“Please don’t,” I begged my husband as he removed the manacles from my wrists in the darkness. “Nicholas, please.” I pulled my cuffed wrists to my chest, but his gentle grip remained as he carefully managed the key, despite being unable to see beyond simple shapes.
“There’s a truce, my love, for Christmas.” His fingers gently caressed mine as he fought carefully against the resistant lock.
“We are enemies," I urged, terrified of my pending obligation.
“Silence,” he commanded as his lips found mine, the opened shackles falling from my wrists and clanging to the rock floor.
My arms returned to their familiar position around him. I was lost in the kiss until my mind returned to reality. “Nicholas!” I commanded quietly as I shoved him away from me. Though I could not see his expression, I knew my withdrawal had hurt and I had to force to maintain the strength in my voice. “Stop it.”
His confusion in the silence was evident to me as he offered his outstretched hand. “Amelia, please…”
“That’s no longer my name," I whispered firmly, my heart panging for him. I silently begged my posture to maintain its chilly facade, though it threatened to waver and respond lovingly to the body it so missed comforting.
“And that ‘Leliana’ moniker is?" He growled, his hand retreating from me, his frustration growing. Tears welled in my eyes and I silently thanked the Creator that my husband could not see. "Amelia, my love, please.” He grabbed my hand, having grown tired of waiting for my cooperation. An exasperated sigh spilled from his lips. “Why are you behaving this way?”
“I was sent here to kill your dictator, Nicholas. As his confidant, you’re also my…” I choked back tears, pausing for a moment so that he didn’t hear. “...my enemy.” I finished strongly, with conviction. I knew my words pierced his heart, but his grip on my hand remained.
“I will never be your enemy,” he whispered as he pulled me to his chest, wrapping his arms warmly, firmly around my frame. I allowed myself to sink into his shoulder as he lovingly tangled his fingers in my hair. “You are my wife, Amelia. I love you more than life itself.”
A knot formed in my throat as I realized the damnation behind his words that surely hadn’t occurred to him. I love you more than life itself. My stomach cramped. I was here to test just that.
“Come, my love,” he coaxed as he separated his body from mine, pecking my lips as his hand wrapped around my wrist. “It’s Christmas. I want to spend Christmas with my wife.”
My resistance was in vain. Nicholas was determined and I knew it would lead me to my mission. As much as my heart begged me not to, I had to acknowledge the sheer advantage he was providing by releasing me.
“And what of tomorrow?” I finally whispered as we slipped hand-in-hand through the darkened corridors of the estate. “Will you return me to my prison?”
“We will deal with tomorrow when it comes,” he assured me. His tone suggested he had gone the way of love as opposed to better judgment. “My Amelia, I’ve missed you terribly. Tonight is worth, to me, any consequences that may come of it.”
I hope you mean that, I thought without nerve to vocalize. The walk through the passages became uncomfortably familiar the further we went. The warmth of Nicholas’s hand in mine had been sorely missed. As we approached his quarters, my heart began pounding with enough intensity that I was sure it would fly out of my chest at any moment. Panic overwhelmed me as I collapsed to my knees on the hardwood floor at his doorframe. My sobs were near-silent, but uncontrollable.
“Amelia?” Nicholas whispered, panicked, as he dropped down next to me. He put an arm around me, reaching over me with the other to take my hand. His touch in the dark was comforting, but filled me with guilt.
“I’m going to murder you,” I whispered in return, not as a threat, but as a plea. “Please return me to my cell. I’m begging you, Nicholas. Once the truce is over, I’m bound to kill you. Please don’t make me do this.”
“My dear Amelia,” his voice was gentle as he shrouded me with his frame, squeezing me tightly against him. “If I died in my sleep tonight, by your hand or the hand of the Creator, I would die happy and fulfilled. I would prefer nothing else than to die in the arms of the woman I love the most in the world.”
Silence was my response, and when it occurred to him I wasn’t convinced, he continued, “Do what you must, my love. I still wish to spend my Christmas evening with my wife. Will you deprive me of such an innocent desire?”
