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Matthias had been king for five years, and in that time, he’d dealt with many unpleasant issues, but nothing so trying as this: nine rulers of different regional shires of his kingdom, assembling at the palace for a week of matchmaking.
Matthias’s royal advisors thought this was a wonderful idea. It was their idea, in fact. Your Majesty, you must think of marrying. An alliance with one of the shires will strengthen the whole country.
They were right about that, on both counts. But to do it like this, a weeklong stretch of parties and mingling, was ridiculous. But Matthias had only himself to blame for it, really. The kingdom had seventeen shires, each with an earl (of whatever gender) at its helm. Nine of them were unmarried and of the right age, with large enough shires to make a profitable alliance with the crown. But Matthias had refused to propose marriage to any of the earls based solely on political reasoning. He’d wanted to meet them first. They would be his spouse, for heaven’s sake. But Matthias had imagined low-key visits, delicate questions, fruitful conversations. Not a competition. Not a contest.
Matthias did also fear that this bizarre affair was going to cause larger problems than the one it solved. The earls would be pitted against one another, and then most of them would fail. What were the eight losers going to think of their king then? What about the shires that had not even been invited, because their rulers were ineligible or their lands were too small?
The solution, Matthias and his advisors had agreed, was to use the week to strengthen alliances with all of the invited shires via trade deals or cultural exchanges or whatever came to mind. They would reach out to the other shires too, as part of the effort. That would benefit everyone. It was a good plan, and probably long overdue.
But it left Matthias in the uncomfortable position of attending a ball this evening where he was going to meet nine people who might or might not actually want to marry him, but were going to fight each other for the chance anyway.
Matthias felt like a fool. He was thirty-six years old and dressed in ridiculously fancy clothes that he’d been told flattered him. Would these suitors find him attractive at all? Would they even notice more than the circlet of gold on his head? The earls of the kingdom were only permitted to wear silver crowns, and surely some of them wanted a gold one of their own.
Matthias had only ever been the royal heir, and then, at his father’s death, the king. He had no idea how he’d be perceived out in the real world, without the crown, and it was an impossible answer to seek as king. No one would consider being honest with him. Perhaps it was for the best that he was required to marry another ruler, because they likely also had little idea how the real world worked.
Matthias could hear the opening night ball in progress as he neared the grand gallery. An attendant, James, readied himself to announce the king’s arrival, but Matthias waved him off, stepping close to a side door so that he could peek inside.
It looked like a wonderful party. There were brightly colored decorations hanging from the ceiling, and Matthias could smell spices and sweet pastry. He picked out the rulers that he did know by sight: four men and two women, wearing silver circlets in their hair, dressed in rich fabrics and what looked like terribly uncomfortable shoes.
Matthias’s advisors were also present, of course. Gordon was the most senior of them; he’d been advisor to Matthias’s father. Tall, with gray hair and severe features, Gordon was playing the gracious host with all their guests. But Matthias knew him well enough to see that he was passing judgment on each of them, keeping some mental tally of suitability for the title of Prince or Princess.
Some people were dancing in front of the orchestra, a formal dance at a pace that allowed for conversation and required little touching. Not the most exciting dance, but Matthias was grateful for it tonight. It was one thing to throw a party for your neighbors, and it was entirely another to be a party favor yourself.
“This is ridiculous,” Matthias said softly, with a glance at James.
James was a short man with long, dark hair that curled around his shoulders. His mouth twitched into a smile. “Well, the cake’s nice,” he said. “Mrs. Hayes accidentally made one too many cakes, so there was a whole extra one just sitting in the kitchen. Fancy icing and everything.”
“How strange,” Matthias said. “She’s usually so organized.”
“Must be the excitement of the party, Your Majesty.”
“Well, I won’t begrudge you a sugar high tonight. I should probably try that myself.” Matthias looked down at his dark clothing, embroidered with gold. “Except I’m not sure I’m supposed to eat anything in these clothes, to tell you the truth. Especially not white icing.” He motioned to James to come closer. “All right, I can name most of them. Who’s the lady in the yellow gown, do you know?”
“Agatha of Amesbury, Sire. She’s been earl for less than a year,”
“Right, of course. Um— the lady in green?”
“Meredith of Greene.”
“Ah. Easy to remember, I suppose. And the gentleman in the—” Matthias’s voice fell silent as the man turned around and Matthias got a clear look at him. He was wearing blue, without much fancy embellishment, no embroidery or tassels. But the blue was the exact color of his eyes, a deep and striking shade. He was slender, with broad shoulders and a trim waist, and young— younger than Matthias by several years, he guessed. His silver circlet shone brightly in his black hair, which even cut short was thick and looked quite soft.
He was perhaps the most beautiful man Matthias had ever seen, almost uncomfortably so. Matthias had no idea how he was supposed to talk to this man, who moved about the floor with more grace than Matthias had ever possessed. “In the blue,” Matthias finished, quietly.
“Brian of Hartwood, Sire.”
“Oh. The one that—”
James looked a bit amused. “Yes, Sire.”
Matthias sighed. “Well, you’d better announce me. Nobody gets to go to bed until I’ve met everyone.”
James gave him a brave smile. “Good luck, Your Majesty.”
Once announced, Matthias danced with all of his suitors, one by one, that same boring formal dance with all the slow steps and pressed hands. Most of them seemed just as nervous as Matthias, and he took some comfort in that. He was at least able to make some sort of normal conversation with the few he’d met before, including Forrest and Royce, the men who ruled the two largest shires in the kingdom.
And yet, Matthias’s eyes kept leaving the dance, searching the room for a circlet of silver in rich black hair.
Soon enough, Matthias had met eight suitors and only Brian of Hartwood remained. Some attendant who’d been keeping track arrived as escort for Brian, and introduced them.
Matthias was not known for being particularly gifted with words, but a life in the public sphere had made him quite good at producing whatever speeches were called for. Now, though, he could barely think of anything to say. The man was more handsome up close, with dark eyelashes around those bright blue eyes. He was just slightly taller than Matthias, and far more slender.
“Your Majesty,” Brian said, with a slightly anxious smile.
Matthias managed to make a gesture of invitation to the dance floor. Brian came along, but just as they got there, the orchestra finally began to play something else other than that stupid formal dance. Now it was a slow waltz.
“Oh,” Brian said, sounding surprised.
Matthias was not in the least bit surprised. This waltz was just about as accidental as that extra cake in the kitchen. He shot a look at the orchestra, but all of the players were suddenly very interested in their printed music.
“Do you waltz?” Matthias asked Brian.
“I suppose we may as well find out,” Brian said bravely. He put out his hand and Matthias took it. This was not the slight pressing of palms from the formal dance. Matthias’s fingers curled around Brian’s like an embrace..
Matthias did know how to waltz. It was one of those job requirements that had nothing to do with the job. But he’d never danced with such a terribly attractive man in his arms. Fortunately, the other dancers would surely get out of the way if the king intruded on their space.
Matthias concentrated on his feet while trying to look as if he wasn’t concentrating on his feet, while also stubbornly ignoring how good it felt to have his hand on this man’s waist and feel his body move along with his. So when Brian spoke, it surprised him. “Are you enjoying the party, Your Majesty?”
Matthias had to suppress a nervous laugh. “I imagine my answer is obvious.”
“It’s just, you don’t seem to be terribly flattered by all the attention.”
“Not very king-like of me, I suppose.”
Brian got a bit of a smile on his face, and he leaned forward just a little, his hand sliding on Matthias’s shoulder. “I may have had to be persuaded to try this myself,” he confessed.
Matthias did laugh this time. “I don’t think that’s the sort of thing you’re supposed to tell me.”
“I promised I would attend,” Brian said. “I did not promise I would try to win.”
“You don’t want to win?” Matthias regretted the question as soon as it left his lips. It was far too soon to talk of such things. This was only the first of several awful social events that were planned for the week, and for heaven’s sake, Matthias had only met this man ten minutes ago.
Brian held Matthias’s gaze for one long second, and then looked down. “My people could use your protection and investment,” he said. “We are a small shire, and the favor of the crown would make a real difference.”
“So you’d marry to help your people.”
There was that charming half-smile again. “If I’m not mistaken, Your Majesty, you appear to be faced with the same situation.”
The waltz ended then, and Matthias was immediately greeted by several other suitors who wanted to engage him in more conversation. He was unable to prevent Brian from being moved to the back of the crowd. But for the first time, Matthias actually felt glad that this event was going to last for a whole week.
Matthias had planned to hide in his bedroom the next morning until forced to leave, but instead, he dressed early and made his way toward the grand gallery. When he got near, he could hear a great many voices, so apparently the room had been transformed from ballroom to banquet hall and was filling up with suitors. Matthias hesitated outside the door, and then called over an attendant, this one a young woman named Grace.
“Is, ah— is Brian of Hartwood at breakfast?” Matthias asked.
Grace appeared to be attempting to hide a smile. “I believe he’s in the kitchen, Your Majesty.”
“Ah. I suppose that makes sense. Thank you.”
The kitchen was a warm and cheery place this morning. The room had long wooden tables with benches beside them, and three stoves, all of which were in use. The air smelled like bacon and coffee, and the staff working in the room were illuminated by the early sunshine coming through the windows.
When Matthias entered the kitchen, there was no sign of Brian. The kitchen staff looked surprised to see the king, although they quickly began to look a bit smug. Matthias opened his mouth to inquire (or possibly scold), but then he heard a familiar voice.
Brian of Hartwood, dressed casually in brown trousers and a white linen shirt, walked into the kitchen with a red-headed baby against his shoulder. “There we are,” he said. “All cleaned up.” He stopped at the sight of Matthias. “Your Majesty. Good morning. I hope I haven’t misstepped.”
“I heard you had friends here,” Matthias said, understating it a bit.
Brian gave him a nervous smile. “Yes, ah, your Mrs. Hayes’s cousin, also named Mrs. Hayes, is my head of household, and there are quite a few relatives here and there between our staff. Anyway, I’m under strict orders to visit this new little one.” Brian waved the baby’s fat little fist in one of his graceful hands. “Say hello, Josie. And bring back all the details of her life. Which at nine months, consist of eating, sleeping, and grabbing anything she can reach.” As he said it, the baby opened her hand and grasped Brian’s finger.
Brian sat down at one of the tables, settling Josie in his lap. Matthias noticed that Brian was also missing his silver circlet. He seemed far more comfortable dressed like this than he had last night in his fancy clothes.
There was a pear cut up on a plate, and Brian began handing pieces to Josie. Meanwhile, another child, an older boy, climbed up on Brian’s other leg, and then pointed at the pear.
“Words,” someone instructed.
“Can I have some too, please?” the boy asked.
“Of course.” Brian passed him the plate as Josie dropped several mushy pear bits onto Brian’s lap.
“You look very at home,” Matthias said, again understating it.
“Oh, well— I practically grew up in the kitchen at my shire hall. My parents were very busy, so my Mrs. Hayes more or less raised me. This family is more my own than my own.” Brian leaned forward a little and said softly, “It’s also possible that after taking the crown, I may have occasionally hidden out in my kitchen at opportune moments.”
One of the men on staff promptly smacked Brian in the shoulder with a dishtowel. “Ducking work, you mean.”
“Yes, Uncle Andrew, ducking work.”
The man who’d hit him seemed to suddenly remember the king of the country was watching him scold a head of state, and he stepped away, finding something to do across the room.
Matthias sat down at the table, opposite Brian and the children. “I’ll have to try that,” he said. “It is far more pleasant in here than the grand gallery this morning, I’m sure.”
At that, there were quite a few pleased smiles among the staff, and a couple of knowing looks, which Matthias attempted to ignore. Matthias had wondered about having another person with him, a spouse, a close friend, someone who would be there in his private spaces. Matthias had assumed it would be awkward, and maybe it still would, but he was completely unprepared to have one of his suitors fit into his household without a wrinkle. It was as if Brian belonged here in the palace as surely as baby Josie did.
Someone asked if Matthias was hungry, and served him some sort of breakfast hash from a pot on the stove. It had been a long time since Matthias had eaten off of plates without the royal seal on them, or had a meal that consisted of only one course.
Josie’s mother took the baby from Brian and sat with her back to them. “I can’t do that part,” Brian said with a smile, and Matthias realized that the baby was being breastfed.
The conversation turned to the social gossip of the extended family at the palace and Brian’s shire hall. There was a lot of teasing and a bit of light argument. Eventually Josie’s mother gave the baby back to Brian. He sat Josie on his knee, leaned her gently forward over his hand, and caught what milk she spit out on a towel.
“Do you have children of your own?” Matthias asked, watching with what was probably ill-disguised awe.
“No. It’s just that if you spend time in the kitchen, you get put to work.” Brian grinned at Matthias as Josie got her fist around the towel, tugging on it. “Still better than meetings, though.”
“Yes,” Matthias said. “Yes, I’d have to agree.”
There were games in the garden that afternoon, and Matthias joined in at croquet. He actually even paid attention to the game occasionally, when Brian wasn’t in view.
Matthias had guessed that Brian wouldn’t care much for croquet, and he appeared to be right. Instead, Brian was playing a game with the royal attendants that involved a larger ball and a lot of running back and forth on the lawn. Meredith of Greene played too, having changed her dress for a pair of trousers. She and Brian had both left their circlets on a table. Meredith seemed to be having a wonderful time, laughing as she got knocked to the ground. Brian gave her a hand up and helped pick grass out of her hair, which did not earn him any mercy later in the game when she was able to send him sprawling.
Matthias tried to imagine it— couldn’t help but imagine it— coming out into the garden after a long day and seeing Brian like this, circlet abandoned somewhere, running about with the attendants and staff. Maybe teaching children how to aim their kicks. Maybe even their own children, heirs they’d adopted, climbing on Brian’s broad shoulders.
