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All the King's Man

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~0~

Charles pressed his fingers against the keys of the harpsichord, listless, following the tune effortlessly. He did his best to look pretty, of course, and not let his face succumb to the boredom he was feeling. Kurt and Cain Marko (both of them should have been styled 'the lesser' in Charles' estimation) watched on, heads bent over ledgers they half-understood, plotting plans they were too stupid to execute, while he played the dressed up bird, but that was his position at the moment, pretty caged bird of the Markos. Kurt, the man who had managed to snap up most of his father's business holdings by marrying his feckless mother, was thankfully unable to take Charles' mind from him. Marko, of course, attempted to rob him of that too, by parading him around in fancy suits, forcing him to perform like a trained animal, and attempting to marry him off to the first merchant who bit. He was young enough - still only seventeen - that marrying him off would seem a bit premature. And for the moment that kept him safe.

"It's hardly dire," Moira reminded him, later that night, after Charles had snuck out of the Marko manor and down to one of the taverns by the palace kitchens. "Your father did leave you with a dowry, and he had friends at the Institute that might see to your continued education."

He sighed. It was an old conversation, and it would have worked well enough until Charles reminded her that while he was obviously a man, the whole reason he was in this mess in the first place was because Brian Xavier had died without proper, male alpha, issue, leaving Charles with nothing but his dowry. Kurt Marko was a proper male alpha, and his son Cain was a proper male alpha. Maybe he could have gotten away with it if it had been Count Brian Xavier, or Marquis Brian Xavier or if his father were alive to help him pass for an alpha, maybe that would have flown, but it was just Merchant Brian Xavier. His father was brilliant with a great deal of foresight, but arranging a marriage to someone progressive and forward thinking while his son was barely ten had been a touch too foresighted for him.

"No, Moira, I am stuck rather firmly in the middle. No one cares when you're a servant, and no one cares when you're titled, but it's these... damn intelligentsia and merchantmen with their complete... backwardness despite their supposed enlightenment are overly concerned with appearances. When you've already made it you don't need to worry, but when you're like Kurt every move must be perfect. He'll marry me off to a business associate, because that is what you do with male omegas with nice dowries." The ability to bear children did not make him an imbecile. He tapped his lips, lazily. "No, the trick is finding a more powerful friend, and no Professor at the Institute is going to tangle with Xavier money behind Marko pigheadedness. It's either up or down, and I'd rather prefer up."

"Wouldn't we all," Moira agreed.

She'd done well enough for herself with a position in the palace kitchen and occasional nights in Lord Cassidy's bed; she had been set up as close to an independent woman as one could be in this day and age without a title. Charles was a merchantman's son, and had grown up among professors, he knew the comings and goings of money and power well enough and had seen to it that Moira would be well taken care of on the proceeds of her earnings. His own dowry was invested at his discretion and if he could just get the thing he would be well set himself, but no it was for his alpha, not him. "I'd just marry you if it would fulfill the antiquated terms my step-father has put forth."

"Thank you for such a vote of interest, Charles," Moira teased, and he smiled back, good-natured. "Come work in the kitchens."

"I beg your pardon."

Moira laughed. "It is how I snared Lord Cassidy. You find an appropriately titled Lord - or Lady, don't pretend you aren't interested in them - you strike his or her fancy and they set you up with a marriage to some imbecile who doesn't appreciate your talents and is too half-witted to realize when you've taken your own dowry, and increased it a hundred fold. You have a child or two and live in the relative lap of luxury. All those pretty skills your father and step-father have foisted upon you will do better than what I used to acquire myself a Lord."

"Equipment provided by God's good graces," Charles said. Moira was very nicely equipped, as a matter of fact.

"Lord Cassidy would not appreciate you admiring the equipment."

Charles shrugged. "Does Lord Cassidy have a friend?"

Lord Cassidy did have a friend, in point of fact. Summers, second son of the Earl Christopher, not the most elevated of benefactors, but better than Marko, and better than the self-important merchants that were sniffing around for Charles to become a more appropriate marrying age - like nineteen. Summers - or Alex as Charles was invited to call him when they were alone - was a delightful bundle of neuroses, envious of his brothers, not quite as martially inclined as his older brother, not quite as ecumenically inclined as his younger brother, Gabriel, and not quite as mercantilely inclined as Charles or anyone else for that matter.

Charles had been rather expecting to trade on his lascivious good looks in order to gain Alex's favor, but he did well enough with just pep talks and a lot of ego soothing, a bit of harpsichord and dancing, and a lot of talking and listening. It wasn't bad, honestly, as arrangements went, and as Charles slowly crept into his eighteenth year he broached the topic - ever so politely - with Alex. He hoped for some petty lordling with a tiny holding who wouldn't mind occasionally being cuckolded by Alex. They were so, so, very close to an arrangement, something that Marko would be required to grin and bear and accept as of great benefit to Charles and the Markos when...

All very suddenly...

He met the king, and those nice, neat, uncomplicated little plans of minor success and the occasional creature comfort came crashing down around Charles' head.

It was actually a rather pleasant crash, truth to tell.

~1~

Charles wasn't so crass as to actually appear at court with Alex, that would have been highly inappropriate, but that didn't mean that he and Alex didn't occasionally frequent the gardens of the Genoshan palace. Generally that meant Christopher, Alex's father, or Alex's older brother, Scott, had some matter or another to put before the king or one of his many advisers and that always put Alex in something of a sulk. Charles had tried, on more than one occasion, to convince the younger Summers that it was in his best interest to actually show interest in the court and its various proceedings, but Alex was always adamantly against making an appearance.

So they circled around the gardens, Charles' arm neatly placed through Alex's, the two of them talking on any number of things. Charles' botanical knowledge bored Alex, as did his political, so they tended towards... horse racing of all things, which was not Charles' forte, but he tried. Charles' father had been an excellent handicapper, but Charles had never acquired the knack for it; unfortunately for Alex's pocketbook, neither had he.

"I thought I might take you to the horse races next week... perhaps sort out the last details of your..." Alex trailed off. Charles' eyes drifted over from where they had been fixed on Alex's face.

He recognized the Cardinal first, if only because of his overly ostentatious garb, all decked out in red robes, complete with mitre. Klaus Schmidt, Cardinal Shaw, which meant the young man, neatly dressed in the browns, reds, and purples of house Lehnsherr could only be... King Erik.

"Your Majesty," Alex bowed, perfectly proper, and Charles stumbled over his own feet for less than a moment before he managed to stick the ridiculous bow-curtsy hybrid that propriety demanded of him.

The king waved them both up a few moments later, and Charles found himself subconsciously smoothing the non-existent wrinkles in his outfit. "Summers." The king inclined his head towards Alex and Alex nodded appropriately. "And...?"

The request was obvious. "Charles Xavier, Your Majesty." Never was the lack of title, property, or traditional value so obvious as when he was forced to add nothing else. At least down on the quays, before his father died, he would have at least been jokingly referred to as the 'Merchant Prince', but such days were long in the past.

"Xavier?" The question was for the Cardinal, however, not him. He thought, perhaps, he should have looked down, shouldn't have looked the king in the eyes like they were dogs that he could somehow stare down, but the king was looking at him, stormy grey-green-blue eyes trailing from his neck, down his chest, and lower... The inspection shouldn't have been pleasing. He'd been looked at that way before, had been looked at that way by Kurt or by Kurt's associates, he'd felt the way an alpha's eyes roamed across his lips, down his neck, to his waist and hips, assessing...

It shouldn't have been arousing.

"Son of Brian Xavier, perhaps?" Both Charles and the king jumped, both suddenly aware of the public nature of Charles being mentally undressed and His Majesty was doing the undressing.

"Yes, Your Eminence." Charles did his best not to let nerves show, but doubted he was wholly successful.

Somehow the king's face demanded the Cardinal explain it to him, without a word being spoken.

"Xavier was sometimes colloquially styled the Merchant Prince - no disrespect intended to those graced by God with the true will to rule, I'm certain." Charles nodded his head, too tight confines of his shirt suddenly stifling. "My understanding is the holdings have passed to the Markos. Merchant Lords at best." The Cardinal looked at Charles, square in the face, his own eyes assessing, all oil and false niceties. "Wouldn't you say, Xavier?"

Smile, smile, Charles forced himself to smile, polite, pleased, ever so vapid, nothing to see here. "I really couldn't say, Your Eminence. I have no place in the day to day of these things." Anymore. His father had wrapped him tightly in the world of merchants and coins and the secret smiles and hand twitches of every trader on this side of the Eastern Ocean; Marko kept him in a cage, metaphorical, but a cage nonetheless.

"Yes, I suppose you have entirely different mercantile pursuits on your mind."

Charles let the judgment roll off his back, smiled, and tilted his head as though he had absolutely no idea what the Cardinal was talking about.

"Yes," the king interrupted both of them. "Summers, I believe your father was looking for you." Alex took his obvious cue to leave, scurrying away as fast as his legs could politely carry him. Shaw started to circle. "Cardinal, please see him out." The finality of the tone made the Cardinal hesitate for only a moment - Charles saw the flicker of annoyance - before he too fled.

Charles knew the look in the king's eye. It was not one he was unfamiliar with, although it had never been focused on him before. His father had owned many things that could stir a man to jealousy. He had never known a king to be covetous, but there on his face, plain as day, were the words 'mine. I want it'.

"Charles." The king sounded as though he was trying out the word, rolling it on his tongue. Just his name caused a faint stirring in his gut, the rumbling sound sliding inside of him pleasantly.

"Your Majesty." He doubted he kept his own slightly besotted wonder out of his tone. He tried to reel himself in, draw himself back. This was meant to be business he had been so, so close to some sort of boring, mediocre arrangement that Charles could live out the rest of his life, have a few children, sell good looks and smarts for a leg up over his uncle. But now the king was looking at him and...

Charles was both very aware of how pleasantly close the man was to him now, and how unpleasantly complicated his life had become in a handful of moments.

"So, Merchant Prince, was it?" Erik continued to circle, bringing to mind some sort of big fish, or a shark, circling and corralling its prey.

"As His Eminence said, I'm certain no disrespect was meant by the appellation."

The king didn't seem offended, or if he was whatever offence he felt was overridden by bemusement, his lip was quirked, his eyes nearly sparkled. The man was obscenely handsome, a touch gaunt, but it only served to set off ridiculously cut cheekbones and a hard jaw. Charles had never been close enough to make a study before, and the poorly styled imprint on the latest coin didn't do the king any justice at all. The king was all hard angles, sharp, and he made Charles feel rather... un-fit, despite the fact that he was well exercised and shaped pleasantly - especially for an omega, and just the king looking at him was making him feel a bit flustered.

"And you have been enjoying young Lord Summers' attentions?"

A brief moment of panic spiked up Charles' spine. He didn't know the king, didn't know the sort of man he was, and it could be very unpleasant for Alex if the poor boy had something that the king found himself wanting. "He is very pleasant company, Your Majesty."

Nice, neutral, safe.

"Walk with me."

Charles could hardly say no, and the king cut a slow pace through his own gardens, Charles matching it easily. The king was silent, and Charles was a natural chatterer, but he bit back his words. He had suddenly found himself serving the king's pleasure, whatever form that would take, and one did not simply chatter about ornithology or botanical diversity or books.

"Do you play an instrument?"

"I'm strongest with the harpsichord, sire."

"You'll play for me tonight."

"Of course."

The exchange was all so stiff. Perhaps he should not have thought about stiffness, he took a deep breath, ribs expanding unpleasantly as he tried to suck in air, tried to breathe. The king was commanding a performance, tonight.

"And what topics are you conversant on?"

"Many, although I suppose I find myself most comfortable with the comings and goings of merchants and our wares." He bit his lip. "Horse racing, the botanical, ornithology, herbs and medicines, philosophy..." Charles trailed off. One should not brag in front of the king.

"Delight me, then, Charles." Charles felt a lump of something cold and hard - perhaps dread - settle into his stomach. "Perhaps you can explain to me why my coffee has suddenly become so very expensive."

Charles very nearly snorted; instead he managed to bite his lip in a way that was hopefully coy or at least amusing. "The matter is threefold, actually, although, I'm surprised you find yourself concerned with the price of coffee, sire."

"Let's say it is a pressing concern of far too many lords to count." The king looked amused, frightfully so, and Charles began to fear less and less for his safety and his head - and more and more for other parts of him.

"Well it is three-fold, as I said. The first is poor yields, both this season and the last."

The king frowned. "I've heard no reports of poor yields, only concerns for price."

Charles took a deep breath, calm, a little show, polite. "Our weather here, in Genosha, has been unseasonably cool, the same can be said for the weather on the South Seas, cool temperatures are acceptable for the coffee plant, but also leave the natural predators of the coffee beetle weakened. The beetles, left unchecked by predators, leave their larva to feed on the bean, ravage the harvest, and create a poor yield and a scarce crop. This is the second summer of our unseasonably cool weather, which means another poor harvest, but last year's poor harvest has caused some political unrest. Certain farmers with the foresight to plan against the beetle have reaped the rewards while other coffee provinces go hungry and without a crop. In short, weather, politics, and beetles, although, really it all comes back to weather, believe it or not."

"And here my lords are after me to install a new Governor to the south provinces." The king was... oh, amused, that was good.

Charles grinned, over-cheeky. "I would only recommend it if the new Governor could also guarantee warmer weather, sire."

"Then what would you recommend, Charles?"

Charles froze, stopped walking, and brushed his hands nervously down his front. The king stopped for him, turned neatly, and gave him a very toothy grin, one that brought to mind small animals being devoured in the jaws of bigger ones.

"I do not bite."

"I find that very hard to believe." Charles couldn’t quite believe what he had said.

The king, however, laughed, amused, very amused, and he waved his hand in a distinct 'get over here' sort of gesture. Charles came back to his side and the king had his arm out and Charles looped his own arm through it and they began to walk.

"The solution depends on a number of factors, and how one wishes to accommodate those factors."

"Enlighten me, then."

"Well, the first is that there's really nothing to be done for the year. The crops themselves are already well on their way to ruin and any intervention will see no decrease in price for at least six months." The king nodded for Charles to continue. "The coffee plant is vulnerable during the flowering phase. Any farmers growing a later crop, one that will not see market for four or more months, may take preventative measures, careful hygienic procedures, inspection of the plant, and culling of infested parts of plants. There are... there are books on the matter, which I'm sure are far too uninteresting for Your Majesty to need to concern himself with, but the matter might be of interest to your Governor."

Charles stumbled for his next words.

"A good merchant sees the warning signs in his suppliers, however. My father on a ruthless day might have stockpiled coffee in preparation of the price spike, on an altruistic day he might have offered some of his favored farmers and suppliers tips for keeping their yields high in the face of unforeseen weather, that sort of thing."

"And which tactic has your guardian, Marko, employed?"

There were so many ways, polite, backhanded, and everything in between, that Charles could have used to answer the king's question. "He has taken advantage of the mild temperatures to enjoy the beach, sire."

The king was more than clever enough to figure that out. No, Kurt hadn't noted the temperatures, didn't know what they had meant, and that was why Charles' father was the Merchant Prince and Kurt was little more than a pretender to that throne. "You implied a longer term solution, Charles?"

"A few strains of the coffee plant are more resistant to beetle infestation, however, they are generally also some of the more bitter blends. In time, two, three, maybe even four decades from now, a dedicated cross breeder of coffee might find a blend that is both pleasing to the palate and resistant to the beetle. Of course, even if that were the case I recommend the continued planting of the earlier breeds."

"Why bother with an inferior breed?" The king asked, and Charles could hear genuine curiosity in the monarch's tone.

Charles considered. "The unchecked issues of relying on a single breed or strain of a plant or animal has been recently very apparent in the decline of the Alekov Dynasty." Cousin mated to cousin mated to aunt-sister-cousin to granduncle-nephews until finally the end result were three boy princes, each too sickly to be picked up for fear of leaving them bruised and bleeding beneath the skin.

"Fascinating."

Charles was unsure if the king meant his treatise on interbreeding of plants and animals or Charles himself. Either way, he found himself enamored.

~2~

It turned out, quite simply, that His Majesty was not particularly interested in Charles' harpsichord skills.

After the king had finished interrogating Charles on the topic of coffee, he followed with the topic of fisheries. Charles was less studied on the topic, but similar environmental factors were involved and although he couldn't solve that problem he did have some thoughts. He had made an offhand comment about being certain to research the topic thoroughly and then the king had said something a bit like 'do get back to me on that', as though Charles was supposed to walk up to the palace and say 'oh yes, His Majesty is expecting my report of fishery yields'.

It was almost a relief to find himself politely guided back to the king's suite. There, at least, he had some idea what to expect, sort of. Oh, he and Moira had gotten quite raunchy with the specifics - and Charles knew a good deal more about Lord Cassidy's likes and dislikes than he would have thought possible - but in the end, Charles hadn't actually...

Well the specifics were all very unfamiliar.

The king had settled him down on a bench in front of a harpsichord, double doors between the private salon and the bedchamber hung ominously open. The king was going to have him, and Charles found that a bit thrilling. No, more than a bit thrilling, he was already mildly aching for it. And then the king sat down in a chair only a few feet from the harpsichord, body loose and sprawling in a way that made Charles' eyes rake up and down the man. He was stunning.

"So... Charles."

He took a deep, calming breath. "Yes, Your Majesty?"

"I assume young Summers has been working on some sort of arrangement on your behalf?"

Charles felt a bit more at ease from the question, in truth; they were going to talk specifics, it seemed. Charles knew this was simply how it was done, a young man or a woman, tying him or herself to someone of higher station, using the opportunity to better their position and come out the better for it. "He was negotiating a marriage to a friend of his, a Hereditary Knight."

The king frowned. "A Knight? Do not value yourself so cheaply, Charles."

He knew it was a cheap price, a Knight was rather low on the hierarchy of nobility, but a few months ago he would have taken a fishmonger over one of the traders that Marko no doubt had lined up. "What would you have me do, Your Majesty?" He pitched his voice in the sultry manner he'd practiced on Alex from time to time, and if the way the king's eyes darkened was any indication, he had succeeded.

"You'll have a room in the palace and you are more than welcome to make the acquaintance of any Duke, Margrave, Count or any other noble you see fit, but not a Knight, Charles. Is that understood?" He stood, continued to talk over any answer Charles might have made. "Never at court, locked away in some tiny little manor, your mind left to atrophy and rot. I don't think so."

He was standing behind Charles now, and Charles felt intoxicated, drunk on the king, on this man talking to him, not like an equal - of course, not to a king - but valued. It was a strange pleasantness to which he had grown unaccustomed, being appreciated for the head on his shoulders. The Markos did not appreciate that; none of those merchants who paraded through to check Charles' hips appreciated that. The king of Genosha was admiring his mind - he glanced over his shoulder - and his hips, too, apparently.

After another moment, Erik reached out, took Charles' wrists in his hands and rested his hands lightly on the keys of the harpsichord. "Is that agreeable, Charles?"

Charles wondered if he could really, truly say no, but it didn't matter, the answer was yes. "Very much so, Your Majesty."

"Play."

So, Charles sat, dainty and poised, back perfectly straight, fingers brushing gently against the keys, checking the tuning - excellent - and then he slowly began to play. He played something soft, light, unassuming and docile, something that brought to mind a spring day.

He could see the king circling, at the corners of his vision, he made a pair of circuits around the harpsichord before he came to rest, his front mere inches from Charles' back. Charles put him out of mind. The king pressed a finger gently to Charles' neck - no doubt feeling the frantic pulse there - and Charles' fingers missed two notes before he recovered. A feather light touch turned slowly into a caress, fingers sliding down off of Charles' shoulder and slowing undoing the buttons of his shirt to touch his upper chest. When the king leaned in, nose pressed to Charles' neck, he didn't flinch, and his fingers didn't stutter on the keys, he just kept playing.