“I love you,” I complained as I wept into my hands.
“I love you,” he returned with a kiss as he helped me to my feet. “Come, my darling. Let’s go to bed.”
Nicholas guided me carefully into what was once our room. The familiar tick from the alarm clock imminated from the nightstand. Tears stung my eyes as they continued to fall. Nicholas guided me to the pillowed mattress, his hand releasing mine only to pull a matchbook from his uniform pocket. There was a spark as he struck the matchbook and the candle next to the alarm clock was lit.
This was the first time his face had been discernable, and I choked back the flood of memories that washed over me. His pale, smooth lips contrasted beautifully with his striking green eyes, which were currently clouded with sorrow. His face was as handsome as I left it, though now with a few more stress lines, his black hair now with a little less shine, though it had not yet betrayed him for grey. He, too, was hesitating, likely feeling betrayed by my own appearance. My naturally red hair that he had so often touched was abandoned for black, and now was cut above my shoulders as opposed to its former thigh-length that I had kept bound up. My face was not made and as a result, the punishment for revolution was blatant. Nicholas took a step back from me. “What is this?”
Since his gaze was hard rather than concerned, I knew he was not inquiring of my injuries. “Leliana,” I choked out, pained by his rejection. His silence made me uncomfortable and I began my defense. “I did not want to be traced back to you, Nicholas. I had to change my appearance as drastically as I could.” My voice was that of his wife, and though I no longer appeared as she, I could see his eyes begin to struggle with the dissonance.
Nicholas dropped to his knees before me. When I bent to reach for him, he fell into my chest, lacing his arms immediately around me. “I thought I’d never see you again,” he whispered into my bosom, shaky with anxiety.
My fingers traced through his soft hair, cradling his head against me as I often had before. “My husband,” I coaxed as I lifted his chin. “Merry Christmas.”
His warm lips pressed firmly to mine without hesitation or reluctance. His hands traced up my sides as he crawled onto the bed over me, causing me to lie backward as he slowly raised my worn top. His palms pressed against my abdomen and suddenly the kiss was broken.
“Amelia?” Nicholas’s frustration startled me from my absorption.
“What?” I asked, embarrassed that he had caught me off guard and defensive toward his change in tone.
“Why have you done this?” He was glaring at me, particularly my abdomen, and it took me a few more moments to realize he was referring to my now-healing lacerations that stretched the length of my midriff. The few moments of silence, though, were enough to anger him. “Look at yourself!”
My face grew warm with embarrassment and anger as I pulled my shirt down. “I’m sorry?” I growled, suddenly furious.
“Why did you start all of this?!” He rose from his position above me and began pacing the room. I sat up to watch him, but didn’t dare move from my spot. “You had a good life, Amelia! We had a good life and you decided it wasn’t good enough.” The sentence ended in a disappointed whisper as he stopped near the door.
The softening of his demeanor did nothing but enrage me further. “It isn’t just about us!” I cried out as I stood, careless to keep my presence silent. “It’s about the people, Nicholas. Our people. How can you sit as confidant to their abuser without any sort of guilt?”
“Guilt?” he hissed back at me as he turned to face me once more. His face was contorted with rage, so different than moments before. “I have incredible influence on our Lord, Amelia." His voice was thick with anger and came out a threatening growl. "You think the current abuse is unbearable? Consider conditions if he did not have me talking him down from thoughts of genocide and slaughter! Before me, our people were massacred daily for the sake of tyranny, Amelia. They were treated like stray mutts, unwanted and undesirable. Our prison was overcrowded and torturous. There were people dying in my family's palace of starvation and infection, both preventable results of overcrowding and neglect. I swallowed my pride to save our people, Amelia, and had you not abandoned me, you would know that!"
A lump formed in my throat. My husband rarely yelled at me and I never yelled at him. Greater than the effect of his words was the guilt I felt for being gone so long. He had dealt with our dictator for years now and had spent the last doing so alone. “I’m sorry.” I whispered, holding back tears.