It was far too soon to be having such thoughts. Matthias was rather appalled at himself, and a bit surprised. He’d expected this week to either present a solution to his loneliness or make him glad for his solitude, and heavy odds lay with the second. Instead, all of this was making him realize how lonely he actually was. Matthias was friendly with his attendants and staff, but not on the level Brian was. Not where the servants would hand him a baby or include him in their gossip. Matthias was suddenly longing not just for a spouse but a whole family.
And that, in turn, made dealing with the other suitors all the more unpleasant. Everyone seemed so cold compared to Brian (except Meredith). They looked at the ball game with a mixture of distaste and relief, apparently believing that such behavior took Brian and Meredith out of the competition. Except, Matthias noted, for Royce of Blairswood, which was the largest shire in the southern part of the kingdom. He was not watching Brian. He was watching Matthias watch Brian.
Matthias knew Royce well enough. They weren’t friends, exactly, but Matthias had been received at Blairswood in grand receptions that he’d enjoyed, to a point. Royce seemed like a very nice man. He clearly thought quite a lot of himself, but that was not unusual for people wearing crowns. And Royce was attractive, Matthias supposed. He was blond, like Matthias, but shorter, with an athletic physique that Matthias quite lacked. He looked, actually, like he would enjoy the ball game very much, but instead, he was playing croquet. Matthias could guess a reason for that: Royce most likely felt he was already playing a game with much higher stakes than counting how many times a ball got kicked past a row of lilac bushes.
Royce was Matthias’s advisors’ first choice for a marital alliance. He was a powerful man who governed a large shire rich in resources. The advisors would have had Matthias skip all of this suitor nonsense and propose marriage to Royce without preamble. In a way, all this fuss was Royce’s fault as much as it was Matthias’s, because something about Royce had always struck Matthias as wrong. The man appeared to have everything: power, money, and looks, and yet you could tell that somewhere there was a piece missing. What it was, Matthias did not know. But he suspected that it was something that he would want in a spouse.
For the next hour or so, Matthias made small talk with people he did not particularly care for, while pretending that he enjoyed their company. For their part, those people pretended that they might already have come to view Matthias with sincere devotion. Matthias absolutely hated the fact that he won the croquet game despite playing very badly.
Matthias needed a break after the game. He was not surprised, though, that he wasn’t yearning for some time alone.
He found Brian at the edge of the patio, drinking a glass of water. He had grass in his hair and was still a little out of breath. The morning sun gave a brightness to his flushed cheeks. If Matthias had not been king, he wondered if ever would have had the courage to speak to him. Matthias thought of himself as a good king. He was patient and empathetic, and tried to act generously. But it was not a job he’d earned. Matthias had no idea who he would be without the crown.
“How was croquet, Your Majesty?” Brian asked.
“How did it look?”
Brian grinned. “Terribly boring. You should have come play with us.”
“Not much chance of that. At least not this week. Everyone would have been too afraid of knocking me over to play the game.”
“Oh, I’d have knocked you over,” Brian said, sounding utterly serious.
Matthias somehow refrained from informing Brian that he more or less already had. “Will you walk with me?” he asked.
“Of course, Your Majesty.”
There were several paths in the palace garden, and Matthias chose the one that performed a slow dance with the rose bushes. The gardener at the palace, Francesca, had a wonderful eye for color. The path began among red rose bushes, and as you went along, they gradually shifted, blooming into different shades of pink, and then lightening to peach and white at the center of the garden. It was a path Matthias walked often, almost always alone.
Now, here with Brian, he said, “Please, call me Matthias.”
Brian’s face seemed to flush a little, but it was probably left over from the exertion of the day. “Matthias, then,” he said, smiling faintly.
“I wanted to discuss a couple of things with you, if that’s all right.”
Matthias took in a brave breath of rose-scented air. “Last night, you told me you would say yes to a proposal simply to help your people. I wanted to tell you that you are the only one who would admit it. I asked the others today, and every time, it’s been, No, Your Majesty, of course not, my focus is on you and you alone.”
“You have them still calling you Your Majesty?” Brian asked.
Matthias nearly missed a step. “Oh. Ah— yes.”
“But not me.” Brian had a quite serious look on his face now, his blue eyes fixed on Matthias’s face with a bush of peach roses over his shoulder.
“No. Not you,” Matthias said. “Brian, there are very few things in my life that I am able to choose for myself. I am obliged to marry. I must have an heir. But I am determined that the choice of a spouse rest with me. Everything I do is done for my people. It’s lonely and sometimes overwhelming, and I don’t want my partner to be just another part of my job. What I’m looking for is friendship, or at least some warmth, or failing that, a lack of cold.”
“That sounds very reasonable,” Brian said.
“Then I think it’s my turn to tell you something I’m not supposed to. My advisors didn’t suggest you as a suitor. Your shire is too small. You’re here because my staff are far more sympathetic to what I want than my advisors are. They gave me your name.”
“Oh, good lord,” Brian said.
“They told me you were kind and honest. That you cared about your people. That you didn’t have much of a stomach for useless politics.”
“Is that what all those sly looks have been about?”
“And the waltz playing for our dance, I think. You are the popular favorite among the household.”
Brian ran a hand through his hair, dislodging a few more bits of grass. “I am so sorry. I— well, I’m not, because I’m glad I’m here. But at the same time— I mean, I did think it was odd, with my shire being so small, but I had no idea that so much meddling—”
“You’re glad?” Matthias asked. He might possibly have asked it a little too quickly.
Brian met his eyes, looking a bit lost. “I— yes. I am very glad to have met you.”
They’d stopped walking, and Matthias was desperate to reach out a hand and make contact with the beautiful man in front of him, to touch the soft linen of his shirt, the black hair warmed by the sun, the hand that he’d held during the waltz.
Of course, Matthias did not move. “Could I ask you, then— will you consider if you might be able to offer friendship in exchange for helping your people? I know you have so much riding on this, but I will trust you to be honest with me. You get along so well with everyone else here. Do you think it could be the same with me?”
Brian was the one to reach out. He put a hand on Matthias’s arm, broad and warm. “I will think on it carefully, Matthias.”
Matthias had not expected to have a favorite among his suitors. Honestly, he had not expected to like any of them particularly well. He had envisioned a polite distance between them all. Diplomacy. Fairness. Bland, clinical courting.
Instead Matthias was smitten, and it was no secret. The staff were delighted and somewhat smug. The other suitors were resentful and envious. Matthias’s advisors, especially Gordon, were dismayed. And Brian— he seemed more or less unaffected by the whole thing. He didn’t appear to object to being the favorite, but neither did he attempt to use his status to push for anything. He didn’t demand to sit next to Matthias at dinner or try to monopolize his time. Matthias almost wished he would— partly to save Matthias from the other suitors and partly because Matthias had no idea whether Brian might ever come to be equally smitten, or even to bear any affection toward him at all.
And Matthias had to keep reminding himself that he didn’t really know the man. It had been three days. The staff loved Brian, yes, and so did babies, the palace dogs, and almost anyone else he met (that is, anyone who didn’t resent Brian’s standing with Matthias). But Brian had not tried to play coy about his real mission: to secure help for his people.
It would have been foolish for Matthias to have made up his mind already, or at the very least, to let it appear that he had. To that end, Matthias agreed to have a private lunch with his advisors’ first choice: Royce.
It began poorly, and it wasn’t even Matthias’s attitude at fault. Royce of Blairswood was good at a great many things. His shire was prosperous and he was seen as generally fair in his ruling, his decisions tactical. That may have been good for governing, but not, apparently, in courting.
Matthias was told that Royce was in the garden. He arrived to find the man with a pair of shears in his hand, and a broad smile on his face. On the ground lay some green clippings that had come off a nearby bush. Francesca, the gardener, was next to Royce, with an almost menacingly polite smile on her face.
“Your Majesty,” Royce said, sounding pleased. “I was just thinking how hard this event must be on all your staff. Thought I’d pitch in while I was waiting for you.”
Matthias figured that if the other two people had fake smiles on their faces, he might as well do the same. “Well, that’s very kind of you,” he said. “But um, I’m here, so Francesca, if you would—”
Francesca took the shears, looking relieved, and Royce flexed his fingers a couple of times. They looked sore. Matthias doubted if Royce had ever used a garden tool in his life.
“Looks very nice,” Matthias lied. “You have a lovely artistic sense.”
Royce managed to look coy. It did not seem to come naturally to him. “Oh, not at all. I dabble, that’s all.”
They walked down the garden path through the roses. That was probably a mistake, because Matthias was caught up remembering Brian being here, in a plain white shirt with grass in his hair. Royce was dressed properly for a head of state: he wore his silver circlet in his blond hair and a black shirt embroidered in gold. He looked very regal.
They spoke of governing, problem solving, and political views. It was possible, Matthias realized, that he and Royce might become friendly, given time. Royce was a cheerful man, intelligent and well educated. It was just that something was off about him, a difference between what your eyes were seeing and what your mind was sensing about him.
Matthias got a further clue when they discovered a couple of children playing in the center of the garden. They belonged to one of the cooks, who was taking cuttings of herbs. Matthias gave them a nod, involved in a discussion with Royce about wheat exports, but Royce stopped suddenly and got a huge grin on his face.
“Well, hello there!” he exclaimed. “What lovely children you are.”
To Matthias, it sounded rather forced. Apparently the children thought so, too. They looked nervously at their mother.
“I just love having children around,” Royce said, still smiling. “Would you like to play a game?”
Everyone was spared learning what kind of children’s games Royce might actually know, because the children ran off and hid behind their mother’s legs.
“Some other time,” Matthias said hastily.
As they walked away, Royce looked a bit contrite. “It must be exhausting for you,” he said. “All of us vying for your hand. I’m sorry if I seem overeager. It’s just— I’ve long wanted to propose something between us. I’ve always admired you. I only held back because I didn’t think you’d entertain it. Now that you are, I’m all aflutter.” Royce did not look aflutter. He looked disgruntled.
“Of course. It’s a strange week for all of us,” Matthias said.
Royce laughed. “Yes. Won’t it all make a funny story someday?”
They came out of the garden near the palace library, and Matthias hoped Royce might feel more at ease there. The library was a peaceful place, with a large window overlooking the pond where the ducks swam. They wandered among the stacks for a while, Royce remarking on a couple of the art pieces displayed on shelves.
“You know,” Royce said, smiling more softly now, “I’ve heard we have the same favorite author!” He pulled a book from a shelf. “This poetry changed my life. Where is the one—” he flipped a few pages. “Oh, yes. The Dove. The imagery here is so beautiful.”
“Oh,” Matthias said. “Well, yes. I’m not sure I’ve read that one, actually.”
Royce froze with his hand on the page. “Oh. Funny, I must have misheard. But at least we’re both fond of poetry.”
“Uh— I actually mostly read plays.”
“You read them?” Royce looked confused. “I didn’t know anyone but actors read plays. Don’t you mean you watch them?”
“They can actually be quite entertaining on the page,” Matthias said.
“Oh.” Royce was clearly forcing his smile now. “Well, so many things about you that I don’t know. I look forward to finding them out.”
“Of course.” It had been two hours. Matthias had lasted about as long as he was going to. “I’m afraid I have some things I need to see to before dinner.”
“Oh, of course, Your Majesty.” Royce gave him a little half-bow, looking awkward about it, and took off down the hallway.
James was standing just outside the library. He looked quite pleased to see Royce go. “Your Majesty,” he said. “You might want to head back to the kitchen.”
Matthias crossed his arms. “And why would that be?”
James put on an innocent look. “Lovely place to visit.”
“Right. Who told Royce I like poetry?”
“Oh, well. I wouldn’t know, Sire. But it occurs to me that when a man offers to pay a rather sorry sum for information that he deserves the sort of erroneous information that he gets.”
“I see.” If Matthias did head for the kitchen then, it was no one’s business but his own.
The kitchen was even busier now as it was close to dinner. There was a lot of loud conversation, and pots and pans were clanging together, along with the sound of sizzling liquid. Matthias caught sight of Brian by the window, and word must have reached him just ahead of Matthias’s arrival, because he looked up, his eyes wide. Beside him, Mrs. Hayes seemed to be scolding him.
Brian wiped his hands on a cloth and jogged across the kitchen, dodging people. “Matthias. Hello. Ah— I thought you were with Royce.” He gestured at himself. “I was visiting and I started doing some of the bread. And Josie spit up earlier— I’m a mess, sorry.” He was. Brian’s trousers and shirt were covered in flour and one of his shoulders looked sticky. He had flour in his dark hair. Matthias wished he could brush it away. “Mrs. Hayes is not happy with me for looking like this around you,” Brian said in a low voice. “Will you let me get changed?”
They took one of the back hallways. “So how was it with Royce?” Brian asked.
Brian looked surprised. “Oh. Well that’s good,” he said, and Matthias wondered if he was imagining how false the words sounded.
“Except I don’t think he meant it to be entertaining.”
Brian looked much more pleased now. “Oh, dear. What happened?”
“Well, I think he was doing his best impression of you.”
“Of me?” Brian looked down, seeming to fight a smile. “I see. What did he do?”
“He attempted to help with chores and play with children. You know, this is the worst of it. Everyone pretending. Mostly pretending to like me.” His voice dropped a little softer. “You could be pretending.”
Brian gave a sharp laugh. “Who said I liked you? Anyway, I didn’t expect you to like me.”
“What? Why not?”
“Because I do chores and play with children.” Brian waved a graceful hand back toward the servant areas. “I’m happier in the kitchen or on the lawn than in the gallery with the boasting and arguing. Although I have to admit that it’s started to weigh on me here.”
“That I’m not the most regal of rulers. My shire is so small that it doesn’t matter. I can interact so much with my people because there aren’t that many of them. Here— I would have no idea how to be Prince. And that’s what you need, someone with that type of experience.”
They’d reached Brian’s rooms now, and Matthias waited in the doorway while Brian disappeared inside.
“You’re genuine,” Matthias said. “That counts for a lot.”
Brian laughed, and the sound was muffled by distance. “You don’t know that. You just said I could be fooling everyone.”