It was all very... sudden and new and very unfamiliar. Oh he'd read about fire and passion and want and lust, heat between the legs, fire in the belly, but that was nothing compared to hot breath on his neck and the way it made his body ache and want to bend towards the king. The man was behind him now, sitting, legs straddling Charles from behind, his groin... his hardness pressed up against Charles' ass. Dry lips pressed to his neck and he tilted his head, just slightly, the king's fingers sliding up and to his throat, forcing his neck to cant just a touch more. Charles felt his breath quicken, his body respond in ways he'd never expected, and then suddenly his song was over.

The silence left by the ending notes was peaceful, but Charles' own panting breath was deafening in his ears.

"Play something else," the king commanded.

Charles was on fire, every inch of him, and that fire went into his fingers, and from his fingers to the keys as he banged out heat and lust and passion and indelicacy out onto the instrument, and behind him... behind him the king played him just as easily, his free hand pressed to Charles' belly and pulling him back, snug. The king's thighs and calves held his legs, his front pressed to Charles' back, his hands pulling Charles closer, tilting him exactly the way he wanted. Charles could feel his body clench, tense but not nervous, a quivering string ready to be plucked.

The king had him away from the bench before he'd finished the song, dragging Charles, very willingly, out of the salon and through those double doors and set him - over-roughly - onto the bed. His fingers pulled at fastenings, undid zips, and tugged off what little finery Charles had, leaving it strewn over the room, and then he left Charles like that, achingly hard, the preparatory slick coming so heavily now that he felt he must have been staining the king's sheets; they were silk, rich and royal red-purple.

He let himself savor it for a moment, slid against the sheets, cool and sensuous; he shimmied up, head resting on one of the pillows there. The king was devouring him, stormy and wild eyes darting from lips to chest to belly, to his hardness, to his leg; Charles pressed his feet to the mattress and arched, legs straining, offering his body for the taking.

The king barely managed to pull down his trousers and sort out the rest of the robes, some covered Charles, warm fur and fabrics running against chilled naked skin, but it left Charles without an inch of skin to touch on the king. He saw the king's hand disappear under the robe, and then two fingers slid inside of him, easily. Such a simple action, but it pulled a sound from his throat that wouldn't have been out of place in the alleys next to the docks, needy and raw.

It was meant to hurt - that was what he'd been told - but his legs weren't trembling from pain or fear. Fingers worked inside of him for a few more moments, thrusting, stretching out, drawing out more and more indecent sounds from his throat, making him ache and arch and whine. "Please..." Apparently he was not beyond begging for it, begging for the king to enter him.

Fingers withdrew, and he looked up at his king, eyes wide, and possibly a touch wet, begging for something he didn't quite have the words for, an aching need to be filled. A blunt hardness pressed against his opening. Charles didn't even have a moment to tense in surprise before the king pressed inside of him, sliding between already wet cheeks.

It hurt, split him open, but Charles' whimpers were soon more pleasure than pain. The king drew most of the way out, sunk deep inside of Charles again, and again, on his third or fourth entrance, the pain melted away almost completely and it was replaced with pure pleasure. Whimpers were replaced with moans as His Majesty hammered into Charles. He wrapped his legs tight around the king forcing him deeper, fingers grabbed for purchase and hooked into neat embroidery. The king growled and took him harder, every thrust forcing out a panting whimper.

His body, already heated from simple touches earlier, could only stand the assault so long. Charles came, body clenching tight around the king's huge member and his own body twitching, spending itself on the king's garments, on his own belly, everywhere. He felt the king still; his shoulders and arms trembling where they held him up, and Charles felt the warmth of hot seed filling him, before the monarch eased himself out of Charles. He left Charles spent, chest heaving, body deflowered, and overwhelmingly satisfied.

Perhaps he shouldn't have let himself drift off like that, fingers playing over his own chest and belly, warm and satiated. He was in the bed of the king, but the next thing he knew the king was next to him, naked, arms wrapped around him and hands everywhere.

"Do you... need something, sire?"

"Erik."

"Erik." Charles tried the name and found he liked it.

Erik said nothing for a long time, his fingers tracing gently from Charles' ear down his throat, across chest and belly, down his hip, and then back up again. It was a lazy circuit with no particular intent that Charles could discern but it kept Charles very lightly inflamed; he was too tired for arousal at the moment, but the touches kept the heat in his body from truly dying down.

Eventually, Erik moved to sprawl across Charles' body, lips touching against Charles' throat and Charles reached up to touch back, fingers running down the king's tightly muscled back. He was... magnificent, truly, possibly one of the most handsome men Charles had ever met. "It seems the best way to keep you quiet, then, Charles, is to take you to bed."

"Unless you would prefer I ramble."

"Mmm... tempting..." Erik squeezed him close. "Were do you keep all that information in your head, Charles?"

In between dissatisfaction and plans to get out from under the thumb of his stepfather. The dissatisfaction, however, he was finding rapidly receding. "Wherever it will fit, I would say."

"You mentioned something about birds, yes? Tell me more."

Apparently the king rather liked Charles trying to talk, trying to explain coffee production or playing harpsichord or discussing the relative advantages and disadvantages of certain wing types and wing spans while he was driving Charles to absolute distraction. He spent his time licking and biting and touching while Charles tried to remember the wings that were best for hovering seabirds. The king left lightly bruising bite marks on his neck and left a few pleasant finger marks on his hips, from where the king had clung to him when he'd been taken from behind for their second joining.

By the time Erik had finished inside him a third time, Charles thought he might never walk straight again, hips bowed and no longer capable of anything else but being ridden and driven into by the king, but then he was allowed to rest. The king pulled the sheets up over Charles' body, kissed one lightly freckled shoulder, and headed out of his bedchamber. Charles dozed, his body warm and content, his thighs and ass ached but he was more than satisfied. He'd heard that it could be like that, a satisfying, filled stretch, and it seemed only right that the king would fuck him magnificently.

He woke to a gentle touch on his shoulder, and wriggled up into a seated position. Erik handed him some tea, which he sniffed... it smelled odd.

"Moon tea."

Ah. The king apparently desired no bastards. He drank the tea in one long draught, blanching slightly from the bitterness, but handing it back. Night had fallen while he dozed; it was summer, and night came late, but it was already well past sundown. "Shall I leave, then?" He found himself yearning for... more, but he supposed one didn't join the king for an occasional... what was this? tryst? rendezvous? coupling? It mattered little; it wouldn't do to overstay his welcome.

"Yes." The answer was not cold, but nor was it warm, and Charles slid out of the bed and did his best to sort through the discarded garments and pluck his from the remainders the king had left. "There will be a carriage for you tomorrow to bring your personal effects to the palace."

In spite of the fact that was their agreement, Charles still found himself surprised. He covered it by pulling on his undergarments. "I... have several books." He hated the Markos more than anything, and he would not leave his collection, his father's collection, in their hands, not even for a place in the palace and the king's bed.

"Then your room will have several bookshelves. Be ready at three."

And then he left again, leaving Charles with the task of getting himself put back together. He didn't have much reference for it, but the man he caught glimpses of in the mirror looked ravished, even after he'd gotten most of his clothing back onto his body. He left via the kitchens; Moira was there after missing him at their usual tavern.

"Charles," she gasped the moment she saw him. "You look..." She apparently had no words for how he looked.

"Debauched?"

"That is one word for it. I thought..." She trailed off, tugged him into a corner by his elbow. "Alex?"

Charles let out a breath, a soft exhalation mixed with a snort. "I have apparently found myself a new benefactor."

Moira didn't ask who; it was a touch impolite, really. Charles could have taken up with some Lord who would prefer not to have his dalliances known, but he knew the whole palace was well aware of who graced the king's bed.

"The king." He answered her unasked question anyway.

Her eyes went wide, her face slack with shock. He was still having a hard time believing it himself. He would likely find himself at parties, dressed neatly in perfect outfits, in pieces of jewelry that would have covered his dowry three times over. It was more than a touch daunting. It was well known that once you entered the king's bed, there was truly nowhere to go but down. Charles would need to get his wits back about him to secure his position, if not as Erik's favorite, at least as one he would keep for many years.

"You should get yourself cleaned up," was what she finally said.

He nodded, squeezed her shoulder, and headed out the kitchen entrance and out into the streets of the capital. The walk home took only a few minutes but towards the end every step ached and his legs and back screamed for a warm bath.

Kurt and Cain were, of course, awake, and saw him come in, looking as he did. Cain made an over dramatic sniffing sound. Charles wondered if he still smelled of the sex of the king's bedchamber.

"I hope he paid you for it!" Cain jeered after him as he headed towards his room. "One ha'penny or did you get a full penny?"

Charles responded with a particularly crude two-fingered gesture he'd learned in his youth that his father had spanked him for. Finally, mercifully, he locked himself in the bath and started to draw hot water, sinking down into the tub even as it started to fill, eyes closed, each ache a reminder of his glorious night in the king's bed.

Hopefully it would be the first of many.

He nodded to himself; that would be the goal. He was brilliant, smart, well educated, and the king seemed to have at least a passing fancy in him. The goal, therefore, would be to become so vital that the king would never want him to leave.

~3~

The jeering was all worth it when a ridiculously pompous carriage arrived for him just a touch after three. His books and clothes and personal effects had somehow managed to be collapsed into three steamer trunks, two of them given over to books, one to clothes, and just a corner of one of the cases saved for a photograph, a diary, and the few personal effects he kept that hadn't been taken by Kurt or destroyed by his mother. The servant in charge of the carriage carried his trunks down from his room and into the back. It was a rather nice carriage, modern, with an engine made of springs, not drawn by horses.

Kurt was gawking at it, Cain standing beside him.

"Oh," Charles said, politely. "Did I forget to mention? The king seems to have taken a fancy to me."

Kurt paled. That, at least, he could sort out. Kurt had done his damnedest to convince Charles to give up his attempts to get out from under Kurt's thumb, had called him slut, whore, and even more creative and etymologically interesting words. Charles was having none of it. Would he have preferred a life that did not require him to use his looks to earn his position? Of course. However, having found himself there, he was more than willing to do what it took to advance himself, and Kurt's attempts would do nothing to dissuade him.

Charles was under no delusions that he was favored, or preferred, or would find himself in that position easily, but if the king had decided he was of value, then it was in his best interest to continue to be of value. He would prefer to not need a husband at all, but if he were to get one, better a duke than a trader. It was all very simple and uncomplicated; sell for the best price to the one who can pay the most. The reward was an easier life, free of his stepfather.

Kurt had nothing better to say.

"All my love to mother," he said, meaning it slightly. He could not hate his mother for playing the same game Charles was playing, but with much lower stakes.

His rooms at the palace were very nice, a full bed chamber, a private bath, and a study/salon with bookshelves aplenty and a clavichord, not quite as impressive as His Majesty's harpsichord, but it would be useful when Charles required the practice - not that he thought Erik was going to be interested in his playing. He took a few moments to unpack the clothing, at least. He had only a few outfits that constituted 'finery' largely provided by Alex. That would be the first thing he needed: a patron to make certain he was well dressed and bejeweled.

After taking a few moments to collect himself, Charles picked a nice enough outfit - he would hardly be mistaken for a servant, but certainly not duke's consort material either - and set about to figure the rules of the game he'd found himself in. He considered what he knew, largely second or third hand via Moira. The king kept several individuals for his bed, both ladies and gentlemen; most were married, but there were some who were unattached. The ones who were married were, in general, transient; they were there to win their husbands support for this measure or that measure, throw your omega to the king and let him have his way a few times. Charles had no idea how that worked for them in practice; the king was not weak-willed, at least in his estimation.

Erik was a young king, only a few years older than Charles, no wife or omega, although the rumors were he might be tied to a neighboring princess or another. The trick was whether he would marry a Klettgau or not, that was the question on everyone's mind. In the end, it mattered little to Charles' plans, he needed the king's ear and him having a wife wouldn't matter.

There were a few things he might be able to guess. Erik had no desire for a bastard, or at least not one born to an untried omega; most alphas, especially a king or a duke, wouldn't care, so that said something, even if Charles was unsure what. He liked Charles' brain. It was in his best interest to be interesting and useful.

He continued to wander, eventually found himself in one of the libraries. It was apparently empty. Caution warred with curiosity, and he entered and started to browse. Books were... like a drug to him. His father had gotten him several when he was younger, and Charles had wasted more than a few pounds on books before he realized how truly precarious his situation was with Kurt. Charles didn't dare touch, not without permission, but he did look, most of the books were old, likely not added as part of Erik's reign, possibly King Jakob's, or an older king.

"What do you think you are doing?"

He froze, turned to the voice, female, no one he knew. He recognized the woman, however, Queen Edith, Erik's mother. He gave the appropriate courtesy to her and then bit his lip, nervous. "My apologies I was... just browsing."

"Your name," she commanded it easily, and it reminded him of Erik.

"Charles Xavier, ma'am."

She sighed, and then shook her head. Charles found himself increasingly nervous, wondering if he'd made an incautious misstep that would cost him everything very quickly, but then she let him be, no longer questioning his presence in the library. It wasn't as though there had been guards, or anyone to suggest he'd gone somewhere improper. He nervously turned back to the books, looking again.

"You read, Xavier?"

His head snapped back up. "Yes, ma'am."

“What do you read?” For her own part, the Queen was running her fingers along the spines of a few biographies. Charles had looked at them earlier.

“Everything I can get my hands on.” The answer was too enthusiastic, too familiar, and he took a calming breath, nervously teased his lower lip between his teeth before he continued. “My father was a great enthusiast when it came to knowledge.”

“And your father?” She asked.

The Merchant Prince. “A simple trader.” He considered saying more. His father was a brilliant man. His father spoke of enriching King Jakob through his wisdom, but he knew that Kings and Queens had little need to remember favors from someone so inconsequential.

Edith seemed to be thinking, turning something over, and Charles pressed his fingers to one of the shelves of books, aching to touch, to crack them open and to lean from them.

“And so your father has taught you his trade to practice on my son.” It wasn’t a question. The statement didn’t quite hold the layer of condescension it might have had from Kurt, but there was no approval there.

He could have answered so many ways, he could have admitted that snaring her son’s attention - even for a few days - had over-complicated his life, he could have said he’d had no intention of anything greater than being a Hereditary Knight’s omega, he could have admitted that he was terrified of attempting the game he’d been thrust into; instead he smiled. What else could he even say?

She didn’t like him, he decided. Maybe she didn’t care for hangers on in general, maybe she disliked him in particular because he wasn’t a noble.

“What do you hope to get, then, Xavier?”

So very little. He would have settled for his damn dowry, he wouldn’t have said no to a little house in the country, some books, maybe some birds or horses or something to try his hand at crossbreeding, little pea plants maybe.

“I would very much like an alpha that appreciates my mind.” He nodded, that would solve everything quite neatly. “If I am very lucky, your son has suggested that husband might be someone of higher social stature than myself. I would settle for that.”

Queen Edith looked honestly surprised. He had shocked her. Her eyes widened just enough for him to notice before she schooled her features.

“Books are meant to be read,” she said, finally. “Best use them to sharpen your mind.” And then she was gone, and he had no idea if he had made some sort of progress or not. Perhaps he shouldn’t have admitted to such mundane goals, but he couldn’t deny he wanted to use her permission.

After a few moments of awed reflection, he touched one - it was just a botany book, but it was so large, and potentially full of pictures - a few moments later he tugged it from the shelf and brought it over to a table, where he sat, opened it, and started to read. It was... he felt a bit like he might cry. He never wanted to leave. He would have worked in the kitchen, would have cleaned floors, polished silver, trimmed hedges, if only to be able to have a few hours a day in this room. Charles continued to read, and spent hours there before he finally made his way back to his quarters and continued to unpack.

He couldn't allow himself to get attached. He needed to be ingratiating himself with the king, not his library.

A soft knock came on the door, followed by the door opening, and he found Moira there, a small tray of food balanced carefully on a hand. He cocked an eyebrow at her.

"The kitchen staff said a new courtesan has come to the palace." He snorted in response. "I offered to bring dinner and get the gossip on the new addition."

Charles Xavier, son of the Merchant Prince Brian Xavier, was finally news. He nodded over to one of the sitting tables and Moira brought the food over. There was wine, actual wine, for him. Kurt indulged, his mother indulged, but he hadn't had the pleasure in months; he poured himself a glass, Moira declined. "Is this what all of the..." He choked on the word, even though it was the best way to describe him now. "Courtesans are having for dinner?"

Moira smiled. "I got you the best of the hens."

He looked, there was a fine little bird there, under a chafing dish; it had a very light sauce to it, buttery. "Do you mind if I...?" He indicated the food.

"I've already eaten. I'm just here for gossip."

"The fuel that runs the kitchens, I suppose." He tugged the plate over, realizing he was starving. He cut into the bird lightly while he considered what to say, what to ask, and how in the world he was going to make it through this. "I suppose anything I say will make it back to the kitchens?"

"I am your friend, but I am expected to at least return with an assessment, and if they know we are friends they will expect more."

Charles sighed. "I was in the gardens with Alex, he saw me, decided he wanted me, had me... three times."

Moira's eyes went wide again, her face a mix of horrified and amused. They knew each other well and he'd been more than subjected to the various comings and goings of the passions of Lord Cassidy, so really it was only fair. "... Wow."

"It's really not so intriguing, the issue now is keeping him interested." Obviously he'd been doing something right, he just needed to continue to do that. "The king is young, he doesn't keep courtesans long. He's offered to let me make the acquaintance of some Lords, possibly for marriage, and I need to not ruin this Moira. I have nowhere to go but down."

His friend had mostly recovered, and Charles took another bite of the hen, chewing slowly. It was so good, tender, and well seasoned. He was cultured enough to know something fine when he tasted it.

"Well, if it's any consolation the kitchen will be pulling for you." He smiled, that would be one very tiny weight off his mind, he supposed. "We do hear things, first and foremost that the king hadn't taken someone new to bed for several months, so you have novelty on your side." That was good. "He was..." Moira paused. "You and Alex never..."

"Yes, deflowered by the king, that's one of those things you put in your autobiography, I suppose, if you become famous enough to need one."

"Three times?!"

"Yes, I still ache a bit." He was still having a hard time wrapping his head around everything. His life was... He had not planned for this.

"And Alex?"

"His Majesty has made it clear that I am not to be married to some Knight, so... that arrangement will come to an end, I suppose." Although Erik had made it clear he seemed to expect Charles to do some of the lifting when it came to getting himself set up with a match. "Alex will be back in another day or two, that is usually when Scott and Lord Christopher make their rounds. He likely already suspects, but I will tell him as much. I do feel a bit bad. He's a nice boy, Moira."

"You can't allow yourself to get attached, Charles. You know... the rules, you helped me with them when I first met Lord Cassidy."

It was business, he understood the impersonality of business, but he still felt as though he was letting Alex down. "You can't tell me you don't have feelings for your Lord Cassidy." Sean. He'd heard her call him 'Sean' on more than one occasion with a great deal of fondness.

She smiled, just a little smile that let Charles know instantly that yes, she had feelings for the boy. It was a stark reminder that he mustn't allow himself to get attached. Erik was gorgeous, with cheekbones and jaw and stormy eyes and apparently a cock meant for pleasuring him and leaving him breathtakingly sore, but he was the king.

Unfortunately, Moira had little else new to tell him even though they passed a few more minutes exchanging wisdom on the king. He hoped he would have a few ears to the ground pulling for him now. An hour after he finished dinner he was summoned. Apparently His Majesty wanted him for chess.

Charles had originally suspected that was some sort of euphemism for sex.

Actually it turned out that Erik did actually want to play chess.

And have him in his bed again.

Mercifully, only twice.

~4~

Charles' body was one giant ache. Moira had sometimes said sex hurt, being taken, roughly, when your body was not quite ready for it, but he supposed he'd thought since it felt so nice at the time, of course it would not hurt after. Instead he felt as though he has run some sort of marathon, body screaming from use. His arms and legs, that had been used to cling to Erik as they joined, were still aching and... his ass was brutally sore.