“You’re sorry?” he spat coldly in reply. My tears began to fall as I sat back down on the mattress, returning to my more submissive state. Though the last year had changed me, I was still my husband’s wife and I felt shame for acting otherwise. “You’re sorry,” he whispered as he read my regret. His step was slow and careful as he made his way back to me. He knelt down gently next to the bed, taking my hands in his.
In silence, he kissed the fingers of each of my hands, arranging one to cradle his cheek. Sadness and struggle was evident behind his eyes, but so was something new that I could not quite place. I could not look. After what felt like an eternity of guiltily avoiding his eyes, Nicholas raised my chin so I would have no choice.
“Let me see,” he coaxed as he first pecked my lips lightly and then began raising my top once more. I did not struggle, but instead held up the tattered hem of the garment as he inspected the newest laceration as well as the blood stained skin that surrounded it. He kissed just above the mark and now it was he that was avoiding my eyes. “Does it hurt?”
“No,” I lied as I leaned to kiss his forehead. “It’s healing well.”
“Where else?” The voice of my Nicholas had never sounded so desperately saddened.
After a few moments of hesitation, but careful not to provoke frustration, I removed my outer layer of clothes. When just undergarments remained and every part of me was briefly inspected, he could no longer look at me. Bruises covered my chest, back, and legs, lacerations similar to that of my abdomen could also be found on my thighs and across my back, and my right shoulder blade was branded with the shameful mark of a revolutionary. All had been neglected care, and blood stained my body, despite my attempts to wash with the small vase of water the guards allotted each cell.
“Amelia…” he finally whispered.
“May I bathe?” I interrupted, to his relief and mine.
“Yes.” My husband rose with me and took my hand. “I love you,” he reminded me as he looked onward to his personal washroom. His hand squeezed mine as we entered the doorway, but still he refused to look at me. “Your soaps are where you left them.”
A quick glance around the medium-sized room supported his claim. The only thing that seemed out of place was my wash cloth, folded and placed on the edge of the tub, undoubtedly cleaned in my absence. By my husband’s preservation alone, few would discover my absence. “Thank you.”
Nicholas began drawing water into the bath, taking care to ensure a comfortable temperature. He still held my hand. “Will you return to them?” he finally mustered, feigning interest in the water temperature as though I did not recognize the ploy.
When I did not answer, he did not push. Once the tub was filled, he left in silence, allowing me to finish undressing and enter the warm bath at my own, agonizing pace as the soapy water attacked my ragged skin. Autonomously, I reached for my razor. The irony was not lost on me that my first desire was such an oppressive comfort.
Once that task was complete, I reached for my familiar shampoo. As I held the bottle, a wave of sadness overcame me. Subconsciously, my hand went to my hair, fondling the shoulder-length ends as tears welled in my eyes. Once I left the palace, my hair was the first thing to go. It was my most identifiable feature, and those that had never seen me simply referred to me as “Nicholas’s Rapunzel”. It was necessary, and though it was silly, I was deeply saddened to see it go. I often missed my hair and knowing how little shampoo my hair would now require from the bottle, I felt hollow. I often missed my old self, though I only ever questioned my decision when thinking of my husband. My mind’s eye reminded me of the look on my husband’s face when he saw me in the light.
Tears fell as I went through the routine, both washing and conditioning in a fraction of the time it used to take – a task I both enjoyed and used to relax. My bath water greyed as my temporary dye suffered another rinse, but the grey gave way to pink as I found the bar of soap in the water and lathered my body. My lacerations seared once more and I had to hold my breath to keep from crying out as new blood emerged from behind the old.
“Amelia?” my husband called from outside the doorway.
With my forearm, I wiped away my tears and proceeded to rinse my body of the bloody foam of the lather. “Come in,” I welcomed, choking back the pangs that accompanied contact with my ill-treated wounds.
Nicholas entered, hesitating as he noticed the tint of my water in the well-moonlit bathtub. His overcoat was now gone, revealing just the white button-up shirt he wore beneath it. His clothes were pressed, clean, and well-maintained, despite the fact that he’d worn the uniform all day, including the brief minutes he spent in the dank, dirty prison corridors retrieving me.