Matthias stepped into the outer room so that he could hear better. “Baby Josie too?”
“Her especially. I sneaked her some extra pears as payment. You know, the staff made a point of telling me you like to read plays. I’m not sure why that’s suddenly relevant, but, um— good for you, reading plays. Very admirable. To me it sounds boring as hell—” Brian broke off suddenly as he emerged from his dressing room with clean trousers on and a shirt in his hand. Which meant there was no shirt on his chest.
He was a work of art, Matthias thought helplessly, every line of him beautifully designed. There was clear strength in him, an easy grace, and his skin looked so smooth and soft that Matthias’s hands ached to feel it.
“I’m sorry,” Matthias said quickly. “I came into your room—”
“No, no, it’s—” Brian turned slightly, which gave Matthias a view of the gentle curve of his back, and then pulled the shirt over his head. When he turned back, his face was flushed, and his eyes met Matthias’s in a searching gaze. Matthias didn’t know what Brian was looking for. He didn’t know if Brian found it.
“Did I— did I get all the flour out of my hair?” Brian asked, sounding a bit breathless.
“Yes,” Matthias managed to say. “Looks— looks fine.”
They reached the grand gallery together, and everyone noticed. Matthias tried to school his features carefully, but he was afraid that it was a lost cause.
Royce came up at once, stepping in between Matthias and Brian. “So I’ve been looking over some plays,” he said, but he was immediately interrupted.
In a casual voice, but loud enough to carry, Brian said, “Thank you for the talk, Matthias. I very much enjoyed it.”
The hall felt silent for a moment, and then filled with a bit of awkward noise. Brian moved away to take a seat elsewhere at the table, but the blow had been dealt. Royce looked livid.
Matthias was thrilled.
The fanciful future that Matthias had been building behind his eyes came crashing down the next night after dinner.
Matthias was actually enjoying himself fairly well that evening, sitting on the patio and discussing garden architecture with Agatha of Amesbury. She’d been missing at dinner, but afterwards, she’d approached Matthias asking about the tall pines by the pond.
Agatha wore a white dress, and she must have brushed against one of the trees, because Matthias noticed a little smudge on her left thigh. But she looked happy, and Matthias was glad. As ridiculous as this whole plan had been, at least he was getting to know his fellow leaders better. But then their conversation was interrupted by a commotion from the rest of the crowd.
Of course, Matthias looked for Brian, as he always did in that crowd of people. There was no one else with that same graceful bearing, that beautiful black hair. But Brian looked different now. His face was flushed, and his eyes very bright. He glanced toward Matthias, and then abruptly away.
One of the other suitors, Forrest, was holding a piece of paper. “Where did you find this?” he asked.
It was one of his attendants who answered him. “In your things, My Lord. I thought it was a letter to you.”
“It is not.” Forrest looked at the paper with great reluctance. “I don’t know—”
“What is it?” Matthias asked.
Forrest turned him, his face ashen. He came across the patio and handed Matthias the paper.
It was fine stationery, with the seal of Hartwood at the top, and there was a handwritten message below it, with the ink slightly smeared.
Further note— He’s nearly convinced. The servants are helping, so thank you for using your connections there, and the payments you’ve made to them. He especially liked the baby, so thank you for coming up with that. I’ve never done so much cleaning and cooking in my life, but I can bear it, because we’ve almost made it. At least after the marriage I can stop all that nonsense. I know it’s been hard, but have faith in me— I will do anything to convince the king that I am his friend and secure our people’s future.
It was signed B.
Matthias had seen Brian’s handwriting. On the second day, everyone had played a game that involved messages sent back and forth as clues. This letter looked awfully close.
Matthias looked up to see Brian standing before him, with more tension than Matthias had ever seen in him. He sought Matthias’s gaze, and held it, though there was great pain in his expression. “All I can say is that I didn’t write it.” He stepped back. “If you will excuse me.” Everyone watched him head back inside.
“Forrest, this was in your room?” Matthias asked.
“Yes, Your Majesty.” Forrest looked conflicted, and Matthias noticed that his eyes kept darting toward one particular person: Royce. “I am not sure how that came to be,” Forrest said. “It seems convenient to me, Sire.”
“It was not meant to be sent, I think. It was meant to be found.”
Beside Matthias, Agatha spoke up. “Still. It appears genuine.”
“So it does,” Matthias said. He folded the paper and put it into his pocket. For a moment, he looked over the gathered guests: Forrest still seemed suspicious, Royce appeared surprised but unable to completely hide his delight. Matthias’s staff stood hushed, some in shock, some angry.
“I have some things to attend to,” Matthias said.
The crowd let him pass in silence. At the door, Matthias glanced at an attendant, who told him quietly that Brian had gone to his own chambers.
Matthias found some of the staff gathered near the door to Brian’s rooms. Mrs. Hayes was speaking in a low tone to Brian, who was looking down at the floor. At the sight of Matthias, everyone fell quiet, and the staff moved out of the way.
Brian looked up at Matthias with reluctance, as if he was afraid of what he’d see there. “May I speak with you?” Matthias asked.
Brian nodded and stepped back into his rooms. Matthias followed and shut the door behind them.
Brian still didn’t want to look at him. He was actually wearing his silver circlet tonight, and the evening sun coming through the window made it shine.
Matthias picked up a book from where it lay on a table. Not a play, he noticed. “Brian,” Matthias said, “Catch.”
Brian looked up in surprise, but managed to put out a hand to catch the book that Matthias tossed him.
Matthias could not keep from smiling. “You’re left-handed. I noticed it at dinner that first night.”
Brian looked down at the book, firmly held in his left hand. “Yes?”
“Do you have paper and a pen?”
Brian still seemed reluctant, but he put the book down and produced a piece of stationery exactly like the one folded in Matthias’s pocket.
“Sign your name,” Matthias said.
“The note only said B,” Brian reminded him.
“That’s not what I’m looking at. Sign, please.”
Looking confused now, Brian did. Matthias watched his hand move, curled elegantly over the page so that it did not brush the drying ink.
“Agatha had a smudge of dirt on the left side of her dress tonight,” Matthias said. “I imagine it transferred from her hand. She could imitate your writing, but she wasn’t skilled enough to move her hand away from the ink.”
Brian’s eyes were wide, with a sort of dazed relief. “You knew I didn’t write it.”
Matthias sat down in one of the chairs, motioning to Brian to do the same.
Brian sat, but he still had an anxious look on his face. “The thing is, Matthias— a lot of what was in that note is true.”
Matthias regarded him soberly. “Did you or anyone from your shire pay off my servants?”
“I don’t have to. They’re on my side already.”
“And why is that?”
“They want to help their family who live in my shire.”
“That’s a very understandable thing to do. The harm would be if they misrepresented you to me. Do you not babysit and cook in your own kitchen? It certainly seemed like you’d had a great deal of practice.”
“No, I do. But I’m still not so sure that you should be looking for those qualities in a royal spouse.”
“And when they told me I should invite you because you were kind and honest and amiable, was any of that a lie?”
“I wasn’t here, I can’t say if they oversold it.”
Matthias smiled. “I have a confession of my own. I don’t want to be king.”
Brian did not look at all surprised. “Perhaps that’s why you’re a good one. I should tell you that I don’t want to be king either.”
“What would you think about prince?”
Brian met Matthias’s eyes, his expression far more serious than usual. Matthias thought he would be a lucky man to be allowed to gaze into those blue eyes every day.
“This won’t be the end of it,” Matthias told him. “My advisors don’t care for you. It’s nothing personal, but it may be difficult for them to accept you. The other suitors will be angry, even if we enter into new trade agreements with their shires. The people—” Here Matthias could not help but smile. “The people will adore you.”
Brian made a skeptical noise. “I don’t know, Matthias. What works in my small shire of Hartwood may not work here.”
“They will love you. And as for myself—”
Brian interrupted before he could finish the thought. “You think we’ll be friends.”
“Yes,” Matthias said, a little awkwardly. “Friends. Would you agree?”
“To that, yes,” Brian said. He met Matthias’s eyes earnestly now. “Yes, I think we could be quite good friends.”
“Then will you marry me?” Matthias asked.
Brian held his gaze a moment longer, and then his shoulders relaxed, and he had such a look of relief that it startled Matthias. “Yes. I will. For my people, and as your friend, Matthias, yes.”
Matthias hadn’t realized how much tension he’d been holding in his body. Maybe all week. Maybe all his life. His hands were shaking. He folded them together so that Brian would not see. “Wonderful,” Matthias said. He wanted to kiss Brian— he’d wanted that since he first laid eyes on him, and now they were engaged. But Matthias did not move. They were friends, nothing else.
“Well, as my fiancé, I’m afraid that I must immediately set you a task.”
Matthias’s advisors were unsurprised and unhappy about the engagement. Matthias spoke to them alone first, in the council chamber. He explained the sabotage attempt via the discovered letter. He assured them that Brian would never do something like that to the other suitors. He told them how honest and kind he was, and all he got for his troubles were further darkening faces.
“Your Majesty, this cannot be an emotional decision,” Margaret said. She was another advisor who had worked for his father.
“It’s not entirely emotional,” Matthias insisted. “He would make a good Prince.”
“With a baby on his shoulder?” Gordon asked, clearly exasperated.
“You do expect that we’ll raise an heir. That was part of the reason for all this.”
Gordon would not back down. “Your Majesty, I understand that the— the household approves of him, but the distinction must be made. The staff are the staff. We are your advisors. We are far more qualified to pick someone for you.”
“I am qualified to pick for myself,” Matthias reminded him.
“The man is very charming,” Gordon protested. “He’s charmed you.”
Matthias did not attempt to deny that. The arguments persisted for a while longer, until finally Matthias put up his hands. “We all want the same thing: whatever is best for the country. I feel that Brian will be a kind and trustworthy prince, and that speaks well for the health of our people. But being a ruler is about more than kindness. So I have suggested to Brian that you set him some sort of test. If he passes, then he will have earned your approval.”
Matthias was savvy enough to avoid stating that he was going to marry Brian regardless, but he was sure the council were aware anyway.
“Fine,” Margaret said. “How about a trade deal with one of the other shires?”
Gordon was still glowering, but he didn’t object.
“That sounds reasonable,” Matthias said. “I’ll send him in and you can discuss it, while I go gather the papers.”
The council did look somewhat assuaged by this, at least. Matthias motioned to the door and an attendant let Brian come in. He was dressed in his fanciest clothes now, his circlet in place. He gave Matthias a warm but anxious smile.
“And while you’re waiting for me,” Matthias said, on his way out the door, “if you could please decide what entertainment you want for the last night’s ball. It’s tomorrow and you haven’t told the staff anything.”
“It has to be properly ceremonial,” one of the advisors said, “and represent each of the shires equally.”
“But only the ones which are here,” another man spoke up. “We don’t need to somehow involve people who won’t be here to enjoy the spectacle—”
“Yes, but then the others will see that all shires are valued by us—”
Matthias put a hand on Brian’s shoulder and leaned close, part of him rejoicing that he had reason to do so. “This is your task,” he said. “Get them all to agree on anything and they may begin to accept you.”
Brian’s eyes widened slightly. “You have a lot of faith in me.”
Matthias gave him an encouraging smile. “You do this all the time, talking with a small group of people who need to work something out. Just pretend you’re back in Hartwood. Be yourself, Brian.”
When Matthias returned, half an hour later, the council were deep into drafting their plans for the ball, and Brian was leaning over the table with them, writing details down with his elegantly turned hand.
“Well,” Matthias said, gesturing to the completed plans. “Seems to me Brian does very well as a leader.”
Matthias was engaged.
It felt only partly real, as if it might be a game he was playing, and for the moment, winning. But he wasn’t quite sure what the prize at the end was going to be. Even though the entire household thought Brian was a good match, it seemed unwise to fall in love in a matter of days.
It hadn’t been a decision, of course. Matthias hadn’t set out to do it. But it made things complicated, for himself and for the country. Objectively, Brian would make a good Prince. But so would many of the other suitors. Matthias’s advisors thought Matthias had made his choice based on emotion, and he clearly had.
When Matthias had thought about marriage before this event, before meeting Brian, friendship had seemed a reasonable goal. Someone to laugh with after work was done, someone to share space with in amiable silence. It had not occurred to Matthias that this measure of peace would be filled with a yearning for something more.
It was going to be torturous, an endless pining for his own husband. And yet Matthias could not change it. The thought of marrying someone else, of seeing Brian leave the palace and not return was unbearable.
Matthias sat with Brian now in the library, working over a sheaf of papers. The idea of having Brian help craft trade deals with the other shires had not been entirely false. “I’m afraid this is the real test I set before you,” Matthias said. “Keep the earls from killing each other or me.”
Brian laughed, sounding surprised. He seemed to have relaxed since the proposal, becoming less cautious and more— if Matthias wasn’t inventing things— more happy.
“I can’t imagine anyone wanting to kill you, Matthias. Except maybe your advisors if you take my advice over theirs. Gordon especially. The man does not think I should be here in any capacity.”
“I will take theirs as well,” Matthias said, “but even Gordon will have to admit that you are far easier to work with.” And Brian was. The library had always been a quiet, contemplative place for Matthias, but with Brian here, sitting crooked in his chair with his legs crossed, frowning at papers covered in legal language, the place felt bright and cheerful and alive. And yes, Brian was beautiful, and Matthias loved him, but it wasn’t that alone. It was the thought that Brian belonged here, that this was now his library too. This was his home, with Matthias.
“Is that because I’m not allowed to disagree with you?” Brian asked.
Matthias gave him a curious look. “Of course you are. Although it’s bad form to actually argue with the king.”
Brian tilted his head in agreement, as if that had been the answer he wanted. “In that case,” he said, leaning a little closer over the table, “I don’t think Agatha was behind that letter. She wrote it, yes, but I think someone else convinced her to do it.”
