“Who is Aris?” asked the king near the end of sword practice.
He had to know the answer to that. But he looked at Costis expectantly, so Costis said, “He’s a squad leader in the Third, sir. They leave for Sounis soon.”
“Raise your guard,” the king said. Costis complied. “But who is he to you?”
“My friend,” said Costis. The king arched an eyebrow. “He’s my best friend,” Costis said, puzzled and growing alarmed. “Has he done something?”
“No,” said the king, and he lunged over Costis’s guard and tapped his collarbone.
At mess after practice he told Aris: “The king asked about you.”
Aris popped his last olive in his mouth. “Is that good?”
“I don’t know,” Costis admitted.
“Maybe he wants to replace you,” said Aris. He winced, and spit out the pit of the olive. “Put him off it, Costis. I’d rather be run through by Sounisian border guards.”
“He isn’t that bad,” said Costis. “And why would he want to replace me?”
Aris gathered up his dishes and nudged Costis’s shoulder. “You’re crazy enough to think he’s not that bad. Who wants to be guarded by a known lunatic?”
Aris messed up Costis’s hair. “It’s a joke. Costis, you have no sense of humor,” he said affectionately, and left.
The king knocked Costis’s sword aside. “Do you want to go to Sounis?”
Conversation, Costis decided, was the king’s new diversionary tactic. He wouldn’t take the bait.
The king suddenly thrust, backing Costis halfway across the guardroom. “Well?” he asked.
“I’ve heard it’s warmer than Attolia in winter,” Costis said.
The king pressed his attack, till Costis’s back was to the wall and the king’s wooden sword inches from his throat. “Yes, then?”
Costis turned his head so he wouldn’t breathe the king’s breath. “I’ll go where you tell me to go,” said Costis.
The king moved his sword so the blunted wooden edge touched Costis’s throat, bobbing with his quick breaths. Costis was suddenly aware of the king’s hook, leaned against the wall above his ear.
“Do you want me to go to Sounis?” Costis asked, and realized he was holding his breath.
“What I want rarely matters very much,” said the king. He smiled his most charming smile, and Costis’s stomach flip-flopped. Maybe he wants to replace you.
“Your Majesty. You are king.” The king’s practice sword slipped. Costis shied away. “Please could you let me go?”
The king stepped back and leaned on his practice sword. “Costis, you spar terribly,” he said.
He said that after half their sparring sessions. But usually he smiled as he said it.
That afternoon, a very harassed Teleus asked Costis if he could fake a Sounisian accent.
Costis found the king finally sitting above the throne room, perched between two rafters and reading a book. “Ah, Costis,” said the king. “Don’t you ever get tired of following me? This is the only way I can get enough quiet to read.”
Costis was so angry he couldn’t speak.
“No wonder you can’t spar,” said the king. “Just running up the stairs puts you out of breath.”
Costis bit his tongue savagely to keep from saying something he would regret. “Your Majesty,” he said. “You are not supposed to wander about on your own.”
“I don’t believe in supposed tos,” the king said, flipping a page in his book.
Costis wished for something to throw at him. “Sir,” he said. “Why are you sending me to Sounis?”
“Well,” said the king. “Teleus says you fake a Sounisian accent abominably, so I suppose I’ll have to send you somewhere else.”
“I don’t want to go somewhere else,” said Costis, voice rising.
The king bent over his book. “They might be able to come up with something for you to do in Sounis then,” he said.
“Sir – ”
“Costis. I’m reading.”
Costis climbed over the rail onto the beam.
That finally got the king’s attention. “Costis. Go back.”
Costis, arms spread to steady himself, took a step. “No,” he said. Another step. The beam was as wide as a folio book. “You doubt my loyalty.”
The king was pale, astonished. “No.”
Anger clogged Costis’s throat. (Or it might have been fear. He had been around the king too long.) “Why else would you send me away?”
The king shook his head. “No. No. Costis, you put sheepdogs to shame with your loyalty. I’ve never doubted it.” He stood very slowly, so as not to shake the rafter. “Your sanity, on the other hand…Costis! ”
Costis’s left foot caught on a rotten place in the wood; he slipped, he scrabbled at the rafters, he couldn’t catch hold.
The world burst into a jumble of fragmented seconds, like broken bits of stained glass. Shouting, and the king slid down a tapestry, and was somehow by Costis’s side. “Costis?” the king said, cradling Costis’s head.
Costis wanted to say he was fine, but then the floor vibrated like a drumhead and his leg was on fire and a forest of boots surrounded his head.
“Get Petrus,” the king snapped. “Costis. Speak to me.”
“I’m fine,” stammered Costis, and then one of the boots slipped too close and jarred his leg and he threw up on the king’s coat. “I’m sorry,” he said.
The king shucked off the coat. “Where,” he demanded, “is Petrus?”
