Rank, duty, propriety. They were the basic facts of life for an Alexandrian soldier. Anything else was a bonus; anything less was unacceptable. The lowest forces in the Alexandrian army could be counted on to be impeccably composed in any crisis, no matter how trying.
It was this damned propriety that kept Beatrix looking emotionless upon the return of Queen Garnet and Captain Steiner. She reflexively dropped to one knee. Behind her, the Rose Guard did the same.
“Welcome home, Your Majesty,” Beatrix said serenely.
The Queen bid her rise with a wave of her hand. Her soft brown eyes were grateful but sad. “Thank you, Beatrix. I’m glad to be home.” The words were hollow. It was obvious she would rather be anywhere else, as long as she was with him.
A familiar clanking shuffle on marble floors reminded her the hardest part was still ahead. “Captain Steiner,” she murmured, rising. She steeled herself and finally lifted her chin to meet his gaze.
She held his eyes for less than a second but it was more than enough to send her reeling. Somehow it hadn’t seemed real until now: he was alive. He’d come back alive even after she’d given up hope. How could she have known he would make it to hell and back?
Beatrix had taken her ship to help him fight the silver dragons because she sincerely believed she would never see him again. If he was willing to give his life for this fight then she was too.
But here they were.
“General Beatrix,” he said, kneeling down in a formal salute.
Garnet had wandered away and was fingering the velvet brocade on the arms of her throne. “This begins a new age for Alexandria,” she said quietly. “There’s not going to be any more war. There’s nothing to fight against.”
“You could fight against ending sentences with prepositions!” a squeaky male voice suggested. The Knights of Pluto had burst in through the doors on the second-level balcony.
“Captain! You’re home!”
Just what I needed, Beatrix thought, although she was secretly thankful for the diversion. The young men came downstairs in a rambunctious cluster, shoving and tripping each other to get to their captain first. “Disciplined as ever, Captain,” she remarked, not looking at him.
“I accept all responsibility for any trouble they may have caused.”
“As well you should.” It was a farce, every word of it. She didn’t know nor care what the Pluto Knights had been up to since he left, and she doubted he’d spent his time worrying about whether or not Weimar was groping everything in a three-mile radius. But that was the price of a political life: you could rarely have a moment’s solace with your true feelings. Even Garnet, innocence personified, was lying through her teeth like the rest of them.
Not for long. Alexandria doesn’t need me any more. The queen doesn’t need me any more. Steiner...
She wouldn’t think about him. She couldn’t. She’d already made up her mind. Of course, that had been before she’d known he was still alive, but she was stronger than that. The (love? No, it’s not love! It can’t be) of a man wouldn’t tie her down.
“Your Majesty,” she exclaimed. “Request to be...dismissed.” The words felt heavy on her lips. Surely the queen couldn’t know just what she meant by “dismissed”.
Garnet turned to smile at her. “Of course, Beatrix. I wouldn’t want to keep you.”
You won’t. She saluted a final time and turned on her heel towards her private chambers.
No, no suitcase. She had done just fine without anything before. No royal seal; she didn’t need anyone to know who she was. Most of all, no Save the Queen. Her sword was a symbol of a past best forgotten.
She’d start over.
The pouring rain seemed to plead with her to reconsider. Undaunted, Beatrix went out straight from her balcony door into the chilly evening.
Oh no. How did he sneak up on her like that? She must’ve been so lost in thought she didn’t even notice the clinking of his armor. Then again, it had long ago become a familiar background noise like the chattering of birds.
“Where are you going?” The desperation in his voice made her want to be ill. But she would not falter, not now.
“Please don’t ask, Steiner. My mind is already set.”
She couldn’t stand here any longer. She tossed her hair over her shoulder and was ready to vault over the balcony when he suddenly burst out, “I -I never wish to lose you again!”
What? Beatrix felt her stomach lurch and she turned around to face him. “Steiner...”
“Let us protect the queen together!”
It occured to her then that love was not the product of epic adventures or divine intervention. No, love was much more subtle than that; it was a peculiar, sneaky thing that thrived on strong feelings and lurked in dark corners. Worst of all, it could look like hundreds of things that weren’t love at all, but there was no mistaking it once it finally stepped out of the shadows.
She ran to him and cupped his face in her hands. It felt so good to have him close. “Stupid,” she said, half-laughing, “where is your grammar?”
The intimacy of her touch must have petrified him, because now he was more incoherent than ever. “S-somewhere...in...a box?” he said weakly.
“Good enough,” she agreed. A long stream of water from over the rain gutters trickled down onto her shoulders. “Steiner? We should go inside.”
“You... you will stay?” he asked.
She nodded. She’d thought she had to go where her heart led her---but for the first time in her life, her heart was in the same place as her duty. I’m not being tied down, I’m being set free. “I’ll stay.”
They went together back into her chamber. Beatrix noted with amusement the thick footprints where he had come scrambling across in search for her. “Get rid of that armor,” she said offhandedly. “If you wear it much longer it’ll rust around you.”
He paused. He hadn’t had time to clean the blood and dirt off the cold steel plates. He was beginning to look like a molding potato. “Er, yes. Absolutely.”
So it was for practicality’s sake, not any matter of unrestrained passion or contrived necessity, that they ended up in their undergarments. There wasn’t much to be seen; just ordinary cotton full-body stockings to be worn under thick armor.
“Should I prepare some---”
Beatrix leaned her head on his chest. This was what it felt like to have somebody support you? Not some gushing, dyed-in-the-wool romantic who hung on your every word, but a friend. A friend, and more than that, maybe a lot more than that, but above all, a friend.
It was nice.
“Should you prepare some what?”
“You don’t have to say anything, you know.”
For a fleeting moment, rank, duty and propriety went straight to hell, and Beatrix was glad for it.