Matthias gave the papers a weary look. “You may be right. But even so— part of the problem with this whole thing is trying to separate the earls from their people. I can’t punish or reward a whole shire because their leader pleases or angers me.”
Brian’s mouth twisted in amusement, and Matthias wondered if he was going to say it: Except for mine. But Brian said nothing, and so Matthias, again, was left unsure of how much Brian had been able to guess about Matthias’s feelings for him. He hoped it was very little. The last thing Matthias wanted to do was to make Brian uncomfortable.
Brian removed his circlet and set it on the table, a silver ring beside the papers.
“Do you really hate wearing that thing so much?” Matthias asked.
“I’m always afraid I’m going to lose it.”
“Aren’t you in more danger of losing it if you keep putting it down in random places?”
Brian made a face. “You’re as bad as Mrs. Hayes. Both Mrs. Hayes’s.” He ran his hand through his hair, fluffing it a bit. “It’s uncomfortable.”
“Well, you’ll have to take care when you get fitted for your gold one, to make sure it sits properly.”
Brian got a surprised look on his face. “That’s right. I will have a new one. I’m not quite used to all this yet.”
“It’s not too late to back out. We haven’t made the announcement.”
If Brian could hear how Matthias’s voice shook, he said nothing about it. He put a hand to his chest. “I promise, I’ll wear the gold one with more regard for etiquette,” he said.
“Oh, will you? Next you’ll say you won’t show up for royal functions covered in flour.”
Brian grinned. “I make no promises.”
They were interrupted by James bringing in a plate of fruit and a pitcher of water. He had a very broad smile on his face. It didn’t take Brian long to figure out why. He gave Matthias an amused look. “I see everyone’s heard about the engagement already, announcement or not.”
“There are no secrets in the palace,” Matthias announced, with a wave of his hand.
It almost seemed like James and Brian exchanged a look, but then Brian quickly asked, “Do the other suitors know too?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if your shire knew already.” Matthias cleared his throat. “Thank you, James.”
James stopped standing by the table grinning and took his leave.
“All right,” Matthias, said, “in the few hours we have left before the announcement, I need to make as much progress as I can on these deals. You say you don’t think Agatha sabotaged you. Who do you think put her up to it?”
“I don’t know. She just doesn’t seem so conniving.”
“No, she doesn’t. So we do have one secret here.”
Matthias spent quite a while in conference with his advisors, working out preliminary offers to most of the shires. Afterwards, he dressed for the last night’s ball. He hoped that Brian would appear again in blue. And then he promptly hoped for any other color. He might have less chance of tripping while dancing if Brian was not wearing the color that flattered him most.
Matthias again paused outside of the grand gallery, peeking inside through the side door. For so long, Matthias had overseen royal events by himself, and it was a strange thing to see another chair placed beside his own on the raised dais. Strange and suddenly worrying.
For a moment, Matthias almost felt like he should rethink the whole thing and rescind the proposal, because the thought of having Brian sitting on that chair in front of all the other suitors made Matthias terribly uneasy. They’d sabotaged him already with the letter. And now to have him in plain sight where all the others had wished to be— it felt like a terrible risk.
Matthias must have been showing some of it on his face, because when Brian arrived, he asked, “Are you all right, Matthias?”
Matthias turned to find that Brian was wearing blue again, damn him, the same shade as his eyes. His beautiful black hair shone in the lights and Matthias wondered if love was always such a mix of fear and comfort. He wanted to keep Brian safe and yet he was desperate to hear his own name on his lips. There was not a single other person who called him Matthias.
“Want to go hide out in the kitchen?” Matthias asked. “There’s probably an extra cake.”
Brian looked gently reproachful. “There’s cake here. And don’t give me that look, I’m supposed to be a good influence on you. Part of my new job.”
“Oh, so now you have a work ethic.”
“When it suits me.” Brian’s smile had dimmed with concern. “Something’s really worrying you.”
Matthias shook his head. “It’s nothing. Are you ready?”
Brian looked like he wanted to press further, but wasn’t sure if that was his job as well. Matthias didn’t know either.
“I am if you are,” Brian said.
The ball came off fairly smoothly. The presentations about the shires were beautiful, and there was applause when Matthias announced his engagement, though with some of the suitors, it looked forced. As far as the letter was concerned, they’d let it be known that an investigation had found it to be fabricated, but they hadn’t mentioned if they thought anyone in particular to be responsible for it.
Matthias knew that representatives from the other shires would soon be meeting with his advisors, working on forging closer ties, and honestly, that might mean more to most of the earls than the role of Prince or Princess. After all, now their own marriages were not required as part of the agreements.
Matthias did wonder if Brian himself had ever considered marrying for love. It was not common among rulers, but Brian was charming and attractive. Surely he’d had suitors of his own by now. Perhaps even someone he’d loved. Matthias had to remember that as much as this was a gain for Brian’s shire, it was a sacrifice on his part as well.
Toward the end, there was dancing, and now Matthias did not have to dance with anyone except his fiancé. The orchestra played waltzes for them, and Brian fit into Matthias’s arms like he was meant to be there. Like all that had happened between their first dance and this one was fated, like it didn’t matter that it had been rushed, because they were never supposed to be apart. Some pieces of them had always been dancing together.
Matthias had his hand on Brian’s waist, and their eyes were nearly on a level, with Brian just barely taller. Their hands were clasped together, and when the waltz ended, they stayed that way, just a heartbeat longer than Matthias expected.
Maybe it was the feeling of Brian in his arms, but Matthias was so far gone that he read a great deal of meaning into the clasp of their hands. He stepped out onto the balcony and drew Brian with him, finding blessedly cool air rather than the heat of the grand gallery.
They were alone here, just the two of them under the stars, and Matthias was both thrilled and terrified to remind himself, again, that it was going to be like this from now on. That no matter how their relationship played out, they were companions from here on.
“You’ll be glad to get back to normal after tonight,” Brian said.
“The wedding will be worse,” Matthias warned.
“Oh, I know.” Brian looked pensive for a moment. “Matthias— I know that choosing me was a complicated decision. But I’m very glad that you decided the way you did. I want to thank you for everything that you’ve done for me.”
Matthias could not help but reach for Brian’s hand again. But when he took it, a brief look of distress passed over Brian’s face. He squeezed Matthias’s hand tightly and then let it go.
“I—” Brian’s cheeks had colored a little. “I will write to you while I’m gone. And then I’ll be back soon, of course, it’s just a month to the wedding.”
Matthias was not sure how stricken his own expression might look, silently reprimanding himself as he folded his empty hands together. It hadn’t even been a day since the proposal and already he was reaching for more than he’d been given.
“I will miss you,” Brian said. “Truly. Will you write to me as well?”
Brian put on what looked like a brave smile. “Well, then. Perhaps it’s time to try the cake?”
Hello from Hartwood! After a week at the palace, it seems so very quiet here. It’s familiar and comforting, and it’s odd to think I’ll be leaving this shire permanently in a month. But it also fills me with a great sense of excitement. We’ve barely been apart for a week and I miss you, Matthias.
As you can imagine, there has been a great deal of celebration here. Everyone in the household is looking forward to coming for the wedding, and we’ve been deciding which of my staff might move permanently with me. I’ve decided to leave them to decide for themselves.
When I am gone, the crown will fall to my cousin, Henrietta. I think she’ll make a good earl. Henrietta wasn’t raised like I was. She had sweet and loving parents, and I’m glad for that, because she is really a very caring person. She’s also quite sensible, and likes to consider all sides before she makes a decision. I’ve told her I’ll visit often at first, in case she might need any help, though of course she’ll have our advisors for that as well. I hope that’s all right— I will miss my shire, and I do hope to return from time to time.
In any case, Henrietta is very excited about her new role, and that gives me a lot of hope for the future. She’s excited about our shire’s new ties to the palace, and she and the advisors are already making plans to invest royal capital into social works programs. There will be an official notice of this, of course, but just to give you an idea: Henrietta would like to expand the size of the food banks in our two most rural towns, and work on providing free meals to children at schools. Oh, and you’ll hear about this too— Henrietta is a dancer, and she wants to commission a professional dance school in the shire and lure teachers from the capital.
Thinking of Henrietta’s parents makes me think of my own, largely absent. It’s true that Mrs. Hayes and all the rest are my family, the one I chose for myself, and that has always given me comfort. But I’m just now realizing how different I expected things to be with you. Your admittedly very odd criterion— that you were looking for a friend— amazes me more every time I think about it. It’s been a very long time since anyone wanted me for something as simple as that.
Here at home, there are a thousand demands on me for what I can do and offer to others, because I am earl. And last week at the palace, all of your suitors were there because you had something to offer them, and they had something for you in return, which is why only the earls of the largest shires were invited. But I have nothing to give you, no large amount of land or measure of power. You wanted me only for me, because we get along well.
It is perhaps the strangest arranged marriage I’ve ever heard of and I’m so very glad for it. Not just because it will be good for my shire, but because I honestly did not expect that I would be friends with my spouse. I thought marrying would just put me into one more family who was largely indifferent to me. For my part, at least, this match is better than I ever could have hoped for.
I hope this finds you well—
It was wonderful to get your letter. You’ll be very proud that I’ve ducked out of a meeting to write you an answer.
I’m glad to hear about Henrietta and her vision for the shire. It all sounds wonderful. And it fills me with such joy to hear that you are happy with our match. You are exactly what I have always wanted in a friend, and I am so glad that I might be able to be the same for you. I miss you terribly, as you might imagine. The palace is in pre-wedding chaos and still it seems empty without you.
I have visited the kitchen, and I can report that Josie has taken her first steps and that she’s been helping sample cakes for the wedding. She doesn’t like to eat cake, mind you, rather she seems to think it’s something to wear in her hair. The staff miss you as well, of course, and everyone is very excited to see who plans to move here with you.
I should update you on the news of the other shires as well. We had our first fall-out from the suitor competition, as I worried there would be, but from a place I didn’t expect. I assumed that if we had trouble it would be from Royce, who clearly intended to win my hand. But he hasn’t proved to be a sore loser at all, which makes me think that on a personal level, perhaps he didn’t actually want to win. We’ve started talks with his shire about wheat and apple exports, like you and I discussed, and that seems to be going quite well.
I also thought Agatha might also be a problem— even if the letter was not her idea, she did go along with it. But everything’s been very cordial with her. I wonder perhaps if she knows we traced the letter to her and is grateful we are letting the matter go. In any case, it’s been smooth sailing.
It was Meredith of Greene, of all people, who rejected our trade agreement outright. We had offered raw materials for their mills, but she refused to entertain the idea. We were at a loss, thinking our offer had been quite fair. Instead, Meredith demanded something closer, possibly even a personal alliance between her shire and the palace. It was very confusing, because Meredith had seemed so very amiable while she was here, and while it could have been an act to curry favor with me, it appeared to have been genuine. You will never guess, my dear, what the answer was or where it came from.
One night, I was approached by James, one of my attendants. He confessed to me with great anxiety that he and Meredith had become quite close in the week that she was here, and that he’d just received a letter from her. Apparently, Meredith had intended to ask James to join her as her spouse in Greene, an idea which both terrified and pleased him. (I imagine you sympathize with that.) But Meredith’s advisors had not approved of the match, because James holds no position of power here, although he is of noble blood and his family has lived at the palace for generations. His grandmother was even an advisor to my father.
So in order to get around this, Meredith decided to view the marriage as a kind of replacement for the trade agreement. I took it to my advisors and it ended up being an arrangement quite like yours and mine— a personal, marital alliance. So all is well that ends well here.
I find myself terribly happy for Meredith and James, making a love match in this day and age. I imagine that James will have a bit of a rocky road to walk at first, but he is a kind and intelligent man, and I am sure that they will find their measure of happiness.
I will sign off now, as my absence has been noted, but please know I am thinking of you constantly.
It is one week until I return to the palace and we are married. People here have been asking me if I have any second thoughts. Apparently this is a normal question to ask, so I thought I should reassure you in case you might be wondering the same thing: I am having no second thoughts at all. I miss you terribly and especially with so much of my family at the palace (and more on their way with me), coming back to you feels like coming home.
Of course, now I worry that you might be having second thoughts as well, but everyone assures me that if you don’t marry me, your advisors will make you marry Royce, so I think my position is probably secured!
I really do miss you. Everytime something funny happens here, I want to tell you. Part of me almost seems to think you’re here with me, and I turn to speak with you, but you aren’t there. I’ll include one of the stories in this letter, mostly because I suspect you will hear of it yourself from your staff, as I was the one who played the fool. It is the start of apple-picking season here, and I often go out with our household and pick apples from the trees at the estate. We always keep one basket of the squashy apples to feed to the animals. I will spare you all the details, but I managed to trip and land in the basket of squashy apples, and afterwards I smelled of apples for about three days. Everyone said I had my head too full of wedding details, but between you and me, I am not unacquainted with simple clumsiness.
(If you do hear that story, you’ll probably also hear the one about my stumble in the shire hall’s foyer at the age of eleven, while carrying a plate of dinner, and let me tell you that one is completely untrue, and there is definitely not a permanent spot of tomato sauce on the fancy carpet.)
Preparations are very much in the works for the move. What an incredible thing a royal wedding must be. Honestly, I’d be happy with just the two of us in the garden and a bit of champagne after. I’ve forgotten to ask you about a honeymoon— will they let you have a day off, let alone a week or more? Perhaps we will need a week off after all the chaos of the wedding, although I suspect you and I have far less to do than any of the staff. Perhaps they should get a honeymoon!
I will see you in a week, my friend.
Brian was due at the palace around eight in the evening, and Matthias found himself watching for him nearly an hour early.
He walked back and forth on one of the balconies that overlooked the path to the palace, supposedly to work out nervous energy, but in reality, he was probably only making it worse. His mind was filled with such contrasting emotions: he didn’t know how he should feel welcoming home a man he loved who didn’t love him in return, and yet was going to be his husband.
