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CW: the country goes through a pandemic illness
So the serials tend to be whatever relationship dynamic I’m obsessing about at the time, so they differ a bit. This one turned out to be an adventure, with lots of plot. Kind of like You Don’t Say. Anyhow, there are more cliffhangers than usual, sorry. Ah, wait, I’m not sorry. XD
Despite the practical nature of Nathan’s work, the clear-cut responsibilities of a bodyguard to the queen, the concrete plans he made and followed, Nathan was a man who wished.
He never voiced his wishes, but they drifted through his mind, day after day, as he shared space with the queen’s closest attendant, Eric.
The wishes were often contradictory. Nathan wished that Eric was not a servant, but a fellow officer, someone of Nathan’s rank, with whom he could have an open romance. Or Nathan wished that he himself was a servant rather than a bodyguard. He wished that Eric would know how much Nathan admired him, and a moment later, wished that he would never find out.
Nathan and Eric had become friendly, as their work often kept them in the same spaces, but Nathan wished them closer. He wished them love and a happily ever after, wished that when Eric was worried, he would find comfort in Nathan’s arms. Wished that when Eric showed his competence at his job, materializing from nowhere when he was needed, prepared for any situation, that Nathan could call attention to it, praise him for it.
Eric was handsome, strikingly so. Nathan wished he wasn’t.
He wished he could tell Eric how handsome he was.
At this moment, they were gathered in an office next to the queen’s bedroom. It was a quiet space with deep blue carpeting, lined with brighter stripes where the late afternoon sun came in through the windows. The furniture had probably been designed by someone famous. There were portraits on the walls that had been painted by people of immense talent. Nathan could not have described any of them, because whenever he was in this room, so was Eric.
Queen Suzanne was discussing a medical report with an advisor. Autumn was on their doorstep and everyone was worried about a resurgence of last winter’s fever, which had claimed lives in the palace and the broader kingdom. The medical advisor, Dr. Cartwright, an older man who wore bright ties, was hopeful that the population now possessed a hard-won immunity. This was very important news that Nathan needed to keep up on, but instead of following this conversation, his eyes kept being drawn to the silent man in the room.
Eric always dressed in the simple black uniform of a servant, which let him blend into the background of the palace’s cavernous spaces. The dark clothing made Eric’s brown hair seem lighter, his skin pale. He had expressive hands which kept Nathan’s attention as Eric straightened the room after lunch. His brushes against emptied dishes and salt shakers were muffled by the white gloves he wore.
At some point, Dr. Cartwright veered away from his report and began telling a mostly unrelated story. Nathan was never quite sure how the man got started on reminiscing, but his tales had more twists and turns in them than a garden path, and still usually ended up at no more important destination than a hole in the dirt. Queen Suzanne had apparently accepted the stories as part of the price of medical advice, but in her place, Nathan would have no such patience.
Nor would Eric, Nathan happened to know. As the story dragged on, Eric looked up from laying a fresh tablecloth and met Nathan’s eyes, a half-smile on his face. This was the closest Eric would ever get to disrespect toward someone of higher class, but Nathan saw it for the biting commentary it was, and he returned the smile.
Times had changed, even in Nathan’s own lifetime. Once any romance between two men would have been forbidden. It was far more accepted now, but there were still boundaries that no one could cross. Even if by some miracle, Eric shared his feelings, they could not have a home, a marriage, a life. Nathan could never have been a servant, not with his parentage. Eric could never be a bodyguard to the queen. A soldier yes, if his talents lay that way, but not an officer or royal guard. The only thing they had in common, the only way they were allowed to be together, was in serving the queen.
As Dr. Cartwright’s story drew toward its end, Nathan tensed at the sound of running footsteps in the hall. He moved to the door to intercept whoever was coming: from the sound of it, someone young and light on their feet, wearing shoes instead of military boots. A servant, then. Nathan blocked off the room as he opened the door, giving the person no line of sight to the queen.
It was Elle, one of the royal attendants who worked in the front half of the castle. Servants were often sent as messengers to the queen when people arrived, but normally they did the job with dignity. There was nothing dignified about this, Elle panting in the hallway. She crowded close to Nathan, clearly frightened. “The queen’s sister,” she said. “Sir, Lady May has been injured. There was an attack on their trip.”
Nathan very much wanted to demand more information that Elle most likely had. Instead, he drew the young woman inside, locking the door behind her. Queen Suzanne was on her feet, concern making her gaze sharp.
Suzanne was young for a monarch, only in her forties. Her dark hair showed a few silver strands, and her face had gentle creases in the places where wrinkles would later run deep. She was a quiet, pensive woman whose expressions gave away little of what she was thinking.
Nathan outranked the queen in one area only, and this was it. He put out a hand to usher her and everyone else into the inner chambers, putting another room between them and the hallway. Nathan was not one of the palace guards, so he didn’t expect to be included in their decisions. He’d have to wait to be informed of the situation when they had the chance. He glanced at his cell phone just in case, but messages of this type were prohibited from texts or calls.
“Is my sister here in the palace?” the queen asked Elle.
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“How injured is she?”
“I don’t know, ma’am. I’m sorry. They just sent me running when they came in.”
Nathan knew immediately that Eric was going to offer to go get information. Technically, that was his job. But not right now. Nathan moved to block his exit from the room as Eric took the first step.
“Everyone stays here,” Nathan said severely. “Lady May’s bodyguard will give us the news as soon as—” He broke off as he saw Elle’s face go pale.
“I’m so sorry, sir,” she said. “They told me Mr. Jacobs had been killed.”
Nathan had been trained to keep his focus on his job, no matter what happened. It took effort this time, his eyes steadfast on the door while his mind whirled backwards to the age of eight, standing in the river that ran past his house, splashing Alan Jacobs with water as their toes sank into the mud.
Nathan felt a hand on his arm, warm and in the present moment. He looked up, more shocked by this than anything. This was only the second time that Eric had ever touched him.
“I’m sorry,” Eric said. His eyes, so light beneath his dark hair, were full of concern and sorrow. “I know you were friends.” He withdrew his hand, and in its absence, Nathan’s arm burned beneath his sleeve.
Nathan couldn’t thank him, he only nodded. “But everyone stays here until—” There were footsteps in the hall, a knock at the door.
“Code,” Nathan called, his hand on the gun at his hip.
The man at the door rattled off a string of numbers, and Nathan let him in. It was Paul, the head of the royal guard. He gave them the story.
The queen had sent her sister May on an informal visit to the southern part of the kingdom, where forests of giant trees met the sea. Her entourage had been ready to leave for home when the attack came. Her bodyguard, Alan Jacobs, had given his life to protect May, but she was injured. Her other guards had rushed her to the airport, getting the private plane up as quickly as they could, feeling that the safest place would be the palace. They’d let no news of it get out, afraid to tip off the attackers to the fact that May still lived.
Another attack could come at any time.
“Will she survive?” the queen asked.
Paul spread his hands. “I’m sorry, Your Majesty, I don’t know. The doctors are with her now.”
“And you’ve called up the reserve guard?”
“Yes, ma’am. They are fully deployed in the palace. So far there’s no sign of any trouble, but we’d like to ask you to please stay here until we’ve fully cleared everything.”
Queen Suzanne gestured to Eric, as Nathan knew she would. “Go. Bring me a report.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Eric said. As he tugged the gloves from his hands, Nathan forced himself to stand aside, clearing Eric’s way to the door. Nathan’s worries were sharp and pointed, pressing against the inside of his skin, making his hands tremble. He couldn’t follow Eric. His duty lay with the queen.
Elle and Dr. Cartwright left as well, and Nathan watched Queen Suzanne go through her own useless motions of anxiety, walking a line along the wall of her chamber, leaving faint marks on the blue carpet, twisting her hands until her fingers were white.
The queen and her sister weren’t very close. They hadn’t seen much of each other as children, but they’d occupied the palace together for two years now. Suzanne had been born first, thus she was queen. May was three years younger, and enjoyed freedoms Suzanne had rarely tasted, such as informal visits to different parts of their island kingdom.
They did care for each other, though. That was clear.
It was nearly fifteen minutes before Eric returned. Nathan recognized his footsteps, as soft as they were, and opened the door without the lockdown code.
Eric bowed his head to the queen. “Your Majesty, your sister is in good condition. The doctors believe she will live. She was stabbed in the abdomen, but it’s not terribly serious.”
Queen Suzanne’s hands fell still. “Thank you, Eric.”
“You’re welcome, ma’am. Can I get you some water?”
Eric went to the pitcher that sat on a table by the wall. But something about his movements attracted Nathan’s attention, even more sharply than usual. “Are you all right?” Nathan asked.
Eric turned, a look of mild surprise on his handsome face, pale eyes wide. “Yes, sir.”
“You’re—” Nathan wasn’t sure how to phrase it exactly. I have your walk memorized, and you’re half a step too slow. “You seem tired,” he said, lamely, as if that was unexpected, with the hours Eric kept: awake every moment the queen was, but before and after that too, arranging her affairs, tidying her spaces.
“I’m quite well, sir,” Eric said, but his face showed a hint of a smile, as if he was warmed by the concern.
Nathan heard footsteps again and after the code had been given, opened the door to admit Paul once more. The man looked both determined and frightened, his face drawn and his shoulders sharply set. “We have an answer, Your Majesty,” he said. “But I’m not sure anyone is going to like it. The witnesses— the evidence— there were feathers found.”
“Feathers?” the queen asked.
“Yes, ma’am. The attack— Your sister has little memory of it. But the others— they’re saying it was the mythic people.”
There was a quick movement to Nathan’s right, and he turned to see Eric fumble an empty water glass, only just catching it before it hit the floor. Nathan was almost more shocked by Eric’s uncharacteristic mistake than the news.
“There’s no such thing as mythic people,” the queen said. “They’re stories made up to scare children.”
“But royal children especially,” Nathan pointed out. It was his job to identify threats, no matter how remote. “That’s what they say, Your Majesty, that the mythic people have attacked the royal family before.”
“There’s no such thing,” the queen repeated, but she sounded less than sure.
The mention of childhood bogeymen seemed to reduce grown adults to anxious children.
At a hastily called meeting of the queen’s advisors and the royal guard, fears and arguments flew back and forth like a food fight.
There are no mythic people. You might as well be talking of vampires..
It was a magical attack! They say people flew down—
I don’t think mythic people can fly. Can they?
Then why do they have feathers?
I heard they are all stuck here, because it’s an island. They can’t cross running water. They’ve just been waiting to try to take over—
Bullets go right through them!
That’s what bullets are meant to do!
Standing just behind the queen, where he could see the whole table of agitated people, Nathan’s gaze still shifted to Eric. They were in the grand hall now, a large space prone to echoes that bounced off the wooden floor and up to the ceiling, especially if everyone was talking at once.
Eric was nearby in case he was called on, but the man was never idle. He was speaking to one of the other attendants, probably arranging refreshments. He stood in front of one of the south-facing windows, and the light fell warmly on him, muted by the glass and the heavy purple curtain along the edge. Eric’s brown hair took on a golden sheen when in natural light, whether through windows or in the palace courtyard where the queen liked to stroll.
Nathan wished he could see Eric in other places, other lights. What would he look like in a forest, with dappled sunshine coming through the leaves? At the shore, where the salt spray might shine on his skin? On snowy plains under a dim winter sunrise?
Queen Suzanne’s duties kept her to the palace, which meant that Nathan and Eric rarely had the chance to leave themselves. Nathan had envied Alan that way. As bodyguard to the queen’s sister, he had far more freedom. Alan had visited nearly the whole kingdom.
But he hadn’t come back from their last trip.
Eric dismissed the other attendant, who left by the door closest to the kitchen. Eric stood for a moment more by the window, and then he did something Nathan had never seen him do in the queen’s presence: he sat down.
There was a purple chair by the window, a darker shade than the curtains, and when Eric sat in it, his black uniform blended in with the fabric, making him almost seem to disappear.
Nathan was moving almost before he realized it, though he kept one eye on the room: even in this gathering of allies, Nathan had to mark how close everyone got to the queen.
Nathan crouched down before the chair, looking up into Eric’s startled face. He kept his voice soft, to run below the cacophony around the table. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
Eric’s shock showed on his face. “Yes, sir. Forgive me—” He made to get up, but Nathan put a hand on his side, just for a second, meaning to forestall him. Eric made a quiet hissing sound and flinched back from Nathan’s touch.
Nathan looked down at his fingers. They were wet with a dark substance. “Are you bleeding?”
Eric looked incredibly composed for someone injured. “Of course not,” he said, lowering his voice to a whisper, not that anyone was paying them any attention. Servants and guards faded so easily into the background. “It must be Lady May’s. I was just with her.”
“But it hurt when I touched you. And earlier, you were walking strangely.”
“Let me see.”
“Sir, really, that’s not necessary—”
Something about Nathan’s voice must have surprised Eric, because he looked softly stunned, and Nathan was suddenly certain that he’d given himself away. He felt terror and relief mixing in his chest.
“It’s only a bruise,” Eric said. “One of the children knocked into me in the kitchen a couple of days ago.” Slowly, he drew back the tailored black shirt he wore to reveal a smooth expanse of skin along his ribs with a fading, yellowish bruise. “It’s just a little sore still. There’s no need to worry about me.”
“The whole damn kingdom would go to ruin without you,” Nathan said.
Eric gave him another surprised look, but there was a fondness to it, a hint of a smile. Whatever he might have said next was lost, because at the table, the queen stood up. The room quieted, and Nathan went to her side, positioning himself out of her way, yet very close to being in everyone else’s way.
