[three french hens]

when half spent was the night
by llamajoy

lo, how a rose e'er blooming
from tender stem hath sprung
of jesse's lineage coming
as those of old have sung
it came, a floweret bright
amid the cold of winter
when half spent was the night

The crown princess was not crying.

Beatrix noted this with some relief; Beatrix, who had cause to know of many of the princess' sleepless nights. After the king had passed away, and the first leaves had started to turn, Garnet til Alexandros had taken to walking the castle alone, keeping only the company of the stars. Nothing Queen Brahne could say was of much use; during the day the princess smiled for her attendants as if nothing were wrong.

But in the earliest hours of the morning, she would find a place by herself, to sit and think beneath the sky.

Not that there were any stars whose company she could keep, this night. Autumn had bled into winter, as ever, and now the skies were laden with snowclouds, making the darkness heavy. The dock and city were hidden under a layer of ice, Alexandria reduced to barest sketchy shadows, castle and harbor, grey and black.

Often the princess had wept into her hands on these nights, winter in her eyes, chilling the tears on her face. The queen's rose-general had watched her, herself up and out of bed for her own restless reasons, never speaking to her. Never knowing what she would say, were she to speak to her.

But tonight the crown princess was not crying.

Beatrix, who had once again ceased her own nightly vigil, thought she could see an uncommon stillness about her. Even at this distance, as the princess sat in the windowsill with her face tilted up to the clouds, there was a wintry depth to her eyes, laden with unfallen snow.

Perhaps she should approach her. Surely this habit was unhealthy; the princess would be falling asleep at the banquet table the next day.

"My Lady Rose?" whispered a voice from her blind side, soft against her ear.

She whirled around, her sword half out of its scabbard, before she recognized the voice. Of course, the newest member of Her Majesty the Queen's favored entourage, the lovely duke from Treno. She did not deign to turn all the way to face him, but rather kept her eyes toward the princess. She was, after all, Alexandria's finest general, with only the royal family to answer to. "My Lord," she said, with a curt half-nod-- but dimly realizing that she had never actually been told his name. Queen Brahne had taken to calling him "pet," and her mind could register no information more helpful than that.

He smiled not-quite benignly down at her-- she had never thought, before, that he was particularly tall-- his fair skin even paler in the dimly lit corridor. Her heart did not heed her calmer thoughts, her pulse still racing with the suddenness of his entrance. Watching him from the corner of her eye, she found herself ridiculously panicked. Had he... followed her here?

"The city is frozen tonight," he seemed to purr, lifting one elegant hand to indicate the city, sleeping beyond the hall-windows. "Few people are out of bed, at this hour."

"I thank you for your concern," she said tightly, refusing to yield to his curious golden gaze. "I am on an errand for Her Majesty, and I am not to be disturbed."

"Oh," he said, sounding not in the least bit apologetic. "For Her Majesty?" He tilted his head, the grey light making him look quicksilver, fey. "Strange, don't you agree, that I have not heard anything of it?"

"Not my Queen," Beatrix said, strained. Her fingers itched for the sword at her belt, uneasy. "...The princess."

"Of course," Kuja said, his eyes narrowed, as if she had just given something away, as if he had just won a round of intense political negotiations. "Your princess. Well, we'll just rescue her from her reverie, then, shall we? It cannot be good for her to walk alone nights, as she does."

Spoken so eloquently, his words left Beatrix little good reason to refuse, save her own misgivings about his unpleasant smile. "It is none of your business," she tried to say, but he was already walking past her. She would forfeit her sword before she voluntarily walked behind him, so it was with some alarm that she found herself striding towards the princess, silent at her window.

Of course she had no more suitable words to say than she had a few moments ago, and standing mutely before the crown princess seemed a very foolish thing to do. "Your Highness?"

Garnet blinked, lifting her head from where it had rested against the frosted windowpane, looking up at both of them with unguarded surprise. Perhaps she had been close to sleeping, after all; her eyes seemed vague and disoriented.

The man from Treno smiled most surprisingly then, as if he had just sampled something sweet and wanted nothing more than to lick his lips. Catlike, Beatrix thought, the way he looked at her. He lifted a hand to the princess' face, as if to brush her cheek, as if she were nothing more than a child. Unthinking, Beatrix found her hand on her swordhilt, unsubtle warning-- but with deliberate poise, he raised the princess' unresisting hand slowly in his own, and kissed her fingers.

"Good evening, sweet canary," he said, his voice lilting.

Beatrix scowled, recognizing the line and hoping to forestall any further theatrics. Quite an actor, this one. "Your Highness," she began. It is very late, she did not say. The night is chill, the clocks have ceased to chime. Are you not cold? "You must be weary."

The princess' head swayed a bit, like a wilting flower shivering on its slender stem. "I am a little tired," she admitted, her voice revealing the truth more so than her words.

"Then you'd best to bed, sweet," he said, presuming to help her from her windowseat and onto her unsteady feet. With a practiced little laugh he caught her shoulder, held her upright. "So sleepy, princess?" As his hands cradled her, his hair fell across her brow, strikingly purple, like blood beneath the skin.

Beatrix raged silently. She would never be so common as that, surely-- but each of his words resonated, as if they were stolen one by one from her own mind, and twisted ever so slightly. "If you don't mind, good sir," she managed, "I will escort Her Majesty to her rooms."

He shadowed the princess like petals half-plucked from the rose, hands unwilling to move just yet. "As you will, Lady Rose." And, as Beatrix could only watch, he pressed a kiss to the royal forehead. "Sleep, sweet canary," he murmured, "and dream of a market where a garnet is the most precious jewel of all."

Dreamily, Garnet politely murmured thanks, not noticing that he had already turned his attentions elsewhere.

"And a peaceful sleep to you as well, Lady Rose." He bowed to Beatrix with the utmost formality, his hair moving over his shoulders like falling rain. And the man from Treno flicked his wrist in an Alexandrian gesture of farewell, mirror-backward, touching his left hand to hers. She felt as though icicles trailed from his fingertips, his touch cold enough to make her bleed. She shivered, with more than just the eerie chill, trying not to think: bad fortune, to part someone's company with such an inverted mannerism, bad luck, to move against the sun on a long winter night.

His faint smile made her wonder, though, if it were really lack of culture that had him reversed, or if he knew precisely what he was doing. Though she regretted it, she found herself watching him go, until he turned a turreted corner and was no longer visible.

Without so much as a word, she led the princess to her bedchambers, though the walk might have been easier if she had allowed herself to lay a guiding hand under the girl's elbow. But Garnet did manage to find her way to her bed, and out of her dressing gown, though perhaps not as sure on her feet as she might have been.

As was her duty, Beatrix stood stiffly at the door, arms crossed-- simply as if she were only a bodyguard. Outside, the long tired song of the winter night was drawing to its close. The dark predawn was turning to a grey like steel, unforgiving, rising like a frozen mist over the slumbering city.

From the bed, a muffled voice. "Beatrix?" Garnet, with a yawn, sat facing her window, looking out at the unpromising morning. The docksmen were awake already, their swinging lanterns casting faint brightness against the misty ice.

"Yes, Your Majesty?"

The princess did not turn, quilts held to her chest, her back bare. "Who... was that?"

And Beatrix closed her eye, for the only answer she had pained her to give it. "I do not know, Your Majesty."


twelve days of christmas
b i s h o n e n i n k