Scott stared up at the ornately carved doors marking the entrance to Queen Talia's study and swallowed. It was ridiculous how nervous he was, the way his heart pounded in his chest at the thought of opening that door. He'd been king for nearly two years now; he ought not to be nervous about something as mundane as a treaty negotiation.
No, a few months ago, it would have been a mundane treaty negotiation, just a few hours he would have had to take out of his weeklong visit to the Hales. Now, after the breakdown of negotiations between the Hales and the Argents and King Bruce's death in an ambush not two months before, Scott wasn't sure what awaited him with Queen Talia, but he doubted "mundane" would describe it.
He wished Stiles were with him, but the queen had been insistent on speaking with him alone.
Scott took another breath to calm himself, and then knocked twice to announce his presence.
"Come in," a muffled voice said from inside the room.
He eased the door open and stepped inside the study. It was smaller than he'd expected, at least half the size of his own back home. Shelves crowded with books and scrolls rested against one wall, a paper-covered desk was shoved against another, and the center of the room was dominated by two chairs and a sofa with someone's needlepoint sitting discarded on one cushion. A table stood by the far windows, the center one a stained glass picture of two wolves and a full moon.
Queen Talia stood stiffly next to the window, silhouetted against the afternoon sunlight streaming through. With the black veil obscuring her face, Scott could see none of her features except for her vivid red eyes.
Scott bowed respectfully. "Your Majesty."
The corners of her red eyes crinkled, and she nodded in acknowledgement. "Your Majesty."
After two years, one would think he'd grow at least somewhat accustomed to hearing the term. It still felt like a pair of boots too big.
Queen Talia lifted her hand to the table. "Please, sit. I appreciate you taking the time to meet with me."
"Of course." Scott skirted around the edge of the sofa and sat at the table, and decided it was best to just get to the point. "What did you wish to discuss?"
The queen pressed her finger to the edges of her eyes, as though wiping away tears, but her voice was steady when she spoke. "I wished to thank you in person for your intercession with King Gerard. I was not sure if you would come to our aid."
The statement struck him as absurd. "My lady, the alliance with your family is one of the few good legacies my father left me. Of course we would come to your aid."
Scott had been worried when he'd learned that treaty negotiations between the Hales and the Argents had fallen apart, and later horrified when he'd learned King Gerard had actually attacked. He'd immediately drafted a letter, reminding King Gerard that the agreement between their own two countries forbade attacking allies of the other. He was just relieved it had worked, though not in time to prevent King Bruce's death. "Honestly, a failed negotiation is scarcely a reason to declare war," he said.
Queen Talia turned back to the window and sighed. "Unfortunately, many find it a perfect reason."
Scott scoffed, and covered it up with a cough. "I don't care what King Gerard thinks, Emperor Deucalion is a much greater threat. We're far stronger together than we are separately, and it's impossible to be together if Gerard sends out his army in a fit of pique every time he believes his family honor has been besmirched."
Queen Talia raised one dark eyebrow. "A fit of pique?"
Scott squirmed slightly at the faint amusement in her tone. "My brother's phrasing," he admitted. "I don't think it's entirely inaccurate."
She closed her eyes and shook her head, but Scott thought that faint exhalation might have been a chuckle. "Pique or no, it has placed us in an untenable position." The amusement faded from her voice. "Jason will be a good king, I know, but...my son is overconfident in our abilities."
"And you are not?"
She met his eyes with a look of resignation. "I am both queen and Alpha. Overconfidence is a luxury I have never been able to afford."
Scott nodded. Overconfidence had been one of his father's failings, as well, and he had a feeling he would spend most of his reign ensuring he never repeated those mistakes.
Queen Talia finally joined him at the table, spreading her fingers wide over the dark wood. The red in her eyes faded, leaving them a warm brown. "Your intercession has bought us a reprieve, but his men are still at our borders. And the treaty we signed with your father was only temporary, and it was far less thorough than I would have liked."
That was unfortunately accurate. After his father's death, one of the first things he and Stiles had done was to review every treaty they had to make sure they understood the terms. Stiles practically had the damn things memorized, but Scott knew them well enough. The betrothal contract they had with the Argents—to be sealed with Scott's marriage to Princess Allison, Gerard's granddaughter—was ironclad, but the alliance they had with the Hales was much less so.
"I fear as soon as the treaty expires, Gerard will attack us once again." Queen Talia said. "We are not weak, but his army is far larger than ours, and filled with people who know how to fight against werewolves just as well as they do humans. And with the number of my people that have gone missing these past months..." She trailed off. "I do not believe we will be able to withstand a full attack. Not for long."
Scott's instinct was to grab her hand, but he held back from the overly familiar gesture. Even if they were equals, they were not yet friends. "My lady, I will do everything in my power to help you, I promise. If we have a stronger alliance between our two countries, King Gerard cannot attack, not without breaking the betrothal contract he signed with my father."
"I agree," Queen Talia said. "However, I worry that the only agreement he'll truly honor is a bond that is at least equal to the one your family will share with his."
Scott could see where that was going. "A marriage would be best."