“This attack cannot go unanswered,” Suzanne said. “I understand that everyone believes the mythic people to be exactly that— mythic. But according to our own history, they killed members of the royal family years ago. Someone wounded my sister, and we need to know who it was. I will go myself to the southern part of the kingdom.”
Queen Suzanne was a tall woman, and strong, but she suddenly seemed very fragile to Nathan. “Your Majesty—” he began, but she put up a hand to silence him.
An advisor voiced the objection for him. “Your Majesty, this could escalate things. Whoever did this has already attacked one royal. If you visit, we could be playing right into their hands.”
“We likely are,” the queen said. “But I have no idea what else to do. I will go unofficially, incognito. Just myself, Nathan, and my attendant.”
There were more objections, but the queen did not entertain them.
Eric’s walk was back to normal as he drew the heavy curtains in the queen’s office, shutting out the last colored rays of sunset. Queen Suzanne had retired for the evening, and Eric was busy tidying.
“Finally an adventure of our own,” Eric said to Nathan. “Leaving the palace. I suppose I should have been careful what I wished for.”
“Adventures make good stories— afterwards,” Nathan said.
Eric set a glass of water beside Nathan and took a seat at the table. “We’ll have to do this completely anonymously, I think. A car instead of a private plane. Should be a three-day drive.” His gaze moved from his tablet to Nathan, full of emotion— empathy. “This must be very difficult for you, sir. So many unknowns.”
Nathan stopped himself from remarking on how well Eric knew him. “Do you have hotels picked out?”
“Two, sir, and two alternates. Even the staff won’t know who we are. There’s not much time to check them out before we get there, but well— they don’t seem the kind of place a queen would stay.” Eric looked amused. “I wonder what she’ll think of them.”
For some reason, Nathan allowed himself to say, “If we’re going incognito, you shouldn’t call me sir.”
Eric froze, clearly surprised, and his face grew flushed. “Mr. Morgan, then,” he ventured.
“We’re supposed to be a vacationing family. Call me Nathan.”
Eric bristled at the breach of rules. Nathan should not have found it so adorable. “I’m not going to call the queen ‘Suzanne’,” Eric objected.
Nathan shrugged. “I was thinking ‘Aunt Sue’.”
Eric looked both horrified and amused. “You were not.”
“Well, maybe I’m not that brave.”
“You are the bravest man I know,” Eric told him, as if it was simple and true. “I’ve always thought you were very good at—” he paused, seeming to search for the words. “At handling whatever new thing is thrown at you.”
“If you expect me to know what to do with invincible flying people, you may be disappointed.”
“Sir—” Eric frowned. “Mr.—”
“Nathan.” Eric’s voice was resolute. “Invincible flying people do not exist.”
In the daylight, Nathan wished. At night, he dreamed. The dreams were worse, because he couldn’t cut them off when they became precious and painful.
In his dream, Nathan came upon Eric in the great hall, curled in a chair by the window. But there were no arguing advisors now, and no sunlight. In the dark, Eric was reflected in the glass, his eyes closed in sleep. Nathan put a hand on his shoulder, waking him gently. “You’ve dozed off,” he said. “Time for bed.”
Eric blinked up at him, not alarmed to wake and find Nathan there. He stretched gently, his eyes still half shut, the sweetness of sleep in his expression.
“I’ll walk you there,” Nathan offered, though it was only a short way to Eric’s room. They made their way in silence. Their hands brushed against each other, and neither of them pulled apart.
“Sweet dreams,” Nathan said when they reached Eric’s room, leaning over Eric, though they were nearly of the same height. Slowly, Nathan rested his hand over Eric’s hip. This time Eric didn’t pull away in pain. In fact, he stepped closer, so that they were flush against each other.
“Nathan,” Eric breathed. “I won’t need to dream if you stay with me.”
“I’ll stay forever then,” Nathan promised. He felt like his heart was visible in his chest, too full of emotions to be hidden.
Eric got a beautiful smile on his face and Nathan kissed him. It was easy, patient, welcoming and warm. Eric opened his mouth below Nathan’s. His lips were soft and his mouth tasted sweet.
Nathan woke up, and it was a few seconds before he realized he was alone in the bed and his hands were empty.
He would rather have had a nightmare about mythic people.
They were supposed to be a family. That was their disguise.
Not Queen Suzanne, her bodyguard, and her personal attendant, but an aunt and nephews, or cousins perhaps, even siblings. Uniforms were not going to work. Nathan had put on black cargo pants and a long-sleeved shirt, with a brown jacket that hid his shoulder holster. No boots. Athletic shoes and white socks.
When Eric emerged from the queen’s chambers, he raised an elegant eyebrow. “You still look like a bodyguard, sir. I suppose you have to. It’s what you are.”
Nathan didn’t answer, because he’d only just realized at that very moment that he’d never seen Eric out of his uniform. Even in the incessant, insistent dreams Nathan had about the man, Eric was always dressed in the black uniform of a servant. But gone was the fitted shirt and neatly pressed jacket. Eric had on jeans— blue jeans— and a black t-shirt with what looked like the logo of a band on it.
The idea that Eric owned clothing that wasn’t a uniform was rather destabilizing to Nathan’s world view. Which was ridiculous, because being an attendant was Eric’s job, not his whole life. And he had to sleep, didn’t he?
Nathan was further struck by the idea that Eric probably also owned clothes to sleep in, and it was lucky he didn’t fall over right there in the hallway.
“I know, sir,” Eric said ruefully, after Nathan had been staring at him for far too long. He leaned in to keep their conversation private from anyone else passing in the hall. “I’m half certain I’ll get fired for showing up to work like this.”
“You would never be fired,” was what Nathan thought of to say.
Eric gave a quiet laugh, and it lit up his whole face. “You do like to paint me the power behind the throne, sir. I’m hardly that.”
“Nathan. Please call me Nathan.”
They turned as Queen Suzanne emerged into the hallway, wearing a white blouse and dark slacks. It was enough of a disguise— she wore no jewelry, no jacket with gold embroidery and the symbols of the crown. “Decided against the jeans, then, Your Majesty?” Eric asked, amusement in his voice. “Shall I put them in the suitcase anyway?”
“I suppose,” the queen said, with obvious distaste. She shifted her shoulders, drawing in, as if the blouse was too cold for the hallway. Eric disappeared into her rooms and emerged a moment later with two suitcases and a shawl of gray lace, which he settled over the queen’s shoulders.
Outside in the courtyard, servants loaded the baggage into a dark car. Nathan felt out of place, at work but not in uniform, expected to take over as chauffeur, in a car missing the vast amounts of luggage that came with an official royal trip.
The last bodyguard to make this trip had died. If the same thing happened to Nathan while they were out there, there would be no one left to protect the queen. Or Eric.
When they were nearly ready to leave, the queen’s sister, Lady May, appeared in the courtyard. She wore loose clothing, her blond hair in a messy braid. She had to be supported by an attendant.
“I wanted to see you off,” May said, and Suzanne grasped her hands.
Nathan’s gaze roamed ceaselessly over the courtyard, as was his job. People looked heartened to see the queen’s sister on her feet. All except Eric. On his face was a look of surprise. But it was soon replaced with his usual mild expression.
“Please be careful, Sue,” May said. “There’s no telling what these mythic people can do. To any of you.” May’s eyes lighted on all three of them, for once taking notice of a guard and a servant.
They stopped for lunch at a restaurant. Nathan went in first and found a table in the rear, where he put the queen, with her back to the wall. It was a bizarre sight, Queen Suzanne at some fast-food place off the highway. Nathan wished he’d been able to talk her into using the drive-through.
“She used to get out more,” Eric said to Nathan as they waited for their order. “When she was young, before she took the throne. She loved meeting her people. But it was never anonymous like this.”
Nathan watched Suzanne watch the crowd. She had one hand on the table, a finger tapping lightly. She still seemed aloof somehow, like she was looking at them all through glass.
Nathan and Eric placed themselves at an adjoining table. Neither of them was used to dining with the queen. Nathan raised an eyebrow when Eric sat down with only a glass of water.
“I had a big breakfast before we left,” Eric said.
Nathan dipped french fries in ketchup, watching as Eric folded his hands in his lap. “When’s the last time you got out?” Nathan asked, probably sounding far too amused.
Eric gave him a displeased look. “I take days off.”
Nathan did know this. He always felt rather bereft to discover that Eric was missing for a day. He’d never been brave enough to see if they might have a day off together. “But have you ever had fast food?”
Eric gave Nathan’s cheeseburger a disparaging look. “Never been tempted, no, s— No. But I’m glad you find this so entertaining. I know this trip is very stressful for you.”
“And you,” Nathan said immediately. “You’ve never planned an incognito trip before.”
“Honestly, I think this is easier. State visits are exhausting.”
Nathan ate his last french fry, noticing as new people came through the door. They were clearly a family, chattering and brushing shoulders. Meanwhile at the table beside Nathan, the queen was eating alone and in silence.
“I don’t even know what I’m looking for when we’re out here,” Nathan said, a little of his aggravation coming through in the way he crumpled his sandwich wrapper. “I suppose mythic people should be easy enough to spot. I’ve heard they look hideous.”
“How so?” Eric asked.
“Well— their chests are supposed to be see-through. All their internal organs are visible, pulsing with some terrible light. They have wings and feathers, maybe black, maybe blue. I’ve heard they kill indiscriminately, trying to get body parts to use for their magic. Especially children who disobey, or so my mother warned me when I misbehaved. They’re impervious to disease or injury, impossible to kill except by drowning. Their weakness is water, apparently. Can’t cross running water. Can’t drink it.”
Eric looked skeptical as he took the last sip of his water. “What do they drink then? Everything has water in it.”
“I guess nothing?”
The queen put up her hand and they both obeyed the summons. Nathan escorted her to the restroom, and when he looked back, he was amused to see Eric disposing of their trash with his white gloves on. He must have had them in a pocket. Eric might be wearing jeans and a t-shirt, but apparently some lines still could not be crossed.
In the first hotel, the queen and Eric shared a two-room suite that adjoined Nathan’s room.
Nathan was not sure if he expected anything to happen that night. Eric had done well in his choice of restaurants and hotel. No one had seemed to recognize the queen. Still, Nathan lay awake in bed, listening to the sounds of the hotel. He sat up when he heard the elevator across the hall open and close repeatedly, accompanied by footsteps.
Nathan opened his door, but the hall was empty. He was startled to hear another door open— the adjoining door to the queen’s room— and to see Eric come in. “Trouble?” Eric whispered.
Nathan hadn’t changed out of his clothes. It had seemed prudent to stay fully dressed. But Eric— Eric was wearing soft gray sweatpants and a deep red t-shirt with a dinosaur on it. His feet were bare. But he clearly hadn’t been asleep either. His hair wasn’t mussed, and his eyes were clear.
“The queen?” Nathan managed to ask. He felt like he did wherever he woke up from a dream about Eric to find himself alone. His hands seemed so cold and empty.
“I heard someone,” Nathan told him. He glanced down the hallway again and spotted something on the floor. “Fuck, is that a feather?” He took a few steps across the high-traffic carpet and picked it up. It was a blue feather, lying dark across his palm.
Nathan looked up to find that Eric had gone pale. “Hey,” he said immediately. “It’s all right. Don’t worry.” He stepped close, unable to resist resting a hand on Eric’s arm. Eric’s skin was warm beneath his fingers, and Nathan’s hand settled so easily there.
Eric looked more upset than Nathan had ever seen him. His blue eyes were bright, and his gaze roamed the hall, landing on nothing. “This isn’t right,” he said.
“You know you are under my protection as much as the queen is,” Nathan said forcefully. “I will never let anything happen to you.”
The worry on Eric’s face faded into a soft look of regret, as if he was sorry for showing Nathan his fears. “I know. The safest place in the world is with the queen.”
“The safest place in the world is with me.” Nathan was wishing again. That he could pull Eric closer, enfold him in his arms, take him to his bed and hold him all night.
Eric’s expression shifted again, and now he looked— unless Nathan’s desperate mind was imagining it— like a man who was hearing something he very much wanted to hear and had not believed he would. Nathan wanted to chase that fear away with anything he could— promises, actions— but he needed to go look around the hotel. Nathan had to let go of Eric with anything more left unsaid.
By the time Nathan returned, having found no sign of trouble, Eric had gone back into his room.
Author’s note: Flashback to the meet cute!
Nathan first laid eyes on Eric about an hour into his first day as Suzanne’s bodyguard.
Nathan had trained two years for this job. He’d been taught to fight, to outmaneuver, and above all, to focus. But he’d never faced a distraction like Eric.
Eric had been the queen’s personal attendant for several years. It was obvious in the way that he anticipated her requests and moved silently through her spaces, always at hand but never in the way. Eric was a terribly handsome man, in so many ways. He had strong features and thick brown hair, light blue eyes and a mouth that smiled easily. The other servants listened to what he said, though he spoke softly. He made Nathan long for things that he hadn’t thought about for so long, like wishing that someone else’s smile was the first thing he saw in the morning. Eric’s smile.
When Nathan started his job, Queen Suzanne was a week away from being crowned, so she was also getting used to a new role. She’d been acting as queen since her father’s death the month before. Lady May had also recently come to the palace to stay.
May seemed far more relaxed than Suzanne. Perhaps it was because she had the freedom to spend the day in the library or leave the palace entirely. Perhaps it was just her personality— she let happiness linger on her face, let her eyes rest boldly on whomever she liked.