He slept late the night after enjoying chess with Erik, his body slowly recovering. He was nervous that a rejection, coy or otherwise, would spell the end of his time with Erik and he hoped that the king might realize that constant assault by Erik's - rather king sized - member would leave him unable to dance or sit for chess. Perhaps he would be allowed a day or two of respite. Erik had once again seen to it he’d drank moon tea before sending him on his way.

Moira arrived just before noon and Charles was still in bed, wrapped in loose cotton bedclothes. They did little to hide the new bite-bruise-hickey that had been left on his neck last night. "Charles..." She brushed his hair out from his eyes. "Is he hurting you?"

The whimper that escaped his lips when he tried to sit did little to dissuade her concern. "His Majesty is simply... very thorough in slaking his lust. I'm enjoying myself, love." It was just the afterwards that was leaving him ragged. "I shouldn't be wanting him to spend himself elsewhere but I need a bit of a holiday."

She smiled, a little crinkle of the lips and eyes, but she could see the humor in it now, and hugged him around the shoulder and kissed his forehead. He then availed himself of the eggs she had brought, eating his way through three before he started to feel human again.

"Well, the kitchen is abuzz," Moira started. "Who knew you flirting and being polite with Mrs. Kenworth would pay dividends? She suggests you make the acquaintance of Margravine Frost."

"Margravine?" He considered what he knew of Genosha for a moment. The north still had enough martial concerns to keep a distinct Margrave title. "I heard something concerning her family. Some awkward gossip or another."

Moira nodded. "Her brother, Christian, is a male alpha, but he prefers the company only of other male alphas, took a lover from a neighboring little fiefdom held by some barely-noble Hereditary Knight, and he would not hear of a marriage for children, political or otherwise."

Charles nodded, trying to let the information sink in. He'd heard as much, it was news even when he was a child and didn't understand why it should matter if someone bedded an alpha or an omega, but he'd been a bit naive then. "Would that we all had the opportunity to make the decision to bed someone based on love and fondness, not political expediency."

The answering smile from his friend was tight, but she inclined her head in silent almost-agreement. "The Margravine, Emma, is an alpha, and she has several sisters who are all omegas, so while perhaps Christian could have held the Mark for his lifetime, the old Margrave, Winston Frost, decided on expedience and trained his daughter in the arts of war. He is on his deathbed, however." Charles nodded, still not certain what the dealings of a Margravine had to do with him. The north was very powerful; Winston had come under the umbrella of Genosha not entirely willingly in his youth. Charles had heard stories about it, about King Erik - the ninth, King Jakob's father, not his son, the tenth - and his conquest of the north. "The Margravine acts a courtesan and lays with the King so that she will be confirmed as heir to her father's title after his death. Some cousins and distant relations have been agitating to be named to the post rather than it going to a female alpha."

His sleep addled mind finally caught up, and he nodded, gobbling down a bit of grilled chicken, probably left over from the night before. "She needs to assure the king that she will remain loyal to him. That has always been the trouble with the Frostmarch, even before it was incorporated into Genosha." He felt as though he was actually awake now, and he slid out of bed to attack his clothes chest while Moira looked on. "It's a sad day indeed when the head of the kitchens is ahead of me on politics."

"As far as I know, the Margravine has been attempting to find an omega who doesn't roll over when she snaps."

That could have been a perfect match. Charles didn't care one way or the other on the title of Margrave, but if Emma was to be an unconventional ruler - female alphas often had trouble keeping their territories out of the hands of male alphas - then perhaps she would not mind an unconventional omega. Erik might approve of the match, as well. He doubted the king trusted him or gave much thought to his loyalty, but if Charles had the king to thank for his position, then he might trust Emma to stay in line as Margravine.

"Alright, then." Charles set a few outfits on the bed and then fumbled his way to the bathroom. "What's she like?"

"Cold," Moira answered, immediately. Charles started to wash himself off. He hadn't even fallen into the tub last night, too tired from another night with the king. At least two days ago he'd managed that. "She is a warrior, and ruthless, Charles, don't forget that."

A warrior. "And what does she want in her omega?"

He didn't hear Moira's answer, but he imagined it must have been a shrug. When he turned around she was on her feet and he gave her a hug before she was gone. He bathed, not the long, relaxing soak he wanted, but he needed to make the acquaintance of people other than the library. Emma Frost, for one, the rest he would figure out as he went.

Charles decided to play up the features that were usually attractive in an omega. He cinched his waist in a bodice, not enough to create a caricature of the female form, but enough to play up his slightly wider hips. His vest was a bit slimming as well, the way the panels of the work fell, and his upper chest was bare. A long jacket served as cover for his arms and the long tails flared enough to mimic a skirt while still allowing him the comfort of breeches. He was always amused by the strange sort of mix of male and female that went into dressing a male omega, he ended up with a choker necklace to cover the bite His Majesty had left last night and stud earrings, and he didn't even bother to paint his already too-red lips. He thought he looked quite delectable.

The goal would need to be finding Emma, or at least a few other appropriate alphas, without encountering the king. Otherwise he might find himself ravished and he'd spend the rest of the day in a hot bath having wasted the opportunity. The handful of courtesans who made their home in the palace largely seemed to have the run of it, and Charles ignored the library in favor of finding wherever various alphas hid while they visited the king.

He found a little private lounge that the king's courtesans had taken over for themselves. There he met three of his 'competition', a stunning redhead by the name of Jean, a beautiful darker skinned woman, Angel, and a man who... to be honest, Charles found it hard to believe the man was an omega, he was broad shouldered and did nothing to flatter himself, his hair was a mess. Still, Charles was no idiot, and it was entirely possible that Logan presented an unknown threat to his position. Charles spent a few minutes getting to know them. They were all better stationed than him, first born omegas to lords at least. If he had to pick one to be most wary of, it would have been Jean. She was smart; the other two were more canny than smart.

Emma was nowhere to be found. He continued to try his way around before finding himself in the company of Lord Christopher, taking a spin or two through the gardens, before Christopher finally seemed to realize he was Alex's 'Charles'. About then, the bare thread of propriety that said that perhaps he shouldn't try to bed the omega he thought his son had bedded asserted itself and Charles finally found himself out in the gardens, alone, as dusk started to fall.

Charles couldn't call the day a complete loss, he did meet a good number of the unattached courtesans at the palace, and only Emma remained elusive. Most of the married courtesans seemed to keep away outside of the entertaining and lawmaking season, at home with their alphas making heirs or planning. He found himself hoping that whatever alpha he ended up attached to would find themselves needing Charles to persuade Erik in the future. It was a dangerous thought. He was still sore for the night before and yet he found himself hoping that Erik would call on him.

The garden paths farther out were trimmed in taller hedge mazes, and Charles weaved his way through the paths, thinking, planning. He made a few turns, and then another few, before he finally came across a clearing, wide open enough to be bathed in late afternoon sun. At the center of the courtyard he saw Cardinal Shaw, and a figure in blinding white. They were talking, so low that Charles couldn't hear them, and at first Charles thought he might have interrupted something sordid and clandestine, but the two of them drew away from each other only a few inches and continued to talk, ignoring him. It couldn't have been anything particularly secret.

"Have a good evening, Your Eminence," the woman in white said, voice light and coy.

Shaw made his own goodbyes and headed out passed Charles. Charles bow-curtsied with a mumbled 'Your Eminence' and then found himself alone with the woman in white. He gave her a similar bow-curtsy and she returned it with the slightest of bows. It was slightly improper, but Charles received the message clearly - she was an alpha and wanted to be treated as such.

"I apologize for... interrupting." He would have left, obviously, if anyone had indicated they wanted that.

"It was nothing of import. The Cardinal fears for my soul, you see." She was smirking now. "Emma Frost," she introduced herself.

Charles gave her another once over, trying to sort out the contradiction that the Margravine presented. She wore breeches; the legs were sinfully tight, as though painted on with some sort of fabric than clung easily to skin and showed off the entire stretch of her legs, thighs and hips. She wore a bodice, far tighter than the one Charles was using as an undergarment, that must have been squeezing her ribs painfully tight, and the effect was that her - already ample - bosom all but spilled out the top, enough that Charles thought he might have actually been able to see a hint of nipple where her breasts were presented. She was far more lecherously presented than even a back alley omega. Her shoulders were gently draped in fur, perhaps a testament to her northern roots.

"Margravine." He managed to recover, gave his own courtesies again. "Charles Xavier, here at His Majesty's behest." It was nicer than saying that apparently the king fancied him and wanted to sleep with him repeatedly before marrying him off.

"The new addition to the king's stable?" She looked him up and down. "Oh, sugar, who decided that was flattering on you?"

He couldn't quite keep himself from huffing, a bit annoyed. The king certainly hadn't minded the look, nor had Alex. "I enjoy it."

She came over, pressed her fingers to his waist and then his hip. He was being inspected and measured, not unlike the horse she'd compared him to. Charles felt as though he was going to be asked to canter about. After a few long seconds, she reached up and rubbed a thumb hard against his lip, attempting to rub off the paint she thought he had there. "Sweet Lord Above, they come that color?"

Charles laughed. "Yes, they do."

"Xavier, the Merchant Prince?" Emma asked, and Charles nodded in response. "It's absolutely a sin that you don't have better jewelry than that."

Emma was well enough, it seemed. They spent dinner together.

Charles found himself giving her the summary of his woes, not the details, but enough that she knew his aims. Perhaps that was unwise, trusting her, but as far as he could tell she had no designs on the palace alphas, so they might be able to watch each other's backs just a bit. They mostly discussed literature, and the occasional politics. She also seemed to have a fetish for dressing him up and cinching his waist too tight in clothing.

"There's a rather exciting soiree next week," she informed him a few weeks into their association. "Just announced."

"I feel as though you have some sort of sixth sense for these things," he admitted. He likely would hear about it in another day or so, but Emma seemed to constantly attract this knowledge. Emma was currently torturing him into yet another outfit, this one a deep royal blue that left him breathless from the tight waist. "You are attempting to deprive me of oxygen."

"Not at all." She set another of her overly elaborate necklaces against his throat; it was crystal with little sapphires dotted in between. "You should wear that."

He looked himself up and down; he wasn't even wearing pants, just a corset and some undergarments. "A little immodest, don't you think?"

She wrapped him loosely in a dress, only slightly less immodest, that left his entire neck and shoulders on display. The cut accentuated flared hips he didn't quite possess. Must show off those... birthing hips, he supposed. "Oh sugar, you look ravishable."

Erik had actually not called on him for three days, and was feeling he could do with some ravishing, actually.

"We will have to practice your dancing."

"I'm actually quite a good dancer." That was one thing that Kurt had been very thorough on, making certain he knew all the latest dance styles.

She leaned in behind him, breasts pressing to his back, a hand on his waist, eyes hungry. "A different sort of dancing, then?"

~5~

The upcoming party transformed the palace; normally it was someone cloistered, dreary and a bit dark. There were courtesans, of course, and a few politicians and lords who were able to spend more time in the capital, but now everyone was about. Everyone, from Dukes to Hereditary Knights, were coming from across Genosha, by airship, by sea ship, and by carriage, and they started arriving almost as soon as the party was announced.

Charles had found himself being very accommodating to the newly arrived lords and ladies. Between conversational strolls in the gardens and pillow talk in beds or against walls, Charles was finding himself very aware of the comings and goings of both in the East, near Klettgau, and the West on the seas. It was almost pleasant, and he was becoming far better versed in pleasure, both giving and taking.

Emma spent a few hours together every day, the two of them huddled over portraits and trading thoughts over appropriate alphas for Charles and omegas for Emma. Charles had a feeling that Emma was considering - but only considering - him as a perspective omega. Charles would have been hard-pressed to say he liked Emma, she was ruthless in ways he didn't necessarily like, and it was hard not to notice that although bedding her was... pleasant, she did not arouse the same level of interest from his body that Erik did. If he became hers, it would be entirely business.

He should have been trying more, he supposed, to convince her of his suitability. There were worse things in the world than being married to a Margravine. Charles was mostly contenting himself with the perspective that he hadn't yet proven his loyalty to the king enough to make a proper spouse for Emma.

No, his father had taught him the very first rule of business many years ago, when he'd been just a boy: don't get attached to what you are buying and selling. Charles knew that his slightly self-serving desire to ingratiate himself with the king wasn't so he could convince Emma of his value.

"My dance card is rather full," he commented to Emma where they were leaning out over the balcony of Emma's room, looking at all of the coming nobles. He had his own mental list, of all the appropriate lords he might take up with, their relative value out of bed, and their likelihood of tolerating a mouthy and well-educated consort.

"Mine is rather empty." Emma's retort was not annoyed or rueful, more grateful. She didn't much care for the little courtship dance.

"I'd suggest you attempt to poach the Princess we're meant to be welcoming, but that's likely to go over poorly with the king." That was the purpose of this little ball, after all, the introduction of a Klettgau Princess, Raven, to Erik and see if a deal might be stuck. As the third daughter of the king, and an omega - if reports were to be believed - she was unlikely to end up anywhere near the throne, thus she was decent marriage material to the King of Genosha.

"I hardly think that will get His Majesty to consider the Frostmarch to be less of a threat."

Charles nodded in response. Emma needed a Genoshan consort, not a foreigner; the Frostmarch didn't share a border with the Klettgau Empire, but it was close enough to provide the nervous possibility of a two front war. "I've never danced with a Princess."

"You've danced with a king."

He flushed. "Not in public."

"Mmmm..." Emma bent down to join his lazy sprawl on the balcony. "I'm certain he would be happy to dance with you if you presented yourself like that for him."

He looked over his shoulder and realized how he had set himself, bent at the hip, arms braced against the stone balcony, legs spread just enough to leave him comfortable. He smirked at her. Emma watched him lazily for a few moments before she took up position behind him. He didn't even bother to look; he knew what she was doing.

He heard her unfasten the lacing of her skin-tight breaches so she could grow hard. She liked to have him like that, pumping her erection into him slowly; he knew it was a power play, but he was happy to let her play it when she kept him in nice clothes and more political information than he could usually get from Moira.

"Tell me who's arriving," she said while she lifted his skirt up. From the front he imagined he looked almost proper with a deep blue skirt that fell well passed the knee; from behind, Emma was unfastening his underclothes.

"Count Summers, apparently." He waited for a moment. He recognized the carriage easily. "And Gabriel Summers is joining them today."

"Marriageability?" Emma asked, a finger lazily teasing along his ass, enough to compensate for the slight chill caused by his lifted skirt and undone undergarments.

"Scott, acceptable. Gabriel unavailable. Alex is..." He stopped, took in a deep breath as Emma slowly teased along his inner thighs. Her fingers were digging in just enough for him to enjoy the feeling without marking him. She was always so polite about not marking him. "Unlikelytoinherit." The assessment tumbled out of his mouth as he tried to breathe, tried to ignore the way Emma was intentionally stroking him just hard enough to enflame. "I suppose Christopher would be an acceptable choice as well." His omega, Katherine, had died years ago.

"No Xavier offspring to become a Count, though," Emma reminded him.

He shrugged, using the gesture to arch his back very slightly. Emma paid him back for the gesture with a swat on the ass. It was just painful enough to take some of the fun out of the moment, but he was already getting wet and hard from Emma's attention.

"If you are going to play this game it should be to win, Charles." She punctuated the statement by pressing a finger inside of him, playing lazily, not nearly enough to satisfy him.

It had barely been three weeks and he was already far too used to being filled with a far more satisfying girth. He couldn't quite stop the pleading whine that came from his throat before he stopped himself. "The game is all rules, though, there's no win condition."

"Of course there is, sugar, you're playing ventiuna. Keep taking cards until you hit twenty-one or you decide to stay with the hand you have." How delightfully mercantile and low a metaphor.

Emma continued to slide a finger inside of him, still with no purpose other than driving Charles to distraction.

He looked out over the drive. "The Duke and his son have arrived," Charles said.

"Your thoughts, Charles?"

"His oldest is married, so unavailable, his second oldest... not a poor choice." She swatted his ass again, harder, and withdrew her finger. He hissed. "Please." His word wasn't begging, but dismissive. "You've told me the list of the eldest's vices. He'd more likely to find himself stabbed in a dice hall than impregnate his consort with an appropriate male alpha. The chance the second son will be the heir apparent in the next five years is not inconsiderable."

"I like the way you think." She slid two fingers inside of him. "I have been thinking, though. What is your twenty-one, Charles? What would you settle for? A Margravate?" That would have been Emma, he supposed. "A Duchy?" There were a few. "Or will you settle for nothing less than a king's bastard in your belly?"

His body answered for him and clenched around Emma's fingers, the feeling it sent down his spine caused him to whimper. She was... a demon as far as Charles was concerned; she could see into his mind like the pages of a book. Even Moira hadn't suspected that he was finding himself too enamored for reason.

"Even when he's not here, he makes you wet," she remarked, wry.

He pressed his forehead against the cool stone of the balcony. Emma was a ruthless warrior; he already knew that. She would likely abuse his disadvantage. But she said nothing else, and just drew out her fingers and replaced them with her hardness. Her pace was lazy, slow, and after a few moments, Charles recovered from the shock of her statement and brought his head back up, looking out over the entryway again.

"Viscount-"

"Hush, Charles," Emma silenced him and continued to lean back on her heels and then press into him, languid, riding him with no particular purpose or care. She just liked the tight slide of Charles against her shaft, the way someone might caress velvet or silk. "I will help you get your bastard as best I am able."

She was making it hard to think, but even he knew that was... an odd play from the Margravine. "Why would you do that?"

"Because it will frustrate someone who annoys me endlessly. I would very much like to have him by the balls." She punctuated by grabbing his, not too roughly, slowly fondling behind his sack. "If you can't have him, you will be my Margrave."

"You..." He tried to form a thought, but Emma had positioned herself so she was causing his mind to white out with every thrust. "You have no cause to help me..." He panted, her thrusts sending pleasure up his spine. "If my losing benefits you."

"The king's personal courtesan, heavy with his child, holding me in high esteem is in my best interest, Charles."

She acted as though he would have any influence at all over Erik. He still couldn't think.

"Is it a deal?" She asked, leaving herself buried deep inside him.

He nodded.

"Say it."

"Yes. Yes, Emma."

She thrust her hips slightly and finished inside of him, letting him feel the way she twitched and the hot trickle of an alpha's seed in his body. She kept him like that for a few minutes, but didn't give him enough sensation to come, just left herself buried in him. She... liked to think like that.

Finally, she drew out. "Finish yourself off and get yourself cleaned up. You have a very full dance card today, Charles."

~6~

His first dance of the evening - actually a proper one - was with Alex, the two of them circling slowly around each other. There was a touch of awkwardness to it, of course. Alex was still slightly hurt from being cast aside, but he... if not appreciated it, at least understood. When they finished their dance, Alex kissed his wrist lightly.

"I am sorry, Alex," Charles admitted.

The young man gave him a warm grin, but it was obviously rich with a certain amount of disappointment. "I miss your insight."

"My insight hasn't gone anywhere. It's just..." He smiled slightly, a bit wistful. "At the king's pleasure, now."

"Next time I'm here, maybe we could... talk."

Charles nodded, meaning it completely.

Next he danced with the Duke's second son - Brian - and decided that the qualities that made him likely to actually inherit also made him dreadfully dull. He had two very particular criteria now; any match for passion would have to entice him more than the king, and any match for politics would have to intrigue him more than Emma. Brian did neither. He also had the poor distinction of sharing a name with his father, which was too strange to consider.

By his third dance, he realized he was being watched; the strange prickling sensation that one felt at the back of the neck was starting to spike. He found the set of eyes - a brown-red skinned man with dark black hair and a neatly trimmed beard. Charles didn't recognize him, which meant he was not Genoshan. Maybe from the deep south, beyond the sea, many had skin that tone. He was alone, however, with no compatriots.

Emma cut in with him for the next dance. "Who's my admirer?" He asked her immediately.

"Do you like him?" She asked, no jealousy, all business.

"He seems like he's the sort to have you on your knees, face pressed to the floor." He did look the type, violent, almost. Charles could see it in his eyes and the slant of his shoulder.