“Here,” a nervous voice said, and suddenly a thin man bobbed into Costis’s vision. He held a candle to look into Costis’s eyes. His breath smelled of onions. Costis sneezed, and pain ricocheted up his leg.
“He didn’t hit his head,” the thin man said.
“He fell on his leg,” said the king.
“I’ll give him lethium.”
It burned in Costis’s throat, but almost at once he seemed to be floating away from his body and pain didn’t matter.
“Costis,” the king said again.
“My king?” mumbled Costis. Someone lifted him up.
“I’m sorry,” he thought the king said; but it seemed so unlikely that it was probably already a dream.
Costis fought free of the lethium fog to find himself in a soft bed in a warm dark place he did not know. He thought this should bother him. He closed his eyes and was half asleep again when someone coughed softly.
He fought his eyes open. “Who’s there?”
“You’re awake,” said the king, and Costis heard his footsteps approach the bed. The noise was a gift, to let Costis know where he was.
The king stirred up the embers in the fire. The room became warm and brown in the fire light, and Costis recognized it. “I’m in the royal infirmary,” he said.
“Least I could do,” said the king, who was suddenly by Costis’s side. He set the oil lamp next to Costis’s bed. Costis shifted, and hissed in pain. “I would kill the man who did this to you,” the king said, “if it wasn’t me.”
The lethium fogged Costis’s head so he couldn’t read the king’s face. “I fell,” said Costis. “Not your fault.”
“I wanted to make you stay.”
Costis squinted. The rhyme of the situation flickered just behind his reach. “So you…planned to cripple me?”
“No!” the king said, and thinking of the king’s missing hand, Costis blushed. “No,” said the king. “I didn’t want you to go after Aris.”
“My duty is here,” Costis said. “Why would I?”
The king stroked his hair. Costis felt like a cat. “Because you love him.”
“He’s my friend,” Costis agreed.
The king’s hand stilled. “I am an idiot,” he said. The firelight flickered red along his cheekbones.
Costis, confused, patted in the direction of the king’s hand. “And that’s your way of saying ‘Yes, yes you are’?” the king asked.
Costis shrugged. The king stroked his hair, soothing, and Costis lulled almost to sleep then jerked awake. “If I’m crippled,” he said. He was too tired to very much care. “Give my sword to Aris?”
The king winced. “The physician says you’ll make a full recovery,” he said, and tugged Costis’s hair. “I didn’t expect you to fling yourself off the rafters to prove your loyalty. A simple ‘I don’t want to go to Sounis’ would have been sufficient.”
Costis closed his eyes. “Don’t want to go to Sounis,” he said. He yawned. “You know I would stay even if you ordered me away,” he said. “You are my king.”
“Insubordinate,” the king said. Costis could hear the smile in his voice.
“Learned it from you,” murmured Costis.
“You probably did. You are insufferably impressionable.” The king touched his hair. “Costis – ” Costis opened his eyes. The king’s eyes were fever-bright. “My Costis,” the king said, all affection, and Costis smiled and drifted on the lethium.
And then the king kissed him. But that also might have been a dream.
The Queen of Attolia sat, cold and beautiful as a statue.
“On the lips,” Eugenides clarified.
She inclined her head.
“Thoroughly,” Gen said. “He blushed like a virgin.”
The cut-glass set of Attolia’s lips was not encouraging.
“I didn’t plan it,” Gen said. “Truly. It was a stupid impulse. I’ll never do it again.”
She lifted a long finger to her cheek. He cleared his throat and looked at his shoes. “You said,” he said, striving for a light tone, “that you would cut off my other hand if I took a mistress.”
“Did I?” One of her black eyebrows rose. “Then brave boy, for telling me this.”
His heart drummed in his ears. “I thought it would be better than letting Relius tell you.” He swallowed. “This is not Costis’s fault,” he said. “It won’t happen again.”
“No?” she said. Her stone face dissolved in a smle. “Finally, Gen. You’ve pined after him for months.”
A beat. Then: “I have not,” protested Gen.
“Since his gallant if unnecessary attempt to save you from the assassins in the garden,” she said.
He smiled. “Even though he hated me. Because it was his duty.” He paused. “Irene,” he said plaintively. “He’s so…simple.”
“He’s probably the only uncomplicated honorable person you’ve ever met.”
Gen considered. “There was Sophos.”
She stood, red skirts sweeping the floor. “Gen,” she said. She touched his cheek. He blushed. “You are not allowed to have a harem of honorable simpletons.”
He pouted. She tapped his cheek. “One is enough,” he agreed, and kissed her fingers. “My Queen.”
She kissed his other cheek and went on, but stopped in the doorway. “Of course,” she said, “You know this means you mustn’t object when Eddis visits.”
His brow crinkled. “Why would I object?”
“I hold her in the highest affection,” said Attolia, lowering her eyelashes.
“You mean – ”
“The very highest,” Attolia said, smirking.
“You’re joking?” Gen said hopefully.
Her laughter echoed as she walked down the stairs.