“Now remember,” Lady Lydia said sternly as her entourage scurried around her, “even though this reaffirmation of the treaty is more ceremonial than anything else, that doesn’t mean that there is any excuse for sloppiness or the slightest deviation from form. A quarter century of peace with the Hale Kingdom was once thought unobtainable, and if any of you expect a future in the Argent diplomatic corps, let alone any continued livelihood at all should there be anything amiss today, you are sadly mistaken.”
“You terrorize them, Lydia,” Stiles said idly biting into an apple. Around him the lesser children of mid tier nobles and of ambitious well-to-do merchants, eager to secure for their children a position of importance, were double and triple checking every bag, satchel, and document with a grim intensity, for fear of displeasing Lydia. “Not that it isn’t terribly amusing, but still. Absolutely terrorized, the lot of them.”
“I instill in them a sense of pride and responsibility in their work, as they should possess in any case, considering the import. Did you know their parents go out of their way to thank me in the halls of the palace and in the streets of the city?” Lydia asked, satisfaction in the recognition garnered by the ones who in all likelihood first scoffed at her appointment to Chief Ambassador of the Argent Kingdom evident in tone. And now they contorted themselves to gain her favor for the advancement of their children. Stiles could not blame her for taking a degree of pleasure in the situation. “And while the matter of losing employment is of no matter to you, that doesn’t mean that you should decide that this would be a fine time to make your own fun leading up to and during the signing. That entails pretending that you indeed have some sense of decorum, and remembering that at least for the duration of this little expedition, I am a Lady and shall be addressed as such, even in the familiar, as I know attempting to persuade you to call me ‘Lady Martin’ would be a fruitless and wasted effort.”
Stiles grinned before once again biting into his apple with relish. As the only son of the Grand Marshal of the realm, the one to whom both the Royal Watch and the Constabulary answered, Stiles had grown up in an odd position, being raised alongside the children of nobles but not truly one of them. No Lord in front of his name, and he was more than alright with his standing in life. He was being groomed to follow in his father’s footsteps. The position wasn’t explicitly one of a legacy, though it would go through a few generations from time to time where it might as well have been. He had already served eighteen months out with the Constabulary amongst the general populace, keeping the peace and investigating all manner of crimes, everything from purloined chickens and sabotaged wine casks to murder.
Stiles had found it incredibly interesting to see so much of the kingdom and its people, and best of all, after having grown up, not friendless, true, not with Lady Lydia and even the Princess Allison at times as his dear and much-beloved playmates, but always with the knowledge that he wasn’t quite…quite, he had found true camaraderie of a different sort that he had never before been privy to. He and Under Constable McCall had felt a deep kinship right from their first meeting, and had even become blood brothers before Stiles had left, neither caring that by all rights it was considered a childish ritual by most, as neither had had a chance in childhood to perform it. They maintained a robust and near constant correspondence, and Stiles had resolved to enlist the aid of his father to work to push through a transfer to the capital and the areas surrounding it for him, as it would not just allow Scott and Stiles to continue their friendship in person, a closeness he dearly missed, but also give Scott’s mother Mistress McCall, one of the most skilled and personable apothecaries Stiles had ever had the good fortune to meet, a larger and wealthier market for her wares, as Stiles knew that one would never truly leave the other behind.
It had been but a few short weeks since he saw them last. He had been set to begin a stint in the Royal Watch before finally moving on to attend directly to his father and continue his education for his future post at his elbow, after having learned the realities of all those who he would one day command. But instead he was in a tent, a rather palatial one to be sure, a short distance away from the Keep where they would be accommodated after the pomp and ritual of the signing in the small but neutral kingdom of Beacon where the first treaty had been signed and witnessed. The land was currently ruled by King Daniel Mahealani and his consort Ethan, neither of whom had even been alive when the last war between the Hales and the Argents was in its waning days.
Nor had Stiles. The past could be an unreal thing until needs necessitated that it be pulled into the present.
“Yes my Lady, I shall endeavor to be appropriately mannered and proper. I suppose that means no telling tales of the time you were trying to steal sweets from the kitchen and fell into a barrel of pickled herring?”
“Well, if you tell that one I’m afraid I would have no recourse but to bring up the time when you were all of twelve summers and tearfully retracted the marriage proposal made to me some four years prior with a ring made of entwined buttercups because you had gazed upon the new stable boy as he divested himself of his shirt in the summer heat so as to douse himself with water and realized that your interests would never lie in the direction of my soft and feminine form.”
“I did not say soft and feminine form,” Stiles said, glaring at one of Lydia’s apprentices who had stopped in his duties to try and listen in. Lydia followed his gaze and gave the young noble a frown, sending him back to before his duties with renewed vigor and a healthy dose of fear. Stiles set his apple core on the wooden folding table behind him, resisting the urge to toss it at the now departing interloper.
“I assure you that you did,” Lydia said turning back to Stiles with a much kinder expression gracing her lovely, if not geared toward Stiles’ adult romantic inclinations, features. “But as broken proposals go I could not have hoped for better.”
“Well that is what every man wants to hear, I suppose,” Stiles said wryly. “But all childhood reminiscing aside, I honestly don’t see the cause for much concern. You’re a marvel after all, and as you said, this is all a formality for good show more than anything else. Of course, I don’t understand why I’m here either, but what can one do when King Christopher speaks? And gives a look remarkably similar to the one I received when you and Princess Allison decided that you wanted another girl as a playmate and decided that me in her finest dress would suit just as well. And that look was also quite close to the one from the time-”
“Another day I would revel in recounting all of the different looks of bewilderment or admonishment that our King has given you over the years, but alas, this is not that day,” Lydia said, her eyes dancing with mirth. “But to the matter at hand. You are here because as your father’s son, and your service with the Constabulary, you are a presence of true authority and order without being technically from our military. You straddle the line of being high enough to be present with me within the inner circle for the signing, but not so much a warrior that it violates the terms set for the upcoming reaffirmation. And I would have someone I trust with me amongst the Hales.”
“Are the Hales really so untrustworthy?” Stiles asked, suddenly concerned that the traditional ceremonial dagger he would be allowed to wear would actually be needed. He had felt as though something was somehow odd about the matter as a whole, but he had never let himself think that threat of violence could possibly be a true concern for Lydia while she worked to extend the peace between the two nations.
“No, it is not that Queen Talia or her heirs have shown themselves to be anything but honorable, but…the reason why I have been stressing that everything must go perfectly even though for any other nation this meeting would barely be of any note, is that the Hales and many of their kingdom are very different, not just in traditions and such, though they without a shadow of a doubt are to what we both consider familiar, but truly more so than most would think even possible,” Lydia said, lowering her voice further, her eyes darting out beneath the fringe of her lashes to seek out any idle ears trying to listen in.
“You seriously can’t be talking about those ridiculous old rumors that they commune with the beasts of the wild to do their bidding,” Stiles whispered back incredulously, unable to keep his laughter completely out of his words.
“No,” said Lydia, and Stiles felt the involuntary tension that had been building between his shoulders release. But than his childhood friend, the most intelligent and rational individual Stiles had known in all his twenty years, continued.
“They become them.”
Lydia’s aides and servants continued to bustle around them as they did the final checks before they were set to move to the site of the treaty renewal while Stiles stared at her in shock before collecting himself.
“You are joking. I don’t know why, but you have decided that this is the time and place to make the most bizarre jests imaginable. Once we return home from this endeavor shall I seek out Deaton to minister to what is obviously the symptom of ill health? Or should I prevail upon our host to provide us with a physician to attend to you?” Stiles asked, half in jest, for surely Lydia could not be serious…but neither did she look ill, or most importantly, never had Stiles known her to ever make light of anything at all related to her position or official duties, not ever.
“I am neither ill nor attempting humor. I am as always the picture of health, and also, I am not you,” Lydia bit out, before turning to the other members of their party, her voice changing from a courtly whisper to a commanding tone that brooked no argument. “If things aren’t correct now your incompetence would ensure they never will be. All of you, out, prepare the horses and get in your places for the procession.” Panicked looks were exchanged amongst everyone, but they obeyed Lydia without question and quickly exited the tent to join the small contingent of soldiers there to ensure the safety of the diplomats in their travels. Able to speak more freely, Lydia returned to addressing Stiles. “They are unique in a way that is difficult to truly comprehend. They are human and all that entails, both the good and the bad amongst their people as for those of our land most of the time, except…” she trailed off, her brow creased as she searched for the right words.
“Except when they are not,” Stiles finished for her, gathering the intent of her words with no need of her diplomatic terminology.
“Just so. It has been explained to me in the briefings I received as…an affliction of sorts. Our king has requested that the truth of the matter be kept from the people so as not to encourage fear or rash actions when visitors or merchants and traders from the Hale’s kingdom visit our land, with the understanding that should any of the Hale’s people act…untoward while in Argent territory hostilities would resume with no negotiation or hesitation.”
“While the idea of lying to the people seems wrong…Lydia, I’ve seen people try to stone a fourteen year old girl for being a witch because after a fall her speech became garbled and she would dance everywhere. I can’t fault his stance completely,” Stiles said, visions all too clear in his mind of the ways that fear could sink its hooks into people and puppet them in monstrous ways.
“Nor can I, though I hope with more active and continued diplomatic efforts we can strengthen ties enough that we can do away with the secrecy,” she frowned. “It’s like kindling in a hayloft waiting for a match as it stands now, just one ill-timed reveal and all peace would be undone. But barring any exceptional new circumstances that I cannot even speculate on, the slow and tenuous path is the only available option.”
“I do understand all of that. But why tell me now, and not earlier when I was first assigned to accompany you? You know my nature-”
“Aye, that I do,” Lydia interrupted affectionately, a small smile returning to her face and brightening her features immeasurably.
“So you know that I am not one to stand idly by while things seem amiss. Or merely interesting even, I will admit. So why not tell me earlier? I could have helped to a greater degree, I could have had more time to plan out contingencies, to prepare, to research on my own…” Stiles trailed off in frustration. He had grown up being taught that knowledge and accurate information were essential for all things of import, and for all of his pranks and tendency to find trouble as a youth, or even on occasion beyond his youth, those were still tenets that he had took to heart.
“I was not to tell you. That was the dictate from King Christopher. This knowledge, the actual facts beyond the rumors are so closely guarded, for fear of a slip of the tongue at an inopportune time that not even the Princess knows. I was only brought into the King’s confidence on this matter as it would benefit no one were I to go in blind.”
“And you telling me?”
“I realized that, despite my orders, keeping you ignorant would not be beneficial either. I am sorry that I delayed, but as trustworthy as I know you to be, I was not eager to disobey an edict from the King, even knowing that I can remedy his ire easily enough upon our return with a job well done,” she finished speaking with a nod, one that to Stiles’ practiced eye was more to reassure herself than anything else. And though he had realized long ago that his affections for her were not what he had first thought as a youth, that did not mean that he loved her any less and could stand to see her doubt herself even for the briefest of moments.
“My charm convinced you to ignore the will of our liege. I am truly flattered,” Stiles said with an exaggerated bow, earning an affectionate but exasperated sigh from Lydia, signifying that he had accomplished his goal of distracting her from her anxious thoughts.
“Not your charm, the gods know how you could even claim to possess any. But for all of your delusions as to engendering endearment, you are my dear and true friend, and you do, despite appearances at times, possess intelligence and reason, and I trust you implicitly. I feel safer knowing that you share this burden of knowledge with me,” she said, reaching out to gently place her hand on his arm, her dainty appendage soon covered by his own and grasped in reassurance.
“I am glad that you feel you can put your trust in me,” Stiles said, giving her hand one last squeeze before releasing his grasp and stepping back. “Now before we venture outside and rejoin those you have so thoroughly terrorized, who are at this point no doubt whispering scandalous theories in our continued absence,” Stiles waggled his eyebrows as lecherously as he was able, pleased to have elicited another laugh from Lydia, evidence that he had indeed succeeded in his efforts to return her mind to ease, “are there any other details of the Hales and their…nature that you have as of yet not shared with me? All I can recall myself is something about odd, ahh, courtship habits which I had dismissed as more baseless rumors, though whatever the merit of them I can hardly imagine they would be of issue at this juncture.”
“Where would you even hear…? Of course out on the road with the Constabulary and other coarser sorts, yes?” Lydia asked, taking Stiles’ grin for confirmation. “There are some things regarding their…other nature…that I was told to be aware of, that some elements of it may, honestly our own resources are woefully incomplete on this matter, remain even when they appear completely as we do, which is why all members of this expedition were required to abstain from artificial scents and fragrances. Other than that, I was told that should things go awry we should behave as if we met a wolf in the woods.”
“Did no one in our Kingdom, ever think to actually sort any of this out?”
“Well, apparently King Gerard had been making plans to create a bestiary of sorts, and while King Christopher did not say it right out I gathered that in the waning days of the war he wanted to release the knowledge to the public, to make it in the minds of the people a holy war to wipe out abominations.”
“Well, decapitation during the course of the last great battle of the war certainly put a damper on those plans. And paved the way for the treaty once King Christopher took the throne-yes, I know, despite my astounding display of ignorance in matters today I do actually know my history. The portraits of King Christopher trying to look regal while barely out of short pants are my favorites in the Royal Gallery you know. All in all, his Kingship is one that suits myself and our land on many levels. Though the bestiary would have been much appreciated right now.”
“My dear Junior Marshal Stilinski, I am of a similar mind with you on many of the matters you just detailed. Though perhaps not in regards to the Royal Gallery,” Lydia said, drawing herself up in a manner that declared she was now ready to depart.
“Is that my title for the day? Really? Not Constable or Guardsman?” Stiles asked as he took Lydia’s arm to escort her to the front of the procession.
“If we are to be in almost complete ignorance of many of the finer points of the Hales and their nature, I see no reason why they should not be just as uninformed as to your appalling unimportance,” she answered with a decidedly unladylike smirk, one Stiles was quite well acquainted with.
“Just so,” he said with a smile as they walked out of the tent ready to meet the Hale contingent, whatever their nature, and ensure peace for both lands.
“This is a waste of our time,” Derek groused, from his position leaning up against a tree outside the tent in which the bulk of the Hale diplomatic party were doing a final check to ensure all was right and proper, earning himself an exasperated sigh from Laura and a look of commiseration from Cora that fled from her face with remarkable swiftness as Laura briefly turned her gaze on her younger sister to ensure that there was no more dissention in the ranks. Derek frowned. He was already feeling antsy and less than well rested, having risen before the dawn that morning, not entirely of his own volition but instead awoken by an unsettling dream, though the details of it had faded from his memory like wisps of smoke before his eyes had fully opened. He was not so inclined to be beholden to signs and portents, or other things of a mystical nature, not like other members of his family such as his Uncle Peter were, but it had been unsettling still.
And poor sleep aside, he still considered his presence there at all utterly pointless.
“Do you honestly think that peace between two nations is a waste of time? That perhaps a better use of your time would instead be fighting? Commanding your friends as you send them off to what may well be their deaths? Erica and Boyd are parents newly made, would you have their daughter become an orphan because that would be time well spent? I am aware that you had yet to dislodge yourself from suckling at mother’s tit when the war ended, but surely your tutors have not been so remiss in their lessons that you should ever long for a return to those days,” Laura said with a steely glare.
“Did I ever say that peace itself was a waste of time? Don’t place words in my mouth, Laura, it is most unbecoming of the crown princess. As is speaking of our mother the Queen in such a manner,” Derek responded in kind.
“Please, as if you haven’t heard our dear mother say similar or worse,” Laura rebutted, causing Cora to let out a loud laugh before quickly stifling it with her hands. At her siblings’ unamused looks she leaned back into the elegant yet simple traveling chair and schooled her face into an attempt at a neutral expression.
“It is true, I have heard mother say much worse,” Cora said evenly, putting considerable effort into projecting the image of a proper princess.
“Whatever the habits of our mother’s tongue, the point I was aiming at is that it is a waste of time for us to be here. The Argents are not sending their Princess; why should even one of us be present, let alone all three Royal heirs as direct emissaries of our mother the Queen, while the Argents only deign to send some underlings?”
“I sincerely do hope you will hold your tongue when actually faced with Lady Martin, as she is from one of the most prominent noble families in the Argent Kingdom and has the Princess’ ear, as does Junior Marshal Stilinski, who though he comes from more common blood, is in line for a position of great prestige and responsibility. So do refrain from being so dismissive, especially around our subjects. You are aware that all that are able have been listening in?” Laura asked with a glance over to where a group of both servants and soldiers were quite obviously listening in, some of them even having had let their ears turn and perk up to hear better. Most of them hastily looked away and busied themselves in an effort to avoid further ire from their Princess, save Isaac who bowed deeply instead in the direction of the Royal siblings. Cora giggled before once more regaining her poise, Derek gave a short nod and a smile, and even Laura’s sigh was more affectionate than reproachful. Derek took a moment to once again regret that Erica had not joined them on this journey, as her irreverence frequently rivaled even Isaac’s. But with her babe not even a month old she was undesirous of any unnecessary traveling, and Boyd equally uneager to leave her side. And it wasn’t as if either of their fighting prowesses would be called for on expedition such as this.
“If they couldn’t hold their tongues they would not have been allowed to step even one foot outside of our borders on this endeavor,” Derek said dismissively.
“Be that as it may, as you are so terribly, terribly fond of reminding everyone of your Royal bearing today, maybe you should act like you possess at least a scrap of it,” Laura said, in that tone she had that truly brooked no argument, the one that combined both ‘first in line to the throne’ with ‘eldest sister’ to a devastating degree. “After all, I’m the one who always deals with mother,” she added, ‘eldest sister’ with a bit of sulk becoming the overriding tone before collecting herself.
“Derek, I know you have been feeling restless as of late and view this as an errand beneath you, but it is important for our people that it is accomplished, and it is important to our mother that we three be there as well. I know you have no desire to lead those past your own small band of compatriots, but none of us know what the future may hold, and our mother the Queen has deemed this part of our education to be of further service to the crown.”
“Yes, Laura, I am aware,” Derek replied, unable to keep a note of admonished sulkiness out of his voice.
“And so we shall all go on, the very model of proper Hale Royalty,” Laura said grandly as she rose from her own folding chair, discreetly checking that her gown was still the pristine white it should be, unmarred by the detritus of nature, and gave a signal to her waiting aide that they were ready to depart. She turned back to her brother and smiled, letting her teeth elongate.
“Or else I shall box your ears like I did when we were young. Now ready yourselves. We must leave presently so we do not show ourselves tardy before the Argent contingent.”
They reached the spot for the treaty signing in short enough time. Both the Hales and the Argents had been provided the tents in which they first arrived and collected themselves to prepare for the ceremony at yet a third local tent, all supplied by their host King Daniel Mahealani, who had eagerly and enthusiastically volunteered his resources to partake in the honor of being the facilitator of peace. Some tradition, Derek could not be bothered to recall whether it originated from his own land or the Argents’, dictated that such occasions such as this must take place within the lands of a third, uninvolved party, and that the two groups were not even to meet until the time of the signing, after which all were to retire to the keep of their host where they would be kept and entertained until they chose to return home. If nothing, else King Daniel had an unsurpassed reputation in the care and consideration he showed his guests so at least it would be a pleasant stay.
All in all, it wasn’t as if it was a horrible system overall, and Derek could certainly see the merits of everything taking place in a neutral land with no true stakes in the outcome. And he could, if pressed, admit to having some small measure of appreciation for the symbolism of coming in fresh and unfamiliar from different directions…but gods above it was annoying to have to go from place to place to place as prelude for an event where, even though it was a certainty that numerous flowery speeches on the topics of peace and brotherhood would be made, the ceremony still would not extend past thirty minutes in duration from start to finish.
The Argent contingent had not yet arrived, a fact sure to please Laura, though Derek could hear that they were near enough that beating them there had been a close thing. Laura and Cora set to work gathering the satchels full of documentation and writing utensils and the official seals of office needed, before thrusting them at Derek to actually carry inside. Despite possessing strength that at the very least matched his own, his sisters both tended to use him as a pack mule at times, Laura because she had grown up bullying him into it, and Cora because as the youngest she had always had Derek wrapped around her little finger. They were the ones to be doing most of the official business within the treaty tent, with Derek present as the official honor guard while the rest of the retinue waited outside.
They entered the tent to begin to make ready only moments before their ears told them that the Argent’s ambassador and her party had entered the clearing.
Soon enough Laura and Cora had things set out and arranged to their liking on the supplied table, one much more sturdy and official looking than the ones that had been provided for their personal use back at their first tent, and almost as if sensing their cues like costumed players on the stage, Ambassador Lady Lydia Martin and Junior Marshal Stilinski entered from the opposite side of the tent.
Derek hadn’t been completely sure what he had been expecting the Argent’s dignitaries to be like, but the two who stood before him were assuredly not it.
Instead of the dignified and graying matron he had half imagined Lady Martin to be, he was instead greeted by the sight of a slight young woman, only a few years older than Cora, if that, with a mane of expertly coiffed hair that gleamed like copper when the light touched it just so, and clothed in a dress dyed the rich midnight blue favored by the nobles of the Argent’s lands that while befitting her blood and station, also managed to leave no doubt that she was a youthful and beautiful Lady of the Court. But though her face was unlined and décolletage on some small degree of display, the dignity and determination that he had pictured the older version of her to possess was there in abundance, all but radiating out from her small form. And as for the man accompanying her…
In all truth, Derek had had even less of a picture in his mind of what Junior Marshal Stilinski should have been. The rank of Marshal and systems of policing that the Argents employed were quite foreign to what Derek was familiar with, so the best image Derek had been able to conjure had been a military figure of some sort, most likely somewhere in a comfortable middle age and having gained a pot belly that came from doing paper work and nothing of import.
If he had been caught off guard by the actuality of Lady Martin versus his expectations, he was absolutely gobsmacked by the reality of Junior Marshal Stilinski.
It was not just that the man was younger than he had anticipated. He had made the same assumption regarding Lady Martin, and at the sight of her Derek certainly had not felt as if a sudden spark had shot through his very veins.
He was fair skinned with a spattering of beauty marks across his face, his eyes the color of the contents of a decanter of whiskey. His hair was not so styled as his compatriot, though it looked to bear the marks of someone making an attempt before giving up in frustration, leaving it tufted but not quite wild.
His uniform was as unfamiliar to Derek’s knowledge as the actual meaning of his rank, but it would be an unconscionable lie to pretend that he did not fill it out exceedingly well, with his broad shoulders and long limbs. When he had entered one hand had reached out, seemingly out of habit toward the dagger that hung from his belt before stuttering then retreating, and Derek couldn’t even feel any ire at even an unconscious slight toward he and his sisters’ good intentions when his eye was stuck fast on the play of skin and muscle over the knuckles of Junior Marshal Stilinski’s hand.
Derek surreptitiously sniffed the air within the tent, but all he could scent out was the expected; his sisters, the grass on which they stood, parchment, ink and leather, and the smell of recently bathed but otherwise essentially normal humans. Though to Derek’s mind Junior Marshal Stilinski had a more appealing scent than Lady Martin. But it was just him, no hint of the potions sold in the market that aided in enhancing a natural scent and essence to attract a lover.
“Good day to you, kind and gracious emissaries of the Hale Kingdom, from the Royal family of Argent do we greet you and request your hands in peace and friendship for years to come.”
At the sound of the Lady Martin making her official greeting Derek’s presence of mind returned to himself, and he mentally chastised himself for letting himself become distracted by a pretty face even if there was no danger here. He had felt attractions come on swiftly before, though never as swift and powerful as this one, but it was of no matter. Within days or weeks at the outside he would depart from this land and in all likelihood never see nor even think of the man ever again.
It was of no matter whatsoever.
Laura continued to exchange formal and stylized pleasantries with the Lady Lydia, with Cora on occasion chiming in, though of course it was no natural conversation, all three of the participants having memorized their lines by rote.
Derek was not looking over to the Junior Marshal to see what he thought of the overwrought pomp at all, truly, not even just a quick glance from which Derek saw that the Junior Marshal looked like he was desperately trying to restrain himself from rolling his eyes.
Derek almost let himself smile at the expression, but he was not looking, it did not matter, and so he did not smile.
For the most part.
Soon the women were approaching the meat of the meeting, and Derek stood up a little straighter now that the end was in sight, even though he knew for a fact there would be at least two more speeches before all was truly done.
But as Laura and Lady Martin both removed their respective Royal seals from their ornate traveling cases, the sounds of a commotion outside infiltrated the tent.
Junior Marshal Stilinski stepped in front of his ambassador and drew his dagger in a heartbeat, ready to protect Lady Martin from all comers, though in truth she looked more annoyed at the interruption than fearful at the prospect of danger for the moment. Derek went to the tent opening to look even as the sounds of clashing swords and grunts of pain and exertion grew in intensity.
“Isaac!” he called out, scanning the mass of fighting bodies for his friend.
“Brigands, your Highness! No worries, between us and the Argent soldiers we will manage well!” Isaac’s voice answered back clearly, almost cheerily, leading Derek’s eye to him just as he neatly slid his sword between the ribs of an attacker.
Satisfied that their people had the matter well in hand, Derek turned to relay the information back to the others, primarily for the benefit of Lady Martin and Junior Marshal Stilinski as his sisters had no doubt been able to pick out a voice as familiar as Isaac’s. But no sooner had he opened his mouth to begin making reassurances when a sword, held in a scarred and filthy hand, followed by an equally scarred face, burst through the opening in the tent, narrowly missing Derek by a mere handbreadth.
He drew his dagger to parry the next strike, even as he heard the sound of the table being overturned behind him and a shout from the Junior Marshal for the others to take cover behind it, an action and command he registered with approval even as a second attacker, this one less scarred though still with a layer of grime on his person, entered through the tent. Laura and Cora were strong and could take care of themselves if need be and did not need the table’s protection as Lady Martin did, but all they had to defend themselves and Lady Martin today were their own teeth and claws, and Derek knew that they would not reveal themselves before outsiders unless there was no other alternative. Even if their Ambassador was knowledgeable of their nature, they could not trust any other members of the Argent retinue, or the brigands for that matter, with even a whisper of it. So were their instructions from the Queen herself.
Though Derek certainly wasn’t above using his far more than human strength and speed upon his attackers, especially when it was two against one, and swords against dagger. Derek had both his natural fortitude and abilities, as well as the mediocre skill level of the brigands, to thank for not having suffered more than a few tears to his clothing, but it still remained difficult to find an opportunity to strike a decisive blow and gain the upper hand. He was more on the defensive than he found himself truly comfortable when he saw a third glint of metal out of the corner of his eye. He steeled himself for the blow, but instead of a third assailant it was Junior Marshal Stilinski joining the fray.
He fought well and moved quickly, though he suffered the same as Derek in regards to insufficient arms. But he was as sure with his dagger as any man could be, and he adapted almost effortlessly to fighting at Derek’s side, drawing the scarred brigand out enough that Derek was able to get in low, avoiding a strike from his own attacker and slashing the other viciously across the gut in one fell swoop.
He quickly pivoted and on the upswing caught the other thug in the neck, the spray of arterial blood confirming that his dagger had struck true. It drenched the front of his clothes and splattered on his face, but better the brigand’s lifeblood than his or his sisters or Lady Martin’s.
Or Junior Marshal Stilinski’s.
The sounds of combat outside were dying down as well, and satisfied that the danger was at an end Derek wiped what he could of the blood off his face with his sleeve, attempting to make himself look less a fright when he went to reassure his sisters and the Ambassador that all was well. He had but begun to turn around the face them when he heard a grunt come from the ground behind him, shortly followed by an unfamiliar male voice shouting out-
-followed by a decidedly more feminine scream as he was roughly shoved to the side, falling to the ground with the force of it. From his position on the ground he quickly shook off his confusion and looked up to see that the scarred brigand whom he had thought he had ended with a stomach wound still had some life left in him, despite very few of his own innards, and had slashed out with his sword in a desperate last gasp attempt at retribution for his own mortal wounds to the position Derek had previously stood.
A place now occupied by a whey-faced Junior Marshal Stilinski, his dagger now resting in the eye of his attacker, his hands pressing down onto his left side from were blood was leaking out, staining his pale olive green uniform red with blood.
“Stiles!” Lady Martin shrieked, dashing out from behind what little protection the makeshift table barricade offer to attend to her countryman, closely followed by Laura and Cora. As Derek picked himself up to do the same he dazedly wondered what manner of name was ‘Stiles Stilinski,’ but quickly dismissed the errant thought as he stripped off his jacket, and quickly set to work shredding it, using his claws as his knife had fallen by the wayside, for when someone was injured in his defense, discretion could be abandoned as far as he was concerned.
Lady Martin was already easing Junior Marshal Stiliniski out of his own jacket with the assistance of Derek’s sisters in order to get a better look at the wound by the time Derek had reduced his once white but now blooded jacket into strips, the ones soaked red tossed aside while the driest he knelt down to use to staunch the blood from the wound.
“Oh Stiles, Stiles, what did you do?” Lady Martin asked, her voice shaking, while supporting his upper body in her lap as Derek pressed down on the wound, disheartened by how quickly the cloth seemed to sop up the blood. He quickly tore off his relatively unmarred linen shirt, leaving himself bare-chested, to add to the now more red than not fabric.
“Well, I thought a dead prince at a treaty signing would make you look bad, and I couldn’t have that. Don’t you know I live to see you elevated?” Junior Marshal Stiliniski said looking up at her, a smile on his face though it was weak and wan.
“You’re an idiot,” Lady Martin said, tears glistening in her eyes.
“Idiots have purposes as much as anyone else you know,” he replied.
“But you didn’t need to do it,” Cora blurted out, earning a sharp glance from Laura, ever mindful of their mother’s orders even in a crisis.
Junior Marshal Stiliniski--Stiles, the man was bleeding beneath Derek’s hands from a wound meant for him, he could think of him as Stiles--looked up at Cora in surprise.
“Do you mean to say that you are impervious to steel as well as…Lydia, am I allowed to be discussing this? I don’t recall if we discussed that they know that we know, or that if we’re even supposed to know…let this be a lesson to sneak me into your audience with the king next time,” Stiles said, making the Lady Martin laugh even as her tears gave up glistening to stream down her face, leaving tracks in her cosmetics in their wake.
“We were not to discuss, but that is of no concern,” she said, smoothing his hair back before turning a gaze, sharper than any blade upon Derek. “But this is something that my briefing did not even mention as something that was not to be discussed. And so I must ask, is she being truthful in that Stiles threw himself between you and fifty inches of steel for nothing?”
“I…I did not…I was not attentive enough, had I known his intent I would not have let him,” Derek stammered under the weight of two pairs of eyes, one cool brown and accusing, the other whiskey amber and clouded with pain. “My sister speaks the truth. Had I sustained any wounds they would have been fleeting in nature.”
“Perhaps not Derek,” said Laura, picking up the sword that had injured Stiles, letting the hem of her dress that barely hours ago she had been concerned with being marred by a speck of dirt drag through the blood that soaked the ground. She lifted the sword up level with her nose and inhaled deeply. “As I thought, when they first burst in I swore I had caught the scent…”
“What are you talking about?” Lady Martin demanded.
