Outside the carriage window the landscape is strange and melancholy in the late afternoon mist, softened by the grey light that promises rain later. Charles watches it roll past with his elbow propped upon the sill, and takes in the bizarre and twisted shapes of the rocks, like seafoam made solid in mid-spray; there are almost no trees, and what trees there are are stunted, carved by the wind into driftwood oddities. The North is a very desolate place.
Charles startles and turns to look at the other man in the carriage. “Yes, Milbury?”
“My Lord, one of the outriders has informed me that we are now half a day’s drive from Ironhold.” Milbury’s mouth twitches in what might be intended as a smile, but there is no warmth there. It’s not surprising - he’s Kurt’s servant, not Charles’, after all, and Kurt always shows Charles little enough respect - there is no love lost between them. No wonder that his men are just as cruelly pleased to be sending him off to be married far away; besides, the man has an unpleasant, weaselly little mind, only interested in pleasing the most powerful person in his vicinity, nothing more. “I was unsure if you had heard.”
“I had not.” Charles nods as graciously as he can and turns back to the window, rolling out his telepathy across the roughclad hills, searching for any sign of life out there and finding none. “Thank you.”
“At your service, my Lord,” Milbury says, but Charles has already forgotten his presence for a better distraction. Outside the window the rocks and scrub grass have begun to be dotted with snow.
In the South, Charles’ family Duchy had been famous for its orchards. Great wide-branched peach trees, with their hot pink blossom in springtime; white-flowered and upright pear trees, with so much ripe fruit in the autumn that the ground was littered with it, soft and round. Fields of blackberries, raspberries and strawberries, tended to and woven cane to cane, plucked clean by the entire staff and the whole Ducal family come harvest time, everyone out together in their oldest clothes, stained at lip and finger with juice and laughing in the sun.
Here, as they drive up and up into the mountains towards Charles’ new home, there are white, crisp snowfields instead, broken up only by the occasional trail left behind by an animal or by running meltwater, pouring into the ragged, rift-torn earth. There is water everywhere up here, either frozen or roaring down the mountainside in waterfalls, washing all away.
They start to see people once they reach the first plateau, small villages mostly, turf-covered longhouses and animal pens. As they ride through Charles stares out at the people in their homespun and wonders how they don’t all freeze to death - none of them are wearing furs, despite the snow on the ground. Charles himself has been cold for hours, swaddled up in furs and wool, and Milbury is much the same, huddled into his own corner and trying to look dignified.
It’s so - quiet, in his head, up here. There are so few minds around other than his own escorts, and Charles withdraws his usual telepathic range so he can pretend that it’s not silent outside, that he’s just chosen not to listen.
“How much farther is it?” Charles asks eventually, sticking his head out the window to call to the nearest guardswoman as the carriage rumbles across a long, perilous-looking bridge, spattered with water from the waterfall that split the road in the first place. The air is wet and fresh and Charles’ eyelashes and hair are immediately jewelled with the spray.
“We’re here, my Lord,” the woman calls back, and takes her hand from the reins long enough to point ahead at the curve of the road. Charles follows with his gaze, and sees -
Ironhold, carved into the rock, a castle fortress looming ahead like the very bones of the mountain itself, its walls so high that surely even birds have to climb to top them, pennants flapping in the wind and the figures walking atop the fortifications so small that Charles could cover each with his little fingernail. Ironhold, last and greatest of the barbarian fortresses, defeated only after prolonged siege and disease took its toll on the Snowlanders who had defended it. Ironhold, the Ducal seat of Charles’ husband-to-be.
Charles wonders if Duke Erik is waiting to see his new purchase, or if Charles is to be taken to the stables and brushed down first, given a good meal of oats and hot mash and made ready for inspection.
He withdraws into the carriage before they rattle through the great gates, and opens his mind, sitting perfectly still as the long passageway opens into a large courtyard; it’s bustling with people, a hubbub of minds and thoughts, and Charles spies a forge as they swing around to make room for the baggage coach to come in behind them. There are soldiers drilling with weapons and servants carrying heavy loads of linens and food and barrels, horses and chickens and goats, all together within the castle walls. And stood by the main entrance to the keep there is a group of official-looking people, in formal robes and coats and, in some cases, armour - this, Charles reasons as they pull to a stop in front of the doors, must be the welcoming party.
