01 The Morning After
Webmistress's Drawing of a Sculpture.  Artist Unknown.
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The Morning After



Chapter 1


By: Julie Lim


  When Kelson woke the next morning, he was floating in a cloud of gold. Or at least, a cloud of gold was floating around him. Araxie lay curled against him with her head against his shoulder, with her hair was spread loosely out, lightly shimmering like dawn's first warm light on new-fallen snow. A shy smile tugged at the corners of his mouth, but he was afraid to move for fear of waking her. He was also afraid that any attempts to free himself would tug at her hair, and he well remembered how much she had hated Conall yanking her braids when they were all children.

His smile faded a bit at the thought of Conall. It was still a mystery to Kelson how his cousin had turned out so badly, considering the love that Nigel and Meraude had given all three of their sons. But perhaps Conall had simply never reconciled himself to his parents' other responsibilities, believing that he himself should have been the center of their attention at all times. Conall had thrown tantrums when each of his younger brothers was born. Kelson sighed quietly. And then there was Conall's failed usurpation of the crown. And his successful usurpation of Rothana.

"You've gone all tense." Araxie's voice startled him. Her Haldane eyes, as grey as his, were looking up at him. "I was afraid of waking *you* up to get my hair out from under you." As they sat up to gingerly begin the disentanglement process, she continued in the same serene tones, "Are you thinking about Rothana again?" They had been in light rapport all night, and he could tell she was not angry, merely curious. "In a way," he admitted slowly. "I'll always have a scar in my heart. But I think you've healed it for me, and it will never be an open wound again. I almost wish..." He trailed off, but Araxie had caught the edge of his thought anyway.

"That you had never met her? Don't wish that, or she could have never matched us together. If you must wish some of the past away, wish that the circumstances of your meeting had been different." She had wound her hair into a loose spiral coil, which she released to trail down her shoulder to her waist. Her hands on his shoulders, she added, "Rothana is my friend, as well as my benefactress for arranging my marriage to you, Kelson. I think she is noble and steadfast. But I also think that she is quick-tempered at times, and that she should never have shown you the images of Janniver's rape."

"But I insisted--"

"Yes, and she should have refused. Or at least spared you even more of it than she did. The experience must have been horrifying enough for Janniver, and yet she recovered enough from it to happily wed her Jatham. But when Rothana showed it to *you*, you became terrified that you might someday hurt a woman that badly, even though that would be completely against your character. In some ways, you may have ended up clinging to Rothana because she had already experienced and survived the same mental terror that she showed you. Though on the other hand," she added, "Conall fell in love with her despite never having shared that bond."

"He did, didn't he?" Pensive, Kelson leaned forward, resting his cheek against Araxie's. "So you think I might have done the same even if she hadn't--"

"You might. But perhaps not with the same fervour that kept you yearning after her, even years after she swore to you that rapprochement was impossible."

"I could have learned to love you that many years earlier," Kelson murmured, nuzzling her. "I'm a hopeless lout."

She giggled, squirming at his stubble. "Your face feels like a cat's tongue. And you're not a lout; you're my king and my lord husband."

"Is that so?" He drew himself up, hands on his hips. "Well, as your king and your lord husband, I command you to let me call myself a hopeless lout."

Araxie collapsed into laughter, tangling herself in the bedclothes even more. Kelson pursued the advantage by thoroughly nuzzling her waist. Suddenly, he stopped, as if listening. He looked up at her over the glorious landscape of her torso. "Hmm," he said. "Do you think we've made a son yet?"

She lifted the sheets and looked under them carefully. "I don't see one yet. Do you?"

"Well then," he mock-growled, "you're slacking off then, you undutiful wench!"

"Wench!" Araxie exclaimed. "Well, good my lout husband, it takes two to do one's duty! Get to it!"

Kelson stared at her, caught between delight and confusion. "The math for that doesn't work out," he complained.

"Never mind," she reassured him.

As his confusion dissipated into delight, Kelson realized, in some small clear part of his mind, that he would never be torn again between Araxie and Rothana. His feelings for Rothana had been like a lightning strike, swift and blinding, leaving only scorched earth behind. But Araxie was a warm hearth, the comforting center of a home and family, a steady source of warmth and light.

_Make up your mind,_ her amused thought came to him. _Am I a wench, or am I an oven to put buns into?_

He stopped dead and kissed her soundly. "Araxie, you are my queen and my love and my life."



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