"Well," he said, tucking Cora's hand more securely through the crook of his elbow as they advanced into the great hall, "we definitely don't want to have those slammed on us, do we?"
"Can you imagine?" she asked lightly, her lips quirking up.
"I'm trying not to. My nervous nature can't handle it."
A peal of laughter made him slant his gaze toward her to catch his sister with her head tossed back, long throat pale and beautiful in the blazing light of a thousand candles. She was incandescent, and he just a lump at her side. Fondness crept over him, and with it, a sudden chill. His sister was going to be snatched up by this king or the next. And when that happened, he'd only see her in fleeting moments during occasions of state.
It was enough to make a grown man weep.
Intent on keeping Cora in a fine mood, he leaned down and whispered in her ear, "Just imagine, one day this could all be yours. And when that day comes, it will be your face preserved for all eternity in badly drawn profile on Bohemia's money."
Cora tugged her hand free long enough to smack him lightly before hooking her hand around his elbow again. "Stop it, Derek! You'll have my cheeks all blotchy, and I'll laugh outright at an inopportune moment. You know I bray like a donkey. It isn't at all attractive."
"My dear, sweet sister—" Derek had to pause long enough to hide his smile at the way Cora snorted before he could continue. "Your laugh is as musical as the wind that passes through the dining hall after a heavy meal."
"You beast!" Cora said, though her shoulders were shaking with laughter and her eyes held tears of mirth.
The clatter of a dropped serving dish drew Derek's attention back to the hall. It was loud, overly packed with people whose cheeks were already wine-flushed. Derek grimaced at the sight and felt Cora's grip tighten on his arm.
Glancing at her, he saw that all levity was gone from her countenance. Now she appeared pale, haughty, a cold foreign princess.
Derek's lips curved in amusement at seeing his oft-annoying younger sister putting on such airs. "Shall we?" he asked, pitching his voice just loud enough to reach her ears over the cacophony created by so many people. He inclined his head toward the center of the room where the crowd was thickest and the posturing most loud.
"Should we wait for Mama and Papa?" she asked, glancing behind them to where the doors were still sealed shut against the cool day beyond them.
Derek shook his head, still taking in the grandeur of the hall. "No, Father is attending to the disposition of the baggage and Mother is securing us rooms for the duration of this farce."
Cora's shoulders lifted the smallest fraction with a dainty sigh before she gave a regal nod and allowed Derek to steer her through the throngs of people. "Tell me again," she murmured, "why this is necessary."
"Because, my dear one," Derek said, affecting a wide, slightly crazed smile, "the young, newly-crowned King of Bohemia is in search of a spouse and we had the appallingly bad taste to be born so far down the hierarchy of royalty in Moravia as to be unnecessary to our own royal lineage but still too high born to be anything other than the consort to the royal house of another country."
"And thus we were subjected to a month-long journey to Bohemia where we will spend four days putting on ridiculous airs in an attempt to garner the attention of the young king," Cora sighed, appearing exhausted with it all.
"That is certainly one possibility," Derek allowed with a thoughtful nod of his head. He hid a smile when his sister turned a suspicious look on him.
"What do you mean one possibility? Are there others?"
"Of course there are! We eat this fine food," exemplifying perfect timing, a servant passed by with a tray of food just then, from which Derek plucked two tiny meat pies, handing one to Cora, "drink Bohemia's best wines, and enjoy ourselves at this king's expense."
"Ohh," Cora said, her eyes widening spectacularly, "I had no idea you were such a genius, Derek."
Derek shrugged, affecting a modest expression, and was about to give a quick rejoinder when the crowds parted, giving him a direct view of the man seated at the high table. He lost his thoughts then, and very nearly the meat pie as well, his lips parting in shock. "My God," he whispered, not even bothering to worry after his soul at the blasphemy.
Cora frowned in confusion before following his gaze and elbowing him in the side. "Rethinking that first option, are we?"
"Cora, if you marry this man, I will find a way to put a curse on your tender bits so that he is forced to seek relief outside the marital chamber." Derek considered feeling guilty over threatening to sleep with his sister's potential groom, but then again...
The young king of Bohemia was... Younger than Derek had expected. In their world, a "young" king was one who had seen thirty hard years of battle and had the scars and dissolute bearing to prove it. This man was still pink-cheeked, though his height and the breadth of his shoulders put him at a more advanced age than the smooth innocence of his cheeks would suggest. His dark hair fell haphazardly across his brow and his eyes…Derek could only pinpoint them as dark from the distance separating them. King Matyàs' mouth was a generous spread of pink, even from where Derek was standing. He looked...beautiful.
Derek shook himself, refusing to allow hope to spread. The king might be a complete bore or, even more likely, not willing to marry a man.
Laughing lightly, Cora tugged on his arm, forcing Derek through the crowd around the dais that held the king's table until they were close enough for Derek to see that the color of his eyes was a clear, golden brown, several shades lighter than Cora's. The king was inclining his head toward the knight serving him, stretching the long line of his neck such that Derek's mouth began to water. His teeth itched to sink into the pale, mole-dotted flesh.
"Your majesty," Cora said, dipping into a graceful curtsy as the king turned his attention toward them. "I am Cora Hale, Princess of Moravia, and this is my brother, Derek."
Derek side-eyed her for leaving off his titles, though apparently the king didn't object to the breach in protocol because he stood, returned Cora's curtsy with a deep bow, and smiled. "Moravia. I traveled there once as a boy. A beautiful land. Almost as beautiful as her people," the king said, his voice lilting with good humor and his eyes gleaming flirtatiously as he glanced between Cora and Derek.
"My apologies to your herald," Derek said, giving his own deep bow. "It was a long journey and my darling sister appears to have forgotten the custom our mother drilled into us."
The king waved off Derek's words, shaking his head as he chuckled. "Not at all. Why allow another to speak for you when you're quite capable of it yourself. Right, Princess?"
Cora smirked, an expression that fit too well on her face. "Exactly right, your highness."
"Please, call me Matyàs." The king's glance encompassed them both, granting the liberty to Derek as well.
"Please, call us anything you wish." Cora followed that up with an outrageous wink, which left the king staring at her open-mouthed before he tossed his head back with a loud laugh.
"I look forward to spending more time with the Moravian contingent."
Aware that they were taking up too much of the king's time while there were other guests to greet, Derek murmured his thanks, grabbed Cora, and descended from the dais.
"What were you thinking?" he hissed.
"That there are hundreds of simpering fools vying for his attention. If we want him to notice us, we must be unafraid to reach out and grab it."
"Somewhere in this monstrosity of a castle, Mother is growing cross with you and doesn't even know why."
Cora leaned against his chest, overcome with laughter, and Derek couldn't hold onto his ire. Shaking his head, he smiled indulgently as he led Cora to an unclaimed table, seating her and requesting fresh trenchers from a servant who stepped forward to fill their glasses with wine.
Today there had been a tourney, and Derek hadn't planned to participate until Cora offered him up in place of a knight who'd fallen ill. She'd taken too readily to shoving him into view whenever the king was near. The poor man probably thought Derek was a glory-seeking bastard by this point.