The door of his carriage opens, and the noise of it all rushes in, along with the smell of hot metal and sulphur. “Get out,” Cain says, stepping aside without offering Charles his hand to help, and shoving his horse out of the way where it’s tethered to his belt by the reins.
Rising slowly, Charles smoothes down his tunic and furs with the flats of his palms before stepping out onto the flagstones and pausing to look around.
“Shit and corruption,” Cain mutters behind him, and gives Charles a shove towards the gathered officials.
He stumbles forward with a yelp of surprise, only keeping his feet by the narrowest of margins; when he looks up everyone is staring at him, and some of the guards are sniggering, along with, Charles is dismayed to see, some of the keepspeople. He can’t suppress the hot flush of embarrassment that rises to his face, and so it’s with humiliation shaping his mouth that Charles makes a bow, straightening to look at the gathered alphas in front of him with as much dignity as he can muster.
“My Lord Earl,” the man in front says, mouth twitching with amusement even as he steps forward and makes a rough bow in return. He’s a rough-looking sort of alpha all over, from his bushy black hair to the heavily scuffed armour he’s wearing, dented and obviously well-used, not to mention the small spikes on the knuckles of his gauntlets, curved, like the claws of some wild beast. “Welcome to Ironhold. I’m Logan, Captain of the Ironguard, and these here are court people I won’t bother introducing. The Duke regrets not coming to meet you himself, and so on and so forth. I’m to show you in so you can do whatever you need to before dinner.”
Charles lifts his chin for a moment, about to give a smart answer, but then he remembers his plan.
“Oh,” he says instead, looking about at them all as though taken aback, in a voice softer than his own, higher-pitched - not by much, but enough to make him sound younger than he is. Together with his face, it’s enough to make most of the alphas in front of him soften in response, even to elicit a faint note of pity for this young omega, so far from home. “That’s - I understand. He must be very busy.” He pauses for a moment before continuing with a note of forced bravery, “I would be very glad of a warm fire right now, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble.”
Captain Logan gives Charles a look from under those bushy brows that suggests he suspects Charles is not as innocent as he’s making out, but he says nothing except, “This way, my Lord,” and gestures for Charles to follow.
Clasping his hands demurely behind his back, Charles steps between the other courtiers and tries not to laugh when he hears Cain cursing behind them as he goes to hurry after, only to be hindered by his horse, still tethered to his belt. The inner hall, however, is enough of a distraction to keep him from breaking character. The outside of the keep was forbidding enough, but this… the door opens into an enormous vaulted chamber, the walls lined with at least a dozen doors, and at the far end what looks like a room entirely enclosed from the rest of the hall, its walls as high as the chamber itself and clearly intended for some special purpose. Charles can’t even begin to guess what that might be - the small door opposite is chained shut, clearly off-limits, but with an alcove above it cut through the wall, like a tiny window, through which he can see the flicker of a light casting moving shadows inside, like some sort of mummer’s play.
The whole place has the feel of a temple, echoing and vast, and quiet, despite all the keep’s busyness - it even smells like incense, though no kind Charles recognises, deep and resinous. To have a room so large kept empty and purposeless seems bizarrely wasteful, and Charles cannot help but stop to ponder it, his curiosity catching him out of his concentration on his role as he looks around.
The Captain makes an impatient noise, and Charles starts, twisting to look at him with a surprise that’s unfeigned. “Through here,” Logan says gruffly once he has Charles’ attention, and leads him through one of the doors on the left into a long, narrow corridor and away.
There is no pause to give a commentary, or any sort of tour; they just walk in silence past room after room, the castle proving itself much larger than it looks - surely it must be dug deeply into the mountainside, to be so vast - then up a spiralling staircase, rough-bevelled with tool marks still showing wherever feet have not worn the steps smooth. This, too, seems higher than can even be possible in the castle Charles saw from the outside, climbing and turning until he is feeling it in his aching legs and wondering when they’ll ever reach their destination, past landing after landing, servants stepping aside into alcoves to let them pass.
“You’ll be staying in the best guest quarters until the wedding,” Captain Logan says when they finally reach the top of the stairs, and does not turn, just continues off down this new, wider corridor, chain mail clanking as they go. “The Duke is on the same floor, other end of the castle. ‘Spect your own guards will bring up your bags.”
If the Duke lives up here on the top floor, Charles thinks, he must either never come down or have magnificent thighs.