May didn’t want the crown. She took great pains to make that clear, especially to her sister. The two of them didn’t know each other well, and May probably wanted to forestall any bad blood that might come between them.
In truth, Nathan thought that perhaps Suzanne envied May. Suzanne’s life was highly orchestrated now, scheduled to the minute, usually by Eric. But of course, Suzanne had been raised to expect that.
The first time Nathan got a moment alone with Eric, words failed him. Nathan had actually rehearsed what he would say, more nervous about this meeting than his first audience with the queen. He got as far as “I’m pleased to finally meet you,” before Eric’s nearness derailed every thought Nathan had left.
Part of it was because Eric looked at him with such surprise. “I’m pleased to meet you too, sir,” he said, blue eyes wide. “May I help you with something?” He was in front of a bookcase in the queen’s office, carefully removing and dusting each volume before putting it back.
It took far too long for Nathan to gather his wits, which only made things worse. “The coronation,” Nathan said finally. “And, well, everything else. I would like you to please bring any problems relating to the queen directly to me.”
“Of course, sir.”
“You— you can tell me anything at all. We’ll be working together, so—”
Eric’s expression softened into something Nathan couldn’t quite name. “Surely you don’t want all the palace gossip, sir.”
“I’m afraid I do,” Nathan said.
Eric reshelved a book with a quiet thunk. “Of course, sir. It’s only— you may not realize, forgive me— the job of a servant requires a great deal of discretion.”
“Surely the queen’s safety comes above that.”
Eric frowned. “Well, that’s precisely what I mean, sir. You see, if I make a habit of telling all I hear, then it will soon come to pass that I hear nothing.”
Nathan suddenly felt very stupid. “Ah. Of course. Well—” he waved a hand, not sure what he was trying to illustrate. “Just whatever arrangement you had with the queen’s previous bodyguard then.” That had been a man named Conway, who’d just retired.
To Nathan’s surprise, Eric looked bewildered. He froze with a book in his hand. “There was no arrangement, sir. I don’t believe Mr. Conway ever spoke to me.”
“What, never? That’s quite an oversight, you’re the closest one to the queen.”
A smile crept across Eric’s face, and he tilted his head, as if confiding a secret. “I’m actually not sure Mr. Conway was aware I existed.”
Mr. Conway, Nathan thought, must have been blind. Or straight. Or both. “Well, I would appreciate it if you would give me the basic lay of the land, if you don’t mind.”
“Not at all, sir.”
“Shall we walk?” Nathan suggested.
Eric glanced at the door. “Would you like us to be observed talking or not? There are places in the palace that are more private than others.”
Nathan felt gratified. “This is precisely why I need to speak with you.”
Eric led them into the courtyard beside the queen’s office. Eric was one of the few people allowed into this space, so their conversation would be quite private indeed. But Nathan was promptly thrown into distraction again by his first sight of Eric in natural sunlight. And Eric liked it out here, Nathan could tell. He breathed more deeply and looked fondly on the plants lining the patio, green leaves and dark soil.
Eric told him about life in the palace, about Suzanne and May, and their gradually warming relationship. He explained the influential nobility who lived in the town and frequented the palace. He spoke with ease, and yet Nathan could hear that there were things he was omitting.
“Could there be trouble with anyone?” Nathan asked. Eric dropped Nathan’s gaze. “If I’m to protect you—” Nathan said.
Eric looked surprised again. “You’re to protect the queen.”
“You as well,” Nathan insisted. “I cannot imagine that the kingdom would run half as well without you.”
Eric seemed not to know what to make of this. But Nathan couldn’t tell if it was because Eric didn’t see himself as essential or didn’t expect Nathan to.
“There are— there is a feud,” Eric said finally. “Between the Ville and Newman families. It goes back generations. But it’s a cold war. No physical hostilities in some time.”
There was more to it than that, Nathan was sure of it. Hopefully in time he would hear it, as Eric came to trust him. He very much hoped Eric came to trust him. “I would also be grateful if you would sit down with a map of the palace and show me where the private and public spaces are,” Nathan said.
“Surely the palace guard have done that, sir.”
“The palace guard don’t make use of the whole place. Only servants do. I’ve heard there are secret passages.”
“Of course, sir.” Eric frowned. “But I’ve never found a secret passage myself. I’m not sure they really exist.”
The dreams began shortly afterward. Nathan would come upon Eric in the palace, in a place where the sun or moonlight shone in his hair. They would talk and laugh, pressed close together. Eric wasn’t wary in the dreams. He was open, trusting, flattered. When Nathan kissed him, he didn’t pull away.
It got worse in the waking world, as Eric warmed to him. The more comfortable he became with Nathan, the easier it was to have a conversation about anything or nothing, and the more heated the dreams became. The more Nathan had to remind himself that in reality, he’d never touched Eric. Certainly never kissed him. Never said the fragile words he kept inside his mind.
With Eric’s growing trust came a heartbreak that Nathan had not anticipated, his hope riding high on the faintest of signs: a private smile, just for Nathan, a half-inch less between their bodies when they spoke alone. But he was reminded of the truth every time the word sir fell from Eric’s lips. Even if Eric returned Nathan’s wild feelings, it would not matter. Men of Nathan’s class did not have romances with servants.
Eric finally told him the secret about the Ville and Newman families. There was a pair of clandestine lovers, a young man from one family and a young woman from the other. She was a courtier, often present at the palace, and he would sneak in to visit her.
“It’s ironic,” Eric said. “The couple believes they’ve found the elusive peace between their families. But if there ever was a reason to fight, it would be this romance. If the families find out, it would be a disaster. But they can’t help it, sir. They’re in love.”
Nathan wasn’t sure he himself was in love until the epidemic hit. It began in the village, but despite precautions, the illness soon spread into the palace as well. There were deaths. The queen and Eric isolated together, and Nathan kept watch over them from a distance.
One day, Nathan found himself leaning against the wall in the hallway outside of the queen’s office, feeling a little dizzy. The tiling seemed so cool against his forehead. Before he could start worrying about that, he found Eric at his side, closer than he’d been in weeks.
“What—” Nathan started, but the words fell off as Eric put a hand on his arm. Eric had never touched him before. His fingertips grazed Nathan’s bare wrist, icy cold.
“I’m feeling ill,” Eric told him. “I need to be isolated away from the queen. Will you walk me there, please?”
Something shifted inside Nathan’s body. He felt a cold fear, and a sudden strength. If Eric had needed it, Nathan thought he could have carried him the whole way. Instead, they walked, slowly, pausing when Eric coughed.
“You’ll be all right,” Nathan told him. “As soon as you see the kingdom falling apart without you, you’ll rally.”
Eric gave a startled half-laugh that ended in a cough. “Aren’t you supposed to tell me to rest and not worry about anything?”
“Is there any way you would actually do that?”
Eric’s face was flushed, possibly with fever, but he smiled. “Probably not, sir.” Something on Nathan’s face must have given him away, because Eric said, “Please don’t be so worried. I don’t think I have a very serious case.”
“Let’s let the doctors determine that.” Nathan was terribly reluctant to surrender Eric’s hand, but when they reached the isolation ward, they broke apart. Nathan watched the doctor measure a low fever in Eric. “I suppose you’d better test me as well,” Nathan said.
When the doctor pulled the thermometer back from Nathan’s forehead, the dial glowed green.
“Watch over the queen for me,” Eric said as he entered the medical ward, and once again, Nathan felt like he could do anything, if Eric asked.
After the feather in the hotel, there was no more evidence of mythic people.
The queen’s party reached their destination on the third day, a private home that Eric had rented for them in the southern part of the kingdom. They arrived at night, but the following morning, Nathan found a view of green trees leading toward gray water.
Away from the public now, Eric went back to wearing his uniform. After having seen Eric dressed casually, the fitted black clothes and white gloves seemed impossibly elegant. Nathan had more to worry about than ever, but it was practically impossible to keep his eyes off of Eric.
Local officials attended a breakfast meeting with the queen. Eric was the only servant present, but he handled the increased workload with ease. He’d even cooked the formal breakfast himself, though he must have been up most of the night doing it.
Nathan provided security. He did not allow any local guards access to the house, as he still felt that it was more logical that people had attacked Lady May, and not mythical monsters.
Until he heard the story the local officials presented that morning.
The leader of the delegation was a man named Balmer, the mayor of Coldport, the largest town in the region. “We found feathers at the scene, Your Majesty,” he said.
Suzanne looked as tired with the feather evidence as Nathan was. “Anyone is capable of placing feathers on the ground,” she said.
Balmer exchanged a look with his entourage. “With apologies, Your Majesty, I believe that people with wings are more likely to leave them than the rest of us.”
The table fell silent. Only Eric moved, silent in the background, his eyes on the glass of water he was refilling.
“You actually saw winged people?” Suzanne asked.
“Not us, ma’am. But there is one woman who did.”
The story started the last afternoon of May’s trip. There had been a picnic lunch served on a grassy lawn by the ocean, catered by local farmers and showcasing their produce: tomatoes and lettuce, sweet corn and berries. The mayor of Coldport had been there, and his deputy, as well as residents who had purchased tickets to the event, with the proceeds going back to the farms. All the guests had been vetted beforehand by local security, so they were allowed to mingle with Lady May, though she kept her bodyguard close.
Nathan thought of the bodyguard, Alan Jacobs, sitting on a blanket, eating sweet corn, listening to the waves. Alan had always been the outdoors type. When they’d had sleepovers as kids, Alan was always more eager to spend the night on Nathan’s porch in sleeping bags than in a bedroom. It was at least some comfort to know that he’d spent his last afternoon in the open air.
The picnic wound down around 5 p.m., and the local folks were escorted off the grounds. May’s staff went back to the private inn where they’d been staying to make sure the luggage was loaded and the cars ready to head to the airport. May and Alan had stayed at the shore because May wanted to walk by the water and look for shells.
Nathan imagined Alan giving in to this request easily. Alan would have had to leave his boots on, since he was on duty, but he’d have longed to walk barefoot on the wet sand the way May must have done.
Balmer had been helping to load tables and leftover food into farm trucks— “We are a small city, Your Majesty, so we all pitch in”— and at first, he said, they thought they were hearing the cries of birds. But then everyone had realized that it was screams.
Alan’s body was found completely covering May’s, and those first on the scene thought they were both dead, in a mess of wet sand and reddish water and broken feathers. But when they turned Alan over, they discovered that May was alive. She’d been stabbed once in the abdomen, and Alan twice in the heart. Two knives had been discarded in the sand.
May’s remaining guards insisted she be taken straight to the airport and flown to the palace as soon as her wound was stabilized.
“You said there was a witness?” Suzanne asked. She was pale. During the story, her gaze had rested on the glass of water in front of her.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Balmer said. “A local woman was near the beach. She will be available to speak to you this afternoon.”
The talk turned to motive. The opinions of the local people were no different from the queen’s advisors. Everyone had heard the stories.
“It’s bad blood,” said Balmer. “Old injuries, festered over the years. The mythic people got here somehow and now they’re trapped on this island because they can’t cross the sea, so they want to take it over. They were the enemies of the royal family generations ago, and they haven’t forgotten.”
The deputy mayor spoke up. “We should never have forgotten. These creatures are inherently evil. They kill to gather body parts for their magic.”
“I don’t believe any body parts were missing,” the queen pointed out.
“No, ma’am,” said Balmer, speaking with apparent certainty, “because the only place they could get to Lady May was on the water. They were weakened. Otherwise they’d never have fled while your sister still lived.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they mean to invade,” the deputy mayor said. “They want to destabilize our politics first, and then they will attack.”
Nathan’s eyes drifted to Eric, as always. He had finished clearing the breakfast dishes, and his eyes were on the table. But his hands in his white gloves were clenched tight by his side.
“Whatever the motive, the attack must be answered,” Suzanne said. “If it is the mythic people, we must discover where they live, what their numbers are, and what plan they’re following. We need to see what they are vulnerable to, and if we can construct weapons against them.”
“Some sort of water weapon,” the mayor said, and there was enthusiastic agreement.
After breakfast, Nathan found Eric in his small room beside the master bedroom. The queen was resting, and though it was not their house, though it was not his job, Eric was polishing the chest of drawers that stood in the corner of his little bedroom. The room was slightly stuffy, but the window was closed. Nathan thought about opening it to the sea air, hoping that would help the place feel clean, but Eric was— Eric was working in sharp movements, his skin pale. His gloves had been removed, and his fingers gripped the dust rag tightly.
“Sir,” he said, looking up as Nathan entered.
“You can talk to me,” Nathan said. “If it would help.”
After a moment, Eric’s look softened, and his hands fell still. He leaned back against the chest of drawers, a sight that Nathan savored greatly. Eric never relaxed his posture like this unless they were alone.
“You haven’t even proved the mythic people are real,” Eric said, “let alone that they attacked someone.”
“And if we do prove that?”
“Then this is a time for diplomacy.” Eric’s gaze was severe. “Not war.”
“Can you have diplomacy with creatures that kill for their magic?”
“You haven’t proved that either.”
Nathan moved closer, out of the way of the window, and the natural light fell on Eric. He seemed beautiful, and somehow trapped in this little room with the window shut. “But you don’t believe in winged monsters,” Nathan said.
“Do you know of anyone who wants the royal family dead?”
Eric sighed. “No, sir.”
“Then I can’t discount it. Not yet.”