“Cora, take this, carefully, and tell me what you smell,” Laura directed handing the sword over. As soon as she was confident of Cora’s grip she let her claws emerge and ripped off the train of her gown. “To bandage him properly, we need more length than Derek’s clothes can provide; keep the ones that are staunching the blood in place and we shall bind them in place with this.” Lady Martin shifted to the side to allow Laura access to Stiles’ torso, obviously of a mind that her anger at the Hales was insignificant to any aid they could offer her friend. And he was obviously her friend, and not just her countryman.
“Well Cora? You can smell it too, correct?” Laura asked without looking up as she set to work doctoring to Stiles. Derek lifted his gaze to see Cora looking ashen.
“Aconite. This sword has been doused with aconite,” she said hollowly, her eyes wide.
“Prince Derek, Princesses, our attackers are all vanquished or fled, but they butchered or made lame all the horses, and there is something else very amiss-oh!” Isaac shouted out as he burst through the tent, pulling himself up short in a way that would have been comical had it been that the failure to do so would have resulted in him tumbling straight onto a wounded Stiles.
“Speak, Sir Isaac,” ordered Laura without lifting her eyes from her task.
“These were not average thieves, or at the very least they were not armed or outfitted as such. Their gear too new and almost uniform instead as piecemeal as is more common for outfits such as this, and free of wear, though they themselves looked as rough and unkempt as any common band of rogues. And their swords…” Isaac trailed off, looking to Derek for guidance.
“Discretion is moot at this point Isaac. All here are aware that the weapons were tainted with aconite,” Derek said, wincing with sympathy as Stiles flinched underneath his hands as Laura finished securing the makeshift bandage of what were once most princely garments. Derek had never displayed much of a gift in taking the pain from others, not like his father or Cora did, but as Stiles suffered for his sake, he owed it to him to at least try.
“Yes, aconite, we all know about it, yet not all of us that are present are able to divine the import of it save that I am now poisoned as well as less sanguine than is my preference,” Stiles said, though his voice was tight with pain. Derek concentrated harder on easing it, the concept of Stiles suffering while he had potential means to mitigate it becoming more offensive by the minute.
“It is a poison particularly lethal to us. A rarity,” Laura explained. “Many wounds and ills that would prove mortal to you are a simple inconvenience to us. It is not something we wish to be widely known as you might imagine-”
“I might indeed imagine, but no matter what special significance it was for you, it is harmful to us as well, and right now Stiles is- he may be-” Lady Martin stopped herself, unwilling to voice her fears.
“We must get him to a healer,” Cora said, a look of determination having replaced the shock that earlier graced her face. “It does not attack your blood the same way it does ours, and Junior Marshal Stilinski bled most profusely at first, hopefully washing the bulk of the poison out. And surely your healers must have some methods that could hope to effectively counteract poisons,” Cora paused, hesitance creeping into her voice. “Don’t they?”
“We could cut down the tent and create a makeshift gurney to transport him to the keep for treatment,” Laura said as she stood, assessing the raw materials at their disposal.
“No,” said Derek, his own voice a surprise to him. “If time truly is of the essence then I shall race him to the physician myself.”
“It is well over three miles to reach any assistance, and you proclaim that you can deliver him there in time, even for want of a horse? You would be able to carry a full grown man that distance safely?” Lady Martin asked, her gaze intent. “You would risk to show yourself before our host as you are?”
“Yes.” Derek replied simply, slipping his hands beneath Stiles and lifting him up into his arms with ease, one arm supporting Stiles’ back and the other his legs the minimize jostling and added discomfort from his wound.
Lady Martin stood slowly and nodded. She walked forward and kissed Stiles gently on the temple before raising her head to lock eyes with Derek.
Derek turned and rushed out of the tent toward Stiles’ only hope with nary another word. His eyes took in the carnage outside, though thankfully the gods had favored them in that the majority of those struck down were their attackers.
He noted the position of the sun and visualized the maps Laura had made him study before their trip showing each site of note in relation to the others, and after a quick moment of reorienting himself set off in the direction of King Daniel’s castle.
Derek cleared the encampment quickly, garnering shocked gapes from the Argent countrymen, and nods of acknowledgement from his own. Soon he and Stiles were alone in the woods, shadows and beams of light switching places as the tree leaves swayed with the breeze. Derek kept his senses open for any others who would wish to do them harm, but all he could smell was Stiles, both the blood and the man, and all he could hear was the sound of their breathing and birdsong.
The feel of Stiles’ soft hair and warm cheek against his bare chest were also very much in his awareness as anything else, but Derek tried not to pay attention to those.
“Today has been much less boring than I had originally thought it would be,” Stiles said after a time, as though a desperate journey to save his very life was the ideal time for idle chatter. His voice was far from strong, but that he had it still meant that hope remained. “I suppose this is meant to be a lesson to teach me to be grateful for dullness, do you think?”
“I thought as much as well. Perhaps the lesson is for me?” Derek replied.
“Gods, truly I have heard men show more signs of exertion in their voice after climbing a singular flight of stairs than you do now,” Stiles said with a weak chuckle, “as if dashing through the woods carrying me like a bride ready to find out if her oldest and dearest friend was telling the truth when she said that it looks like a snake is simply your morning constitutional. And why should the lesson be for you? That is just selfishness, trying to hog a lesson all to yourself.”
“You were injured in my place,” Derek said quietly. “How can you make light?”
“I don’t really have many other options at this point in time. Do you find it objectionable?” Stiles asked.
“No. No, I do not find it so,” Derek replied, eager to keep Stiles’ spirits as high as possible while they traveled. “Do you truly object to being carried as a bride as you say?”
“I am hardly in a position to object, but in actuality, no. I think you actually might have something of a magic touch Prince Derek, I would almost swear that the pain is lesser in your arms.”
Derek let himself smile, just a little, and put on another burst of speed as the tip of the tallest tower belonging to the castle came into view over the horizon.
Lydia watched Prince Derek sprint off holding the wounded body of one of her oldest and dearest friends in the world and allowed herself a moment to panic about every potential dire outcome; that they would not arrive in time to help Stiles, that they would be waylaid on their path, that crazy old King Gerard had been right in the few raving papers kept in the most secure of all the Royal archives, that the Hales and their like were truly more beast than man, and at the prospect of wounded and easy prey Prince Derek would succumb…
She allowed herself one moment.
After that moment had passed, those that surrounded her unaware it had even taken place, she turned back to view the torn and tattered remnants of diplomacy where they lay neglected upon the ground.
“We must continue with the treaty signing,” she announced to the remaining members of Hale royalty present.
“Now? But everything is…” Princess Cora looked to her elder sister for guidance, but Lydia was not about to let the whole expedition become a complete and utter travesty, not when her dress was soaked with Stiles’ blood, and pressed on before Princess Laura could speak.
“This attack was not one of opportunity or convenience. It is abundantly clear that it was engineered for the primary, if not sole, purpose of disrupting the signing, more so doing it in a way that would completely annihilate any chance of further diplomacy and lead to war. Your vassal himself said that these rogues that attacked us were armed and armored too well, prepared for your…kind, please do forgive my ignorance in the finer aspects of how you choose to define yourselves at this time, too well. They slaughtered and crippled the horses instead of stealing them for sale to a horse trader of ill repute or supreme ignorance, or keeping them for their own use, and I would venture so far to guess that all of the luggage, effects, and gifts intended to be used throughout our stay here in Beacon and gifted to our host were untouched, probably not even acknowledged.”
The vassal, Sir Isaac, nodded as he confirmed, “Yes M’Lady, it is as you speak. They seemed to pay them no mind. We assumed at first that they were hoping to pick through any spoils at their leisure once they were done with us, but with the point you make about the horses…” he turned to his Princesses, giving them a shrug that Lydia thought was perhaps a little familiar, but she was well aware that she was hardly one to judge, and the fact that he had confirmed her theory and agreed with her was far more important. “And looking at it from that angle there is more to support it that I had yet to mention as the Junior Marshal and the aconite took priority. The ones that were able to flee threw down bottles of peppermint oil in their wake at the edge of the clearing, enough to disrupt the scent trail for,” he looked once more to Princess Laura, who gave a small nod, “well, us.”
“This was orchestrated, with great forethought, that is clear. I do not know the specifics of who or why, but the intent of their assault is clear. For now we can only be thankful that whoever planned this did not do so well enough as they had imagined, and that we may continue with our original task.” Lydia looked directly at Princess Laura. She was the Hale that wielded true power here away from their Queen, and she was the one Lydia needed to be her ally.
“I swear before the gods that continued peace between our lands is the true will of my liege, King Christopher Argent. If the horrific events of this day are the machinations of a traitor from our kingdom the execution of any and all conspirators shall be swift and merciless. This I swear.”
Princess Laura looked at Lydia assessingly, almost as if she could divine the truth from simply looking at her. At length, she nodded.
“I swear as well. Let us finish this.”
Lydia began to set her papers to rights as did the two princesses, while the Hale’s vassal Isaac set the overturned table right side up so that they could have a proper surface to complete the signing on.
Whether Stiles died today, or lived forever with a scar, Lydia was not about to let the day amount to nothing, not while she drew breath.
Stiles lifted his head weakly to look at the seemingly ever-closer castle of their host before letting it drop back down against Prince Derek’s chest.
“I am most heartened that it looks like you are not going to have made yourself a liar before Lydia,” he said, the sight of the castle reassuring him that he might yet survive the day. “You do not understand how truly formidable she is when crossed. And in our short time together I have developed a fondness for you, what with your willingness to throw discretion to the wind and tenderly carry me in your arms so that I may live, so I would hate now to think of you suffering her wrath.”
“I may able to salvage some secrecy for my people yet. Even those not of our nature are capable of incredible feats on occasion, yes?”
“Ah, I can say I inspired greatness in you. Very flattering for both of us.”
“If you wish to do so I will make no move to impede you. But…you think I have a tender touch?” Prince Derek asked, the rumble from his words spreading through his bare chest to Stiles’ cheek, a sensation that Stiles knew in any other situation he would find extraordinarily enthralling, but for now was merely incredibly pleasant.
“That is not something you are often told? Is it a deficit in others that they do not realize and then make you aware, or is it a case that not many outside of myself have been the beneficiaries of a tender Prince?” Stiles asked, tilting his head up just enough to get a hint of a view of those magnificent eyebrows knitting together in charming confusion.
“I…I am not sure?”
“I understand, that was very forward of me to ask,” Stiles said curling closer into the Prince’s warm and firm body, at least as much so as he was able to without aggravating his wound. He had been stabbed and poisoned, he was allowed a small indulgence or two. “So do you think Lydia, Lady Lydia, she did beseech me to use her proper title today, it just feels so unnatural in my mouth, and your most Royal sisters have finished signing the treaty yet?”
“You think they would continue on?” Prince Derek asked, open curiosity in his voice, but nothing of concern. Good. Stiles had thought him uninvolved and with his head so close and now familiar with the Prince’s surprisingly steady heartbeat while sprinting, he considered that supposition confirmed unless presented with irrefutable evidence that suggested otherwise.
“Well, the attack was a deliberate attempt to disrupt the signing, yes? As your man said, they were too well equipped, they were prepared for your little eccentricities such as shaking off most mortal blows like a summer rain…just because I was a little less verbose back there, it doesn’t mean I wasn’t paying attention. It just…it hurt very much,” Stiles trailed off, his affected flippancy abandoning him as he thought back to between when the shock wore off and when Derek picked him up, how the pain was more than he had ever felt, how sure he was that he would die.
“But,” he continued, rallying, “That was the intent, yes? And if I know the Lady Lydia at all, and I do, she will not stand for someone using such crude and transparent efforts attempting to undo all her hard work, especially when the continued well being of her countrymen are at stake.”
“My sisters would do the same,” Prince Derek said. “I think you are correct. By the time we see them next, the treaty will be signed, and the riders and the messenger birds shall already be departing with the happy news.”
“I truly am appreciative of your use of the optimistic ‘we’. Or is it meant to be the Royal one?” Stiles asked, smiling into the Prince’s chest. He had barely felt the pain of the wound at all while they ran through the forest fleeter than any steed Stiles had ever had the opportunity to mount. Not that…
“It is neither optimistic nor Royal. It is factual.” Prince Derek stopped for the first time since they left the others. Stiles looked up once more and saw that they were at the gate to the castle.
They had made it. Against all that only a day before Stiles knew to be reason, they had made it.
Prince Derek yelled out the nature of their distress and for the gate to be opened immediately in a very demanding manner, one that Stiles supposed suited a Prince in general, especially one bereft of a shirt with a bleeding and poisoned man in his arms. As soon as the gates were opened numerous guards and servants flocked to their aid, earning a near growl from Derek as they made overtures to remove Stiles from his arms, shrinking back and running to inform their King as Derek barked out the bare bones of the day’s events, attack, the party without a horse to transport them, medical help needed.
Past that Stiles barely registered all of the commotion and noise that their arrival generated, relief that they were there at all superseding anything and everything happening around him. Soon enough the gates were opened and Prince Derek was carrying him past them, then into the castle, then up what seemed a ridiculously many sets of stairs to the rooms favored by the physician. True, this was a castle that was built up rather than out, and it was not as if they were in the highest tower by any means, but even one staircase was too many to Stiles’ mind at the moment, and though he knew it would be ungrateful to mention currently, he was already wondering what the best time would be to broach the subject that maybe the rooms for the sick or wounded should be chosen by the invalid in question rather than a physician who had an apparent fondness for a relatively obstruction-free views of the countryside.
Though location aside, the physician at least, a young woman with dark skin and hair, seemed competent enough, her tools and medicines at the ready for Stiles’ arrival, an apprentice similar in appearance standing by.
“Set him on that table, the one in the light, so that I may inspect and treat his wound,” she said, gesturing to a sturdy wooden table obviously no stranger to at least some degree of surgery, judging by the bloodstains on it. Prince Derek did so, keeping one hand beneath Stiles, supporting his head. “And a page told me you fear aconite poisoning?” Stiles was about to speak up when the Prince answered for him, a heavy and worried “Yes.”
“Then have him drink this quickly,” the doctor instructed, handing Prince Derek an earthen cup, which he then tilted gently into Stiles’ mouth. After one mouthful he coughed, turning his head before drinking any more.
“Feh, that tastes like the remnants of a fire,” he said, contorting his mouth as if that would eliminate the taste.
“Unsurprising,” the doctor said, “as it does contain charcoal. Now drink it, it will help counteract the poison.”
“Fine, though it would not go amiss to see if it might remain effective with a sprig of mint in it,” Stiles said, allowing Prince Derek to pour the rest of the unpleasant concoction into his mouth bit by bit.
“What a wit you are when you are so gravely wounded. I shudder to think what you are like at your full capacity,” The doctor said as she walked over, a tray of various containers, decidedly medical looking metal implements, bandages and so forth in her hands, setting it down on a small table adjacent to the one Stiles laid upon. The apprentice stood by it at the ready to supply her mistress with whatever tool was needed.
“You have to remove yourself now, Prince Derek, I need full mobility and light while I operate, and that entails no laymen in the sciences in my way as I work,” she said bluntly, having realized that the Prince had still not vacated his position at Stiles’ side, the warmth of his hand supporting Stiles still a comfort to him. Slowly and carefully Prince Derek lowered Stiles’ head completely to the table and stepped away. And then…
It came on so suddenly, radiating from his sword wound and he was screaming and screaming and he heard the doctor yelling but he didn’t understand…
“His hand, take his hand dammit, whatever you were doing before, I can’t treat him while he’s thrashing about like this!”
And then he felt Prince Derek grip is hand and the pain eased immensely, much like it did as during their trek through the woods. He gazed up at Prince Derek, eyes wide and wondering.
“Is this another…?” Stiles asked, unsure how to phrase his question with the physician and her apprentice so close and obviously intrigued by the rapid and inexplicable changes about Stiles.
“Yes, but…” Prince Derek began before the doctor impatiently cut him off with a sharp gesture.
“I have no concern with what secrets you two think you are communicating, but if you intend to benefit from my talents I will have no more surprises of that nature. I had been told that you were most calm all things considered, and if I had but known that you were to be so volatile at the simple lack of a hand to hold, I would have instructed Braeden to prioritize mixing you a pain draught before you even reached my door.”
“She should do so yet,” Prince Derek said softly, avoiding Stiles’ eyes, his gaze instead locked and intent on where their hands intertwined.
“Should she now? And you know best?” Prince Derek did not answer, only moved his thumb lightly across the back of Stiles’ hand. “She shall do so after the surgery. I am not inclined to waste any more time and I have concerns that his earlier exertions may have done yet more harm to his injury. Until then, he shall rely on your hand and whatever numbing properties you and it apparently possess, and you will stay out of my way and my light. Is that clear?”
“Yes. Yes, it is all quite clear, Doctor…?” Stiles spoke up, quite at ease with having to respond to chastisement from someone other than a parent, a situation he was unsure Prince Derek had quite the same extent of experience in.
“You may refer to me as Doctor Morrell. And now everyone will be quiet and refrain from any further foolishness so that I can ensure that you live.”
After that the surgery was rather anticlimactic, if decidedly unpleasant. He did manage to keep quiet, save a few pained hisses as she set to work upon him, but nothing more than that, as even that pain was nothing like the shocking onslaught of sudden agony that came upon him when the Prince had removed his hands.
According to the good Doctor Morrell, whose dictate about remaining silent evidently did not apply to herself as she kept up a constant commentary for the duration of the procedure, the sword had missed nicking Stiles’ guts, good news on both the poison and surgery fronts, but just barely, slicing through layers of muscle. And while intellectually it was interesting to know that she was using both catgut and silk to stitch said muscles, and solely silk thread to close the wound, he would much rather have been afforded the opportunity to let his mind wander to less literally bloody and figuratively visceral subjects, as the good doctor had confirmed that his viscera were not currently a subject of concern.
All throughout the operation Stiles steadfastly refused to look down at where his poor abused body was being sewn back together, stitch by stitch. Instead he let his eyes flit from one thing to the next, to the various drawings of the inner workings of the human body on the walls, the skeleton strung up with wire in the corner, a bucket of water and what looked like remnants of a meal sitting by the hearth, the shelves upon shelves filled with bottles of all shapes and sizes, an amusingly phallic shaped cloud floating by the window.
Prince Derek’s hand clasped with his own.
Prince Derek’s eyes, the color of three different kinds of moss all at one time, as they remained fixed upon their joined hands.
Prince Derek’s cheeks and jaw, clean shaven when Stiles had first laid eyes on him, now showing the hint of a dark shadow as the day wore on.
Prince Derek’s chest and arms, still as bare as when he carried Stiles to salvation, though Stiles had not been in an ideal position to take in the view at that time.
And though Doctor Morrell’s need to pontificate to a beyond a doubt captive audience continued, with philosophical musings about the force of human will and how one must keep going interspersed amongst the other medicinal and surgical details, Stiles became accustomed to it enough that he was able to devote at least a portion of his thoughts to things other than Prince Derek’s physical form and the closing whole in his side, because while those may the issues most immediate, they were far from the only ones, and Stiles was not one to leave things unexamined.
As he had said to Prince Derek earlier, he was confident that Lydia had matters well in hand regarding the actual signing of the treaty and fulfilling the purpose of their journey. But now that some person or persons unknown had made such a bold and violent gesture of malice, and the sooner they were identified and neutralized, the better. Messengers would be sent to both the lands of the Hales and the Argents and of course, in all likelihood, a brief missive delivered on the wing with a rider carrying a more detailed account close behind, but Stiles knew that in an investigation to determine the identity of their assailants, even the smallest delay of hours could forever hobble the effectiveness of the search, to say nothing of the days it would take to get word back from each Kingdom. And someone who had the wherewithal to either hire a private army, or at least pay off some local thieves and lowlifes to act as one, would most likely have the means and ambitions for yet more attempts to do harm to both the lasting peace between nations and the individuals representing them.
Whether all would stay and impose on King Daniel’s hospitality or depart immediately was another question weighing on Stiles’ mind. It was something of a comfort that whatever the course of action, the idea of their host’s involvement was something he could immediately dismiss even as it occurred to him. The Kingdom of Beacon was small, possessing an army that was barely large enough to defend its own borders, certainly unable to occupy another land, even one substantially weakened by war, and benefitted truly in times of peace when trade flowed freely. But while he could eliminate the possibility that the King would have them lined up for execution or thrown into the dungeons to be ransomed, the possibility of conspiratorial agents placed within the walls by the same unseen hand that ordered the attack remained.
Stiles cursed that he would be utterly useless no matter what the situation, spies and assassins near or far. As the good Doctor put the finishing stitches into his side she informed him that he was not to do more than the most gentle and smallest movements for at least seven days time. So no there was to be investigating here in Beacon nor traveling home for him, instead endless tedium in a sickbed while his muscles and flesh mended.
Doctor Morrell gathered up all of her tools, bringing the tray over to the hearth to rest by the bucket of water, her apprentice trailing after.
“Braeden, clean the implements first before you make the draught. I will not have dried blood on my tools and our patient will suffer none for the wait,” she turned to direct her next words to Stiles and Prince Derek. “Once the draught has been administered we will move you to what was to be your suite as a guest of my liege to convalesce. Until that time I trust you two to avoid any outbursts like the one before and undo all of my excellent needle work,” she said with a smile that was both warm and cold. Stiles wondered if she practiced it in the mirror.
“Now I go to inform my liege of your status, as he was exceedingly concerned regarding the circumstances of your injury while under his banner of hospitality. Some pages shall arrive to aid you shortly,” Doctor Morrell said, casting one last inscrutable look at Stiles and Prince Derek’s hands before leaving.
Stiles watched her leave, angling his face to look right at Prince Derek once she was gone, questions that he had chosen not to dwell on during the surgery back on his mind and the tip of his tongue. But the apprentice Braeden remained, and while many nobles were inclined to think of those who served as deaf and dumb, Stiles was no true noble and knew nothing was further from the truth.
But luck smiled upon him, which was only fair as earlier luck had allowed him to be stabbed, for as Braeden finished with her first task and set about gathering the components for the draught, she found one to be in insufficient supply. She cursed softly under her breath before gathering herself and turning to face Prince Derek and Stiles.
“If you would pardon me, I must away to the garden to obtain additional ingredients for your draught. I will be back presently,” she said with a small bob of a curtsey before beginning her exit, stopping at the doorway to quickly say, “My mistress need not know about temporarily insufficient supplies,” then turning to race down the stairs.
“So,” Stiles said to Prince Derek. “You were saying earlier? About how ‘this is another,’ and ‘yes, but,’ before we were so rudely interrupted by someone who seemed almost oddly disappointed that my guts were not mangled for her to display her skill?”
“We can take away pain for a time,” Prince Derek said plainly.
“I swear to every god in this land and any and all across the seas, this is this most ill-informed I have ever had the misfortune to be on a mission, even if it was never intended to come to this. At some point I am going to seek you out with an obscene amount of wine and spirits to coax every little quirk out of you. So if this is the ‘another,’ what was the ‘but’?”
“I usually…while is something that I have always had the capacity to do, it always appeared that I had little to no talent for it. But today…you were hurt in my stead. You were my responsibility, I could not bear to let you remain in such pain.”
“And when you removed your hand…”
“I swear I had no foreknowledge that the consequences of withdrawing my touch would be such. As I said, I am unaccustomed to being able to provide any comfort of that nature. I suppose I must have done it…wrong,” Prince Derek said, guilt clouding his features.
Well, that just wouldn’t do for the incredibly handsome and dashing prince who had saved Stiles’ life, not at all.
“Mayhaps it was simply that you sought out my touch, and your magic was loathe to be without it.”
“It’s not exactly magic,” Prince Derek said, his face taking on a grimace that still bore the slightest trace of amusement, mostly in the eyes, the barest moment before Braeden reentered the room, temporarily halting all further conversation.
Braeden finished brewing and mixing the draught quickly, though her eyes continued to dart to the doorway, most likely for fear her mistress would return and ask why she had not yet finished with her required tasks.
She brought the warm liquid over, Prince Derek maneuvering to help Stiles drink it much as he had earlier with the charcoal concoction, though the pain draught contained, whether it was always included or mixed in for this particular batch by Braeden for Stiles’ benefit, the taste of mint.
After Stiles had finished downing the mixture with the Prince’s aid, the promised pages arrived to escort them to the room where Stiles was to recover. Both pages blanched slightly at the sight of them, not at Stiles’ wound so much as it looked decidedly less gory stitched up as it was, but at Prince Derek, still naked to the waist with splotches of dried blood, both Stiles’ and the not so dearly departed not quite brigand upon him. Though, to their credit, the youths recovered quickly, the slightly taller one stepping forward to address Stiles and Prince Derek.
“I am to escort you to Junior Marshal Stilinski’s quarters, where fresh garments for him. Do you require any assistance in-”
“No,” Prince Derek said, hoisting Stiles up so that once again he was cradled in his arms. “And I assume there are fresh clothes for myself as well? Have them brought to where the Junior Marshal is to reside, I will not leave him unattended until our countrymen arrive.” The page wisely decided not to argue, instead bowing and nodding to his partner to as Prince Derek bid, before turning, gesturing that they, or really Prince Derek as his were currently the only one whose legs factored into the current equation, should follow.
As the page led them through the castle a curious lightheadedness started to come over Stiles, followed by a rather freeing feeling.
As they turned another corner Stiles craned his neck up to whisper as best he was able into Prince Derek’s ear.
“And now you not only carry me like a bride, but as one enroute to the marital bed. Are there yet more lessons to be taught today? Though if they are ones that I have in past times studied for does that count as cheating?”
“Stiles, what are you-” Prince Derek began in bewilderment, his cheeks flushing in a manner that complemented his coloring and stubble greatly, but stopped himself once realization dawned. “The pain draught. I would be unsurprised if poppy was a key ingredient.”
“How did you know my name is Stiles? Was it in my dossier? Did you get dossiers on us, because the ones we received on you were quite paltry,” Stiles murmured into Prince Derek’s chest as they reached the suite, containing a bed, and a small sitting and dining area, the evidence that the second page had obviously made a strong effort to fulfill his duties with great haste apparent, as aside from a loose nightshirt for Stiles there was a fresh pair of pants and a linen shirt awaiting Prince Derek. Stiles wondered if the loaned shirt would be too tight across the Prince’s shoulders. It seemed a very strong possibility, as even merely laid out it appeared insufficient for the task of properly covering Prince Derek’s upper body.
“No dossier. Lady Martin called you by that name back at the site of the treaty signing. Did I err?” Prince Derek asked, settling Stiles very gently against the headboard before cautiously removing his hand. While Stiles missed the touch of him, and the pain in his side intensified some, the pain draught was doing its work well, the sensation nothing like it had been on the operating table. He smiled at Prince Derek, who gave one in return as he stepped further back to retrieve the nightshirt, the two pages removing what remained of Stiles’ clothing, his shirt having been cut off on the table. He was then held up between the two, aware of the chamber pot in front of him and taking advantage of it on instinct, though not letting his end of the conversation falter as he relieved himself.
“No you did not err. But I have been calling you by your proper title this entire time, both in my head and out. It is most unfair that you get to address me with familiarity. Most unfair.” Stiles said, sounding petulant even to his own ears. But then Prince Derek was dismissing the pages to come back with victuals and drink for the two of them, and he himself was helping Stiles into his nightshirt, laying him out onto the bed and pulling the sheet up over him, making all thoughts of fair and unfair slide right out of Stiles’ mind.
“You may call me Derek if that is to your liking,” Derek said.
“It is,” Stiles said with a yawn, suspecting that a sleep aid was also a component of this particular draught. “Is it to yours?” he asked, striving to keep his eyes open, to take in every single angle of Derek’s face as he answered back.
“It is,” he replied with a smile, gentle across his lips, the light of the dying day in through the window highlighting his cheekbones, his magnificent, glorious eyebrows relaxed.
“Excellent,” Stiles said, his lids drifting closed of their own accord. “I was almost positive that you were flirting back earlier. I truly do enjoy it when I am proven correct.”
And then Stiles slept.
Derek stood stock still at Stiles’ last words before slumber overtook him, simply staring down at Stiles as he slept, arms behind his back as if at parade rest, to prevent them from reaching out to touch Stiles once more.
While Stiles was being stripped and relieving himself he had intended to look away, to afford him some privacy, but he could not, not out of any lust or perversion but the simple desire to keep Stiles within his sight, and to know of him all that he could.
He had told himself earlier in the day that his attraction, as intense as it was, was of no matter. Even if his attraction had only grown as they spoke, wit and intelligence and bite and kindness in the worst of circumstances, it was still to be of no matter.
But a great many things had changed throughout the day…though Derek was unsure if even with all of the upheaval, that he would have the freedom to entertain the idea that his growing attraction for Stiles was something that he could allow to continue unabated.
He released his arms and allowed himself a small brush of the hand against Stiles’ cheek, a light trace of fingertips from one beauty mark to the other, before stepping back and returning to practicality, stripping out of the remnants of his much soiled clothes and changing into those provided for him, mindful that servants should be arriving with sustenance shortly.
The pants fit well enough once he had finished tying them, though not nearly as fitted as he normally preferred his own to be tailored, and the shirt was much too tight across the shoulders, but would serve until his travel chest arrived with his sisters and the party as a whole. Derek wished they had had the foresight to send a team of servants unneeded for the signing ahead with their luggage, but it had seemed an unnecessary division of labor at the time, and certainly no one expected any hindrance to the proceedings of the day past potentially inclement weather.
Not slaughtered horses and injured men who joked through fear.
Derek heard footsteps coming along the hallway, not bothering to turn assuming it was merely the pages returning with the requested food, instead idly testing his range of motion with the borrowed shirt, wincing slightly as he heard a seam pop.
“Just set the food on the table,” he directed with a gesture, hearing another pop of thread and resigning himself to the fact that after a few hours wear, the shirt would be set for the seamstress’s mending pile at best.
“Please do as Prince Derek requests,” spoke an unfamiliar voice, “and then leave us. There are to be no interruptions unless they are in reference to the arrival of the rest of our guests.”
Derek turned to see in addition to the two pages setting a platter of foodstuffs holding some fruits and cheeses and cold meats in addition to the bread, and what looked like a covered bowl of broth for Stiles, as well as two pitchers, one of water, one of wine, the host of both his person and the treaty signing, King Daniel.
He looked very like the portrait that had been sent out in honor of his coronation. But in the painting he had been smiling, an unusual choice for a Royal portrait as gravitas was generally a look favored over dimples for the art form, but one that seemed to befit his features very well.
He was not smiling now, his face drawn in concern.
The smiling suited him much better.
The pages finished their task, bowing gracefully to their liege as they exited.
“Please,” King Daniel said, “Would you sit and partake with me?” he said gesturing to the small dining nook where the food had been set. Derek inclined his head in acceptance, choosing the seat that was closest to Stiles. He waited for King Daniel to serve himself and speak first, as it would not do to do so before his host, especially a kingly one… He felt no need break the rules of etiquette for concern of what had passed since he set out to secure help for Stiles, as he knew that if any more horrors had happened to his sisters or the party at large that King Daniel would not waste time with decorum and pleasantries such as this. And there was also the fact that Derek was finally feeling the exhaustion of the day come upon him all at once like a landslide, and he just wanted to fall back into the ingrained automatic habits of courtly manners for just a moment, to let his mind empty for but a few seconds.
He was afforded those seconds as King Daniel poured two cups of wine, graciously handing one to Derek, then taking for himself a cut of meat and some figs. Derek followed suit, and after a few mouthfuls of food and a swallow of wine, King Daniel spoke up.