“How is the brand?” he asked gently, adjusting his pant legs as he knelt down next to the tub.
“I don’t know,” I half-lied; it was not healing but I had no way of knowing how bad the infection had gotten. I had chosen to procrastinate washing it for just that reason.
“May I?” he asked gently, rolling up the sleeves of his spotless shirt.
My silence was his affirmation. I remained upright, gripping the sides of the tub, and he leaned toward me, his face full of pain and struggle as he viewed the abused body of his royal wife.
Nicholas put his hand on my shoulder, guiding me carefully forward to inspect the brand. Though I could not see it, I knew it was inflamed, as it was always hot to the touch and buckled my knees any time it was disturbed. His fingers delicately traced around the ‘R’, careful to stay off to its edges. “It’s extremely infected,” he confirmed with sadness. I knew he had never imagined his own wife bearing such a mark. “How badly does it hurt?”
“Amelia,” he stopped me mid-lie. “I will ask you once more: how badly does it hurt?”
“Very,” I admitted reluctantly. “Please be gentle.”
“Always, my love,” he assured me as he kissed the side of my shoulder. He reached across the tub to retrieve the bar of soap from where I left it. “You know that I have to clean it.”
“I know,” I said through closed teeth as my fingers gripped the sides of the tub hard enough to whiten my knuckles, attempting to brace myself for the pain that was coming.
The water splashed softly as my husband submerged his hand. He raised the soap carefully and my shoulder went numb with his initial direct touch. The numbness only lasted moments before the agonizing burning began. I bit the inside of my lip to keep from crying out and almost immediately, all I could taste was copper. My vision blurred. I squeezed my eyes shut, sinking my teeth further into the inside of my lip as I struggled to maintain consciousness.
Once the soap was applied, Nicholas submerged his hand once more, letting the bar fall into the bath. He brought his hand back to the brand, keeping his touch feather-like as he massaged the soap into the broken skin. “Nicholas...” I cautioned as nausea began to rise within me.
“I’m almost finished,” he promised apologetically as he returned his hand to the water, this time cupping his hands to collect water for a rinse. He raised the water above my shoulder, and I felt the sharp, stabbing pains of the droplets making contact with my skin. Feeling ceased throughout my body and I could no longer fight off the black out.
When I awoke, I was lying in my bed on my stomach, dressed in my former nightgown. My head rested on a pillow on Nicholas’s lap with his fingers combing through my still-wet hair.
“Well hello,” he coaxed. The worry in his voice was evident. An awkward silence fell as I tried to gather my bearings. “It’s all finished,” he finally said, his voice heavy. “I thought it best to complete the process with you unconscious, so you’d feel as little as possible. I was worried I may have sent you into shock.”
“What did you do?” was all I could manage.
“Washed it, cleaned it with saline once I took you from the bath, applied antibiotic ointment, and bandaged it.”
The thought of all of that contact made me sick to my stomach. I rose from my position and instead sat next to Nicholas. Though the stinging remained, my shoulder did not carry the heavy weight that it tended to. “Thank you,” I assured him, leaning to kiss him. I was suddenly self-conscious about biting my lip before but dismissed it when I realized I could no longer taste the copper.
“I’ve missed you,” he reminded me as he slipped his arm around my waist, far below the lacerations.
“As have I you.” I rose to my knees on the mattress with the sole intent of kissing him once more, but wound up being pulled into his lap as he held me in a warm, safe embrace. A glance around my candlelit room showed me just how much he held on to my return. The sheets on the bed were the ones I had put there the morning of my departure, though now with slightly dulled colors from washing. My nightgown was cleaned, laundered, and pressed. My wardrobe was dust-free and the dress that was left there for me a year ago remained hanging on the door.
I couldn’t imagine what he had told the staff to cause them to keep the room in such a condition, but I was grateful that it was not void of my former presence. They must have had some clue as to my whereabouts for one of the manservants to alert my husband of my presence in the cells below, despite no longer appearing myself.