“But everyone is looking in the wrong direction. You need to be focusing on humans. Water weapons won’t kill humans! And they’ve murdered one bodyguard already—” Eric’s voice broke and Nathan stared at him in surprise. He’d never heard such emotion in Eric’s voice.
“Your concern is for me?” Nathan asked.
“Is that so ridiculous?”
“People don’t usually worry about guards.”
“Guards don’t usually solicit opinions from servants.”
Nathan gave a low laugh. “I trust your opinion over most.”
Eric’s face colored lightly. He looked both embarrassed and amused. “I know. I have no idea why.”
Because you’re intelligent and you have a good heart, Nathan thought. Because you’re practical and slow to panic.
Because I love you.
It dawned too late on Nathan that he hadn’t said any of that, hadn’t said anything, that instead he’d been simply staring at Eric, quite openly this time.
And Eric was staring back. There was confusion on his face, and a growing realization.
Nathan normally thought of himself as slow to panic as well. Perhaps normally he was. But he’d never faced anything quite like Eric.
Nathan panicked. He put his hand over Eric’s, picked it up and held it, smoothing out the wrinkles where the fingers had clenched tight, massaging lightly where the joints must ache. He looked up to find Eric staring at him still, as if he could not possibly look anywhere else.
This unwanted result only made Nathan panic further. So he kissed him.
Nathan didn’t have to lean far to do it, they’d come so close together. Eric’s mouth was soft, and at the touch of their lips, Eric tightened his hand, clutching again, but this time around Nathan’s fingers.
“Oh, oh, Nathan,” he breathed, and then it was not Nathan kissing him, but both of them kissing each other, ardent and open, purposeful. “Oh, I—” Eric grasped at Nathan’s shoulders, then slid his hands up to his neck, cradling his face.
It seemed very much like this was something Eric had been wanting as well. It seemed very much like the rest of the world did not exist and there was only the two of them, and that would never change.
Nathan wanted to pin Eric against the wall, to see if he liked being confined, covered, protected. Nathan wanted to confess his love, to listen breathlessly for anything Eric might say in return. To hear if he’d been longed for, even the smallest amount. But it was so lovely just to kiss him, to feel Eric in his arms for real, not a wish by one lonely person, but something shared.
Nathan’s hands had drifted to Eric’s hips, and now one rose to tangle itself in Eric’s black shirt.
Eric abruptly pulled away. He moved just out of reach, his mouth open and cheeks flushed, his hair ruffled where Nathan’s hands had been through it. “I’m sorry,” he gasped.
Nathan was trying to understand what had happened. It was difficult with the panic back in full force. Maybe he’d wrinkled the fabric of the shirt— Eric would hate that, he should have been more careful— “Forgive me,” Nathan pleaded.
“No. No, there is nothing to forgive.” Eric was shaking his head, eyes wide. “I’m sorry. I just can’t— It isn’t you, you’ve done nothing. I just need to think.”
Nathan’s hands were starting to feel cold and empty again. It was more painful than ever before. “Of course,” Nathan said. “Of course.”
Eric fled the room.
The witness was brought to the house that afternoon. Eric was present of course, but he didn’t look at Nathan, and Nathan tried very hard not to look at him. It was just as distracting as before, if not more, with Nathan’s mind returning constantly to that brief moment with Eric in his arms.
The witness was an old woman, whose eyes went wide on seeing the queen. She described horrors for them— two men with wings, shirtless in the sun, avoiding the water like a human would a fire. Their chests were transparent as glass, she said, their internal organs pulsing grossly in full sight.
They bore knives, and after they’d stabbed May and Alan, they dropped their weapons in the sand and flew away. The old woman had watched from her front porch as they disappeared into the sky, flying away from the sea.
There had been no provocation, she said. Just an attack.
As the old woman left the house, Eric surprised Nathan by appearing at his side, close enough to touch, though of course Nathan did not reach for him.
“I need to talk to you,” Eric said.
Nathan followed him into the same bedroom where that morning they’d held each other in the light of the window. The sky had clouded now, and the room was very gray.
“I’m sorry,” Nathan said. “What I did was inappropriate. I’m not your superior, but I— if you felt pressured, if you—”
Eric interrupted him, which was very unusual. “No, this isn’t— it’s not about that.” But Nathan could tell Eric was thinking about the kiss, he’d flushed very red. “Nathan— sir— that woman was talking nonsense. This is a plot against the royal family by someone who’s blaming monsters. You’re in danger from people—”
“We can’t be sure of that,” Nathan said.
Eric looked him in the eyes, holding his gaze steadily, while the rest of him was moving nervously, his feet shifting on the floor. “I can. I can prove it. And so I have to, I don’t have a choice.” His voice fell quiet. “But the minute I do, you’ll stop believing anything I say.”
“Of course I won’t,” Nathan protested. “I trust you.”
“I guess we’re going to find out.” Eric put his hands to his black shirt, the one Nathan had tangled his fingers in, hours earlier. Slowly, Eric undid the buttons, and then pulled the shirt open.
In the middle of his chest was what looked like a piece of glass. Behind that were more clear objects— lungs maybe, ribs— and behind them something bright blue— Eric’s heart, easily seen, beating quickly, glowing with a gentle light.
Nathan looked from the heart to Eric’s handsome face— the face he’d come to love— and back down to the organ visible in his chest. “What are you?” he asked.
Eric let out a heavy breath. “What do you think?”
“No,” Nathan said. “No, I’ve seen you drink water.”
Eric had stopped holding his shirt open, so it had fallen half-closed over his chest. The blue glow was still visible, and a sliver of his heart, pumping hard behind transparent skin and bone. “That’s a myth,” he said.
“You don’t have feathers.”
“Also a myth. Which proves that old woman is lying, and someone has been planting feathers—”
Nathan put out a commanding hand, as if he could order Eric to stay still for a second, could slow down the entire world and his own brain. “No. You were ill, with a terrible fever for a week. Mythic people can’t get sick, they’re immune to disease. Or is that false too?”
“We can get sick. When we choose to.”
“When you choose—” Nathan’s mind was a mess of thoughts, and some of the harsh ones fell into his mouth. “So you were what— hiding?”
Eric gave a little intake of breath, a pained sound. “I’m hardly hiding.”
“Is this why you were against this trip? Against finding water weapons—”
“Water weapons don’t hurt me.”
“You wanted us to look elsewhere, not at your people—”
“I told you you’d stop believing me.” Eric’s eyes were wide, but he was still standing within reach, he hadn’t fled. The afternoon had gotten so dark with coming rain that the blue light of Eric’s heart was brighter than the sunlight now. He looked so brave standing there, the evidence against him glowing in his chest.
“Why did you come here?” Nathan asked.
“I was born here. We’ve lived among you for generations, peacefully.”
“But you took a job highly placed in government.”
Eric scoffed. “I’m hardly the influence you seem to think I am. But yes, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to have one of us try to protect the rest of us, if it ever came up.”
“To protect your people over the queen.”
Eric’s voice grew sharp, an attack for the first time, rather than a soft defense. “I protect her too. And others. I’ve chosen to, even at personal cost.”
Nathan’s own defenses were nothing against this man. They crumbled. “You chose,” he said. “You chose to get sick. At personal cost. Did you— what, did you take illness from someone?”
“I knew I could tolerate it. We fight off illness and injury more easily than you. I didn’t know if the person I took it from would survive.”
Nathan stared at him a moment. “I didn’t get sick,” he said finally. “I started feeling ill and then you— you put your hand on my arm—” Nathan’s legs became weak under him, and he folded onto the floor, leaning against the wall, a hand on his forehead. “You saved my life.”
Eric sat down beside him, much more gracefully. He seemed to remember his shirt then, and re-buttoned it, as if the fact that they were both sitting on the floor wasn’t evidence that something was terribly wrong.
“I used to imagine telling you,” Eric said. “I thought you’d say, No, mythic people are only legends, and I’d show you we weren’t and you’d be— better than this. Not afraid.” Eric gave him a saddened, pleading look. “If you’ve ever had any fondness for me, please believe me that this attack on Lady May was not my people. Our history speaks of a battle with the royal family too, but nobody remembers it any more than you do, and we don’t want war for any reason.”
“Have you told anyone else about you? The queen?”
Just him. Only him. “So when you let me kiss you, that was—”
Eric gave a shudder, as if the memory hurt. “It doesn’t matter. You kissed a man who doesn’t exist.” He put a hand over his hidden heart. “This is the real me.”
“But I did kiss the man who saved my life.”
Eric caught his breath, surprised, wary, and maybe— maybe hopeful. “Yes, you did.”
Nathan gestured to him. “The wound on your side. There was blood, but I only saw a bruise. That was from Lady May?”
“I took what I could of her injury without raising suspicions. I didn’t even have the bruise by the end of the day.” The last words trembled. “God, I wish I was one of you. You don’t know how much. Nath— sir. I can stay and try to help keep Queen Suzanne safe, and then when this is all over, I can leave. Or— or I can go now. You don’t have to keep my secret.”
“I said you were under my protection,” Nathan said. “I meant it.”
Eric looked heartbroken. “You could lose your career. Lose everything if they find out you were harboring me.”
“Can they hurt you? Can you be hurt? Some weapon, if not water?”
“There are things. There is one thing.”
“Then I will protect you.”
Eric’s chest shook with a shuddering breath. He looked close to tears, but his eyes stayed dry. “So what now?”
“We should play along. If people are claiming the mythic people are behind this, then they probably don’t actually believe in— in you. They won’t suspect that we know better. Right now we can’t tell what their plan is or who’s behind it, but maybe if we give them time, they’ll show us.”
The next morning, Nathan had breakfast in the kitchen of the rented house. Eric made eggs and sausage, and waited on the queen as she ate.
Nathan had slept— poorly— on the problem, and in the morning sun, he had no idea what to think about any of it. His eyes were drawn to Eric as much as ever, and for the same reasons. Eric was still so handsome in his black uniform, with his blue eyes and slender build. Whatever he was, it was what he had always been when Nathan looked at him, spoke to him, dreamed of him.
It wasn’t until the queen had left the kitchen and Eric was clearing dishes that Nathan was struck by a realization. He paused in the doorway, turning over the question with growing unease.
Had he ever seen Eric eat anything?
As a servant, Eric didn’t eat with the queen or even Nathan at the palace. But here on this trip, with the restaurants and shared meals— no. Eric had not eaten anything that Nathan had seen. No fast food or fancy formal meals. Eric had saved nothing for himself from this breakfast— he was washing dishes now with no leftovers to be seen.
Dear God, what did he eat?
Queen Suzanne wanted to go to the site of the attack, the stretch of beach at the edge of the forest, by the clearing where the picnic had been held.
Nathan was against it, obviously. “You only have one guard, Your Majesty. That’s not enough to take to a dangerous place.”
“I’m still incognito. No one knows I’m here.”
“Ma’am, I doubt that’s true. Some local people are aware, and we don’t know that they weren’t part of the attack on your sister.”
“But we need to draw out whoever it was,” Suzanne said. “I’ll arm myself. You bring your gun and— some water, I suppose. Arm Eric as well. The three of us can handle ourselves far more easily than a large group.”
Nathan glanced at Eric, who looked as anxious as Nathan felt. But hadn’t that been their plan the night before? Grant their enemies a chance to give themselves away?
They dressed like tourists again, slipping out of the house for a drive. Eric wore jeans and a dark blue t-shirt. He probably couldn’t wear light colors without revealing the glow of his heart.
There were so many things Nathan wanted to ask him. Gentler questions than yesterday, when Nathan had been bewildered and afraid. Why, out of everyone, do you trust me? Is it so obvious that I love you?
They drove the queen to the ocean. She hadn’t been to the beach in a long time, which meant Nathan hadn’t either. Suzanne didn’t take her shoes off as May had probably done. Her clothes were right for the chilly weather today— a sweater and slacks. But her expression didn’t match their location. There was no pleasure on her face, no softening of her gaze as she looked out to sea.
Eric stayed with the car in the gravel lot, leaning casually against the door, wearing a hoodie now. He faced away from the beach, watching the road and the nearby forest. But it was a cold enough morning that they were the only ones at the beach. There was light rain from time to time, and the water didn’t seem to affect Eric in the least.
Nathan knew so much about Eric: what kind of joke made him smile, what flowers he liked, the fact that he could name all the species of butterflies that visited the queen’s courtyard. And yet there were things about him that Nathan could scarcely comprehend. Eric wasn’t human. He was so like a human that Nathan had not guessed, probably would never have guessed unless Eric decided to make it plain. But how different was he, really? What more was there past the blue heart and the stealing of wounds?
Was there any revelation still to come that could make Nathan any less in love with him?
Nathan’s gaze roamed their surroundings, constantly checking the forest, the beach, the sky, the queen. On one sweep, he found her looking at him.
“He was your friend, right?” Suzanne asked. “My sister’s bodyguard.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
The queen looked melancholy, which was unusual. Normally her expressions were tightly controlled, even around those closest to her. “Do you know I ran away once?” Suzanne asked. Nathan must have looked startled, because she smiled. “It’s true. I was twelve. My father was king, and I was old enough to be presented at court, which meant I had a bodyguard for the first time. His name was Jack. They told me he would protect me. I didn’t think much about it until one night I had a nightmare that someone— something was chasing me through the palace. Whatever my subconscious decided Jack was protecting against, I suppose. It caught up with me, but Jack stepped into the way and he was killed.