Matthias had thought of little else than Brian over the past month, and it wasn’t only because of the wedding preparations that had taken over everyone’s lives. Matthias missed him. Matthias dreamed of him, long and beautiful dreams where Brian embraced him as they were reunited, where he confessed his love for Matthias, and of course, where they shared a marriage bed. Those dreams were both lovely and heartbreaking, because Matthias knew that none of them were going to come true.
Then there were the nightmares. Matthias dreamed that Brian fell in love with someone else and broke the engagement. Or that Brian decided that being married to Matthias was too great a sacrifice to make, even for the good of his people. Worst of all, he dreamed that Brian grew ill or was injured in some mishap before he could return to the palace.
Matthias at least took comfort knowing that the nightmares were unlikely to come true as well. In fact, Brian had not backed out, and he was nearly to the palace now. Still, Matthias paced the balcony, which meant that he noticed immediately when a rider on horseback reached the palace gates on a full gallop.
Matthias got to the ground floor as the rider was escorted in. He wore the livery of Brian’s shire of Hartwood, but his clothing was torn and there was a bloodstain on his lower leg. “Your Majesty,” he said, “we were attacked in the woods a few miles outside the palace grounds. There are some injured. We need military and medical support.”
The part of Matthias that was the king remained calm. He noted that his soldiers were already assembling, and that the palace doctor was speaking with the household about supplies. King Matthias was able to give instructions in a cool, composed tone. But when it was time to ask the most important question, Matthias’s hands shook. “How is Brian?”
The messenger averted his gaze, just for a second, and Matthias felt like everything inside of him fell from a great height. “He has been injured, Your Majesty.” Trying to soften the blow, he offered, “To me it did not look serious.”
Matthias nodded. The soldiers and medical staff were sent on their way, and Matthias busied himself with helping to convert the grand gallery into a place to receive the wounded. The gallery had been partly decorated for the wedding already, and now golden bells hung from the ceiling over what would be injured people.
The staff worked largely in silence. After all, many of their family were with the party. And Brian was theirs, too. They gave Matthias brave smiles, and he tried to return them.
The first of the group arrived shortly after. There were some injured, but none too gravely, yet. Matthias found ways to busy his hands, places to walk to, things to say. But it all seemed very far away and sort of dimmed, until the moment that someone approached him to say that Brian was arriving.
Matthias ran. He pushed through the doors to the entrance hall and looked desperately around the room. “Brian!” he called. A few seconds passed, during which Matthias could barely feel anything other than his heart pounding.
“Here, Your Majesty.” Brian stood up, and then Matthias could find him in the crowd. His dark hair looked windblown and his fine clothes were dirtied.
Matthias rushed to Brian and grasped his shoulders. “Are you well? Are you injured?”
“I’m fine,” Brian said, in a calm, reassuring voice. “It’s just an arm wound—”
“Doctor!” Matthias exclaimed.
Brian immediately waved his hand to cancel the order. “There are people more seriously wounded than I am. I can wait.” He even smiled now, that amused, teasing smile that brightened everything around him. “And don’t give me that look, you’d do the same thing.”
Matthias groaned in frustration. He examined Brian’s right arm carefully, finding an already-bandaged spot on his forearm. A little blood had leaked through. Brian pulled away gently, and gripped both of Matthias’s hands in his own. “I’m fine, Matthias. Really.”
Matthias nodded. “I would speak with you about the attack.”
“Of course.” Brian followed Matthias through the crowd, out of the entrance hall and into an empty chamber.
Brian looked pale and tired, but no less beautiful for it. Matthias had expected this evening to go so differently. He’d hoped to spend time with Brian alone, perhaps a walk in the garden under the moonlight, sharing stories and laughing. Not here, not like this. They hadn’t even said hello to each other.
“What happened?” Matthias asked.
“We were nearly here, and anxious for it. It’s a long journey, especially with such a large group. We’d spread out along the road a little, but we had military protection evenly spaced, and we had a few messengers that would ride back and forth if we needed to communicate. I was in the last group, and that is where the attack started.”
“Was your group marked as the royal one?”
“No. I’m not much for that sort of thing, as you know. I wasn’t wearing my circlet, of course—”
Matthias frowned at him. “I’m sure.”
“And I was on horseback—”
“What? Brian! You are far too unprotected like that!”
Brian gave him a frustrated look. “I have regularly ridden through the forest without mishap—”
“But you’re a target now.” Matthias had to put a hand on the windowsill to steady himself. He looked up to find Brian looking at him with great concern. “It’s my fault,” Matthias said. “I put you in this place.”
Brian’s look faded to something darker, something Matthias couldn’t quite read. He crossed the room on quick steps and pulled Matthias into his arms.
Matthias gave a sharp gasp and returned the embrace at once, holding Brian tightly. Matthias had never expected to do this, to have Brian any closer than he was during a waltz in the grand gallery. Matthias bent his head down to press his forehead against Brian’s throat, breathing in the scent of him. Brian felt so strong in his arms, and wonderfully alive.
“I’m all right,” Brian said softly. His voice was a bit unsteady. “I’m all right, Matthias, I’m here with you. We’re going to be married in three days’ time.” He squeezed Matthias even tighter for a second, and then pulled back gently. Matthias let him go, because he had to.
“Was—” Matthias fumbled the words a bit. “Was it thieves in the forest? Or did they have allegiance to one of the shires?”
Brian hadn’t gone far. He still stood near enough that they could easily have touched each other again. He didn’t look quite so pale now, his cheeks flushed. “I don’t know. I’m not sure if they knew who we were. But the fight escalated rapidly because everyone was trying to protect me.”
“And they failed,” Matthias said darkly.
“It was a glancing blow, Matthias.” Brian had actually started to look sort of fondly annoyed now.
“Will you please just get it looked at?”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Brian said, leaning into a half bow.
“Don’t talk back to me,” Matthias instructed, trying not to give Brian the satisfaction of smiling.
Brian looked very pleased with himself anyway. “I’ll talk back to you if I like, I’m your husband-to-be.”
Matthias crossed his arms over his chest. “I am still your king and always will be.”
“Yes, but when it’s just the two of us, Matthias,” Brian said, looking pointedly around the empty room, “I am your equal.”
It was too much then. The warmth of Brian’s tone, the intimacy of the conversation overwhelmed Matthias, and he had to look away.
“You should talk to the military escort,” Brian said, the teasing tone gone from his voice. “I’m distracting you.”
“You are more important to me than anything.” Matthias couldn’t make it not sound like a vow.
Brian answered him softly. “I know that.”
Matthias closed his eyes. Cleary, this situation had laid bare his heart for all to see. He forced himself to focus. “Yes, I should meet with them. We both should.”
Matthias got to his rooms very late that night, with his head so full of weighty thoughts that he wasn’t sure he’d sleep at all. There had been no deaths among Brian’s party, and for that he was very grateful. Two soldiers had taken serious wounds, but most of the party had escaped unscathed. Fortunately, the children had been traveling in the first group, farthest from the fighting.
Brian’s staff had had their reunions with their family at the palace, and Matthias envied them, even in their worry and tears, because none of them were going to be alone tonight. Only Matthias would, as he almost always was.
Matthias had taken lovers occasionally, but it was never easy, and it never lasted for more than one night. He could never completely separate his role as king from his own person, and he always wondered if the person in his bed wanted him for himself or for whatever the king could do for them.
But with Brian— Brian would be Prince. He would belong in Matthias’s private spaces, and when he was there— When it’s just the two of us, Matthias, I am your equal. Matthias would have a friend at last. But he feared that his unrequited longing for Brian was just going to make him feel even more alone at night.
Matthias’s suite had three rooms, one to receive visitors, and two farther back for private use. It was in the middle room, the workspace, that Matthias unexpectedly found Brian sitting in a chair with a book. He was in his usual casual attire now, and he looked clean and warm and beautiful. Matthias stopped in his tracks, unable to do or say anything.
Brian looked up at Matthias, his face illuminated by lamplight, blue eyes bright with what seemed to be a sort of peaceful happiness at seeing Matthias. “I was right,” Brian said. “Plays are utterly boring. No descriptions. I don’t see why you read them, it’s far too much work to imagine everything.”
When Matthias still said nothing, Brian looked a little regretful. He closed the book and stood up. “I hope you don’t mind. I thought perhaps you would want some company.”
“You must be exhausted,” Matthias said. “And you’re injured—”
Brian raised his arm and Matthias could see a new, clean bandage around it. “All taken care of.” He reached out a hand. “Come on. You’re exhausted, too.”
Matthias didn’t take his hand. He looked away as he removed his tunic and changed it for a looser, more comfortable shirt. But his hands were shaking and his mouth dry, as Brian blew out the lamp and walked into the last room, Matthias’s bedroom.
The curtains were open, and moonlight illuminated the space. Matthias’s bed stood to one side, and there was a large couch opposite. “I just thought,” Brian said, sounding wise, “that If I’m not with you, all you’ll do is worry. And I want you to get your sleep.”
Brian sat down on the couch, and this time, when he reached for Matthias, Matthias took his hand. Brian lay back and drew Matthias into his arms, so that his head rested on Brian’s shoulder, then pulled a blanket down from the back of the couch to cover them.
By anyone’s standards, it was a very intimate embrace for friends. Matthias could feel Brian’s heartbeat, quick but steady and reassuring. He could smell Brian’s scent, whatever sweet soap he used. He could feel the softness of his skin, the well-worn linen of his shirt.
“Is there anything you want to talk about?” Brian asked. “Or do you want to scold me some more? I am very sorry for worrying you so much.”
There were so many things Matthias wanted to say.
Is this for you, too? Do you take any comfort from me at all?
“Maybe in the morning,” Matthias said.
Matthias had never slept on his couch before. He had also rarely slept as well as he did that night. But waking up was something different.
They must have shifted in their sleep, because now Matthias was on his back and Brian was curled up against him. Brian’s head lay on Matthias’s chest, and their legs were tangled beneath the blanket, which was half on the floor. Brian’s shirt had ridden up, and Matthias could see a swath of skin revealed. He watched it move with Brian’s every slow, sleeping breath.
Matthias had tried to hold Brian’s hand at the ball on the last night of the matchmaking week, and Brian had pulled away. So Matthias had not at all expected Brian to be so casual about physical touch between them now, and he could not settle on a reasonable explanation for it.
Perhaps Brian thought that this was what Matthias had meant when he asked for friendship. Maybe he thought this was his duty now, and he’d just needed some time to get used to the idea. Or perhaps it was what Brian had said: that Matthias was such a wreck over Brian’s injury that he wouldn’t sleep without knowing that Brian was safe. But there were so many other ways to remind Matthias of that, which did not include spending the night together on the same piece of furniture.
Perhaps Brian wanted this, Matthias thought desperately, wanted to share such intimacy. Perhaps he wanted more. But if he did, why not say so? After last night, there was no chance that Brian did not know how Matthias loved him. If Brian wanted to be something other than friends, he would only have to ask.
It did not help that Matthias had woken up desperately aroused. He was glad that no part of Brian’s body had come to rest over Matthias’s hips, because otherwise Brian would no doubt be aware of how Matthias’s body had responded to his nearness.
Brian’s hips were turned down, so Matthias could not see if he had reacted similarly. And without any spoken invitation from Brian, without some discussion of expectations, Matthias had no other choice but to leave and get his body back into a presentable state.
It did not take long, in the bathroom, when Matthias could still smell Brian’s body on his own, could still feel the heavy weight of him. He imagined he’d turned Brian on the couch, settled over him, found Brian just as hard for him—
Matthias came over his own fist with a strangled groan, then tried to breathe evenly, letting his body’s tension ease. It was an unsatisfying orgasm, done without any real pleasure to it, only necessity.
When Matthias returned to the bedroom, Brian was waking up, and Matthias was struck silent, just as he had been the night before, coming upon Brian in his rooms. Brian was adorable in half-sleep. He was illuminated by sunrise now and not lamplight, and he looked bright and beautiful. His black hair was mussed and his eyes blinked a few times without really focusing on Matthias. Then he stretched, and his shirt rode up again, and Matthias had to avert his eyes.
“Matthias,” Brian said, with a sweet fondness in his voice. “There you are. I thought you’d left.”
“This is my bedroom,” Matthias reminded him.
“Did you sleep all right?”
“Very well. I’ll just— I’ll be back. I need to check in on the injured.”
Brian’s sleepy expression sharpened a bit. “You need to eat breakfast.”
“You’re as bad as Mrs. Hayes,” Matthias complained.
“I’m far worse,” Brian warned. “Give me a moment, I’ll come with you, and we can come back for breakfast.”
“All right. It will give me a chance to let the staff know you’re here.”
Brian raised his eyebrows, giving Matthias an incredulous look. “There are no secrets in the palace, remember? Especially when it comes to how the king spends his nights.”
Matthias at least had some of his wits back this morning, after having slept so well. “Quite the scandal, are we?” he asked.
Brian looked fond again. “For this? No. I think the only scandal for us would be if you and I didn’t get along.”
The palace had been in some disarray the night before, but its usual mood was returning now, with a new morning and much to look forward to. The injured were being cared for and there had been no activity overnight at the palace gates. Whoever the attackers had been, they had not returned.
Breakfast for two was waiting in Matthias’s chambers when he and Brian returned. Brian sat with his legs folded at strange angles in a chair and looked perfectly at ease gesturing with a fork as he related whatever funny incidents hadn’t made it into his letters. Matthias felt he might give the world to see Brian like this every morning, casual and familiar, boldly eating Matthias’s strawberries right off of his plate.
When they’d nearly finished, someone arrived to tell Matthias that a knight by the name of Garrett had presented himself at the palace, saying he had helped ward off the attack the night before. At this news, all amusement vanished from Brian’s face.
When the attendant had left, Brian unfolded himself to put his feet flat onto the floor. “Matthias, I have to talk to you about Garrett.”
“What’s wrong?” Matthias asked. “Was he actually one of the attackers?”