But he'd shown well today, in both the joust and the melee, though he'd be of little use for the rest of the evening judging by the deep bruises marring his torso. Even Isaac, his manservant, winced.
"My prince, would you like me to make your excuses so that you might receive your dinner in chambers tonight?"
Derek shook his head, stripping his small clothes off before climbing into the steaming bath Isaac had ordered for him. "Much as the thought is born from my most desperate fantasies, no. The king will be making his announcement this evening and I must be there, regardless of my beaten and battered state."
"Is being King's Consort worth all this?"
Derek leaned his head back against the raised lip of the tub, grunting when Isaac began to scrub the filth from him. "To be quite honest, Cora stands a better chance at being chosen than I. The king's eyes stray more toward skirts than suits of armor."
"All this was for naught?" Isaac asked, sounding outraged.
"It increased the visibility of Moravia's marital offerings," Derek said, lips twisting as the stray image of he and Cora as cattle flitted through his mind, "which improves Cora's chances. And I'd rather she wed this king than someone thrice her age and covered in boils."
"Ah, developed an affinity for fat old men with boils, have we?"
Derek splashed at Isaac for his cheek, only to have a bucket of cold water dumped over his head in retaliation.
"You son of a motherless goat!" he shouted, shivering all over as goosebumps broke out along his skin.
Isaac laughed and danced out of reach, the only thing saving him their long years of friendship. And the fact that Derek couldn't dress himself for the coming night's banquet without assistance.
When Derek was once more presentable, he walked down to the banquet, setting his teeth against the urge to limp. A blow he'd taken to his upper thigh made pain shoot through his leg with every step, but it was nothing he hadn't dealt with before.
Entering the banquet hall, he paused a moment to locate his family before joining them. The table they'd been seated at was only one removed from the high table at which sat the king and his father. It was a good sign, and Derek found himself sharing an excited look with Cora. Though neither of them had been able to spend much time with the king this week, both had been utterly charmed in the short audiences they had been afforded.
King Matyàs was not just handsome, but from all appearances had a good-natured humor and seemed to be unexpectedly kind as well. Derek was all too aware that appearances could be deceptive, but he found himself flooded with hope at a good match for his sister.
He would simply have to deal with his own unbrotherly attraction when Cora was chosen.
After the meat courses had been served, King Matyàs stood and at once the hall fell quiet. A small grin quirked the king's lips before he began to speak. "I would like to take this opportunity to thank you all for traveling so far to join in this week of festivities. As you know, I had an ulterior motive in inviting your specific families this week. Bohemia has been without a Queen since my mother's death twenty-two years ago."
The hush that had fallen over the hall turned poignant then, and Derek noticed more than one person lift a hand to wipe away a tear. Queen Claudia of Bohemia had been well-loved by her subjects and universally adored by those who knew her. Derek glanced at his own mother to see her pressing one hand to her mouth, a sadness filling her gentle eyes as she looked upon King John, whose abdication of the throne of Bohemia due to ill health and age, had led to the necessity of this week.
"Unfortunately," King Matyàs continued, a new husky quality in his voice, "Bohemia will simply have to wait through at least one more generation before they receive a new queen."
Loud gasps sounded throughout the hall, and Derek turned wide eyes on his sister, who was frowning, though she appeared more disgruntled than devastated.
"Instead, I would like to make known my intention to wed Prince Derek of Moravia... If he'll have me?"
Derek, still looking at Cora for her reaction, found himself floundering, wrong footed, as he tried to process this announcement. A sharp elbow from his mother had him stumbling to his feet, and he turned, blinking rapidly up at King Matyàs, who was outright grinning back at him.
"I... Of course," Derek said, his voice carrying across the silent hall even though he'd been too stunned to put much strength behind it. Then, remembering himself, he bowed to the King and tried on a shaky smile. "Your majesty, you honor me with your choice. I am the least fit among our fine company to expect such an outcome, but only a fool would reject the gift of your suit. I thank you for your consideration and look forward to sharing many long years with you." Derek glanced between King Matyàs and King John, mind racing as he tried to determine if anything else was expected of him.
King Matyàs swept an arm out, indicating the empty seats at his table. "If you and your family would join us, we have much to discuss."
After his family had moved to the head table, King John stood and held his wine aloft. "If our illustrious company would indulge a doting father, I'd like to make a toast. To my son, Matyàs, and to his future spouse, Derek, who I look forward to calling son as well. To the Princess Cora, Queen Talia and King Eric of Moravia, may our alliance be one of family and devotion as well as that of two countries."
Derek lifted his glass by rote, though he found his gaze straying to Matyàs, seated on his left. While Matyàs was, for all intents and purposes, paying dutiful attention to his father, Derek could practically feel the weight of his regard. As he watched from the corner of his eye, Matyàs' lips twitched and his eyes sparkled with humor. "Did I manage to surprise you, Prince Derek?" he asked, his gaze flicking around the room, fingers tightening on his wine glass as he brought it to his lips, drinking deep before he glanced toward Derek.
Derek quirked an eyebrow and dipped his head in a nod, searching for a proper response. When he could find nothing appropriately witty in his scattered thoughts, he allowed himself a moment of bald honesty. "Surprise is a bit of an understatement, your majesty. Shock might be a more apt description of my reaction."
"Why? Surely you're aware of your own appeal?" Matyàs turned fully toward Derek for the first time.
"Forgive me, your majesty, but as this is the longest conversation we've had this week, I believe a bit of astonishment is appropriate."
Matyàs dropped his eyes to the top button of Derek's formal doublet. "Unfortunately, that is the nature of such gatherings. I could not be seen to spend too much time with any one person so as not to offend my other guests. But rest assured," he murmured, leaning close, "your future husband's thoughts were never far from you since the moment you passed through the doors your first day here."
Derek's lips parted, a startled breath escaping him. He opened his mouth to respond — with what, he wasn't certain — when King John leaned forward and spoke to Derek's mother around him.
"Talia, my dear," he greeted warmly, "have you any preferences with regard to the wedding?"
"How soon can it be accomplished?" his mother asked, her voice all business. "Eric and I have left Moravia too long in Peter's care, and I fear the state of our country's virgins should we delay our return much longer."
Derek hid his eyes behind his hand as Matyàs let out a burst of surprised laughter. "Mother!" he complained.
But she just patted his arm. "Don't worry, dear; John is well acquainted with your Uncle."
"Unfortunately," King John muttered. "But regardless, plans have been moving forward for months. We could arrange for the wedding to proceed at week's end, giving time for Derek's wedding vestments to be created. Matyàs, of course, will wear the traditional attire. It's already been fitted to him."
"Traditional attire?" Derek asked, curious.
"Oh, it's horrible," Matyàs said, sounding far too cheerful. "Gaudy and poofy and a true affront to the eyes."
"And yet you seem to be excited to don it," Derek couldn't help pointing out.
Matyàs just smiled again, a secretive cast to his features that took Derek aback. "Shouldn't I be?" he asked. "Considering the occasion, I mean."
