Cephiro was a comparatively small land, next to her neighbours - but a few key facts made her a more attractive land than most. The first of which was the fact she was an island, separated from the continent by a strip of sea just wide enough that swimming it was out of the question, but small enough that invasion by boat had been carried out several times in her past. It hadn’t happened for a while - the current monarchy had been in place for almost three hundred years. But it was a present enough risk in the people’s minds that the beacons along the shore were still maintained.
Ferio, Prince of the Realm and currently heir presumptive while his sister the Queen had no children, tossed a rock into that strip of ocean from his perch on the outside edge of the castle wall. As the water was below both the wall - fifteen feet of weathered limestone - and the cliff face below that, it was a fairly unsatisfying gesture; he couldn’t even see it by the time it hit, and any splash was swallowed up into the general swell of the surf.
“Do you have to sit on the edge, your highness?” Ascot stood on the walkway built into the top of the walls, leaning on the rampart. He was slightly younger than Ferio, and had been serving as his personal servant for the past year and a half. It had taken a while to persuade him to stop being terrified of Ferio, and that he wasn’t going to do something wrong if he breathed the wrong way, but now he was settling down he had a tendency towards flailing at Ferio’s idiocy which Ferio found highly amusing. It was a more dramatic version of Clef’s grumping, which he’d been ignoring for the past twenty years.
Today, however, Ferio was in no mood to be moved. When he didn’t respond, Ascot sighed heavily, and looked about - and then pushed himself up onto the ramparts beside Ferio. (He didn’t swing his legs out over the drop though.) “…If the Chancellor comes out and spots us, will you grab me when I start falling over the edge?”
Ferio did snort at that. “If Clef comes to yell at anyone, he’ll be yelling at me, not you. You can’t stop me being an idiot if I want to - Prince, and all that.”
“Yes, but the yelling always makes me jump.” Ascot peered over tentatively. “…and that’s a very long way down. I don’t know why you like it up here so much.”
“Because most people leave me alone when I climb up?” Dropping another stone over the side, Ferio watched it as far as he could see it, and then sat back to look up at the horizon - at the faint dark smudge on the edge of the sea which was the shore of Autozam. “Don’t start apologising, I know I’m not fit for company.”
Ascot shook his head, a short smile flashing across his face and making him look a lot younger. “I wasn’t going to apologise.”
“Ooh, insubordination! We’ll have you ready for court life in no time.” Ferio grinned back at him - then fell silent again, glancing back out to sea with the smile falling from his face. “…You’ll need to be. Both of us will.”
The wind brushed about them and on into the gardens, where in the sheltered distance the young Queen was sat talking with the High Priest. Ferio was sat very carefully where he couldn’t see them, but he still knew they were there. Every day, between the morning court sessions and luncheon, his sister consulted Zagato on the cases coming through. It was one of the reasons she was regarded as the best monarch Cephiro had had for a hundred years, the close ties she had with the priesthood.
“…I thought the plan was running away to sea to be notorious pirates and make our fortunes,” Ascot said, carefully. Ferio’s dislike for the pomp and fastidiousness of court life was well known, as were all the cunning plans he’d come up with as a child to get away from it as soon as he was old enough.
“Well.” Ferio chucked another stone over the wall, and then stood up, brushing his hands - and making Ascot yelp. But even with the wind pressing at him, Ferio felt perfectly safe up there, in the air.
It was only inside the walls he didn’t know how well he could trust his balance.
“Perhaps we won’t be able to run away quite as easily as I thought. Besides, there’s a few people I’d miss-”
From the gardens, an exasperated voice cut in. “We’d not miss the heart attacks you seem determined to give us. Must you persist in wandering along cliff edges?”
Ascot did, indeed, twitch, but he came nowhere near the edge of the wall. “Caught again,” he muttered, and Ferio did laugh.
He’d already made his choice, after all; no use pretending that he could choose anything else and live with himself. Now he just had to face it - and start making choices about his future for himself, before anyone else started to take an interest.
“Sorry, Clef, am I late again?”
“For the lesson you were meant to have three hours ago, or for lunch?”
“Lunch, of course.” Ferio dropped onto the walkway, and helped Ascot back over it. “I already know I’ve missed the other.” They scrambled down the closest set of stairs, where Clef waited for them, not quite glaring. (Then again, it was a while since Ferio had seen Clef smile. The Chancellor wasn’t forty yet, but he grumbled and fretted like an old man chasing after the rest of them. He’d also held the realm together through Emeraude’s the year after their parents were lost, when their uncle was too old to govern but too stubborn to accept a regency, and then the four years from his death to Emeraude’s acceptance by Parliament as capable to rule in her own right on her fourteenth birthday. He hadn’t smiled much then, either; Ferio had grown up alternatively avoiding him or trying to make him laugh.)
“How old were you, when you became Chancellor?” Ferio asked, suddenly, and Clef blinked for a moment.
