Robert brought more than just the horses. He had cold meals wrapped in butcher’s paper, for lunch and supper, and a change of clothes so Jason wouldn’t have to go spend a day in the woods wearing his court apparel. He also had two good hunting bows, and a wicked-looking skinning knife in case they actually shot something. The two of them, out hunting, never had yet.
He also brought Myriam.
Jason hadn’t noticed her at first, as he was working out details of his plans with the captain of his guard, but she stepped out from behind the horse Robert was leading and up onto the marble steps next to Jason, bouncing on her toes to get his attention. He cut off mid-sentence and turned to her.
“Well, good morning, Myriam.”
She smiled. “Good morning to you, Your Highness. Might I have a word with you?”
He tilted his head, curious, then looked back to his guards. “Give us a moment, captain.”
The guards withdrew some way, and kept a space clear around the king and Myriam. Robert glanced their way, a sly smile tugging at his lips, then busied himself checking the horses’ saddles.
Jason ignored them all, his eyes on Myriam’s. “How can I help you?” he said.
“Robert says you’re going away for the afternoon.” She brushed a bit of lint from his shoulder. “I understand you need some time to think, and—” In an instant, her bravery broke, and she looked up at him, eyes wide, “Oh, Jason, how are you doing?” Her voice shook with concern for him.
In spite of himself, Jason’s head half turned, pulled toward the Tower of Justices at the foot of the hill, but he forced his gaze back to hers. “I’m well,” he said. “I’ll be fine. It will take some time, but I’ll be fine.”
She peered into his eyes for a moment, searching for the lie, but finally nodded. “Good,” she said. She leaned her head against his chest. “I wanted to be there with you this morning. You know that, don’t you?”
Jason nodded. “I’m glad you weren’t,” he said. “I don’t think I could have handled it, with you there.” He shuddered. “I wouldn’t have wanted you to see that. It’s a gruesome thing.”
She sighed. “I know.” For a moment, she said nothing. When she spoke again, she sounded like she was buying time. “What did the Council say?”
He answered her anyway, shrugging. “They will make me king if I will give them their war. They said it as plain as that.”
She nodded. “That’s what you expected, too. And now you’re going away with Robert to think it through, to decide?” He nodded. She said, “So you really don’t know your answer?” He shook his head. She said, “I understand.”
He said, “I’m glad of that. Myriam—” She took a deep breath, and he felt her steeling herself for something. She pushed away from him, so that she could meet his eyes again, and cut him off with a finger on his lips.
“Jason,” she said, “will you marry me?” Her eyes were serious.
He laughed, but cut off at the dangerous look in her eyes. He put warm hands on her shoulders, and said, “Myriam, you are not supposed to ask me that.”
“Jason, I love you. I have seen your darkest days, and I loved you through them all. I want to see your brightest days, and love you through those, too. I know what today means to you. I know all the things you are going to be weighing, hundreds of different opinions and thousands of lives hanging in the balance, and I want you to know this. No matter all the weighty issues that depend upon your choice this day, I am not one of them. I want to be your wife, whatever you decide.”
He bent down and kissed her then, and didn’t care who was looking. For a long time, he lost himself in that kiss, and when he finally stopped, he said, “Myriam, I love you.”
She nodded. “I know.”
“You give me strength when I am weak. You give me courage when I’m afraid. You give me hope, when everything around me is failing.” He sighed. “When my heart is aching, I think of your smile to get me through it.”
She laughed at that last. “Jason, you don’t have to say all that. I just wanted you to know—”
“I know,” he said, then he sank down onto his knee before her, in the sight of a thousand of his citizens and all the Council, and he took her hand. “Myriam,” he said, “will you be my queen?”
“Yes,” she said, and tears shone in her eyes. “Yes, yes, yes, King Jason. I’ll be your queen or your farmwife, whatever you would make me. I choose you.”
He rose, and caught her in a tight embrace. She smiled against his chest, curled her fingers in his hair, and said, “You make me proud, Jason. Whatever you decide today, you make me proud.” Then she pushed away from him, and he reluctantly let her go. She met his eyes. “Now go,” she said, “and make your decision. The whole nation waits to hear what it will be.”
He held her gaze for a moment longer, then swung up into his saddle. Robert was already mounted, and side by side they rode down High Street, beneath the shadow of the Tower of Justices and then on through the Summer Gate. Outside the city, on the long highway into Terrailles, they broke into a gallop and let the horses run. The miles rolled by, as the sun made its way into the autumn sky.