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"Kurit!" Jarik shouted. The fury in his voice and in his eyes was such that Kurit stepped back from the big man. "I want to speak to you in your workroom. Now," snarled Jarik. I had never heard him address Kurit in such a tone, and it frightened me.
Kurit looked indignant for a moment, and I thought he would refuse. My heart beat rapidly in worry that Jarik would lose control of his anger and injure my husband. But thankfully Kurit had the sense to realize Jarik was not to be trifled with at that moment. They excused themselves to Kurit's workroom and closed the door behind them.
Breathlessly, I stood still, my hand braced on the back of a chair. I listened intently for the sounds of violence, but heard nothing. They were gone only a few minutes, but it felt like hours.
They returned, Kurit entering first with an embarrassed look on his face. "I'm sorry, Aenna. I seem to have fallen into a habit of being rather rude to you. Forgive me," he said.
I closed my eyes, sighed, and nodded once. Then I heard a small noise and opened my eyes to see that Jarik had shoved Kurit towards me.
Kurit cast a quick glare back at Jarik, who returned only a look of stone. My husband turned his gaze back to me. "Um, since we're both invited to whatever is going on out there, well we thought - I mean, I thought maybe, if you wish it, I could escort you there. If you want to, well, go together, that is."
It was obvious that Jarik had put him up to this. It was obvious that Kurit was uncomfortable with the idea of going to the opening. It was even obvious that he was struggling with the idea of spending time with me. But to be perfectly honest, I didn't care. I put aside all those things and clung to the fact that he had offered to escort me somewhere. I could not help but smile at him.
"I can think of nothing that would please me more," I said to Kurit. And for a moment - a very brief flash in time - I saw a hint of happiness on his face at my acceptance.
Then his usual, pained look returned, but nonetheless he said, "I would be honoured, then. I shall come to fetch you when it's time to go." He left my workroom.
I smiled at Jarik, which made him smile in return. "Good, then," he said. "Hopefully I've finally gotten through to him."
"What did you say in there? You didn't hurt him, did you?"
"Not physically, no. Though it was tempting," he grumbled.
"Don't, Jarik. It was all very amusing and silly when you used to tease each other and you'd play rough with him, but please, don't ever lose your temper and actually hit him."
Jarik sat down with a sigh. "I don't want to. He is my cousin, after all. Not to mention my King. But Aenna, there are times when he's cruel to you and I just want to..." He didn't finish, but his clenched fists and set jaw made the end of the sentence fairly clear.
I stood beside him and took one of his fists in my hands, tugging softly at his fingers until his hand relaxed. "Don't do it. You would not be helping me. It would bother me a great deal. Don't ever make me have to protect my husband from my dearest friend."
He squeezed my hand and said, "Your husband should be your dearest friend."
"Well then let's hope whatever you said did get through to him, and we'll have a splendid afternoon."
A few hours later, Kurit came to my chambers to escort me to the event. His eyes were sad, but clearer than usual. I suspected he had forced himself to remain sober since Jarik's chat with him. When I took his arm, he leaned and kissed my cheek. My resulting smile must have looked ridiculous, like a giddy adolescent girl. It remained on my face the entire time it took to walk to the new marketplace.
The smile faded into a look of bewilderment when we arrived. In the centre of the open area of the marketplace stood some tall structure, about twice Jarik's height. It was covered in a dark cloth, and I had no idea what it was.
I noticed others staring at it as well. A great many wealthy lords and ladies were present. They remained as far back from everything as they could, surrounded by their private guards, but more than a few seemed pleasantly curious.
When our arrival was noticed, a cry rang out to hail the King and Queen. Every man bowed and every woman curtsied. To this day, I hate it when they do that. It always makes me blush.
Druin proudly stepped into the centre of attention, near the mysterious cloth-draped object. He bowed charmingly to Kurit and me, glancing at me with a roguish grin the way Kurit once did. I could not help but return the smile.
"Your Majesties, good Lords and Ladies, and all else who gather here," he began. "I am deeply honoured to welcome you to the new Endren peasants' market. Every care and concern has been taken to design this area..." Druin went on about the many well-planned features of the new east end. I wanted to listen, but I could not keep my mind adhered to his words. All I could think about was that my arm was in Kurit's. I could feel the muscles of his arm against mine. I could feel the warmth of his skin under his shirt. I could feel his chest expand and contract as he breathed. I was aware of his every movement, his scent, and his heartbeat.
In my mind, I saw him being so proud of what I had helped to accomplish that he would kiss me passionately right there in front of everyone. When I should have been listening to Druin, I instead was fantasizing about Kurit's lips on mine, his arms around me in love and pride. Then I imagined him joyfully taking me home and leading me to his chambers, where he would slowly undress me and himself and then make love to me, over and over again, a thousand times to make up for everything that had gone wrong since I was abducted.
I stole a glance at my beloved husband. He was watching Druin, obviously listening to what was being said. His face showed no emotion. I watched him for a few more seconds, hoping he would realize I was looking at him and favour me with a loving smile. I wanted so badly to see him smile. I wanted so badly to be naked and under him in his bed.