"Ambassador Azazel, current favorite of the Klettgau Emperor, and yes, he would likely have you face pressed to the floor."

Charles bristled, he found he had... opinions on these things now, and he very much preferred a bed - unless it was Emma making a point - or His Majesty having him anywhere he wanted. He would have preferred not to have drawn the man's attention at all. "Is he escorting the Princess?"

"He doesn't exactly look like an escort, does he?"

"No," Charles admitted, lips pressed close to Emma's ear so they could converse in mumbles rather than easy to read lip gestures. "Assassin?"

"You do have an active imagination." She squeezed a hand at his waist slightly, possessive. "Unlikely, too public."

"You don't know why he's here," Charles finally accused.

"I am not actually a mind reader, sugar."

Charles caught another glance at Azazel, having what appeared to be politely heated words with the Cardinal. "It seems he and His Eminence don't care for each other."

"The Cardinal does not much care for anyone who does not share his God."

Charles had figured that as well. "I take it you've cut in with a plan?" He finally asked. Since their dance would be over in less than a minute and there would likely be a break in which one of them could make a preplanned move.

"I can make him want you," Emma said.

"That's only half a plan," Charles answered. "That is not a plan: 'bed him and see what he is up to', that is a direction not a plan."

"Bed him and see what he is up to, Charles."

The irritation in his mind spiked, and he tried not to let it show on his face. "I'm not yours to be pushed around on a board, Emma." He used her name to be intentionally over-familiar and impolite.

"Fine." She drew back, just a touch, and then possessively dragged him closer. They were putting on a show - it seemed - for Ambassador Azazel. She spun him half way around and then pulled him up against her front. "You require a reason, Charles?" She pressed a hand to his chest, holding him so they both swayed to the music, turned enough towards Azazel to both watch him as he argued with the Cardinal. "The king's spymaster is trying to get close to him, and failing utterly; you do what the spymaster cannot, and you are a pretty prize."

"Spymaster?" The word barely came out, his lips pressed together so tight.

Emma nipped where his throat met his shoulder, just below the diamond necklace seated against his milky white chest. "Shaw."

The music finished and he and Emma gave their respective curtsy-bow and bow. Before they were more than a step away from each other, a servant was next to them.

"Yes?" Emma asked, annoyed.

"His... Majesty requires Master Xavier's presence."

Charles glanced up where Erik was sitting, looking sulky and thunderous on his throne. "Oh..." Charles glanced to Emma, heard her sigh. "A moment," he demanded, and the servant backed away enough for slight privacy. "Work your magic, then." Emma nodded, and the two of them broke away.

Charles slowly escorted to a small antechamber located somewhere near the dais. It was small, with barely a couch, a chair, and a desk. The king was not pleased, it seemed. Charles tried to think over his actions. Was he about to be ejected from the palace? That was suddenly his first concern. He'd been in the palace for not even a month yet, and after his first night, Erik had called on him several times more, had reiterated that Charles was responsible for his own maneuverings when it came to finding an alpha. He wondered if Erik was somehow displeased with his particular maneuverings.

Erik entered a few minutes later.

"Your Majesty, I..." His attempt at a bow was stopped by Erik's hands on him, grabbing his waist and tugging him close and pressed his hips to Charles... oh... horny was not upset. "Need something?" He asked, partially amused, partially coy, and he pressed his hand on Erik's belly just above where their hips met.

"Are you trying to be distracting, Charles?"

He blinked and then struggled to keep his shock off his face. He'd only been dancing, and only Emma had touched him with anything approaching familiarity. He didn't think that was much cause for distraction. "I apologize. I will be less... distracting in the future."

Erik didn't answer, just pressed his fingers against Charles' throat, stroking his jaw and neck, trailing down his chest and then his sides. His hands kept Charles close, and on a whim, Charles wrapped his arms around Erik's neck, arms resting on the king's shoulders.

"Unless you like me being distracting." He met Erik's eyes. The eyes that looked back at him were stormy and passionate and rich with want and lust. He was addicted to the king looking at him that way, and even though the king had taken him several times already he seemed to be just as unable to get enough.

"Distractions are... not always unwelcome," Erik admitted, finally.

Charles wondered if this was success. Oh, obviously the end goal was nowhere in sight, but the king was clearly enamored with him, enough that seeing him dancing with someone else spurred him to... carefully set him down on the couch, ruck up his skirts, and tug off his undergarments.

He shivered, let himself be maneuvered so he was laying down, one leg hooked over the back of the sofa while his other laid dangling against the floor. Erik left him like that for several moments, his legs growing a bit cold even as the rest of him became more aroused. Charles had become used to a certain... abruptness in his time spent actually laying with Erik. He was more than capable of long, drawn out conversations that seemed to have taken on a flirtatious tone almost instantly, but the actual act was usually pleasurable but over quickly.

Today, however, Erik did not seem interested in talking on some intellectual topic, or being quick about it. Whatever usually drove their frantic couplings was slightly muted, almost reined in. Charles didn't like that. He tried arching up a bit into Erik's touch where his fingers ghosted against Charles' thighs. Erik smiled.

"What do you like, Charles?"

Erik's hands on his thighs! He blinked up at Erik, confused by the question. "Pardon?" He tried to think. "Botany?"

The king smiled, one of his soft smiles, not that predatory one that brought to mind sharks and minnows. "In bed, Charles."

"Oh..." He honestly couldn't have said for sure. A few weeks ago the answer would have been a blank. He knew what Moira liked, what Lord Cassidy liked, but had little idea what he would have liked. Now the answer was largely that he liked absolutely everything Erik did to his body; he liked what Erik did to him even when Erik was nowhere near him. He could become aroused just thinking about the king's hands on him. But now he was being asked what he would like... "I... enjoy it when you are slower with me."

The king hummed some sort of acknowledgement and brushed a finger along his opening. Charles' body clenched, eager. "You would prefer I not take you quickly?"

Charles tilted his head back, moaned slightly. "I did not say that, sire." Erik slipped a finger inside and Charles' hips bucked into it. "Just... perhaps... no more than once a night so I can enjoy the reminder in the next day. I can feel you when I sit."

Erik seemed to enjoy that thought, and his free hand slipped under his robes, likely fumbling for his own clasps and ties. "Let me..." He withdrew his finger from Charles, and he whimpered, wanting more. "Show me how you'd please yourself."

He bit his lip, unsure for a moment, before he reached down for his own cock.

"Not like that."

Charles stopped immediately. Erik had undone his clothes, but left it so everything was still mostly in its proper place just his erection was free. He licked his lips, perhaps Erik would want his mouth...

"I would like you atop me," Erik said, and Charles flushed, realizing, finally what Erik wanted of him.

He sat up, and pressed Erik down so that the king was sprawled on the couch and he climbed atop him, skirt still hiked up. Erik had his head propped up on a pillow, perhaps eager to see. After a moment he slid them together, cocks touching. He knew that was how alphas often laid together, if neither was willing to play the omega. Erik didn’t protest, or seem eager for Charles to stop, so he rubbed himself back and forth for a moment. Erik watched the two of them slide together for a moment, mouth open, panting. It felt... nice, but not quite what he was hoping for, so he slid up farther, his hips holding him up over Erik's straining erection.

"How would you like me, Erik, Highness?"

"However you would like, Charles."

He was a bit lost. He was used to Erik - or Emma, but he much preferred to think about Erik - taking him however they wanted, but he had said he would like it slower, so he took Erik in one hand and spread his cheeks with his fingers before he slowly rubbed himself against Erik. He was already wet - as was Erik's tip - and he teased himself. It was awkward for a moment, as he tried to find a rhythm he liked, eventually finding a slow, torturous circle that just made him wetter. He glanced up at Erik; the monarch's eyes were on his, hard, irises so wide they looked blackened.

The slow tease seemed to be having quite the effect on Erik, chest heaving, he was biting his lower lip in concentration, the way Charles sometimes did. Charles' expression matched his own, brow furrowed as he worked. His belly was trembling in a way that had nothing to do with muscles. A slow, dull, ache that somehow felt intensely pleasurable but near-painful settled there as he moved. It seemed like it might have been the same for Erik, as Charles' actions tore something like whimpers from Erik's throat.

"Alright, Your Majesty?"

Erik looked as though he wanted to glower, to look stern, his face tightened, but he threw his head back, arm slung over his eyes. "You are worse than the Inquisition!" He laughed. "I would tell you anything."

His chest fluttered, his stomach fluttered. He wanted to be kept; he wanted Erik to make him his and only his. "Tell me that you want me."

"Desperately," Erik answered without hesitation. "Demon, they taught you tricks in the south."

"All for you." Charles thought he might catch fire from the heated throbbing and tingling with him... and he knew one way to cool his own fire. He stopped his circling, and eased his thighs apart more, sinking down, slow, Erik's thick heat pushing against his opening, his body resisting slightly before the tip sank inside.

Charles gasped, Erik bit his lip so hard it drew blood and whimpered. Quite suddenly, Charles realized he desperately needed to do that again, and he slid back off and then carefully down. The motion sent a pleasant shiver up his spine while his body screamed for more. The king however, who had been fairly passive thus far, grabbed his hips and held him, kept him from moving up or down.

"Charles... if you do that again I am going to pin you to the couch and take you hard." Erik kept his hands tight for a moment, and he then smoothed his hands down Charles' hips and took a deep breath.

"Is that supposed to make me stop?" He asked, biting his lip. Erik groaned.

He could take the hint, however, and started to move; he liked this, quite a lot actually...

Charles set a slow pace, lazy, but enough that Erik left him to his own devices, moving up and down, thighs straining as he canted his hips to rub Erik against the spot inside him that made him weak with need.

He realized, perhaps belatedly, that he was going to cum, either on the inside of his skirts or across Erik's chest. "God... I... Erik?"

Erik bucked hard, and Charles whimpered, barely holding out for the moments it took Erik to bring a cloth to his cock that Charles came in it, his orgasm pushing Erik over the edge. As he recovered, leaning against Erik, he realized that he had just cum in the King of Genosha's monogrammed handkerchief. He giggled, slightly manic.

"I should have you do all the work more often, Charles." Erik was flushed, his hair slightly askew, but looking mostly put together. Charles envied that, he was fairly certain he was red and flustered and fucked-looking.

Charles climbed off of Erik and tried to get himself properly sorted. "How do I feel even more...?" He paused, blushed a color that was likely very red. "Well I feel a bit ravished."

Erik smirked. "Ravished, Charles?"

Charles snorted. "Yes. Ravished. That is the word for it if I'm not going to be completely crass." He thought he looked mostly presentable now.

Erik decided that was the prefect time to get up, tuck himself in, and wrap his arms around Charles, bringing their bodies together, lips teasing against the back of Charles' neck. He was getting rather used to the king standing snug behind him and making him feel a bit fluttery. "Come let me ravish you again tonight."

He was insatiable! "Chess first?"

"That just makes me want to ravish you harder."

"Is that supposed to make me want to stop?" He repeated his earlier question, yet again. Everything he could do to enflame Erik served him well.

Erik nipped his shoulder lightly and laughed. "I look forward to it, Charles. Chess and ravishing."

Charles turned around, wondering if he looked coy or just star struck or if he was being alluring at all. "It is an appointment I very much look forward to keeping, Your Majesty."

Emma came up to him only a few moments after he had reentered the ballroom; Erik had not yet arrived back. "Feeling well used?" She asked, voice light.

"Apparently the king's response to watching me dance with others is to take me aside and..." He shook his head, still trying to put words on it. "I don't think I can take whatever the Ambassador might want," he admitted. He'd decided the man was rough, would likely want him hard, against the floor, and he was still aching from even the slow stretch of riding the king. He could feel it, his body still wet and throbbing inside where the king had come. Being used for the king's pleasure, using the king for his own pleasure, just the thought of it made his wet cheeks slide together, his body begging, screaming for him to go up to where the king was now sitting, straddle him and use the king again for the whole court to see, long fingers digging into his hips where everyone could see how much he was Erik's.

Emma apparently noticed his dazed look and pinched him lightly on the side. "It's good the Ambassador doesn't seem interested in the same charms His Majesty was using, then."

"Huh?" He didn't quite realize what Emma was saying for a moment, before he nods. "That's good, I'm not sure I could take that at the moment."

"No, he seemed interested in what's above your neck, not below." Charles blinked in response again. "Your brain, Charles, although we may need to wait a few moments in order for you to clear it."

"That would be wise," he agreed.

Emma left his side to go speak with the Ambassador while Charles tried to collect himself. He took advantage of the opportunity to wave over a servant - something he was getting weirdly comfortable with - and requested juice; wine seemed an exceptionally poor idea at the time.

"And one for me, as well," someone said beside him.

He looked. "Princess." He bent - slightly gingerly - at the knees and waist.

"Charles Xavier, right?"

Charles was fairly certain Princesses didn't spend their time becoming interested in the newest courtesans at the court. He was... under no illusions. He was currently nobody, his status as an occasional dancing partner of the King and Margravine notwithstanding. "Yes, Highness."

"Oh, none of that, just Raven for now."

"Of course, Hig- Raven." Charles was confused. One did not often get invited to be so familiar with Royalty or those of higher status. Maybe in private, if he and Raven became friendly - or if he became a lover, like with Erik.

"I heard you were quite brilliant," she said.

The first thought on his mind was 'from who?' because that was a very interesting thing for the Princess to know. Emma might have called him that, Erik, possibly Cardinal Shaw - reluctantly - so the number of people who would have told a princess that was quite small. "I'm certain any news of my brilliance is quite exaggerated, Hi- Raven."

She smiled though, and tucked her arm in his, the two of them all but curling in on each other, two omegas gossiping about their alphas. He sometimes went out with Moira like this, and it was a strange comparison for him. A Xavier who could barely claim the title 'Master' did not go around tucked arm in arm with an omega princess.

He checked the throne - Erik was watching him; he looked at Emma - the Ambassador was watching him. He was getting the weird sensation of suddenly not being a pawn. Not a queen, obviously, but not a pawn. He could see no other reason why he had suddenly caught the interest of Raven.

"Did you... need something, then?" He should have waited her out, let her come to him, but he was just so confused.

"No, no, nothing like that. I just thought we might take a circuit of the garden."

He nodded, accepting the change in location but he was feeling nervous. Something was going on and he had no idea what. "Of course."

The two of them headed out into the gardens, there were enough people around that he didn't overly fear for his safety, but it also meant there was little privacy if the princess intended to speak to him on something. "Did you travel much, as a boy?"

"From... time-to-time," he answered.

"This is as far south as I have ever been."

Charles nodded. "Not even to the cliffs?" He asked, offhand. It was one of the farthest points south in the Klettgau Empire and very beautiful - or so he'd been told; monarchs and princelings from the Empire often spent months there in the Summer Palace.

Raven, however, tensed. "Well of course the Summer Palace."

Strange again.

"I mean the true south," she said a few moments later. "Where the people's skin is burnt brown and they dance to perform magic."

Charles politely bit his lip, not knowing how to tell royalty that there were no magic dances. "It is more that they understand their native herbs and the climate creates a more varied ecosystem."

Surprisingly, she did not look disappointed. "Tell me about them."

So he did. The princess was enthralled. He spoke to her for at least an hour, talked about the dances that were called magic in the north, their herbs, their culture, the way their skin was not burnt - for all but the rarest of children left the womb brown - he spoke of medicine, and he spoke of the seer-man who had, just before his father died, told Charles that he was an omega before any of the outward signs. He did not tell her that the seer had said he would birth a child stronger than the Ox who pulled the sun and wiser than the Rabbit who crafted the moon, that always seemed like bragging and in Genosha and Klettgau they didn't even know those stories. Besides, the seer-man had also told his father that his wisdom would endure for at least a dozen generations, and it seemed to have barely lasted one.

"You are just... brilliant, Charles," she said, finally, grabbing his wrist and shaking it lightly. "Tomorrow you must come sew with me!"

Charles thought he might have preferred to throw himself down the stairs a half-dozen times, but one did not simply refuse the woman who might become the Queen of Genosha. "I shall, then."

"Danced with the Princess," Emma drawled at him when he was finally back inside, and safe, and had danced with two Lords and an Earl, before Emma cut in again.

"There was no dancing, but apparently we're doing needlepoint tomorrow."

She snorted, delicately. "You poor little bird. Perhaps she thinks you're the king's favored, wants to uncover how to please her husband from you."

"I've only been in the palace a month," he protested, and he didn't want Raven pleasing Erik with tips learned from him. "Besides, she seemed more interested in my travels than my time in the palace." Perhaps someday he would run out of euphemisms for lying with the king, but not today. "She said she heard I was brilliant."

"She did not hear it from me," Emma answered.

"Your confidence in me is quite touching, Margravine."

Emma smiled back prim and diplomatic. "I only meant-"

Charles was confident enough in himself now to cut her off. "That the information must have come from somewhere else. Another courtesan - although I do not know their opinions of me - the king, or His Eminence."

"Yes. Unwise of her to say it outright as well..." Emma pressed her nose to his ear, a mockery of a more affectionate action. "Someone is speaking to Klettgau in a manner most friendly."

He considered. "Swear on your father's sword it is not you, Emma."

She made a pleased little purring noise. "Very good, sugar. I swear on his sword that you can trust me on this topic."

"Swear it properly."

The two of them pulled apart to a more appropriate distance. "My father's sword, she did not hear it from me." Her face changed, considering. "The Ambassador also knew of your intelligence without my saying..."

"The Princess heard from him, perhaps, or vice versa?"

Emma nodded. "Sleep with him, figure out what he is planning."

He didn't like that it was an order, but something was not adding up quite right. Something that was perhaps dangerous for his king, and if Charles did not quite think he could keep from becoming attached to his customer, at the very least he could make certain his customer's interests were served.

~7~

Emma's first assessment, that Ambassador Azazel was not actually interested in bedding him, turned out to largely be the case. It was actually strange to find himself in the Ambassador's quarters - having a glass of fairly decent wine - while the two of them discussed herbs.

Charles lazily tilted his glass back and forth, knowing he needed to pace himself. He had a decent tolerance for alcohol, but it would not do for him to become intoxicated in the presence of a foreign Ambassador. He weighed his words. He had to wonder how he came to be known as the font of all herbal knowledge. "I work better in the specific, Ambassador. I could name herbs and conditions all night. I'm also not a doctor."

The Ambassador snorted. "Doctors. They know very little, it seems."

Charles took an eager sip of wine and then set down his glass. This was interesting, to be honest. Charles didn't know exactly what might be going on in the man's head but it was obvious he had something specific - likely a specific condition - in mind, but no idea what might be suited to it. Charles held his tongue, though, speaking out of turn was unnecessary and there were many things that could be going on here. His father was often a fan of the purposeful stare, so Charles waited.

Azazel frowned, sitting down very close to Charles - too close for propriety, actually - but Charles didn't flinch away. He was too used to the casual space violations to mind them terribly. He didn't use their proximity to grope or grab or anything else of the sort, however he merely sat silently. Charles made a study of him, since they were so close; he was fairly attractive, had facial hair - as was the custom of male alphas in Klettgau - with dark brown eyes and dark hair. Everything about him was rough. Charles probably should have found him desirable.

"I've heard it said that the herbs and doctors and magicians of the south are skilled in many herbs not know to northerners," the Ambassador finally said.

Charles nodded; they were dealing more in specifics now. "Certainly there are different herbs, and their medicine men have made a greater study than we have in the north." His father had always been a believer in knowledge. That was why Charles knew of the coffee plants to buy from, the traders who knew their craft, which fish were best in which seasons and how they should be preserved. A trader was only as good as his product, and while a trader might be able to fleece a customer with shoddy wares, if the customer realized it was the end of the merchant’s business, and if the patron was powerful enough a man might lose his head. "But you are from the south, perhaps?"

The Ambassador couldn't have been from below the southern ocean - which was where the herbs he was speaking of could be found - but still he wasn't from the north.

"Sebria, originally."

