want to make a new culture, you have to start with the stomach. It will be the best way to start off the Festival. And the thing I really want is a pillow.”
“I will check what quarters are available.”
“Good,” I said, my lips numb, and he turned on his heel and headed back to the castle. He didn’t look back to make sure I was coming.
Several minutes later, I looked to the cave entrance curtained by layers of dried hops vines, Belle watching me with perked ears.
I turned on my heel and headed back to the castle, my mind swirling with what I had done.