The King’s Guard had the search well in hand, and though they were all happy to see Quill and complain to him about the escape, the hour of the night, and professional criminals in general, they waved off his offers of help. We must’ve looked tired, because one or two of them told us to get some rest. As we trudged back through the palace a fourth time, I reached out and laced my fingers through Quill’s.
Because I could.
He glanced at me and squeezed my hand. When we reached the end of the hallway, he stopped walking, and I turned to face him. “Stay in my room tonight,” he said softly, adding, “Just to sleep. Eloi knows we need sleep, and I will sleep better if I know you’re safe, and you’re not where anyone knows to look for you.”
My heart quickened at the thought of spending the night with Quill. Even if the intent was just sleep. He’d been so tired he’d fallen asleep on the floor under my bed—was that just yesterday? —and I’d been barely sleeping at all in the Countess’s place. The thought of spending the night with a friendly warrior at my back was just as seductive as the thought of that friend being Quill. “Alright.”
When the door closed and locked behind us in Quill’s suite, I felt my exhaustion deeply. I also felt intensely aware of Quill as he moved around the room and rooted in the wardrobe. I toed off my boots and began removing knives. Shiharr and Azzad first, then a handful of others. Not as many as usual, since I’d only taken what I could hide in the hoopskirt gown. Unbuckling the jacket, still the ceremonial red coat from the Queen’s Guard, I laid it on top of the knives with exaggerated care. It felt right, being here with Quill, but it was also new and alarming in its own way.
“Here,” Quill emerged from the wardrobe and handed me a tunic and loose trousers meant for sleeping. His.
“What are you going to wear?” I blurted.
He grinned. “I have another set.”
My cheeks burned, but I took the bed clothes and minced to the washroom with as much dignity as I could gather. Grown woman. Feared outlaw. Legend. Blushing fool. I took the time to take down the elaborate braids in my hair and re-braid in a single plait, and when I returned, Quill was already in bed. “What changed?” I asked him suddenly.
“Something was different about our flirtation from the very beginning of this job—you’ve loved me for years, we’ve always flirted…but since the first time I saw you in Wimshell…”
Quill propped himself on his elbow, “That obvious?”
“As obvious and hair-raising as riding without a saddle or bridle for the first time,” I answered.
Sighing heavily, he picked at the bedspread, “Don’t laugh. But when we were south last autumn, I got sick.”
“Why would I laugh at that?”
“Because for four horrible days I had control of neither my stomach nor my bowels and I felt like I was dying a slow, ignoble, death—with ample time to review all my regrets. There’s not normally time for that when I face death.”
“Oh,” I nearly choked on the laugh that escaped.
He glared at me, but it was obvious he didn’t mean it. “They told me it was an insect bite. Which seemed especially cruel. But in that time, the things that kept me from pursuing you—kings and secrets and miles of distance—began to feel incredibly small in the grand scheme of things.”
They did feel small, now. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t loved Quill before, it’s just that now he knew I loved him. A tiny change that changed everything. The lamp by the bed was the only light, gilding his face with such tenderness. I wanted to do the same, so I crossed the room and crawled onto the bed.
Quill watched me slip under the covers and went entirely still as I traced the places the light touched his face. Eloi. I could hardly believe I could.
“I love it when you look at me like that,” his voice was thick. The light glinted off the green in his eyes. Such a beautiful soul.
Leaning close, I kissed him, lingering and gentle. “Good night, Quill,” I breathed against his lips. Then I rolled down onto the pillows, turning my back to him. I felt the bed shift as he turned down the lamp. Then he pulled me close against his chest, one arm wrapped around my middle, the other under my head. He was warm against my back and it felt luxurious and safe with his body curled around mine. My heart raced as I felt him nuzzle my neck, a line of soft kisses covering the exposed skin before he settled where his breath touched my ear. We lay unmoving, and in a few moments his breathing became even.
It felt entirely unfair that his breathing was even already. But as I listened to the steadiness of his heart and his breath, I felt myself slipping away into sleep.