I heard Druin say my name, and quickly returned my attention to him in case I was being asked to speak. I prayed that I was not blushing noticeably from my daydream.
"Her Majesty's benevolent vision has become our reality," Druin said. He was looking at me sincerely. "Good Queen Aenna, none of this ever would have occurred without you. You believed in us, and every man, woman, and child who lives or works in what you have built for us will know that. Your faith in us shall serve to inspire us to work diligently to make you proud. You have given us hope by virtue of your own struggles, your own path to greatness, and your enduring goodness. You have given us a chance to better ourselves. For this, we, your loyal subjects, dedicate this marketplace in your honoured name."
Druin and another man grabbed two pull-cords on the great cloth. When they yanked on the cords, the material split down the middle and fell, revealing a large white statue of a woman holding a child in one arm, the other arm stretched out in delighted welcome.
It was a statue of me, and the child in my arms was my son.
I stood still, absolutely stunned and speechless. Around me there erupted a great clamour of noise-applause, happy shouts, whistles, and even the gathered nobles spoke in pleased tones amongst themselves. I just stared at it, mouth agape like a fool. It was a few moments before I realized there was writing on the statue's base. It read:
Good Queen Aenna
Who had faith in every Keshaerlan
Who gave of herself that we all may prosper
"By the Gods themselves," I whispered in awe.
"Apparently you've almost become a Goddess yourself," Kurit said, having heard my whisper. "I wonder if these people even have the faintest idea who I am." He moved his arm out of mine.
I was about to ask Kurit if he meant to sound as ridiculously envious as he did when Druin came to my side. I forgot about Kurit's words for the moment and said to Druin, "What is this? This is not right. I'm flattered, but really, Druin, I - "
"Your Majesty, this is our tribute to you for all that you have done for us."
"But I hardly did a thing, compared to most of you! I lifted no stone, I designed no buildings. It was the people's work that brought them their new homes. It is important to me that this be recognized."
Druin smiled handsomely. "Majesty, forgive my bluntness but you are too modest. None of this would have been without you. It was your vision. It was you who gave us the funding, the materials, and the very idea of it all. But beyond that, it was your insistence that things could be better that inspired us to work for ourselves."
I shook my head at him, but could not find the words to express how strange I felt, seeing myself immortalized in stone with a reverent inscription beneath. I approached the statue and looked up at it. It was a good likeness. Even Raelik's happy little cheeks seemed almost alive, though they were made of colourless stone. The pose was clearly taken from the day I had spun around like a silly girl in the great empty room that had just been finished. One of those that had been present must have described the scene to the sculptors.
I put my hands to my face and felt tears on my cheeks. I was so moved at this incredible tribute that I had begun to quietly weep and had not even noticed.
"I told you that your name would be remembered in history for this," said Jarik, standing close beside me.
"This is why you kept me in the palace."
He nodded. "I know very well that, had you found out about this, you would have gone to great lengths to stop it. You're far too self-deprecating and absurdly modest to have let such a thing be established."
"Indeed. This shouldn't be." I couldn't take my eyes from it.
I felt his hand gently squeeze my shoulder. "It should be, and it is. They adore you, Aenna. Let them adore you. You're their Queen and you have bestowed a great gift upon them. Stop being the barmaid playing dress-up and start thinking of yourself as a Queen. Don't be embarrassed by your subjects' affection. Delight in it."
I turned to him. His kind and loving eyes made me smile. "Now brush your little tears away, Aenna, and come be with your people. There are many who wish to congratulate you." He led me around from person to person. Many a wealthy merchant expressed their delight in the possible prosperity of the poor, for they knew as I had that their own businesses would benefit from a larger customer base. Some noblemen seemed still sceptical, but all were at least gracious and offered congratulations.
When finally I found Kurit again, he was standing off to the side, his arms crossed over his chest. I resisted the urge to skip girlishly to him, and instead walked slowly and majestically.
"Kurit, I can't believe this is all happening to me. I never could have imagined it!" I said in an excited whisper when I was at his side.
He did not look at me. He just stared at the statue with a vaguely annoyed look on his face.
"Kurit, what is it?" I asked. When he didn't answer, I said, "I know, the statue is a bit much. I really could have lived without that. It's very kind but it's frightfully embarrassing." Still, he said nothing. He just stared at it.
I touched his cheek softly, knowing the public affection was not entirely appropriate, but I didn't care. When he still did not even favour me with a glance, I tried to unfold his crossed arms to hold his hand. He was as rigid as the statue that held his eye.
"Kurit please, what is it? If that statue offends you, I'll order it torn down. Please, your face is so cold. I was so happy when you brought me here, my arm in yours. And your little kiss before we left, Kurit, that swept my heart away. I love you so very much. Your love is the most important thing in my life."
Finally, he did turn his head to me. He moved slowly, as though it were a great effort to force himself to look at the real me after seeing the white stone version. His eyes were cold and hard, and their jealous stare made me step back and shudder. Then, in a voice dark with resentment and anger he said, "You don't need my love, Aenna. You have all of Endren's rabble for that."
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