“You’re very kind,” is what he says instead, earning him a sardonic glance from the Captain even as he finally stops outside a plain wooden door and rummages in his belt pouch for a moment before producing a key.
“Here,” Captain Logan says, handing it over unceremoniously, then before Charles can even thank him the man strides away, leaving him stood in the corridor alone, with no idea where he is or where any of his belongings, servants or minders are.
“Start as I mean to go on, I suppose,” Charles murmurs to himself, and unlocks the door.
Later, while one of the maids is helping him wash his hair in the - admittedly impressive and very pleasant - heated bathtub that Charles found in his suite, Charles decides on his next few points of action, tipping his head back so that Margrét can rinse the suds from his forelock without getting them in his eyes.
Firstly, he must continue to appear to be as bland as possible for the time being, so that he is allowed to do as he likes; nobody is too worried about policing a quiet ghost of a husband, after all, and the one benefit of being so far from the rest of civilisation is that the Northerners are well known for not standing on courtly propriety. Charles won’t be expected to entertain a babble of local noble omegas unless he wants to, which he doesn’t. As well, the more isolated he keeps himself, the less likely he is to be outed as a telepath, which is to everyone’s benefit.
Secondly, Cain can’t be allowed to talk to anyone important before Charles does, for the sake of not being tarred with the same brush if nothing else.
And thirdly - Charles needs to make sure that Duke Erik is interested enough to still want to marry him without being so interested that he actually wants Charles to be more affectionate towards him than Charles is willing to be. It’s all very well alphas convincing themselves that all omegas will fawn at their feet given enough table scraps, but the fact is that Charles has been purchased for a brood mare, whether or not the Duke thinks of it that way.
So: Charles will be charming, empty-headed and agreeable enough to keep around, dress well for dinner and maintain his manners, and in time he will get to know the castle and its people well enough to know who can be trusted to help him with his own plans. Being three thousand miles from the centre of civilisation is far enough to put a considerable delay on Charles’ involvement in the back corridors of power in the kingdom, but not far enough that marrying the second most powerful man in that kingdom doesn’t boost his position.
One way or another, one day Raven will be Queen. And the first step towards that day is dinner. Charles adjusts his best cravat in the mirror and smiles his best empty smile, and then allows the servant waiting in the corridor to guide him downstairs to meet his husband-to-be.
The heat of the geothermal water flowing through the ancient copper pipes seeps up through the stone floor and the leather soles of Erik’s boots, infusing his skin with warmth and the memory of metal. He’s been standing here for almost ten minutes now, attending to the sense of silver being laid out by the footmen in the dining room. He always found it next to impossible to clear his mind in the traditional sense, so he tries to focus on simple things instead. The silver, and the pipes.
If he doesn’t, he knows his thoughts will be tangled up entirely with issues of the skirmishes on the eastern front, the delayed import of perishables from the southwestern Duchies. And - as always - the Frjálsmen.
The last piece of silver is set, and Erik tracks the footmen by the buttons on their coats as they step back into place along the walls, transformed into silent shadows. His power swells, extending past the dining room, through the stone halls and bleeding into the neighbouring chambers until he finds what he seeks: the glow of a servant’s keyring, and the golden adornments of his new omega warm against flesh and silk. He requested a private dinner with his omega this evening, ignoring the Southerners who insisted that the boy’s brother be permitted to accompany him as escort. Erik wants to form his own opinion, without being unwittingly influenced by his impressions of anyone else. Time enough later to make judgments on the kind of company his husband keeps.
Erik was thirty before he realised that he ought to consider marriage, for the purposes of having an heir if nothing else. He was thirty-one before he could compel himself to actually begin the process. Now, a year later, the betrothal is finalised and Earl Charles Xavier of Salem is here in Ironhold to become his husband. Erik doesn’t relish the idea of sharing his life with someone else so intimately; he’d tried to insist upon a separate room for the omega, but Janos wouldn’t hear of it. Apparently the political implications would be … less than ideal, which Janos cares about even if Erik doesn’t. No matter. Erik will not be home often anyway, at least not for the next several years. As long as he can impregnate Xavier promptly, the most important matter will be done with.
He waits until after he is sure that Charles has been led into the dining room and seated - and then one minute past - before he nods to his footmen. The men step forward and open the doors, bowing their heads as Erik passes, trailed by two of his most loyal Hands.