Making a hmming sound, Derek inclined his head. "Perhaps you are right. After all, you're binding yourself and your country in marriage to a man you've shared approximately ten minutes worth of conversation with. I cannot imagine why one might express reticence."
"I'm not the only one who agreed to this union, Derek." Maytàs' eyes flashed with something that wasn't anger, but wasn't far from it either. "I'm not the only one binding myself to a stranger."
"My apologies if I've offered offense," Derek said, hearing how stiff his voice sounded to his own ears. "I suppose what matters is only that you chose me and not the why of it."
Matyàs bit off a sigh and glanced down at where their hands were resting upon the table, mere inches from each other. Glancing quickly around the hall, he pushed his hand over so that the side of it was pressed against Derek's. "You have no reason to apologize. I've behaved poorly in springing this announcement on you in the face of the highest families in the region. I… worried."
"That you might reject my suit. You are, after all, correct. We've spent so little time together that you would have been well within your rights to reject me. I thought, if I put it to you here, that you'd be—"
"You thought to force my hand?" Derek leaned forward, mouth parting in open amazement at Matás' words and the implications behind them.
"I am no prize, your highness. And my country seems to always be on the brink of rebellion; to take me to husband would be to accept responsibility for a land that has no hold on your heart."
"I knew before the first of our carriages crossed the border of Moravia what the purpose was of our visit. I have read your histories and talked with our advisers about the pockets of unrest in your kingdom. Anyone who arrived this week and did none of those things is a fool. I'd like to think I'm no fool. Every kingdom has issues unique to it." Derek paused then and drew his smallest finger along the side of Matyàs' hand. "As for prizes, perhaps I should be allowed to pass judgment on your worthiness as a spouse, hmm?"
"It is rare, indeed, the pairing of wisdom and beauty. I have no cause to regret choosing you. I can only pray that you feel the same." Matyàs' words were smoothly proper, but Derek noted that he didn't move his hand from where it still pressed close to Derek's.
With a small smile, Derek hooked his finger over Matyàs' and allowed a change of topic to one more suited to a festive banquet.
"If you crush that velvet before the wedding, so help me, I will skewer you with your own sword."
"Why are you so violent?" Derek muttered, soothing the stinging flesh with his thumb.
"Because your mother pays me to be," Isaac said, his lips twitching upward as he stepped back and swept a critical eye over Derek's form. "Eh. You'll do. It's not as if you'll be wearing your wedding vestments for long regardless. If that child-king doesn't order us to strip you bare within an hour of the service, I'll eat my hat."
Derek rolled his eyes. "Child-king. He's barely six years younger than I. Which makes him just about the same age as… oh, right. You."
"Alas, as no one has seen fit to bestow a kingdom on my remarkably youthful shoulders, your words hold little weight." Isaac plucked a piece of string from the shoulder of Derek's wedding attire and stepped back. "Do not faint. Do not laugh. Speak your vows so that those noble families seated in the center row of the cathedral might hear you, but not so loud that the hangers on in the back will. Make them strain for it. The kiss of peace should not be vulgar. Keep that to the wedding chamber. Now… I believe you're ready."
Raising an eyebrow, Derek fluttered his lashes with a put-upon sigh. "Marriage advice from a child. Whatever has become of the world?"
"Wedding advice, not marriage. My advice for the marriage is to always keep his dick wet. A man well-satisfied in the bed chamber has no reason for complaint."
Derek opened his mouth to chide Isaac, then simply found himself nodding. "One would hope he's receiving similar advice from an overly-familiar attendant."
"Or at least, one's dick would," Isaac said.
A knock at the door preceded Derek's father, who stood in the doorway and smiled upon his son. Isaac made muttered excuses before fleeing — he'd always been starry-eyed around King Eric, though Derek had no idea why — leaving Derek and his father to make their way to the cathedral together at a more sedate pace.
"Are you happy with… everything?" his father asked, turning to pin Derek with a look that urged him to speak with honesty.
"I am not unhappy." Derek looked around them as the people of the castle bustled about, taking care of last-minute preparations for the wedding and the feast to follow. "I would have preferred to spend more time with my betrothed before the wedding but—"
"I would apologize to you for that. Your mother didn't want to leave until you were wed but—"
"Father. It's perfectly reasonable that you would want to return home with all haste. I am not faulting you or mother for the speed of my wedding. It is a consequence of our duty; I find no fault with Matyàs and the match is a solid one. It is beneficial to both Moravia and Bohemia. There are few other matches that would be half so advantageous."
"And of course, it doesn't hurt that he has an ass that could make angels envious."
Eric pursed his lips and slid a sly look toward Derek. "You'll find that marriage does not strike you blind to the beauty all around you. It simply allows you a partner to point out traits in others you might have missed. And your mother is very appreciative of King Matyàs' beauty. As, I noticed, are you."
"Hmm, yes. Well." Hoping to startle his father into a bit of shame, Derek waited a beat before he said, "The wedding night will be no hardship."
"Something needs to be hard."
"Why was I cursed with such a low-minded family?" Derek moaned, hiding his red face.
"The rest of us are equally surprised that such a high-minded sort remained unsullied in our family. Ah well, in every flock there is a black sheep."
"Thank you, Father." The opened doors of the cathedral loomed before them, and through them, Derek could see his mother and sister, several of their household knights, and Isaac, who was staring slack-jawed in the direction of the king's party. "I'm certain the thought of sheep will get me through the coming night with no issue."
His lips twitched when he caught his father's wince and he mentally gave himself a point in the ongoing battle of wits that was his entire life's interaction with his various family members. Stepping into the darker interior of the cathedral, Derek went immediately to Isaac to receive his instructions for the coming ceremony, knowing his attendant would have been informed of any changes to the scheduled events.
Isaac was incapable of dragging his attention away from whatever had captured it, however, and when Derek got close enough, it was Isaac who crushed the velvet sleeve of Derek's tunic in his excited grasp. "Who is that?" he asked Derek, his words a whispered rush.
Turning, Derek tried to follow the line of Isaac's sight, but could only see a flurry of knights and attendants through the candle-lit gloom of the church. "I have no idea."
"Do you mind if I get married first?" Derek asked, his voice dry. "It is what we're here for."
Isaac turned a disappointed frown on him, then heaved a great sigh. "Fine. Years of loyalty thrown aside for a wedding of all things. No, no. I understand. Please don't apologize."
"I had no intention of such."
"That's because you're a manner-less beast who has no joy in his soul. You're standing between me and my true love and haven't a care for how you're ruining my life."
"Your true love?" Derek snorted.
"He's ridiculously beautiful. Soulful eyes and the most adorably crooked jaw. I must have him."
"Restrain yourself from salivating over him in a place of holy worship, would you?"
"Not even God himself would ask the impossible from a mere mortal such as I. Any drooling you witness is entirely justified." Isaac finally dragged his gaze back toward Derek, gave him a quick once over, then said, "Why are you standing here? The wedding march just began."
Derek jolted to attention and was about to walk to his place at the altar when Isaac cackled and put a hand in his chest, holding him back.
"Idiot. They'll seat the families before the ceremony. Relax. One would think you were pledging your life to a virtual stranger today."