“No, no. Far from it. He, um— he saved my life.” Brian looked absolutely miserable saying it.
Brian gestured to his bandaged arm wound. “It would have been a lot worse if Garrett hadn’t been there at just the right moment.”
Matthias felt his remaining hunger disappear. “You’d have been killed?”
“Why—” Matthias tried not to sound too upset. “You should have told me.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I didn’t want to worry you even more—”
“You can’t lie to me, Brian. I can’t have that.”
Brian rubbed a hand over his face. “I know. It was a foolish decision. But there’s more.”
“He’s not—” Brian stood up, and Matthias was concerned to see how much tension had come into his posture. “When the attack happened, it was dark, and it was confusing. I ended up separated from the group—”
Matthias got up from the table, too. “You mean you went off on your own because you thought they might only be after you?”
Brian frowned. “Maybe? It happened very quickly. Anyway, I found myself alone with two of the attackers, and Garrett was there at just the right time to come to my defense. He’s a good fighter, better than I am. He ran them off. And then—” Brian closed his eyes, as if he couldn’t bear to look at Matthias. “Then he heavily implied that I should be grateful. That we might both enjoy my being physically grateful. It took me mentioning your name for him to finally—”
Brian opened his eyes and gave a gasp. “Matthias. No.” He crossed the room and put his hand on Matthias’s arm, pulling him closer. “No. Nothing— even if I were remotely attracted to some random bastard in the woods— I’m engaged to be married, in case you’ve forgotten.”
Matthias was not sure what his face showed. For a moment, his world had tilted so far off balance that he feared he looked sick from it. “It’s an arranged marriage,” he said.
“Of friends.” Brian looked stricken. He grasped Matthias’s other arm as well. “I would never do that to you. I will never do that to you. I care for you far too much.”
“You didn’t mention him,” Matthias said.
“Forgive me. I’m not used to— to this yet. What we are now. It’s not a nice story, and I hoped I’d never see the man again.” Brian frowned uncertainly. “For what it’s worth, I think he thought he was being charming. But believe me, aggressive is not my type.”
“What is your—” Matthias drew in his breath sharply and pulled away. “Don’t answer that. I’m sorry.”
Brian still had his hands out where he’d been holding Matthias, and he lowered them slowly. He opened his mouth and closed it again. Matthias turned away, stacking their breakfast dishes together.
“Handsome,” Brian said. His voice was quiet, but he sounded resolute. “And sweet, and shy. That’s my type. Look, Matthias, I don’t trust Garrett. But he probably just wants to be recognized for what he did, and possibly paid.”
“We need to question him about the attack,” Matthias said.
“Yes, we do.”
“Are you up for that?”
“Of course. And I am sorry—”
“No.” Matthias waved a hand. “No need for that. This is new to both of us.” Brian still looked upset, but when Matthias smiled at him, however shakily, he at least smiled back.
Matthias received Sir Garrett in an audience room off of the grand gallery.
Garrett was tall with dark hair and strong features, and moved with the deliberate grace of someone trained to always step exactly where he needed to. He also wore a dagger at his hip.
“Well, he is handsome,” Matthias remarked quietly to Brian as Garrett came in, perhaps with a little bitterness to his tone.
To Matthias’s surprise, Brian gave him an alarmed look. “Don’t tell me he’s your type.” It was teasing, surely. But Brian actually looked like he might want an answer. Unfortunately (or fortunately) Matthias did not have time to give him one before Garrett approached.
The knight bowed on one knee. “Your Majesty.”
“Rise,” Matthias said. As Garrett did, Matthias took a seat in the ornate chair provided for him on the raised dais. There had only ever been one chair in this room, but now there were two, and this time, it gave Matthias a reassuring feeling to have Brian sit beside him.
“I owe you my thanks,” Matthias said to Garrett. “Brian— my fiancé— tells me you saved his life.”
Garrett smiled, a look that Matthias judged to be false modesty. (Of course, it could also just be that Matthias was jealous.) “I’m grateful that I was in the right time and place to help,” Garrett said.
“I would like to hear the story.”
“Of course, Your Majesty.” Garrett managed to look quite at ease while standing at attention. “I was traveling alone on the road through the forest, on my way to visit a friend in the capital city. I met your party on their way here as well. We exchanged pleasantries for a moment, but then I made to pass them. It was at that moment that we were suddenly surrounded by bandits.”
“You think it was highwaymen, then?” Matthias asked.
Garrett looked confused. “I’m not sure who else it would be, Sire.”
Matthias had his suspicions, and his expression probably showed it. Garrett seemed to falter a little. For the first time, his eyes flicked to Brian, and Matthias did not like the look he saw there: blatant admiration. Perhaps even desire.
“Continue,” Matthias said.
“Yes, Your Majesty. I ended up separated from the group with Br— your fiancé, and together we fought off the thieves. The— the Prince is very skilled with a sword. He hardly needed my help.”
“Brian tells it differently,” Matthias said. He let the statement hang in the air for a moment. Garrett’s expression lost some of its politeness, and something darker and worried showed through. He was at least smart enough not to answer without knowing exactly what Matthias was referring to.
“I was told his injury would be far greater without your help,” Matthias said.
Garrett seemed relieved. But beside Matthias, Brian shifted in his chair, a tense motion. This time Garrett did not look at him.
“You have the thanks of the kingdom,” Matthias said. “Is there some reward you would ask?”
“Of course not,” Garrett said, and this time Matthias was sure the man was being false. “I actually came to see if there was something more I could do. Perhaps I could return to the woods and see if I could find out more information about the attack. I see that wedding guests are already arriving, and certainly no one wants a threat in the forest.”
“One doesn’t want a threat anywhere,” Matthias said.
Garrett smiled nervously. “Yes. I know you must be so very busy with all the preparations, but if you could spare your Prince for a moment to accompany me, I’m sure we could figure things out.”
“I think that is a very good idea,” Matthias said, “but we will both accompany you.”
“Oh,” Garrett said. His unhappy expression said a great deal more.
Matthias gestured to dismiss him. “We will join you presently.”
When Garrett had gone, Brian made a frustrated noise. “Both of us, Matthias? What if it’s you they’re trying to get at? If you think I don’t value your life—”
“I am coming with you,” Matthias said. “Or else Garrett and I are going alone.”
Brian let out an aggrieved sigh, but he turned sideways and folded his legs up in the fancy chair in one of his usual, more relaxed poses. “You’re being very king-like,” he said.
Matthias gave him a blank look. “I am the king.”
“Yes, I had noticed. I’ve just never seen you— use it like that. Stern and solemn, giving orders.”
“Brian, I’m sorry if you think I’m being heavy-handed, but—”
Brian’s cheeks were a bit flushed, and he looked down, like he wanted to hide the smile he was wearing. “Oh, no,” he said. “I, uh— I wasn’t complaining.”
Sir Garrett looked marvelous on a horse, all athletic and strong. Matthias knew he did not cut such a graceful figure, but somehow he hadn’t anticipated how good Brian would look riding. Obviously, Brian would look beautiful doing anything, but it only reinforced for Matthias what an odd match they made, the handsome, charming prince and the quiet, stodgy king.
Garrett clearly wanted to ride at Brian’s side, but Matthias kept close. A few palace guards also accompanied them on the route, and soon enough, they began to see evidence of the fight: broken branches, trampled plants.
Garrett located an arrow sticking out of a tree, and he tore it loose. “Handmade,” he said. “Not military issue. Just as I thought, a band of thieves.”
Matthias was making his own determinations. “How many would you say there were?” he asked. He got two answers. Garrett said six. Brian said twelve. “Twelve is an awfully large number for a band of thieves,” Matthias said. “Sounds more like a military to me.”
Garrett smiled, insincerely. “Well, it was dark. I only ever saw two up close. Perhaps they made it seem like they had larger numbers.”
“What did they steal?” Matthias asked. “Sir Garrett, you’re still wearing your money pouch, as were most of the travelers when they reached the palace.”
Brian spoke up. “Usually thieves want everyone corralled so that they can empty all the purses. These men separated us.”
“They separated you,” Matthias noted. He nodded at Garrett. “I’ve seen enough.”
They ate dinner in the kitchen, which was a far more raucous place than it had been during Brian’s earlier visit to the palace, with so many family members all together. Brian perched on top of a table and set his circlet on the head of one of the children. A group of them immediately ran outside with it, giggling. Matthias decided that objecting would be useless. Besides, Brian was so happy looking like just another member of the family.
Matthias attempted to feed mashed potatoes to baby Josie, and Brian leaned close to offer instruction. There were apparently a great many strategies to get a baby to eat, and Matthias was glad to discover that Josie was agreeable to eating potatoes with a little applesauce mixed in.
“It won’t work next time,” Brian warned. “She’ll catch on eventually.”
At that moment, another staff member came into the kitchen to hand Brian a note. Brian looked wary, and the look only darkened when he read it.
Matthias had the authority to demand to read the note, but he wasn’t sure what the consequences of that order might be for their budding friendship. The problem was solved when Brian handed Matthias the note across the table without prompting.
It was from Sir Garrett, suggesting a meeting— him and Brian alone. “Out of the question,” Matthias said. He definitely had the authority to order that, but as he did, he noticed that the kitchen had gone quiet except for the noise the children were making. With Matthias distracted, Josie got ahold of the spoon and banged it on the table.
Brian frowned, looking like he was choosing his words carefully. “We won’t learn anything if I don’t go.”
“I said no.” Matthias spoke as gently as he could, aware that he was speaking to Brian in front of his family.
“A compromise,” Brian suggested. “Come with me, stand somewhere unseen. You and some guards.”
“I can’t ask you to be alone with a man who made unwanted advances. What if that’s all this is?”
“Then we will throw him out,” Brian said. “But if it’s not—” He looked down, his expression regretful. “I know I’m not supposed to argue with you—”
Matthias made a scoffing noise. “Oh, well, believe me, I’m completely shocked that you would do such a thing.” Brian’s mouth twitched into a smile, and Matthias tried not to smile back. “Though I won’t object if Mrs. Hayes— either of them— scolds you for it.”
“Oh, they will,” Brian assured him.
Brian and Garrett met in the library late that evening. Matthias and two guards stood in an antechamber, Matthias by the door where he could see Brian. Brian thumbed through another play while he waited and shot Matthias a disparaging look.
Garrett was all business when he came in. The guards stood by the other door, where they could watch Garrett, but Matthias could not see him.
“Thank you for meeting me, Your Highness,” Garrett said. “I feel we’ve gotten off on the wrong foot, and that is completely my fault. I hope that telling you the truth will allay that somewhat.”
“Why not tell the king, then?” Brian asked.
“Because I don’t think he’ll take it well.” Garrett paused, and then, in a quieter voice, he confessed, “I was hired to tempt you away from him. To break your match.”
Brian did not look very surprised. “That’s not going to happen,” he said.
“No, I realize that. I had thought it would be easier. I was told you were an arranged marriage.”
Brian looked a bit confused. “We are.”
Garrett moved a little and now Matthias could see his hand waving in space. “Well, you’ve been friends a long time then.”
“A couple of months.” Brian was smiling faintly now.
“Really? But you’re clearly—”
Brian didn’t let him finish the sentence, to Matthias’s relief and disappointment. “We made a commitment to each other. Who hired you?”
Garrett sounded regretful. “I honestly don’t know. I was paid through an intermediary.”
“What was the plan?”
“The attackers in the forest weren’t thieves, they were an outside force, like you said. It was a set-up. I’d ride in and save you, and we’d— well, anything that would anger the king enough to abandon you.”
Matthias had heard enough. He stepped into the room, and enjoyed watching Garrett’s face lose all color. “What was your plan if it failed?” Matthias asked.
Garrett looked ill. “Your Majesty. I— I don’t know what you mean.”
Brian clearly had caught on, though, because he laid a hand on Matthias’s arm. Matthias was beyond being reassured, however. “Were you told to assassinate him?” he asked.
Garrett’s mouth hung open. “What? No. I’d never!”
“Then who was hired to kill him?” Matthias asked.
Garrett shook his head. “If there is someone, Your Majesty, I don’t know anything about it.” To Matthias’s disappointment, he looked sincere.
“The guards will escort you out,” Matthias said, and turned his back as that happened.
Brian tightened his hand on Matthias’s arm, offering a smile. “I thought all we’d have to deal with for the wedding would be uncomfortable outfits and dull party guests.”
“You’re in danger,” Matthias said.
“Matthias, I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t want to be.”
“I know. For your people.”
Brian rolled his eyes. “I’m going to have to argue with you if you say things like that.” He tugged on Matthias’s arm. “Let’s get you to bed. You need your sleep. The wedding is the day after tomorrow.”
“I can’t,” Matthias said. There were a lot of reasons why the previous night’s arrangement could not be repeated, sleeping in each other’s arms, primarily the ache of being in love alone and the fear that if he wasn’t careful, soon he wouldn’t even have that. “I have to discuss security with the guards. But you get your rest.”
Brian let go of Matthias’s arm. He looked surprised and then quickly looked not surprised, and then sort of gently hurt. Matthias expected argument. But instead Brian just said, “Tomorrow then.”
In the morning, Matthias ate breakfast alone. It seemed so much colder in his rooms than the morning before, and he gazed morosely at the strawberries on his plate that he could not seem to eat.
He had instructed the guards to keep him apprised of Brian’s whereabouts, so when there was a knock at the door, he assumed it was notice of Brian leaving for breakfast. Instead, Matthias’s heart soared to see that it was Brian himself. Brian smiled, but his normal jovial manner was subdued.
“Did you not sleep well?” Matthias asked.
Brian gave him a pointed look. “What about you?”
“I—” Matthias gestured to his food. “There’s strawberries.”
Brian flicked his gaze from Matthias’s breakfast table to Matthias’s face and his smile turned a bit warmer. He dropped sideways into a chair and helped himself to what remained of Matthias’s breakfast, and Matthias felt like he almost couldn’t breathe. He’d thought to protect his fragile heart by ensuring that Brian didn’t sleep here again, but it clearly had been of no use. Brian so obviously belonged here in this room, sharing Matthias’s space and meals. He’d been here only once and now it wasn’t normal anymore for him to be absent.