He might have been a man of the Alekov Dynasty before it fell in revolution five years ago.

"Near enough to." Charles was quiet for a moment again.

"I served Emperor Alexi until his death." Charles thought that was a noble choice; the revolution that had ended the Alekov Dynasty had been unnecessarily bloody and had left the country shattered. He nodded. Now the country was in tatters, Genosha had picked up a piece of it, and Klettgau had swallowed the lion's share, but peacekeeping was out of the question at the moment. The Ambassador's silence stretched out. "His sons had a disease."

Each of the Emperor's three sons, two of them alpha, had been struck down by a particularly nasty ailment - King's Disease, it was called; sometimes it was spoken of in hushed tones as Nikolai's Curse. Charles didn't believe in such things, but most commoners found the disease an ill omen. "King's Disease."

Azazel nodded. "The princes... before they were killed, they were treated with herbs known only to the Emperor's court mage, a devil man from the south."

Charles nodded, smoothed his hands over his thighs and considered. Brian had never done much trade with Sebria. There was no animosity, of course, but it paid to understand your customers, and they were varied across countries. He tried to recall, though, as his father was well liked in the south and they did teach him some herb craft.

"I don't know much without reference materials, I'm afraid." The 'devil man' had been killed in the wake of the revolution, his direct knowledge lost. "Certainly as an Ambassador you have more resources than I."

Azazel frowned. "It is considered unlucky."

"Of course."

"Most doctors... fear it."

Charles shook his head. It was strange what people would fear given no knowledge. "Well, I have no fear for it. You have someone who suffers from it, a boy?"

Azazel looked down, to the side. "My son. Kurt."

"Tell me of his mother."

The Ambassador's mouth hardened. "I will not. How did you know it was a woman?"

Charles couldn't help but smile. It was interesting, and his urge to yammer and spill his every secret was rather strong, but he needed to remind himself that this was not his king, was not someone he could trust implicitly. This was the sort of interaction that perhaps the Cardinal or the King should hear about, in truth. "Tell me of the boy, then. And I must at least know if his mother still lives."

"She died birthing him."

"A bleed?" Azazel frowned in response. "It is important to know if she died of a bleed."

Charles was not well practiced in certain things, cards, drinking, and flirting, but he was practiced at trading, bargaining, and lie-craft. Azazel's eyes darted along his face, not the concentration of a man remembering, but a man searching for a good lie. "She did not die of a bleed in birth. There was blood, of course, but... it was after; exhaustion."

Why lie to him about a cause of death? Charles pondered, half the matter at hand and half the question of the question. "And your son, is he frail?"

It could be a sensitive question, he knew, men liked their sons to be alphas; frail children were considered omega-like regardless of biology. "He is strong otherwise, he is much like a child his age in all other things."

"But he bleeds."

"He was struck once. I feared he would die from it."

"The first is simple, of course, he must be kept as though he is made of glass, any fall, especially from a height, could shatter him."

Azazel nodded, emphatic. "I understand, Xavier."

"What I know, however, is the problem is within the blood." The mechanisms were beyond their understanding, unfortunately, and there were many ways the blood could be sick, but even Doctor Henry, at the Institute, knew little of the specifics. His friend knew something of the condition, but it had never been found in the Genoshan royal line, so the Institute and others who studied the medical and the herbal were less interested in it.

"Would bleeding help?" Azazel asked, with all of the aplomb of a man inexperienced in the medical.

"No." Charles shuddered. "No, it is not something that can be bled off. I will give your question some of my time, Ambassador, but I do not expect to have an answer shortly. I am one man, and all of science has not found the exact mechanism, or the proper treatment, for the sickness, and I am no southern medicine man."

"Do you have children, Xavier?"

Charles shook his head. "Perhaps someday." He drugged himself to prevent such an occurrence at the moment. For the first the other parent would not be certain, and it did him no good to birth Emma or one of the other lords and ladies he laid with less frequently a bastard, and very little to give an unwanted one to the King. "I am young yet."

He couldn't quite resist the urge to brush a hand down his stomach, however. Someday. He did hope to give Erik a child, one he wanted, perhaps if it was an alpha boy he would find himself made a Duke or such to care for himself. The thought made him smile very fondly.

"You do love children, I can see."

That he had to nod to. "Yes, very much." He always wished he could have had a younger sister, or a younger brother, not Cain.

Azazel reached into shirt, fishing out a chain and a locket - it was not something an alpha usually wore, and unhooked the claps. There was a portrait inside, a young boy. He was likely no more than a year old at the oldest, maybe younger. Sitting for a portrait at that age was unlikely, truth to tell, and it was a testament to the fact that the boy - Kurt - was likely to be considered... well it was unlikely he would live long. Charles cradled the locket, however, and noted the small lock of baby-blond hair despite the obviously slightly tanner coloration of the skin.

"His mother was a blonde?" Charles asked.

The Ambassador recoiled. "She..." He frowned. "Yes. You are not unlike the devil man, seeing into people's minds."

"It's not magic," Charles answered. It was just too many pea plants and science and hours with Henry. He thought his life might be easier if people knew more about heredity, but then he could not impress His Majesty with coffee beans and the Ambassador with predicting his lover's hair color.

"If you could find it in yourself to discover magic, I would be most grateful."

"Of course." Charles brushed his palms down his thighs again, feeling awkward and knowing he should go to Erik shortly. "Is there anything else you require, Ambassador?"

"No, but I do hope you will discover an answer for me."

“I do have one more question, if I may?” Azazel nodded in response. “How did you become aware of my talents?”

And it seemed Azazel knew the ones concerning his mind, not his body.

“The Emperor suggested it would be service for escorting the Princess.”

No less a person than the Emperor of Klettgau knew of his skills. The idea was slightly ominous. “I see. I will do my best to help you, Ambassador.”

Charles stood, dipped carefully in respect, and headed out into the palace. His first stop was easy. Emma.

She was in one of her very luxurious couches, reading. "You do not look ravished."

"I have too much pride to run after an alpha that's not interested in me," Charles answered immediately. "Unless it is absolutely required, which it was not."

"Ooo, sugar, you are never so attractive to me as when you are devious."

He sat down next to her. "And I am never more interested in being attractive to you as when I require a favor."

"Well?"

"I need a royal."

"I thought that was our current long term project."

He smiled. "Not that one. A female, likely an omega, blonde, likely Alekov but not required. Descended from Nikolai the Fifth in some way."

"Sugar, that's over two hundred years of genealogy, almost every royal in the world is descended from Nikolai V in some way."

Charles sighed. "Alive two years ago, and... any branches that contain the offspring of two men can be discounted and not traced further."

Emma sighed. "This is for our betterment?"

"Yes, mine and of course yours by our agreement." He sighed. "Truth to tell it's more curiosity and gossip and academic interest."

"Have I taught you nothing?" She asked, her face looking practically predatory. "Gossip and curiosity are always in our best interest. You're going to have to give me something, however."

Charles worried his lower hip in his teeth for a moment. Emma... he mostly trusted her. He trusted her to have a certain amount of interest in him. He trusted her to try to better herself, and if her cart was hitched to him, then she needed him to go up. There was always the possibility that Emma had more than one piece of the board. He would be surprised if she didn't, to be honest. He had to remain the most useful piece for her.

"I believe the Ambassador may have had an affair with a royal."

"Enh." Emma leaned against her hand, obviously bored. "Fine." She closed her book and gave an elaborate sigh. "Is there a hurry?"

"I don't know. The Ambassador wanted something from me. Not sex. So... if he wants something I need to give it to him, or give that information to someone who will use it; it depends on the information and the favor, now doesn't it?" He didn't necessarily like that manner of thinking, but there was something going on. Azazel had paid him attention early along, and with specific purpose.

"Before a decision on the engagement, then."

"Thank you." He turned to leave.

"And where do you think you're going?"

"To see the king. He requires my presence." His body shouldn't have ached just saying that, but it did.

"There ends my plan to ride you and use you as a book stand." She sighed, again, elaborate and falsely annoyed. "Off you go, perhaps tomorrow."

Charles left Emma to her research, or whatever she chose, since truth to tell he could do nothing but suggest a course of action. The truth was he had never heard of a case of King's Disease among any but the royal household. Whatever caused it - perhaps something similar to albinism - was carried from mother to daughter and son. The process was well described by Henry in his papers. Boys with King's Disease tended to be the child of royalty, and Azazel had been lying about the child's mother's death. Either there was a case of a woman with King's Disease, which was interesting but not particularly useful, or perhaps his mother was alive, or an Alekov princess who was considered dead might be alive and was the lover of a Klettgau Ambassador. Truly the possibilities were endless.

~8~

Charles returned to his room to change into slightly less fine clothes before he left in search of Erik.

He found Erik in his rooms, easily, it was late and the king was reclining lazily in a chair, a decanter filled with wine by his foot where his feet were resting on a table. He had a few books open, pen in hand as he made a few notes to himself. Charles was always struck by his look, long, lean, and yet constantly coiled, as though ready to strike. He was wearing one of his deep maroon pants, accented in gold, the matching jacket lazily draped over the arm of the chair, and a thin silk shirt with a few buttons. Charles found himself decidedly uninterested in chess.

Erik patted the chair next to him and Charles slid in next to him, the king's arm draped over his shoulder. He continued to scratch at his book, so Charles lazily leaned his head on Erik's shoulder. A moment later he wrapped his arms around the king's waist, a hand stroking over his stomach. They sat like that for a while, Charles touching, Erik writing, and Charles found it distressingly comfortable.

"Fun with the Ambassador?" Erik asked, minutes later, as he set the page aside to dry. His tone was light, but Charles wasn't fool enough to think there was nothing to it.

"Mmm, well my father's work was never much with Klettgau or with Sebria. I was curious."

"The Ambassador is from Sebria?"

"He served the old emperor." Charles leaned in, nuzzling against Erik's throat, lips pressing to his neck. "He was a gentleman."

Erik's arms tightened around him and tugged him, fingers digging in lightly to Charles' back.

"You cannot say you are not interested in uncovering more about your..." Charles bit his lip, stumbled over the word. "Your future wife."

The king tensed again in response, and then long fingers were skittering across his back, digging lightly into his jacket before Erik dragged him close. He ended up straddling Erik as the king continued to touch. "How did you find her?"

"She found me," he answered, lip quirked, but then he shook his head. "She seemed well enough. Tomorrow we will be cross-stitching."

Erik smiled. "That doesn’t seem much your style, Charles."

"No, however, I suppose if my future queen wishes to make my acquaintance..." Well, he supposed it was always possible she intended to ruin him, or learn about Erik from him. It was... strange. As far as he knew, Raven had made no overtures towards Emma, Logan, Jean, or Angel, just him.

"Best you get to know her," Erik finished his sentence for him. His tone was strange, resigned almost.

Charles pressed his hands to Erik's face, stroking, playing with his short-cropped hair, nuzzling. Erik seemed to enjoy the affection of touch even if he found it difficult to offer. His eyes closed while Charles touched, passive while Charles pressed his nose to Erik's ear, finally teasing the lobe with his teeth. Erik leaned back and let Charles continue to work.

"I do not wish to be married to her."

Charles stopped. He pulled away. Erik was frowning beneath him. "It is an important marriage," Charles said. "That is what the entire palace says. Peace with Klettgau for a few generations, Genosha can solidify her position in Sebria and make further advances with diplomacy in the new regions in the south..." There were so many reasons Charles knew the marriage was a good idea - was required - and one he wished it would not come to pass, but his one reason was selfish. The childish desire to keep Erik for himself could not supersede the needs of politics.

Erik looked as though he was set to sulk. His lip jutted out slightly, pouting and childlike.

He was familiar with Erik's sulks, they were not infrequent, and Charles had found it best to soothe them with sex, but this seemed a bit more pressing than that. One did not make demands of a king, however. "Why does she not meet your satisfaction?"

"She invited you knitting," Erik said, as though that explained everything.

"Cross-stitch is different from knitting." He smiled and switched to nuzzle the other side of Erik's throat.

"I find I want a man," Erik said, tone soft, while Charles was still wrapped in Erik's arms and around his chest.

Charles had no desire to talk Erik around to his marriage of necessity, but he could not allow himself the luxury to believe he would be anything beyond the king's temporary courtesan. "The fertility of a man is slightly less, and you have a princess on offer. She is pretty and not unintelligent."

Erik growled annoyed. "I do not want her."

One should not lecture the King of Genosha, but Charles was sorely tempted. "Then ask for a boy. Surely one of the emperor's sons is an omega." The emperor seemed disinclined to admit it, but the chance of having three alpha boys and no omega was very small.

"Princess Raven or no marriage at all, the Emperor was quite emphatic." Erik continued to sound annoyed and sulky, not at all enjoying the prospect. That, at least, Charles could understand, it was not particularly fun to have that level of demand placed. Erik was a king; Charles knew he did not take well to being dictated to.

"Then which?"

Erik didn't answer.

"What is the problem then, truly, Erik?" Charles leaned in pressed his nose to Erik's forehead.

"I dislike being told what to do. I dislike being dictated to. I would rather..." He shook his head. "I dislike being at peace with Klettgau. It was only seventy years ago when they were circling along our borders to take the Frostmarch and... I cannot believe their animosity has cooled more than my own. My father nearly lost his life to a petty border skirmish started by this Emperor."

"Maybe they want peace?" Klettgau was large, the Empire itself was scattered and had hundreds of pieces held by dozens of princes. "I have heard tell that the Emperor's oldest son is ill. Perhaps he wants to solidify his border, make peace with Genosha so there will be less danger of nibbling at them if there is dissent after the Emperor's death."

Erik sighed. "I did not bring you here to talk politics, Charles."

He flinched, almost as though slapped. "Yes, of course." It was wrong of him to have thought otherwise. He reached down to the toggles that held his jacket, undoing them and leaving the fabric to fall open, revealing slimly cinched waist and tightly clothed hips. Erik wrapped his arms around Charles pulled him in and pressed his mouth to Charles' chest. It was... it was the first time Charles did not want Erik. Erik always seemed to become passionate when Charles was thoughtful, when he spoke, and instead he had simply told him...

Erik must have seen it in his face, not smiling, not passionate, and not eager. He sat back. "You are cross with me."

"No," Charles answered, too quickly. He had always been a decent liar, but not when his emotions were so raw. He was an idiot, of course he was here because the king found him pleasant to look at and to take to bed, nothing else.

"I simply do not wish to discuss my future wife or her family, Charles." Erik's fingers pressed his cheek, stroked, and Charles leaned into the touch. "Coffee, trade, those funny little beans you say tell you about cow breeding, but not the Klettgau princess."

"I'm sorry... I..."

"I hear it from the Cardinal, from my mother, and occasionally from the court itself and you are meant to be apart from how things must be."

That was... Charles thought he might melt, and he leaned in and pressed his lips to Erik's neck. "Then, Your Majesty, while I am here I am afraid we must have some wine, discuss anything other than politics, and then you will be required to take me to bed."

"How unfortunate."

When Charles pulled away, Erik was smirking.

Charles slid from Erik's lap and then poured them both wine, before Erik nudged Charles down and then settled his head, lying against Charles' stomach. Charles teased his hair, scratched lightly along his scalp.

"Tell me... something of your childhood," Erik says, finally, nuzzling against the heavy fabric at his stomach.

His childhood. There were good parts. "I traveled so very often, below the south seas, actually. That is..." It was what Azazel and Raven wanted from him. Now that he thought about it the duality of it, it was strange. It was possible they had simply both asked because that was where he traveled most frequently, but still, it was interesting. "My father did most of his trade there, herbs, crafts, blankets, silks, diamonds..."

"You are too fair for the south." Erik apparently felt that the conversation was a good time to begin unlacing his top, and Charles took a lazy sip of wine while Erik worked.

"There are different clothes, hats, I was well covered, but that is why my shoulders are not fair." They were a riot of freckles.

"I enjoy your shoulders."

Erik enjoyed biting them, was more like. "I enjoy a great many pieces of you," he admitted. Erik's lips, his eyes, his tongue, shoulders and arms... it would have been easy to think of the pieces he enjoyed, and far harder to think of one he didn't enjoy. The sulking he would have done without.

The king continued to unlace him and then finally pushed the top off, Charles chest bare. Erik started to nip at his belly, tongue and teeth very pleasing. With the king's mouth occupied, Charles was left to babble.

"They have several creoles in the south, along with the pure languages. They are the best trading languages."

"Do you speak them?" Erik murmured, fingers teasing Charles' sides. Charles was enflamed, everything Erik did to him found him aching, either physically or mentally.

"Fairly well. I was young and my stepfather does not take me on as many trade journeys as my father did." It was barely any in truth. Kurt liked to stick to the main cities, where he could get by only with his Genoshan; it was a waste. If they had traveled further in, traded with the original farmers or weavers, Charles could have gotten them twice the goods at half the price, even without being much of a trader.

"You miss it."

"I do."

"You will go back, then, from time to time, and then return to me in silks and kohl, that I may bed my Merchant Prince, not just Master Xavier." Erik's voice was rough and filled with want.

The promise of seeing the south again and the idea of Erik finding pleasure in dressing him in that finery was an intoxicating prospect. Erik's Merchant Prince, he would be that any day. "If it is pleasing to you, it is pleasing to me, Highness." More often than not, Charles was finding that true.

"Pretty words, Charles." Erik nuzzled more, kissed his belly, and Charles tried to tamp down on his reaction. It was useless, instead he just allowed himself to arch and moan. It didn't take long for Erik to undo Charles' trousers, pull them down and slowly start to brush his fingers against Charles' entrance. Erik slid one finger in slow and lazy, and then he bent down and put his mouth to Charles' erection, sucking him.

"Erik..." He gasped, all his willpower spent on not bucking up into the king's mouth. "A king should not..."

Erik stopped long enough to only say 'hush' before his mouth wrapped back around. Charles found himself slowly undone, as Erik pressed two fingers inside and sucked Charles' tip, his other hand stroking Charles off. Erik replaced two fingers with three, and continued to suck and finger him until Charles was whimpering and moaning, stuck inside a pleasurable fever-fog, gasping and whining for release.

"I'm going to..."

He tried to push Erik off, but he ignored the warning, sucking as Charles came and then he licked Charles slowly clean. When he was done with sucking and licking at Charles’ cock, he pressed his lips to his belly again.

Charles just felt... spent, and wrung out. Erik continued to finger him lazily and kiss his belly. The idea of the king sucking him, pleasing him, left Charles' insides feeling fluttery in a way that had nothing to do with Erik continuing to tease him and push him to the build up of another orgasm. He wanted to return the favor, but saw no way to with Erik's fingers still inside of him.

"Would you like me to suck you?" He would not be good at it, he knew, not yet, but he would learn.

Erik shook his head against Charles stomach, kissed again, and then slid up, fingers working at his trousers. Charles had his legs wrapped around Erik before the king had his cock out, and then he slid into him, the two of them rutting together until they left a mess of slick and semen on the couch and dozed together, Erik still inside of him.

"Spend the night."

"Of course."

They tumbled into bed soon after, legs and arms intertwined and Erik settled in, clinging to him, one arm low across Charles' belly and the other across his chest. "Spend the night tomorrow."

Charles' mouth fell open in shock; air left his lungs.

"As many nights as you ask, Erik."

~9~

He woke with the sun; Erik was already up, his hair neatened but the rest of him draped only in a gown as he took a morning cup of coffee or tea. Charles stretched, face and front pressed into the bed. The motion forced a strange, squeaky noise from his throat. The sound brought out a chuckle from Erik and the king sat down next to him, fingers playing across Charles' naked back.

"Good morning."

Charles just moaned and arched into the touch. It wasn't fair how he was somehow still horny, or that one touch from Erik could undo him, but it could. His mind wasn't quite working yet, but Erik touching him was always good and he wriggled into it, whining from the loss, still not quite awake enough for words, just inarticulate sounds.

"If you continue that, Charles, I am going to have to take you like that. I will be late for my meeting..."