"Fuck you," Derek muttered, and had only a second to regret his choice of words before the team of attendants on King Matyàs' side of the entry parted enough for him to see his intended spouse.
Matyàs was standing in the watery light from a window, head tilted toward a young knight with — huh, soulful eyes and a crooked jaw — but something about him was… different. He appeared more relaxed, smiled more freely today than Derek had yet witnessed. He was lit up with it, incandescent, and the sight of him both stole Derek's breath and made his body yearn for the coming night.
They'd had such little time together in the week since the announcement of their wedding, none of it private, that Derek had become more and more tense, anxious that something would go wrong. Now that he was here, now that he saw Matyàs was here, Derek felt those knots of anxiety loosen.
He was minutes away from pledging his life to a man he found deeply appealing, but it hadn't occurred to him until that moment that the man who would hold that pledge would also give his own in return.
The crowds began to thin out as the families were seated and the household knights — an equal number Moravian and Bohemian — left to line the path to the altar, their armor gleaming in the light of the candles that brightened the cathedral's interior. Finally, there were only four left in the entry. Matyàs stepped up to Derek, a crooked but brilliant grin lighting his features, the knight Isaac had been lusting over at his shoulder.
"Are you ready?" Matyàs asked, his voice pitched low. The sound of it wound through Derek in ways it never had before, curling in his gut and tugging until he wanted to pant from the spike of sudden, dizzying arousal. Instead, he just dipped his chin in a nod of acknowledgement.
"And you?" he asked, anything to prolong the charged intimacy of the moment.
"I was ready a fortnight ago."
Derek had to close his eyes against the desire that burned so hotly in Matyàs' gaze. All the intensity and passion he hadn't noticed from the man in the past two weeks was on full display now, in a church of all places.
Swallowing with difficulty, Derek allowed his gaze to crawl down Matyàs' body, blinking against the visually offensive wedding vestments he was wearing. "You were right," he said, humor flooding him to mingle with the flush of arousal. "Both gaudy and puffy. But not so much an affront to the eyes, I think," he added, lifting his gaze back to Matyàs', allowing him to see the meaning behind the words.
Matyàs' throat worked as he swallowed, then he nodded almost frantically. "Wedding first. Vows. We have to—" his hands flashed through the air between them, a betrayal of nerves, "sign things. Documents and such."
The music changed and Isaac poked Derek between his shoulders. "Walk now," he hissed. "Seduce your husband later."
His words must not have been as quiet as Derek hoped because Matyàs' cheeks flooded with color just before they both stepped in unison into the cathedral.
Once inside the church, they paused as the two lines of knights drew their swords, Moravia crossed with Bohemia in a long tunnel of glinting steel under which they passed, shoulder to shoulder. The ceremony was brief and lifeless, an exchange of dry vows that didn't account for the hunger in Matyàs' gaze or the low burn of lust no amount of wrinkle-skinned bishops could douse in Derek.
When it was over, he could only remember the flush of Matyàs' cheeks and the way his eyes glinted amber in the candlelight. The feast was much the same, an endless array of food, the rumbling mumble of speeches and toasts to their union, and the slowing of time until Derek felt like he'd scream if he had to watch Matyàs' pink tongue dart out to lick up a drip of grease one more time.
Finally, King John stood and called for the attendants, and Derek was being herded into a new, large, recently aired chamber where his wedding vestments were carefully stripped from him, leaving him clad only in his small clothes. Isaac had the cheek to pinch his ass on his way out, a bark of laughter trailing behind him.
And then a hidden panel was opening and into the room walked Matyàs, pale body long and lean and almost entirely bare to Derek's greedy gaze. Derek looked his fill, taking in the way Matyàs' toes curled against the plush carpet that covered the cold stones of the floor, and how his fingers twitched restlessly at his sides.
"Don't be nervous," Matyàs said, his lips quirking into a lopsided smile.
"I'm not." Try though he might to be firm in his statement, even Derek could hear the question in his tone.
"Oh, sorry. No. I was talking to myself," Matyàs muttered, his eyes widening as if just realizing he'd spoken the previous thought aloud. Then he blurted, "When we're in here, can we just be us? Leave the court and the kingdom and the duties outside this chamber and just be two men inside it?"
Derek blinked rapidly, trying to translate the rush of words. Before he had a chance to gather himself and speak, Matyàs backed away, biting at his lower lip.
"No, it's fine, you don't have to… We can…"
"I'd like that," Derek said, and something unfurled inside him. He found himself charmed by this hesitant, uncertain side of the king who had seemed so self-assured in front of his subjects.
Matyàs looked at him for a long moment before a beautiful, wide smile bloomed on his face. "My friends call me Stiles."
Though the obvious invitation was buried in the statement, Derek couldn't hide his confusion. "Not Matyàs?"
"Matyàs is a family name. It's… it's the name of the king. And we're not kings here."
Not for the first time, Derek wished he was wittier, capable of opening his mouth and having the perfect response ready. Instead, he could only hunch his shoulders and admit, "I've only ever been called Derek."
Stepping toward him, Stiles reached out and brushed his fingers over the back of Derek's hand. "May I call you that?"
Derek's lips parted in surprise. "Of course. What else would you call me?"
Stiles' smile turned sly and wicked. "I'm sure I could think of something. Likely something wildly inappropriate. Best not to test me."
Feeling emboldened by Stiles' renewed ease with him, Derek leaned forward and allowed his lips to brush Stiles' ear when he murmured, "And if I wish to test you?"
The tiny sound of Stiles' breath breaking made triumph surge in Derek before Stiles turned his head, their positions making it so that Derek's mouth dragged over his skin. "Do your worst," Stiles whispered when there was but a hair's breadth separating their lips.
Heat surged through Derek, erasing his usual reticence. He pressed forward, sucking Stiles' bottom lip into his mouth, flicking his tongue over it to get his first true taste of this man, this stranger who was to be not only his new sovereign but also his husband. His lover.
Long fingers speared into his hair, guiding him into tilting his head so that the kiss could deepen. Before long, they were tasting deeply of one another, sharp little teeth nipped his tongue and lips until his breath caught and his blood quickened. It wasn't until they broke apart for breath that Derek noticed Stiles' nimble fingers making short work of the ties on his undergarments. Following Stiles' example, Derek lifted his hands to Stiles' own clothing, but his fingers shook and made knots of the ties where Stiles' were so sure and steady.
As if sensing his nerves, Stiles began to speak. "Do you know when I knew I wanted to ask for you?"
Derek drew his gaze back to Stiles' face, locking on the shining brown eyes that seemed at once mysterious and completely open. Instead of speaking, he shook his head, allowing his brows to draw down in question.
"I watched you walk into our hall, with your sister at your side. I knew then."
Derek felt a sliver of ice punch through his belly, and he knew his face was going blank, closing off.
"You're a beautiful man, but that has nothing, or rather, very little to do with it." Stiles' voice was dry, his smile droll. "If all I wanted was beauty, there were a dozen other princes and princesses to choose from, including the Princess Cora. But you… you were smiling. It was this little, hidden thing. You were obviously teasing your sister over some matter because she was trying hard to hide her laughter even while glaring at you. I… I wanted to know what you were saying to her to draw that sort of reaction. I wanted to know the man who would have so little care of what others thought that he would relax enough to have fun with his sister when surrounded by a sea of pampered, posturing royals. I wanted to know you."