With the veil covering the lower half of her face, Scott couldn't make out much of Queen Talia's expression, but she appeared to be deep in thought. "Unfortunately, I am not certain of how to make it work. I know of no one in your family who may be suitable, and in mine, Jason and Laura are already betrothed and Cora is not yet thirteen. And Derek..." Her eyes darted to the window, and her expression shifted from thoughtfulness to sadness. "I don't know."
He could understand her reluctance. Scott had only met Prince Derek briefly over the course of his stay with the Hales, but it had not escaped his notice how quiet and withdrawn the prince was. Scott didn't even know him, and he found himself wanting to put a blanket around Derek's shoulders and assure him things would be all right.
But that was, sadly, beside the point at the moment. If a woman like Queen Talia was asking for help, Scott knew it was because her family and country faced utter ruin without it. They had only a mere handful of days before the treaty would expire. He had to do something.
Damn, he wished he had brought Stiles. His ideas were unorthodox, but that was what they needed right now.
An idea niggled at the back of his mind. It was probably not a good idea—Scott highly doubted that—and it would make a lot of people unhappy—he didn't doubt that at all. However, it would accomplish everything they needed in terms of an alliance. And he was fairly sure Stiles would forgive him.
"You seem pensive," Talia commented.
Scott nodded. "I'm thinking of our problems, my lady."
He swore he could read the question in her eyes alone. "And do you see any possible solutions?" she asked.
Scott fought a smile. Stiles probably was going to kill him. He shouldn't be this amused at the thought. "I might have an idea. Out of curiosity, do you know how Prince Derek feels about men?"
Stiles loved his brother. Had loved him wholeheartedly for as long as he could remember, probably from the moment Scott had dubbed him "Stiles" when they were three years old because neither of them could pronounce Stiles's monstrosity of a given name. Scott was a good king with a generous heart, compassionate toward his people, fierce in his beliefs, and hopeful to a fault.
But sometimes—rarely, occasionally, more frequently than Stiles would like—Scott had Ideas.
In the nineteen years that they had been alive, Stiles could count on one hand the number of times Scott's Ideas worked on their own, without requiring either modification from Stiles or a lot of fast talking to keep them out of trouble.
Stiles loved Scott, but Stiles did not love Scott's Ideas.
He reminded himself of all this as he stood in front of his brother in a corridor of the Hale's castle, blinking in disbelief. "I'm sorry, I believe there's something wrong with my hearing," Stiles said. "Because I could have sworn you just told me you set up a betrothal agreement with the Hales. A betrothal agreement involving me. Me."
Scott smiled his easygoing smile and nodded, which told Stiles no, he hadn't misheard a damn thing. "I have discussed it at length with Queen Talia. It's the best solution either of us can come up with."
Stiles flailed an arm and narrowly missed sending a priceless vase crashing to the floor. "The best solution? Really? You two have been talking for four hours and this is the best you could come up with? What in Dante's hell do you think Gerard's going to say when he finds out?"
"A lot of far worse curses than you and I know," Scott said. "But you know the betrothal agreement as well as I do. It forbids attacking any countries with which either of us have alliances. If we seal our alliance with the Hales with a marriage, that's something even Gerard can't argue with."
All right, that was true enough. Even so, the failed negotiation between the Argents and the Hales had apparently pushed King Gerard to the edge, and Stiles didn't think bluster was all they would get in return. "Or he might declare war on us both."
Scott kept walking down the hallway. "Possible, but unlikely. The betrothal agreement between Allison and me has a number of very beneficial terms I doubt he'll want to risk just to soothe his pride."
"You're assuming he's reasonable," Stiles said.
Scott shrugged. "I have no reason to think he wouldn't be. Besides, we could probably negotiate another, equally beneficial treaty for them."
"You really think that would keep him from continuing this war of pride?" Stiles asked.
"With us to act as mediators?" Scott shrugged. "I think it stands a better chance than it would otherwise, don't you?"
All right, Stiles couldn't argue with that. He also knew that "us" meant "me," because Scott looked about two years younger than he actually was, was kind to everybody he met, and had the soul of a puppy. With very few exceptions, everybody loved Scott. If anybody could get an angry king to quit acting like a fool and see reason, it would be Scott.
"Fair enough," Stiles said, "but the point where I get stuck is why it has to be me."
"I'm betrothed to Allison," Scott said, as though that answered every question Stiles hadn't yet asked.
Being as that they were alone, Stiles gave into years of habit and friendship and smacked his forehead with the heel of his hand. "Yes, I know you aren't on the table, but what about your mother?"
Scott's smile vanished, and Stiles regretted saying anything. "For political reasons, because she is the queen. We want the treaties to be equal, or as much as possible." Scott took a deep breath and said in a lower voice, "And because she already spent most of her life trapped in a marriage to someone who didn't treat her half as well as he should've, and I won't take from her the chance to be happy."
The reminder stung, and Stiles bit his lip and turned away. He and Scott had been not-so-subtly playing matchmaker ever since Queen Melissa's official mourning period had ended, and Stiles didn't want to take that chance at happiness away from Scott's mother or his own father. But... "So you'd ask me to be trapped in a marriage instead?"