Charles climbed up onto his knees, then, no clearer message possible, and when he looked over his shoulder he saw Erik's face fixed in shock. "Please?"

Erik was behind him and inside of him in only a few moments, Charles scrabbling for the headboard where he held on as Erik thrust into him. He was sensitive and just a touch raw, but it was too perfect anyway. Charles just... moaned, moaned like he didn't care there were likely servants behind the doors, moaned and whimpered and said 'yes, please, harder' into the pillows, and then came on the bed sheets and Erik came inside of him and then the two of them collapsed, Erik heavy on top of Charles.

"Can we just have a nap like this?" Charles mumbled.

Erik laughed. "I'm afraid not today. You can rest though. I brought you some moon tea."

Charles nodded and rolled and took the tea and drank, now a bit sore and tired, but wonderful. "Tonight, then?"

"Of course."

Erik left soon afterwards, and Charles napped, and then got up and bathed, dressed in last night's clothes and went down to the kitchen where everyone seemed to have knowing looks and he and Moira escaped out into the gardens. He gobbled down a pastry filled with chicken, and then another, before he slowly picked at the egg custard pastry. Moira sat silent beside him.

"I hope you know... everyone in the palace seems to think that the king is a fantastic lay that you enjoy heartily."

Charles smiled, picking at his breakfast. "They wouldn't be wrong. Perhaps I could have stifled a bit this morning."

Moira just laughed and ran fingers through his hair. "I'm not sure that would have helped, Charles. The king is not known for keeping people in his bed."

"I know." Charles wished he didn't know. He couldn't help but feel he was wasting what little time he had to make an impression simply moaning like a dockside whore and memorizing the feel of the king inside of him so he could prepare to go without it for the rest of his life. The thought left him hollow.

"What I meant was that he seems taken with you."

"Moira, I doubt that very much. He is very giving, but I do not think I am anything but a passing interest. To think otherwise would undermine my ability to..." Think, win, and to make the best of this. With the possibility of becoming Emma's Margrave hanging in the back of his mind, easy and simple, he knew he was a fool to think he might have more.

"Well, whatever it is you are doing, keep doing it, Charles." She wrapped an arm around his shoulder, squeezed him close, and Charles continued to pick at the pastry in his hand. "I wish... No."

"Moira?" He'd been honestly a wretched friend to her lately, so caught up in Erik, in Emma, in his other conquests, and in all of the comings and goings of the court, that he had made little time to spend with her and find what she was going through.

"Lord Cassidy is considering his options for a marriage," She said, dully.

He had been a terrible friend. He pressed a kiss to her forehead, unsure exactly what he should say, but she wrapped her arms around him and it seemed to mostly be, if not alright, at least it had been said. "He is too fond of you to leave you," Charles said, as certain as he could be under the circumstances.

"Perhaps, but he will have more time at the Estate, not at the palace, and..." It would leave a question, whether Moira would stay or go, whether the future Lady Cassidy would accept her, so many questions.

They sat like that for many minutes, passing gentle touches back and forth, not saying much, but Charles would always see to it that Moira was well looked after, even if she could not be with the man she had come to care for - probably to love. It was the least he could do, however hollow it would be.

After they parted, Charles headed back to his room, brushed his hair out and tied it back again, changed, and then went to meet Emma. He still had a bit of time before the... cross-stitching.

Emma greeted him with a very self-satisfied smirk, and Charles couldn't help but roll his eyes at her as he collapsed beside her. "Good night last night?"

He ignored her.

"What, no report for me?"

He had never much indulged her interest before, except when it required him to abstain from sex with her for the day, and he didn't now. "Did you learn anything?"

"That I should have been riding you quite a bit harder," She answered, immediately, and Charles just covered his eyes, for the first time embarrassed even as he knew there was nothing to be embarrassed of.

"I meant concerning my question."

"I was unable to find a single Alekov female who might fit your parameters, alpha or omega. They are all either confirmed deceased, or quite naturally brown haired, or both. That is something that's marked in books of heredity, you know, the trends of hair and... such."

Charles nodded. "Yes." That made the possibility of an Alekov heir smaller, but not impossible. Perhaps he would look at the information more closely. "Thank you. What about the rest of the family line?"

Emma shrugged. "I haven't finished yet. I have already found a half-dozen."

There would likely be too many. He sighed, shaking his head. Of course that would have been too simple.

"I did notice, however, something that might be of interest." Her voice was teasing, light. "I assumed you would be interested in the fact that the Princess, Raven, is one of them."

Oh. Charles wasn't as surprised as perhaps he should have been, but the possibility there... "Emma." He turned to her, serious, in a way that made her back straighten and her eyes grow wide. No doubt she had expected this was more than a passing curiosity, but the seriousness in his face seemed to have startled even her. "If I am correct..." He shook his head.

"Charles?"

"If I am incorrect, and I bring this to His Majesty or His Eminence, it is the end of my life in the palace, possibly my life itself." He nodded, that was the lay of it.

"And if you are correct?"

He tried to puzzle out the potential implications. "War, possibly, a diplomatic incident of the highest order, certainly. His Majesty's gratitude and the preservation of the Lehnsherr line."

Emma's eyes grew even wider. "Are you certain?"

"Certain of my hypothesis, no; certain of the outcome if I am correct, yes."

"What will you do?"

"I am honestly uncertain." The need to tell Erik was almost overwhelming. "I must go take tea and cross-stitch with the Princess, now."

"Charles, this is exceptionally serious, you cannot be concerning yourself with trivia... oh." Her mind finally caught up to her. "I see. Do you need anything else?"

"I need the complete list of women, I need... gossip, anything, no matter how innocuous, about the entire list, not just the Princess. I need... I need to know more about the illness that is purported to be afflicting the Klettgau Emperor's son... and I need it quite quickly."

"Charles... I cannot afford to take your side on this, if the consequences could be as grave as you think."

Charles frowned, and then his frown deepened a moment later. "Then I will have to make time to do the research myself. Will you at least help me with the resources--?"

"I cannot stand beside you, but I will find the information for you. My position is too tenuous."

"If what I find bears fruit, I will tell the king of your help, otherwise I will take the fall with grace."

"You are too sweet for politics, Charles."

"Perhaps, but I have a commitment to do what is right."

Emma didn't answer, and he left her in silence. He was almost himself when he found Raven in one of the smaller drawing rooms, head bent close together with... Queen Edith. Charles awkwardly brushed his hands down his sides and strode in. He had been invited, after all.

"Ahh, Charles, please." Raven indicated the seat next to hers and Charles sat, attempting to be a bit dainty, even though it was not really in his nature. He was sitting with the queen and the potential future queen. "Tea?"

Charles nodded, and before he could pour it himself she placed a strainer on one of the perfect porcelain cups and poured him a cup, offering it to him. He smelled it first, enjoying the first scents of it, earthy almost. He sipped, letting the taste linger on his tongue. He often took coffee in the morning, or juice, or just that nasty herbal infusion that was misnamed moon 'tea', so proper tea was a welcome relief. He sipped again. "It is very good."

"It's from beyond the edges of Klettgau," she said, instantly.

"From Kursong, first flush." He smiled, taking another sip.

Raven and the Queen both looked at him, surprised. He wanted to laugh; he'd be a poor merchant if he couldn't recognize quality.

"My father favored second flush."

Raven finally seemed to recover, brushing her hands over her skirt. "The Queen and I have been discussing children."

"Oh?" He set his teacup down, not having to feign interest.

"Do you have any, Charles?" The Queen asked. Charles wondered if she was doing some sort of reconnaissance on him now, but he supposed he wasn't nearly that interesting.

"I cannot say I do, Highness. Perhaps in the future I will. I would like that a great deal." The answer was about as candid as he could manage without admitting that her son had claimed his virginity barely a month before. Even if he'd not been taking moon tea it would be far too soon for a child to be produced.

"I just imagine a child as so... fragile," Raven said, her hands in some pantomime of holding a child.

"They are hardier than you would think," Edith answered, her smile all for Raven and not at all for Charles. "When he was young, Erik gave his father and I quite a scare on a regular basis, too brash, too willing to charge into danger..."

Like he was still, then, was Charles' thought.

"Yes... I suppose. Still, that is natural, isn't it? To want to protect your son from the world."

Edith smiled, nodded magnanimously, almost. "And then when our children are old enough we pass them along happily to their spouses."

Charles was almost glad when Raven passed him a rather pathetically small frame that sat with a plain linen cloth pulled taught. He brushed his fingers over it after a moment.

"Did your parent not teach you, Charles?" The Queen asked.

His father had taught him how to mend his trousers, how to sew a cut, and how to check if an offered piece of embroidery was fine enough to purchase, his mother had taught him the most cursory of stitching after his father's death between bouts of drunkenness. "Not a great deal." He frowned at the frame for another moment before he finally set to work.

"Do they embroider in the south?" Raven asked him. She seemed to be ignoring the tension between Charles and the Queen, happy to talk with him and learn more.

Charles nodded. "It is more three-dimensional, with a great deal of texture but I usually prefer the northern embroidery. Their weaving is magnificent, however."

He started with an awkward stitch in the middle, wondering if Emma - or if he were being fantastical, Erik - would want him to sit politely and silently in the corner as he did his stitching. He disliked the idea, being placed in that corner, but he supposed he should get used to the idea.

It was impossible to know if he was simply being oversensitive, but every word Edith spoke seemed to be a barb at him, a dismissal of his suitability to even lay with Erik, much less anything more. Raven was clearly everything Edith hoped for in a mate for her son.

Finally, what must have been hours later, Edith left, leaving him along with Raven, his cross-stitched embroidery a mess of misaligned stitch. It was good he would not be forced to make a living like this, or he would be truly doomed to poverty. Raven tugged the frame out of his hand, shooed the servants away to bring them more tea, and then took his hands in her own.

"I was unaware the queen was so..."

Charles didn't finish her thought for her. Raven shook her head.

"Regardless, I anticipate needing to be in your good graces."

The Princess anticipated needing to be his good graces? The idea seemed preposterous. "I find that unlikely, Highness."

"Raven," she corrected him, again. "Still, you are his favorite by far." She shook her head again, squeezed his hands. "But, I do not need to ask how to please him or win his body, it seems unnecessary."

He twitched, slightly. "What do you need, then?"

"I wish you... I wish you had a child."

Confusion spread over his face as he tried to find an answer for such a proclamation. "I'm sorry."

"No, no..." She shook her head. "It’s my fault. I suppose I wanted to ask what you would do for your child?"

"Um..." His silence stretched out between them for a moment and he tried to imagine it, a child, his blood. "I think I would do almost anything."

"Give up...?" She didn't finish her sentence and fell silent.

"Princess? Raven?"

She shook her head and then wrapped her arms around him and cried.

~10~

Raven would say nothing else on the topic, and Charles didn't pry. They took an early dinner, walked around the gardens, arm in arm, smiling and talking about roses and unimportant things.

The Princess' earlier behavior was beyond strange, and as much as he wanted to sit back, to analyze it and pick it apart, his mind was unable to do much that was more involved than consider how she had said he was Erik's favorite. That shouldn't have been what had settled low in his belly and made him feel warm and content. There were dangerous politics afoot and yet he was more concerned with Erik's potential feelings for him.

It was in that moment, circling around a particularly lovely water feature he'd never crossed by before, that he realized he was quite lost. Oh, he'd known he had a preference, that he preferred Erik's company to anyone else's, that he desperately wanted to be Erik's favorite, or more, but that it was a ridiculous aspiration. Even if he succeeded, he would likely only stay there for a few years at best, only to be cast aside and he found the idea painful.

There truly was nowhere for him to go but down.

That cheerful thought sustained him all the way to Emma's room where he sat on her couch and slowly read the notes that she had placed out and he read. There was whatever gossip it seemed Emma could remember, especially concerning the princess.

A very long summer vacation a little under two years ago, almost five and a half months away from court rather than the usual two; an unusual amount of sequestering given the needs of a princess; Ambassador Azazel in attendance. It was as though someone had crafted gossip specifically to conform to his expectations. There was no information about Kurt, so Charles could only assume that Emma hadn't quite guessed the direction of his thoughts. What better way to confirm an affair though?

He looked through the other notes, most of the other possible mothers were too old, likely, and one was too young. Damn. And every day he delayed was another day that Erik grew closer to possibly becoming tied to Raven. He wished his suspicions didn't feel motivated by jealousy. He wished he’d been unaware of exactly how much Erik did not desire the union. Then he could close his eyes, pretend to be happy, and be done with it.

Emma came in again, later, three books in her arms, and she sat down next to him. "Sugar?"

"Ambassador Azazel has a child, he suffers from a condition called King's Disease that is almost universally fatal, often before true adulthood. I believe Princess Raven is the child's mother, born during her sabbatical at the cliffs."

She didn't answer for a few moments. "I didn't take you for one to put much stock in premarital chastity."

"King's Disease is passed from mother to son. Your parents, they were both blonde, correct, or very fair haired and skinned?" Emma nodded. "It is the same for diseases like King's Disease. The mother gives it to her sons."

The information finally sunk in. "If she weds the king then her sons will be afflicted with the disease?"

"About half of them, yes. It could be all, it could be none, but... King's Disease in the royal line..."

"Is often seen as a curse, an unsuitability to rule, the withdrawal of God's favor from the country."

"Exactly."

"Do you believe the Princess, or the Klettgau Emperor, know?"

Charles wasn't certain, until a cold certainty hit his chest. "Yes. The Emperor demanded King Erik marry Raven, not one of his other daughters."

"You must--"

"Do not tell me what I must." He fell silent, turning the problem over in his mind. "Is there anything you know of the Princess that might counter my claim?"

"No, but you can't go to the King just with this. Will he even understand the connection?"

"That I am unconcerned with. I... believe I may be able to get the confirmation I need."

"Before you act?"

Charles stood, straightened his jacket, and looked Emma square in the eye. "I'm off to impugn the honor of the Princess and the Ambassador of Klettgau."

"Are you certain?" Emma looked concerned, an actual, true concern crossed her face and for a moment Charles was touched.

He realized it was mostly to guard the investment she had made in him, but Charles wasn't going to sell himself to Emma, if Genosha fell her position in the Frostmarch would be in flux again and his position as her Margrave would be worth little. He was protecting them both by not ignoring the evidence. He nodded.

"I would not usually say so," she said. "But I will light a candle for you."

The thought that Emma cared carried him to the Princess' quarters. She was alone, poking at her morning's cross-stitch efforts.

"Princess?"

"Charles!" She looked... so pleased to see him again. It made him feel all the more guilty for what he was about to try.

He went to sit down next to her, quiet for a moment. "I'm told I would be very bad at politics."

Raven smiled. "The is the purview of the Queen, thankfully, not a mistress."

She thought him Erik's mistress. "None the less, I hope you will forgive me the attempt."

"Charles, we have no need of any politics; you need not worry about me attempting to usurp your position. I doubt very much that the king, that Erik holds any fondness for me."

The declaration made him flutter, again. Why did everyone in the palace take as a given that his position was somehow secure? "This is concerning something else."

Raven nodded, face blandly wide and open.

"I believe I know the identity of the Ambassador's son's mother."

The Princess' face froze, slowly descended into nerves, but not fear. "Oh? The Ambassador's affairs are little concern of mine."

"I rather think they are."

Her face grew hard, indignant. "Are you accusing me of having an affair with the Ambassador?"

Well, if she was going to be blunt, he could respond in kind. "Yes."

"I can see what they mean about you not being particularly good at politics." Raven brushed her skirts down, and glowered at him. "I was very prepared to get along well with you, Charles. I don't need the king's love, or his good opinion of me, but if you even think of breathing a word of it to him..."

Charles held up his hands. "Do you know what it means, though? That you are Kurt's mother? What it would mean for his children?"

That seemed to calm her, somehow, and she frowned. "What would it mean? I am not saying you are correct. Your accusation is inappropriate."

"It means your sons, the ones you give Erik, would be likely to be sick as well. It would be the end of Genosha by your hand."

Raven hadn't known, that much was clear from the way her face changed, the way she looked distraught at the idea. "I-- I am not cursed! I-- I am not a bad person! My father is a good man."

"I did not say you were, Raven. You are..." He struggled for the right words. "You are beautiful, and you were very kind to me, you have a sweet soul, and I have been unable to return your generosity in kind, but Erik is my king, not just my... my lover. He is my king before he is my lover."

"You are going to tell him?"

"Do you think he would believe me?" He was curious; he honestly didn't think Erik would, as much as he liked to think he would.

Doubt fell over her features, and then triumph. "He will not; he will think you jealous."

Charles took a long, slow, labored breath, and prepared himself to lie. "Then I will not bother to continue my research on the drugs and herbs that were used by the magician of the Alekov court to preserve their sons." He paused for a moment before continuing. "His Majesty was offered to send me south as a token of his esteem and I speak several local languages fluently, so my promise to the Ambassador to try is not without potential for success."

"You would leave my son to die?"

"You would leave my country to die." He felt his chest rise and fall, felt on fire, and alive. He knew he was right, now, even if Raven would not confirm it to the king, he thought it likely that Cardinal Shaw or someone else could confirm it.

Raven was obviously thinking over the proposition. "I take it back."

Charles frowned.

"You are fairly good at politics," she continued. "Alright, Xavier, let's deal."

That he could do. He smiled. "You must tell the king. You need only tell him that Kurt is your son and he has King's Disease."

"Is that your final bid?"

"My opening. I'm a firm believer in discussing common ground rather than making exceptional demands."

Raven considered him, face tilted slightly, showing off her pretty, youthful features to good effect. Charles knew he was meant to underestimate her. "You will try your hardest to uncover what herbs might save my son."

"Agreed."

"Agreed." Raven seemed to think that was settled, then, and Charles frowned. "What?"

"It is more complicated than that. You might bring illness into the royal line. Your father picked you, specifically, to become Erik's queen. I think he may have done it intentionally, because he knew what Kurt's illness signified."

"My father wouldn't do that," Raven protested immediately.

"Did he know of your son and your son's illness?"

"How could he not?"

"King's Disease has been in the Klettgau line for several generations, and has never appeared in Genoshan monarchy, your father likely has scholars who have tracked the heritability of it more closely." Charles realized something else. "It is likely at least one of your brothers is sick with it as well."

The Princess' downcast eyes were the only confirmation he needed. "Your father knows. He must know what he did when he sent you to Erik."

"I thought that perhaps it was just to punishing me for falling for Azazel..." She pressed her face into her hands. "I am weak."

"No." Charles put an arm around her. "No, no, you are human. We are all human."

"My father..."

Charles waited. The tension and the silence stretched between them.

"My father will not be pleased." She shook her head. "I can't believe he... will Erik want war over this?"

"I don't know," Charles answered honestly. "I hope to..." Persuade him otherwise, perhaps. "I do not know what I hope. I will work for safety for you, the Ambassador, and your son. I think that will be easiest if you all join me to plead your case."

She snorted, and then laughed. Charles failed to see what was funny. "Yes, I think you are right. But still, if you are right and my father knew..."

"I will attempt to convince Erik to allow you a safe life here. If I can find the herbs to soothe your son’s condition you will need to stay here, regardless. Your son will be away from wherever he's hidden, here in Genosha. Azazel could be here as well - he's served other kings before. You here, which will perhaps to help dissuade your father and assure the king of your good intentions and stave off war."

"More bargaining, I see..." He saw defeat in her frame and the way she hung her head. "I am yours to command, then, Xavier. You can be quite ruthless."

"Come with me, tell the king, I will take it from there."

She stood, straightened her spine, and nodded.

Their walk was slow, Raven was not dragging her feet, but she lingered over pieces of art, mirrors and tapestries. Charles did not dislike the delay; it gave him time to figure what he would say. He needed Erik to believe him, to understand the pattern of inheritance and accept his conclusions. That was well enough when it concerned coffee beans, but he had no idea how well Erik would take it, if he would take it. He wanted to believe that Erik might trust him but there was still the possibility that he would think Charles was motivated by jealousy.