“As soon as your arrival alerted us to the most unconscionable attack on the representatives of both your kingdom and that of the Argents, I had a contingent sent out to escort them back here to the castle.”
“That is most generous of you, my Lord,” Derek said around a mouthful of bread as princely as he was able, his hunger more evident and intensified after the first bite than it had been for hours.
“It is not generous, it is the most insufficient of gestures after you were so viciously attacked while guests in my lands, but it is all I can do for the time being. Even though tradition dictated that none but those directly involved should be present past the initial preparations for the event itself, I had still considered providing guards for the site as a precaution,” he looked at Derek, projecting sincerity and regret in their purest forms. “Had I the ability to retract that decision and trust in my own instincts instead of adhering to the least sensible aspects of ritual, putting those I extended a promise of safety and hospitality in danger...but that is but a flight of fancy. For now all that I can do is offer all resources at my disposal to help mend what has been wrought. I have sent out riders to hunt down any of those brigands that still take breath after their attack on you, to be brought back alive for questioning, and I have deferred from sending out riders or messenger bird to alert your respective homelands of the situation as considering I still lack a true understanding of what occurred. I would be loathe to contribute to any additional confusion and strife after I have already failed so utterly as a host in providing a safe setting as I had vowed to do so,” King Daniel sighed heavily. “All that I can do at this juncture until your kin and countrymen and those of the Argents arrive is assure you that I had no foreknowledge or hand in this.”
“Of course not. The Hale army would destroy you within a fortnight if my mother the Queen even suspected as much,” Derek said simply before taking a drink of the wine. A very good vintage, though if pressed Derek would admit that he did prefer sweeter.
“You are rather forthright, Prince Derek,” King Daniel said evenly, his expression carefully blank. “Some might even consider it bluntness to the point of offense.”
“Please, you are aware that was by no means intended to be threat, merely a statement of fact. As well as further proof should anyone require it that there are very good reasons why my sisters take the lead on diplomacy. I know that no malice comes from you as your nation thrives on open trade and suffers in its own way when surrounded by conflict even if you abstain. But I want to make clear that though I know that your hands are clean, that does not mean I am assured that it is the same for every person in your household,” Derek set his cup down. “While I do not have a mind as keen and suited for politics and intrigue that others such my sister Laura, the Lady Martin, or Sti- Junior Marshal Stilinski, that does not mean I am completely lacking in that area. While the ceremony taking place in your lands was not especially clandestine, it was still not widely known, especially the specifics of time and location. To be there at the right place, the right moment…there must be have been information leaked from someone in a position to know from any of the three kingdoms involved.”
“You truly do not believe it to be simply ruffians made bold?”
“Junior Marshal Stilinski made the case to me as such, and having been present as well, I found his interpretation most compelling,” he looked out the window across the room, the light of the day dying, casting the world outside in hues of rose and orange. The angle was just so that a bold slant of colored light fell upon Stiles’ face, giving him a near ethereal glow. He was reluctant to look away but it would not do to appear dismissive of the King, in any circumstances, and certainly not in times as precarious as those at hand.
“And I suppose that is why you show reluctance to leave the Junior Marshal unattended with any of mine until his own people arrive?” King Daniel asked, understanding settling upon him with hardly a ripple in his outward demeanor. “But you acknowledge that it may in fact be someone from your own kingdom, do you not?”
“Even so, none who accompanied my sisters and I, I know their loyalty to be absolute. But the machinations of an individual back home reaching out with a long and poisoned hand…” Derek sighed and looked out the window again. “I do not know. These thoughts are worth less than the air I use to breathe them as I wait here now. Have you any estimations of when my sisters shall arrive? I’m afraid my sense of time has been muddled since I first heard the clang of steel this morning.”
“Barring any unexpected delays they should be back shortly after nightfall. And though I do not doubt that our respective armies would be far from evenly matched, I can assure you that the armed escort I sent along with the servants and horses are more than up to the task of protecting all involved in the treaty signing from harm,” King Daniel said, rising. Derek had yet to see him with the smile that he wore in his portrait, but now he had had chance to catch the twinkle in his eye. He dropped his head with a chuckle.
“That I have not even the slightest sliver of doubt about, King Daniel.”
King Daniel nodded, still no smile but a minute deepening of a dimple was apparent.
“Relax and watch over your friend. I shall send your sisters to you directly when they arrive.”
“Many thanks to you, King Daniel.”
The King inclined his head in acknowledgement before exiting, closing the door securely behind him. Derek rose to throw the latch, just to set his mind at ease.
He collapsed back into the chair he had earlier claimed as his own, pouring himself more of the wine, his gaze settling on Stiles, still illuminated by the last of the day’s light. The sound of his breathing, another breath in and out, was a comfort to Derek, in more ways than he would have ever anticipated hours ago. It was not just that a man who had been willing to sacrifice himself for Derek would not have to do so, but…because it was Stiles. Stiles was the one breathing, even and constant, the sound only having been introduced to his world within the past half hour, yet it felt like the most familiar and soothing of sounds in the world, like a heartbeat to a babe in the womb. It was a sound that seemed to wrap itself around Derek’s head in a caress, lulling him to rest, assuring him that everything was right in the world.
Derek felt his eyelids flutter shut a time or two. He was accustomed to physical exhaustion but he had begun the day ill-rested, and as it had gone on it had been draining in a different way aside from mere physical exertion. So there was that, but even more than the toll of things catching up with Derek’s body, pushing him to embrace slumber for at least a short time, was that each inhalation and exhalation from Stiles’ lungs seemed to promise rest and safety, and not just for the time being.
The even breathing of sleep should not be so enticing. And Derek knew that no matter the state of his fatigue, no other person but Stiles would ever make him think that it was.
Derek was well aware that he should be reminding himself that past his continued health the man on the bed should not matter so very much to him. That he should not be acting like a character in one of the treacly romances that Laura and Cora pretended they did not devour with an intense hunger and devotion.
But he could not bring himself to mentally admonish himself to refrain from feeling affection, not if Stiles had been genuinely flirting as he said. Not when having seen Stiles on any man’s worst day rise to every occasion in bravery and wit and intelligence and charm, with hints of carnal possibilities. Not when gazing at Stiles, touched by the tinted light…Derek could no longer pretend that he was anything but the most attractive man to his eyes that he had ever had the good chance to see.
Being a spare heir, he always had the knowledge that his marriage would be of a political versus romantic nature. He had come to terms with it long ago and sown his wild oats as a youth when it was expected and not cause any impropriety. He was too old for dalliances now.
But even after such a short time, something deep and sharp within his being told him that if Stiles was to be anything it was not a dalliance. He sighed deeply, weariness heavy in his bones. He did not want to leave Stiles unguarded, but despite his efforts to resist, he felt as if sleep was to soon overtake him.
He looked between the door and where Stiles lay on the bed. The bed was of a generous size, as expected from someone with King Daniel’s reputation for hospitality. Derek had instinctively set Stiles on the side furthest of the bed from the door for Stiles to rest when they first entered.
Derek was glad he had not bothered to replace his boots when he changed into the fresh clothes, as he doubted he had the energy to remove them now, and had no desire to sleep in filthy boots.
He poured himself a swallow of water, no longer interested in the wine, and walked over to the bed, laying on top of the covers, his body between Stiles and the door, so that whatever his state, anyone with power to break the lock would have to go through him first before reaching Stiles.
Sleep came within a few breaths, but not so soon that Derek could pretend that his hand drifting center towards Stiles so that the back of his fingers could rest against his arm was anything but a conscious and deliberate action.
There was a pounding, steady and forceful, and after a moment still sleep fogged Derek realized that it was now dark, night having fallen, the light from the sun on Stiles’ face replaced by that of the waxing moon, the sound coming from the door to Stiles’ suite, and paired with Cora calling out for him to open up.
“Derek, let us in! Lady Martin and Laura are becoming very cross being kept out, as am I!”
Derek leapt out of the bed, the thought that Stiles looked just as alluring in moonlight in the back of his mind, and rushed to open the door before the noise woke Stiles. He unhooked the latch and flung the door open, revealing that in lieu of continued knocking, Cora had hiked up her skirt to allow her to kick freely. Derek had been on the receiving end of her feet on a few occasions growing up, making him incredibly thankful that he had risen in time, as given the right motivation he would be unsurprised if his little sister ever managed to knock a door off its hinges.
She was flanked by Laura and Lady Martin, all three still in their travel and conflict soiled clothes, the latter of whom was uninterested in giving him a third disapproving sisterly glare, instead nodding to acknowledge his presence and station before pushing past him to assure herself of her friend’s continued well being.
“Is he alright? The King said he lived, but I needed to see for myself,” Lady Martin said, rushing to Stiles’ side. She displayed none of Derek’s hesitance in reaching out to touch, years of familiarity obvious as she grasped the hand closest to her in one delicate appendage, the other laid on Stiles’ chest as to confirm beyond any reasonable doubt that his heart did beat, his lungs did expand and contract. Derek looked back to his sisters, and within the blink of an eye his arms were full of them.
“Don’t lock the door to us like that again, idiot brother,” Laura said, using her favorite not quite term of affection for Derek from their youth, which in truth showed how pleased she was to see him still well. “The day has been stressful enough without the sudden worry that additional ills had befallen you since we saw you last.”
“Yes, finishing the treaty signing while Isaac and other soldiers from both Hale and Argent circled and stomped around the tent was less than a tranquil experience,” Cora added.
“So you did finish the signing and ceremony then? Stiles will be pleased that he was correct,” Derek said, his breath returning to him after the forceful embrace from both his sisters had knocked it out of him.
“Stiles is always too pleased when he is correct. I try not to let him indulge in it too much, but this time I shall allow it,” Lady Martin said as she stood, evidently satisfied for the moment at Stiles’ current state. She looked in the direction where Laura and Cora were only just then disengaging from Derek, past the Royal siblings to something in the hallway beyond.
“Stop lurking and come in, this is not a spectacle for your amusement,” she directed to the two pages, so young that Derek would have been willing to wager that they had barely entered their King’s service more than a few months ago, who had been shrinking back into the shadows of the hallway, watching everything with wide-eyed interest. Though at Lady Martin’s voice they scurried forth and snapped to attention, trying hard to look as if they had never been at anything else.
“You were sent to attend us, yes? First set to the lights in this room. Then go fetch us paper, suitable for missives sent both by rider and by air, pen and ink, a folding table and,” she cast a look at the small dining area, taking in both the remnants of the food and wine as well as the number of chairs, “more food and wine, some broth suitable for someone recuperating that is not ice cold, and two more chairs. Enough time has been wasted already, and this task is best accomplished with everyone present. We can become acquainted with our own respective rooms and rest after all work is done.”
The pages bowed hurriedly and awkwardly before setting off on their tasks with a dash, using the lanterns they carried to spark those that hung throughout the room, as well as the candelabras on the small dining table and a midsized cabinet placed up against the wall, before racing out with worried and fearful glances cast at Lady Martin. Derek and his sisters watched them depart with amusement, Lady Martin with an imperious look as if this reaction was the only appropriate one, when a voice rose up from the bed behind them, nowhere near strong, but present and warm in tone.
“You terrorize them, Lydia,” Stiles said, a smile on his face. Lady Martin let out a delighted gasp, and Stiles attempted to prop himself higher, wincing at the effort. And with that Derek was in motion, at his side in a flash as Lady Martin made to take one aborted step forward, halting with a bemused expression on her face. Derek took the pillow that he had been dozing on minutes ago, and with one hand supporting Stiles, made it companion to the one that he already rested on, sliding them back angled and closer to the headboard so that Stiles was closer to reclining than supine on his back.
“Thank you, Derek,” Stiles said, aiming that smile now directly at him. Lady Martin made a small assessing sound, an almost inaudible ‘hmm’ that sounded to Derek’s ears as if she had come to some kind of realization, though Derek could not fathom what prompted such. He lifted his head to look at her and try to discern more, but she had already turned to busy herself with the water pitcher.
“And when did you become so familiar with my brother then?” Laura asked coolly, eyebrow raised.
Stiles’ face twisted a little, as if he was trying to parse whether she was being lighthearted or displeased with her statement. Even those familiar with Laura still had those moments of unsurety when she adopted that particular overly neutral tone. Stiles opened his mouth to retort, but Derek answered back before a syllable had escaped his mouth, well acquainted to dealing with his sister, whatever her intent might be.
“Laura, he took a sword for me. Dispensing with formalities such as titles between us is but a trifle for all that he had suffered.”
“I was merely curious, brother,” Laura said, taking another step closer to the side of the bed opposite where Derek was attending to Stiles. Cora was close at her heels, and all in all looking quite intrigued in her elder siblings’ conversation, stopped short in her tracks, her gaze dropping to the empty space on the bed. She then inhaled in a rather conspicuous manner not befitting a Princess in mixed company. She reached out to tug once gently on Laura’s sleeve, gesturing with the barest flick of a finger for Laura to scent out on her own.
She did so, and looked up at Derek, the expression on her face unnervingly unreadable, though Derek was all too aware that whatever she was thinking, it related to the fact that both she and Cora both had smelled him on the sheets, smelled that he had slept next to Stiles. And that it was just innocent sleeping even instead of anything amorous was something in and of itself.
It was hard to keep secrets from a family and community that possessed senses such as his own, even in a large castle. And as such it was fairly common knowledge that Derek had never had the inclination with any of his previous fleeting paramours to allow either them or himself, depending on the location of the assignation, to spend the night. He had confessed to Erica once after she lightly goaded him for being cruel and denying even rest after he wore out his lovers that those he might take a tumble with were all attractive, some he even held affection for, but that not one among them made him feel at ease enough to give up that last shred of intimacy.
“Derek…” Laura began, unusually hesitant for her, evidently encouraging Cora to pick up the sisterly slack.
“Derek did you really?”
“Did you really what?” Stiles asked, his gaze hopping confusedly between Derek and his sisters.
“They’re indulging in some cryptic familial predominately-unspoken communication right now; you can try to puzzle it out later, for now just drink some water and tell me how you are doing,” Lady Martin said, task with the water now completed as clear by the half full cup she held in her hands, her voice cutting through all else in the room and turning all present’s attention toward her. Derek suspected that it was a rather well-practiced technique.
“And by the by, Stiles, I must say yet again that I do not terrorize anyone,” Lady Martin said, leveling Derek with a look that prompted him to reluctantly leave his position at Stiles’ side, at least for the time being so that Lady Martin could tend to her friend and countryman. “I merely help to illuminate the importance of performing one’s duties swiftly and properly.”
“By way of terror,” Stiles said with a grin, earning a stern look from Lady Martin.
“Were you not injured…”
“You would do such unto me? Just as well I am already gutted today. May I have a sip of that now? I am quite parched,” Stiles asked, nodding in the direction of the cup of water Lady Martin held.
“Do you need assistance or shall you manage on your own?”
“Let me try on my own. Should I spill this it shall simply be as if I was caught in a very localized and refreshing rain,” Stiles said holding out his hand for the cup. He did spill some as he drank, but not too terrible an amount.
Derek watched a rivulet of water drip off his chin and slide down into the hollow of his throat, shining in the candlelight. Suddenly there was a painful weight on his foot.
“You are staring, big brother,” Cora said, too quietly for purely human ears to hear as she removed her foot from atop Derek’s own.
“Returning to the topic of duties,” Stiles said, glancing between Lady Martin and Laura, “I trust that all things intended to be signed, stamped and so forth today were so?”
“Of course. Would you think so little of me that I would leave a job unfinished?” Lady Martin replied with a small smile.
“Exactly. Especially when the wisdom and determination by such compatriots as the Princesses Hale are there to ensure that all is set to rights,” Lady Martin added.
“You are most kind in your description of us, Lady Martin,” Laura said, stepping forward and gracefully inclining her head, “and I think most apt in certain regards, as we are indeed compatriots in this matter. Of course we shall wait for words from our Queen as to our next course of action, but due to the constraints of time and distance I anticipate that much of the investigation of who was behind the attack will be left up to us.”
“Well, who would be better qualified than we? Though I of course will be of little use as I convalesce,” Stiles said, the self-mocking tone in his voice unpleasant to Derek’s ears.
“There is little any of us can do of any real substance until King Daniel’s men find and capture at least one of the most wretched scoundrels involved in the attack for questioning. And when that does happen your mind is still as quick and able even as your body mends. You are far from useless,” Derek blurted out, earning himself a soft smile from Stiles, and speculative glances from both his sisters and Lady Martin as multiple servants, directed by the pages from earlier bustled into the room with all of the requested items.
Laura and Lady Martin set to directing them where to place and assemble the writing tables while Cora instructed those with the comestibles to strike away the old already on the dining table and replace them with the fresh, then turned her attentions to inspecting that all the needed stationary supplies were present and appropriate for the tasks required of them, while Derek stood off to the side and stretched to work a small kink out of his shoulders, resisting the urge to wince as he heard yet another stitch pop in his shirt.
He looked about for something to occupy himself, eyes catching the rising steam from the newly arrived pot of warm broth. He went to the dining table, deftly avoiding a page bustling about, and ladled some of the broth into an earthen bowl provided. He took it and a spoon, once again avoiding anyone getting underfoot, and returned to his earlier place by Stiles’ side.
“Are you of a mind to eat?” he asked, kneeling so that he was closer to being level with Stiles.
“Well, I think I am of a stomach to, so that will have to suffice,” Stiles said, reaching out with less than steady hands for the bowl before Derek drew it back slightly.
“Did you ask to taunt me like a cat with a lure?” Stiles asked with a frown.
“No, it is just…not to impugn on your dignity, but are you able to feed yourself? You did well enough with the water, but-”
“’Enough’ is all the qualifier needed. No need to add scalding and stains and a rather savory beefy scent to a little dampness is your thought, am I correct?” Stiles asked. Derek nodded, trying to think of the saving words to reassure Stiles that this did not mean he thought Stiles truly infirm, especially after his words of reassurance earlier, but the need to find them vanished when Stiles smiled at him, a spot of rose appearing on his still too-pale face and said:
“Well, you assisted me earlier with charcoal water and pain draught. I see no reason that we should have to abandon our grand new tradition of you helping me ingest liquids so soon.”
Looking at Stiles’ mouth the thought of a particular liquid of a very personal nature that Derek could introduce to Stiles passed through Derek’s mind, but luckily made it nowhere near his tongue, as even at the best of times Derek was never the most articulate at either flirting or bawdy talk, let alone the two combined, and he certainly was not going to allow himself to practice on a man unable to move while his sisters and a foreign ambassador were in the same room conferring on what information was most pertinent to share in the missives to be sent by air and what would be better suited to the lengthier and more in depth message carried by rider.
“I am glad that I can be of some service,” he said, simply.
Stiles gazed at Derek’s face intently, scrutinizing it, it seemed, though Derek could but wonder what Stiles saw.
Derek leaned in as close as he was able, and dipped the spoon into the bowl, purposely spilling out a little so that it would journey better, then bringing the spoon up to Stiles’ lips. He paused there, unsure whether to let Stiles sip or to bring the spoon in closer for him to swallow it down, when he felt the weight of eyes on him. He looked up to see Cora and Lady Martin staring at him, that same assessing look on the latter’s face, and a downright dewy one on the former. Laura was thankfully actually writing, her concentration such that she paid him no heed, and any pages and servants had apparently been banished for the time being to the hall. He turned his head away sharply, noting that Stiles was apparently in favor of sipping, and dipped the spoon back into the bowl, repeating the same steps as before. Slowly but surely Stiles consumed all of the broth in the bowl, whilst quill pens scratched on paper in the background, the occasional halt in the sound as the ladies rose to snatch some food of their own, or converse again about a particular piece of content.
Derek got to his feet to replace the empty bowl and spoon, but dropped back down when Stiles attempted once again to reposition himself slightly and let out a pained sound at the effort.
“Are you all right?” Derek asked worriedly.
“I’m fine, just that I believe the last of the pain draught may be wearing off,” Stiles said, a sheen of sweat on his forehead. Lady Martin looked up with concern before turning back to her writing, adding the final few words and dashing sand atop the paper, then going to summon one of the waiting pages from the hall.
“We are in need of more pain draught. Pray go alert the physician,” she directed.
“But tell her that it not be quite so potent this time,” Stiles called out as the page was about to depart. “The last left me feeling no pain but also a deep sleepiness and…a mouth and mind not suited toward intrigue and plots, or even polite discussion really. Except possibly for that one tavern on the edge of the capital city, the discourse commonly heard there had its own unique flair.”
“Only pay attention to the first part of what he said, and alert your fellows that we have messages ready to be sent and that we will need our own rooms readied for the night,” Lady Martin said, the page bowing in response before rushing off.
Laura and Cora were sanding and rolling their papers at this point as well, sealing them and preparing to insert them into the special travel method specific courier cases provided. Derek returned to Stiles’ side, kneeling down once again.
“Why did you not say anything sooner?” he asked.
“Well, the pain came back upon me rather gradually, and I wanted to take an accounting of the extent it when shock was not an issue,” Stiles replied, looking mightily uncomfortable.
“And the results of your accounting?” Derek asked.
“Very unpleasant, very painful.”
“Would you…I could, if you wanted, do as I did before, until your next dosage arrives,” Derek said, trying not to sound too eager to touch Stiles, even so small a touch, and especially in such circumstances.
“Are you asking me if I wish you to touch me?”
“That you would ask shows you to be truly and genuinely princely in nature. Yes,” Stiles said, his smile a new one, almost a little shy. Derek nodded, resolute to not smile back, but he could tell that his efforts were insufficient as he felt his eyes crinkle, and Stiles’ smile widen in return. He took hold of Stiles’ wrist in his hand so that he could feel the thrum of Stiles’ pulse travel through the veins to his own fingertips.
“Thank you,” Stiles said, his expression easing as Derek took away his pain, “that is much better.”
“Derek, are you actually…?” Derek looked up to find Cora staring at them, eyes wide and darting between Derek and Stiles’ faces before locking them on where their hands are joined.
“It is the least I can do,” Derek said, tightening his grip on Stiles ever so slightly, his body automatically reacting as if someone would try to snatch him away. “We can trust them to be discreet, and not divulge our secrets, you need not have concerns on that front.”
“It is not the lack of discretion Derek,” Laura said, stepping up beside their younger sister, her face open in wonder as well. “It is the fact that you are doing it at all.”
“If someone would be kind enough to explain what everyone is speaking of, as I cannot imagine it is something so banal as Prince Derek holding Stiles’ hand,” Lady Martin asked curtly, having finally finished with all aspects of her own messages to be sent.
“Some among our nation have the ability to take away someone else’s pain for a time, to draw it out and offer release,” Laura said turning briefly to address Lady Martin. “But Derek has never had the slightest affinity to ease even the discomfort that comes from something so insignificant as a splinter.”
“Today is certainly a day of revelations,” Lady Martin said, eyeing all of the Hales. “Soon when we discuss the attack with fresh minds and await word from our respective lands, it would serve us all well if you could fill myself and Stiles in a bit more on some of your other idiosyncrasies, at least the ones that could potentially effect things during our stay here. We two came in already knowing more than any citizen of the Argent Kingdom, and are most adept at keeping confidences,” she leveled Laura with a gaze rarely turned on royalty, one that brooked no argument. “We do not know the extent of what is going on, and secrets kept that instead could aid will damn both our lands.”
“You are impertinent,” Laura said looking down at the comparatively diminutive ambassador.
“I have been called much worse as I clawed my way to be more than an ornament or plaything of the court. And impertinent I may be, but not incorrect,” Lady Martin said without flinching.
“You are not incorrect,” Laura conceded, “though I am amused by your use of the term ‘clawed’…”
Stiles tugged at Derek’s hand, motioning for him to lean down further. “This is entertainment, is it not?” Stiles whispered, his breath a hot puff against Derek’s ear.
“You have rather odd ideas of what constitutes entertainment,” Derek whispered back.
“Back before I had words to speak I always found Lydia very dynamic when she went about getting her way, especially when she was using her techniques and force of will on those who were not I, and there is currently a severe deficit of jongleurs, jesters, jugglers, or anything else beginning with ‘J’ whose purpose is to entertain me, so I shall appreciate what I have,” Stiles said in a hushed voice.
“Well appreciate away, but I feel I must let you know that my sisters have heard every word you said about them being fodder for your amusement,” Derek replied, just as quiet, even though, as a quick glance and smirk from Cora, who had made herself comfortable with a cup of wine while Laura and Lady Martin slid back into more genial banter, confirmed it did nothing to hinder other ears.
“What can’t your clan do, I wonder? Lydia is right, you must share more,” Stiles said eagerly.
“You sound as if it matters most to sate your own curiosity,” Derek replied.
“Well, it is a noble cause,” Stiles said with a small nod just as a yawning Braeden entered the room, flanked by a page and two servants with lanterns, another portion of pain draught in her hands. Derek could smell the mint.
“Here is your new dose of pain draught,” Braeden said. “As requested I did not brew it quite to the strength of the first, though if needed the formula can be altered to more or less after this depending upon your pain level and other factors.” She handed the cup to Derek as she had earlier in the day. Derek could see the fatigue returning to Stiles’ face and decided that it would be best if he also did as before and assisted Stiles to drink it down.
Once done he reclaimed Stiles’ hand to continue to help ease his discomfort until the potion took effect, and handed the empty cup back to Braeden, who accepted it with another yawn. She then turned to leave, only belatedly remembering to curtsey to the royalty and dignitaries present before she left, taking a lantern from one of the pages to depart on her own.
“Your Highnesses, Madame Ambassador,” the page said assuredly, her voice clear and unwavering. “Your rooms have been readied and both the courier riders and the falconer await your messages, ready to send them out as soon as I deliver the messages to them. And they,” she gestured to her two cohorts, “will now escort your Highnesses and Madame Ambassador to your respective suites.”
His sisters and Lady Martin rose as they finally allowed the weariness of the day to show on their faces now that they knew that true rest was near.
“We thank you,” said Laura, handing over the messages she wrote for Queen Talia, Lady Martin doing the same for those she wrote for King Christopher before going to Stiles’ side, giving Derek a look of great significance, but whatever it was it was not to provoke him to leave.
Lady Martin leaned down and gave Stiles a dry kiss on the forehead, much like the ones Derek received from Laura or Cora when he was in their good graces.
“We shall see you on the morrow. King Daniel made mention of giving us use of one of the smaller council rooms for our time here if we should choose to use it, but if you would prefer we could do as we did tonight and meet here so that you might attend without hardship. Unless you would find that detrimental to your recovery?” Lady Martin asked.
“I do like how you pretend there is any other option,” Stiles replied.
“I live in frightful anticipation of the day you would choose the option sensible men will take, and I left it unspoken,” she said with a smile before rising up and returning to where Laura and Cora stood. “Are all amenable to using this as our war room for the time being?”
“I find no fault with that suggestion,” Laura said. “But for now I do believe it is time for us to retire for the night.” Her gaze drifted over to Derek still knelt down beside Stiles. “Brother?”
“I…” He really should go. Go to put on clothes that were his own, go to sleep, go away from Stiles who was charming and witty and beautiful even in sickness, go away from what he knew he should not want.
But he simply did not want to.
“I will stay until it is certain that the pain draught has taken effect and that Stiles is free of discomfort.”
“If that is what you prefer…”Laura said.
“It is only right. Please, good night and good rest to you all.”
“Very well. Good night Derek, Junior Marshal Stilinski,” Laura said in parting.
“For gods’ sake just call me Stiles, I swear that title sounds more ridiculous every time I hear it,” Stiles said.
“Then good night, Stiles, big brother,” said Cora, her eyes smiling, as she and Laura stepped out into the hall.
“Good night Stiles, rest well,” Lady Martin said. “And…thank you, Prince Derek. I was remiss in not saying it earlier, but…thank you so much for all you have done.”
“It…it is no hardship,” Derek replied.
“Still, thank you. Good night to you both.”
“Good night, Lydia. I eagerly await your return upon the morrow,” Stiles called out as she made to depart.
“As you should. But I trust you shall not lack for company in the meantime,” she said, joining Laura and Cora in the hallway, the last servant closing the door behind him, leaving Derek and Stiles alone once more.
“So how shall you find your quarters without an escort?” Stiles asked with curiosity as he idly rubbed his thumb in tiny circles atop one of Derek’s knuckles. Derek knew the motion was probably an unconscious one, but enjoyed the feel of it just the same. “What will you do, sniff it out?”
“Well, in truth…” That actually had been Derek’s plan, for though he had no real intent to leave Stiles in any sort of hurry, he would need to change into his own clothes at some point if nothing else.
“I was speaking in jest!” Stiles said with a laugh, bringing his free hand round to press against his wound to hold it steady while laughter shook his body. “Oh gods, I honestly did not expect that to hit the mark. Lydia is right, we are woefully unknowledgeable about the finer points of you our new friends.”
“You consider me a friend?”
“Of course I do. If you are going to ask ridiculous questions, at least be more creative about them. Like…oh no, your sense of smell is that of a bloodhound, am I an offense to your sensibilities right now?” Stiles asked. Derek wondered if the draught may be loosening his tongue once again, but if it was it was surely not to the extent that the first batch had.
“No, your scent is…it is not offensive. Not in the slightest,” Derek spoke, every word of it the truth. “I actually find it very favorable, if knowing that would set you at ease.”
“Even after all of today?”
“We could both very well benefit from some cleansing ablutions come morning. But it takes quite a bit more than some sweat and mud and blood to cover up one’s true scent.”
“That is reassuring to know,” Stiles said leaning back and closing his eyes.
“I suppose that, as my smell is not an affront to your senses, and both of us are already acquainted with each other’s need for a bracing cleanse, that rather try to scent out your room in the dark, you could just reside here for the night,” he said slowly. “As you did earlier this afternoon?”
“You were awake?” Derek asked, his heart beating fast.
“Not as such, but aware, for a time, while you spoke with the King and…later,” Stiles replied. “It is just…it would be a comfort to have someone…to have you here.”
“If it would please you, of course I shall,” Derek said, tightening his grip on Stiles.
He could not pretend that he did not matter. Though he had known him less than the course of a full day, he could not pretend.
And with that realization Derek felt a sharp spike of fear.
But also an even more keenly felt overwhelming sense of joy.
Lydia sighed wearily as she joined Princesses Laura and Cora in the hall, nodding to the servants to show them the way to their respective rooms.
“There was no need for you to wait for me, though I do appreciate the consideration. I’m sure that I could have managed with but one servant to assist me in navigating to my rooms,” Lydia said as they walked.
“As could we, but in truth we both have a desire to speak with you briefly in private,” Laura said, Cora nodding in agreement in the torch and lantern light. “If you would be so patient and gracious as to indulge us?”
“What matter did you wish to discuss?” Lydia asked, taking pains not to let her fatigue and frustration creep into her voice, years of practice and application the only reason she succeeded as bone tired as she was. “As I previously mentioned I am of the belief that any theories regarding the attack and investigation would best be shared tomorrow, and with Stiles and your brother present.”
They had reached their rooms, Princesses Laura and Cora having the two connecting rooms on one side of the hall, the suite where Lydia was to reside for the duration of her stay on the other. The lights had already been lit within, and Lydia looked longingly toward the chance to rest and cleanse and and properly collect her thoughts for the first time all day.
“It is Stiles and our brother we wish to discuss,” Cora said.
Lydia froze in her steps and then nodded, following Princess Laura and Princess Cora into their suite, waving her servant attendant of to his bed or other duties, whatever it was to be, and turned to shut the door securely behind her.