Scott had the decency to look a little guilty. "I know what I'm asking," he said, "and I swear I wouldn't be asking it if I didn't think you'd be at least content in the end."
Stiles clenched a fist and turned away. He wasn't going to take a swing at his brother. He wasn't. "You promised me. You promised I wouldn't have to do this."
"I know. I'm sorry."
Damn it. He knew Scott meant it, just like he knew Scott wouldn't have asked him at all if they weren't stuck between a rock and a hard place. No, a hard place and an avalanche.
Part of him thought they ought to just leave, because God knew it wasn't their problem. Why should Stiles be sacrificed to save the Hales?
Because it's not worth a war when we have so many other enemies waiting for us to fall apart up here. And because those negotiations were going on for seven years, a traitorous voice in the back of his head whispered. You want to know why they really fell apart.
Stiles raked a hand through his hair. There had to be a better solution, but even he wasn't coming up with one at the moment. "So you're asking me because I'm high-ranking enough that the alliance would be strong, but not so high-ranking that it would be a threat to yours and Allison's."
Scott nodded. "Right."
"And Her Majesty had no issue signing her son over to another man?" Stiles asked.
Scott shrugged. "Apparently his preferences run similarly to yours."
"What about heirs?" Stiles asked, and from the look on Scott's face, guessed the answer. "Ah. A marriage between a second son and the illegitimate son. Best there aren't any heirs, hm?"
He waved a hand to cut Scott off. "I understand, just as I understand that's the reason Her Majesty gave, not you, right?"
Scott sighed and walked over to stand by one of the windows overlooking the garden. "She wanted to ensure there wouldn't be any arguments as to succession, though I'm not sure why there would be." Confusion creased his brow. "I don't think Prince Derek and King Jason are as close as we are."
Stiles sauntered over to stand beside Scott and rested a hand on his shoulder. Despite their blood relationship—Scott being the legitimate heir and Stiles being the result of the late king's indiscretion with one of the queen's ladies-in-waiting—they'd become fast friends at age two and had remained close, despite any and all of His late Majesty's attempts to separate them. Stiles knew he was fortunate, knew they were fortunate, but Scott tended to assume all brothers had the same relationship they did, and never could seem to understand that wasn't the case.
Scott turned to him, regret and guilt warring on his face. "I know I promised I would let you choose. And that's the worst part of this whole thing."
Damnation. Stiles was angry, but he couldn't let his brother beat himself up over this. He half-hugged Scott. "But the needs of the countries outweigh the promises between two twelve-year-olds, right?"
Scott rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Yes, but I don't want—Listen. There's a luncheon tomorrow afternoon. Meet with them. Meet Derek. And if you truly believe you couldn't make it work at all, let me know. We'll find another way."
And that was enough to make Stiles feel petulant and childish for whining. Illegitimate or no, he was a prince, and he knew damn well Scott wouldn't have asked if there was another option. "All right, fine. I'll do it. Lunch with the potential family. Certainly nothing can go wrong there."
Scott smiled and the line of tension along his shoulders eased. "Thank you. I would go myself, but I need to leave for the port first thing tomorrow morning; our parents and Lydia will be arriving early."
Stiles grinned. "So are you the one who's going to tell my father and your mother about this plan, or are you leaving that delightful duty up to me?"
A brief look of panic crossed Scott's face. "We'll talk to them together."
Stiles rolled his eyes. "Because you think they'll be more amenable to the idea if we're both there?"
"Well, that, and if they do get angry, I can always claim it was your idea."
Stiles glared and dug his elbow into Scott's side. "Oh, no. You're taking full responsibility for this one."
Scott just laughed and pulled away. "I'm jesting. I also want them here because I know Mother will want to speak with Queen Talia immediately, and I'd like us to make sure everything is settled as quickly as possible." His face went pensive once again. "Our treaty with the Hales expires in less than two weeks."
Stiles heard what Scott wasn't saying: If they didn't get a new treaty signed, sealed, and married off before then, the current tentative truce would become much less truce-like.
He slung an arm around Scott's shoulder and ruffled his hair. "Don't worry, Scott. We'll take care of it. Besides, we're ignoring a bright spot to all of this."
Scott looked at him, a smile already playing at the corner of his mouth. "Oh? And what's that?"
Stiles positively beamed. "I'm going to lose my virginity before you are."
Scott groaned, but he was truly smiling now, at least. "Just promise you will never, ever let me know what actually happens behind closed doors."
"What, you don't want to know about my bedroom activities?" Stiles asked innocently. "You read me every nauseatingly adorable love letter Allison sends you. I think I've earned at least one psyche-scarring sex conversation."
"And if you and Derek start writing epic love poetry to each other, I promise to be a captive audience for each and every recitation."
"My epic love poetry will involve rhyming the word 'cock' in every language I know. And some I don't. I will learn new languages for this, Scott." Stiles jabbed his finger in Scott's face. "And you will have to listen to every single poem I write."
Scott groaned and elbowed Stiles in the side. "I can't tell you how much I look forward to it."