“What news, then?” Brian asked.
“The guards are on alert. Well, they were for the wedding anyway. But everything’s been quiet.”
Brian nodded. “Do you know what I’ve been thinking? Agatha of Amesbury. If you make the assumption that this is all the same person— the letter, the uh, seduction attempt—” He broke off, noticing Matthias’s expression. “You’ve been thinking the same thing,” he said.
“I suspect that one of the shires is behind it. Someone with resources. All the earls have been invited to the wedding, which means Agatha will arrive this afternoon. But so will whoever put her up to forging the letter.”
“Well, we’d better talk to her first.”
“You should do it,” Matthias said.
Brian looked at him with surprise. “Me?”
“People don’t tend to want to confess things in front of the king. Besides, you’re the one who’s good at this sort of thing. You’re very—” Matthias waved his hand in the air vaguely. “Charming.”
Brian pressed his lips together as if trying not to smile. “Matthias, I’m afraid you may be a little bit biased.”
“All right then, charming compared to me.”
Brian laughed. “Oh. Well, then, I suppose so. But you should come with me anyway.” He took the last strawberry off of Matthias’s plate. “You’re more charming than you think.”
Most of the day was taken up with wedding preparations. Despite them both being the grooms, Matthias hardly saw Brian at all, until it was time to see Agatha.
Agatha did not seem to be terribly surprised to be summoned to a royal audience. But she looked very ill at ease coming into the room, which was what Matthias had feared. Brian had chosen to receive her in the library, where they all sat on chairs on the same level. Brian’s manner was relaxed and friendly, and Matthias tried to imitate him.
Brian started by asking Agatha how she’d been, and soon enough they were commiserating about the trials of ruling shires. This passed slowly into talk of the attack on Brian’s party by the thieves in the forest. Agatha appeared to have no idea that it might have been anything else, relating how her guards had taken extra precautions when they came through themselves, but they’d seen no sign of attackers.
“Actually,” Brian said gently, leaning forward in his chair, “we think it might have been an attempt to disrupt the wedding. And we’re worried that whoever tried it might try again. So we’d like to know who put you up to writing the letter that was supposedly from me.”
Agatha didn’t flinch. She looked Brian in the eyes. “I was worried you were going to ask me that,” she said. “Because I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?” Matthias asked, trying to keep his tone calm.
“I mean that someone told someone and the idea spread until it got back to me, full of flattery about my handwriting, how innocent I looked, saying that no one would ever suspect me. Talking about how everyone wanted the same thing, Brian out of the way, if only someone would step up and do it.” She looked at Matthias now, nervously. “Writing that letter was one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done, and I am grateful that you’ve overlooked it in your outreach to my shire. So I hope you will understand that I wish to avoid making the same mistake again in naming someone against whom I have no proof.”
“You do suspect someone then,” Matthias said.
“If I knew for sure who it was, Your Majesty, I would tell you. But my suspicions are based on the same information you have. My guesses are no better than yours.”
Matthias bit back a frustrated groan. “I understand. Thank you. You may go.”
“My sincerest apologies,” Agatha said to Brian.
Brian waved a hand. “There was no harm done.”
“No,” Agatha said. “You two are far too well-suited.”
After Agatha left, Matthias stared aimlessly at the shelves for a moment.
“It has to be Royce,” said Brian. “He tried deceiving you before.”
“Maybe. I’ll talk to him. Brian—” Matthias’s hands were shaking, and he clutched them together. “We can call the wedding off.”
Brian froze in his chair, halfway through taking his usual, more comfortable pose. Instead, his feet came back down onto the floor. It took him a moment to speak, and then all he said was, “No.”
“If it means your safety—”
“You don’t have any indication that the sabotage will turn violent.” Brian looked calm, but Matthias had never seen him so pale.
“They were violent enough with the seduction attempt,” Matthias said, gesturing to the edge of the bandage showing beneath Brian’s sleeve. “It’s the next logical step.”
“But they may not take it. Matthias, we— we can’t let them win. You’re the king, there will always be people who oppose—” Brian abruptly stood up and turned away. After a moment, he turned back, and his expression was composed. “If you choose someone else to marry, then you will either pick the person who did this or go through it all over again with your new spouse. I can’t imagine that you would want that.”
“It’s different when it’s you in danger,” Matthias said, because there was no point in not saying it.
Brian didn’t pretend either. “I understand that. That’s why— that’s why you can’t throw this away.” There was a little hitch to Brian’s breathing, almost like he was holding back tears. “I’ll never make a better match than this, I told you that in my letter. Not because you’re king. Because you’re you.” Brian spoke with a painful tone Matthias had never heard before. “Once the wedding is over, the danger will be past. Things will be different then. Everything will be different. We just have to get there. Matthias, please.”
Matthias crossed the room, his heart pounding. Brian let himself be crowded up against a shelf, let Matthias put his hands on his cheeks and draw him close. He let Matthias stare into his eyes, let him press their bodies together, so tense.
“I can’t let you go,” Matthias whispered. “God forgive me, but I can’t.”
Brian gave a sigh of relief. Matthias’s gaze moved to his mouth, and for one desperate moment, the world stilled. Until Matthias made the wrong choice. He reached up to close the last distance between them and Brian whispered, “Don’t.”
Brian pulled away, still looking stricken and pale. But he grasped Matthias’s hand, hard, brought it to his mouth and pressed a kiss there. Then he left the room.
It was Matthias’s wedding day. He was in love with his fiancé.
It should have been a happy occasion, but Matthias was filled with worry. He hadn’t slept well again. Having slept with Brian in his arms one night had apparently meant he was now forever incapable of sleeping well alone.
Matthias had spoken to his guards over and over. There were more guards on Brian’s chambers now than there had ever been on Matthias’s. And rather than eating breakfast, Matthias summoned Royce to an audience chamber. Unlike Agatha, Royce looked surprised.
“I’ll make this brief,” Matthias said. “You’ll forgive me if I don’t have time to make it as courteous as it should be.”
Royce had a very understanding expression on his face. “It’s a very busy day for you, Your Majesty. Please tell me what I can do to help you.”
“You can hear me. Someone has tried several times to disrupt my match with Brian. At this point I don’t plan to retaliate, because so far it’s been unsuccessful. But if there is a further attempt before the wedding this afternoon, I will have to respond. I am leveling no charges against anyone in particular now, so I don’t require answer from you. But I need to know you understand.”
Royce’s expression had done a few complicated things as he listened, and now it had settled on something less than appreciative. He put on one of his insincere smiles again. “Your Majesty, I wish you only the best with your upcoming wedding. I wish— I wish I had done things differently. But I assure you, I understand that the question is settled now. I think everyone understands that.”
“Very good,” Matthias said. “You may go.”
Matthias stood in his chambers looking at his wedding clothes, white and gold, for some time before he put them on. He looked in the mirror as he settled his circlet on his head, resting in his blond hair. The gold was going to look so beautiful in Brian’s dark hair. Though of course, Matthias suspected the circlet wouldn’t be found there often.
There was a knock on the door. Some attendant, no doubt, with some other wedding detail that Matthias did not have the heart to deal with.
Matthias was surprised that the door opened without his invitation, and even more surprised to see his fiancé come into the room. Brian was dressed for the wedding too, white edged in blue, the color of his eyes. “We’re— we’re not supposed to see each other—” Matthias started.
“Well, now, whose fault is that?” Brian asked gently. “Both Mrs. Hayes’s were about to come beg with you to eat something before the ceremony, but I convinced them I’d have more success in scolding you.”
“You can’t scold the king.”
“Yes, I can, I’m the only one who’s allowed. Sit down, Matthias.”
Matthias obeyed, and Brian sat beside him. But rather than reach for the uneaten breakfast on Matthias’s table, Brian took Matthias’s hand in his own. “Breathe,” he said. “You’ve done enough. You’ve taken wonderful care of me. I’m safe. In an hour we’ll be wed and this will be behind us.”
“You really want this?” Matthias asked. “The wedding? The marriage?”
Brian’s gaze was steady on his. “More than anything.” His gaze flicked down to travel over Matthias for the third time since he’d come through the door. “But I don’t care how handsome you are in your wedding clothes, Matthias, if you don’t eat something, I’m not letting you have any cake at the party.” Brian let go of Matthias’s hands and set a plate of fruit in front of him. Brian ate the strawberries himself, of course.
The grand gallery was surrounded by guards. Nothing seemed amiss, and so Matthias let Brian take his hand and lead him into the room. There were several rows filled with the staff as Brian’s family. Royce was there, of course, sitting tensely in a chair, as were Agatha and all the other suitors, even Meredith and James. Gordon looked particularly unhappy, but the other advisors seemed resigned to it. They all just sat quietly as the ceremony actually began. It felt almost strange that it did, because over the last few days, Matthias had been so worried that it wouldn’t.
The wedding seemed to take place in a strange sort of time-slip, where some parts rushed by in a blink: the procession, the ceremonial nonsense, and some parts stretched out and slowed. The vows seemed to echo through the grand gallery, as they promised to care for each other, to be faithful, to spend their lives together. Matthias had no idea how arranged marriages must actually work, because the vows were written for people who loved each other. As Matthias said them, he meant every word.
When the officiant said I now pronounce you wed, all Matthias could do was to look at Brian’s hand, held tightly in his.
And then there was a shock: Matthias had somehow managed to forget that weddings involved kisses. Perhaps his mind was so full of other nervous details that it had seen fit to spare him the terror of realizing that he was going to share a kiss with Brian, no doubt their one and only kiss, in a crowded hall full of people. When the kiss was announced, Matthias found himself staring at Brian, probably looking bewildered, unable to even lean forward to brush their lips together.
It didn’t matter, because Brian kissed him. And it wasn’t a brief press of lips or a ceremonial token of affection. Brian took Matthias’s face in his hands and kissed him like he wanted to, like he’d been aching to, like there was something fervent and vast behind it.
It must have lasted only a few seconds. But Matthias finally lost all track of time then, and only noticed that the wedding was over when he found himself walking back down the aisle with Brian’s hand in his. He squeezed Brian’s hand, and Brian looked at him with such an expression of happiness on his face that Matthias’s worry began to let go. He was married to Brian now. Brian was safe, and he had become Prince.
They danced. They ate cake. They received an endless line of well-wishers, most of whom actually seemed to be sincere.
When all of the tasks were finally over, Brian took Matthias’s hand. “Enough,” he said. His face seemed flushed. “Time to go, Matthias.”
Matthias felt a bit of the real world rush back to him then, the realization that when they left the party, it would be to go their separate ways. Even if Brian offered to spend the wedding night together on the couch— Matthias could not allow it. He had to set clear boundaries or he’d end up with worse heartbreak than he already had.
Matthias opened his mouth to object, but Brian seemed to anticipate it, and put a finger to Matthias’s lips. “Matthias,” he said quietly, “come with me. Now.”
Matthias did, of course. They said their goodbyes and left the guests to eat and dance and celebrate until they finally tired of it. Brian kept hold of Matthias’s hand, and when they got to Matthias’s chambers, he stepped inside before Matthias could object.
Once there, the first thing that Brian did was take off his gold circlet, giving a sigh of relief. He ran a hand through his dark hair, mussing it slightly.
Matthias spoke bravely. “Brian, you have your own rooms. I am sure you will be comfortable there.”
Brian glanced at him, looking amused as he very deliberately set his circlet down on Matthias’s dresser. “I’m not going anywhere,” Brian said, “you ridiculous, aggravating, beautiful man.”
Matthias gave him a look of shock. “Excuse me?”
Brian stepped closer, slowly advancing on Matthias, who couldn’t think of anything else to do but just as slowly back up. “You have utterly broken me, Matthias, do you know that?” Brian’s expression was completely serious. “With your pale eyelashes and your broad hands, your damned orders, and goading me into arguments I’m not allowed to have. I don’t know if I could have lasted another day of you looking at me like I was the most wonderful thing in the universe but at the same time responsible for all your heartbreak.” Brian looked pained. “Which I am. I confess that now, and I am sorry. But it’s your fault, really.”
Matthias’s back hit the wall, and so he was unable to back up any more. They’d passed into a circle of lamplight, and it glowed in Brian’s dark hair as he raised his hand and gently cupped Matthias’s cheek. “You tipped your hand to me, so early in the game,” he said softly. “I know you’re in love with me. Everyone does, since that first morning in the kitchen. I know what you wanted me to say, and that was why I couldn’t say it, because you wouldn’t be able to believe it. You’d think I was pretending like everyone else. I couldn’t tell you how I felt, couldn’t kiss you, couldn’t let you kiss me. Until we were married and finally, now, I have no more reason to deceive you.”
Brian let his hand slip down to Matthias’s shoulder, squeezing tightly. “Matthias, I love you. Enough to marry you even if you were a cook in the palace. Even if you were king. I love you, my darling, we— we’re in love—”
Matthias surged forward and kissed him. He didn’t really have a plan beyond that, but Brian shuddered against him, and then their arms were around each other and they were kissing, deep and open and passionate. Brian seemed to want to devour him, and Matthias felt an equal hunger in himself.
Matthias had never been kissed like this, like he was a man that someone desired rather than a king that someone wanted to please. He’d never been held and touched like he was someone’s equal.
Somewhere among the devastating kisses, Brian managed to remove Matthias’s circlet, setting it somewhere, and then he started on the fastenings of Matthias’s shirt. Matthias began to walk him backwards, and Brian didn’t know the layout of the rooms well enough, so he had to cling to Matthias, moving blindly, until his knees hit Matthias’s bed, and he fell onto it.
Matthias stood over him, pulling off his shirt and discarding it. With Brian, he took more time, kneeling over him, gently unfastening his clothes, revealing his beautiful body inch by inch. Matthias touched him reverently, and Brian trembled below his fingers.