She looked at the Princesses standing together, a united front, and a surge of protectiveness regarding Stiles rose within in her. She was already quite well aware that there was something going on, or at least the start of it, when she looked at Stiles and Prince Derek, despite the short duration of time they had so far spent together. Though she was unfamiliar with Prince Derek, it was obvious to all who cared to look that he was not simply concerned about chivalry and a debt repaid. And will she could concede that she might possibly be misinterpreting Prince Derek, though she highly doubted it, Lydia knew every look that Stiles possessed when interested in a man; infatuated, enamored, lustful, beguiled…and she saw hints of those when Stiles looked at Derek, no matter his invalid state, but also something else.
Something shining in the back of his eyes that had never been present in any form to speak of whenever he gazed at a man before. But Lydia had seen a remarkably similar glint in his eyes when he spoke with her. Not quite the same, and the light for her did not shine with the multitude of other facets apparently reserved for Prince Derek, but similar enough to draw a conclusion as to what it meant, all facts compiled and analyzed.
And she now feared that what it meant was that one of her dearest friends in the world was about to have his heart well and truly broken. She had already started to formulate a plan, a way to give a boon to Stiles if Prince Derek felt as she suspected he did, and remained constant in his affections. It was rough and raw yet, but she could feel it bubbling in the back of her brain, the possibility of it, the benefits far exceeding in scope even just happiness for Stiles if she managed it right…
But now she feared that the two Princesses of Hale were about to cut her off before she had even begun, have her warn off Stiles like any inconvenient and low-born suitor trying to court above their station, instead of someone in line for one of the highest and essential posts in the Argent’s lands, someone who had proven himself brave and steady.
She took a breath to steady herself and turned to face the Princesses, expecting to see mouths drawn into grim lines, to launch into a defense, the first of many probably, but Lydia was nothing if not accomplished in persuasion and negotiation.
But when she turned around, dour and stern expressions were not what greeted her. While there was a certain tenseness to them, neither Princess conveyed any sort of judgment, and on Princess Cora’s face there was almost a look of anticipation.
Lydia had been prepared to take the initiative and speak first, ensure that she started off in control, but now she waited, unsure of what agenda the Royal sisters held.
“We would ask if you, with your long acquaintance and familiarity with the Junior Marshal, can offer us any insight into if we are reading the situation correctly. Were the interactions between him and our brother…”Laura began before trailing off, her brow creasing as she finally let her Royal demeanor crack the tiniest bit as she sought out the most encompassing and yet still genteel word to describe the manner in which Stiles and Prince Derek behaved around each other.
“Like they were lovers in a play or mistral’s ballad,” Princess Cora said, not sharing her sister’s methodical approach to the current conversation.
“They did seem rather affectionate, but I found no issue with it,” Lydia said judiciously, wondering if the heir of the Hale Kingdom and her younger sister had seriously kept her from her bed and sweet restorative rest so that they could gossip.
“We are merely concerned,” Princess Laura said, seeing Lydia’s statement for the refusal to fully engage that it was. “While I will admit to you that I do possess a fondness for tales of this nature in book and song and stage…he is our brother, and it has never been in his nature to love or trust easily outside of a very small few. And while I may revel in seeing two grow so close in such a short time when players speak their lines and every action is choreographed. But things do not go that way in real life, not half so well, and… we do not know Junior Marshal Stilinski. We do not know if he is in the habit of gazing so tenderly at every paramour, if…” the proper language of the Crown Princess fled her once again, and again her brasher younger sister rose to the occasion.
“All we know is that we have never seen our brother like this. Save family and his three true friends he is most often what manner would consider closed off. He has no casual acquaintances. It is not that he is rude or cruel, but that it is not his nature to engage with anyone or let them into his heart unless he is to do so all the way. And when we see him tending to your friend as he does, resting beside him, and…Lady Martin, you must understand our shock at him being able to ease Junior Mar- Stiles’ pain, for he truly has never had any affinity for it. That the talent should finally arise in him for this one person…well, while I imagine that romances written in both our Kingdoms have many similarities, our own often contain certain elements similar to that being a sign of true love, to hear one’s lover’s heartbeat a mile away, to scent them through a crowded market place…”
“To take away their pain like no one else can,” Lydia said, following the path Princess Cora had laid out.
“It may just be in stories, but stories frequently have at least a grain of truth in them, don’t they? But this is not a story, this is life. And you know how it must go for Royals; Laura has the privilege as heir that she can pick anyone of appropriate standing for her consort, and I am most fortunate in that the man slated to be my betrothed is someone I knew from childhood on, and we have grown to care most deeply for each other through correspondence as the years passed. Derek has neither of these things, neither the freedom of choice nor a serendipitous alliance leading to an arrangement beneficial to all.” Princess Cora halted for breath, turning to her sister for insight in how to continue.
“We know that this may seem trivial when faced with the rest of the circumstances with which we all must confront in the upcoming days, but that does not make it any less of a worry for us,” Princess Laura said.
“And what exactly do you wish me to do about the situation?” Lydia asked, the Hale Princesses having apparently finished saying their piece.
“Would you be willing to persuade Stiles to…to stop? To no longer encourage Derek in this any further. If you feel we are casting aspersions on Stiles’ character, that is not our intent, despite what some of my elder sister’s wording earlier may have suggested,” Princess Cora said, glancing at her sister. “But if they should stop now, perhaps it will not hurt Derek, not hurt them both as much as it would should it continue on until permanent parting becomes a necessity?”
Lydia looked at the two Hale Princesses, both their faces drawn in worry. “So to clarify, it is not that you think Stiles unworthy of your brother’s affections, or that you think he would toy with them, which, to set your minds at ease I can assure you he would not, but rather that according to conventions you believe there to be no chance of a future between the two?” Lydia asked.
“Yes. Our hope is to help mitigate the inevitable heartache,” Princess Laura said. “So will you aid us in this?”
“No,” Lydia said, her mind racing again, surer than ever before that that boon she wished to give was closer in reach than ever before, if the only objections from a potential obstacle like the Crown Princess were the ones Lydia had expected to face from the beginning. “Few would accuse me of it, but I at least some portion of me is a romantic at heart. And as your trepidation regarding the situation relates to obligations…Princess Laura, I am well aware that you are well schooled in courtly matters and diplomacy, but as you were always intended for duties involving such, perhaps your education did not necessitate a need to cultivate lateral thinking to the extent that mine did.”
“What in the gods’ names are you talking about?” Princess Laura asked, bewilderment taking over Royal breeding for the moment.
“That there are very few things that cannot be altered by word or deed perception-wise for a desired outcome, and this is assuredly not one of them,” Lydia said, not bothering to hide how proud she was of herself. “What I am talking about is that if by the time we have exhausted all avenues of investigation here and Stiles is well enough to depart, should their affections have grown and remained constant in the way we all expect them to, I would draft a marriage contract that would convince your most Royal Mother, and Stiles’ liege lord King Argent as well, that the joining of Prince Derek and Stiles would further cement a lasting peace between our two lands, especially in light of all that has occurred this past day, Stiles’ actions especially. Of course I do not have all the finer points worked out, and I would ideally like to be able to read over Hale marriage laws to ensure that everything is as it should as Stiles is not technically nobility, but having to create a revised draft for a contract of this nature is fairly common and merely an inconvenience and minor blow to my pride-” Lydia was cut off, the wind nearly knocked out of her by Princess Cora having thrown her arms around Lydia, pulling her into a tight embrace.
“Thank you, Lady Martin,” Princess Laura said, gently pulling her younger sister back to allow Lydia to breathe. “Thank you.”
“You are most welcome,” Lydia said sincerely to Princesses Laura and Cora, the shimmer of tears evident in both their eyes. “Now if that is all settled and we are of similar minds, I will take my leave of you for this night and retire to my room. This day has been trying, to say the least.”
When Stiles awoke early the next morning, the dawn light a hazy glow, his wound was throbbing some, but surprisingly not to the extent that he imagined it would, considering how, thanks to Doctor Morrell, he was very aware of the extent of his injuries. He turned his head to bid good morning to Derek, his heart dropping sharply in dismay at the sight of empty space beside him. But after another blink to clear his eyes he could see by the disarray of the sheets and the still fading indentation in the pillow that it was obvious that Derek had indeed spent the night by Stiles’ side as he had promised he would, and also, that although Derek was not present, Stiles was not alone in the room.
Sitting in a chair by the small dining table, feet propped up on a second one, gnawing on a hunk of bread, was the tall blond knight from the day before.
“Sir Isaac?” Stiles called out, relatively certain that he recalled the name correctly. At the sound of his name the knight started to look in Stiles’ direction, before rising to attention between one breath and the next, his blond curls bobbing after the man himself stood still.
“Do you require anything, Junior Marshal Stilinski?” asked Sir Isaac.
“No, I am fine for the moment, I was just curious as to where-” Stiles began to ask, aiming for casual but unable to keep a note of keen eagerness out of his tone, like a youth asking after his first sweetheart.
“The Prince woke up about an hour before you did, and torn between wanting to be free of filth and to also to keep watch over you, he went to collect me to ensure that no assassins lurked behind the curtain while he bathed and put on fresh clothes that fit true,” Sir Isaac interrupted with a grin, intuiting the direction of Stiles’ inquiry quite easily. “It was actually a little bit of a funny and charming sight to behold, though I do imagine I would have thought it was more so of each had he not dragged me from my own peaceful slumber to ease his mind, but, what can I do when my Prince asks for my aid?”
“At least you can take comfort that he trusts you above all others present?” Stiles asked, amused by the knight’s slightly sardonic yet still friendly delivery.
“Well, in truth I would, but I already knew that. The only two who could possibly best me in faithfulness in the eyes of my Prince are on leave being terribly domestic. And even were they here I would have gladly ceded the honor to either of them for another few hours rest,” Sir Isaac said. “No offense to you, Junior Marshal.”
“Oh, I understand, honor is one thing, but sleep and sweet dreams are quite another altogether,” Stiles replied.
“It is so,” Sir Isaac agreed. “Are you sure there is nothing you are in need of? While my Prince was ensuring that I would be ensconced and watchful in your quarters while he was away, we also commandeered a rather bleary eyed page, who now waits outside the door should you require anything that is not currently within the confines of this room.”
Stiles was ready to deny the need for any assistance, but then common sense and the remembrance of the burden of a body returned to him.
“Actually, now that I have had time to consider and take stock, yes I believe there may be some things I am in need of. If you would have the page come in so I can relay my requests directly?”
“Of course,” Sir Isaac said, already opening the door. “Come in then,” he said to the yawning page who hastily straightened up from his slouch against the wall. “Some tasks to do will help wake you up no doubt,” Sir Isaac said gesturing the youth inside.
“What is it that you require my lords?” the page asked.
“I am in desperate need of some bathing, and though I am loathe to ask it, possibly some assistance shortly in some matters of nature…” Stiles trailed off, honestly quite embarrassed to have to ask for aid in order to properly relieve himself.
“I shall fetch a fellow and some servants to bring such things required to wash you presently,” the page said, turning to go but stopping himself and speaking to Stiles once more in a reassuring tone, odd to hear from a page, but not an unwelcome one. “And you are far from the first guest that has needed assistance in manners such as that. And you can at least take comfort in the fact that your temporary infirmity comes about from noble deeds instead of an excess of drink,” he said before departing to begin fulfilling Stiles’ requests.
“Well,” Stiles said, “I knew that King Daniel and his court was renowned for good hospitality, but this, assuaging bruised egos while any with good sense would still be abed exceeds all expectations. I must make a note to visit once again when I am somewhat more mobile.”
“This is a visit that went to no one’s liking, I should think,” Sir Isaac said. “But I must say, you do seem to be surprisingly hearty considering your wound and that you are merely a…” Sir Isaac trailed off, a panicked look in his eyes rising that remained as he apparently sifted through his memories, before relaxing slightly as he obviously stumbled across the one that reassured him that speaking freely in front of Stiles was not a concern.
“You are not at your best in the mornings, are you, Sir Isaac?” Stiles asked after the amusing interplay on the knight’s open face concluded.
“Not particularly, no,” Sir Isaac conceded with a rueful inclination of his head.
“So, would I find a visit to your lands most frightful? As a mere…” Stiles trailed off in an imitation of Sir Isaac.
“I can assure you that our land is a fair one, and that we would show you hospitality that would rival that of Beacon. You already have dear friends among the Royal family after all,” Sir Isaac said with a smirk as the page from earlier reentered the room, followed by servants, one of whom was carrying a basin of steaming and sweetly scented water and clothes.
“Junior Marshal, shall I assist you with the necessities before we begin?” the page asked.
“Yes, I feel like that would be best. I feel I somehow managed to drink an entire river in the course of the night,” Stiles said, as a servant came over to assist him to stand so that he could relieve himself into the chamber pot. He sighed with relief upon completion, and was then eased over to lean against the bedpost to support himself to remain standing as one servant removed the chamber pot, and the other began to carefully, mindful of Stiles’ injury, to strip off Stiles’ nightshirt to prepare him for bathing.
The first touch of cloth, and sensation of warm water sliding down his skin, was simply blissful, making Stiles feel cleaner almost instantly though a single speck of dirt had yet to be truly washed away.
The servants worked their way down his body, removing the old sweat, dirt, and flecks of blood that were missed in the superficial wipe down he received after his surgery. The motions and passage of the now completely soaked cloth was firm and efficient on his neck, shoulders, and chest, gentle and hesitant around his wound, impersonal yet thorough around his genitals and buttocks, strokes once again becoming firmer as they started in on his thighs and calves.
As the servants went about their most welcome task, Stiles started to feel a little shaky from standing, no fresh dose of pain draught or Derek to ease the throbbing in his side, and turned his head to where Sir Isaac stood in the hopes that speaking with the knight further would help distract him from his growing discomfort.
But instead of a ready conversational partner, Stiles instead found Sir Isaac facing determinedly away from him, the set of his shoulders stiff.
“Is something the matter, Sir Isaac?” Stiles asked, confused by the change in demeanor.
“No, nothing is the matter, it is just that you are…in a state,” Sir Isaac said, his answer doing nothing to diminish Stiles’ confusion.
“But as a soldier you have surely seen comrades in arms in states at least similar to this, have you not? If not even more…we shall settle on immodest, yes?”
“But you are not a comrade in arms, rather…there are certain…certain elements and circumstances that make it so that I am unable to currently view you as anything but my Prince’s…”Sir Isaac trailed off once again, the back of his neck reddening.
“As your Prince’s what?” Stiles asked, his heart picking up in tempo. He imagined that the elements and circumstances Sir Isaac referenced were the evidence that Derek had shared a bed, though chastely, with Stiles, which Stiles could now, after his discussion with Derek last night, surmise with confidence that someone of the Hale Kingdom could divine with one sense or another. It must be that, and whatever Derek had said to Sir Isaac when he collected him.
Stiles wanted to know, wanted to know dearly what Isaac knew, if he had picked up on something with his not entirely human senses that Stiles had not. For though Stiles knew it was beyond presumptuous to think that he and Derek could truly have any sort of future, no matter what his traitorous heart envisioned. But he could not squash that tiny foolish sliver of hope, the one that spoke of a future with someone whom he had just met, but had already made such an impression that he could not ken how any other could ever compare.
“My Prince…” Sir Isaac began, obviously hedging.
“What about your Prince?” Derek’s voice inquired, irritation apparent, making Sir Isaac whip his head round comically fast as his Prince entered shortly thereafter.
“My Prince arrives?” Sir Isaac ventured while Stiles tried very hard not to give in to the full body laugh that yearned to overtake him out of concern for his wound, though it was a very near thing, a sharp and unpleasant twinge accentuating the dull throb before he could completely stop himself.
Derek turned to face Stiles at the sound of his half choked off laughter, his face transforming, his furrowed brows and tight mouth loosening to a relaxed and open visage as shifted his gaze to Stiles.
Derek quickly crossed the room to insinuate himself at Stiles’ side, earning himself flustered expressions from the servants attending to Stiles and a sigh of relief from Sir Isaac that he was no longer the object of Derek’s attention. He felt curiously both on display and not, as he stood completely nude in front of Derek. It was not the casual male camaraderie which he joked about to Sir Isaac, nor was it like he felt overexposed and vulnerable. Instead it was as if…as if this was a natural state to be in, awaiting for Derek to come closer with a ghost of a smile rising to his lips.
It was a feeling, one of contentment and quiet anticipation that he had never experienced with any previous partners that he had made acquaintance with in times past.
Stiles had almost completely forgotten that there were others still in the room until Derek spoke directly to them.
“I shall help clothe him and get him back to bed. If you would, go alert the physician that we are in need of more pain draught for the Junior Marshal. And then to the kitchens to bring us sustenance,” Derek directed the servants, who, while still looking slightly unsure, collected up the effects from Stiles’ bath and bowed to Derek before setting out to complete their tasks.
“Another ploy to get your hands on me further, eh?” Stiles not quite joked, for lack of any other response coming to mind. The choking sound from Sir Isaac and light blush rising to Derek’s cheeks both were quite gratifying if nothing else.
“Do I need ploys?” Derek asked, picking up the fresh nightshirt the servants had left behind, then gently placing his hand on Stiles’ arm to help maneuver the garment onto him. The heat of his hand was a glorious and welcome brand on his arm.
“I…I will check to see if their Royal Highnesses, Princesses Laura and Cora, have arisen yet,” Sir Isaac stuttered before dashing out of the room, closing the door behind him to leave Derek and Stiles alone once more.
“We are not subtle,” Stiles mused as Derek finished helping him into the nightshirt before settling him back on the bed.
“No, we are not,” Derek agreed, reaching for Stiles’ hand.
“I do not wish to be of any trouble for you,” Stiles said quietly, allowing the reality of their situation to rise up once again, knowing that Derek would not misinterpret him to mean the caretaking far below a Prince’s station. Derek’s returned presence in the room brought everything back to Stiles a hundred times stronger, both the intense sudden attraction and affection that Stiles had never experienced like this before, and all of the reasons it could and should not be indulged. “You barely know me.”
“You are not any trouble. I would not care if you were,” Derek said, tightening his grip on Stiles’ hand. “And I know enough to know that the latter of my prior statements is one of the greatest truths I have ever had the opportunity to speak.”
“I am of the same mind,” Stiles said, squeezing back before settling into a comfortable silence waiting for the servants to return.
A little indulgence would not be so terrible a thing, would it?
They were not left to themselves for very long before the servants returned with fruit, porridge, and tea. Stiles felt his hands more steady than the night before, so though Derek once again took it upon himself to help Stiles prop himself up and bring him the food, Stiles insisted upon actually eating his porridge and drinking his tea by himself. He felt it rather absurd that he should be so proud that he did not dribble any food upon himself, but proud he was, and most amused when Derek, his attention so focused on Stiles and how he was doing, that Derek somehow managed to spill hot tea upon his pants.
“Are you sure you do not need any aid in ensuring that you ingest a sufficient amount of nourishment?” Stiles asked as he scraped the last scrap of porridge from his bowl with a smile.
“Eat your own food,” Derek said sullenly, his face reminiscent of a particularly thick browed and blushing child as he patted at the damp spot with a napkin in an effort to clean what he could.
“Ah, but I am finished. Are you sure I could not assist you in some way?” Stiles asked. “I am always one to return favors, and I would hate for you to be out of Princely fashion.”
“What do you know of Princely fashions? I could be the very height of it for all you are aware,” Derek volleyed back loftily, accidently spilling more tea on himself on the process.
“Oh, yes, I can see that now. I have been corrected most assuredly,” Stiles said with a grin as Derek dabbed with renewed vigor at the new stain on his pants.
Derek opened his mouth prepared to retort, but before he could utter a word he was interrupted by a knock at the door. Derek rose to open it, revealing Doctor Morrell and a sleepy eyed Braeden, the latter carrying a basket containing fresh bandages and some bottles.
“Doctor Morrell, how does the morning find you?” Stiles inquired. “And if I recall correctly I did not properly thank you last night for all of your efforts on my behalf. So please, do accept my most sincere thanks.
“The morning finds me as good as any morning can when there is much to be done, and while I do appreciate your thanks, I am more pleased and appreciative to see that all my efforts that you offer thanks for were not wasted and that you have made it through the night as hale as could be expected,” Doctor Morrell said.
“Did you have any doubt in your abilities that I would not?” Stiles asked.
“Of course not. But there are those who lack the will to keep going no matter what treatments I administer to them. I am glad to see you are not among them,” Doctor Morrell said, briskly walking to Stiles’ side, Braeden once again at her heels, and pulled back the sheet covering Stiles’ lower body.
“If you would lift up your shirt so that I may examine the wound?” It was ostensibly a question, but the Doctor’s tone marked it as a command.
Stiles obeyed without complaint, though he was not shy about being free with his grimaces and grunts of pain as the good Doctor prodded and inspected her incisions.
“This is healing very well,” she said, a note of surprise in her voice. “Almost too well.”
“What are you talking about?” Stiles asked, completely baffled. He turned to glance at Derek and found him turning away in the very determined fashion that everyone always attempts when they are hoping to escape notice for something they have done, even when they know it will be for naught.
Doctor Morrell did not answer him, instead gesturing for her apprentice to come closer.
“Braeden, does this wound look less than a full day old to you?” she asked as her apprentice peered over her shoulder.
“Doctor Morrell, it looks to be closer to two or three days old judging by the level of swelling and the state of the skin around the stitches,” Braeden said, gesturing to Stiles’ side as she spoke.
“You are without a doubt one of the oddest patients I have ever had the opportunity to attend,” Doctor Morrell said gently prodding his wound once more. “Do you still require pain relief or have you healed beyond that as well?”
“Now good doctor, just because I am lucky enough to be more resilient than either of us had previously imagined, it wounds me further to have you think of me as an oddity. But yes, I am still in need of some medication, thank you. But if possible not too strong, as I need my wits about me today, and I would rather deal with some discomfort so long as I maintain my faculties,” Stiles said.
Doctor Morrell gave him a long steady look before shaking her head, a small sharp smile curving her lip ever so slightly.
“I suppose some find you very charming, don’t they? In any case, I have many other patients to attend to today, who though their initial wounds were not so grievous as yours, do not appear to possess your particular resilience, as you put it.” She helped Stiles tug his nightshirt back down and pulled the sheet back over him.
“Give him a third of the standard dose, Braeden, we shall see how our most and least troublesome patient does with that, shall we?” Doctor Morrell said as she walked to the door, Derek still trying to look every which way but at her. “And don’t dawdle, you are well aware all of the work we have to do today. But if you can catch up with me before I get to the lower level you can set the bones of any of those arrogant and foolish enough to deny they needed my help when they first arrived. Perhaps after a night of agony they are ready to see reason and submit to proper treatment,” she finished as she all but swept out the door.
Braeden immediately sprung into action, grabbing Stiles’ mostly empty tea cup and pouring approximately a third of the contents of one of the bottles in her basket into it.
“Setting broken bones is a carrot for you? That is good to know. Thank you,” Stiles said as she handed the cup back to him even as she used the other to hastily put to rights again the contents of her basket.
“Doctor Morrell is an excellent physician and teacher, but is usually one to delegate only the most menial tasks. A chance to actually work on a patient is not one I am about to pass by. Do alert a servant or page if you are in need of anything else!” Braeden called out as she raced out the door, her skirts and dark hair flowing behind her.
Derek got up to close the door once more, while Stiles drank his draught and waited patiently as he was able until was so to ask his question. Once they were without a doubt free of any company save themselves Stiles pressed.
“So, in regards to my hereto unknown, certainly by me, resilience…?”
“There are stories…that sometimes in addition to the easing or elimination of pain, that amongst pa-that amongst those that are very close, sometimes the cause may be eased as well,” Derek said, sounding a little unsure of himself.
“Stories,” Stiles said raising an eyebrow, wishing for a moment that he possessed some as striking as Derek’s for maximum effect. “Please to not take offense at this, but your tone makes one think that there seem to be certain aspects of your people’s history and nature that are unclear even to you.”
“And I suppose your land is bereft of unconfirmed legends and mythology, unique to yourselves even amongst the acknowledged pantheon of gods?” Derek asked, and Stiles could not help but find his huffiness charming.
“Well of course not. Just we are rather more familiar with them all remaining forever unconfirmed than little bits popping up and becoming real every so often,” Stiles explained. “I do wish to know more though, about you and yours. Not just the ones that benefit me and befuddle physicians. The few things that I had heard before Lydia recruited me for this endeavor had all been discounted by those possessing sense in the Kingdom as rumors given birth to from wartime hysteria. But now I think that sense was not so in line with reality as one usually would assume it to be.”
“What exactly are you angling at, Stiles?” Derek asked, apprehension on his face.
“The superstitious said that you could control beasts. Lydia said that that wasn’t quite right.”
“Stiles-” Derek began, realization dawning.
“Would you show me?” Stiles asked plowing ahead.
“It…it is something that most unfamiliar with would find most fearsome and unsettling,” Derek said, reluctance heavy in his voice. But it was not a real refusal as far as Stiles was concerned.
“So it would be for the best for someone to become acclimated with it over a period of time. To ensure that it becomes a thing of familiarity rather than of fright,” Stiles said, able to see that his reasoning was having an effect on Derek. “I don’t think I have it in me to be truly afraid of you, in the regard that concerns you at this point in any case, just so that you are aware. I won’t pretend that I wouldn’t find it startling at first, as from your description I imagine I would but…I would like to know as much as I may of you in the time we have together. After all, you have already seen the horrors of my guts near hanging out. How truly beastly could you be compared to a sight such as that?”
“There are many different frightful sights the world has yet to show either of us,” Derek said walking closer. “Do you really wish to see? Among ourselves it is nothing, but-”
“Think, from what our time together has told you, would I be one to be scared away? Or to let the matter drop for that matter,” Stiles said, smiling and steeling himself at the same time as he saw that his persuasive efforts were having the desired effect on Derek. He continued on, letting some of his other interests in Derek outside of his dual nature rise up and color his tone. “Should I make you promise I won’t be scared away? And that you may demand some kind of compensation should I break my troth?”
“What kind of compensation do you think would be appropriate in a matter such as this?” Derek asked, his voice dropped to husky, and Stiles knew that he had won and was utterly doomed.
“I would leave that to your discretion as you would be the injured party,” Stiles replied. “Though whatever you did choose, it would be moot, as there is nothing that could make me truly fearful of you.”
“So you say,” Derek said, but Stiles could see his incisors begin to lengthen within Derek’s softly parted mouth, and the outer shell of his ears becoming pointed instead of the usual curve…
And there it stopped and all shifted back to Derek’s normal handsome visage as there was a knock at the door.
“Your Highness? Junior Marshal?” Sir Isaac called out from behind the closed door. “Your sisters and the Lady Martin have roused and wished me to inform you that they will be along momentarily and that everything is…decent. Decent and where it should be and appropriate for Ladies of good breeding to view.”
Derek let out a small laugh, brushing his hand against Stiles’ before going across the room to open the door.
Sir Isaac stood on the other side, surrounded by Princesses Laura and Cora and Lydia, and looked to be thoroughly relieved that he had neither to explain a delay to the ‘Ladies of good breeding,’ or catch his Prince in a clothing-absent clinch. Would that Stiles had the physical means to do more than flirt, he was not entirely confident that that would have been the case as every second he spent in Derek’s company, no matter what was said or done, made the feeling that he was throwing himself onto the most glorious and enticing pit of knives, increase. But as it was, it meant that rather than being wrapped in masculine arms he was now the recipient of a tender greeting from Lydia, which Stiles had frankly been expecting, and he welcomed the comfort of his dear friend as his mind began to race once more. What Stiles had not been expecting were two additional embraces from Princess Laura and Princess Cora, though in comparison to Lydia’s the Princesses’ did not provide the same familiar comfort.
It was a nice gesture he supposed, though he could not quite fathom the reason for it for the time being, and instead just chose to smile in return.
“Now that combined greeting is one to inspire a man to greet the day. Now if only I could actually do anything.”
“If you can talk, as you have just proven yourself quite capable of doing, that is all that we require of you for the day,” Lydia said, sitting down in one of the chairs that remained from the night before. Stiles realized, looking at her now, clean, her hair loose with twin braids the only manipulation of it, eyes bright and wearing one of her favorite green travel dresses, just how wrecked she had been last night. Lydia was an expert at projecting what was needed, and those who were not familiar with her usual presentation would merely see someone who had needed some rest and had received it, rather than Lydia stoking her inner fire to combat those forces that would oppose her.
A thought crossed his mind, that if things with Derek…if there was a chance for it to be more than… not an infatuation, Stiles was much experienced with such things and he knew within his heart that for all the absurdity and suddenness of the situation it was not in any way an intense but passing fancy… but if there was a chance for Stiles to even see Derek once again after this ordeal had reached its conclusion, it would be with Lydia’s aid and facilitation.
He hoped that he could convince her somehow that it would not be detrimental to the political situation between their two lands, for Stiles knew that as much as Lydia did care for him her dedication to her duties would always be paramount. And that was to say nothing of the fact that in the past both Stiles and Lydia had each taken their turns vetting each others suitors…
It mattered to him that Lydia liked Derek. He wanted it so greatly, more than he could have imagined only days ago. That feeling, as well as his want to introduce Scott and Derek so that they could be as brothers to each other as Scott already was to him, and for his father to look upon Derek, first with measured consideration, and then later with paternal fondness, were almost startling to Stiles in their intensity. But even so they felt the furthest imaginable from being out of place or at all unwelcome, for all that the ideas should be impossible.
He knew he wanted more than he could ever hope to get. But wants of that nature did not matter for the moment, though they would rest quietly in the back of his mind. Not when he was confined to bed with his side was sliced open due to the machinations of someone whose agenda, while somewhat obscured for the time being, certainly involved war and ruination between the two lands represented in his sickroom, if not specifically the deaths of the individuals as well.
“So with the sun do we have any news? I cannot imagine a response to any messages sent will be forthcoming until this afternoon at the earliest as the bird flies, but have King Daniel’s men made any progress on the ground searching for our assailants?” Stiles asked as the Princesses situated themselves in the seats they had claimed the night before. Derek seemed unsure of what to do, glancing at both the empty spot beside Stiles on the bed and where he had kneeled and comforted him the night before while the others had remained in the room, before awkwardly taking the chair Isaac had sat in when Stiles awoke, and then tried to covertly edge it closer to the bed. Stiles took note that Princess Laura and Princess Cora seemed to be very purposely not looking at the movement.
Sir Isaac stood at attention, not making the same efforts as his Princesses, and looked torn between mirth and embarrassment.
“His personal attendant informed me that his Majesty should be joining us shortly, after he has conferred with his knights on that very matter,” Princess Laura said. “But having already refreshed ourselves and sated our hunger there seemed no reason to delay this meeting, as if we can pool our resources to theorize about who could, and could not, be behind yesterday’s attack. We have no guarantee that any of the villains directly involved will be found in a timely fashion, and even if one is, the more prepared we are before interrogation the better.”
“Meaning that we shall take turns telling tales of any and all unsavory individuals with the motivation, will, and means to have orchestrated such a thing,” Lydia said smoothing out a visible only to her wrinkle in her skirts. “So who wishes to air the blemishes on our respective lands good reputations first?”
“You seem to have some momentum on the subject already, Lady Martin, so if you wish to go first you will find no objections,” Princess Cora said.