Rather than enter - as Erik allowed him - he knocked. It was a bit unusual to not have a guard or a servant, but Erik opened the door himself, today clad in another fine linen shirt with neat embroidery at the cuff and pants better suited for riding than show.

"Charles you..." His eyes drifted over to Raven, and down, back up again. "You do not need to hold my hand for this." He sounded a mix of cross and amused, as though he weren't quite certain what to make of Raven's presence.

He realized, a moment later, that Erik thought he had brought Raven to... to have them lay with Erik together. Charles blushed, furiously, and he knew from experience he would be bright red in only a matter of breaths. "It is not concerning that, sire. May we speak?"

Erik waved them both in, a possessive hand on Charles' back as soon as he was inside. Charles put his own hand on Raven's shoulder, more supportive than possessive, and when Raven sat, Charles sat beside her, their elbows linked. Erik frowned, but sat.

"Your Majesty..." Raven started, slow. Erik waited. "Charles has asked that I tell you something, wholly and truthfully. I have a son; the alpha is my Ambassador, Azazel."

Erik's jaw clenched. He flicked his eyes to Charles. "I don't see the urgency. Are you with child?"

Erik's tone was dangerous, but not... not at Raven, at him.

"No. Charles said I only needed to tell you of his existence." She stopped, didn't say anything else.

Charles glanced at her, and her face was hard, hard enough that, for a moment, Charles thought she might say nothing else. He thought his life might have flashed before his eyes, disgraced, kicked out of the palace, he turned to Raven and he thought he might have looked hurt and shocked. His jaw hardened.

"He has King's Disease, my son."

Charles exhaled in relief. He turned to Erik. "King's Disease is carried from mother to son," Charles explained. "A female omega's sons will have even odds of having the disease, her daughters, even odds of carrying the ability to pass it to her sons."

Erik's jaw twitched again. "Like your... pea plants?"

"Yes, like my pea plants." Charles smiled, bright. "A man I worked with at the Institute from time to time, Henry McCoy, he has done some minimal work on the disease. He has traced the heritability and found it lies with the mother, solely. I can demonstrate with a family tree, but the point is, the chances of your sons having King's Disease are quite high."

"The Emperor planned this," Erik said, immediately.

Charles got up, hands out, trying to placate as best he could. "Could we discuss it, just you and I?"

Charles realized his mistake a moment too late, to act as though he and Erik should discuss this like equals, like he was an advisor was a grave mistake. Erik's face grew stormy and dark, angry. He was a fool to think he was much more than an amusing and intelligent courtesan, for bed and intellect, but not advice.

"Both of you leave."

Raven rose and left in a flash, but Charles lingered. "Erik..."

"Leave, Charles."

He did. He consoled himself that night with a bit too much wine and too much reading. Erik was... who knew what, raging, plotting war, sulking, planning revenge...

It was late in the night, long past when Charles should have been in bed, when there was a knock on his door. Charles got up to open it, found Erik there, the king strode in, took Charles by the back of the neck and... pressed their lips together. They had never... the king had never...

Charles wrapped his arms around Erik, kissed him back as best he could, sloppy, almost virginal, and certainly overeager in the extreme. He did nothing but crash together with Erik, licking and pressing their mouths together. Erik's mouth was warm, near burning, and it set something alight in Charles as nothing else ever had. He moaned and whimpered into Erik's mouth, dragged himself close and rubbed against him. Erik's hands went to his ass, dragging the two of them together, sucking and fumbling and licking and touching and Charles was mad with lust.

Erik pulled away, and Charles could have cried from the loss. "Charles." Erik's voice was rough and needy.

Charles did whimper.

"What would you have me do?"

"Take me to bed," Charles answered, impulsive. He wanted nothing else.

Erik smiled, bent his head so it lay on Charles' shoulder. "I meant with the Princess and with Klettgau, Charles. You have not steered me wrong yet."

Thankfully, it was a problem he had already considered. If Erik had expected original thoughts he would have been sorely mistaken; his mind was not currently up to the task. "Help her and Azazel get their son out of the Empire, let them live here. Use them as leverage to keep Klettgau at bay and... unless I miss my guess the Empire my find itself weakened in the future, its heirs sick."

"You would have me do nothing."

"It's not nothing, Erik. It's mercy, and it's allowing yourself time to breathe."

He wasn't certain if Erik agreed, but he took Charles to bed soon afterwards and they...

Charles would be hard pressed to say they did anything but make love, Erik's lips on his, sliding inside slowly, dragging Charles to the edge, Erik kissing him constantly, breaking away only to say 'thank you, thank you' over and over again. For what, Charles couldn't be certain, but Erik was more than welcome to this, to anything Charles had.

~11~

Charles' revelation concerning Raven and Kurt had placed Erik in a surprisingly good mood. Erik's first revelation to Charles, after the fact that no longer had to marry a woman he did not want to, was that he would be able to possibly start a war with Klettgau and be politically blameless. The thought seemed to make Erik giddy. Charles had politely advocated against it, and the war was not yet looming, however Erik was holding that possibility in reserve. Cardinal Shaw, however, was obviously not pleased. He had helped broker the marriage deal and he had been unable to uncover the existence of the illegitimate prince, thus, Charles found himself in the position of having uncovered something that the King's favored spymaster had not. Shaw hated him; Erik was rather fond of him now.

That fondness came with sex, very frequent sex, usually in Erik's chambers. Sometimes he visited Charles and they spent the night in his rooms. After the second night of that, Erik had declared his rooms 'completely unsatisfactory' and Charles had been relocated to a set of rooms that were larger than most houses - including his stepfather's home. He had three bedrooms and two baths, apparently for no other reason but so he could have them.

Charles had made it known to Erik that he could not have moved so quickly without Emma's assistance and Emma was finding herself rather bolstered as well, and more inclined to dress him up and deck him in jewels as a reward.

All good things came to an end, however, and as much as he'd been eager to head south, he could have gone without needing to go south so soon. He was going in a sort of semi-ambassadorial capacity, and thus Erik seemed eager to make certain he was appropriately briefed.

Their briefings tended to be mostly naked.

He and Erik were stripped down to just to breeches and shirts - Charles' shirt unbuttoned - as they leaned over some maps of the south. Erik was doing an excellent job distracting him by rubbing circles into his chest and nuzzling at the back of his ear.

"The medicine man who served the Alekovs was from... here." He pointed. "They speak mostly Asante creole there, centered around city, helpfully named Asante. I think I should start there. I haven't been in years, but the trick is to appear influential."

"It... will it matter to them that you're an omega?"

Charles shook his head. "Not as such. It would matter if I were seeking drugs to improve virility or other items, as it stands they are more likely to..." Charles smiled, shook his head, and wrote down a note on some of the local customs that he could remember while he was thinking of them.

"Likely to...?" Erik prodded his side gently, his way of being impatient and curious.

"They will want to bless my child."

"You're not with child!"

"Never the less, that is what they will most want to offer me, blessings, potions to assure strong sons, that sort of thing."

Erik ran his fingers up and down Charles' chest, distracting Charles when his hand went too low and teased at the waist of his pants, Erik's fingers splaying out and dipping under the waistband. "Nothing wrong with that."

"No, I suppose not." He thought he might melt, he was made of the softest beeswax in Erik's hands, easily molded and always warm. It wasn't fair the way Erik's hand touched his sides and belly, leaving him limp. He tried to shake off the languid feeling in his bones. "They like silver there, gems are fairly useless as they have them in great abundance."

"And silks?"

Charles laughed. "If Your Majesty commands, I will come home in kohl and silks and all the finery of the south with scented oils on my skin."

Erik answered by nipping Charles' earlobe and growling, low and gravely, in Charles' ear. "His Majesty commands it, Charles."

The answering whimper on Charles' lips was too loud for decency. "Do... does His Majesty have any further commands?" His voice was half seductive, half ruined, as he tried to find his voice.

The two of them stood silent for several seconds, Charles' blood pounding in his ear, before Erik finally kissed his neck, light. "Come home to me, safe."

"I will."

"I am sending a small detachment with you, one of them is actually a southerner and Genoshan Knight, Armando. He can help you with any deficiencies in your knowledge."

Charles smiled, tilted his head, and kissed Erik's brow. "The south is not a monolith, there are hundreds of tribes and Armando's knowledge will be more use if we are in an area he is from, but the south is almost three times the area of the continent." It was an easy mistake, Charles knew, but his father had spent a lifetime dissecting the ways to tell one tribe from another. "Their presence will help me be taken seriously."

"Send word to me whenever you are able," Erik said, apparently no longer caring for discussion of culture or Charles' work. "How long... how long do you imagine you will be gone?"

"I couldn't say, a month perhaps? It depends on how easily I accomplish my task and how much trade there is to organize while I am there. I may need to trade between several people to acquire my knowledge and the correct herbs. That is one benefit of the Genoshan trader; I may walk between clans who would not otherwise speak, and no native would dare to seem to favor one over the other, but to them we are above clan politics."

Erik had apparently heard little of what he said. "A month? That long?"

"That short," Charles corrected him. "There is a reason I speak three creole languages, I spent many months of my youth in their cities playing with boys and girls and learning to communicate."

"I..." Erik grabbed him around the chest and squeezed. "Can we be done with this? You've already packed enough goods to buy a small country."

"Most of them my own," Charles said, grinning, but he turned around and kissed Erik. "Come. I would like to get some air, I will miss the Genoshan weather while I am gone."

He'd become slowly comfortable with nudging Erik in small ways, when they were in private. Erik seemed glad enough to do whatever Charles asked. The sun was getting lower, late in the afternoon, but the two of them circled slowly around some of the gardens, Erik's hand on Charles' hip as they wandered. "I've never asked, Charles. Do you intend to have children?"

It took several moments for Charles to realize where the topic had come from - he'd said they had gifts for strong sons. Still, the idea of speaking to Erik about this made him uncomfortable. "I suppose that is what is required of the spouse of a Lord of any sort."

Erik frowned. "But do you want children?"

"Yes, of course. A brood running about to call my own would be perfect."

"A brood, Charles?" Erik's mood had turned completely, and he teased Charles now. "How many is a brood?"

"I've been told not to make such promises until after the first." He would want at least three or four, if he didn't have a hard pregnancy.

Erik tugged Charles close, their hips touching so close Charles had to change his steps so he could match pace with Erik. "My mother's pregnancy was hard. She never was able to have another child."

Questions tumbled through Charles' mind, few of them on point. He wanted to know if Erik knew why his mother was unfond of him, why she seemed determined to make his life in the palace as hard for him as he could. "I'm sorry."

"I would have been a horrible brother."

"You would have thrown your siblings into the fountains," Charles agreed, almost immediately.

Erik growled and swept him off his feet, spinning him around once before he headed over to the fountain nearest them. Charles laughed, grabbed on to Erik unsure if the monarch would actually toss him into the fountain or not - not minding either way because he was obviously amused. Instead of dumping him in, Erik sat on one of the edges, his feet dangling in the fountain, Charles laid in his lap. He sprawled, boneless, his back arched almost uncomfortably across Erik's legs while his feet and head rested on the fountain's edge. Erik rested his hands along Charles' stomach, rubbing lazy circles.

"You would have made a good brother," Erik said.

"I like to think so."

"And a good father."

Charles looked up through half closed lashes, and he saw Erik looking at him, those green-grey eyes focused solely on him. "You as well, Highness."

It took a great deal of fumbling, but eventually Erik was on top of him, pinning him to the fountain's edge, the two of them kissing with wild abandon, Erik rubbing the start of an erection between Charles' thighs.

They then discovered why it's best not to make out on a fountain's edge when Erik canted a bit too far to the left and fell in; Charles was tugged along after him. Moments later they were coughing and sputtering, Charles on top of Erik and shivering. He couldn't quite think, but he was fairly certain this was supposed to be a bit romantic but now he was chilly.

"Are you alright?" Erik sat up, hugging Charles close.

"I think I am supposed to ask you that," Charles answered. "I'm fine, nothing broken." He stood, his legs soggy and slow, but eventually he was standing, trying to brush the water off of his clothing and not succeeding. Erik stood a few moments later.

"Let's get you inside."

The two of them tracked water down ancient stone and marble hallways all the way back to Erik's rooms, where the king started to draw a bath and then the two of them pulled off their soggy clothes. Charles was shivering, but after the water grew warm, Erik shooed Charles into the tub and Charles went, rubbing warm water over his legs. A few moments later, Erik stripped and joined him.

The tub was overlarge, big enough for the two of them even with Erik's long legs.

Charles felt warmed, both from the heat of the water and the warmth of Erik's arms around him. The king kissed his shoulders and the back of his neck, squeezing them together so tightly that Charles thought he might burst.

"My Merchant Prince," Erik said, nose lingering on wet skin.

"My King." He wanted... "I am yours."

There was no answer for several minutes, but Erik continued to touch and stroke, down Charles' shoulders, his sides, across his stomach. It was more comforting than erotic, but Charles couldn't help but sink in to the warm feeling. "Would that I could say the same."

It took him several moments to even place Erik's words as a response to what he had said, but his heart broke just a little when he made the connection. "I..." He had no good words. "Understand."

The worst of it was that he did understand. It wasn't as though he thought there was a future; there would be no marriage between them, any children would be bastards, and as much as he desperately dared to hope, what he most wanted would not come to pass. Erik would come to belong to some prince or princess, or a duchess, and Charles would belong to Erik, but never the reverse.

"Charles... you must understand--"

"I do, Erik." All too well, he understood. He turned around to straddle Erik. He wished he could hide the mist in his eyes, but it didn't matter. "I allow you to forget what you must do, but I cannot change what must be done. You will have your omega consort, and he will be polite and well bred and beautiful, but..." He would not be Charles, and it seemed as much as Erik might have fallen for him, that would be the end of it.

Eyes met, watery and sad, and Erik tugged him closer, kissing. They stayed like that, mouths locked together, until the water had gone tepid, and then cold. Erik took him to bed, and when they laid next to each other after, his body warm from love making and cold from reality, he felt as though he had said goodbye.

"When you return from the south, there will be a marriage for you, Charles. I will see to it. A good one, the best I am able to provide."

The worst of it was, Charles no longer needed a marriage, the money he'd earned from gifts and trinkets had long since outpaced the relatively paltry amount of his dowry; he would be traveling south with his wares, not the king's or Genosha's, any earnings would be his own, and even with the lost cost of herbs he should still find himself flush. He might not have merited the title Merchant Prince in his own right, but perhaps Merchant Baron would be appropriate for a time.

So it was goodbye. "That is most kind, Your Majesty." When he said 'your majesty' it was usually with a light and teasing tone, this time it was all business.

"Am I no longer to be 'Erik' then?"

"... Erik." Charles thought he heard tears in his own voice.

The name twisted a pained sound from Erik's chest. "Your Majesty may be better..." Erik was thinking, so loudly that Charles could have sworn he could hear the press of them in his mind. "Stay the night."

"It may be better if I do not."

"Please?"

Charles could deny Erik nothing.

~12~

They both woke early and clung to each other, made love slowly and then washed up. Charles returned to his room to check his bags. He had weeks’ worth of finery stowed away, and it was hard not to compare his trunks to what he had come to the palace with, all books and little clothing. The collection of books in his room had grown at least three fold; the clothing had grown at least a dozen fold.

He prodded a key to the harpsichord while he drank his morning moon tea, and its tone sounded melancholy to his ears.

"Oh, sugar, don't look like that." Emma stood in the doorway. "You act like someone's died."

"Emma." He gave her a weak smile. "I think... I think His Majesty may..."

"Love you?" Emma finished. Her answer cut to the heart of it. He nodded. "Of course he does."

"He said he would find me a match on my return. I think he means to send me away." Charles found he was crying again. He felt ridiculous; he should be happy, he was going south, he would be a merchant again, in his own right. "Perhaps if you would tell him you intend to make me your spouse he would leave me to you."

He still felt very little true affection for Emma, but he respected her more now, and he knew they would be a good fit. She had a certain sort of integrity that was impossible to fake. In time he thought he might learn fondness.

"Oh, sugar... No. I'll find someone else." She came up to him and wrapped an arm around him and kissed his forehead. "Besides, it's only been two months, far too soon to judge your efforts to have his bastard thwarted."

He snorted.

"Besides," she continued. "You don't even want a spouse. You're here for the money, you've gotten the money..."

Charles kissed her, just a peck on the cheek, and she smiled. "Thank you."

There was little else to say between them. Emma had just released him. He wished he could find some perfect omega for her, then, well placed and beautiful, the flawless diamond for Emma's future mantle of rulership. Charles wouldn't have minded being that diamond, but he'd tasted what it was like to sit warm against Erik's skin and as much as Emma was able to bring him pleasure, she did not bring him love.

"You'll continue to teach me, won't you?"

"Always, sugar." Emma left him to his brooding and the dregs of his tea.

He spent some time alone, playing lightly on the harpsichord and both yearning for and ruing the trip south. He needed time away. Erik... even if he loved him, anything more than nights together in bed would be too much to hope for, and eventually Charles' looks would fade, perhaps even his mind become addled, and the last things Erik was fond of would disappear, leaving him alone. It was not a happy thought to spend a morning alone with.

Servants came and went with his trunks.

Moira came to drop a small wrapped package of fruits for him, and a breakfast sandwich. He hugged her tight and kissed her forehead. "I wish I were coming with you," she admitted, low.

In the week he'd spent preparing, she'd never said as much. "Moira, love..." He wished he had a good answer to that. "Come with me, then. Come with the clothes on your back and the coin in your pocket. I'll teach you what I know and Lord Cassidy can realize what he's missing."

"Charles, it's not that simple."

"Your point, m'lady?" He teased his lip between his teeth; that would have made it easier, he decided. Moira there with him, the two of them learning and relearning what he once knew, it was perfect. "Be my Merchant Vassal."

She laughed, and he smiled but did not laugh until finally her face grew a bit more somber. "Truly?"

"Of course. We've been friends since childhood, and I would be happy to have you."

"How long until...?"

"Two hours."

"I can't drop everything on two hours' notice!" But her face lingered in an expression that Charles could only categorize as yearning. Neither of them moved. "Wait for me?"

"I would hardly leave without you."

Moira turned and exited the room, nearly at a run, almost barreling in to Erik before she curtsied and fled. Erik watched her leave for a moment before he turned to Charles. "Your friend Moira?"

"My merchant's assistant Moira, actually. She needs some time away from the palace." She wasn't the only one.

Erik's face was a mix of fondness and guilt, but it didn't take him long to settle on fondness. He came in, closed the door, and then swept up to kiss Charles. Before he could, Charles pressed a finger to his lips.

"I want to clarify something. I do not need you to find me a spouse, Your Majesty. If I could spend my life like this... as your Merchant Prince, then I would be content."

"Even though I cannot be yours?"

"Even then."

Erik clearly didn't believe him, but Charles leaned up and kissed his jaw.

"I brought you something, for your journey."

Charles drew back, and Erik held a small box out to him and Charles took it gingerly, turning it over in his hand before sliding open the wooden box. Inside was a signet ring, and Charles pulled it out to inspect it.

"You'll need to send letters, of course," Erik said, voice rough.

The gem work was flawless, a sizeable piece of onyx, inset in a silver setting with a neatly stylized X that... "This is fashioned after my father's." It was perfectly done, had likely taken at least a week, which meant the process had been started longer than Charles' true plans to head south. Erik must have always intended... to let him go. Charles stroked a finger over it, tears welling up in his eyes.

One of the wedges created in the onyx by the X held an image very much like a portion of the seal of Genosha, the bit that resembled a stylized crown. It would have been the height of arrogance for Charles to add such a feature to his own seal, but if the king were giving it to him, there was no harm and all gain.

"It's beautiful." Charles bowed his head and chuckled. "I will write you often."

"Charles, I..." Erik sighed and pulled Charles in for a hug. "There will always be others, for both of us, even if you do not marry. You were... you were always meant to be something better than..." Erik squeezed him closer as his voice broke. "Better than a king's whore."