"Are you always so impulsive with life-altering decisions?" Derek asked, feeling something unfurl inside him. Warmth crept back in to melt the ice and he felt the urge to smile. So... He did. It was his wedding night. Happiness was an expected outcome.
But Stiles' reaction to his smile was unexpected. He sucked in a breath, his eyes darkened, and he muttered, "I don't know whether to keep you ecstatically happy so that you never have cause to let that smile fall from your lips, or whether I should order you never to smile in anyone's presence but mine. You are beautiful regardless, but when you smile... You are transcendent."
"You flatter me," Derek said, rolling his eyes.
"I'd like to do more than flatter you," Stiles said, pressing close once more. His voice deepening, he tilted his head and said, "I'd like to do so very much more than that with you."
Done with the flirtatious banter, Derek placed his hands on Stiles' hips, pulling him flush against Derek's body. "You've become far too accustomed to the endless, pointless chatter of court, your majesty," he said, then dipped his head and brushed their mouths together.
"Are you telling me I should find value in silence?" Stiles asked, flexing his fingers against the hard muscle of Derek's chest and sighing happily as he did.
"Silence? Oh no. I expect nothing less than screams of pleasure," Derek murmured with a gasp when Stiles took his nipple between two nimble fingers and tugged.
"I shall endeavor to bring you to that point, then." Apparently done with talking, Stiles turned the light teasing kisses into a deep, tongue-filled claiming. As he did so, he yanked at the scrap of material covering himself until it fell free with the rip of frail cloth.
And then there was nothing at all separating them, nothing to dull the slide of skin against skin, the press of their hard cocks against one another. Derek groaned and slid his hands down Stiles' back, cupping his ass and dragging him ever closer.
Stiles, for his part, just lifted his legs, winding one then the other around Derek's waist until he was comfortably wrapped around Derek. Then, breaking the kiss and licking a path along Derek's jaw to his ear, he hissed, "Bed. I want to see you as I've dreamed you. Spread out and delirious with pleasure against the sheets."
"H-how," Derek had to clear his throat of the passion clogging it, "how do you want…?"
"I want to touch every part of you," Stiles said as Derek carried him across the few steps to the large bed in the center of the room. Stiles shuddered against Derek as the rolling motion of his hips when he walked kept their cocks brushing teasingly against one another. "I want you to touch every part of me." Reaching down, he wound his long fingers around Derek's shaft and said, his voice thick and nearly liquid with want, "I want every part of you to touch every part of me. There are no boundaries in this room. We do what we want here. Anything we want."
Derek groaned and lowered Stiles to the bed, crawling in after him and pressing their bodies flush once more. Dragging his hand down Stiles' chest, he gathered both of their cocks in his hand, felt Stiles' fingers tangling with his to help him, and pressed his face to Stiles' neck as he stroked them both to a quick finish.
"Just to take the edge off," he panted afterward, fingers tracing designs through the mess of their combined release where it was splattered on Stiles' stomach.
Stiles was too busy sucking kisses on Derek's neck to respond, but the way his legs splayed wide around Derek's hips left little question as to his willingness to continue.
"The king said you were to be allowed a lie in."
Derek blinked stupidly, rasping, "Then why—"
"You've slept long enough. Get up. The sun sits well above the horizon already. We can't allow a bunch of Bohemians to believe their new ruler is a lazy arse, true though that might be."
"Why do I put up with you?" Derek asked, falling back against the pillows with a sigh.
Instead of answering, Isaac grabbed the sheets from the far side of the bed and tugged until Derek was wrapped up, then continued pulling, forcing Derek to roll to the bed's edge and either voluntarily step from the bed or fall to the floor.
The floor was exceedingly hard as well as cold. The abrupt landing made him hiss and scramble to his feet, turning a harsh glare on Isaac, who simply looked him over with a critical eye and sighed heavily.
"A high-collared jacket today, I believe," Isaac mused, then set about gathering the oil-and-come-soaked bed clothes into a bundle to take down to the washer women.
Looking into the highly polished brass, Derek approached it until he could see a reflection that showed livid bruises along the length of his neck and over the fine bones of his shoulders. Looking down, he smiled, pressing his fingertips to the irregular circles of bruised flesh along his hipbones.
King Matyàs, no, Stiles, had been an exceedingly attentive and voracious lover.
A cold, wet cloth smacked Derek in the face.
"Stop admiring yourself, you lazy lout, and prepare for the day. The king is meeting with his advisers after the morning meal. If you hurry, you might yet join them."
Stiles was attending to matters of state so soon after their marriage and... the events of the previous night? Derek scowled at the floor, then at Isaac.
"Yes, yes, you poor dear, your new husband is a devoted regent. I'm ever so sorry. Heavy sits the crown and all that rot." Isaac waved a hand through the air, rolling his eyes. "If you'll excuse me, I must depart the scene of your trial-filled life to attend to the chamber pots."
Derek snorted. "You've never attended to a chamberpot in your life."
"Yes, well, I have to order the poor chambermaid to attend to it. Have some perspective, man!"
Derek bit back a smile, then allowed Isaac to help him dress for the day, ignoring all the jibes about the stiffness of his movements. If he was sore and moving slowly, he could at least be certain that Stiles would be feeling the same effects himself.
Such thoughts lent a new urgency to Derek's morning. With Isaac's help, he was dressed for court in record time and then nearly ran through the halls of the castle on his way to breakfast. It was only when the entrance to the dining hall was in sight that Derek slowed to a more sedate walk. He would have ignored all sense and burst into the hall, but he didn't want Stiles to be embarrassed before his advisers. The rest of the castle folk would likely have news of Derek's haste to their ruler by the end of the meal.
A small smile was tugging at his lips as Derek passed through the entrance, the smells of the breakfast food making his stomach rumble. He put a hand to it automatically, but his hunger just brought to mind memories of what he'd done the previous night to give his body such a cause for complaint. Stepping up to the high table, he allowed himself to look his fill at his new husband, marveling at how refreshed and at ease he appeared at this early hour.
And how comfortably he sat upon his thinly cushioned seat.
Derek had to set his own teeth in a clench to accomplish the same without wincing.
"Good morning," Derek murmured, turning toward him.
Stiles looked up, lips quirking, though Derek couldn't help but note that the smile didn't reach his eyes with the same bright cheerfulness it had the day prior. Something clenched in his stomach and dark thoughts began to fill his head before Stiles returned his greeting, his voice giving no sign of any displeasure.
"Did you sleep well?" Stiles asked, almost off-hand.
Derek just gaped at him, then decided he was being teased. The bastard. Two could play that game. "In the two hours between when you left my bed and when Isaac woke me to inform me you were breaking your fast, I slept splendidly."