“Thank you, I shall,” Lydia replied before casting her gaze upon Stiles. “If you do not know whom my thoughts first go to I will be most disappointed in you.”
“Well, my opinion on the matter is that she most certainly has the motivation and will, but that means may be something of an issue for her,” Stiles said in return.
“Are you going to let anyone else in on the identity of this person?” Derek asked, his chair closer still than it had been the last time Stiles had looked.
“The Princess Katherine, King Christopher’s sister,” Lydia supplied. “She is very much a child of the late King Gerard.”
“That is the diplomatic way to phrase it,” Stiles said, remembering a tight grip on his arm dragging him along, the nails digging in sharply, indenting his soft flesh, his chubby little legs still not completely familiar with more than toddling, trying desperately to keep up. The experience had not curtailed his desire to investigate things and peek through doorways altogether, but it certainly had done so in anything regarding Princess Katherine. “I found her terrifying as a child.”
Lydia looked over at Stiles and gave a small nod in commiseration, having had her own less than happy childhood encounters with Princess Katherine before continuing.
“Princess Katherine is willful and intelligent, but also incredibly fanatical and bloodthirsty, the last two points an inheritance from her father, according to those who knew them both. She was the bosom companion and caretaker to the Princess Allison, as our young Princess quite looked up to her Aunt, until it was discovered that she was attempting to indoctrinate Princess Allison into the ways of King Gerard, leading to Allison at one point attempting to flee the castle. When she was found she said it was because she did not want to be a Princess and later Queen and have to burn out the eyes of her enemies, she wanted to be a hero and protector, not an ‘eye burner outer’ as were her exact words at the time. She was seven.”
“The details of Princess Katherine’s exchange with King Christopher after that little revelation came to light are unknown to all but those two. Whatever words were spoken, the end result was that Princess Katherine, whom the King had previously declared would go by her own discretion regarding if and who she would wed, was quickly married to the third Prince of a distant trading partner in the name of continued good relations between the two kingdoms,” Lydia finished.
“Which is why that while I certainly agree that war and discord between Hale and Argent is something she would desire to honor her father, in her current position I am doubtful that she possesses the means,” Stiles said. “She is well over a fortnight’s worth of travel away by sea alone before even a foot has chance to step on dry land. We have agents keeping watch her and her household, and according to both those and the official reports, her husband remains as ambivalent to politics as ever. Furthermore, our intelligence says she has not made allies enough there, and those that she did have at home have turned their backs now that she no longer has the ear of the heir and her patronage means nothing. Logistically and practically speaking, there is simply no way she could have known about the specifics of the meeting. You were told less than a fortnight before to give you time to prepare, I the day right before we set out to days upon the road. Even if she had been aware, that she would have been able to find and equip a personal army of toughs in that time stretches plausibility.”
“I do not deny that in those respects the likelihood of her being the perpetrator is diminished somewhat,” Lydia said. “But intelligence can be wrong, by incompetence or design, and to dismiss someone such as her out of hand entirely would be dangerous and foolhardy.”
“Oh, you shall get no argument from me there,” Stiles said. “But as Princess Laura said, both the reasons why and why not should be examined.”
“On that note would you like to take the next one, Princess Laura?” Lydia offered. “Taking turns sharing seems the most equitable manner of conducting affairs such as this.”
“The one who comes to the forefront of my mind is a man called Deucalion. He had been a High Priest, and the spiritual advisor to my mother the Queen, but then he became a little…odd,” Princess Laura said, though her face conveyed ‘raving lunatic’ more so than odd. Stiles idly wondered if other people were as amused by Lydia and Princess Laura’s seemingly slipping into an unconscious competition of who could be more diplomatic and understated in their phrasing.
“You must understand, that rather like the divisiveness between your King Christopher and his sister, the circumstances regarding the ousting of Deucalion and his compatriots are not ones that we like to be well known as it could possibly cause others to view our Kingdom as vulnerable,” she continued. “At some point Deucalion started claiming that he was the Apex of all, the Demon Wolf, and started to attempt to recruit the dissatisfied nobles among the court to become his followers and acolytes.”
“He did not recruit many, but those he did were utterly fanatical in devotion to him,” Princess Cora added a dark and furious look clouding her face. “Two of them even attempted to kidnap me in an attempt to manipulate my mother. If not for Boyd and Erica I might have even been killed.”
“Two of my most loyal knights and dearest friends outside of Sir Isaac here,” Derek supplied to Lydia and Stiles. “A priestess named Julia had been growing fearful of the changes in Deucalion’s demeanor and when she heard him discussing Cora with Lady Kali and Lord Ennis she put aside her trepidation and told the first knights she encountered, Lady Erica and Sir Boyd. They came upon the betrayers as they were attempting to drag Cora to some prearranged location to meet Deucalion, though as Lady Kali and Lord Ennis were both killed in the course of altercation we were unable to find out where. We collected and charged all of the followers who had not yet fled, but Deucalion himself and a few others remained unaccounted for.”
“Though he still concerns me, this does not feel as if it is his handiwork,” Princess Laura said thoughtfully. “While he would welcome vengeance upon our family, he is not one to resist grandstanding. Even were he not there, he would want any survivors to know it was him to further what he sees as his evolving mythos.”
“But we will agree that as with Princess Katherine, he should not be discounted entirely from consideration,” Lydia said. “Even if the methodology does not match his character, even less is known about his current whereabouts and means.”
“Yes, we view him as much too unstable to underestimate what he could possibly see fit to attempt.”
“If we are talking about fundamentally unstable individuals being possible culprits behind this conspiracy-” Stiles began before Lydia cut him off with what he thought was a rather undeserved long suffering sigh.
“It is not the former attaché to the Jacer ambassador either. You will find no argument from me that Daehler was a most loathsome individual with warped designs on our Princess, but she took care of that quite well herself. The wretch has no brain to think of something such as this, no clout once he lost his position, and in addition to his other deficiencies, no working right hand for the rest of his days as a result of trying to touch our Princess without her consent.”
“Yes, yes, that’s all true. Really I just wanted to remind you that I despised him and told you all he was rotten to the core for ages before any of you took me seriously.”
“Duly noted, Stiles,” Lydia said with another sigh, though fonder in tone this time, and Stiles heard a number of small chuckles but when he looked over to the Hale contingent all of them to a one were too stone-faced to be actually serious.
“Moving past Stiles’ past triumphs in character judgment-” Lydia began, before being interrupted by a knock at the door. Sir Isaac rushed over to open it, and was soon ushering in a weary-looking King Daniel.
All rose save Stiles to acknowledge their host King’s presence, and while Sir Isaac resumed his position against the wall and Lydia and the Princesses returned to their seats Derek offered up his own chair to the King, and after once again seeming unsure of where to position himself, his eyes darting to a spot to stand next to Sir Isaac or Stiles, Derek sat on the edge of Stiles’ bed, his back a little stiff but decision made.
“King Daniel, we must thank you once again for all of your hospitality and efforts on our combined behalves,” Lydia said.
“Do not thank me so heartily as hospitality is currently still all that I can provide,” King Daniel said with a grimace.
“Well, I certainly still see your hospitality as something worthy of the most hearty of praise, at least from my unique perspective,” Stiles said, and King Daniel turned to look at him with a smile.
“Ah, Junior Marshal Stilinski, it is good to see that you are much improved. I do not believe you were quite among the waking world for our prior meeting,” he said before turning back to address the group at large. “I am glad that the services of my people have been put to the best possible uses for you all. But still, my men report back with no captures nor solid leads on to the remaining participants of the attack. The best we have is an inn keeper who thinks he remembers in days prior a traveling merchant, now departed of course, mentioning seeing something odd after getting turned around on one of the lesser used traveling paths.”
“It is not nothing, but I was truly hoping I would have better news to convey at this juncture,” King Daniel said with a sigh.
“We are widening our net of course, and have dispatched a messenger to seek out the merchant to see if there is truly any merit to his supposed statements, but I fear that as each day passes the perpetrators will have more opportunity to go to ground.”
“Then we will dig them out like the vermin they are,” Princess Laura said, an undercurrent of savagery in her voice that elicited unconscious muted growls of agreement from her siblings and Knight, though thankfully King Daniel was engaged in an unavoidable yawn and did not seem to truly notice it, even as Stiles felt it reverberate in his bones.
“I apologize,” King Daniel said, his hand over his mouth. “It has been a long night. And you are absolutely right, we shall not stop even if I have to personally question every living soul in the Kingdom.”
“We have been,” Princess Laura began delicately, having collected herself, “discussing with each other possible candidates from our own lands who may have possibly orchestrated these happenings. We all have the utmost faith in your personal integrity, King Daniel, of course…”
“But my betrothed is a mostly unknown entity to you? Do not worry, Princess Laura, it is not an unreasonable question. He and his brother are joint heirs to a small bankrupt Duchy in Beacon. They never had anything but the modest ambition to restore their home and lands to past glory for Aiden to keep while Ethan remains with me. Even if Aiden had aspirations for much more he has not the wit of his brother to plan things to this degree, and I can assure you that Ethan has no guilty knowledge of this,” King Daniel relaxed, a warm and affectionate grin growing on his face. “He talks in his sleep, you see. Most honestly.”
“Again, we meant no respect at all,” Lydia said. “In truth most of what is known of you and your intended’s relationship is how much of a love match it is. I am glad to hear it is so.”
“I would not have taken you for a romantic, Ambassador Martin,” King Daniel said as he rose to leave, all again save Stiles rising with him.
“Oh,” Lydia said, “Perhaps not so much as others, but in some cases, I must confess that I am quite a devoted one.”
“Well, I can hardly imagine how anyone would be able to bear a good portion of the songs and plays of the day without being so,” King Daniel said as he reached the door, his attendant waiting on the other side. “Word will be sent as soon as we receive a response to the messages sent last night. Good day to you all,” he said walking out, Sir Isaac closing the door behind him.
“So shall we continue with our own thoughts on possible conspirators?” Stiles asked as everyone retook their seats. Even though the chair Derek had ceded earlier to King Daniel was now unoccupied, he instead sat once again on Stiles’ bed, still closer to the edge than center, but nearer to Stiles than the first time. Stiles swore he could feel his warmth traveling through the sheets.
“Now, I know well that you will scoff at this, Lydia, but if nothing else I do believe our former tutor Harris has enough sheer malicious intent festering within his most unpleasant and ill tempered person to at least be given a moment or two of serious consideration…”
The first of the messages began to arrive that afternoon, a great flurry of excitement in the aviary while they were at last reaching the end of possible names to put forth as possible perpetrators. And well they did, as all growing somewhat weary of the exercise, though reluctant to stop for fear of missing someone. Derek suspected that it was such fatigue and boredom related to dredging of the bottom of the barrel for possible culprits that prompted Stiles to make an impassioned speech nominating the decayed and headless corpse of the late King Gerard, though when met with a steely glare from Lady Martin he was quick to blame it on the pain draught he had taken with their afternoon meal, though Derek knew it to be his smallest dosage taken yet.
“Much as we had expected,” Laura said as she paced in the grounds outside of the aviary, the short missive in her hands. “Mother says, ‘Stay in Beacon, investigate, once more details are received, further directions will be sent.”
“Why were we so anxious for this message again?” Cora asked, toying with a tail feather she had snatched from the air even as it fell from its original owner. “All she tells us is what we were already doing.”
“But now it is an official edict from our sovereign,” Laura said with a sigh. “Yes we knew that we would have little more than this until the rider makes it home, but this does if nothing else make it so that our investigation is official business. True, King Daniel has been most accommodating, but though it seems unlikely, should that situation change we would have stronger grounds on which to contest.”
“Still, even with more details of the attack, do you think she would truly have any directives past this?” Derek asked, idly glancing up at the castle and trying to place what window belonged to the room holding a sleeping Stiles, and an awake Lady Martin, who having grown tired of Isaac ‘lurking around’ as she put it, sent him on his way to rest and attend to other duties, and declared that Stiles was not currently in need of a guard, but that she would remain in case Stiles awoke and needed someone to help him, or at least to summon a page or servant to do so. “She could send more soldiers, but even the best trackers would have little luck with a trail over a week cold, to say nothing of the peppermint camouflage Isaac told me about. Even had the best nose in the Kingdom had been with us at the time, that alone would have been a major hindrance. Maybe not completely insurmountable then, but now…”
“Well, perhaps with specific details she can come to conclusions of her own in regards to the identity of the conspirator, if it is indeed someone from Hale,” Laura said.
“Laura, your need to be the most dutiful child is making you seem rather foolishly optimistic,” Derek said scuffing his boot in the dirt. He had nothing but the utmost respect and reverence for his mother as their Queen, and great love for her in other respects, but he was also quite certain that unless King Daniel’s men found one of the brigands, and that brigand indeed knew who had engaged their services…aside from that or some other remarkable piece of new information, there was little chance at the mystery being solved by theorizing.
“Oh, I am the one who has been acting foolishly?” Laura asked, heir Princess falling away completely for a moment to reveal an older sister eager to strike back.
“Do you have a problem with it?” Derek asked boldly, the idea of feigning ignorance only occurring after he had already spoken.
“Not a problem, no,” Laura said, the edge fading from her voice, but remaining sister rather than Princess.
“It’s actually rather interesting to see,” Cora said, going up on her toes to place her feather behind Derek’s ear. “We have grown fond as well, though not to the extent you have. That does not make you act anything less than a blushing squire paying court for the first time though.”
“That was a rather apt description Cora,” said Laura.
“Thank you Laura, I thought so as well,” Cora replied with a slight curtsey.
“Laura, when you say you have no problem…” Derek began deferentially, as though he knew he really could not count on anything…their mother loved them all of course, but she would take Laura’s council in many matters, and certainly ones in which Laura was able to provide eye witness testimony, he hoped that he could somehow persuade Laura to be on his side in this matter. Though in truth, he was unsure what that would actually mean for the long term, but it was enough for now that for now she did not tell him nay.
“I mean I have no problem,” Laura said, her smile a bit too enigmatic for Derek’s liking. “We could discuss the problem that I do not have more right now, or you could go ease your mind and relieve Lady Martin, as her own message should be arriving shortly.”
Laura knew something, or was planning something, that much was obvious. Also obvious was that she had no intention of sharing her thoughts past what she already had.
And though that made Derek slightly wary, for his own peace he put it aside, instead choosing to focus on the more currently applicable information, that for now he would not find her an obstacle between himself and Stiles.
“I am sure the Lady Martin would relish an opportunity to see more of the castle now that the situation is not so pressing and dire,” Derek said, reluctant to be completely forthright with his sisters even with Laura’s unspoken promise to leave him to his own devices out of brotherly principal.
“King Daniel’s gardens are said to be creations of great beauty,” Cora said, her eyes creasing though her mouth remained neutral. Courtly training could only teach one to school their natural expressions so much. “Mayhaps after Laura and myself have shown Lady Martin to the aviary to see if a reply from King Christopher has yet arrived the three of us could take a turn around them.”
“If that pleases you,” Derek said, already turning to return to Stiles, Laura and Cora at his heels.
“I think it does,” Cora mused. “If you like I could keep a record of spots of note for you to keep in mind should Stiles be anxious for some fresh air himself in the upcoming days.
“I will suggest it to him should he seem inclined and able,” Derek said, letting his nostrils flare to locate Stiles’ scent, and correcting his course accordingly. He hoped to put some additional distance between himself and his sisters on the stairs as they were theoretically somewhat hampered by their dress, but though his intentional lack of proper manners might have proven successful in eluding an average human woman, they were decidedly less so with his sisters.
“If he grows weary you could carry him again,” Cora continued, blithely ignoring the signals of wishing the conversation to cease that Derek knew he was emanating in abundance. Laura was thankfully remaining silent, but Derek could only imagine the expression on her face as she continued to allow Cora free reign in not quite mocking Derek. “Elaine, the maid provided for me by King Daniel’s majordomo this morning, as you understand I simply had to give my poor Anna a reprieve to rest before returning to her duties after yesterday, told me all about your dashing arrival with Stiles. Apparently it made a singularly striking impression on all who where privy to witness it. She said that it has supplemented nearly all other long standing topics of gossip in the castle. You should know that that is no small feat.”
“Why, look, dear little sister, we have arrived,” Derek said gruffly as they reached the door to Stiles’ room. “Pray, speak no more on the matter currently, as you would not want to potentially embarrass Stiles.”
“Of course, I will cease. For now,” Cora said with a grin.
“Yes, such repartee is really only appropriate, such as it is, once all involved are family,” said Laura.
Derek had risen his hand to knock at the door, but something seemed ever so slightly off about Laura’s statement, though he was still trying to place what it was when Laura took it upon herself to knock, and Lady Martin’s voice called out from within that she would be there presently, the door opening scant seconds after she spoke.
“I know it has been a short time since we parted,” Laura said as Lady Martin gestured for them all to enter, “But we thought it suited our ongoing efforts of cooperation to share what small new developments have occurred.”
Derek hung back and let his sisters plunge forward with the conversation, fighting his impulse to go directly to Stiles’ side as he was truly reluctant to give his sisters any more opportunity to mock him in that veiled sisterly way of theirs about Stiles, in front of the man himself.
That of course did not stop Derek’s eyes from seeking him out immediately at his now familiar spot, propped up in a partially sitting, partially reclining position on the bed, nor from feeling pleased to see Stiles smile widely at his arrival.
“The messenger bird came back with directives to do as you have been doing?” Lady Martin ventured.
“Just so. And you expect yours to be similar in nature no doubt,” Laura said, Lady Martin giving a weary nod in response. “In truth, though it chafes to be so inactive I fear that is our lot until something new, whether it be from King Daniel’s men or some unexpected information from one of our respective homelands, is placed before us that the extent of what we can accomplish past this morning’s discussion is severely limited. So with that in mind, Cora and I were thinking to investigate the gardens and if it please you, would find your presence most welcome.”
“On the way there we can show you the aviary for when your sure-to-be-similar message arrives,” Cora added. “Oh, we could even make a wager and compare if the phrasing is identical between the two!”
“A rather odd thing to wager on, but I’ll take it,” Lady Martin said with a smile. “And yes, an excursion into the gardens sounds like a wonderful thing to help clear our heads.” She turned to face Stiles. “If you wish we could inquire if King Daniel has a palanquin that we could borrow, should you wish to come.”
“I think not quite yet, I’ve been drifting in and out of sleep too often to properly appreciate the much-vaunted gardens today. And besides, if I go with you Ladies it will be far more awkward when you wish to talk about me, which I know you most assuredly will,” Stile replied.
“That is true,” Lady Martin said, “I can just see you, interrupting and trying to speak up for yourself when I would do so very much a better job of it.” Her tone seemed almost unnervingly serious to Derek, but Stiles seemed to take it quite in stride.
“See? You’d have a much more peaceful time. And truthfully, the idea of a palanquin carried by servants in general does not appeal to me in any case, as it would make me feel like I was meant to be part of some very paltry procession. If I am to be carried about I would prefer that it be less formal and by one close and trusted acquaintance,” Stiles said, his eye giving a momentary twitch as if a wink had been ready to punctuate that statement but he had changed his mind and tried to wrest the statement back from being almost painfully blatant to simply obvious.
“So it would embarrass Stiles to hear speak of it, would it?” Cora asked, whispering behind her hand at a volume only Derek and Laura could hear.
“To hear you speak of it. He is one of the parties involved after all,” Derek whispered back.
“Are you sure he is the one who is truly concerned with that distinction?”
“Well if we are to best appreciate the horticultural endeavors of King Daniel’s people we should depart now to ensure that the light remains throughout,” Laura said, though not before sending an exasperated look Derek and Cora’s way. “Lady Martin?”
“Yes, that sounds most agreeable,” Lady Martin replied to Laura, before turning once more to Stiles. “I am sure that Prince Derek would be most amenable to keeping you company while we are off among the roses. Do you wish me to get to anything to bring with me on my return?”
“Ah Lydia, if I were a lad of six or seven again the thought of you bringing me flowers would fill me with the pure ecstasy that is only achievable by children and those partaking of certain medicines. But as our lives have moved past that point, if you could find some playing cards to help me pass the time? Though you are set and ready to gamble on communiqués, I feel inclined to take the more traditional route for the time being.”
“If I have to commandeer them from King Daniel himself I shall bring you some cards,” Lady Martin said with a smile. “Until then, Stiles.”
“Until then Lydia, Princesses.”
Cora opened her mouth to speak, but Laura was the one to do so first.
“We hope that continued rest and recuperation this afternoon serves you well, Stiles,” Laura said, thankfully ushering Cora out, while Derek shot a grateful look that he knew Laura caught in her peripheral vision. While Cora usually at least tried, with a good deal of success actually, to be a proper Princess, she was at times caught up in the momentum of things and had to be reeled in. And it was plain to those familiar with manners and ways to see that the urge to mock Derek was currently running strong through her.
Considering all that had happened only yesterday, Derek knew it was better that than other things that could potentially be the focus of her attention, but that did not mean he had to appreciate it, especially in front of Stiles. Not that Stiles had actually been aware of it, but…still.
“Why do I have an inkling of a notion that you have recently been the recipient of some sisterly teasing?” Stiles asked once he and Derek were alone in the room.
“How-?” Derek asked, confused, as he had been rather certain of Stiles being unaware, as he and Cora had definitely spoke much too softly for human ears to discern.
“Just because I could not hear what the two of you were saying does not mean that it was not plain to see that you were both having some kind of conversation. And though your skin is not the delicate, white-as-a-lily tone as mine,” Stiles said, his grin becoming more flirtatious, “you do still manage to blush quite prettily.”
“I shall come closer for your inspection then,” Derek said, striding over to Stiles with a boldness that made his own heart race. When he reached the bed he did not perch upon it or carefully lay a respectful distance away from Stiles as he had before only tentatively reaching out with his hand, instead gracefully half crawling across it so that he all but loomed over Stiles, supporting himself on one arm while he braced the other on the headboard so that Stiles was semi bracketed within them, their faces mere inches apart. “So do I blush prettily? Do you stand by that assessment even now?”
“Well no matter what your coloring I do believe that my accuracy in pronouncing you ‘pretty’ remains right on the mark,” Stiles said, so close that Derek could feel the air from his speech puff across his own lips.
“Stiles…” Derek breathed out, leaning forward, slowly, so slowly…
“Though I don’t recall you previously having any avian attributes,” Stiles said, halting Derek’s progress.
Derek rose up in confusion. “What?”
Stiles smiled, his eyes full of mirth, and reached up behind Derek’s ear, his hand coming back into view holding Cora’s feather.
“I will admit that, based on what I know of your abilities, and your warnings regarding the frightfulness of your visage, I was picturing your other side to be a bit more fierce and a bit less fowl with all that you talked it up to be,” Stiles said, tracing the feather very delicately, and very deliberately across Derek’s cheek and brow.
“Stiles, would you rather taunt me with a feather or-”
Stiles cut Derek off by sliding his raised hand holding the feather into Derek’s hair and entwining his fingers within it, pulling Derek down into a kiss.
Stile’s lips were slightly chapped, but still soft and so warm, moving tentatively, just a little, just enough to hint at what future kisses could be. His scent, more enticing than ever before, flooded Derek’s nostrils, his mouth still tasted vaguely of mint, and everything was Stiles, Stiles, Stiles…
At length Stiles turned his head to the side in order to breathe, his gasp for air sharp and sweet to Derek’s ears, and with one last peck Derek pulled back as well, switching his position from above Stiles to beside him.
“That is what I would rather do than taunt you with a feather,” Stiles said, turning back to face Derek, his face flush in a way that showed off his beauty marks most favorably. “In actuality there is a great deal more I would be interested in doing, but I was not being untruthful when I made my excuses to Lydia and your sisters. My body is truly rather resistant to much activity of any sort save reclining here, or perhaps if I am feeling particularly adventurous, an attempt at walking across the room the fetch water for myself.”
“Then,” Derek said, sitting up and swinging his feet off the bed to stand, walking around to Stiles’ side of the bed. He bowed and held out his hand. “I would be most honored if you would allow me to be your escort over to the refreshments.”
“Why, Prince Derek, your manners and regal bearing do indeed do your Queen and country proud,” Stiles said, accepting Derek’s hand, though of course it took a little more assistance than that to help him rise. And now they stood toe to toe and face to face, no visitors presently expected, no true task at hand.
Derek had already paid much attention to Stiles’ eyes since their first meeting, but now as they stood as equals and at their leisure for the first time in their short acquaintance, Derek still couldn’t imagine any others in all of creation that could compare to the amber-tinted irises staring with equal intent right into his own.
“Shall we?” Derek said, reluctant to look away and knowing it must be done at some point.
“I think so. Though,” Stiles said as he gripped tightly onto Derek’s shoulder and upper arm, “I should warn you that for the time being you are less ‘gracious escort’ and more ‘extremely handsome and well muscled movable support.”
“That does not bother me in the slightest,” Derek said taking a careful step forward, Stiles doing the same. “But handsome? You no longer think me pretty?”
“Royalty and your egos… sometimes you are pretty and others you are handsome. It all depends on air currents and such.”
“That makes sense, I suppose,” Derek said as they slowly came up to the table with the water pitcher and cups. “I hope that one day in the future you will take it upon yourself to help dispel my ignorance and tutor me in such matters?”
“You do truly wish there to be a future?” Stiles asked, his grip tightening though he had not stumbled.
Derek looked at Stiles, his hair disheveled, eyes bright and mouth red, in nothing but bandages and a nightshirt, his bare feet making him look strong and vulnerable all at once.
“You are brave and intelligent, with wit the like I have never quite encountered before. You are loyal and dear to Lady Martin, what I hope to be the first of your friends I will have the privilege to meet, and were you not wounded I would have the two of us remaining on that bed until my sisters broke down the door. All of that and more, a feeling that emanates from the very core of my being that begs to keep you close now and forever.” Derek had never been so forthright in matters of the heart before Stiles, had never had any consequential enough to be forthright about. He knew his face must have been coloring at least some but he did not care.
“I do wish there to be a future. I am not entirely sure how to make it so, but I do wish it.”
Stiles leaned forward, burying his face in the crook of Derek’s neck, and though Derek knew that for Stiles the significance of the position was not quite the same as it was for Derek, but that did not make it feel anything less than so incredibly, terribly right to Derek, and he longed to bury his face in the same spot on Stiles and simply inhale.
“That is all very good to hear,” Stiles said, his lips a caress on Derek’s skin as he spoke. “Because I am of a remarkably similar mind on all counts.”
Stiles lifted his head back up, a hopeful smile on his face. “And though I am also with you in that I am not entirely certain how to make it so, I do believe I know someone who can figure it out. Does that suit you still?”
“It suits me like little else ever has,” Derek said, ducking his head down to mimic Stiles’ earlier position, breathing in deeply. “It suits me more than well.”
“Excellent,” Stiles said, dropping his own head to nestle it against Derek’s briefly. “And…though I am loathe to ruin this moment, I’m afraid I actually am quite in need of a drink…”
Derek laughed against Stiles’ throat, basking in the shiver it elicited, and lifted up his head so that his Stiles could quench his thirst.
The next two days passed in a rather similar fashion, though the war council meetings, such as they were, were much abbreviated in comparison to the first one as all still waited as patiently as they could considering the circumstances, for any in-depth or informative missives to come by rider. King Daniel’s men still scoured the countryside, but had found nothing yet, a source of great confusion and irritation to their host monarch.
But though none of their anxiousness to find the person responsible for the attack diminished, Derek could not help but take pleasure in time spent with Stiles, moments that were truly real and his for forever, not relegated to an optimistic future, that for all that he wished and hoped, Derek feared to count on lest it crumble to pieces around him.
He still spent every night besides Stiles in bed, though he did concede that Stiles was in no need of constant guarding, much to Isaac’s, and indeed Stiles’ relief, as he was eager for the return of at least some degree of privacy and independence.
Independence returned in some respects, though Derek remained Stiles’ ‘escort’ as each day he walked surer and farther, all around the room, many passes up and down the hallway, even down one of the stairwells, though Derek had carried him back up as Stiles’ limbs were shaking once they had reached the bottom. Stiles convinced Derek that for every step he took he should get a kiss as a reward, and far be it for Derek to even consider depriving Stiles of any additional motivation that could encourage him in his rehabilitation efforts. Doctor Morrell was pleased with Stiles’ progress overall, though still unhappily perplexed that the rate at which he recovered did not seem to be matching up with her expectations, but unable to truly find fault as he was exceeding them in increasingly great measure.
Even as Stiles had less need for aid in maneuvering within the room, and had even once shooed everyone out so that he could write some letters to his father and his friend Scott, Derek, along with Lady Martin and to a lesser degree his sisters and Isaac, were all still frequent presences in the room. Though Derek would be quick to admit that he liked their time alone together best.
They told each other stories about their childhoods and friends back home, Derek wondering even as he laughed at how openly and blithely Stiles could tell tales with himself as the butt of the joke. Like a when a gift from a foreign nation was freed because a five year old Stiles thought they looked sad in their gilded cage, resulting in a dozen domesticated silky furred stoats all let loose to wreck havoc throughout the castle. The last of them was only found when it nipped at the Minister of Commerce’s ankle during an audience with the King whilst Stiles tried to then stuff the animal down his own shirt to hide its presence. The King had actually cracked a quickly-hidden smile at the animal’s antics, though Queen Victoria had been decidedly less amused upon finding that one or more of them had tried to make a nest out of her second favorite riding cloak, the reminders of their one time presence rendering the garment far beyond repair.
Derek felt for the first time his childhood remarkably dull when compared to a young Stiles’ escapades. So instead Derek focused many of his stories on his friends, as they were all lively indeed, and Stiles grinned with delight at Derek’s retelling of how Erica first set out to woo Boyd with an apple, and how all there to witness it save Boyd saw it for what it was immediately, as in actuality he had no need to be further convinced of Erica’s charms and simply saw all she did as acts of great beauty, and the joke of it continued to their wedding feast being entirely apple themed.
Derek also found that Stiles was a remarkably good card player, but that Lady Martin was even better, and vowed to never again play her for anything more costly than the pieces of fruit that they had all eventually agreed to use as their coinage in wagers after it looked as if Cora was set to lose the entire treasury through promissory notes.
Derek was sitting out of the current game being played, as it required no more than four players and had never been much to his taste in any case. Instead he lounged on what he had come to think of as Stiles’ side of the bed, closer to the window, while Stiles was on the other side closer to the room center so that the game could form around him.
Derek gazed out the window, taking in the landscape and the occasional bird and luxuriating in the concentrated scent of Stiles on the pillow while the others played, Stiles having paired up with Lady Martin to thoroughly trounce his sisters, much to both of their consternation, though Cora was quite a bit more vocal about it, drawing Derek’s attention back over to the game.
“You must have some trick,” she said looking sourly at her cards.
“No tricks. If one plays with crude old men in positions of power long enough in order to garner their respect, one simply must become good out of necessity,” Lady Martin said coolly, swapping out one of her cards.
“And then she taught me,” Stiles volunteered setting down a trio of cards before Cora even had the opportunity to turn her gaze to him. “And I believe that’s ninety points to Lydia and myself…”
Derek chuckled at his younger sister’s not very Princess-like groan of disappointment, and at Laura’s obviously disappointed as well but much more restrained slight grimace. He turned back to the window, the continuing game becoming like the babbling of a brook, and letting his mind drift off to nowhere and his hand over to rest against Stiles’ thigh.