“In the morning I told my mother and she assured me that it would happen just that way in real life. Jack would die for me. The thought was so horrifying that I sneaked out of my room that night. I didn’t make it far, of course. Jack found me. He told me I certainly wasn’t making his job any easier. And that’s what I’m doing for you coming on this trip.” Suzanne was twisting her hands again. “I never got up the courage to ask Jack why it was his job to die. And I don’t think I have the courage to ask you now.”
“I’ve never met a bodyguard who expected to die,” Nathan said. “I suppose we don’t ask ourselves either.”
Eric served lunch, sandwiches from a basket. The queen didn’t seem to mark that Eric didn’t eat. He’d have some excuse if she asked, no doubt. But even here, in such close company, Eric’s rank made him somewhat invisible.
The sky started to clear, but they decided to return to the palace after lunch.
They’d probably have made it if they’d started back earlier.
Nathan looked up just at the right time to catch a flare of light from down the beach, and realized it was a rifle sight catching the sun. He grasped Queen Suzanne by the arm and started to pull her away.
The first shot hit the gravel, the second one of their tires, deflating it. They ran for the cover of the trees, and Nathan wouldn’t let them stop there, leading the three of them, so far uninjured, deeper into the woods.
The rain had cleared off, but the forest had its own sky of intertwined leaves, which kept it quite dark.
That would help, Nathan thought, and with the gunman far enough behind them, perhaps they could disappear.
No one spoke as they moved further into the trees. When Queen Suzanne spotted a cave, she pointed. It turned out to be a shallow place, only twenty feet deep, with a floor of wet, sandy soil.
Eric flipped his phone over to use the flashlight and Nathan shook his head. “No. No phones. Everybody turn them off. We don’t know if they’re tracking us.”
It was late afternoon. They were some unknown distance into a forest, and their car back at the beach had a flat tire. But there was no sign they were being followed: no sounds, no wildlife being disturbed. Most likely they were facing a single assailant, who’d be outnumbered if he followed them into the woods. But Nathan couldn’t be sure.
“We’re spending the night here,” Nathan said. “It’s too dark to go on, and we have shelter. We can put branches over the entrance to hide ourselves and keep out the wind. We’ll get moving at first light.”
“Something about this feels very wrong,” Suzanne said. “The form of the attack is completely different. They showed themselves last time, flying around with knives. Now a sniper on the beach?”
Nathan resisted looking at Eric. “There are more questions than answers, that’s for sure.”
“May I suggest, though— use wet branches for the cave entrance,” she said. “If water hurts them, it will help our defenses.”
“No harm in that,” Nathan agreed. “Rest here, Your Majesty. Eric and I will go get branches. We’ll stay where we can see you.”
They slipped from the cave, moving slowly, Eric following where Nathan led. It was getting dark now, and more difficult to be quiet themselves.
“So,” Eric said softly, “I’m figuring you’re either going to ask me to leave or to heal you if you get shot.” His voice had a teasing lilt to it, but his expression was anxious.
“Neither,” Nathan said. “I’m not planning on getting shot.” This made Eric smile, and with Eric smiling, the woods seemed a little lighter. “Don’t suppose you can see in the dark,” Nathan said.
They came upon some downed branches. A few were wet with the earlier rain, and Nathan watched Eric handle them with his bare hands with no ill effect. “So— what happens if you would get hurt?” Nathan asked. “Like physically, how would you survive— not that I’ll let it happen, but—”
“A gunshot?” Eric tugged a branch up from the ground, unveiling exposed tree roots lying like a tangled necklace. “It’s not a physical thing at all, actually.”
“I suppose you could call it that. The harm just sort of— doesn’t happen. Of course I do need body parts to perform the spell, so if you wouldn’t mind donating a couple of toes—”
Nathan snorted a laugh, shaking excess water from a branch. “We’ll take up a collection, how’s that?”
When Eric didn’t answer, Nathan glanced over to find him with a dazed, pleased look on his face. “You really do still trust me,” Eric said softly.
“Does that surprise you?”
“I suppose not. Not if it’s you.” Eric said the word like it had weight. “But, um— it makes what I have to say next even worse, I’m afraid. I need to eat. It’s been a week. I thought we’d be back at the house tonight, where it would be easy, but this night will be difficult enough without my keeping something from you.”
Nathan paused in the process of pulling up another branch. He tried to make the question sound light. “What do you eat?”
“Well— body parts, in a way.” Eric gave a nervous laugh. “I eat sleep. Humans use sleep to revitalize their bodies. I can’t sleep myself, so I have to take theirs. It doesn’t hurt them, an hour or two here or there. I don’t need much.”
Nathan put up his free hand. “Hang on— you’re telling me you can make it so that I stay awake all night tonight?”
Eric’s got the kind of look on his face that Nathan had seen him wear when some element of protocol had gone amiss in the dining room. “Absolutely not,” he scolded. “I don’t need that much, and you’d be exhausted tomorrow.”
“But I need to stay awake.”
“Then we can split it. I only need two hours at most, and then I can be awake the rest of the night. Since you trust me.”
“You’ll have to trust me too if you’re going to sleep,” Nathan pointed out.
“Ah, but you don’t know what I’m vulnerable to,” Eric said, smiling as he wiped his wet hands on his jeans.
The cave was quite warm after they placed the branches at the opening. There were some small gaps where they could still see out, by what meager moonlight there was.
No one was terribly surprised when Eric pulled up his hoodie to reveal that he was wearing a waistpack with granola bars, a knife, water purification tablets, a flashlight, bandages, a compass, and more. Queen Suzanne seemed to take for granted that Eric would be prepared for every situation.
Nathan thought it was brilliant, and said so. Eric got a lovely smile on his face and looked down to hide it.
“I don’t think I’ve spent the night in the same room as anyone for years,” the queen said. It was hard to see her clearly in the darkness, but her tone was melancholy again. “I owe you both an apology. We all suspected something like this might happen, but I thought we’d gain something by it. Instead, we still have no idea who our enemy is.”
“We’ll find out, Your Majesty,” Nathan said. He wished he could see the queen’s face better— it was odd to speak to her without taking cues from her expression.
Eric seemed more comfortable. “Perhaps this will cure us all of our cabin fever, though. I imagine we’ll be far more happy to stay around the palace after this adventure.”
To Nathan’s surprise, the queen laughed. Nathan had always assumed Suzanne spoke to no one about her inner feelings or fears. But perhaps Eric heard some of them.
Nathan volunteered to take the first watch. The others bedded down, using whatever they had as pillows. Eric gave the queen his sweatshirt. Nathan gave his to Eric, who took it with wide eyes, which stayed open as he lay down, watching Nathan in the dim light.
At that moment, Nathan had the sudden feeling that he’d downed several cups of coffee all at once. His body was sore and tired still, but his mind was alert, and sleep seemed like an impossibility.
Eric closed his eyes.
It was so intimate, watching him sleep, especially with the knowledge that he rarely slept. It felt like a privilege, seeing him relaxed and resting.
About two hours later, Nathan started to feel drowsy. He looked away from the forest and back into the cave to see that Eric was awake. “Your turn,” Eric said softly, and Nathan let him return the sweatshirt, let him settle Nathan onto the ground. Eric’s hand strayed from Nathan’s shoulder up to his forehead, brushing gently through his hair. “Thank you,” Eric said.
“Have a good meal, then?” Nathan whispered.
Eric ran his fingers through Nathan’s hair once more. “Delicious.”
At first light, Nathan managed to orient himself, and with the help of the compass, they walked toward the nearest town on the edge of the forest, two miles away. There was still no sign anyone was in the forest with them, but Nathan felt on edge, some inner sense telling him things weren’t right.
They’d gone a mile when they caught sight of something orange: a tent put up on a small patch of level ground. There was a firepit in front, and a man sitting there with a cup of coffee.
Eric caught Nathan’s arm as they came to a halt. The man hadn’t looked their way, but Nathan was sure he was aware of them.
Eric spoke very softly. “He’s like me.”
“He’s— oh.” Nathan raised his voice. “Everyone behind me.” Nathan rested his hand on the gun behind his hip— not that it would do any good against a mythic person— as they walked toward the man. He looked utterly ordinary, with blond hair and a slight paunch. There was a bicycle leaning against a nearby tree.
“A couple of people out this morning,” the man said. “Looking for someone lost in the forest.”
“And how about you?” Nathan asked.
The man gestured to a couple of paper bags at his feet. “Only looking for mushrooms.”
“We’re headed for the nearest town. We’d like to stay lost until we get there.”
The man’s eyes flicked to Queen Suzanne, with some flare of recognition.
Eric stepped in front of her. “We need to rent a car,” he said. “I can pay you to transport us to a rental place.”
The man’s reaction to Eric was less tense. “I was getting ready to head back anyway. Too crowded today.”
Eric reached into his waistpack and this time pulled out a pack of cash. He handed the man a few bills. “Half now,” he said. “And again, when we get there. For your help and your silence.”
The man put the money in the pocket of his jeans. “Come on, then.”
The man had a car by the side of a highway half a mile away. They climbed in, Nathan in the front with his weapon still handy in case they were followed. The road seemed strangely loud after the quiet of the forest, and it only got louder in town. The man pulled into a strip mall near a bus station, where a sign offered rental cars.
Nathan took the queen inside, instructing her to hide in the bathroom to keep from being recognized. He watched through the glass door of the rental place as Eric paid the man the rest of the money. They spoke for a moment before the man drove away.
Once Eric joined them, he passed Nathan a card from his waistpack. Nathan held it up and realized that it was a driver’s license, with his photograph and a name he didn’t recognize. He looked up at Eric in awe.
Eric rolled his eyes, which made Nathan’s heart a little fluttery. A few days ago, Eric would never have made a face like that at Nathan, so far above him in rank. “This is how prepared you can be when you’re not wasting your time on water weapons,” Eric scolded.
Nathan felt better when they got on the road, headed back to the palace. Breakfast was bought from vending machines at a rest stop.
“What did the man say to you?” Nathan asked as they waited for Suzanne to emerge from the restroom. He pulled a chocolate donut out of a plastic sleeve and Eric gave it a dubious look, which Nathan supposed was fair.
“He told me not to trust you. Well— your kind.”
“Yeah,” Nathan said. “I figured. And, um— on that line, I’ve been thinking. I had no defense against that man. So in order to do my job, I need to know what hurts you— your kind. I would never use it on you, you must know that. I will protect you. But I also need to protect the queen.”
Eric didn’t look hurt that Nathan had asked. He must have expected it. Somehow that just made it worse. “But it isn’t my secret alone.”
“No, you don’t. The myths— water weapons, feathers. We hide behind rumors that we have cultivated for centuries. If you know our weakness, others might find out, and I will have made the whole population vulnerable. Nathan, I can’t tell you. I’m sorry. I wish I could, but— this is something we cannot share.”
CW: burns and other injuries (not terribly graphic)
With three of them in the rental car, there was an empty seat. Nathan imagined Alan there, Lady May’s bodyguard.
Alan had made mistakes, and Nathan had repeated them, underestimating their enemies, following the misdirection. They’d been lucky so far. Nathan knew it couldn’t hold.
Still, there was an air of relaxation and even celebration in the small space of the car. Queen Suzanne sat alone in the back, but she leaned forward occasionally, resting her arms on the back of the passenger seat while discussing the route.
They drove without stopping, because Eric didn’t need to sleep. Nathan watched him drowsily, covertly, as the sun rose on the second day, as the light on his face shifted from dashboard glow to dawn.
“Am I so fascinating?” Eric asked, and Nathan realized that some of the color on his face was a blush.
Not so covertly then. “Sorry,” Nathan said. He glanced in the backseat, where Suzanne was sleeping. They were only about an hour from the palace now. They’d enter the capital city in fifteen minutes.
“You always did look,” Eric said. He glanced at Nathan, looking wistful. “I should have told you the truth. But I was scared you’d stop looking. Or that you’d look differently.”
“Have I?” Nathan asked.
Eric flushed a little darker, down his throat and beneath the t-shirt where his blue heart lay unseen. “No. It’s funny, it’s my job to be prepared for anything— but I wasn’t ready for you.”
Nathan reached for him. He meant to lay a hand on Eric’s leg in his jeans, just for a second, not enough to distract him from driving.
When Nathan woke up, he put his hand out and found empty space.
The noise was bright and the lights were loud.
No, that wasn’t right. The lights were bright— they were overhead lights of a building. The room was loud, full of people talking. Nathan wasn’t wearing a shirt, and his upper body was cold. He pushed out with his arms and managed to sit himself up. The room came into focus then, right side up, and Nathan realized he was in a hospital.
The skin of his chest was bruised, though it barely hurt. There was blood on his pants, but no open wounds.
Nathan was terrified of what that might mean.
A man stepped in front of him— Nathan recognized him as one of the palace guards, Mott. “Hey, you’re awake.”
“The queen?” Nathan asked.
“At the palace. She’s all right. Hardly injured at all. Amazing considering the hunk of metal that was your car. You got broadsided, rolled over a couple of times.”
Mott looked confused. “Eric? Oh, you mean the queen’s attendant? We didn’t see him. Was he in the car?”
Nathan located his shirt at the end of his bed. It had blood on it too. He pulled it on anyway, and found his phone in his pocket. He started powering it up. “Who hit us?”
“Two men in an SUV. They didn’t make it.”
“Is the queen under guard? Like, heavily?”
Mott nodded. “We have the palace locked down.”
“Okay. I’ll—” Nathan broke off as his phone buzzed with a message. “I’ll get back to the palace when I can,” he finished.