Stiles choked a bit on some sausage — Derek just narrowed his eyes at the sight, planning his revenge — before bright spots of color appeared high on his cheeks. "Yes, well, I… ah. I'm accustomed to an early morning and…"
As adorable as it was to watch the man who'd taken such pains to bring him untold pleasure the night before flounder for words, Derek took pity on him and said, "It's perfectly all right, Stiles, I—"
Derek cut himself off when Stiles' eyes went panic-wide and he shook his head sharply. His words from the previous night returned to Derek then, and he found himself flushing, lowering his eyes apologetically. "Matyàs. I… forgot myself."
And though he was warmly assured that no harm had been done, Derek felt wrong-footed through the entire remainder of the morning, reading censure in every glance, every gesture. By the time the evening meal was cleared away, Derek was sure he'd never be visited in his bedchamber again, and that the previous night had been but a dream.
But when he left the dining hall, Matyàs was right beside him, a calmly quiet presence that raised Derek's hackles once more. As they approached the door to Derek's chambers, Matyàs placed a hand on Derek's arm and said, "I'll join you shortly."
Derek opened his mouth to respond, then just nodded, still uncertain. But a tiny tendril of hope was blooming inside him as he watched Matyàs walk away. If he was still planning to join Derek, maybe…
Shaking that thought away, Derek pushed open the door and almost tripped over Isaac in his antechamber, who made haste to undress him while chattering about the day he'd had. Derek winced, feeling guilty as Isaac mentioned helping with the packing of his family's luggage. "Do you know what time they're leaving in the morning?" he asked.
"Your mother said she wants to leave as soon as the sun rises, but you know your sister won't be moved before the kitchens have started on the noon meal. I'd expect sometime around mid-morning."
Derek had seen and spoken to his family that day, but he honestly couldn't remember any of their conversations. He's been too lost in whirling thoughts of his marriage and how hot Stiles had been the previous night only to don a cloak of cool aloofness with the light of day.
As if his thoughts had conjured him, Derek heard the scrape of the hidden panel in his chamber and Stiles was in the room with them. Isaac blurted out an apology before making his escape. Turning to Stiles, Derek hesitated, wondering how this night would proceed.
But Stiles obviously felt no such reticence because no sooner had the door shut behind Isaac then Stiles was launching himself at Derek, hands cupping his face and mouth pressing sucking kisses to Derek's lips, jaw, and throat.
"God," he muttered against Derek's skin. "I could barely think for want of you today."
The ease with which Stiles flipped the switch between aloof regent and wanton lover made Derek's head spin, but his body had no trouble responding positively to Stiles' hungry mouth and teasing fingers. Within moments, all the doubts of the day slid away into a corner of his mind, and he returned Stiles' passion with his own.
Derek hated himself for his selfish discontent. He had no reason to voice complaint, really. Stiles, Matyàs was a king. He had to put his country first and if that meant Derek and his needs were secondary, he should be considerate and understanding of such. But he resented both the lover in his bed and the ruler on the throne. He desperately hated how easily Stiles could put aside everything that happened outside the bedchamber when they were alone together. And how easily he could slip on the mantle of King Matyàs.
Worse yet, Derek had no one to confide his doubts in. His family was gone, and Isaac was busy seducing Sir Scott, the knight who had been Stiles' attendant at their wedding. And even if Isaac hadn't been too busy with his seduction, how would Derek go about explaining his distress? He had a husband who lit fires under his skin that had never before burned so hot? He was consort to a king who understood the intricacies of court life and could plan a battle to the finest detail? Who knew to the bushel how much wheat his country would produce, but who wouldn't hold his hand in public?
What kind of needy, emotionally grasping sap had marriage turned Derek into?
Derek lay in the dark a month into his marriage, staring up at the bed hangings while Stiles breathed gently against his neck, deep in slumber. Every touch of warm air against his skin made Derek's heart crack a little further until he wanted to simply throw back the bedcovers and rush from the chamber like a virginal maiden on her wedding night. Dark humor flooded him at the thought. Had he wanted to give in to such dramatics, the time was long past.
He smoothed his hand over the dark hair and muscle that covered Stiles' forearm, remembering the way he'd snapped at him that night at dinner. How Stiles' eyes had gone wide with shock only to narrow as his lips thinned out and his nostrils flared with anger at the way Derek had spoken to him. How they'd nearly exchanged harsh words in the hall outside Derek's bedchamber before Derek had turned, pushing into the antechamber before Stiles could say anything.
He remembered how Stiles had rushed through the panel into his room, completely naked, so soon after that it had made Derek's head spin. How Stiles' anger from the hallway had fled from one moment to the next, his joy in Derek apparently stripping away any harsh feelings.
It was all so… confusing.
A trace of dim light spilled into the room, startling Derek from his thoughts, and he looked over to see someone standing in the doorway, their face obscured by the low-hanging material draped around the bed. Since he was awake anyway, he eased himself from the bed, trying not to jostle it too much.
"Don't worry. He won't wake. He sleeps like the dead."
Though the sound was definitely coming from the man in the doorway, Derek instinctively looked back to Stiles, who was still very deeply asleep, mouth gaping slightly and whole face slack. The man had sounded exactly like him.
Derek stood from the bed and grabbed a thin gown, belting it around his waist as he turned toward the doorway. The figure there had stepped back, leaving the candle on the table near the door so that Derek could use its light to make his way across the expanse of the room. Hesitating only a moment, Derek grabbed the dagger he used at meals. It would be a most inefficient weapon, but it was the only thing he had to hand here.
As he passed from the inner chamber to outer, he noticed Sir Scott standing beside the door, his head bowed respectfully.
"Did you need us?" he asked, still keeping his voice down though he knew Sir Scott had spoken true earlier. A full battle could rage in the bedchamber and Stiles wouldn't stir until he'd gained his rest.
"You have a guest, your majesty. He awaits in your antechamber."
Derek nodded and started toward the door to the outer room when Scott cleared his throat and said, somewhat hesitantly, "Your majesty?"
Sir Scott shifted his weight, fingers twisting together in a rare show of nerves. "I… much will change. But Stiles will not."
"You address your king so informally?" Derek asked, the hairs rising on the back of his neck, though he couldn't pinpoint exactly why.
"Stiles was my best friend long before Bohemia gained King Matyàs."
Derek nodded, unable to find anything to say to that. Sir Scott let out a breath and gestured toward the antechamber, reminding Derek of his guest. Although…
"They're here to see me?" he muttered, confusion underscoring his voice.
Sir Scott remained stubbornly silent, though something about the way he stood, how he looked to be guarding the door to Derek's bedchamber, kept Derek on alert.
Swiping a hand over his face, Derek walked through to the antechamber. As his vision adjusted to the brighter light, he saw a man standing with his back to Derek and… a howling void opened in his stomach, making it churn as emotion buffeted Derek from all sides. Shock, anger, confusion, betrayal… and enlightenment. Every question that had bloomed to life in Derek's mind for the past month was answered in a split second as he watched the man turn toward him.
Matyàs. King of Bohemia. The man Derek had married stood before him, identical in every aspect to the man he had left in his bed. To Stiles. And now it made sense, how he'd seemed to almost be two different people. How he'd been so separate and aloof during the day and so passionate and loving by night.
He was two different people.