After a time he heard what sounded like a bit of a commotion in the courtyard, but paid it no mind as it was in a likelihood nothing of relevance to him. Another of King Daniel’s scouts returned to give no news that there was none, a merchant or perhaps a troupe of players arrived to provide some entertainment. The clamor subsided quickly enough, and Derek diverted himself away from the window long enough to partially rise and lean over steal a blackberry from Stiles’ pile of winnings.
But a few minutes later there was a knock at the door, opened to reveal what they had all come to recognize as one of the older and most competent pages.
“Please pardon my intrusion, your Highnesses, Madame Ambassador, Junior Marshal. The King of course is not one inclined to interrupt your leisure, but he bade me request that either Prince Derek, Princess Laura or Princess Cora accompany myself to the Receiving Hall to confirm the identity of a visitor.”
“You only require one of us?” Laura asked, looking reluctantly at her cards, and then at Derek. He rose with an exaggerated sigh for her benefit.
“I will go. You enjoy your game. Maybe by the time I have returned you may have earned a point at long last,” he said with a grin, stealing a strawberry from Stiles this time as he left to follow the page.
“If you would follow me, Prince Derek,” the page said as they started down the stairwell.
“So who could it be that I am needed to identify?” Derek asked. “I cannot imagine it would be a messenger as I would hardly be able to identify any of them past being a countryman and would rely on their papers the same as anyone else here. And besides, the expected messenger should not arrive for at least two to three days more at the earliest.”
“I’m afraid I was not privy to the proclaimed identity of the individual in question, Prince Derek. All I know is that my King requested that I fetch either yourself or one of your sisters.”
“Well, I’ll find out soon enough, I suppose,” Derek said as they neared the Hall in which some acquaintance of Derek’s apparently waited. He walked through the doors and there was King Daniel and beside him dressed in dusty riding clothes…
“Derek, my favorite nephew, it is so good to see you well after all that has happened!” Peter said striding over to pull Derek into a dusty hug.
“Please pardon the state of my person, as I have just come in from traveling,” he continued.
“This is indeed your uncle then, Prince Derek?” King Daniel asked, looking between the two of them.
“Yes, but…Uncle Peter, how are you even here now? Even the fastest messenger riding without rest would not have reached home yet, let alone give you time to make it here,” Derek asked, utterly thrown.
“Ah, King Daniel, if you are satisfied that I am indeed not some trickster or delusional soul, would you be terribly offended if my dear Derek and I could have some familial privacy?” Peter asked, his ingratiating tone very familiar to Derek’s ears. Peter was always very quick to charm.
“No offense taken. In any case, I have other matters that need attending to now that everything has been straightened out here, so I shall leave you two to converse in private,” King Daniel said. “I shall speak to you and your sisters of any new developments, such as they are, later this evening, Prince Derek. I am glad that more of your family could join you here,” he added before departing.”
“Uncle Peter-” Derek began.
“Back to your earlier question regarding the seeming impossibility of my presence, dear nephew,” Peter said smoothly, cutting Derek off, “that indeed would have been the case that I could not have made it here in such a timely fashion were I at home, but luckily, luckily, I was not. But first, before I regale you with the quite mundane tale, take me to your dear sisters. There is little point in me telling my story twice, and it is unfair that my nephew should get his avuncular hug and my favorite nieces left bereft.”
“Yes, of course, Uncle. Just follow me, I am sure they will be much heartened to see you,” Derek said. It had always been very difficult for him to say no to any of Peter’s requests, and it truly was good to have more family around.
Derek led Peter down the halls and up the stairs to where his sisters were most likely still performing quite poorly at cards against Stiles and Lady Martin.
Derek was oddly unsure of his feelings on introducing Stiles to Peter, not just who Stiles is but who he is to Derek. Peter had always been there for Derek to speak to, but his advice and intensity at times sometimes threw Derek off kilter, his equilibrium only returning later. If Peter didn’t approve, Derek knew that he would try to talk him out of everything.
Derek knew that he loved Stiles, truly and completely though he had not yet given that sentiment voice, but while Peter could never convince him that that was not real…Derek knew there were real concerns about him and Stiles being together, despite Stiles’ unflappable faith that Lady Martin would somehow figure out a solution if they only asked her. He did not want to have a conversation with Peter about a future with Stiles and wake up alone in his own bed weeks later, remorse and regret choking his very soul.
Derek shook his head as they reached the door. That was a worst-case scenario. There was no need to tell Peter right that minute, and Peter might well approve of every aspect.
It was just that though Derek loved his Uncle, it often seemed that when he was involved things never seemed to go how Derek thought they would.
“I have returned,” Derek called out as he opened the door, not bothering to knock. “And Laura, Cora, I have with me a most happy surprise for you two.”
Laura and Cora turned to look at him, and yes, the pile of fruit closer to Stiles and Lady Martin had indeed grown in size in the short time since his departure, and Derek stepped into the room and to the side so that Peter could enter.
“Uncle Peter!” Cora exclaimed as she was all but jumped up from her seat and ran over to give him a hug, Laura rising to do the same, though Derek could tell that her reaction was similar to what his had been, happiness warring with confusion.
“Uncle Peter, it is so very good to see you,” Laura said after Peter had finished embracing Cora, then receiving her own in turn. “But why and how is it that you are now here?”
“Just one moment first please, it appears that introductions must first be made,” Peter said jovially looking over at Stiles and Lady Martin who were exchanging bemused glances of their own.
“Of course. These are our counterparts if you will, that King Christopher sent for the treaty signing. This is Madame Ambassador Martin,” Laura said gesturing to Lady Martin as she rose, “And our dear fellow recuperating on the bed is Junior Marshal Stilinski. This is our uncle, Prince Peter of Hale.”
“Charmed to meet you both. Do you only answer to Madame Ambassador?” Peter asked with a toothy grin, reaching out for Lady Martin’s hand to kiss the back of it, his favored greeting for all attractive women that were not relations. Lady Martin let him take her hand, but Derek noticed that her face had taken on a tranquil expression that after a few days in her presence he knew to be unnatural and schooled, and when she spoke her voice was as cool and impersonal as when she first stepped foot inside the treaty tent.
“You may of course call me Lady Martin. But if now is indeed the time for having questions answered, I am interested as well in the ones that Princess Laura asked you prior.”
“Of course, of course, I was just about to. I just did not want you to think me rude by ignoring your presence,” Peter said with another grin. “But yes, how I managed to get here so quickly when a messenger could in no way have reached the Hale Kingdom in time. Well, as I told Derek before he escorted me up here, not wanting to be separated from my family any longer, I was not at our home to receive the messenger, and it turns out I had no need to,” Peter said, sitting in the chair closest to Lady Martin.
“My dear kin, you do recall that I had left on one of my solo meditative and hunting trips for the far reaches of our land shortly before you and your retinue departed for the treaty signing? Which, incidentally, is why the good King Daniel requested you confirm that I was indeed myself, as I was not in possession of any of my marks of office or identification that I would carry for an official visit. It simply wouldn’t make any sense at all to take all that with me while I was out hunting, would it?” he asked with a chuckle. “I was returning home to the capital, with a fairly respectable amount of trophies to my name if I do say myself, and about a day and a half’s, perhaps closer to two days, brisk ride away, who should be coming up the trail behind me but a messenger from Beacon! I persuaded him to tell me of what news was of such import to have him set out at such a breakneck pace, and while of course he could not break open the seal so that I could learn all of the details, he did give me an accounting of what had happened as best he could. So when I heard that my very own beloved nieces and nephew had been attacked at what was meant to be a ceremony of peace, why, I abandoned my kill right there and set out for Beacon myself at top speed, gravely concerned for the safety of you three! I rode all day and much of the night, and had to exchange horses twice lest the animal die from exhaustion with me mounted upon it. So I do understand your confusion, otherwise there is no way in which I could be sitting before you now, had I not had the fortune to run into the messenger on that road,” Peter finished with a flourish.
“That is most fortuitous indeed,” Lady Martin said in her cool and even tone. “Though perhaps we should alert King Daniel to the actions of his messengers. Though of course no harm was done through confiding in you, Prince Peter, I am not altogether sure that King Daniel would approve of those in his service being so free with information such as this.”
“Oh, but I hate to get the good fellow in trouble for nothing, Lady Martin,” Peter replied. “Why, he hardly told me anything at all, just that there had been an attack on a party comprised of countrymen from both Hale and Argent, truly nothing more. It is only with my prior knowledge of why your two groups had converged that I knew how potentially serious the situation could be.
I assure you that I was supplied with next to no details on any of the specifics, and I had no qualms at all leaving that to be examined by my Queenly sister, my only concern coming here post haste to ensure the well being of my family. Why, I didn’t even manage to get out of the courier if the purpose of your mission had been met, both of our desires for speed preventing any more in depth conversation. Did the signing of the treaty ever actually occur?”
“Yes,” Laura said. “After the attack it was determined that as the intent had obviously been to disrupt the process, so going forward with the peace signing was even more imperative than before.”
“A wise and thoughtful course of action indeed,” Peter said thoughtfully, before grinning once more.
“Ah but my throat is as dry as can be after my ride and my monopolization of the conversation. I can see you have some water and wine, but perhaps something a little stronger to celebrate family and new friends?” he asked.
“I will go flag down a servant to attend to us,” Derek volunteered, already half out the door. Though it took a concentrated effort for Derek or his kin and countrymen to feel any effects of alcohol, some developed a fondness for it based on its other attributes, Peter among them.
On his walks with Stiles they had discovered a spot or two where idle servants would take time to rest and talk of the various intrigues, both serious and frivolous, going on in the castle. He was hopeful that he could find one to engage there rather than going down to the kitchens himself.
“Excellent, excellent. In the meantime, perhaps the lovely ladies, and strapping young gentleman, shall speak for a turn while I listen most attentively…” Peter’s voice faded as Derek walked down the hall, and he made no effort to listen in, instead keeping his ears pricked for young heartbeats and gossip, finding a pair of young maids in short order, whose apprehension at being caught slacking quickly faded as they saw that Derek had no concern about that so long as the current task he set before them was accomplished swiftly. As the maids scurried off to obey, Derek turned back toward Stiles’ room, though his pace was not as brisk as when he departed.
It truly was heartening to have Peter there with them, and his story made enough sense as far as Derek could tell, just like Uncle Peter really to have such luck…
But Stiles had not said a word, serious or in jest, and Derek knew that that was simply not his nature. He spoke with ease with Kings, and that he did not even attempt to make light banter with someone as gregarious as Peter seemed odd.
Perhaps he was tired. Or perhaps Derek’s mind was so anxious over Peter’s impression of Stiles that he was seeing problems when none were there.
He arrived back at the room, and despite his earlier promises to listen while others spoke, Peter was laughing as he told of a boldly behaving raccoon he had come across on his hunting trip prior to his detour to Beacon, Laura and Cora laughing along with him while Lady Martin and Stiles nodded, smiles gracing their faces. It was good to see.
Derek heard a little voice inside him say that in their short time together he had studied Stiles’ expressions like a pilgrim seeking enlightenment, and this smile did not seem like any that had come before, but he quieted it by reminding himself that for as deep and true as his feelings for Stiles were he still had more, years and years worth hopefully, to learn. And that he would not be the first to take a little time to warm to his Uncle.
“The ingredients for our toast should be arriving shortly,” Derek announced once Peter had finished with his story.
“Excellent! I’m sure that King Daniel, what with his reputation for good hospitality, keeps a quite superior stock,” Peter said, already looking quite pleased.
A cool gust swept through the room, ruffling the papers that Stiles and Lady Martin had been using for their continued correspondence. Derek looked up out the window and saw that the sky, blue and serene little more than an hour before had now turned a near solid gray, the promise of a memorable storm a strong scent in the air.
“Do you wish me to close the window, Stiles?” Derek asked, moving to do it even as he asked. True, Stiles was remarkably recovered and hearty, partially thanks to Derek, but that did not mean that Derek saw any point in exposing him unnecessarily to the elements before he was fully recovered. He was quite sure that Doctor Morrell would agree with him and commend his good sense even.
“I was going to say ‘yes please, thank you for offering to do so, Derek,’ but I see that you decided that words were superfluous between us,” Stiles said, his smile warm and familiar.
“I realized that your physician would scold me if I let you catch a draft,” Derek said primly, smiling back, feeling no qualms about using Doctor Morrell as an excuse.
Derek heard a purposeful cough from behind his back, too low to have come from either of his sisters or Lady Martin. He turned, trying to look unconcerned, and thanked providence that he had been given a temporary reprieve from explaining himself by the return of the servants with a decanter and expertly cut and etched glasses suited for a celebratory toast.
“Excellent, set them over here if you would,” Derek said, gesturing to the small dining table, mostly free of the fruit that had graced it earlier as some of it had since been consumed and the majority of it had been relocated to Stiles and Lady Martin’s folding table through an afternoon of winning at cards. “And light a few more of the lanterns, I believe the sun has fled for the remainder of the day.”
The servants nodded and set about both their tasks efficiently before curtseying and departing.
“So, what exactly shall we toast to this evening, Uncle?” Cora asked, going over to pour after a quick glance over at Derek reassuring him of her position.
“Well, with everyone here in this room now,” Peter said with a smile as Cora handed him his drink, “I should say a bright and changing future.”
After everyone had toasted and had their drinks in turn, Stiles begging off on anything more than wine due to his injured status and Lady Martin politely declining citing a tendency for strong spirits to give her headaches. Soon after a page arrived to inform Peter that a room had been prepared for him, and if he had no objections they would escort him there presently.
“Yes, I do believe that should suit me well,” Peter said as he threw back one last swallow. “Tell me, is it a room with a view? Such a lovely and charming countryside you have here in Beacon.”
“Of course, Prince Peter, though with tonight’s storm coming I am afraid the view may not be as pleasant as it would in clearer weather, even at night,” the page replied.
“Well I am not altogether convinced of that. There can be great beauty in a storm as well you know,” Peter said with a flash of teeth.
“As you say, your Highness.”
“I would say the time grows near for us to retire as well, Cora,” Laura said as she stood. “This has been a very eventful day and in addition I do believe our dear friend Stiles may have found his sick room a little more overwhelmed with Hales than he has grown accustomed to.”
“Oh, I find it no bother,” Stiles said almost too hurriedly.
“If Laura will not say it I will,” Cora said. “We are sorely tired of losing to you at cards today. We shall see you tomorrow when the sun is bright, and perhaps you and Lady Martin can put our skills to shame in the garden.”
“I think you can count on it,” Stiles said a smile, though to Derek’s eyes it seemed a little thin.
“And you, Derek?” Peter asked, halfway out the door, his eyebrow raised.
“I…shall accompany you,” Derek said before turning back to Stiles. “I shall return later.”
“Until then Lydia and I shall gossip like fishwives,” Stiles said. “It will be most entertaining for us.”
“It makes Stiles happy,” Lady Martin said with a small wave of her hand.
“Of course. Until then.”
“Good night, Stiles, Lydia,” Peter said, and Derek did not think a soul in the room missed the way she bristled at his familiarity. Even Laura and Cora still used her born title, and the three had been becoming quite close. “I look forward to seeing you soon.”
“Good night,” Lady Martin said sharply as Derek and his sisters sent her apologetic glances as they exited after their Uncle, Derek closing the door behind him.
“So,” Peter said as they were led down the hall by the page. “I had been expecting the Argents to send their Princess, but it appears as if those sent in her stead match her in purported comeliness if nothing else.”
“Lady Martin and Junior Marshal Stilinski are both quite capable and dedicated individuals who serve both their Kingdom and the peace of the realm at large with remarkable good sense and courage,” Laura said evenly, giving Peter a disappointed look. “We have all been through quite an ordeal together, Uncle Peter.”
“Yes, I apologize. You know how I like to joke, don’t you my dear Laura? I actually would have not have thought to mention it had I not noticed that Derek seemed to be quite taken with the Junior Marshal…” Peter said, making no effort to mask the insinuation in his tone.
“If you truly wish we may discuss this matter more tomorrow,” Derek said, knowing that his face was turning red, the knowledge giving him cause to think of Stiles’ flirtatious teasing and increasing the intensity of the hue, “after you have had a chance to rest from your journey.”
“Of course, Derek,” Peter said as they reached what was to be his room. “I only bring it up because I care about you, nephew.”
“Yes, I know, Uncle Peter,” Derek said. “We shall speak more tomorrow.”
“As it please you, Derek,” Peter said, his smile returning. “I shall see you later then.”
After making additional goodnights to Laura and Cora, Peter finally retreated into the confines of his room, leaving Derek and his sisters by themselves with their page escort in the hallway.
“Is there anything else you require of me this evening, your Highnesses?” the page asked.
“Actually yes,” Laura replied. “If you would accompany me this way please,” she said starting down the hallway in the direction of the stairwell, motioning for all to follow her. The page did so immediately, as did Derek and Cora after exchanging a quick glance and a shrug.
“If it is not too late we should like to have a brief audience with King Daniel,” Laura said once they had reached the bottom of the stairs.
“My king was expecting some potentially new information from the captain of the guards regarding your attack so I have no doubt that he has not yet retired. I shall alert him to your request immediately,” the page said before departing.
“What do you wish to speak to King Daniel about?” Cora asked.
“Something she did not want to chance Peter hearing I imagine, as she did not even voice her request until we were surely out of his listening capabilities,” Derek said as Laura nodded in confirmation.
“There was an aspect or two of his story that seemed a little odd to me. I believe Lady Martin was right that King Daniel should be alerted to the behavior of his couriers if what Uncle Peter said is true.”
“And if not?” The vague uneasiness that Derek had been trying to quash began to manifest once again.
“I am sure it is just some simple miscommunication,” Laura said, sounding as if she was reassuring herself as much as anything else.
They lapsed into silence, unsure of what to say, when the page came back, face slightly flushed.
“If you would follow me, King Daniel wishes to see your Highnesses immediately,” the page said, before turning and walking briskly to where the King waited.
They were shown into the Receiving Hall where Derek had identified Peter earlier that very day. But now the sound of slashing rain and an occasional thunderclap had replaced the tranquil sounds of the clear afternoon and in place of Peter there were two corpses laid out on red stained shrouds.
Isaac was already there, his hair wet having been caught in the storm. He had no doubt heard the commotion of the return of King Daniel’s men with their bloody cargo and had gone out to investigate on his own.
“Derek, you have to see,” Isaac said urgently. “I told King Daniel he needed to talk to you and your sisters, I did not know what I could say…”
“Isaac, let me through to see first so that I can…” Derek trailed off once he got a clear view of the bodies. They were definitely wearing the same too new and good quality armor of the brigands, not that it had done much good against their killer.
Their throats were ripped out, one by claws and one by teeth.
“Prince Derek, would you be so inclined to tell me why your knight insisted that I needed to speak with you?” King Daniel asked, sounding desperate for any answers after days of frustration. “He identified them as your attackers but when asked if he had any ideas as to their wounds he would tell us no more. My master of the hunt tells me they are like no other animal he has ever seen, but-”
“We are familiar with it.” Laura said, her voice flat as if she did not know how to react so simply chose not to. Cora was shaking, though Derek was not sure if it was from fear or rage or some combination of the two.
Derek wanted to deny it, refuse all the evidence before him, but if he had been hearing whispers telling him the truth all evening the two corpses were a shout.
“We know who was behind the attack,” he said hollowly.
“What? Who?” King Daniel asked, thinking this was good news, not understanding that this was a horror for the Royal guests that stood before him.
“My Uncle…”Derek began before the true implications crashed down upon him, including their present circumstances. “Oh gods, Stiles, he and Lady Martin are up there alone,” Derek said, turning to run, but before he could step one foot forward there was a great commotion of servants running to shout about something aflame, followed shortly by the sound of Stiles, audible to only those from Hale, maybe only to Derek himself as no one so much as looked up, yelling;
As soon as Prince Derek had left the room, trailing after his sisters and uncle, Stiles looked to Lydia and spoke softly.
“I think we should bar the door for the time being.”
“I think it would not go amiss,” Lydia said as she rose to do so.
She allowed herself a small sag against the door in relief as she did so, the small act setting her more at ease already. A thunder crack sounded, but neither Lydia nor Stiles acknowledged it past a minute involuntary startle, their minds on other things. “I take it that you found our new guest to be a little less than charming as well?”
“Lydia, his story makes no true sense, and unless one is already inclined to believe it, it is near impossible to find a single statement that holds up to closer inspection. His clothes were dirty, yes, but his hair and face were still far too close to clean, with nothing but a superficial layer of dust on them, not the grime that would accompany a journey such as he described. When I was with Scott in the Constabulary we once rode fourteen hours straight, nearly crippling our horses, in pursuit of a murderer. By the end of it we looked as frightful as the man himself, our hair so soaked with sweat that even after it had dried it still was clear that we had exerted ourselves greatly, our clothes stained with perspiration and our eyes sunken with stress and lack of rest. All Prince Peter has on his skin is a simple coating of dust that could have been garnered during a quick sprint down a dusty road. You could go out for a picnic and come back in a similar state were the conditions right.”
“I know,” Lydia said straightening up and returning to Stiles’ side. “And no Royal messenger, unless they were already corrupt and being bribed would ever relay the contents of an official communiqué to some stranger at the side of the road laden with animal carcasses. So even if Prince Peter did indeed meet the messenger, events did not transpire as he described them.”
“But if he did not,” Lydia continued, the unsettling picture becoming clearer in her mind by the second, “he still knew at the very least some of the specifics of what happened, and while I will not pretend that the news has not spread in some form to some degree throughout parts Beacon, Prince Peter maintains that he was still on Hale land. There is no reason for him to have come to Beacon without that information…”
“Which he could not have received without already having been in Beacon,” Stiles continued. “Which means that the only way he could know what he knows and be where he is…”
“Is if had been in Beacon already, perhaps even before our own arrival,” Lydia finished grimly.
“I…Lydia, I know that can be the only answer, and that his character is most unnerving but…this is his family that was put in danger, and Derek and his sisters showed no concern over him both in our initial discussion or today,” Stiles said. Lydia did not blame him for momentarily if futilely seeking an alternative explanation for Derek’s sake.
“And as his family he would know not only about the ceremony, but also how to coach the brigands on with what to poison their blades with so they could potentially mortally wound the Hales and their men, and how to evade capture. Earlier we all but went down a ledger, ticking off all who had known grudges against either of our kingdoms,’ Lydia said in a harsh whisper, “but that was the failing in our deliberations, known grudges. Nearly all were at one time thought loyal and faithful, even loved, and none were thought capable until...”
“Until it turned out that they were much more that,” said Stiles, equally hushed.
“We are already most familiar with a ruler’s kin being treacherous,” Lydia said her heart pounding, the look on Stiles’ face as stricken with anxiety and worry as she was certain her own was.
“But Princess Katherine wanted to groom Allison to be her devoted puppet, and that is obviously not the case in this situation, as the only intent could be to directly usurp-oh gods he truly meant to kill them, he always meant to kill them, he still means to kill them all,” Stiles said, a mask of true horror taking over his face as he struggled to his feet, Lydia hurrying to assist him. “We have to warn them all, I must get to Derek, I can make him believe me, at least enough to ask questions.”
Lydia was about to ask Stiles where he thought they should search first for Prince Derek and his sisters, but her words got stuck in her throat at a creak of wood and a gust of cold wet air, followed by a smooth but menacing voice from the now open window, though the winds still whipped fiercely outside.
“Oh, yes, I do mean to kill them. And I have no doubt that you can persuade dear, besotted, Derek. Which is why you will not be leaving this room alive.”
Lydia made herself look over to the window and gasped at what she saw.
The voice was Lord Peter’s as she had thought, but the face was not the superficially charming one from before. Instead it was distorted and bestial, folds and creases and bulges that did not look completely suited to man or beast, but the fangs protruding from out his mouth, and his eyes glowing with an unnatural light could make Lydia think of nothing else but a rabid animal.
Lydia darted over to the door, knowing that Stiles would not think that she was abandoning him, for if either of them were to survive they must get help, her hand was on the bolt to unbar the door-
And then almost faster than her eyes could track Peter’s hand was on her wrist, wrenching it back painfully and tossing her back, though luckily she collided with the bed instead of something harder.
She worried how long her luck would last.
“You were all supposed to die then, to be found much later when the good King Daniel, so very hospitable, sent out a search party when you were all so very, very late in arriving. That of course would have been after I had had the chance to alter the scene a little, plant a few letters and other little trinkets that would cast the blame on either party depending on whose side you were inclined to support. Ideally I had hoped that your little warrior Princess would be there, but I suppose killing her later shall suit me just as well. Or make her my captive bride; unless you would be interested?”
Lydia didn’t even try to keep the look of complete revulsion from showing on her face.
“But oh, have I learned not to rely on local talent. I thought by supplying them and only paying half upfront they would be reliable enough, but then the day come and a good third of them are in a drunken stupor. I suppose one must face up to one’s mistakes and learn from them…they certainly all did, as death is a very definitive lesson.”
“What do you even hope to gain from this?” Stiles cried out as he moved, a little stiffly but surely and determinately, to help Lydia up, taking great care to be gentle with what she was now certain to be a broken wrist as he did so.
“Another war between our two Kingdoms would devastate both. It would take generations to recover, if they ever truly did,” Lydia added, trying to reason but already knowing it was a lost cause, trying to think of something…
“Ugh,” Prince Peter said, as if Lydia and Stiles were actually boring him. “I know you may think less of me for this, but I honestly don’t care. What matters is that I am in charge. Even if I need to raze the countryside until not a single blade of grass remains, it will be mine. No more scraping and bowing before a sister who is Queen through accident of birth.”
“They are your family,” Stiles spat out, his voice tight. “Even if you wanted a war, wanted to be King, your entire family-”
“Don’t mistake me, I do love them, I will miss them,” Peter said as if discussing nothing more than his favorite pair of boots. “But love and sentimentality only get one so far in this world. And once the deed is done, I have seen in my dreams it will all be me. All the spoils and all the blood will be mine. That is all I have ever wanted.”
While Prince Peter spoke, an almost rapturous glow emanating from his animalistic face as he spoke of blood, Lydia continued to look about the room for something that could help her and Stiles escape, or at least fight back.
And there, on the table, was the decanter of spirits that Prince Peter had requested earlier, and a lit torch but two feet away from that.
“You truly plan to kill us right here, don’t you?” Lydia asked, trying convince herself that the hopelessness and abject terror in her voice was there just for Prince Peter’s benefit.
“Well yes, though I can promise you I will miss your lovely face and form on my future conquests, as you seem rather resistant to that option, and frankly would in all likelihood cause me more trouble than you are worth. Though I may keep the Junior Marshal here alive long enough to kill him in front of my nephew as a bit of a distraction. He is a sentimental sort.” Lydia felt Stiles tense at her elbow, knowing that the thought of being a tool in such a horrific enterprise frightened him more than simply the thought of his own death. “And then of course my nieces must meet their end as well, and…you know probably a decent percentage of the inhabitants of the castle in general. After all, our kindly Kingly host knows who I am. I’ll just adjust my original plan to here, with a few more corpses, maybe send out a panicked, and forged, of course, last minute message by a bird or two for verisimilitude.”
“I’ll admit I had not thought I would be starting quite so soon,” he continued, sounding terribly amused with himself, as if everything was but a humorous bit of circumstance, “but for all that players and bards overuse and abuse the set piece of horrors on a stormy night, it is much preferred by those needing to relieve others of their lives that the atmosphere is cacophonous and confusing, rather than a still night in which screams carry. I can pick them off one by one.”
“Starting with you two.”
“If…if that is the case, that we are to die on this night, then I do not-I do not want to be in pain. If I could…?” Lydia asked, gesturing awkwardly toward the decanter.
“Well, your end would be so swift it would hardly matter if you ingested the most potent opiates in creation… but who am I to deny one as fair as you one last libation?” Prince Peter said with a grin.
“Stiles, come drink with me,” Lydia asked, sure that Stiles would understand, hoping he would understand, he must understand.
“Of course Lydia, like we are children under the candelabra at the Harvest Banquet.” Where they had inadvertently set fire to the table linens.
Lydia felt her confidence return to her in full force. They could do this, if nothing else delaying their own deaths long enough to sound the alarm and avoid the pointless bloodshed of untold numbers.
They would not fail.
They walked over, making a show of supporting each other though Stiles had already recovered enough that he could make short trips such as from to the bed to the dining area with ease. But Prince Peter need not know that.
And having Stiles close was a comfort as they had to walk past Peter to reach the decanter filled with their possible salvation.
“Would you be kind enough to pour for me, Lydia?” Stiles asked, and yes that would be best, he could retrieve the torch far more easily than she could, what with his taller height and longer reach.
Lydia nodded, proud that her hands did not shake as she reached for the decanter. Stiles took a step back, giving the impression that he was affording her more room to maneuver as she served him.
Stiles gave a small crook of the lip, and Lydia closed her eyes deliberately and briefly in agreement. By the time she opened them she and Stiles were already in motion, Lydia flinging the costly high proof alcohol out of the decanter so that it arced through the air, liberally coating Prince Peter, quickly followed by Stiles grabbing and throwing the fiery torch with great force.
The spirit-soaked clothes that Prince Peter wore caught alight almost immediately, though he seemed not to have realized it at first, still stuck in his initial reaction of laughter, as if Lydia had simply been having a womanly tantrum. But his obliviousness did not last long, and soon he was roaring as the fire spread over his body. Stiles had aimed the torch at Prince Peter’s upper body so it was not a far journey for the fire to reach his hair. He stumbled about the room, lashing out with his claws, his eyes squeezed shut in pain, his other senses dulled by the sound and smell of sizzling flesh and burning hair.
Lydia and Stiles evaded his reach for the most part, though Lydia’s dress had gotten torn from a low swipe from Prince Peter, and Stiles had some thankfully not too deep scratches on his calf from the same attack.
They kept on trying to edge toward the door, but Prince Peter if nothing else seemed to remember the layout of the room and despite his diminished capabilities was able to keep them away from the exit.
“I have a very stupid plan,” Stiles said quietly to Lydia as Prince Peter’s growling resonated throughout the room.
“I trust in your stupidity,” Lydia replied back.
“Thank you. Go there,” he pointed near the window, “And make a noise.”
Lydia did so, keeping close to the wall until she was in position, Stiles making the occasional small noise to keep Prince Peter’s notice from completely turning to one or the other.
Once she was in position she shouted out, “Here!” drawing Prince Peter’s attention to her immediately with a whip of his head. He looked even more monstrous than before, his animalistic face blistered and charred, contorted to an even more fearful countenance by rage and pain.
Prince Peter took his first stalking step forward, and by the second Stiles was barreling at him from behind, completely heedless of injuries new and old, the instinct to fight back overriding all else.
Stiles used his momentum to propel Prince Peter and himself forward, right up to, and then right out of the window, at least in the case of Prince Peter. Lydia quickly grabbed hold of Stiles’ nightshirt as soon as it came in to reach, struggling for a surer grip of his actual person as it looked like he was in danger of following Prince Peter’s egress.
She pulled him back sharply, both of them landing on the floor in a painful heap, Lydia only realizing belatedly that she had reached out earlier with both arms once a fresh wave of pain shot through her wrist.