“You should wait for a doctor. You were unconscious for a while.”
Nathan got to his feet, not surprised to find himself steadier than he should be. “Believe me, I’m fine.”
Nathan threaded his way through the halls until he reached the outside, blinking in the bright sun. The message was from the queen. It simply said Find Eric.
As if that was not Nathan’s main concern. The problem was, Nathan had no idea how to do it.
But as he stepped into the parking lot, he found a familiar figure there: the man from the woods.
Nathan wasn’t sure if he should react angrily or gratefully. “Were you following us?”
The man gave a humorless laugh. “He looked like he was going to do something stupid. And he did.”
“Just tell me he’s all right.”
For the first time, Nathan wavered on his feet, the empty air entirely too hot and prickly. “Take me to him. Please. Please.”
Eric was in a house not far from the hospital. Two women were there, whom Nathan assumed to be mythic people as well. Eric was in a bedroom, lying on bloody sheets.
Nathan had seen him sleeping in the cave, peaceful and whole. This was nothing like that. His chest rose and fell with irregular breaths. His heart, glowing blue, pumped valiantly in a body that was broken and burned.
“He took on both of your injuries,” the man said. In the car, he’d said his name was Smith. Nathan doubted that was true.
“Will he live?” Nathan asked.
Smith gave him a dubious look.
“All right.” Nathan stripped off his bloody shirt again, revealing his bruised chest. “Those burns on his left arm. They’re mine, I think. My arm is red. Give them back to me.” Smith’s frown deepened. “If you can take it away, surely you can give it back,” Nathan said sharply. “Please. I told him I’d protect him.”
They had Nathan lie beside Eric on the bed. Nathan had imagined sharing a bed with Eric— waking up beside him at midnight and teasing him awake for another round of lovemaking, holding him close as they fell asleep again.
That was when Nathan had still believed that Eric slept.
This, though, was so very wrong. Nathan had never imagined praying just to see Eric’s eyes open.
Smith laid a hand on Nathan’s shoulder, and Nathan tried to relax, tried to let the wound come, to raise no defenses against it. The pain was intense, and he welcomed it, every wave, every sound, every pinch of skin and lurch of his stomach. Nathan had thought about getting a tattoo to remember Alan. Surely that was no different from this, he told himself. Pain and scarring so you could remember someone that you loved.
When they finished, Eric had more color and his breathing was easier. Nathan stayed on the bed with him until they drew him away, returning him to the hospital. No one seemed too surprised to have missed wounds on Nathan, not with the queen being injured. People so rarely paid attention to guards. They dressed the burns and gave him antibiotics, told him to go home and rest.
Nathan went to the morgue.
When Eric woke, Nathan was sitting on the bed beside him. Someone had changed the sheets for clean ones. Eric’s hair was dark and messy and tangled, and Nathan ran his right hand through it to settle it. His left had ached below the burns. Outside the window, the sun was setting.
“You idiot,” Nathan said.
Eric blinked blearily at him. “Sir? Oh, Nathan.” He moved to sit up, and realized his left arm was clear. His gaze snapped back to Nathan. “What did you do?”
“What did I do? You could have died.”
“Is the queen all right?”
“She’s fine. At the palace.”
Eric gingerly folded his legs up. When Nathan had been here earlier, there was a gash above Eric’s knee. It was now a bruise. “You aren’t with her.” This seemed to surprise Eric more than anything else.
“We were worried about you. You saved us.” Eric managed to look as if this was of little importance. “Do you need more rest?” Nathan asked.
“Ugh, no.” Eric made a face. ”I couldn’t stand another bite.”
“Then we need to have a talk.”
Smith and the others made no objection to Eric leaving, but Nathan could feel their cold stares on his back. He imagined they were wondering whether Eric felt it was his job to die.
Eric was walking well enough that they were able to decline attention from the palace medical staff as they entered the palace. The last thing they needed was anyone seeing Eric’s heart.
Secluded in Eric’s room, Eric gave Nathan the story that trauma had stolen from him. They had just been entering the royal city when the other car crossed the center line and slammed into theirs. Eric hadn’t been able to pull away in time. In the first few moments after, only Eric and the queen were awake. There was no movement from the other car.
The queen passed out as Eric healed her, though Eric thought she’d seen enough to realize what he was doing. And Eric’s shirt had been ripped. She’d seen his heart.
Eric did what he could for Nathan after, and by then, Smith had reached them. He took Eric away as emergency services arrived.
“Did the other driver survive?” Eric asked.
“There were two of them,” Nathan said. “The passenger lived briefly. I talked to the doctors at the morgue, and it appears to have been an accident. Apparently the driver had some sort of medical episode, possibly a stroke. The passenger said it was like he fell asleep.”
Eric had been shifting gingerly in a chair, trying to rest his bruised legs. He looked up sharply. “Asleep?”
“What is it?” Nathan asked, busy hunting up another pillow for Eric’s leg. He looked back to find that Eric had gone pale again. Nathan grabbed him a blanket as well.
“It’s like the healing,” Eric said. “The wounds. We can take or give sleep as well. It’s supposed to be a kindness, giving rest to those we’ve, ah, eaten from. But Nathan, we’ve been thinking that it couldn’t possibly be my people doing this. What if it is?”
Author’s note: In the next chapter, we’re going to find out what Eric’s weakness is. In theory, I’ve given you (and Nathan) enough info by this point to figure it out. I did try. So make your guesses!
Queen Suzanne appeared at the door a short time later. By the surprised look on Eric’s face, Nathan was pretty sure she’d never been inside Eric’s room before.
Eric jumped up and tried ushering her to a chair, but she waved him off. “Sit down. Please.”
Eric sat. His posture was tense. Though Nathan had seen some of Eric’s wounds turn to bruises already, he didn’t like the way Eric was holding himself even before Suzanne came into the room. The wounds to Eric’s chest were serious, but they were as hidden now as his blue heart.
Suzanne had seen Eric’s heart after the crash. “I owe you my life,” she said. She’d sunken into a chair, clearly fatigued, but her eyes were sharp on Eric. “I always thought I was more likely to say that to Nathan than you.”
Eric clearly did not know what to say. He opened his mouth, probably just because he couldn’t imagine not answering the queen, but no words came out.
“So I risked us all,” Suzanne said, looking to Nathan at last. “Nearly got us all killed. Did it gain us anything?”
“We know it’s someone with resources. Someone who could track where we were, leave the feather in the hotel, shoot at us on the beach. Figure out we left the forest and rented a car and then—” He glanced at Eric. “Cause a crash.”
“You don’t have feathers, then?” Suzanne asked. Her gaze had drifted back to Eric, and it seemed like it physically weighed on him. “No hidden wings?”
“No, ma’am.” Eric’s voice was quiet.
Nathan said, “We need to figure out who would benefit the most from the royal family being gone. Who is next in line for the throne after you and May?”
“My cousin. But he’s eighty. He would have made a move before now, I think. When May and I were children and he could have had a lengthy rule.”
Eric rose, maybe uncomfortable sitting in the queen’s presence. He fetched her a glass of water. Nathan watched her eyes track it carefully, noticing as a drop of water slid against Eric’s finger with no effect.
“Do you have a central government?” Suzanne asked him.
Eric’s movements slowed. “We have yours.”
“No political leaders? No military?”
The glass trembled in Eric’s hand. “We are your subjects,” he said. There was a look in his eyes that shook Nathan. A soft, slow, crumbling heartbreak. Nathan just didn’t know if Eric was more disappointed with the queen or his own people.
“Subjects have grievances,” Suzanne said, taking the glass. “And sometimes resources.”
“I always believed that it was in our best interest to stay mythic,” Eric said. “Whoever’s doing this wants to make us real.”
When Suzanne left, she beckoned to Nathan to accompany her. They passed her other guards in the hall, but she shut the door to her chambers without admitting them.
“How long have you known?” she asked.
Nathan was starting to be very uneasy with the sharp nature of her gaze. “A few days, ma’am. I know it’s a shock, but—”
“Oh, I suspected something,” Suzanne said. “I thought he was just discreet, but after a while I realized that he doesn’t eat. He doesn’t sleep. He doesn’t cry. I should have pressed him. But I never imagined it was something dangerous.”
Nathan’s stomach lurched, remembering his own distrust of Eric after he’d learned the secret. “Your Majesty, he saved your life. And mine. Mine twice.”
“Do his people have a weakness?” Suzanne asked. Nathan hesitated, and she guessed the answer. “Do you know what it is?”
Suzanne’s expression remained placid, giving Nathan no idea whether she believed him or not. “He’ll tell you before he tells anyone else. We both know how he feels about you. And don’t give me that look of betrayal. It’s my responsibility as queen to know what dangers lurk in my kingdom. He seems to pose no threat, but we can’t say that of all of them.”
Nathan felt properly woozy now and grasped the nearby arm of a chair.
“I understand that you love him,” the queen said. “But you’re a royal guard. Your first duty is to me. And even if you were to disregard that, you have an obligation to this kingdom.”
Nathan fled back to Eric’s room, and found a satchel on the bed, full of clothes.
“You’re not leaving,” Nathan said, as if he could give such an order.
“I know what she must have asked of you. “ Eric was facing away from Nathan, fitting keepsakes into a small case. “And if you ask me again— if you ask me anything— I’m afraid I will tell you.” His voice was rough, but when he turned there was no wetness in his eyes. It seemed Suzanne was right. Despite his clear distress, Eric didn’t, or couldn’t cry.
“I’m sorry,” Nathan said. “I should never have asked you the first time. I won’t ask you now.”
“But you have to. You can’t do your job otherwise.”
“Then I’ll quit.”
Eric smiled sadly. “But it’s what you are. A protector. Deep down, you believe that you need to know what harms my kind. And maybe you do. There are many more of your people to protect than mine. I don’t blame you for it.” He pulled his satchel closed. “Did you know that before I met you, my heart glowed gold? I miss that sometimes, it was a lot easier to hide. But I’m not sorry for it. It changes when we fall in love.”
Nathan felt his own eyes growing wet. “I won’t ask anything. Not even for you to stay. Because I love you too.”
Eric put a hand over his mouth. Nathan stepped forward and pulled it away.
They kissed urgently. “I’ve dreamed of this,” Nathan confessed, the words muffled against Eric’s mouth.
Eric gave a shudder, his tongue chasing Nathan’s into his mouth. “So have I. So much. Nathan, please.”
“You’re injured.” Nathan’s hands skated carefully over Eric’s chest. Eric caught them and guided them to the bottom of his shirt, allowing Nathan to pull it up and over his head.
Eric’s heart was glowing a bright blue. The skin around it was almost as bright, purple with bruises, shiny red with healing burns. They already looked better than Nathan’s arm.
“It will hurt me worse if we don’t,” Eric said.
Eric was careful with Nathan’s arm as he eased Nathan’s shirt off. They came together gingerly, laughing quietly, finding painless places to grip their hands. Nathan palmed Eric’s rear, bringing their hips flush, both of them fully hard. He knelt to remove Eric’s trousers, making note of any bruises as he eased them down.
“Some of these should have been mine,” Nathan said, his fingers tracing the marks lightly. “There’s nothing I can give you to equal this.”
“You already have,” Eric said. Nathan looked up to find him gorgeous in the lamplight, his heart blue with love. “Your trust. You’ve given me that.”
Nathan pressed a kiss against his hip. “My heart is not as beautiful as yours. But I give it to you too.”
Nathan guided Eric carefully to the bed, propping him gently on pillows. Their kisses were not so light now. They had begun to kiss like parting lovers.
In the midst of growing desperation, Eric guided Nathan’s fingers between his legs.
“Are you sure?” Nathan asked.
“Very.” Eric’s face was flushed, his eyes hazy with pleasure. Nathan worked his fingers inside of him with oil Eric gave him, stretching him out.
“I always imagined you over me,” Eric said. He was panting now. “Protective, you know? But I think we’d better do it this way.” He got to his knees, guiding Nathan down on the bed.
“Next time I’ll be over you,” Nathan said, and Eric paused, his hands on Nathan’s unmarked chest. “This isn’t goodbye,” Nathan told him. “It can’t be.”
Eric gave a small moan as he took Nathan inside of him. “To think I— oh— used to worry about us being different ranks.”
“Seems so petty now,” Nathan said, his hands coming to rest gently on Eric’s thighs. “It all does, doesn’t it?”
Nathan did his best to hold still and let Eric take his pleasure, sliding up and down on Nathan’s cock. He watched Eric’s heart beat rapidly, casting both their bodies in a blue glow. Nathan was mesmerized by it as much as he was by the pleasure on Eric’s face. He took Eric’s cock in hand, slick with oil, as gentle as he could be.
Eric came with a soft cry, his cock pulsing over Nathan’s stomach. Nathan eased him off carefully before he got too sensitive, laying him back in the blankets again.
Eric’s hand found Nathan’s prick, still wet from Eric’s body. “Here,” he murmured against Nathan’s mouth. “Here, darling, come for me.”
It was only a brief moment before Nathan did, with a gasp, and Eric kissed him through it.
Nathan curled himself gently around Eric’s body, resting for a few more stolen moments. “This isn’t goodbye,” Nathan said again.
The palace seemed cavernous to Nathan the next morning, empty of one particular person. Nathan found himself walking the halls aimlessly, familiar routes seeming strange. Avoiding an audience with the queen, he wound his way up into the south wing of the building, where they held formal occasions. The great doors that closed off the ballroom and theater were closed, cold and quiet.
