but the sky is a deep summer blue

The first time they danced together, Adalbert’s hands shook and he trampled all over Julia’s toes during the waltz, though from clumsiness or nerves she did not know. When she moved her hand to brush against Adalbert’s neck she could feel the warm blush against her fingertips. Julia smiled, and during the quadrille she stepped on his toes back. The lightness of his hand on her waist told her he was smiling, too. It was their engagement party.

Adalbert lies with his head in Julia’s lap, watching the leaves above them rustle in the breeze. They are turning from green to dull mud-brown, in raggedy patches and crinkled edges. “It should be the last campaign for awhile,” he says, absently seeking the hilt of his sword where he’s set it in the grass beside him, “I’ll be back by spring.”

Julia ran her fingers through Adalbert’s hair, still softer than she ever expects. “The flowers will be blooming again in her Majesty’s garden by then,” she says. “They smell nice, I missed them this last summer.”

“Do you want them for the wedding? I’ll get them for you.”

Julia laughs like the clear blue sky peeking through the leaves above them. There is a leaf stuck in her hair, and Adalbert wonders if she notices. “That’s quite alright,” Julia says, “I’m sure she’ll bring some herself, anyway.” She frowns. “It’ll be raining in the spring, we should wait until summer.”

Adalbert shakes his head. “No,” he says firmly. “Spring, when I get back. No later.”

Julia’s fingers stop for a moment. She smiles soft and warm. “You have to wear the suit,” she says quietly. The suit is a terribly formal thing, all stiff collar and squared shoulders and elegant stitching about the cuffs. Adalbert hates it, and Julia knows, and her smile widens. “And you have to dance with me the whole night.”

“I’ll look a fool,” Adalbert warns.

“I worry more for my toes than your pride, but I want you to do it anyway.”

Adalbert looks up and frowns. “Where’s your necklace?” he asks.

Julia puts a hand to her throat, and her expression becomes stretched and thin. “I must have forgot to put it on,” she says. Julia’s heart thuds heavy in her chest. She remembers the first time she heard his voice, deep and clear and confident even in his youth. She’d been barefoot in the garden, her skirt hiked up round her knees, and when he spoke she felt the earth beneath her feet stop to listen. “Do you need any help?” he’d asked her, and she’d smiled and took his hand.

Adalbert looks at her. “Did you want me to go fetch it for you?” he asks, and the dirt and the grass and the clouds and the leaves and her ears still drink in his voice, rich and dark.

Julia shakes her head. Her thoughts are elsewhere. “Is this the battle that you think you’ll find meaning in?” she asks. Her fingers still run absently through Adalbert’s hair.

“It may help end the war. Yes, it’s a meaningful battle.”

“Is it?” Julia muses.

“Even your friend Conrad thinks so, doesn’t he?”

Conrad’s name sounds like bitter herb tea on Adalbert’s tongue. Julia tries not to laugh. “As much as any battle can have meaning, he does. I wonder at him, too. I don’t understand it.”

“We have things to protect.” Adalbert stands, shakes the warmth from his limbs, stretches out the comfortable looseness. “I should be going,” he says, buckling his sword back into place, “I have much to prepare before tomorrow. Will you be at the castle?”

“I will.”

Julia holds out her hand and Adalbert grasps it, pulls her gently to her feet, lighter than he ever expects. When she finds her balance he still does not let go. “If there’s anything you need of me before I go,” he says, “please tell me.”

Julia thinks of a voice whispering to her in the back of her head, and a clock ticking away somewhere with the numbers all blanked out. She touches her fingers to Adalbert’s cheek to feel he warmth of his blush there, and kisses him softly. “This is enough,” she says.

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