"Derek," Matyàs began, one hand held up in supplication, but Derek just shook his head, staggering back a step.
"Don't," he snapped, and watched as Matyàs flinched. Satisfaction curled through him at the sight, but he stomped down on it, needing answers. "Stiles is…?"
"My brother. Younger by mere minutes."
Derek wrapped his arms around his midsection, wishing he'd put on more than a flimsy dressing gown. A full suit of armor would be preferable, actually. Matyàs' voice cut through him, the sound of it as familiar to him as his own. Try though he might, he couldn't decipher a difference between Matyàs and Stiles and it… Bile rose in his throat as he realized he didn't even know which of them was his husband.
"What more?" Derek asked, and this time it was he who was flinching from the sound of his own voice. It was too raw, too ragged. It gave away too much. "Is he my husband?"
"Yes!" Matyàs stepped forward then stopped, obviously uncertain how to proceed. "He chose you, he attended the wedding ceremony, it was his name on the documents and his signature beside yours." Spearing his fingers through his hair, Matyàs began to pace through the room, as ill-at-ease as Derek had ever seen him.
And knowing now that he was not Stiles made Derek feel even more foolish because they were so completely different in their reactions and mannerisms.
"You… deserve an explanation," Matyàs said, hands sliding to interlock behind his neck as he stopped and faced Derek. "Bohemia has long been an unsettled land. Caught as we are between Saxony and Bulgaria, we cannot afford to present anything but a strong front. When my mother gave birth to twins, my father saw it as a sign. A gift, if you will. One son to present to the public, one to keep hidden away in the event something tragic were to happen to me."
Revulsion twisted through Derek. King John had seen an infant and declared it to be the spare king. "And your mother?"
"Had no idea. She lost too much blood during childbirth and was dead within minutes of pushing Stiles from her belly."
"Why are you telling me now?"
"Because…" Matyàs curled his arms around himself and looked at the ground. Derek couldn't help a surge of compassion for him — so very young to have so much thrust upon his shoulders. "Because you deserve to know the truth. Because Stiles has never complained about our life. Because I can't keep floundering every time you speak of things that are obviously pillow-talk. You already knew something was wrong, but I couldn't allow you to berate Stiles for my own shortcomings.
"I love my brother," Matyàs said, lifting his chin to meet Derek's gaze, his eyes dark with emotion. "I love Stiles and Stiles loves you. My brother has never in his life had anything of his own. Nothing that was his; not even his own name. We were both named Matyàs, to prevent any hint of my father's ruse from becoming known. 'Stiles' is simply a shortened version of our family name, one he took as a young boy when those who knew of Father's deception showed no inclination to acknowledge our separate identities."
"My father, my brother and I, Sir Scott and his mother, the lady Melissa, who was the midwife attending my mother the night of our birth. She took us to nurse after mother died."
"No one else knew?"
"And now?" Derek asked, voice a bare whisper.
"Now you know."
Derek shook his head, backing away. "That's impossible. Someone, servants, kitchen staff, tutors—"
Matyàs' lips twisted into a pained frown. "Come with me. I'll show you how very possible it is." As he spoke, he turned toward the wall, and pressed his fingers against a small, decorative carving of the royal crest. The piece receded into the wall, and a small section of paneling moved, allowing them both to step behind it. It was a false wall, and from the hidden recess behind it, Derek could see that it had been cleverly disguised to allow small viewing holes along its surface.
"The entire castle?" he asked, covering the nearest hole with a finger.
"The rooms he would have needed access to. He couldn't just look like me, Derek, he had to know everything I did. He had to be able to step seamlessly into my shoes should the need arise. Every plan, every strategy session, every idle conversation with a courtesan had to be accessible. He has spent his entire life watching the world move around him from the shadows. The first time he ever interacted with more than two people at once was the day of your wedding."
"Why… why…?" Derek didn't even know what he was asking. But Matyàs had an answer regardless.
"It seemed a small thing, to allow my brother the choice of our spouse. Every other choice in his life had been taken from him. Every other little thing was mine and mine alone. He was a contingency in the event I was ever injured or taken by our enemies, but… I've never suffered more than a scratch and our army is too fearsome."
"Why did you not allow him his freedom when you took the throne?" Derek asked, trying and failing to see the wisdom in this subterfuge.
"Regardless of my wishes, Stiles is still my only heir. And we… we had become accustomed to our lives. It was normal for us," Matyàs said, shrugging helplessly.
A commotion in the room beyond the viewing panel turned their attention then, interrupting a conversation that Derek didn't know how to wend his way through. It was Sir Scott, looking pale and distraught as he raised his voice just above speaking-level and called out, "Your majesty?"
Derek stepped back, allowing Matyàs to pass him in the enclosed space. By the time he joined Matyàs and Sir Scott in the antechamber of his bedroom, he found Sir Scott on one knee, head bowed and fist pressed to his chest as he said, "Forgive my interruption, Your Majesty, but this could not wait. There is a messenger for you." Raising his head, Scott turned and pinned Derek with a look before he added softly, "From Moravia."
"Where?" Derek bit out, not waiting for Matyàs to question his knight. "Where is the messenger?"
"In the hall, Your Majesty."
Derek darted toward the door, pulling it open to see Boyd, one of his parent's most faithful knights, standing in the hall, looking as if a brisk breeze would topple him to the floor. "Sir Boyd?" Derek called softly, mindful of those who slept behind the doors along the hall. "What…?"
"My king," Boyd said, his deep voice stretched thin with exhaustion and something else Derek couldn't put a name to. "I come with dark tidings. As they were returning to Moravia, the royal entourage was ambushed by knights wearing no emblem."
A hand caught Derek under his arm, preventing him from falling to his knees on the stone floor. Noise rushed over and around him as the thought of his family in danger pummeled his consciousness.
"What?" he gasped, ripping his arm free and stumbling toward Boyd, hands clenching tight to the man's armor. "What happened to my family?"
"My king," there Boyd paused, eyes closing in grief, and Derek knew before he spoke the next damning words. "You parents, your uncle, your eldest sister were all slain. Only the Princess Cora escaped injury. The Argents have claimed the throne, citing your marriage as abdication of your right to rule."
"No," Derek said, his voice a low growl. It was the most he could speak without letting loose the howl of grief that was rising in his chest.
"Derek," he heard, as if from a long way off.
Turning, he saw Matyàs staring at him, his pale face blanched of all color and horror shining bright in his eyes. Derek just shook his head, unable to deal with all the ways in which his life had been torn asunder in less than one turn of the clock. "Did you know?" he asked, his voice sounding ugly to his own ears.
"No. No, Derek, I didn't… I wouldn't have…" Matyàs stepped back and drew his shoulders up, the mantle of authority settling about him as he turned from supplicant to regent in the blink of an eye. "King Derek of Moravia," he said, lips barely moving as he spoke the words, "you have the full support of Bohemia for as long as you so desire. Take whatever of our knights you will need and go see to the protection of your kingdom. My men are yours to command."
Derek just nodded dumbly before turning to Boyd. "Our armies?"