“I was eighteen. Your age, I guess, but I’d been in parliament two years already, and as they had accepted me to that, they couldn’t deny me the Chancellorship on the basis of age - and no one had done much with the job for half a century. …Why do you ask?” Clef looked over at where Emeraude sat, then looked back.
Ferio sighed. “And Emeraude was Queen at nine. You make the rest of us feel inadequate sometimes.”
Clef huffed a laugh at him, shaking his head. “If you want a chance at it, I could retire and persuade them you should be my replacement-”
“No, thanks.” Ferio pulled a face at him. “People keep expecting more than enough from me as a Prince. I should try to meet their demands with the whole ‘heir to the throne’ thing before I try anything else, don’t you think?”
Clef looked at him again, and sighed. “If you are so concerned with what they think you should be doing - you should know that the subject of marriage has come up in Council again. Either for your sister or you; either would strengthen the future of the crown, but with neither of you married it’s a very short step to all those distant cousins of yours fighting over the right to rule again, or-”
“-Or we’ll be invaded by someone from the mainland, and if they manage to kill both Emeraude and I then the country would be divided twenty ways between all the cousins and no one person will have enough people willing to support them to fight back against the invasion. I know.” Ferio looked back once more at the arbour where his sister was talking to her Priest - who was not allowed to marry, because of the holy vows he had taken, and yet he was the only person his sister ever would agree to marry. He was sure of it. Once Parliament worked that one out, they’d spend every moment trying to make her marry someone she didn’t love, just so there would be a child, and possibly someone else’s army to help with fighting off any invasions.
Unless he married and had a child, that was. The whole country knew Ferio didn’t want to rule, and loved his sister dearly, so his children should be acceptable as future kings or queens of Cephiro.
And if he married soon enough, then by the time Parliament worked out Emeraude was never going to marry anyone they wouldn’t need to shout - and when they decided his marriage was the only chance they had at avoiding a war they’d be trying to force him into marrying someone he’d never met. Ferio had never fallen in love with anyone, not like Emeraude had, so he had a good chance of being happy enough - but he wanted to at least decide for himself who he was to spend his life tied to!
“I know, Clef,” he said, more quietly.
Clef was a grumpy creature and a pain who chased Ferio round trying to get politics to stick in his head, but he was alright. He knew when to stop asking questions, anyway. And he read pretty much every bit of information which reached Cephiro. “…Have you heard the latest news from the mainland? They say that the second daughter of the Hououji lands is about your age-” he began, then hesitated, but for the first time Ferio didn’t tell him to stop.
An hour later, after spending lunch hearing everything Clef happened to know about probably every eligible princess or noble lady he could think of, Ferio wandered into his rooms with Ascot following him, and stared thoughtfully at his closet. He had a large number of clothes which would look more appropriate on a soldier than royalty, and an idea.
“So, Ascot - you know how you’ve always wanted to be a Prince-”
“No, I haven’t. I have more sense than that.”
“So you say, but secretly-”
“-I’ve never wanted to be a Prince?” Ascot grinned at him.
Ferio pulled a face at Ascot. “You could at least wait to hear what I’m going to say.”
“I know where this conversation is going, and it’s a terrible idea.” Ascot waved his hands at him. “You want to go find out what this Princess is like but you don’t want her to know it’s you. So you want me to be you. Right?”
“…Yes?” Ferio frowned. “Wait, which Princess? And how did you know-”
“It seemed like the kind of thing you’d think of.” Ascot looked at him steadily. “This Hou- Houji?”
“Hououji,” Ferio said it carefully. He could speak some Nihongo, though not terribly much. That might be a problem, but if what Clef had said about this girl being smart was right…
“If I pretend to be you, then if she agrees to marry you - she’ll be agreeing to marry me. And I can’t marry a Princess and keep pretending to be you forever, your sister the Queen would notice! So would Clef, and he’s scarier than your sister. I think.”
“I don’t know. You’ve never seen Emeraude lose her temper.” Ferio shook his head. “But it wouldn’t be a problem! Of course I’d tell her who I was, if I thought we could get along. If not we might as well just leave. But as a Prince I’d have to be formal all the time, and so would she. If I’m just one of your guards, then I can wander about and see what she’s really like!”
Ascot sat on one of the chairs, looking decidedly unconvinced. “We’d never manage it. We couldn’t go alone, we’d have to take some of the guards - you know that even on a hunting trip they make you take two along, and all of them know who you are.”
“We’ll take LaFarga with us,” Ferio explained, starting to grin. ‘We’d never manage it’ meant Ascot thought he had a point and didn’t want to admit it. “They let us out with just him, they did it last month. And you could get him to agree - you’re like his little brother, he listens to you. Plus, he’s devoted to my sister, and this will get her out of trouble. I bet he’d agree. Especially if we don’t tell him until we’re out of the Castle… and what trouble could we get into in a distant part of Nihon? No one will know us until we get to the Castle and say you’re me. It’s a brilliant plan!”