Xavier stands at the far end of the hall, hovering behind the chair at the foot of the table. The manservant is gone; it’s just Erik’s footmen now. (Or rather, two footmen; the rest are Hands who have abandoned their cloaks and masks in exchange for the anonymity of footmen’s uniforms, their faces blank and unmemorable. Omega or not, Erik does not take chances with foreign Southerners in his own keep).
Xavier looks younger than he did in his portrait, Erik thinks. There’s a naïveté to his visage that had not been captured by brush and ink; a sullenness to the set of his mouth, perhaps. An attractive mouth - or it would be, if Xavier ever bothered to wear a different expression. Erik frowns slightly, looking the boy up and down. Stocky, but with wide hips: good for bearing children. Average height for a male omega. Healthy hair and complexion; though imperfections can be hidden with cosmetics, Erik thinks he would sense the lead paint from here were Xavier wearing any.
Erik waits until he is settled in his own chair, both uniformed Hands lurking behind him silently, before he gestures toward Xavier and says: “Sit.”
Xavier obeys, but only after the footman has slid his chair out for him. Good breeding, Erik supposes the Southerners would say. Personally, he doesn’t care for men who can’t look after their own interests. Not that he needs to care for his omega, per se. If the boy is as obedient as the Markos assured him he was, then Erik doubts he will fail to live up to Erik’s own particular expectations.
“I trust your journey was uneventful,” Erik says, unfolding his cloth napkin and laying it across his lap.
“Very comfortable, your Grace,” Xavier says, ducking his head. “Thank you.”
Erik manages not to arch a brow, already faintly irritated. Southern omegas are always so … subservient. Not much to do for that, of course; it’s instilled in them from birth. He’s certain Xavier has a personality underneath all the dressings, but he isn’t interested enough to put in the effort to peel back the layers. He can’t afford the distraction.
The footmen serve the first - and only - course and Erik picks up his fork, taking a bite of his roast lamb, effectively giving Xavier permission to begin eating his own meal. “I expect our Northern food will be very different from what you’re used to,” Erik says, setting his fork back down. “I hope you will become accustomed to it. It’s expensive to import delicacies from the South.”
Xavier swallows a bite of his own and smiles softly. “It’s delicious, sir. What kind of meat is it?”
“Lamb. The accompaniments are mashed rutabaga with butter and a salad of cabbage. It is not our tradition to have more than one course at our meals, though if you are still hungry after, the store has a variety of cured fish and poultries which can be brought to your room.” Erik takes a sip of his burning-wine. “Be careful with the drink,” he warns. “It’s stronger than what you’re used to.”
Xavier reaches for his glass and brings it to his mouth, visibly hesitating before he drinks. A split second later he sets the glass down too hard, coughing violently, his cheeks flushed scarlet. “Beg pardon,” he says, once he’s caught his breath. “What - ” cough “ - what’s in this?”
“It’s a root fermentation schnapps,” Erik says, hiding his smirk with another swallow of his own wine. “Flavoured with caraway, cumin, and angelica. We call it ‘black death.’”
“I can see why,” Xavier says, pushing his glass away. “An acquired taste, I imagine.”
“You’ll learn to appreciate it when winter sets in,” Erik says, swirling his drink around in his cup before setting it down, himself. “It will keep you warm when nothing else will. We take several casks on military expeditions.”
They fall into silence for a few minutes; the meat has to be eaten quickly, before it chills. “I trust Logan welcomed you appropriately,” Erik says, swallowing the last bite of lamb and dabbing at his mouth with his napkin.
“Oh,” Xavier says, glancing up from his food, as if surprised to find Erik talking to him again. “Yes. Well - ” A brief pause. “Yes. He’s very … he’s an unusual man.” Xavier seems to be struggling a bit for words.
“I just mean,” Xavier says, pulling himself together somewhat, “that I had hoped you would be the one to greet me, sir.”
“I was busy,” Erik says, waving his hand for a footman to take his plate away. “I understand that where you come from, one expects to be greeted by the steward, if not the ruling Duke. Logan is Captain of the Guard. Believe me that it is a greater honour to be greeted by him than by Janos.”
“Is it? I didn’t know.”
Erik lifts a brow. “You aren’t in the Southern kingdom anymore. We do not stand on courtesy here. We do not think much of aristocrats and their delicate fancies. We are a war-state. We care about strength and our own survival. That is difficult enough without bringing politics into play.”