"Your generals were refusing to bow to the command of His Grace, Gerard d' Argent when I left to summon you. But…"
"But that was weeks ago. Anything might have changed in the interim," Sir Scott said, stepping forward out of the shadows. "You'll need at least two contingents of warriors. More than that will delay you too long. Less will offer you no protection."
"I don't care—" Derek started, only to be cut off by Scott's firm voice.
"The only thing standing between your sister, the Princess Cora, and certain death is your continued health. Until they've eliminated you for good, the Argents cannot move against her without showing their hands and bringing down the wrath of the royal households of Europe on their heads."
Derek's eyes flickered back to Boyd. "Do you agree with Sir Scott's assessment?"
"Yes, my king. It is as certain as the snow in winter that the Argents are behind this foul massacre."
Derek's mind raced. He knew he needed to deal with this threat, but it was too much. His parents gone? He'd just seen them. Just held his mother and pressed a kiss to her cheek. Rolled his eyes at his father for some ribald jest. They couldn't be… He looked up at Boyd again, took in the new lines etched into his face, and felt the cracks in his own composure blow wide open.
"Then we kill them all," he said, even as his eyes burned with unshed tears.
Matyàs and Sir Scott worked tirelessly beside him, getting the troops ready to move out, ordering the preparation of food stores and baggage wains that would follow behind the soldiers. Derek and Boyd had agreed that only those knights equipped with horses would go to Moravia, each with a spare horse so that they could ride hard. Time was something they were unable to spare if Derek was going to wrest Moravia from the grip of the Argent family.
The only person he did not see in the hours after Boyd's arrival was Stiles. But Derek pushed all thoughts of Stiles, of his entire life for the past month, down into the pit where thoughts of his family were stored. He'd pull his anger and betrayal out when most needed. For now… For now he could only place one foot in front of the other. Move forward.
To do otherwise would see him break under the weight of his grief.
It took ten days to travel to Moravia. Ten long, gruelling days of charging forward on horseback, sleeping in fits and starts under cloudless skies while red-eyed demons killed his family in ever more gruesome ways every time he closed his eyes.
Derek's emotions were frayed, his rage all that fuelled him as he stormed his own castle.
A castle whose gates opened wide to him, those on the inside still loyal to the Hale family and to their last surviving son. The battle was bloody but quick, the Argents having no hold over the household knights or the Moravian army. Those few who were sympathetic to their claim were rapidly cut down until all that remained were Gerard, the head of the family, and his daughter Katherine as well as their personal guards.
The consequence for treason and regicide were clear; there would be no forgiveness for the Argent family. They were publicly executed, and it wasn't until Derek watched Gerard's head roll free of his body that he allowed the emotions he'd been tamping down for a fortnight free rein. He didn't bother to stay to watch Katherine's demise. He simply let the raised voices of the crowd alert him to the moment of her death.
Isaac found him hours later, alone in the room his parents had shared, the tracks of his grief plainly visible on his face.
"It is done," Isaac said softly, then entered with a tray of food. "Now you will eat. And after you eat, I will attend you at bath. And then you will rest."
Derek lifted his wrecked face to his friend, feeling lost now that the urgency of finding and slaying those who'd killed his family was behind him. "How?" he asked. "How will I ever rest again?"
Isaac's lips twitched into a sad smile. "I might have an answer for that. But not until after you eat and bathe."
The light meal of bread, ham and cheese tasted like nothing more than dust in his mouth, but Derek forced himself to swallow every bite. The bath was the same, and even Isaac had no quick wit to share that evening. It was a somber time and when Derek was once again clean, the bath water had been annointed with more tears than his own.
Isaac laid out comfortable attire for him, things he could easily dress himself in, for which Derek was grateful. But he didn't leave as soon as the bath water was removed. Instead, Isaac stared hard at Derek before saying, "If you come with me now, you may find rest, but it may also cause you more heartache. I cannot honestly say which it will be, or if it will be both or neither. But I think it is a necessary thing. Will you come with me, Your Majesty?"
The formal address cut deep; it was something Isaac had never called him before, even during the month of his marriage when it would have been appropriate. To hear it now only drove home the point that Derek was solely responsible for Moravia, her people, and her future.
How could he possibly hope to replace his parents?
Stumbling to his feet, Derek nodded because if there was anything he was sure of, it was that Isaac would always and forever be his friend first. Isaac's smile grew, though the grief never dimmed in his gaze. Waiting for Derek to draw even with him, he turned and led the way through the castle. Down they went, servant before master, a most unusual sight for anyone who might have chanced to look. But neither of them faltered, Isaac leading and Derek following into the belly of the castle where the household knights were quartered.
"What are we doing here?" Derek thought to ask only when he accidentally kicked a chest plate over, the clatter breaking him from his thoughts.
"I notice things," Isaac said, light and offhand as he stopped next to a knight whose head was lowered, a deep hood pulled down over his face. "Things like walls that breathe. Kings that dress and undress too quickly. I have no idea how you accomplished it for so long, Prince Stiles, though it is my guess that your servants in Bohemia are all either lazy or stupid. You'll find no such freedom of movement in Moravia."
Derek's heart froze in his chest before tripping back to speed with a jolt. Falling forward, he jerked the hood from the knight, and found himself staring down into bloodshot eyes that were bruised from lack of sleep. Eyes he'd recognize anywhere.
"I'm sorry," Stiles whispered, his lips nearly as pale as his skin. His hands shook as he lifted them toward Derek, who could do nothing but capture them with his own, yanking Stiles to his feet and then into Derek's arms.
Derek buried his face in Stiles' neck, wrapped himself around Stiles, and let the comfort of Stiles' presence soothe the raw, open wounds in his soul.
"I'm sorry," Stiles continued to murmur, over and over. "You left and I couldn't… I couldn't stand to be separated from you. Your family… oh god, Derek, I'm so sorry. I can't… I watched you these past weeks and all I wanted was to go to you, but I didn't want to make it worse. I'm sorry."
"Weeks," Derek rasped. "You've been with us since we left Bohemia and I was too blinded by grief to know. I should have…"
"No, no. Your family—"
Derek stopped the rest of Stiles' words with his mouth, his hands grasping and pulling until Stiles stumbled after him, the two of them winding through the castle to the room Derek had always called his own. It wasn't as large or grand as his parents' chambers, but Derek couldn't face that room again. Not now.
He tumbled Stiles to the bed, rolling them both until they were in the middle of it, then just curled his body around Stiles'. "Can we just…?"
"Yes," Stiles said, his hands smoothing in an achingly slow arc over Derek's back, gentling him, providing an anchor for Derek's tumultuous emotions.
"Don't leave," Derek whispered, hours later. "Don't hide behind your walls again."
"As long as you'll have me, I'll stay by your side," Stiles said, pressing a chaste kiss to the top of Derek's head as they watched the sun rise through the east-facing window.
"And a day."
The beginning started with words of apology from a neighboring kingdom. With acknowledgement of a man who'd never been allowed to exist, a king hidden away in secrecy. With two brothers greeting one another in public for the first time, one the long-reigning King of Bohemia, the other Consort to the King of Moravia.
The Consort and the man who never should have been King.