Ascot hid his head in his hands. “If I don’t agree to go you’re going to try and go alone and pretend you’re a - a wandering swordsman or something, aren’t you.”
“Well, if you agree, I won’t have to.” Ferio grinned at him. “Come on, Ascot! It’ll be an adventure!”
A month later, Ferio flopped back onto the bed in the Hououji guest quarters, groaning. “This was a terrible idea!”
“I did say so,” Ascot reminded him, sat at the desk in borrowed finery. (He was better at acting like a Prince than Ferio was, as long as there weren’t too many people about. A crowd made him shy, but his manners were better than Ferio’s ever were even without acting. Ferio had already asked him to take the job permanently about three times.)
“She’s boring, isn’t she. She must be! She’s so formal all the time!” Ferio rubbed at his eyes. “I mean yes she’s pretty, and smart, but-”
“She’s lovely!” Ascot told him, frowning. “Just because you haven’t been able to talk to her, because you didn’t want to be a Prince here- she’s kind, and- she’s really good with the horses, and the hawks in the falconry-”
“So you keep telling me, but all I see is- is her being polite!” Ferio flopped over onto his stomach, burying his head in the pillow.
Things had gone wrong about half an hour after their arrival, when they’d been introduced to the Princesses, Kuu - the elder, who was going to inherit the Hououji lands (which weren’t quite a kindgom but the words didn’t translate very well, so Ferio was sticking with ‘Princess’), and Fuu. Who took one look at the three of them with clear green eyes, and smiled so beautifully Ferio had to stare - and then declared that she should show the visiting Prince around herself, and no, they didn’t need anyone with them, surely your guards would like the chance to see a new country? I’ll have some of my people take them out to see the city…
Ferio had only caught glimpses of her since then, except at formal dinners, where her manners were polite and her smile ever-present, but he had no idea what she was like.
Ascot seemed to like her, but how could Ferio trust someone else on this, when he had no evidence? (Plus Ascot readily admitted he was terrible at reading people.) That was the whole reason he was here! But they’d been here three days already, and all he’d seen was the town. They were meant to be leaving in the next few days, and Ferio was no wiser than when they’d arrived.
LaFarga, fortunately for him, was still at the market- today’s destination- buying a gift for his sweetheart, and had been so flustered when Ferio called Caldina that that he let Ferio go back to the palace with just the Hououji guards who had been sent to guide them. He’d planned to come back and join Ascot and the Princess on their tour of the gardens, but she’d finished it just as he arrived - despite only having shown Ascot half of them.
“Right.” Ferio sat up. “That’s it. I’m going to go find out what she’s like.”
“…How? You’re a guard, remember? You can’t just walk up to her and start chatting. If you were here as a Prince-”
“I’m going to sneak into the family part of this palace and see what she’s like with her own people, like I planned to do!” Ferio pulled his boots back on - they were the ones he wore hunting, soft and quiet - and left the room, ignoring Ascot’s protests.
Princess Fuu’s excuse for cutting the tour short had been that she had an archery lesson to attend. Ferio’s own tour of the castle - with LaFarga, and given by the head of the guard - had passed the gardens where the Hououji family practised, he’d pointed out the targets with pride. There were some trees by the wall, and the wall itself looked easier to climb than most of the bits of the Cephiran Castle Ferio had made it up over the years - he got up it without much fuss, and worked his way into the tallest and densest of the trees, wriggling along one of the branches until he could see the small group of people with bows. The Princess was there, and two of her guard, the two Ferio thought might be her closest friends - but he wasn’t certain.
They seemed to be laughing about something when he got into position, but then the Princess took up her bow, and after the first shot Ferio was staring. By the tenth he was open-mouthed. Each shot hit the centre of its target, and the Princess was unruffled, barely pausing between shots but never rushing.
On the eleventh arrow she drew, suddenly she turned, and aimed, and the arrow whistled past Ferio’s ear and into the trunk of the tree behind him. He let go the branch with a shout, hit at least three more branches falling down the tree, and thumped into the ground hard enough his head was spinning.
By the time he looked up, the Princess was stood in front of him, next arrow on her bow - and still smiling. “Ah, Prince Ferio. I’m glad you finally decided to really meet me.”
Head ringing, Ferio stared up at her, and the only thought in his head was ‘I think I’m going to marry this woman’.
Very few people believed Fuu when she smiled and told them she met her husband when she shot at Ferio because he was too shy to introduce himself. Quite a lot of them, however, believed that he’d disguised himself to meet her, and she’d seen straight through his plan and decided to thwart it. (‘It didn’t seem fair that you would be able to meet me without my being able to meet you at the same time’, she told him, later. ‘That nice boy you had pretending to be you flinched when he was called ‘Prince’. Not much, but enough to see. I wanted to know if you would give up and go away when things didn’t go your way, or if you had the courage to do something.’)
Ferio’s speech at their wedding started by claiming he’d fallen head over heels at her feet with love, and Ascot had to leave the room before he disturbed the royal guests by laughing too hard.