“Is he, is he, is he,” Stiles repeated frantically as they helped each other to their feet. Lydia was dismayed to see that Stiles had suffered still more injuries in the course of defenestrating Prince Peter, claw marks and some thankfully mild looking burns along his arms. It was only when she stood up fully that she realized she had sustained more as well, almost buckling on an ankle that had gotten twisted when tumbling to the ground. As they limped to the window to determine Prince Peter’s fate, she could not help but think back to the fact that their task, the reason they were in Beacon at all, was supposed to be nothing but a treaty signing, simple and straightforward for all of its grave importance, and because of that now she had seen her childhood friend bloodied as she never imagined she would be forced to witness.
As a pair they looked out the window to see Prince Peter grasping onto the brick with his claws a good body length below the window sill, the flames still licking at his form, but becoming much diminished by the rains of the ongoing storm.
They backed away quickly, knowing that if he climbed in once, he surely would be able to again. Lydia felt time freeze around her for a moment, that thought pushing all else out of her awareness for a moment until she came back to herself.
“To the door!” Lydia hissed, even as Stiles pulled her forward by her good wrist.
Lydia undid the bolt while Stiles wrenched the door open before grabbing her hand once more and staggering out together into the hallway, trying to put as much space between themselves and their would be-assassin until help could arrive.
“No one but servants would be around, if anyone at all,” Lydia panted. “We need-If you called out, if you called him, do you think-”
“Yes,” replied Stiles, his breathing harsh, the pain of injuries old and new catching up with him. “I know he’ll hear me.”
Stiles took a deep breath, and Lydia prayed to all the gods that he was right, that his call would be heard.
Stiles was in pain but not in pain. He could catalogue his injuries with clarity, the both intensely sharp ache in his side from muscles still healing being exerted far more than they were rightly ready to be, the slash on his calf dripping down and staining his footsteps red, the similar wounds on his arm doing much the same to the remnants of his nightshirt and the sleeve of Lydia’s dress near where he tightly gripped her hand. The burns on his arm from grappling with Prince Peter were not even the worst he had ever received, and would not leave scars, but every slight movement made his arm throb further.
But while he was aware of the abuse his body had sustained within the past few minutes, while he and Lydia limped quickly down the hall it was as if his injuries weren’t quite there, in that his movements were still at least partially hindered by his wounds old and new, but the true pain he knew he should rightly be feeling was hovering at the edge of the awareness until it was an appropriate time for it to come rushing in and take precedence over all else.
It was an odd sensation, but Stiles felt decidedly grateful for it as he and Lydia neared a descending staircase. Stiles had faith that Derek had heard his call and would come quickly, but the more distance put between themselves and Prince Peter first the better.
“How are you managing, Lydia?” he asked, their downwards escape growing closer with each stumbling step.
“As well as I need to,” she replied, both of them ignoring the slight tremor in her voice as she took another step forward on her hurt ankle. “Much as I imagine you are.”
“That’s as good as any of us can hope for right now,” Stiles said, the stairs now just a few steps away. But…
They stopped short, each holding their breath at the sound of someone racing furiously up the stairs, each slap of booted leather having no time at all to echo and resonate before three more had followed it. Surely Prince Peter would not have had time to circle around, surely they had not fled right to him…
“Stiles!” His name rang out, clearer and sweeter than any bell, and there was Derek, bounding up the steps at an inhuman rate, fear a mask upon his handsome face.
“I’m here, I’m here, Derek,” Stiles gasped out as Derek was now before him, arms reaching out lightning-fast to hold him, but settling ever so gently on his shoulders as if Derek feared his touch would cause more harm. Instead there was a brief respite from the pain, before Stiles reluctantly shrugged off Derek’s hands, fearing any more delay even one as welcome as this one.
“There is no time for that right now, Derek, I can manage the pain. But your Uncle, he is the one behind the attack at the treaty ceremony, he just tried to kill myself and Lydia, he means to kill you.”
“I know, Stiles,” Derek said, only he wasn’t looking at Stiles or Lydia anymore, his eyes instead locked on something behind them. Stiles did not want to turn and look, very much aware of what he would see, the smell of burned flesh filling his nostrils telling him as much as his eyes ever could. “And it stops now. I won’t let him hurt anyone else anymore.”
“Lofty promises you are spouting there, my dear nephew,” Prince Peter said, the burns on his face seeming to bubble and shift as his unnatural healing abilities struggled against the fire’s calling card, “but you really shouldn’t be making any promises that are so far beyond your ability to keep.”
“Uncle, why did you do all this?” Derek asked, positioning himself in front of Stiles and Lydia. “Why did you turn against your Queen and your Kingdom and your family-”
“Because I could. Because it was so easy for me to learn the important details, to slip away on a pretense to arrive in Beacon, days before you and your sisters were set to even take your first step upon the land, to equip and pay off some half witted human thugs to do all of the actual work for me, and to slaughter them like the vermin they were when they failed me. Because it would make me more powerful than my damned condescending most Royal bitch of a sister could ever hope to be,” Prince Peter snarled. “Because I wanted to.”
Derek growled at his uncle, so unlike his normal rich but soft voice, a low sound that reverberated through Stiles’ body, one that could never possibly come forth from a throat that was entirely human.
“A man can’t help but try to indulge his wants even if they serve him no good, dear Derek. You should be well aware of that, plucking a bedmate from the muck like you have,” Peter said with a haughty sneer. “But really, even possessing a pretty face as he does, there is hardly lower hanging fruit than an invalid.”
“You would kill your own kin, and yet you try to make me ashamed of my love with the last words of a traitor?” Derek spat right back. “We always looked up to you, but all the while you were nothing but a pathetic, grasping wretch, one that did not deserve even one singular ounce of the respect and luxury my mother afforded you as her brother.”
“My dear nephew, I hope you do not take this amiss, but I no longer harbor even the slightest bit of reluctance about ripping your throat out and basking in the hot spray of your blood,” Prince Peter said almost calmly, right before lunging forward, his hands, still streaked with Stiles’ blood, once again transformed into ferocious claws.
Derek launched himself to meet him before he had progressed more than a few feet. They grappled, both emitting noises that sounded like they belonged to creatures, ones with eyes shining in the darkness, slinking through the trees, ones to be feared if you valued your life, far more than any man.
But they were both still men, more or less, though Prince Peter had once more shifted into his more animalistic visage. But their eyes did not shine, instead they glowed like a mystical fire had been set within their very skulls.
While they fought Stiles and Lydia carefully crept closer to the stairs. Stiles did not know if any others but those present knew of Prince Peter’s treachery, and the best way Stiles would be able to help Derek would be to find someone who could fight back at the same vicious level, or who at least was armed and not already walking wounded.
But it appeared that Prince Peter noticed their attempt to flee and once more sound the alarm, and broke out of Derek’s grip with a twist though he lost some strips of flesh along the way, and dropped down as a prelude to rising up with a blow so forceful it propelled Derek backwards into their escape route. Stiles only avoided being crushed beneath Derek thanks once more to Lydia’s quick reflexes, and a hard backwards pull on his shoulder.
Derek recovered quickly, his neck and shoulders going through a quick series of jerks and twitches as he once more adopted a fighting stance to face off against his own flesh and blood.
And then his face changed, the features that Stiles had come to know so well in their time together and had constantly filled him with amazed delight that they should be his to behold, being shed to give rise to the beast the Hales were correctly rumored to be.
But Stiles remained unafraid of Derek even viewing his transformation. He wondered whether it was even possible for him to fear any physical harm from Derek at all. For while Prince Peter’s face had been a vision in horror even before the fire’s kiss, Stiles felt none of that looking at Derek’s face, instead a wash of relief that Derek seemed free of serious injury, paired with the stray thought bubbling up through his fear and panic wondering what on earth had happened to Derek’s magnificent eyebrows.
Both were now fully committed to fighting with no pretenses of suppressing their animalistic natures, and so the attacks grew ever more savage on each side, fangs coming into play as well as kicks and claws. Their clothes were quickly being torn to pieces, tears giving way to gaping holes until the garments were naught but shredded scraps determinedly hanging onto their owners’ battered forms. Spurts of blood seemed to burst forth from both of their bodies faster than Stiles’ eyes could track the actual strikes, droplets of blood flying through the air, some landing on Stiles and Lydia as they once more began to cautiously creep closer back toward the stairs.
But as they grew closer they were able to hear what had been covered up by the bloody combat in front of them, multiple footsteps racing up the steps with the same seemingly unthinkable speed that Derek had barely minutes ago.
Princess Laura emerged from the stairway first, with Princess Cora right on her heels. They looked ready to enter the fray themselves, having already left their more genteel features by the wayside, claws in place of hands, and faces that still retained traces of femininity but looked just as potentially vicious as those possessed by their male kin.
Noticing his nieces’ arrival, Prince Peter leapt backwards, evading a swipe from Derek’s claws and putting a few good feet of space between himself and his enraged family.
“This ends now, Uncle,” Princess Laura growled. “And though mother would surely prefer to see to you herself, I have no doubt she would have no qualms with us seeing things through in her stead.”
“Try it then!” Prince Peter roared, and he was running forward again, but at an odd angle, off to the side of the hallway rather than forward to reengage with Derek and now his sisters. Stiles blinked in confusion until he realized what Prince Peter was doing, that between the momentum and the strength in his limbs, Prince Peter was able to run partially up the wall, come in from the side to lean down briefly and propel himself off of Derek’s shoulder, evading Princesses Laura and Cora as well. Stiles could see the momentary confusion flit across their faces even with their features half unfamiliar, and then the dawning realization of what his plan was.
Prince Peter wasn’t intending to go down without some kind of retribution for being thwarted, and knew that he would have little chance of exacting that revenge upon any of the other Hales as they stood united. But one properly placed swipe of a claw that would be dismissed as inconvenient at most by his family could well be the death of Lydia or Stiles.
Stiles inhaled sharply and gripped Lydia’s hand tightly, as they tried once more to flee, even knowing Prince Peter was too fast, and wishing to the gods that he had something, anything, a sword, a knife, a medium sized rock to lash out with his last…
Prince Peter never reached them, albeit not for any lack of trying on his part, nor any real success at Lydia and Stiles’ last futile attempt at escape. Derek and his sisters, though at first thrown off balance by their uncle’s change in strategy, quickly recovered and leapt upon their traitorous relative almost as one, stopping him so close that before the younger Hales drew him back Stiles had felt his breath, hot and most across his throat.
The Princesses, and Derek in particular, did not appear inclined to allow Prince Peter even the slightest chance to wriggle out and cause more destruction. Princess Laura held her uncle tight in a vice like grip, even as he thrashed about like a wounded and caught animal, kicking out with his legs and trying desperately yet fruitlessly to turn and snap at Princess Laura’s face with his fangs.
“Do it now, Derek,” she ordered, her voice strong and clear, free of any quiver or catch despite the circumstances.
Derek strode forward toward his sister and uncle, curling in on himself for a short moment when one of Prince Peter’s wildly kicking legs found its mark in Derek’s stomach. But he did not stop, nor say a word, only laid his hands on the side of Prince Peter’s head and sharply twisted it with a very final sounding ‘crack’ so far around that it was only a little shy of facing Princess Laura straight on.
Princess Laura dropped the body unceremoniously onto the ground, both she and her younger siblings refusing to even watch it fall.
“We left Sir Isaac to guard King Daniel in case Peter had tried a different route,” Princess Cora said to Derek. “His men should be preparing a fire even as we speak.”
“Good,” Derek said flatly, turning around to face Stiles, steely resolve melting away with concern and tenderness quickly taking its place.
“Why the fire?” Lydia asked, her natural instinct to know showing itself even as her face was drawn tight with pain.
“It pays to be extra cautious with members of the Royal family,” Derek said evenly, his face and upper body covered with gore even though Stiles could not see any wounds that remained open. He reached out and touched Stiles gently, and the pain that Stiles had been refusing to acknowledge evaporated, its absence almost a shock.
“Can you help Lydia as well?” Stiles asked as Derek lifted him up into his arms, his pain gone, but with it the burning force flooding his veins that kept him from passing out from exhaustion and blood loss. “Her wrist is badly broken, and her ankle…”
“I’ll manage, Stiles, I’ll be fine, you need Derek far more than I do,” Lydia assured him.
“If we may, Lady Martin?” Princess Laura interjected, giving a nod to Princess Cora who hurried over to Lydia’s side, taking hold of her uninjured hand.
“Remember our brother is a special case,” Princess Cora said as relief washed over Lydia’s face. “and only seems to have any aptitude for aiding Stiles with this skill. But what I lack in thoroughness I make up in breadth, and can at the very least get you to the physician’s room to have that bone set and get some more conventional medicines in you.”
“I thank you, Princess Cora,” Lydia said gratefully.
“We owe both of you so very much, both our thanks and amends for the wrongs done to you,” Princess Laura said. “Go, get to the doctor and be well.” She looked down at Prince Peter’s corpse, the first of the Hales to physically acknowledge it in any way, her expression warring between loss and disdain. “I will deal with this.”
Both Derek and Princess Cora nodded at their eldest sister, Derek then instructing Princess Cora to follow him to Doctor Morrell’s surgery.
Stiles craned his neck to look at Derek’s face, startled for a moment to find his eyebrows, thankfully returned from wherever they had departed to, drawn together as if in trepidation, but Stiles could not at first fathom in regards to what. It was not an expression that led Stiles to believe that Derek was mourning his would be nepoticidal uncle. And were his concerns about those still breathing, it was clear that Stiles’ wounds were nothing life threatening especially so close to medical aid, and though it had been a brutal fight to witness, neither Derek nor his sisters had any lasting injuries from confronting the late Prince Peter.
Their conversation from days ago returned to Stiles, and with it Derek’s reluctance to let him see his other nature even under the most controlled circumstances.
Stiles had had a very good run at gambling the past few days, and he was quite confident to place his bet that what was troubling Derek was not the fight itself, but who witnessed it.
Even though he was pain-free due to Derek’s touch, that did not mean he was any less physically and emotionally spent from the past hour, but did not matter, not when the doubts that were clearly running through Derek’s mind were ones that Stiles could not leave to potentially multiply and grow in strength for a single second longer.
“This is very familiar, Derek,” Stiles said, as quietly as he could, meaning it for Derek’s ears only while Derek carried him through vaguely familiar hallways to Doctor Morrell’s surgery, Lydia following behind with Princess Cora’s aid and support. “You carry me like a blushing bride once again, yet our marital bed has yet to make an appearance, let alone be put to its proper use. I ask you, is that right? Is that fair?”
Derek breathed evenly for two beats before lengthening his stride, increasing the distance between himself and Stiles, and Princess Cora and Lydia, but not so much that it seemed conspicuous.
“You saw me fight,” Derek replied, his voice hushed. “You saw me a beast. I wear now my own blood and the blood of my uncle. You saw me kill my uncle.”
“I saw you protect myself and my friend from one who would kill us. I saw you become wounded in the process. I saw you obey an order from the heir to the throne of your homeland to ensure ongoing peace and immediate safety,” Stiles said. “I heard you call me your love.
“Your uncle is…was not you. He was a monster because he chose to be one, just as many other men I have had the unfortunate opportunity to meet though they thankfully never had the talent to manifest fang or claw. You are my love because the idea of choosing that is anathema to you, and nothing that you have done in the past few minutes that has altered my perception, or my love and affection for you.”
Derek inhaled deeply, dropping his chin to touch rest it briefly atop Stiles’ head.
“I regret that my first declaration was in such circumstances,” he said before lifting his head back up.
“First declaration using words, mayhaps,” Stiles said, rubbing his face against Derek’s solid warmth, heedless and uncaring of the blood, “but far from the first in deed. And such words are so sweet to my ears that they could not be tainted by any circumstances.”
Derek did not answer him back as they neared a door with light pouring out of it, obscured for a moment by a shadow shortly revealed to be an anxious looking Braeden.
“Oh, your Highnesses, my Lord and Lady, come in please,” she said stepping back and gesturing for them to enter, Derek setting Stiles upon the very same table on which he had been stitched up only days before, while Princess Cora helped Lydia gingerly settle down onto a chair. Both Royal siblings made sure to keep physical contact with their ailing comrades, though Derek’s grip on Stiles’ hand was a fair sight tighter and meaningful a grip than the one Princess Cora shared with Lydia.
“I heard the commotion but did not know…my Mistress had been summoned to examine the bodies of the brigands but a short time ago and then I heard shouting in the courtyard even over the storm…” the apprentice paused, her voice switching from flustered to assured and determined when next she spoke. “Doctor Morrell shall no doubt be returning shortly, but I will take care of you most ably until her return. I don’t know what happened yet, but I can see that for all the blood on you your Highness appear to not actually be wounded, so I shall tend to the Junior Marshal first, unless there is something more pressing I am unaware of?” Braeden asked looking about to see if anyone was going to volunteer some hidden but still quite pressing malady.
“No please, do attend to Stiles first,” Lydia said. “He and I have the worst of it, and him more so than me. Even waiting for a pain draught is no matter, just please ensure that he is alright.”
Braeden nodded, turning to the shelves that contained the various tools and potions, as the lack of foreknowledge that patients would be arriving had left her having to catch up in organization and preparation, as opposed to when she and her Mistress had first administered treatment to a battered Stiles.
While she was collecting what was needed with a quick and practiced efficiency, Derek leaned down next to Stiles’ ear and whispered, the warmth of his breath on the side of Stiles’ face making the rest of him imagine for a fleeting moment that all of his body, save that spot and his hand gripped in Derek’s own, were encased in frost, so deprived did they feel of Derek’s heat in contrast.
“The timing of words said may not matter to you, but they do to me. And though it may not be our marital bed yet, as soon as I know it will not cause you more injury I will take you to mine, and I will say them a thousand times until you forget that our coupling was not the first time they were uttered,” Derek said, soft and low.
“I repeat that it is of no matter,” Stiles said as Braeden looked to be double checking her supplies before coming to his side, “but who am I to dissuade you from seeing a personal challenge through?”
Braeden had already declared his burns mild, and that they would soon disappear completely, before applying a salve that smelled of honey and made his arm feel slightly cooled and numbed, and then had cleaned and bandaged most of the cuts Stiles had garnered from Prince Peter when Doctor Morrell returned. Braeden had been about to begin stitching up a claw mark on an unburned portion of Stiles’ arm when her Mistress entered, looking preoccupied at first but quickly snapping back into her usual cool and professional demeanor. Braeden immediately stepped back so that Doctor Morrell could assess the work she had done so far, the physician pronouncing her course of action and work so far correct and neat, making Braeden smile so broadly that Stiles wished for a moment that he was of an inclination to appreciate a well wrapped injury beyond a practical and selfish perspective because it seemed to bring so much joy to her.
Before Doctor Morrell allowed Braeden to continue with stitching up Stiles, she took her apprentice’s place to investigate and palpate the gut wound she had first treated Stiles for not even one week ago.
“There is no additional swelling to indicate blood pooling underneath the skin…how is your pain there?” she asked stepping back, gesturing for Braeden to continue with her needle work with Stiles as the tapestry.
Derek let go of Stiles’ hand for a moment under the guise of stretching so that Stiles could take better stock of himself.
“It aches and twinges, but not too much more than it has after a walk where I perhaps pushed myself too hard,” Stiles said, eager for the return of Derek’s hand as Braeden started the first of what was to be a row of neat and even stitches.
“Excellent. So long as there is no blood in your urine or movements in the next two days, it looks like there has been no further damage to you there,” Doctor Morrell said. “I cannot imagine those without your apparent tendency to recuperate at a rate far exceeding expectations would have been quite so lucky judging by the state of the rest of you.”
“Very lucky,” Stiles said a little weakly, as he truly wished for Doctor Morrell to stop bringing up his remarkable Derek enhanced recovery, as he could not even begin to formulate a reasonable explanation for it if asked. He also would rather that the good Doctor had not brought up bloody urine and stool in front of everyone, even though he knew Derek did not care, and that Lydia and Princess Cora only had delicate ladylike sensibilities when it suited them.
“Now let us have a look at you,” Doctor Morrell said turning her attentions to Lydia. “Hmm, yes, the ankle feels to be but a sprain and will call for a wrapping and gentle treatment when walking about for the next few days. Your wrist on the other hand…most definitely broken. Braeden, once you have finished with the Junior Marshal would you care to see to Lady Martin’s wrist?”
“Yes Doctor Morrell!” Braeden answered eagerly finishing her last stitch on Stiles and snipping the thread before hurrying over to a bemused and amused, respectively, Lydia and Princess Cora.
Derek lightly traced his fingertips along Stiles’ arm parallel to the thread peeking in and out of his skin.
“I will never get used to seeing you like this,” he said.
“Well, I hope for both of our sakes you won’t have to too often,” Stiles replied. Derek still did not look exactly mollified at Stiles’ flippant remark, so Stiles glanced covertly to where Braeden was enthusiastically getting the materials needed to make a splint for Lydia’s wrist together.
Stiles knew the problem with his first statement was that it hadn’t been flippant enough, not to dismiss the horrors of the night. Mourning and emotional examination and self recrimination would doubtless happen to some degree later, that much was inevitable considering the circumstances to say nothing of the type of man Derek was, but Stiles would do anything he could to soften the blow. All those that should be well were, more or less, and he simply could not stand for any more darkness from this to continue on unabated for the near future, not for himself and not for Derek.
They were all alive, and his love was holding his hand.
“But look and see, Derek,” Stiles whispered to him quietly, his voice filled with the utmost seriousness and sincerity, “this is a benefit you miss by not being so fragile as Lydia and me; you are unable to bring such joy to physician’s apprentices as we can.”
Derek stared at Stiles as if his skin had suddenly turned lilac before bursting out laughing, his blunt human teeth flashing in the candlelight. Stiles was sure that the noise had earned them the attention of the other occupants of the room, but he did not care as Derek bent down to kiss him soundly on the mouth.
Stiles knew there was still much to do that night even after he and Lydia were finished getting treatment. There would be what was sure to be an extremely interesting conversation with King Daniel, followed by Lydia addressing their own people immediately to inform them that the mystery had been solved, both for their peace of mind and to prevent any wild gossip from taking hold.
On top of all of that Stiles would need to inquire if a new room could be found for him for the night, as the very notion of trying to sleep in a room where he and Lydia had had to fight for their very lives did not appeal to him.
Though as Derek deepened their kiss, concerns about where Stiles would spend the night were quickly dismissed, their utter ridiculousness apparent in the touch of Derek’s lips on his own.
In the days immediately following Peter’s betrayal, both to his homeland and those who had only shown him care, Derek kept on waiting for there to be some kind of consequences past his uncle’s ashes residing within a simple brass urn provided by King Daniel’s majordomo.
But in truth, none of the repercussions that Derek had worried would result after the revelation that Peter was the sole orchestrator behind an attack meant to spark a war manifested.
The Hale servants and soldiers reported no animosity past the same mild and mostly friendly rivalry that had existed before Peter’s death from the members of the Argent contingent with whom they continued to reside, work, and train beside while enjoying King Daniel’s hospitality. Of course they were all still in the dark on many of the details, mainly that Peter had attacked Lady Martin and Stiles as a beast, but that they knew of his actions in generalities and their demeanor remained the same was still a remarkable relief.
And King Daniel himself made it clear multiple times that he in no way held Derek and his sisters responsible for Peter’s actions despite him technically being a member of their party, and that as none of his people had been hurt and no property damaged past what could just as easily have occurred during a minor room fire or a particularly violent hail storm, he saw no cause to go through the trouble of requesting official restitutions from their mother.
Even after Laura told him the truth of the matter, and how exactly the brigands found by his men had obtained their wounds he did not change his mind. True, he had blanched at Laura’s demonstration of sprouting fang and claw to prove that they spoke the truth, but after he had regained his composure King Daniel merely confirmed that Laura, and by extension Queen Talia, would prefer such information not be made common knowledge for the foreseeable future, and then swore a solemn oath on his very crown to keep their confidences.
“After all,” King Daniel had said, “I can certainly see no good coming out of divulging such information, not for my small Kingdom as we like to keep our friends rather than turn them to potential enemies. And that is assuming anyone would believe me in the first place. There have been enough mad kings throughout history; I see no reason for ‘Mad King Daniel’ to be added to their ranks.”
And with that any concerns about political ramifications ended right then and there, as there were certainly no concerns that Lady Martin, her arm resting in a series of elegant silk slings, a different one to complement every outfit that she had brought with her, was going to let anything so trivial as someone personally trying to murder her interfere with what she saw as best, and she had decided that the day of the first assault that continued peace between Hale and Argent lands would indeed be best.
The bird messages had been sent and returned to both parties, expressing satisfaction, such as it were, regarding the situation and agreeing with the course of action, though even with the sparse speech in the Message from Queen Talia some sadness crept through. Later, everyone could not help but laugh tiredly at the fact that the riders finally returned with responses to the original messages after the birds had already made their second return journey.
So any fears about going home only to strike out again armored and equipped for war were gone. But they had not been the only things weighing heavily on Derek’s mind, as selfish as that might seem when the fate of nations could very well have been on the edge of a precipice.
Derek waited to feel more about his Uncle’s death past the sense of resignation and acceptance that had settled over him as soon as he heard the snap of his neck. Derek did mourn for the times he had spent with his beloved uncle, but that uncle was not the man who died that night, if he had ever really existed at all. He felt none of the guilt that should come with committing avunculicide nor the intense ache for a loss of family.
Even though Cora and Laura, outwardly at least, appeared to be dealing with Peter’s death in much the way he was, as that of a stranger who wore their uncle’s face at the moment of death, he could not help but wonder uneasily at how not upset he actually was.
How could he feel so casually about the blood on his hands being that of family?
He had never fancied himself a monster before, for all that he had come back from a nighttime hunt with his sisters or Boyd and Erica and Isaac with the blood of a stag drying on his face. But that was natural. Only monsters could think of killing their family without revulsion.
Peter had been proof of that.
“Stop being so morose,” Stiles said, breaking Derek out of his unpleasant self-reflection. “Everyone sang the praises of these gardens while I was at the worst of my convalescence, so now that I am well enough I intend to enjoy them, and seeing you make that distressingly dour expression every time I turn my head is getting in the way of that.”
And that was part of the reason why his own non-reaction to his hand in Peter’s end disturbed him, past the obvious parts of the situation. Stiles was recovering by leaps and bounds, and was now well enough, even with the new injuries and strain on his body from Peter’s attack, to walk through King Daniel’s gardens, though he had to take advantage of the artfully designed benches spread out amongst the lush and exquisitely cultivated flora more than he most likely would in normal circumstances.
Derek continued to share his bed with Stiles every night, in the more princely suite that had been designated for him but had ‘til late gone unused as Stiles had understandably soured on the one he had been staying in. And despite his words in Doctor Morrell’s surgery they continued to be most chaste together in the bed, even though when he slept Derek’s uninhibited body would wrap itself around Stiles, keeping him so close it felt like their hearts would beat in sync for a few moments each morning. The more intense and prolonged exposure no doubt helped Stiles’ recovery further, to the continued pleased confusion of Doctor Morrell.
Stiles said he was relieved that he was now well enough to go outside and no longer had any excuse not to put what were at least approaching proper clothes on once again, even if they were still far from his normal garments, being much looser and less tailored than even the most casual of clothing one would wear while being at court.
Stiles had reassured him that he was not a monster. But Derek could not stop the image of Stiles wounded and bloody at the hands of someone he would have trusted with his life from rising up in his mind again and again.
Derek didn’t know if he was beginning to think himself a monster, if he feared Stiles thought him one, or if he was taking the sins of Peter upon himself.
He just knew that Stiles looked beautiful in the afternoon sun beside him and he was afraid to move lest it be the wrong way.
“Forgive me, Stiles, I was-”
“Dwelling. On things that are past or beyond your control or…” Stiles let out a sound, an odd marriage of a chuckle and a sigh. “Sit with me, Derek?” he asked, gesturing to a bench partially hidden by a curve in the path and some sort of flowering bush that Derek could not name for the life of him.
“Alright,” he replied, following Stiles and sitting down beside him.
“You may have already noticed this to some degree, and it will become more and more apparent as we are together that I can find it very difficult to let things lie,” Stiles said, reaching out to clasp Derek’s hand in his own. “You will also find that there are times I may fall into a morass of self doubt and loathing and other less than enviable emotions. I have always been very good at hiding it, and I will admit that it is something that does not come over me as often as it once did as I have grown into myself and accepted old hurts as they are rather than letting them constantly cut me open,” in Derek’s bed, the first night there where both were exhausted but neither could sleep, Stiles had told Derek about his mother, explaining that he liked to tell stories of happier events, but as Derek’s chance to parcel out or even withhold the information he would most like to from Stiles had been taken away by virtue of his bravery in facing Peter, Stiles could only do his best to match him. While in most of his stories portrayed himself as a hero or a willing buffoon, now he portrayed himself as confused and bitter, lashing out at his father before hiding away to blame himself.
It had been the worst time in Stiles’ life, but Derek reminded himself that was only until his uncle tried to kill him twice in less than a fortnight.
“But in any case I have become passably adept at recognizing similar in others. Derek…”
“Your worst is not my worst, Stiles,” Derek said quietly, no feeling in the world but Stiles’ hand, the birdsong drowned out by his even inhales and exhales.
“And yours is not your uncle’s. I told you this that very night, I meant it then and I mean it just as surely now. You put such faith in me, Derek, so much faith, and none in yourself in this. I could be intimidated by this, but instead I choose to wield it. You will believe me on this. I thought you did before, but obviously this is a wound that requires more than a single affirmation so that my faith in you in this shall replace your doubt. And I shall be persistent, I shall be diligent and attentive and-“
Derek stopped his mouth with a kiss.
“I love you.”
“I love you.”
“I love you.”
“I love you, Stiles,” Derek said, punctuating each proclamation with a kiss. He knew his fears would not be completely driven away this day, as they had not on that first night, only retreated for a time. The specter of a vicious beast once beloved would loom over him again, but whenever Stiles spoke, as he did now, had before, and would do so for Derek again and again, those terrors were pushed back far enough that the day on which they were exiled completely seemed on the horizon.
“I love you as well, Derek,” Stiles said, his voice thick and his breathing, though louder and heavier now seemed to melodically intertwine with the birdsong that had seen fit to return.
“But I must ask, was that the first of a thousand times? Because this does not seem to be our marital bed. Or any bed, and though I can be convinced that details do not matter much to me I cannot imagine King Daniel or his gardeners being pleased that we made it ours. After all, if I am well enough to take a constitutional through the gardens, I am sure I am well enough to dally with you amongst the sheets.”
Stiles took their enjoined hands and lifted them up, sliding his palm out of Derek’s to take hold of his wrist and bring his hand down gently onto his lap, where the evidence of the effect Derek’s kisses had had on him, clear even by simple sight through his loose fitting pants, was all the more apparent hot in Derek’s hand.
“I shall take you to it then, to start the thousand times properly,” Derek said, joy and love and lust pushing out the last of his bad thoughts from his mind. “But I must say that I am not sure of the quality of your past lovers, that an idle walk amongst the flowers was more exertion then even the most gentle and tender methods of coupling.”
“Well that’s just another thing you must replace in my memories then,” Stiles said standing up, doing his best to rearrange himself and his clothes so as not to be a spectacle returning to Derek’s bed. “Let’s get started right away.”
Derek rose eagerly, anxious beyond measure to do just that.