“You’re thinking too much,” my husband chastised. I hadn’t even realized our embrace had ended.
“I’m sorry.” I slid from his lap and returned to my former position on the mattress, though now my hand was in his.
“Let us sleep, my love,” Nicholas coaxed as he brought my hand to his lips.
“I’m alright,” I offered, avoiding his eyes. “My lacerations, I mean. They do not hurt.”
“You’re lying,” he half-whispered as he pressed his forehead to mine. His hand rose to my cheek and caressed while his other rested at my hip. “My dear, brave rebel,” he mused, the word never sounding so sweet from his own lips. “You have always been so strong. I could not have taken a better wife.”
My heart panged with guilt. Had Nicholas chosen his bride more wisely, he would not be minutes from death by his lover’s hand. His decision was poor, though he could not have known so all those years ago. “I am so sorry,” I choked as fresh tears welled. “I did not know this would happen when I married you.”
“My love,” he coaxed, pulling me in to cradle me against him. “You have done nothing to disappoint me.” His lips pressed to my temple and his hold on me tightened. “You must do what you believe in, as must I. I do not regret taking you as my wife or respecting our marriage in your absence. You are the woman I love, Amelia. Please do not question—”
My lips pressed forcefully to his as he loosened his hold. My hands traveled from his shoulders to his neck, resting on either side of his face as our kiss intensified. My legs came to rest on either side of his lap, folded neatly beneath me. His hands slid from my waist lower, keeping me against him. I’m so very happy to have him, I reminded myself, straightening my posture as his hands found the hem of my nightgown. The gown tickled as it slid up my body, but his hands immediately sated the sensation as they returned to me.
Nicholas pulled from me momentarily to unfasten his belt. I made quick work of his buttons. The impatience and anticipation behind a year of chaste bubbled in us both, with the lust for one another growing exponentially by the second. As his clothes came off, Nicholas hesitated. “You cannot be on your back,” he reminded me.
The brand was already throbbing with the removal of the gown fabric. “Would you think me disrespectful if I were not?”
My husband leaned forward to kiss my bare collarbone before resting his cheek against me. “Not for a moment.”
After a few moments of cradling his head to my chest, I kissed my Nicholas once more. We adjusted simultaneously toward the foot of the bed, allowing him to lie flat. Pillows braced his head, but little could steady his heart as I removed his undergarments and blew out the candle by the bed. I could feel his pulse against me as I straddled him in the dark and I leaned down to kiss him yet again. “If I am to have only two more hours with you, my love, I insist that they be memorable.”
“Do you genuinely believe revolution is the only way?” Nicholas asked me, his arms laced around me from behind.
“Yes,” I answered, my heart heavy that our post-coital conversation was to be so taxing. “Having that dictator rule our land and our people is disgusting.” I found myself snuggling back against my husband, even as my words cut him.
Nicholas did not seem to mind, instead kissing the back of my neck as he continued, “And you think murder is the appropriate route?”
“My orders are to execute the enemy,” I responded coldly, the names attached in the order clear in my mind.
“And me,” he reminded, nuzzling his nose into my hair.
“You are an enemy,” I returned sadly. My blood ran cold with the words I did not believe.
“Alright,” he whispered as he breathed against my neck. “Do what you must, then.”
A knot formed in my throat. Panic overwhelmed me once more. “All you have to do is take me back to my cell,” I half-pleaded, a sob emitting as my punctuation. “Return me, Nicholas.”
“I would rather die,” he answered honestly, squeezing me. “Goodnight, my love. Merry Christmas.”
“Goodnight,” I whispered with my eyes on the clock. A moonbeam from the window shone on the face of it, revealing it to be half past the eleventh hour. In only minutes, the truce would be over and I would have to proceed with the mission.
I struggled with the thought of my husband being involved with such politics. He was a good man and his morality was what had sealed me on marrying a future monarch, despite my ill-feelings toward royalty. And what if he were not the dictator's confidant? Would the wrong doings have indeed increased as Nicholas believed? Even the abused public praised and so loved my husband, the last remaining heir to the former monarchy. Public support was for restoration from the revolution eight years prior.