Xavier reaches for his burning-wine and takes another sip, glancing just briefly at Erik over the rim of his glass. Erik wipes his expression quickly neutral. Had Xavier left the drink alone, as he seemed to intend earlier, perhaps Erik would have fallen completely for this act of his. But whatever Xavier might be saying with his mouth, he’s betrayed himself in action. No flimsy flower feels the need to push past his own discomforts so quickly or so boldly. Whatever Xavier might want Erik to think of him, his waters run deeper than he lets show.
Xavier’s face is still red when he puts the drink down, but at least he doesn’t cough this time.
“What do you think of Ironhold so far?” Erik asks, falling back on the shallow questions he’d prepared for dinner. Even if Erik despises small conversation, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t see its utility in some cases.
“It’s fascinating,” Xavier says, folding his hands together atop the table and leaning forward slightly. “The way the fortress is built into the rock - it’s like nothing I’ve seen before. I could scarcely tell where the castle ended and the mountain began. And you have somehow managed to heat the indoors. How?”
“The ancients built this keep,” Erik says. “I merely expanded upon it. There is a hot spring in the mountain; it surfaces at the summit. The builders designed the fortress with pipes running down from the top, carrying the hot water down through the core of the structure. Smaller pipes branch out at each level and run beneath the floors of the rooms and halls. The same system provides hot water for the kitchen and baths. When you turn on your faucet it activates a series of levers which redirect water from the pipes.” Automatically, speaking of the system has Erik’s power fixated on it once more, curling round the metal far beneath their feet almost lovingly. “You’d be surprised how infrequently we have to run the water to keep the place warm. The stones hold onto heat for quite a while.”
“The entrance hall I came through,” Xavier says. “It’s a shame that such a large and magnificent room goes apparently unused.”
Something tightens in Erik’s chest, and he works to keep it from showing in his voice. “A remnant of the original structure,” Erik says. “We’ve not found a practical purpose for it. We have other rooms for entertaining guests.”
Logan should never have brought a heiðnir into that place. There is an alternate entrance designed precisely for the purpose of entering guests. No matter how esteemed Logan may consider Erik’s future husband to be, he had no right to do that. None. The anger bubbles up hot and filthy in Erik’s gut and he is glad his hands are in his lap, where Xavier cannot see his knuckles blanch as they curl into fists around his napkin. The very thought of Xavier standing in that place, polluting it with his presence, makes Erik want to be sick.
“I can’t imagine the other rooms are as grand as that one,” Xavier goes on. “It truly is a feat of ancient architecture, if it is as old as you say. It’s hard to imagine the barbarians having the technology to build something like that, never mind the kind of heating system you describe.”
“It is a failing of our modern race,” Erik says, tone slightly colder than he intends it to be, “that we so often dismiss the achievements of those we deem to be more primitive than ourselves.”
Xavier blinks, several times, apparently taken aback. “Have I said something to offend, sir?”
“No,” Erik says firmly. “Of course not.” He finishes off his burning-wine and hands the glass to a footman. “Please, tell me if there is anything you will need to make your stay here more comfortable.”
Xavier smiles again, that false empty smile he’s been wearing all evening. “Nothing comes immediately to mind,” he says. “I don’t doubt your ability to provide for me.”
Undoubtedly, Erik thinks, Xavier believes reassuring Erik of his prowess as an alpha is the way to his heart.
“It would be lovely if I might be allowed access to your library,” Xavier says, letting his own plate be taken away.
“Of course. The third floor, in the north wing. Your manservant, Gunnar, will show you.” Erik pushes back his chair and stands. The footmen and Hands along the wall immediately stiffen to attention. “I have a council meeting I must attend. Feel free to explore the keep, and tell a servant if you need anything.”
“And if I need you, your Grace?”
Erik is slightly caught off guard - not that he should be, he reminds himself. Not after the burning-wine. But Xavier’s face is still schooled into the perfect picture of innocence. If there is any salacious intent behind the words, it doesn’t show. His eyes catch the candlelight now that he is looking directly at Erik, and are suddenly very blue for the moment before he looks back down at his lap demurely.
“Janos or Logan are my proxies,” Erik says, a beat too late. “If it is urgent, you may send a message to me via servant.” He bows at the waist, formal. “Good evening, Xavier.”
He goes before Xavier can respond again, thoughts already turning away from his omega and toward the council and other, more bellicose, objectives.