Derek was incredibly grateful that they ran into none of their friends or relations enroute to the room. They had sorted themselves so as to not look unseemly while they navigated the garden paths back to the castle, but the anticipatory tension radiating off the two of them would be apparent to a stranger, let along those that knew them well.
Stiles was still a little slower of step even with his healing hastened by Derek’s touch, but Derek kept his pace even with his, resisting the temptation to pick him up and break into a run to get Stiles to the bed all the sooner.
Well, resisted temptation until they reached their first steep flight of stairs. When faced with that, coupled with a displeased hum from Stiles, the need for practicality and expedience overtook Derek, prompting him to sweep Stiles up into his arms and race up the steps. It was a small thrill to do it when Stiles was well, and as always it felt easy and natural to hold Stiles so, even though they were of the same height or close enough to it.
“And I thought this position had some appeal when I was freshly wounded! I dare say it is much more enjoyable now,” Stiles said with a laugh, agreeing with Derek’s unvoiced thoughts. “Though you are lucky I continue to be secure enough in my own manhood to let you continue to carry me so.”
“Eagerness to get to your manhood is why I carry you so,” Derek said, sprinting past a startled page and servant gossiping behind a corner.
“You don’t simply enjoy the presence of me in your arms?” Stiles asked, his arm snaked around to play with the hair at the nape of Derek’s neck as they neared their destination.
“I have no doubt that I will enjoy you being in more than just my arms in fairly short order,” Derek replied, shifting the weight of Stiles in his arms to open the door to his suite. Derek immediately turned to close and lock the door, wanting no interruptions on the off chance his sisters wished to speak with him without first having the good sense to scent out the situation first.
“Not that I object to that notion, but I am not certain that I yet possess the strength or stamina to quite yet meet your expectations in that manner today,” Stiles said ruefully as Derek carefully removed the arm he had supporting Stiles’ legs so that he could step out and stand on his own. “Though there is still much else we could do. I of course would welcome embracing you with other parts, to say nothing of hands and lips and tongues, bodies simply and sensually sliding up against one another…” Stiles said already working at the tie of his loose pants, while Derek felt his own already more constricting ones grow tighter at Stiles’ words. Derek lunged forward to kiss him, taking Stiles’ face in his hands, their noses bumping in his hurry no impediment at all to their pleasure from it. Derek pressed himself close to Stiles’ body, their still clothed hardnesses pressing up against on another.
“Your past bedmates should be doubly ashamed of themselves, for being so lacking in imagination and therefore for having squandered an opportunity to keep you in their bed,” Derek said with a playful nip at Stiles’ lips, while his fingertips stroked a beauty mark above Stiles’ eyebrow, his other palm resting on Stiles opposite cheek. Stiles arched his hips back away from Derek to finish divesting himself of his pants while still allowing Derek to keep their upper bodies close, leaning in for another deep kiss even as his hands fumbled below. “But as that worked out quite well for me I am hardly in a position to complain.”
“Hmm, that certainly is not the position you are in, I must agree with you there. Though I hope we both shall be in a different, less clothed position rather sooner than later,” Stiles said stepping out of his now fallen pants and kicking them away. “Come, help me quicken our progress.” Stiles pushed at Derek’s shoulders and stepped back, clad now only in his loose shirt and smallclothes, the evidence of his arousal plain to see and smell...yes, there were far too many articles of clothing still being worn for Derek’s liking.
Derek reached out to pull the shirt up off him, mussing Stiles’ hair further in the process. “So what positions shall we try today, Stiles? I leave it up to your discretion.”
“How about…”Stiles said, taking hold of the laces on Derek’s pants and untying them with agonizing slowness, just enough to allow him enough space to reach inside and grab hold of Derek’s cock, making him groan and cant his hips forward to thrust further into Stiles’ palm. “We see where inspiration takes us for our first foray. Disappointment shall have no place in this room if our objective is pleasure over a set dance to follow. And besides,” Stiles leaned in and down to lick at the column of Derek’s throat up to his chin, finishing by simply ghosting his tongue against Derek’s bottom lip, causing Derek to emit a sound as wanton as any could be, his already stiff cock giving another leap within Stiles’ hand, “we may yet arrive at completion with the embrace you so desire. But even if we do not right in this tryst, there is still tonight, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon and night and-”
Derek dropped his head to rest upon Stiles’ shoulder.
“Stiles, you will undo me completely,” Derek said, his voice sounding rough to his own ears.
“And I expect you to do the same in return,” Stiles said, removing his hand from Derek’s person much to Derek’s regret, stepping back to give him space to remove his smallclothes so that he was soon standing completely nude before Derek, his cock jutting out proud and ruddy tinted from his body. “Now take off your damned clothes and come join me on the bed so that we can begin.”
Stiles turned and walked over to the bed, the movement of his buttocks with each step making Derek want nothing more than to bite with blunt teeth the pale and speckled globes.
So lost was he in watching Stiles move that Derek did not have the presence of mind to begin stripping himself proper until Stiles had already situated himself on the bed to gaze and Derek, giving a deliberately casual stroke to his cock to encourage Derek to hurry.
Derek wasn’t altogether sure what state he had left his clothes in because the next thing he knew he was standing at the edge of the bed completely unclad, staring down at Stiles and in love with every bit of him there was to see, pale skin, a trail of rich brown hair on his stomach leading down to his sex, defined muscles, spots and scars and all.
“I can hardly think of where I wish to start,” he said, making Stiles laugh.
“Well, I suppose you could just start at the top and work your way down if you wish to be thorough,” Stiles said chuckling still.
“I certainly do,” Derek said, climbing onto the bed and moving to straddle Stiles on his hands and knees, lowering himself to press a kiss to Stiles’ temple, changing the angle to catch his cheek, licking at the beauty marks there, then trailing down Stiles’ throat to burrow his face in at the spot where shoulder and neck melded together. He inhaled deeply, already anticipating the joy of Stiles’ scent changing in this bed as he sweat, as his arousal grew, as Derek shared and blended his own scent in, as he found his release.
“I will be most thorough,” he said sweeping his tongue to the hollow of Stiles’ throat, then down his sternum. “And I should let you know, that as of right now inspiration is telling me that you remain as you are while I taste as much of you as I can,” Derek said, barely raising his mouth off of Stiles’ chest to speak before descending on Stiles’ left nipple, swirling his tongue around it before taking it briefly in his teeth without truly biting down.
“I-I think that for the time being at least I find that course of action quite agreeable,” Stiles said, stuttering breathily as Derek repeated his ministrations to the right nipple.
Derek shifted his body so that he could more easily reach lower on Stiles, and rubbed his cheek against Stiles’ stomach, feeling the muscles beneath him contract and tighten. He kissed Stiles’ scar, the one that would always be there despite Derek’s touch, the one that showed that Stiles was brave and strong and alive. “I love you, Stiles,” Derek said against the scar. “That is the first of a thousand, which will only be the first of many thousands.”
Derek brought his face back to Stiles’ center, his tongue darting out to dip into Stiles’ belly button and lick at the hair beneath it that carried Stiles’ scent so strongly, though not as much as just a little further down…Derek traced the furred path with his tongue with a leisurely playfulness, halting his progress every so often to nip at Stiles’ hipbones or nuzzle into the skin right above the thickest thatch of hair, and where Stiles’ erect cock showed that Derek’s course of action had not diminished its interest in the slightest, and if anything had brought it to even further attention.
Stiles had not been silent throughout Derek’s short journey down his body, not that Derek had wanted or expected him to be so. Little gasps and shivery gasps and quiet exclamations of Derek’s name coupled with bits of encouragement fell from his lips, as well as other small gems that made Derek smile against Stiles’ skin such as “Have I ever mentioned how much I appreciate your swarthiness and inability to remain clean shaven past breakfast? Because I do, I really do, the feel of it…and you would look magnificent with even more of a beard, it would go with your eyebrows…”
“I love you,” Derek said, his mouth so close to Stiles that the breath from words made the thick rich and wonderfully scented hair surrounding Stiles’ cock to stir as is moved by an outside breeze.”I love you,” he repeated before taking Stiles’ cockhead into his mouth.
Stiles instinctively bucked his hips upwards at the sensation, though Derek’s hand on his hip prevented him from rising up too far. Derek circled his tongue around the head once, twice, before sliding it up to delve into the slit at the top to get a better taste of the salty and bitter liquid there. Derek enclosed his lips tightly around the cockhead, mindful of his teeth and lifted his head up by minute fractions, Stiles striving to keep himself in the wet heat of Derek’s mouth to no avail, as the only way he could break through any hold that Derek had on him was if Derek wanted him to.
And right now Derek did not want him to.
Stiles’ cock left Derek’s mouth in its entirety with a filthy ‘pop.’ Derek looked down at it with satisfaction, pleased to see it red and wet with his spit before devoting his attentions to the shaft, mouthing and licking along it, sometimes with a careful scrape of teeth, something that elicited a very encouraging sound from Stiles, down one side and up the other, all the while murmuring ‘I love you’s.
“You sound like you have your mouth stuffed full of treats,” Stiles said breathily, his own hand in his mouth as if trying to regain a hold on himself, before letting out another gasp as Derek returned to his cockhead and once more sucked it firmly into his mouth, swirling his tongue around it and letting it enter deeper into his mouth as the hand not holding Stiles steady sneaked over to massage Stiles’ jewels. He pulled off in the same manner he had before, Stiles’ cock throbbing against his lips, and almost laughed at the perturbed look upon Stiles’ face that said he had removed his mouth and hand far too soon.
“Do you not wish to be my favorite treat?” Derek asked, licking at where groin and thigh met before starting to continue down the leg.
“What, you-you’re not going to continue?” Stiles asked incredulously, and if he had seemed slightly put out before he seemed downright affronted now.
“I am continuing. I said I was going to taste all of you,” Derek replied with a smirk before laying a kiss upon Stiles’ kneecap.
“Change of plan, new inspiration, that can be done at another time when I am not already so…when I have been waiting and wanting,’ Stiles said, the yearning in his voice pulling Derek back up like an invisible thread to cease his teasing and ravish Stiles’ mouth, letting his body descend to lay against Stiles even as he was careful not to let his full weight rest upon him out of concern for Stiles’ still healing body. At the touch of Stiles’ cock rubbing against his own as they moved against each other Derek was almost completely overcome. He hadn’t touched himself even once while tasting Stiles, his focus completely bringing him pleasure, but that didn’t mean that having Stiles laid out before him, having his mouth on him to taste the sweat and salt and warmth of him, had no effect on him. His cock had increased in hardness all the while as he licked and sucked at Stiles, and now the slightest touch of Stiles against it was ecstasy.
Stiles had at some point in their tumbling reached a hand behind Derek and the press of a finger against his entrance sent a jolt right through Derek’s body. It was just a wet with spit finger pressing against the pucker, not even going in up to the first knuckle, but the promise of it all made Derek’s cock weep.
“Oh gods, Stiles,” Derek moaned. Stiles applied more pressure and gained further entry, and Derek wished he could see that long, elegant finger buried within him. Aside from a crook of his finger within Derek that made him gasp, Stiles did not make any further movements.
“Now who is teasing?” Derek asked, sweat beading at his brow.
Stiles did not speak up at first, instead simply gazing intently at Derek’s face, whatever he saw upon it spurring his words to spill out.
“We are going to go back to your original suggestion, though as you have pointed out my education in this one small area has apparently been lacking so you must-”
Derek swallowed up his next words with a crushing kiss, impassioned and sloppy and wonderful, so that when they parted a small tendril of liquid connected their lips for a brief moment even after they pulled apart.
“You will berate yourself for not figuring it out, it really is so obvious once one gives any thought to it,” Derek said with a rakish grin, reluctantly reaching back to prompt Stiles to remove is finger.
“Think carefully upon this, Derek; would you rather mock me for a deficit of knowledge, even one that may be very plain to you, or would you rather be filled with my cock?” Stiles asked, looking winsomely petulant with his kiss reddened mouth and cock all but dripping the clear evidence of its arousal on his stomach.
“I’m sorry, my love,” Derek said, leaning down to recapture Stiles’ lips once more. “I would like your cock very much please.”
“I just can’t stay mad at you, can I?” Stiles asked with a grin and a nip at Derek’s lip. “Go to then. Educate me.”
Derek needed no further encouragement and quickly rolled off of Stiles to rummage through his trunk for a small bottle of oil he had requested Braeden supply for him before Stiles’ second set of injuries, optimistic that he would be able to put it to good use.
“Where should I move to?” Stile asked as Derek uncorked the bottle.
“You stay right there,” Derek answered, crawling over to Stiles and drizzling some of the contents of the bottle over his cock, before doing the same to his own fingers.
“Well, so far I must say that everything appears to be very familiar so far,” Stiles said reaching out the stroke himself a few times, ensuring that the oil coated him evenly.
“So ashamed of your former bedmates, their lack of skill must have been so great they stunted your imagination,” Derek replied, looking hungrily at Stiles’ slicked up and glistening cock, while opening himself up with his fingers.
“You criticize them, yet withhold from me a show?” Stiles asked gesturing to the activities of Derek’s oil covered hand, as while it was clear what Derek was doing the detail were obscured from Stiles’ view.
“One day we shall do nothing but shows for each other, sitting across each other touching naught but ourselves…I can see you putting on a fetching display,” Derek declared, removing his fingers.
“Did you know I once thought you almost shy?” Stiles asked with a laugh as Derek swung his leg over to straddle him at the waist.
“You in your brilliance made me shy, made me unsure of my words, so very much did I love you before I knew it myself, so very unsure I was of how to be about you. And now you make me bold and brash with that same brilliance,” Derek said reaching out to touch Stiles’ cheek reverently. “You may think this heady praise and hyperbole, but it is the only truth for me.”
Stiles gazed up at him, the flush upon his face deeper in hue than it was only moments before, then turned his head slowly, keeping an eye on Derek as best he could, until his lips rested against the center of Derek’s palm. He kissed it, lightly, his eyes fluttering closed.
“Your truth for me would be frightful were it not the same for me,” Stiles said turning back to face Derek head on. “It is very fortunate we found each other, yes, love?”
“Very fortunate,” Derek said, rising further up onto his knees. “And now are you prepared to indulge in our good fortune together?”
“Oh gods yes, Derek…and if I am reasoning things out correctly I can see that you were correct on both counts; I do feel foolish for not having though of this myself, but as lust addled as I am is it any surprise that my intuitiveness faltered? And I do blame those obviously well-cast-off bedmates for having lowered my expectations.
“But, as that is thankfully in the past, in the present I shall overcome my wounded pride if you would get to it.”
“Gladly, love,” Derek replied, rising up that little bit further upon his knees, and took hold of Stiles’ cock, giving it a playful squeeze, which earned him a combination gasp and glare from Stiles, before lining it up with his entrance.
He sunk down upon it gradually, after a fleeting internal debate of whether to take Stiles inside him in one swift motion, as he was eager to be filled and there was certainly appeal in that method, or to savor the sensation of sliding down Stiles bit by bit. Stiles was already clutching at the bed sheets beneath his hands and biting at his lip when Derek finally bottomed out, resting on his haunches and panting slightly at the feeling of being filled utterly and completely with Stiles.
He leaned forward to brace himself with his arms against the headboard, half draped over Stiles even though they were not touching from the waist up, though Derek thought that being speared by Stiles’ cock was adequate compensation in that regard.
Now with his arms providing additional leverage and balance, Derek was able to ride up and down Stiles’ cock at exactly whatever speed he wanted, continuing on almost tortuously slow at first, for both himself and Stiles. It was worth it though, just to feel that fullness inside him like it belonged there, and to hear Stiles moan in frustration and reach out with fumbling hands first, for Derek’s hips and then sliding back to grip the globes of his buttocks, to encourage him to move faster. Derek fervently wished he had the capability to bear the marks of Stiles’ fingertips holding tight to his flesh, but did not dwell as that minor unfulfilled wish was nothing to the feelings currently coursing through his body.
After another tantalizingly slow rise and fall, Derek rested for a moment, sitting on Stiles’ lap and rocking against it, earning more moans and a muttered curse that Derek did not take to heart in the slightest, before obliging Stiles and picking up the pace.
Stiles was a vision beneath him, flushed and sweaty, his eyes locked on Derek’s with an intensity that inflamed Derek further, going up and down faster than he had intended to but unable to help himself. How could he, when Stiles’ cock felt so good inside him, felt so good as it stretched his hole moving in and out…and then Stiles took advantage of one of Derek’s upward movements to try to plant his feet on the bed so that his legs were still splayed but his knees were in the air, and when Derek descended once more he could not help but whimper in pleasure as the angle was just-
“Oh gods, Stiles, Stiles, Stiles…!”
“Well…if you insist on me taking things more-or-less easy…I have to make my own fun, don’t I, love?” Stiles panted, with eyes glazed with lust, a cheeky grin than dissolved into a soft ecstatic ‘o’ as Derek continued to ride him with abandon, and Derek’s sweat dripping down onto his face and chest.
“Yes, yes, have your fun, love, please, love, please, Stiles,” Derek panted in return. “You will find no objections from me.”
“Tha- that is…good to know,” Stiles said breathily, leaving one hand to keep a firm hold on Derek’s buttocks while bringing the other one forward to grasp Derek’s own leaking cock.
“If today my own manhood was your favorite treat, yours shall be my favorite toy. Do you-do you know the sight you make, spit upon my shaft with your own bobbing in front of me just, just beg- begging to be taken in hand?” Stiles asked as he enthusiastically, if with an irregular rhythm, stroked Derek’s cock. And Derek was already close, so close from Stiles inside him…
Derek felt his climax overtake him with a shout, the amazing sensation moving like a cresting wave throughout his entire body. Things were a little blurry for him after that for a few moments, and when he came back to himself he was greeted by the sight of his release splattered across Stiles’ chest and neck, one stray droplet having traveled far enough to land just shy of his lower lip. Stiles was still tugging at Derek’s cock, coaxing an additional spurt or two to come out.
Derek realized he had not stopped riding Stiles even through his orgasm, his body knowing what to do even if his mind was temporarily overcome.
He looked down at the evidence of his completion on Stiles’ body, and gasped out as he continued to piston himself up and down on Stiles’ cock again and again even as all his nerves felt as if laid bare after his own climax.
“Ru-rub it into, rub it into your skin, Stiles, please-!”
And Derek did not know if it was his request or a simple coincidence of timing, but it was at that that Derek felt Stiles reach his own pinnacle within him.
Derek stopped moving while Stiles came beneath him, joyous that he was so lucky to behold such a sight. Because while Stiles was still spending himself within Derek, he was also, somewhat distractedly, though that was only to be expected, rubbing the sticky cream colored liquid into his skin.
Once Stiles started to soften within Derek, he lifted himself up once more, reluctant to lose the feel of Stiles within him, but eager to kiss and lick at his mouth, slack and open but with evidence of a smile in the corners.
Derek laid down next to Stiles, throwing a leg over his body to keep him close and in contact, and proceeded to kiss him like he was the only source of air in the world, a kiss that Stiles returned keenly and in kind.
Eventually they did feel the need for real air and broke apart, Derek idly rubbing Stiles’ chest.
“So,” Stiles said after a few minutes of them resting comfortably side by side, “I would certainly classify that as an exceptionally enjoyable experience. Wouldn’t you?”
“I cannot recall a similar experience where I enjoyed myself more,” Derek confirmed, laying a small kiss at the corner of Stiles’ mouth.
“If I may ask though, the rubbing?”
“It is…something particular to those of my nature… the scents, you see,” Derek began, feeling his face heat slightly.
“There it is, I would miss those shy moments if they went away completely,” Stiles said with a warm smile. “And I did not find it objectionable, not at all. Quite the opposite actually.”
“And really compared to some of the rumors about how those from Hale lands go about courting and mating-”
“What rumors?” Derek interrupted, puzzled.
Stiles stilled for a moment before breaking out into a crooked grin.
“I’ll tell you later when we may have an opportunity to try out some of the less extreme ones.”
“I think my desire to know what people are saying is diminishing,” Derek sighed as Stiles laughed.
“It is of no matter. What I want to know is what our count is at,” Stiles said nestling further into Derek’s side.
“I think I may have lost track,” Derek admitted. “But I know in my heart that we will have years and years to restart the count as many times as needed.”
“Yes,” Stiles agreed with a twinkle in his eye, leaning in for another kiss. “I do believe we will.”
“This,” Lydia declared, presenting the document had been refining and finessing for the past few days before the small assembly of her friends, both old and new, “may be some of my finest work yet.”
She regretted mildly that she could not do so with quite the dramatic flourish she thought was due to it, but a wrist in an embroidered silk sling was as much a hindrance to such things as one in basic broadcloth. Still, she was expert at knowing when appearance mattered more than content, and this was far from one of those times.
Stiles was unsurprisingly the first to walk forward to examine it further. It had not even been a full month since the date of the treaty signing gone horrifically awry, and less time than that since the second attack, but he was nearly at complete wellness. Aside from the way the occasional flinch from moving too quickly or the wrong way and some stiffness in his posture after having been on his feet for too long, it was near impossible to tell how seriously he had been injured, especially when any scars were hidden by his clothes.
Rather than looking like he had come close to death he had the glow of a man deeply in love, and that was just the way Lydia would have things be.
Stiles pored over the document intently, Prince Derek peeking around him for a glance every so often, but looking content to let Stiles get his fill of information first. Princesses Laura and Cora stayed where they were, already being at least partially familiar already with parts of the document out of necessity, but they smiled broadly at Lydia while Stiles and their brother read.
“And who did you terrorize to get this accomplished so quickly, Lydia?” Stiles asked, the joke familiar between them, though his voice was rather thicker with emotion than it had been at any of the other times he had made similar jests.
But at none of those other times had he been looking at what Lydia considered the most exquisitely crafted marriage contract that indeed would marry both Stiles and Prince Derek with new treaty and trade agreements, making the love match a political windfall for both Hale and Argent.
“Honestly, Lydia, please tell me how you managed this because…Lydia, there are things in this that are virtually unprecedented between countries that haven’t had a war within the past generation, this is…Derek, look, do you see how she has drafted this, the bit about the disputed island that was the focus of the Battle of Bearn, the-”
“While that is all very good, Stiles, you understand that for the moment the parts involving you and me are at the forefront of my mind,” Prince Derek said, coming up behind Stiles and gently taking hold of him by the shoulders, placing a kiss on his temple.
“Well I knew she would manage that with no issue, Derek, that was never a concern. The rest is a surprise,” he said, taking hold of Prince Derek’s hand and leading him closer, pointing to the relevant passages with the Prince’s hand rather than his own, as though they fit together so well that for the moment they were a natural extension of each other simply so that Stiles would not yet have to let go of his now betrothed’s hand.
“See? See how she neatly sidestepped the matter of my lack of noble lineage, and look what she did, she made you a Cultural Ambassador to Argent. That means you would have official reason to live in Argent lands to keep any of the old guard from getting too bold with you, and they will all be dead soon in any case— you are still alright with primarily residing there, you have not changed your mind? My father would welcome you as a son, I promise you that.” Princesses Laura and Cora looked a little taken aback, for while Stiles had talked at quite a fleet pace in their presence, they had never seen him all but buzz with excitement as he did now. Lydia knew that for all the lasting impression Stiles made when he became like this, it was not at all a frequent occurrence. After being friends for so long Lydia could only find it amusing, and she noted with approval that Prince Derek did not seem fazed by Stiles’ demeanor in the slightest.
“I have not changed my mind. My home is with you, and it is not as if I will be unable to visit my family and them me,” Prince Derek reassured Stiles, lifting their entwined hand back up so that he could kiss Stiles’ knuckles.
“Good, that’s good,” Stiles said, a dreamy expression drifting across his face at the touch of Prince Derek’s lips on his flesh. “In that case did you see the part about who could be included in your official entourage? Knights of your own as well as servants, so long as it is not a size force of such that exceeds one half dozen, so that means-”
“If they were amenable I could have Sirs Isaac and Boyd and Lady Erica with me,” Prince Derek said, the gentle affection that had been his tone when discussing the contract with Stiles giving way to happy surprise. And the smile that he directed at her for including that clause…yes, Lydia understood quite well how Stiles had managed to wax poetic about it for a good quarter hour without deviation.
“They are amenable,” Princess Cora said with a grin. “We informed Lady Erica and Sir Boyd of the generalities via messenger bird, and they replied that they could not, and I believe Lady Erica was the one who chose the wording, ‘let you get rid of us that easily, child or no,’ and it was quite easy to take Sir Isaac aside to ask him in person.”
“And you will note a subsection of that clause states that you and your knights all shall have full rights as citizens of Argent, and should you wish they and you could request to be appointed positions within Argent so long as they do not involve national security or conflict with your allegiance to Hale, should being Cultural Ambassador and my kept man not be enough to occupy your time,” Stiles said with a wink.
“Who knows,” Derek replied. “I recall you saying that the former Master of the Hunt quit amidst a tirade of wanting to devote his life to making cakes one could cup in their hand. I think my knights and myself would be remarkably well suited to the position should we desire something to occupy our time.”
Princesses Laura and Cora choked back laughter at their brother’s proposition, while Stiles merely nodded like it was the most sensible of ideas before turning his attention back to Lydia.
“How on earth did you manage all this, Lydia?” Stiles asked once more. “This is so much more than I could ever have imagined, I fear that I will wake up and find this all to be a dream.”
“It was certainly a worthy test of my skills, but once I set my mind to it, things were not so difficult as one might assume,” Lydia said with a serene smile. “While there may still be some minor revisions once Queen Talia and King Christopher have a chance to analyze my final draft that is as we speak enroute to them by courier, though I doubt there will be any quibbles as I do impeccable work,” Lydia said, not at all shy about showing her pride in her accomplishment. “All of the major issues contained within the contract have been approved, by King Argent via a great number of messenger birds, and by Princess Laura here acting as her mother’s official proxy after but one messenger bird.”
“It was my honor to do so, Stiles,” Princess Laura said. “This may well have been the last time I have any power over my little brother, and I’m pleased it was for such good ends.”
“When did all of you find time to do all this?” Stiles asked with a bemused smile.
“We three spent our leisure time very differently than you and Prince Derek did, Stiles, mainly being that our activities did not lead to any of the servants and pages making wagers on how many rounds the two of you would go at any given coupling and who would cry out the loudest,” Lydia said, well aware that her smile had slid into wicked territory.
“They did not,” Stiles protested, not-quite-matching tints of red rising high on both his and Prince Derek’s cheeks.
“They did, while Laura and myself were sure to give that wing of the castle a wide berth,” Princess Cora replied with a crinkle of her nose.
“If it is any consolation you have helped provide the maidservant Elaine with the start of a very respectable nest egg,” Lydia added, earning a chuckle from Stiles.
“So at least this Elaine is doing well. I believe I shall simply decide to be happy for her good fortune and think of the matter no more,” Stiles said with a rueful grin.
Though Prince Derek smiled at Stiles’ words, his eyes drifted back down to the marriage contract.
“It does still seem unreal. It is right before me and it seems unreal. I am holding your hand, Stiles, we are laughing at people trying to listen in on us while we…” Prince Derek paused, as if searching for what to say. “Even without my Uncle’s efforts, our lands have never been friends. And now before me is a marriage contract that not only says I will be with my love, but also that our Kingdoms will be tied in good fortune and peace.” He looked up at Lydia, and for all that he was tall and strapping, the only way Lydia could think to describe the expression on his face was fragile. “We could have gone to war only weeks ago if things had gone wrong and now…you tell me the mechanics of communication, but Lady Martin, I still do not understand how. And as Stiles said, I fear to find this all to be a dream. But if I can understand how bloody battles can lead to tentative truce to the world somehow rearranging itself so that Stiles I can be together, then maybe I can cast that fear aside.”
Stiles had not let go of Prince Derek’s hand since he first took hold of it to examine the marriage contract, and Lydia could see that he was now gripping it so tight that his knuckles were milk white. His gaze was almost painfully tender while looking at Prince Derek, but when his eyes darted over to Lydia she could see the tiny glint of insecurity there that was asking for reassurance as well.
“Prince Derek, it is because in your actions you two have played a part in rearranging the world,” Lydia said softly. “The idea of Hale and Argent working together was laughable before those of us in this room joined forces. That alone was enough for our war and tension weary Sovereigns to soften their stance further, to consider the possibility of moving past the simple nonaggression that had been surprisingly successful considering the blinding hatred that came before it, to true growth. And though you may scoff or blush at this, you two are a love-match. While the majority of the talk thankfully will not be quite as bawdy as what is spoken within the castle walls, your story began to spread as soon as the first rider left the gates. The specifics of the treaty signing and the aftermath of your Uncle’s betrayal, as well as your special nature may remain state secrets for some time, but a tale like the one you and Stiles have lived has already, and will continue to appeal to, the sentiments of a large portion of the populace of both lands. And because of that, our King and your Queen, respectively, can take that greater step forward toward lasting peace while the good will between our two lands amongst both the nobles in the know and the average citizens is the greatest it has been in centuries, possibly ever.
“Politics is part dry statistics and negotiations, part ability to react swiftly when the time is right, and part pure showmanship. And though it was not your intent, in coming together you and Stiles have created something to make the bards and playwrights seethe with jealousy.”
Prince Derek looked at her, the fragility gone and replaced by a particular somewhat awed and dazed expression that Lydia had more than a passing familiarity with being aimed her way.
“Lady Martin, I never doubted Stiles when he said to but our trust in you in this matter but…you have exceeded all expectations I had formed by leaps and bounds. And I thank you, from the bottom of my heart, I thank you,” Prince Derek said. And though being thanked by Royalty was hardly a novel experience for her, this expression of gratitude warmed her heart like none had before.
Stiles was beaming at her, the bright and wide smile she knew well from their childhood even if things had deviated from their youthful expectations, before turning to gaze adoringly at Prince Derek.
“You are most welcome, Prince Derek. I am honored that I was able to prove your trust in me was well founded,” Lydia replied.
“We’ll make sure that when those jealous bards and the like do try to take our story for our own they must include a brilliant flame-haired friend,” Stiles said returning his full attention to Lydia. “And my dear soon-to-be-in-laws the Princesses, of course, but Princesses already have more of a presence in such stories, while Royal Ambassadors are sadly underrepresented. I’m sure after this there will be enough clout between us to make it so.”
“And you would use your new influence to upend storytelling conventions so that my good works may be known far and wide?” Lydia asked with a small laugh. “Once again, I am truly honored.”
“Perhaps that is not the kindest gift to give Lady Martin, Stiles, as most if not all the poems, plays and songs influenced by our courtship and marriage are in all likelihood guaranteed to be dreadful,” Prince Derek said with an amused grimace.
“Perhaps so,” Lydia replied, joy for her friends in her heart, “but I would suppose that there are much worse ways to be remembered than as something of a devoted romantic at times, ” Lydia said with a smile, and walked forward to lay her own uninjured hand atop Stiles and Prince Derek’s still clasped ones. Stiles, and then after a moment’s hesitation that bespoke unsurety of bounds rather than any genuine reluctance, Prince Derek, put their own free hands on top of hers.
“Yes, I do believe that I shall have no qualms about how I will be portrayed,” Lydia said, smiling up at her two friends, catching sight of Princess Laura and Princess Cora looking rather close to tears behind them. “No matter what others decide to say as they trip across the boards or set to a tune, for good or ill, we five shall all know the truth.
“And that for all of the tribulations to reach this moment, that truth ultimately a beautiful one, born of love.”