My stomach churned with doubt. I had gone over this moment several times in theory, never once hesitating to carry out my cause. My husband and our ruler were the only ones left from politics prior. Once eliminated, a new government could be established, with a new hierarchy founded by the people. Though the means were grim, the outcome was for the good of many. I could not let my mission fail simply because I loved my enemy.
The minutes were like both seconds and hours as they passed, flying as time stood still. Nicholas’s breathing eventually slowed to a calm, unconscious pace, but his loving embrace did not falter. The final tick of the hour found me rising from the bed. Nicholas’s sword was lying in a chair across the room, draped with his overcoat. I eyed it as I dressed, but did not touch it until I was once again in the clothes I had worn within my cell. The sword was heavy and required two hands, but I had practiced often and the weight was familiar.
I stood above Nicholas in the bed. He was undisturbed by my movements and now lay silently where I left him. Tears fell as I braced the sword above him in the bed. Nerves made me hesitate. His eyes opened, responding to my absence from his arms, and without a sound, I plunged the sword into the flesh of the right side of his abdomen, keeping far to the edge of his body.
Nicholas gasped but kept from crying out, his eyes rolling back with his head. His hands rose to his wound as I removed the blade, my tears now falling onto his crimson hands. “Please, tell them I overpowered you,” I begged. “Do not take the fall for this.” I laid one last kiss on the lips of my husband before bolting from the room, sword still in hand. Since Nicholas had remained silent, I was able to make my way carefully through the palace, unbeknownst to the guards or servants, to the chambers of our Lord and Master.
His door opened without a creak and the moonbeams through the curtains revealed stripes of the gluttonous man in his bed, a quarter-full bottle of liquor and a crumb-filled plate at his bedside. I approached the bed, my face hot as my anger rose. A single man, this single man had led the revolution against my husband’s family, had betrayed his people for greed, and had slaughtered both the royals and hundreds of my people, all in the name of autocracy.
As I got closer, I could hear his struggled breathing. He must have felt someone walk over his grave, for he too opened his eyes before I disturbed him. He cried out even before I raised my blade, but even more so afterward, his shrill scream breaking as the double-edge pierced his fleshy chest. “You bastard,” I remarked, pleased by the sudden silence that came with deeper penetration. “It’s over.”
“Amelia,” Nicholas gasped from the doorway. His voice broke my focus and I looked to see him fall to his knees beneath the doorframe.
Without a thought, I abandoned the still-vertical blade and went to my husband. I knelt before him, placing my hands on either side of his face. “Nicholas, call for assistance,” I insisted, his paleness evident even in the darkness. “I was careful; the only damage is to nerve and muscle. The only way you can die from it is if you allow yourself to bleed rather than seeking medical attention.”
“Please don’t go, my darling,” he begged with a ragged breath. “I am not ready to lose you again.”
“Nicholas…” I kissed my husband, but stood from him immediately after. “They will not allow me to stay with you. I will be put to death if I stay. I have to go.”
“I don’t want you to,” he confided as his voice broke. “Please.”
My stride was quick as I returned to the bed, pulling the large cord hanging from the ceiling next to where the dead man lay, signaling a bell in order to summon the staff. When I returned to Nicholas, I dropped to my knees once more and placed one last, long kiss on his lips. “I love you. I will see you again,” I lied as our lips parted. “I have to go for now.”
As I stood, Nicholas reached for me, his hand soaked and slippery from blood. “I love you, Amelia. Please do not forget me.”
“I never could,” I promised as my resolve broke. “Nicholas, I must go.”
“Go,” he allowed, withdrawing from me as he eased to the floor. I could not kneel and cradle him until help arrived as I so desperately wanted. I exited the room and made my way through the most public route to the exit; the servants would be taking their own corridors to the ruler’s room. The palace was otherwise empty at this hour and without confrontation, I slipped out into the night.