It was odd, Nathan thought— these rooms weren’t much used, but he knew the staff usually kept them clean. Perhaps there was too much to do in the palace now, with the threat of attack looming, because a sort of white dust had been allowed to accumulate along the base of the walls. Nathan bent down to touch it and found it wasn’t dust, but— he touched his finger to his tongue— salt. The halls were lined with salt.
“Oh, fuck,” Nathan said quietly, a whisper in the empty wing.
In his mind, he saw Eric clearing their dishes at the fast food restaurant, white gloves on his hands.
He saw Eric turned away from the salt spray at the beach, sinking into his hoodie, hands in his pockets.
Eric in the stuffy room in the house by the sea, keeping the window closed.
He saw Queen Suzanne saying He doesn’t cry.
The mythic people were unable to leave the island. But it wasn’t water that kept them away from the ocean.
It was salt.
Nathan’s stomach lurched, his heart sinking. Eric was still in the palace, somewhere in the maze of rooms of the south wing.
Someone else knew his weakness, and they’d trapped him here.
Author’s note: Ok, we’re about to find out who’s behind all this. Guesses?
There were feuding families in the capital city, Eric had said, with a pair of young people who’d built a bridge of secret love.
A young woman of the Ville family was a courtier, and her lover from the Newman family would sneak into the palace to visit her.
Nathan had developed a plan, standing in the south wing, staring at lines of salt on the ground. Its first step was Jess Ville.
Nathan nodded to the guards in the hallways as he went by. It was an eerie feeling, greeting people he’d known for years, and having to wonder— Is it you? Are you behind this madness?
Because lockdown or no, their enemies were here, inside the palace. Maybe they always had been.
Jess Ville, who had remarkably red hair, was knitting when Nathan found her, making clothes for a doll that sat beside her on the couch. “My niece loaned her to me when the palace locked down,” she said. “To keep me company. Thought I should return her with some new pieces for her wardrobe.”
“Sounds like a wonderful idea,” Nathan said. He glanced at the other people in the room, other courtiers trapped behind sealed gates. He lowered his voice. “And did you take possession of this doll before or after all the doors were locked?”
Jess’s eyes widened, but her expression remained cool. She was clearly practiced at secrets. “Who told you?” she asked mildly, as if she were discussing the weather.
“Eric. The queen’s attendant.”
Jess’s face relaxed into a smile. “Ah. Well if he trusts you, then I don’t mind. What do you need?”
“How does your lover get in? Are there really secret passages in the palace?”
“Nearly half a mile of them. There’s an entrance by the yellow rose bush in the garden, and an exit into the closet by the smaller dining hall, among other places.”
“I need to know them all,” Nathan said.
Step two of the plan took Nathan into the queen’s suite. It was not a comfortable place to be.
Suzanne’s face was pinched, and a bruise on her neck was turning yellow. Nathan had sworn to himself that he’d never allow her to be injured. He’d failed in that. And now, his very loyalty was wavering.
“Eric left,” Suzanne said. “You let him go, I assume without finding out his weakness.” She was pacing her room. Nathan wondered how long that had been going on. “Did you think that was an easy thing for me to ask? He was the closest thing I had to a friend.”
“We have other problems, ma’am,” Nathan said. “They’re here. In the palace. The ones who ordered the attacks on you.”
Suzanne glanced around the empty room as if someone might be hidden in her sanctuary, unseen and deadly. “Do you know who it is?”
“No, ma’am. So I need you to come with me.”
Suzanne sent her other guards on an errand, ensuring that she and Nathan were unobserved as they made their way toward the smaller dining hall. The closet had a false wall at the back, Nathan discovered.
The tunnel inside was dark, but there was a battery-powered lantern on the floor. When Nathan turned it on, they found a vase full of dried roses sitting on a shelf, the one piece of the place that was dusted and cared for.
The queen did not ask who they belonged to. Perhaps she didn’t think Nathan would tell her.
“You’ve disappeared now,” Nathan told her. “They won’t find you here. When it’s safe I’ll come get you.”
“And my sister?”
“As soon as I can, ma’am.”
May was step four.
Step three was the kitchen.
Nathan’s phone rang while he was there. On the other end was a doctor from the hospital morgue. “I finished the autopsy,” she said. “Thought I should phone you right away, given the circumstances. This was no accident. It was murder.”
Nathan had to put some effort into standing steady on his feet. His free hand came to rest on the kitchen counter, and something invisible but sticky caught at his fingertips. “The driver didn’t fall asleep?”
“He was shot in the neck. By the angle, I think it was from a car beside him. There was a tiny hole, something very small caliber. I nearly missed it with all his other injuries.”
Nathan had little memory of the crash. But he would have noticed, he was sure, a car beside them acting suspiciously, someone with a gun. So instead the assassins targeted an innocent couple on the road, using them as a weapon. And it would have been successful if not for Eric, who could not be harmed in a car crash, his body repelling all injuries, but who could give up his good health to save others.
Those who had done this had used a gun. It was not mythic people but fragile humans. They were much more vulnerable, if only Nathan could get the upper hand.
Twenty minutes later, Nathan was hurrying down a hallway, on his way to step four: May. He’d nearly reached her wing of the palace when a closet door opened beside him and Suzanne poked her head out. In her hand was a large blue feather.
“The passages go all over,” she said. Her face held a deep unease. “There’s a room with a pile of these.”
Nathan felt like the hallway was narrower suddenly, transparent, unsafe. If Eric, who knew so much about the palace, had not known where the secret passages were, then Nathan had been sure that no one but Jess and her lover had the run of them. Apparently, he’d been wrong.
“We need to get you somewhere else, ma’am,” he said. “You and May both. We can’t stay here.”
“I’m not leaving my palace.” Suzanne twirled the feather in her fingers. “Not again. And I sure as hell wasn’t planning to hide in tunnels forever.”
“No, ma’am. But—”
“Take me to my sister.”
They walked down the hall as if it was any other day and they were headed for something mundane: a meal, a meeting. May’s guards met them with courteous looks. Nathan wasn’t sure what secrets might lie behind their eyes.
“If this goes wrong,” Nathan said in an undertone, as they passed into May’s suite, “we have an ace.”
Suzanne gave him a sharp look, but he hadn’t left time for her to ask about it.
Even with all his nerves and suspicions, somehow Nathan hadn’t really believed something was going to go horribly wrong, the kind of wrong where the bottom dropped out of whatever rock you believed you stood on. But he could see it in May’s expression as they entered the room. He could feel it in the way her guards followed them in, crowding behind them. Someone’s hand relieved Nathan of the gun in his holster.
And then it was like they were actors in a play. Putting on a show for somebody. Playacting peace, simulating civility in the face of a devastating betrayal.
“I was just about to send you a message asking you to visit,” May said. “But here you’ve come to me.”
“I don’t understand,” Suzanne answered calmly, as they took seats in May’s sitting room. The chairs were royal red and the queen’s fingers blanched white as they clutched the arms.
“It’s not complicated,” May said, smiling. She was still standing, so they had to look up at her. “At least, it wasn’t supposed to be. Your attendant threw a wrench in the works. Of all the things I didn’t expect, having a real mythic person at the palace had to be at the top of the list. I thought they didn’t exist. And then here he comes laying his hand on my shoulder— a servant touching me!— and all of a sudden my wound is half healed. I mean, really, did he think I wouldn’t notice?”
“I imagine he thought you’d be grateful,” Suzanne said.
“Oh, I am. But he didn’t cure me of wanting to be queen.”
“But why?” Suzanne asked. She looked so terribly bereft. Eric wasn’t the only friend she’d lost so abruptly today.
“You don’t like being queen,” May said. “It’s a weakness.”
“You don’t know me.”
“Your heart’s not in it. How can you have the best interests of the kingdom in mind when you despise the whole place? When you want only to be free of all this?”
“This has nothing to do with me,” Suzanne said. “It’s pure greed on your part. Whether I want to be queen or not is irrelevant. It’s my job.”
“Then it’s your job to die.”
“Alan,” Nathan said. The civility was starting to slip. He’d never dare to address the sister of the queen otherwise.
May looked surprised, like she felt she was still due some manners. “Alan. My bodyguard. Oh. I did try with him. But he was— like you, I suppose, Nathan. On the straight and narrow. Couldn’t be disloyal to his country if he had a gun to his head. He was—” May laced her fingers together, as if she was trying to work something through them. “He was happy where he was, so much that he couldn’t understand how painful it is to be where you don’t belong. I had to kill him.”
Nathan felt his eyes fill with tears. Beside him, Suzanne’s mouth was hanging open.
“It should have been clean and neat,” May said. “I knew an attempt on my life would draw you out, Sue. All the feathers would make it clear who the villain was. You should have died on the beach or in the forest, but Nathan got you out.” She waved a dismissive hand at him, weaponless in a chair. “And then the car crash— you had your monster to save you. You won’t this time, though. You know, I can hardly believe you had someone like him near you all this time. Immune to weapons and disease. Like having a nuclear bomb follow you around. Fucking dangerous.”
A sound from behind them interrupted May, and they all turned at once. Impossibly, miraculously, Eric stepped out of May’s inner rooms. “Yes,” he said, with a terrible coldness in his eyes. “We are.”
Nathan understood the fear of the mythic people.
He certainly had been afraid of them as a child, from the stories his mother told him as a warning to behave. Over the last few days, he’d seen what the sight of a simple feather could do to grown adults. But he’d never quite been able to mesh that fear with the reality of Eric.
Eric had no wings or feathers. The “body parts” he took to sustain himself were merely hours of sleep. The mythic people were supposed to be grotesque, with their inner organs visible. Eric’s heart could be seen, but it was beautiful. Eric was handsome and kind and quiet. He took illness and injury onto himself to save others.
But now, with Eric standing amidst their enemies, even Nathan felt a touch of fear. He would have sworn that Eric’s face was not capable of twisting itself into a look of such malice.
May had gone pale. “I told you to check the salt!” she hissed at one of her guards.
“I did!” he protested. “Just now! There’s no way—”
“Salt,” Eric said, slowly, lingering over the word like it had physical weight on his tongue, like he wasn’t afraid to have it in his mouth. “Yes, that was a good effort on your part. But you made a mistake.”
“What?” May asked.
“You failed to remember that humans can step over salt without any problem.”
“You aren’t human,” May said. She glanced around the room as if to garner agreement.
“No. I’m not. But I simply had to wait until a human came near enough to provide me what I needed. Perhaps she’ll miss her hands, poor thing, but the spell to overcome the salt is quite costly.”
“You’re a monster,” May gasped.
Eric smiled coldly. “I suppose you recognize your own kind.”
“Shoot him!” May exclaimed.
Eric took a few quick steps, moving farther away from Nathan and Suzanne.
Nathan jumped to his feet on instinct, wanting to protect him, but Eric threw out his hand. “Stay there!” he ordered, and the look on his face was entirely different. His gaze on Nathan was soft, imploring. It was the Eric Nathan knew. And it was enough to stop him in his tracks.
May’s guards fired.
The first thing Nathan could focus on in his terror was the sound of it. There was no dull smack of bullets hitting flesh. Instead there was the sharp staccato of the shots tearing up the bookcase behind Eric. It was like he wasn’t even there, instead just a hologram, a hallucination. The bullets had no effect on him at all. There weren’t even holes in his clothes.
“Holy fuck,” Nathan said.
Gradually, the shooting came to a stop. One of the guards looked down at his gun as if it had betrayed him.
“Put down your weapons,” Eric said, a servant commanding troops. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“No!” May cried. She came at Suzanne, a look of desperation on her face. Nathan’s focus narrowed to the knife in May’s hand, and he caught her arm, yanking it up over her head. She stumbled, but two of her guards immediately tackled Nathan, taking him down to the floor.
The weight over him immediately lessened, and Nathan looked up to see Eric pulling one of the guards off. “Get her out of here!” he cried.
Nathan threw off the other guard and seized Suzanne by the wrist. He barreled past another soldier and made it to the hallway.
“Passages,” Suzanne gasped, pulling ahead. Nathan let her lead, keeping a tight grip on her wrist. Part of him rebelled at leaving Eric behind, but so far he’d been capable of defending himself.
They turned a corner and dashed into an office. Suzanne led Nathan to a panel in the wall that opened a secret door. No sooner had it closed behind them than they heard running footsteps and shouts. Several people came into the room, then dashed out again.
“Some of them know about the passages,” Nathan said, as quietly as he could with his breaths heaving in his chest. “They’ll find us.”
“We won’t be here long.” Suzanne was peering into the darkened passage. “She can’t have all the guards on her side, or this would have been over ages ago. We’ve just got to find the ones who are loyal.”
They made their way through the dim passageway, trying to keep quiet, never sure how close they were to other people. Were they sharing a wall with an unused bedroom or a busy dining room?
“Salt,” Suzanne whispered.
“Yeah,” Nathan said. “I figured it out a few hours ago. I’m not sure how May knew. Although—” It still seemed wrong to speak ill of the queen’s sister. “Although I suppose she seems willing to do whatever it takes to get what she wants. That secret must have been for sale somewhere.”
“I’m not sure I can claim the high ground there,” Suzanne said. “I just chased my friend away from the only home he had.”
They turned a corner, and Nathan could hear people talking, the clattering of dishes.
“Kitchen,” Suzanne said. “We’re nearly to the barracks, then.” There was a little more light shining into the passage now and it cast severe shadows over her face. “So how did he really get past the salt lines?”
“Oh, he didn’t.” Nathan looked at the queen with some hope. “You don’t believe the bit about the hands, then?”