“I would have believed you if you’d told me,” Matthias said. “I always did.”
Brian shook his head. His face was flushed, and his lips slightly swollen from kissing. “But you couldn’t have been sure. And if they’d tried to say false things about me again and you believed them, even a little— I couldn’t risk this match, Matthias. I love you too much.”
Matthias kissed him again, because now that was a thing they could do, whenever they wanted. Brian pulled him down on top of himself, holding Matthias like he was precious and necessary.
“I swore I wouldn’t touch you until the wedding,” Brian said, as they worked to rid each other of the last of their clothes. “I was determined. Oh, Matt— ah, but then I was injured and you were so worried. And then you spent the night in my arms—” Brian pushed Matthias back to look him in the eyes. “I’ve hurt you. I’ve hurt us both. Last night was the worst, I thought I might lose you if I let you kiss me, lose you if I didn’t—”
“I’m here,” Matthias said, wildly, joyfully, because it was what Brian wanted to hear. “I can save the lecture for tomorrow.”
“Yes, do that,” Brian said, kissing him again.
They were tangled together now, messing up the sheets, their movements tight and desperate against each other. Matthias kissed down the side of Brian’s neck, sucking marks and soothing them after. “Let me have you,” Matthias said. “Let me have you properly. It’s our wedding night.”
Brian smiled up at him. “So long as I can have you in the morning.”
“Every morning,” Matthias said. “And every night— you’ll be here every night.”
“I will.” Brian crossed his legs over Matthias’s waist so that Matthias could begin to prepare him. There was oil in a bottle near the bed, and when Brian saw it, he grinned. “Is it my fault that’s there?”
Matthias kissed him. “Don’t be smug.”
“I thought of you too, you know.” Brian ran his hands up Matthias’s sides, sighing with pleasure as Matthias worked his fingers inside of him. “I thought of this bed. Ah— of that damned couch. The library, the rose garden. I thought of your mouth, your hands. Oh, you really do have the most beautiful hands, Matthias.”
“I thought of taking you in your bed in Hartwood, with you smelling of apples,” Matthias confessed, and Brian laughed.
When Matthias withdrew his fingers, he moved Brian to lie in the middle of the bed, lingering a moment just to look at him. Brian was even more handsome than Matthias’s imagination had made him, dark hair against Matthias’s white sheets, wonderfully made, with his cock flushed dark with arousal.
Matthias leaned over him, kissing him, as hungry for him now as he had been at their first few desperate kisses. As hungry as he would always be. Matthias pushed inside of Brian slowly, giving him time to get used to the stretch.
Brian held onto Matthias’s shoulders, lifting his hips to take Matthias deeper. “You feel so good,” Brian whispered. “Please, Matthias. Make love to me.”
Matthias did, with firm, claiming strokes. Their bodies were taut and wanting and slick with sweat. He thrust into Brian over and over, until the pleasure of it began to overwhelm him and his strokes grew more desperate, wilder. Brian held him tightly, groaning his pleasure as he let Matthias take what he needed.
Brian’s cock was caught between them, leaking and pulsing, and as the friction increased, Brian gasped. “Matt— I’m going to—”
“Yes,” Matthias said. “Go on.”
“Kiss me,” Brian begged, and Matthias did, muffling Brian’s cry of pleasure as he came between them. His body tightened around Matthias’s cock and Matthias spilled inside of him, thrusting hard as he came, with more pleasure than he’d ever felt in his life.
They collapsed together in the mess they’d made of the bed, and Matthias sought Brian’s mouth again, unable to stop marveling that he was allowed to kiss him.
“I love you,” Matthias said, gazing down at Brian, lying in his bed like he belonged there.
Brian smiled up at him. “I love you too. More than anything.”
Matthias woke up with Brian in his arms and this time he didn’t have to worry about anything, didn’t have to leave the bed, didn’t have to stop gazing at Brian as he slept. This time, Matthias could wake Brian with gentle kisses and soft touches.
Brian was even more adorable being woken that way. At first, he made quiet noises of protest, curling his body around Matthias like he was seeking his warmth, hiding his face from the light of sunrise by pressing it against Matthias’s shoulder. But after enough caresses, Brian finally opened his eyes and gazed up sleepily at the man who had become his husband the day before.
“Morning,” Matthias whispered.
Once awake, Brian was single-minded. He made a sort of humming noise and stretched himself out against Matthias’s body, tipping him until he lay on his back with Brian on top of him. As Brian began pressing kisses to Matthias’s neck, Matthias could feel him become fully aroused, his cock hard and hot against Matthias’s hip.
Matthias groaned and clutched him closer, a hand in Brian’s hair to bring his mouth within kissing range. There was little of the desperation of last night, but just as much hunger in their kisses, just as much devotion.
Brian gave Matthias one of his teasing, flirtatious looks and began to kiss his way down Matthias’s body. Matthias moaned breathily as Brian took his time, exploring, until finally he reached Matthias’s cock and gave him a long lick from base to top.
“Oh god, oh god,” Matthias gasped as Brian took him in his mouth, swallowing him down, surrounding his cock with a wet heat. Matthias braced himself with a hand on the headboard as Brian did an astoundingly good job of pleasuring him. Brian mouthed along the vein on the underside, tongued over the sensitive slit on top, and took him deep into his throat, sucking and massaging him with his tongue. Matthias was pushed into orgasm with barely any warning, no time to tell Brian, but Brian only swallowed around him, sucking gently until Matthias was finally done coming.
“Oh god,” Matthias gasped again.
Brian gave him a very pleased smile. “Good morning to you.”
Brian took the oil and prepared Matthias gently, curling up behind him and kissing his neck while working his fingers inside of him. And then Brian sat up and pulled Matthias into his arms. They kissed more slowly now, catching their breath at the pleasure of Brian pushing inside of Matthias.
Matthias could hold Brian so tightly like this, could kiss him and tell him how much he loved him. Brian pressed up into him in a slow rhythm, gasping against Matthias’s throat, biting along his shoulder, until with a soft cry he spilled inside of him. Matthias had hardened again, and he was nearly there already. Brian put his hand around his weeping cock and stroked him hard and fast until Matthias came again between their bodies.
They collapsed against each other, still so wonderfully close.
“I love you,” Matthias said, and Brian pulled him back down for a deep, ardent kiss.
Eventually, Matthias went to his closet and put on what passed for casual clothes for a king. They were a good deal more fancy than Brian’s preferred wear. They weren’t getting a honeymoon exactly, but they’d at least have a few quieter days without many royal responsibilities.
“We’ll have to have them move your things in here,” Matthias said, joyful at just the thought of it, Brian sharing his rooms.
But he turned to find Brian nearly dressed already, standing by an open drawer of Matthias’s dresser that was filled with Brian’s clothes. As Matthias stared, Brian began to laugh.
“Did everybody know about this except me?” Matthias demanded.
“You were the only one who couldn’t know. I had to complain about my heartache to someone, and you know, anything you say in the kitchen does not stay in the kitchen.” Brian finished fastening his shirt and came to give Matthias a kiss. “They’re my family, Matt, they could see it on me from the second day.”
“The second day?”
“Yes, you infuriating man,” Brian said, with a light smack to Matthias’s shoulder. “Handsome and sweet and shy. You’re exactly my type, and our households knew it when they set this whole thing up. Oh, they said it was just about uniting the family members in our shires, but that was a lie. It was shameless matchmaking, and thank God I’m your type or I would have had my heart broken.”
Brian reached out to fuss with Matthias’s collar and then ran his hand through Matthias’s hair to settle it. “Oh, you pulled so hard at my heartstrings. How lonely you must have been to go through all of this just to find a friend. The look on your face when you asked me to call you Matthias— well.” Brian smiled. “It’s finally over and I can tell you as much as I like. I love you. I loved you that day in the garden and I love you now.”
That led to more kissing, of course, and it almost led to them removing the clothes they’d just put on, but Brian put a stop to it, demanding that Matthias eat breakfast.
By the afternoon, most of the wedding guests had departed, and the household congregated on the lawn for their own celebration. There was simple food and drink, games, and music. Matthias and Brian sat together on the grass, their legs pressed together. Their newfound comfortable closeness made all of Brian’s family look rather self-congratulatory.
Brian had started the party wearing his new gold circlet, but of course, he removed it almost immediately, giving it to one of the children.
Matthias was quick to seize on it. “Ha! I knew you were going to do that!”
Brian gave him an irritated look and reached up to pull the circlet from Matthias’s head. One of the children dashed up with gleeful giggles and took the crown from Brian, running off across the lawn with it.
“You are definitely not allowed to do that,” Matthias said.
“Oh, well, do call the palace guards.” Brian shifted a little as baby Josie climbed into his lap and then kept crawling until she reached Matthias’s lap. Matthias stroked her red curls gently.
“We should adopt a few of our own,” Brian said. “You’ll be a wonderful father.” He kissed Matthias gently. “Do you want something to drink? I was going to get some lemonade.”
“Sure.” Matthias tugged a bit of grass out of Josie’s fist before she could put it in her mouth. He realized she must have gotten her first tooth, because he could see a little flash of white when she sucked on her fingers. Matthias turned when he heard Brian speaking to someone unfamiliar on the patio.
“Just a moment,” Brian said to the stranger, and then called, “Matt? Someone to see you.”
The stranger, who wore fancy livery and looked to be some sort of emissary, gave Brian a horrified glance, looking him up and down. “Does the king allow everyone to call him by his first name?” he exclaimed.
An amused look spread across Brian’s face. “Well, he is the king. He can do what he likes.”
Matthias set Josie down on the grass and walked up to the patio. “Yes?”
“I have a message for the king,” the stranger said, rather impatiently.
Brian, now smiling even more broadly, tapped his own forehead, and that was when Matthias remembered he wasn’t wearing his crown. “I am King Matthias,” he said.
“Oh.” The man attempted a smile. “I must speak to you in private.”
“Of course,” Matthias sighed. He walked into the hall, motioning for Brian to follow them, and the man looked displeased.
Once in an audience chamber, the man introduced himself as an emissary from a neighboring country. He began giving a long, florid speech about sharing water resources in the river that formed the border between their countries, but before long, Matthias interrupted him. “The gist, please. I’m afraid I’m not holding my regular schedule for the next few days. I’m on my honeymoon.”
The emissary was clearly unhappy to have been cut off. “I see,” he said snootily. “Perhaps then I could speak to your spouse? Wherever they are, while you’re so ably attended by a member of your staff?”
Brian handled it like a prince: he put a hand to his mouth to cover his laughter, though his shoulders shook silently. “I tell you what,” he said to the emissary, with a warmer smile than Matthias could have given him, “Let’s pick up this discussion in the morning. For now, why don’t you join us outside and have something to eat? My husband and I are in the midst of celebrations today, and there’s plenty of food.”
The man had gone pale. “I’m so sorry, Your Majesty—”
“Oh, not at all,” Brian said. “I’m sure you can understand how much everyone needed some time to relax after a royal wedding.” He began leading the man back outside.
“Oh, I remember when our king’s sister got married,” the emissary said. “We all needed a vacation afterwards. There were elephants!”
“That is a story I must hear,” Brian exclaimed, laughing. “Please have some food, we’ll join you in a moment.”
Matthias came up behind Brian and put his arms around him. “And you thought you wouldn’t be a good Prince.”
Whatever Brian was going to say was interrupted by Gordon, Matthias’s advisor. He looked quite unhappy, which was his usual state, honestly. “Your Majesty, may I speak with you?” he asked.
Brian stepped away. “I’m going to head to the kitchen for a moment, Matt, I think we’re running out of bread on the patio.”
Brian was hardly gone when Gordon started in. “Now he won’t even call you by your proper name.”
“Excuse me?” Matthias asked.
“That was an emissary from our largest bordering country!” Gordon exclaimed. “Now he’s out on the lawn with the household staff! I tried everything I could to dissuade you from this match, even resorting to actual sabotage. The letter, the knight, all useless! And when it failed, I told myself it would not be this bad. But it’s worse! We’ll be a laughingstock. You’ll be a laughingstock. I cannot allow this.”
“Gordon, what the hell—”
“I know I’ll be imprisoned for this, but it’s my duty as your advisor to put the country first.”
Matthias barely heard the end of the sentence, as he was already running after Brian. The hallways were a blur, seeming to stretch out far longer than they should. It seemed there were miles before Matthias finally found the kitchen.
When he did, all he was terrified to find Brian backed up against the wall. Matthias barely saw the assailant— a man he’d never seen before. He didn’t even see the knife. He only rushed in to cover Brian’s body with his own, and that was why Matthias took the knife wound himself.
Matthias was infinitely grateful for the pain, because it was himself injured instead of Brian. Brian shouted something, and more people reached the kitchen, disarming the man Gordon had sent to assassinate the Prince.
Matthias found himself on the floor, sitting in Brian’s lap, while Brian frantically investigated the wound on his side. It was bleeding, but it didn’t seem too deep. Possibly the assailant had held back when he realized that Matthias was in the way.
“Matthias, you idiot, you can’t risk your life, you’re the king!” Brian cried.
“The king can do what he likes,” Matthias pointed out. “You just said so.”
“Oh, I’m going to murder you myself,” Brian swore. There were tears in his eyes and he kissed Matthias on the forehead. “You stupid man, you could have been killed.”
Matthias kissed him on the mouth. “I’m all right. And now we know— it was Gordon all along.” Matthias looked at the assailant, now on his knees. “The ones who attacked you in the forest were our own people.”
Brian didn’t look happy to have the mystery solved. He looked stricken. “Am I really so bad for you?”
“No! You’re perfect for this country, and you’re perfect for me. And I’m not willing to find out what any of us would do without you.” Matthias took Brian’s face in his hands. “I love you so much.”
“I’m very angry at you,” Brian grumbled.
“Oh, well,” Matthias said, kissing him gently. “Too bad you’re not allowed to scold me.”