“Of course not.”
Nathan grinned, relieved. “I replaced the salt with sugar. Didn’t want the enemy to expect him.”
Suzanne gave a low laugh. “The hands thing was fucking creepy though.”
Nathan had never heard the queen swear before, and he nearly walked into the wall. Somewhere behind them, there was a creaking sound, and then footsteps.
“They’re onto us,” Suzanne said. “I think we made it, though.” She pushed on a panel and a door opened to reveal a group of very surprised soldiers.
The problem was, the coup had pitted friends against friends. It was hard to bank on finding a safe haven in the palace when people on both sides possessed keys to every room and good relations with the staff.
Fortunately, the guards in the barracks were loyal to the queen. They had heard the commotion and were glad to have Suzanne appear out of nowhere to command them.
But it wasn’t enough. Before long, the fighting had backed Suzanne’s forces into the north tower rooms by the barracks. Suzanne and Nathan, her last line of defense, ended up in a room with only one other exit: a straight drop three stories down.
“We need to get on the other side of them,” Suzanne said, looking out the window. “Surround them.” She moved her hands violently in illustration. Her expression remained calm, but Nathan knew her usual calm and it was nothing like this. He’d never seen her so angry.
“With proper equipment, we can get out of the window,” Nathan said. “I think we still have access to supplies.”
A few minutes later, as the first of Suzanne’s soldiers began to rappel to the ground through the tower window, Nathan’s heart leaped to pick out a familiar voice in the hall. A voice he’d been praying to hear.
“Oh, thank god,” Nathan said, as Eric was admitted to the room. Eric didn’t have a chance to say anything before Nathan swept him into an embrace. He felt Eric take a shuddering breath against his shoulder. He grasped Eric’s face in his hands. “Are you all right?”
“I am.” Eric’s face was flushed. “And you two?” He looked over Eric’s shoulder to see the queen. “I did what I could, ma’am, but there were too many of them.”
“I owe you an apology,” Suzanne said. “I’m fortunate that you are more loyal to me than I was to you.”
Eric looked surprised, which was heartbreaking. “I was leaving,” he said. “But one of May’s guards asked me for help in the south wing. I should have just gone, but—”
“We all trusted them,” Nathan said.
Eric’s mouth twitched into a smile. “Sugar,” he said quietly, as guards moved past them to take their turn at the window. “Do I have you to thank for that?”
“I knew we’d never get this far without you.”
Eric smiled and Nathan kissed it from his lips.
“So what’s the plan? Out the window?” Eric asked, a little breathless now. Despite the danger and all that was happening, he seemed quite content to be in Nathan’s arms.
“All of us,” Nathan said. “Including the queen. I’ll take her down first and then come back for you.”
“Oh, there’s no need,” Eric said. “I can take the queen down myself.”
It took a second for Nathan to realize he was giving a confused look to a man who was strangely taller than usual. He looked down to find that Eric’s feet were hovering a couple of inches off the floor.
“You said you couldn’t fly,” Nathan whispered, as Eric’s feet touched the floor again.
Eric looked amused. “I said I didn’t have wings.”
On the ground, there was chaos. Nathan had the terrible urge to run toward Eric and Suzanne as they descended through the sky, looking as if they were falling very slowly. Suzanne had her arms clasped tight around her attendant. A few people on the ground watched them land, their mouths open in shock. Whatever happened from here, nothing was going to be the same again. At least Nathan didn’t have to worry about Eric’s safety.
Or so he thought.
It happened so quickly. A guard rushed up to them, and Nathan didn’t take him for a threat in time. It was so hard to tell friend from foe. Nathan did notice that the man carried a bottle of water, and at the last minute, realized what it might be for.
Nathan jumped in front of Eric and took some of the attack for him. The salt water soaked harmlessly into Nathan’s clothes, running off his skin. A few spatters got onto Suzanne as well, dampening her shirt.
Where the salt water hit Eric, it burned. Eric gasped in pain, seizing up as his right arm broke out in angry red lines, the salt eating into his flesh where bullets had left no mark. Nathan yanked Eric’s shirt up and over his head, but the damage was done. Eric lay on the ground, panting, his blue heart shining dully in the afternoon light.
There was stunned silence around Eric, as he lay in Nathan’s arms, half on his lap and half on the ground.
Angry red patches of salt damage streaked his chest and right arm, over fading marks from the car crash injuries he’d taken. His beautiful heart was clearly visible, beating unevenly.
“Are you all right?” Nathan asked, trying to shift Eric so he could breathe more easily.
Eric coughed. “Sorry,” he said, as if an apology could possibly be warranted. “Don’t feel pain much. I forget what it’s like.”
“But you’ll be okay. You have to be.” Nathan slid one of his hands into Eric’s, squeezing tightly. How many times in his years as bodyguard had Nathan worried about this scenario? Eric wounded, Nathan having failed to protect him. When he’d found out what Eric was, how resilient and immune to injury, Nathan’s worries had eased. But it had happened anyway.
“I’ll do my best,” Eric promised.
Nathan had his doubts. Unlike the other injuries that faded quickly on Eric’s body, the salt burns on Eric’s chest seemed to be deepening, and around them, his skin was a yellowish color.
Eric opened his mouth to say something else, but he was interrupted, the silence finally breaking.
“The queen has brought a monster into the palace!” Eric’s attacker cried. Suzanne’s forces had tackled him to the ground, but he hurled the accusation loud enough for all to hear.
Eric flinched, and Nathan leaned over him, as if he could protect him now.
“He’s no monster.” It was Suzanne, her voice sharp. “Do you see the bruises on his chest? Those are my injuries, from the car crash. He saved my life. And I’m going to return the favor.”
Suzanne looked utterly regal as she sank to her knees in the dirt beside them, calm and commanding. “Give me the burns,” she said. “They’re superficial. I can handle them.”
Eric pulled away from her. “No. No.”
“That’s an order,” Suzanne said. “I know water is damaging to your people, but it won’t be as harmful to me.”
Eric stilled. Nathan was momentarily afraid he’d stopped breathing, and he pulled him up, leaning him against his chest, cradling his injured shoulder. Eric stared at the queen with the same pained surprise Nathan was feeling.
The queen had lied. She’d said water instead of salt.
“I’m sorry,” Eric said softly, meeting her eyes. For what Nathan wasn’t sure. Eric reached out and closed his hand around Suzanne’s arm.
The queen stiffened, breathing in sharply through her nose. Suzanne’s guards dashed forward, but she put up her free hand to warn them off. Nathan watched as red lines appeared on her arm, running beneath her shirt. But they were little more than marks of irritation. Her skin remained whole beneath them.
Eric’s breathing steadied and so did Nathan’s.
Nearby shouting grew louder. The fighting was getting closer. Suzanne rose to her feet with ease and started giving orders.
Eric’s heart had slowed, and its glow was brighter. The salt burns were gone, and Nathan wanted to kiss the skin where they had lain, reassuring himself of how unbroken it now was. He put a hand to Eric’s cheek the way he used to wish he could. And just like in those beautiful wishes, Eric smiled at him.
But his eyes left Nathan and looked up, wary. Nathan hated to see that on his face. Eric, with his shirt off, his heart glowing blue, worrying who was looking at them and why.
Nathan refused to look. His duty, his heart was here. He brushed his lips across Eric’s cheek, and when Eric looked at him, startled, Nathan caught his mouth in a kiss.
Kissing Eric last night, Nathan had been so afraid that it would be ages before he ever got to do it again. It had only been hours, and that had still been too long.
Eric softened in his arms, grasping Nathan behind the neck and returning the kiss, drowsy and deep and just a little desperate. When it broke, their foreheads rested together as if they were holding each other up.
The shouting grew louder and Nathan could sense people around them beginning to move. “I was thinking— can you put May’s soldiers to sleep?” Nathan asked.
Eric frowned, looking over Nathan’s shoulder again. “Not all of them. It takes a lot out of me.”
Nathan ran a soothing hand over his back. “Right. But they don’t know that.” Eric’s blue eyes were full of confusion. Nathan kissed him gently. “Please forgive me for the suggestion, but— they think they have a monster in their midst. Maybe we should give them one.”
Eric regarded him for a moment, then said, “All right, but I get to have feathers.”
Suzanne’s forces had surrounded May’s by now, encircling her quarters, where her soldiers had drawn back to defend her. But Suzanne was holding back, reluctant to have more bloodshed. As she called for negotiations, Nathan and Eric took to the secret passages.
“We’ve got to keep May awake so she can surrender,” Nathan whispered. “I don’t know that her soldiers will stand down unless she tells them to.” He bent down to pick up a pile of blue and black feathers someone had helpfully stashed in the passage. “Eric, the bullets— they really don’t hurt you? At all?”
Eric smiled in the dim light, seeming flattered by Nathan’s worries. “Like you getting dashed with salt. Tickles a little, maybe.”
“I used to think I was a real badass,” Nathan said.
“Oh, of course you are,” Eric said, very reassuringly.
They left the first feathers in the hall near May’s chambers, dashing in and out of the passages when the coast was clear. They began to hear murmurings about it as they moved on, people exclaiming about finding the feathers, speculating about the monster. Could he turn invisible? Was he so fast that he could remain out of sight? Was he creeping through secret passages, ready to wipe them out if they came in after him?
At one point, they heard May, in a room just on the other side of the wall. “It’s a trick,” she insisted angrily. “Mythic people don’t have feathers. It’s Suzanne trying to confuse you.”
“But that guy is real,” someone argued. “Bullets didn’t hurt him.”
“That’s why you’ve got salt,” May said.
“Salt didn’t stop him,” someone else spoke up. “He got over those lines we put on the floor. I don’t think we can—”
They heard footsteps as someone else came near, walking with urgency. “I have a message from Queen Suzanne,” a voice said. “She would like to discuss the terms of your surrender.”
“There will be no surrender!” May exclaimed. “The throne will be mine. That is her only choice. The final choice she will make as queen.”
Nathan gripped Eric’s hand in the darkness. “Ready to start some new myths?”
Eric squeezed back. They opened the nearest door and stepped out into May’s chambers. May was standing by the fireplace, with six or seven soldiers nearby. One of them had his hand firmly on the arm of the man who must have been Queen Suzanne’s messenger.
May gasped, looking terrified, but she tried to recover. “You see? How can Suzanne be queen when she is harboring an inhuman monster—”
“So she is,” Eric said, “and now we’re going to do this my way.” He held a bunch of feathers in one hand, and with the other, he drew a lighter out of his pocket. They’d snagged it from the kitchen as they went by.
“What are you doing?” someone asked.
Eric lit the feather on fire. It burned with an acrid smell. When most of it had gone up, he dropped it onto the floor, crushing the last sparks out with his foot. “Ready?” he asked, and he flung out his hand toward one of May’s guards. The man crumpled to the ground, instantly asleep.
Everyone immediately drew their weapons. Eric looked unconcerned. He separated out another feather and held up his lighter. “I gathered these from my last molt. It’s the only time my wings are visible to humans. And for every feather I burn, I get to take a soul. Helps with my magic. Doesn’t kill the poor bastards, but they’ll never quite be the same.”
This time, Eric levitated off the floor as he set fire to the feather.
Everybody in the room took several steps back. Eric flicked his hand in a different direction and another of May’s soldiers went down. Now everyone had their guns aimed at him.
Nathan retreated into the passage away as the soldiers began to fire. After a moment, the firing stopped, and Nathan heard another body hit the ground. Fortunately, he was certain it wasn’t Eric.
When Nathan came back into the room, everybody who was still upright was crowded into a corner, away from Eric, who was holding more feathers than there were people in the room.
“Now,” Eric said, digging into his pocket again. This time he pulled out his cell phone. “I thought I might call up a couple of my friends who are running low on souls. Or we could negotiate. You and I, May.”
May’s eyes widened. “What do you want?”
“A simple exchange. Suzanne didn’t know what I was. I’m not one of her soldiers. And now that everyone knows, it’s going to be uncomfortable for me here. I can hardly go back to my job. So I’m inclined to leave, permanently. And I will, if you stop this nonsense. Surrender to Suzanne and I’ll go. Otherwise, I’ll call up all the mythic people in the capital.”
“How many of you are there?” May asked, her voice faint.
“Do you want to find out?” Eric asked.
Three months later
Nathan walked into the kitchen of the little cottage and smelled something delicious. He found Eric laying out a dinner that was entirely too much food for one person.
Nathan slid his arms around him from behind, his handsome lover, creating another masterpiece in the tiny kitchen of their home. “You don’t need to do this, you know.”
“But you cook for me,” Eric said, turning in Nathan’s arms and kissing him lightly.
Nathan grinned. “Speaking of which, I’ve got a new book, so if you’re hungry tonight I could spend a couple of hours reading.”
“Sounds delicious,” Eric said, kissing him a little deeper. “How was work?”
Their employers’ house was visible out the window. Eric was a housekeeper and Nathan a security guard for a rich family in the mountains— very far from the sea and its salt spray. And far from the high-stress world of royalty. In this sleepy place, questions of rank and class mattered very little.
“Good. We got a letter from Suzanne.”
Eric leaned his head on Nathan’s shoulder. “I wish we could go back for a visit sometime. But all the time that we were there— I thought it would be best to be in the palace, in case the mythic people ever became un-mythic. But after I met you, I started wishing for this instead. You and me somewhere. Anywhere. Just us.”
“So did I,” Nathan said. “All the time. And now it’s come true.”