From anyone else, said any other way, Charles might have heard Erik's words as bile, but Charles heard his guilt.

"I have kept you rather selfishly."

"I've stayed willingly." Charles cupped his hand to Erik's jaw, stroking the fresh-shaved skin there and then pressing his nose against his cheek. He would miss that; he imagined letters might soothe the worst of the longing for conversation, but he would miss just the warm, male smell of his king, the feel of Erik's skin against his, and just his presence. "I'm a common born omega, Erik. You have given me the opportunity to steal my father's mantle off my stepfather's shoulders and take it up for myself. There may be others, but you are my king. Always."

Others. The idea made him feel slightly sick, but Erik would find a proper consort, one that was not a carrier for King's Disease, he would marry them and have children and Charles would be there for him, but perhaps Erik's thought that there would be others was wise. It was a hard thing to accept. Charles realized, however slowly, that he was in love with Erik, that there would be no one else who would ever suit him quite as well, and yet there was an untraversable divide between them. He was lowborn, and Erik's relationship with him served no political purpose; they would have affection, but no more than that. Charles intended to take his time away to come to terms with that.

Charles led Erik down to the docks. The ship itself was not Charles' - it was on loan from Erik and the Genoshan military. It was a tiny ship with very little tonnage, but it suited Charles' moderate sized cargo. Charles had every intention of eventually getting one of his own ships, but that would be several months down the line at the earliest. It made little sense to invest at the moment when he was only going on a single trip. The two of them went aboard and Charles showed Erik the hold and the goods that Charles had picked for the journey south. There were some dried fruits, some warmer fabrics that weren't as necessarily in the south but still sold well on the coasts, he had metal works, a few engineering marvels, and roughly the entirety of his savings in product form. It made him a bit antsy, truth to tell.

He then showed Erik his quarters, they were tiny, barely a box with a small window.

"I would have thought they would be larger..."

"Well, the Captain's are, of course, but I'm simply a passenger."

"But you're..." Erik frowned.

"I'm just bringing goods; the Captain makes certain the goods and I get home safely. He can have as big a cabin as he wants." When it was his own ship to make his own changes on he may have made quarters for himself that were more comfortable, but he never saw the point of having much more. He leaned up and kissed Erik's nose. "You do want me back safely, right?"

"Of course."

"Then allow Armando the courtesy of a large room."

They had little time left, and so by mutual, silent agreement they sat on Charles' bed and curled in each other's arms. Erik ran lazy fingers through Charles' hair, Charles stroked Erik's thigh.

"Do not let me come back to war with Klettgau," Charles said. "War is horrible for free trade."

Erik chuckled. "I will do my best, however if they persist I will have to do something. I can't afford to seem weak, Charles. Even if all of the Emperor's sons have King's Disease, the Empire is still quite a bit larger than us."

Charles thought there was little worry there. "Their Princes fight too much to go to proper war. Be nice. Start wooing them. There are four or five who have spent time in the not-so-distant past as part of Genosha." He squeezed Erik's knee. "Why do you always want war, Erik?" He shook his head, there was no answer; it seemed to be part of Erik's nature. "Give it time; when I return, perhaps we can begin our overtures. If I can establish myself as worthy of my father's name perhaps I can speak to the merchants who specialize in western Klettgau and we can begin... plotting."

Erik's chuckle descended in to an outright laugh and he grabbed Charles and tugged him close. "I don't know how I ever mistook you for a pretty face. You are devious."

He pushed Erik to the bed, nuzzling. "You know better now."

"I will never forget."

They didn't have long. Charles reached into his pocket and pulled out the signet ring, which he placed gently on Erik's chest. "You know, in some cultures, the act of putting a ring on someone is very sexual?"

"Is it?" Erik picked up the ring. Charles nodded. "Well... since we do not have time for more..." He considered. "Right handed, so left hand." Erik picked Charles' left hand, tugging it gently so they could both see, but Charles couldn't quite resist the urge to brush his thumb against Erik's lip. He pursed his lips in response, brushing lips softly against Charles' thumb. The cool metal of the ring brushed against Charles' middle finger, not warmed by Erik's hand the way gold might have been. He didn't slide it on, however, instead letting it brush lazily against the tip.

Only a moment later, Charles realized what Erik was doing and he laughed, a boyish sort of giggle, and then he leaned his head down so he could press his lips against Erik's neck, licking just the very tip of his tongue against his throat. Erik responded by sucking Charles' thumb into his mouth and other parts - unrelated to his fingers - became suddenly very aware of their position.

Erik seemed delighted with his teasing, however, and slipped the ring on just barely, not even passed the first knuckle. Charles took Erik's free hand and placed his mouth around one of those long, slender fingers, tongue slipping against it. The urge to suck was overwhelming, and he clamped his lips around and sucked lightly. Erik groaned.

Before they could go any further, however, there was a knock on the door.

"Master Xavier, we're set to leave now." Armando.

Charles banged his head against Erik's chest. "Damn."

It took them a few moments to get presentable again, and Armando looked more than a little chagrined when he realized he'd interrupted the king of Genosha mid-coitus-like-behavior.

"I was simply showing His Majesty around the ship."

"Of course." Armando spoke with all of the confidence of a man who knew that when the king's courtesan said they were showing the king around the ship - even if you knew they'd been making out on the courtesan's bed - you said 'of course'. The spoken story was now the polite fact. "Your Majesty, if you need anything else I would be happy to provide."

"No. I think I'll be off now." He was stiff now, King Erik, not his Erik. "Thank you for the tour, Master Xavier."

Charles nodded and bow-curtsied appropriately, heading towards the exit. He stopped next to Armando. "Has Moira come aboard?"

"She said she was invited by you and I have set aside some small private quarters."

"She was. I hope she will be made comfortable." Armando nodded, and Charles hurried off after Erik, arriving just before he disembarked. "Please be safe, Highness."

There was no kissing, no holding of hands, just a light squeeze of Erik's fingers on his shoulder, and he nodded. "Come home to me safely."

The actual getting ready was quick, the few men who were responsible for the ship working quickly and efficiently to decouple the ship from the dock. Moira came up to stand beside him and pressed her shoulder close to his. They stood, looking out over the capital with quiet wonder. Charles found his eyes tearing up.

"I haven't been up in the air for years," Charles said.

Moira wrapped an arm around his and squeezed them closer together. "I don't think I've ever been up."

The balloon that would lift the ship was already inflated, thick and well made, a thin metal housing around it helped to make sure it wouldn't be easily punctured by an attack. Charles had out the colors of a Genoshan trader. Two soldiers were carefully checking their wind-cranks and Charles could almost hear the thrum of tightly wound screws. It was intense to remember that feeling, to have it so close to his chest.

"Any questions, love?"

"All of them. Charles I know nothing about a ship."

"I am no engineer, but I will tell you what a trader needs know about his... or her, ship." It was as good a distraction as any from his sorrow.

Charles took her on a tour, showed her the balloon housing and how to tell if it was in good repair, he showed her the deck, the riggings, and the steering. He took her down to the gear room and showed her how the half dozen spring-loaded cranks provided propulsion. The tension on one was low and he showed her how to tell and then he got the engineer's attention and asked for it to be fixed. It was cranked full taught and Charles nodded.

"You want to keep full tension for the best speed burst if needed, however the constant coiling can fatigue the spring, normally one or two will be fired, and then another pair, rather than relying solely on half of the springs. It's like... exercising your muscles."

Moira nodded. "I'm learning too many things at once."

"Well, we'll make sure you know it all by the time we're back."

Ship riding was boring, but thankfully they would only be in the air for three or four days before they were back in civilization.

Finally, Charles showed Moira the fliers, they were the most remarkable because they did not get their lift from balloons, it was more like a bird - a coastal bird - and its propulsion was based on starting high and staying up was based on some science he didn't quite understand. He showed Moira to the launcher.

"This is how we will be communicating with Genosha, by sending out a flier. They are very fast compared to the balloon and can get home in a handful of hours, but it requires intense concentration and hard work to fly it."

Moira nodded again. "I think I may send Lord Cassidy a letter or two when our first launch happens."

Charles knew he would send several to Erik as well.

They had dinner - just some biscuits and a bit of dried meat with some tea, and Charles settled down to begin what might become his first letter home. He put pen to paper.

I miss you

A few moments later he scratched out the words.

You have given me someone to miss and it makes me ache

He scratched the words out again.

I miss you

He left the words there, but stood and went to stretch his legs.

~13~

Armando was in his room when Charles knocked, and after an awkward moment where he seemed unsure how to respond, Charles asked if he could come in and the two of them settled into a slightly uncomfortable silence.

"I feel I should mention that I was the one Alex intended to match you with, months ago."

Charles blushed, slightly. "Then I apologize for robbing you of your prize."

Armando waved a hand. "I think we both know it would have been nothing more than an arrangement. I... commend you for doing better for yourself." Armando offered him tea and Charles accepted. "No marriage would have been any better, I'm afraid."

"Not the marrying type?"

The other man shrugged. "I suppose I just have found myself... uninterested."

"There's a story there," Charles said, smiling. Armando did not return the smile. Charles returned to his tea.

The silence had become at least slightly companionable after that, and Charles ran his fingers lightly around the lip of the teacup.

Armando was watching him, in a way he was used to seeing as appraising, but it was not the same appraisal of someone looking for a lay. He thought he was coming to know the difference. This was something else.

"I find myself in love," Armando admitted, finally.

The parallel was a bit unfortunate. Charles took another sip of his own cup. "I find that a terrible and wonderful affliction."

"Indeed."

"And for you, is it more terrible than wonderful or the reverse?"

Armando snorted. "I am my family's only son, and the only alpha, there are a certain amount of responsibilities on me to provide an heir. Our holding is small and we have little to offer, but... the land would return to the neighboring lord if I didn't have a child."

"No omega siblings?"

"A sister... she..." He shook his head. "She does not much care for the system. I doubt she will produce an heir."

Charles nodded. That was sometimes an option for an alpha to claim an omega sibling’s child as their own, as their heir, but if that wasn't an option then Armando was truly without easy options. "And your... lover?"

Silence stretched between them again, and Charles waited, doing his best to look like a good listener. "We've been friends since we were children, but we are not lovers."

That would be even worse, Charles decided; at least with Erik he was able to express his affection, could lay with him, and could hold him in his arms. He wondered what stood between Armando and his good friend that he felt he could not even ask. Armando didn't clarify any more than that, and they eventually ended up discussing the weather, their course, and what Charles intended to do once they arrived there. They also discussed Armando's history; he had been born near Kyrrat, in the northern regions, but he had not been home since he was a boy, so there was very little he could offer and Kyrrat did not have as much Charles was interested in trading for.

After checking that Moira was settled - she was, working on a letter - Charles returned to his quarters and began his own, one that did not begin quite so pathetically as 'I miss you'. He mentioned his impressions of Armando - and avoided mentioning his status as a former potential spouse - and of the first part of their journey. It was a bit chilly, but not unseasonable. It would soon be dark enough that he would have to light a candle or lamp, so instead he put down his pen and left the letter to dry.

He was almost prepared to change into nightclothes when there was a knock on his door. It was one of Armando's men, Kenneth. Charles knew little else about him.

"Um." He looked up at Charles awkwardly. "Might I come in, Master Xavier? Or... a walk, perhaps, on the deck? I've heard you are... very good."

Very good. Charles was unsure what he was supposedly 'very good' at, as honestly it could have been anything from southern creoles to certain Genoshan dances to an actually delightful fondness for cooking fish stew, but honestly he found it more likely Kenneth was speaking of sex. He considered, decided the man was not unattractive - blond, thankfully, not Erik's brunet, and with dark brown eyes he was unlikely to mistake for sea-green-gray. "A walk," Charles agreed.

They headed up to the open-air deck, close enough to the air-fire that the sun going down did not make him chilled and Kenneth began to ramble.

He talked about his home, on the Klettgau border, about his grandfather's life in Klettgau and his military service, how Kenneth wanted to be Genoshan but found it harder because of how much of his family was from across the border. It was nothing Charles could really help with, but he listened and nodded and soothed in all the right places and they went around it a few times and Kenneth mostly seemed to have taken some comfort from it. When they were finally back at Charles' door, he warred with himself concerning the wisdom of accepting Kenneth’s request to bed him, but the tentative way he'd asked if he might lay with him eventually tipped him over the edge.

Wanting to practice, Charles only allowed Kenneth his mouth. His methods were not well polished, he'd never attempted it before, but he knew what he liked, and what Erik did for him the few times he'd put his mouth on Charles. Kenneth seemed not to be picky, however, his fingers threading through Charles' hair, twisting just slightly before he stopped himself, and then twisting again seconds later.

When he was finished, Kenneth sprawled, boneless, his fingers running through Charles' hair. Charles was most of the way hard himself, tight against his breeches, and rocking lightly against the bed sheets afterward.

"Well... um..." Kenneth tugged up his breeches and laced them again. “Do you want... I could touch you?”

Charles rolled onto his back and undid his own trousers, shucking them and leaving his body open to Kenneth. The man looked him over for a moment, clearly enjoying the view, before he reached down and touched Charles. It was... passable. Charles had no other word for the quick wank Kenneth gave him, leaving him boneless but somehow also unsatisfied. He found himself unwilling to instruct, or to try to take more pleasure from it. Kenneth left awkwardly soon after. Charles sighed. Well, at least he'd liked the talking. The sex was decidedly alright. It was nothing like making love with Erik.

He wasn't supposed to be thinking of Erik.

Annoyed, he threw the bolt of his room and shucked his shirt. He wanted to finger himself - he'd long since gotten used to the pleasant feel of being stretched open and taken - but just rolled over and felt frustrated by his inability to enjoy being in someone else’s arms.

He frustratedly punched a pillow, too wound up for sleep, and lit a candle so he could begin a letter to Emma. I wish I did not already miss him. It's been hours, not even days, and I'm already irritated from the loss. I think I could compose some sort of ode to him, and that would just be embarrassing. He left the embarrassing line of self reflection to dry and then tried to slide under the covers and rest. He tossed, more than he was used to, the bed was less comfortable and his thoughts less settled and he missed Erik horribly.

By the time they got to Asante, he had heard the life story of every crewman at least twice, and bedded all of them - save Armando, who seemed uninterested - and found it left him feeling happy to have pleased them, but it was not nearly as satisfying as the affection he got from Erik, or even Emma. He did not allow them to take him, however. He could not make moon tea regularly on the airship or in the jungle, so it was safer to abstain. By the time they arrived at Asante and began their investigations into the herbs, Charles was glad to have a distraction other than bedding the men and the first round of letters to Genosha headed off almost as soon as they had touched down.

Instead of bedding the men, he spent his days haggling. They spent two days poking around the market itself. He taught Moira the highlights of Asante creole in the first day - enough that she knew how to say something cost too much, or too little, how to insult a merchant's omega, and the way to flatter them - and by the second he let her haggle for their dinner, and she paid little more than he might have been able to manage. Charles got a lead on the tribe that the Alekov medicine man had belonged to, and he, Moira, Armando, and a hired guide headed out into the thick of the jungle. Once there, Charles taught Moira about the various dangers of the wild animals and how to harvest some of the ripest and most delicious fruit the south had to offer.

"Why don't we have these in Genosha?" She asked, sucking on the yellow-orange fruit of the mango Charles had picked for them to share.

"They can be dehydrated with machinery, but the flavor becomes too different to be near as sweet. It's good, isn't it?"

She nodded, licking juice from her hands and laughing. "I never imagined it would be so... fun."

"It's only fun for those of us with a keen sense of adventure. It's required for the best traders."

"Another failing of Kurt Marko."

"Yes, he does not travel outside of Asante itself, if he comes this far south at all."

For dinner they had snake.

Moira was less enthusiastic about the snake.

The next morning they entered into the medicine man's territory. Charles was less familiar with the customs than he would have liked, but they were only three days from Asante itself so he doubted they would be too different. He spent the morning with the elders, spitting on the ground to honor the dead and chewing something that made his chest and arms tingle before they finally settled around the fire in the evening and Charles described his problem: King's Disease, and the need for treatment. It was slow going, the problem with creoles, as much as they were full languages in their own right, was that they were mishmashes of many of the surrounding languages and they just didn't have the same facility with explaining higher level concepts with a non-fluent creole speaker.

It meant he spent a good deal of time explaining the problem to the one or two people who spoke Asante fluently, and they were forced to explain it in their native language to the medicine men. The men would deliberate, and discuss, and then finally attempt to explain the reasoning back to Charles. He took notes furiously, and Moira watched carefully over his shoulder.

The exchange of information was haggled over, Charles parted with a fine silver chain and some dried apples and they returned the favor with... a chicken.

"Why do we have a chicken?" Moira asked, as they started the trek back across the jungle.

"Because we were actually exchanging gifts, and they wanted to give me a chicken. It lays eggs and if there's some sort of large creature you can just sort of throw it and run."

Armando laughed. They all ended up laughing, Charles carting a chicken rather gracefully under his arm. The trick about carrying a chicken was to not get scratched and not let its wings get free. The rest of it was mostly luck. Armando and their guide proved handy enough that night that they were able to get the chicken wrapped and settled in when they had to sleep.

By the time they returned back to the ship, it had been almost a week. The letters back from Emma and Erik had piled up in their absence. He started with Erik's. Despite the time it took to compose a letter and put thoughts to page, Erik had sent at least one every day. Some where just little things, how things went with the Parliament or how some provincial issue was shaping up; it was the sort of thing they talked about when he was back in the palace. The last few days’ worth of letters were, politely put, a bit frantic. It had been probably almost eight days since Erik would have heard anything from him, and he had said it might be as long as a week, but really, you would think Erik thought he was some sort of pretty songbird who was good for nothing but chirping and looking attractive.

He pulled out a sheet of paper. Honestly, Erik, I'm really quite alive. I have had good progress with the natives thus far and I expect to spend a few days here sorting out where to get my herbs. A few of the old traders might have more information and I will cross check with them.

He set aside the note after that. He'd think of something else to say later. Emma had sent him far fewer letters, just two, one towards the beginning where she whined over that other courtesan omega, Logan, apparently being particularly scruffy and annoying company at dinner a few evenings ago when Emma had deigned to descend to their level. Jean was apparently doing well - Charles had taken a certain fondness to her in a very general sense. Angel, however, appeared to be in a bit of a sulk and antisocial. This was not particularly unusual for her, however. He and Angel had gotten along well enough, but they had never become friends the way he got along with Moira or Jean.

The second letter from Emma was sent probably just this morning based on the dating. Just thought you'd like to know - two weeks almost and he hasn't seen any of us since you've left.

Charles looked down at the note, blinked back a few tears that were threatening to form in his eyes. Erik wasn't particularly good at his 'there will be others' business. That stupid... idiotic... beautiful man was apparently too stubborn to ask for what he wanted from Charles even though he was the damn king.

He grabbed the letter he'd been working on to Erik. I love you. I miss you desperately. I can't wait to be back in your arms and your bed. From now on, for me, there can be no one else.

~14~

His days became a bit better after that. He loved Erik, and whether Erik would tell him so directly or not, Erik loved him and seemed to be pining for him. It was rather sweet in a way that made Charles feel appealingly warm and happy. The letter that came in return to his declaration was short and to the point.

I love you. I can't imagine anyone I would love more.

The warm, melted feeling lingered all through his next trek through the jungle.

Two days later, as they'd gotten back from a shorter expedition into the wilderness to get two of their herbs, he got a letter from Emma that reported Erik in better spirits. Emma's knowledge of the political details was sketchy at best, but she knew the attempt to remove Kurt from Klettgau had not yet been executed and that the Princess was quite nervous. There was apparently a concerted effort now to marry off the remaining courtesans in the palace and poor Logan was having none of it.

Charles knew little about the man; as far as he could tell, Logan had worked in the Genoshan military before being outed as an omega and he was largely hoping to return to his commission through his time in the palace. He had no desire for a marriage. He almost sent Erik a note to let the poor man just stay single, but he figured he could leave that in Emma's hands since she appeared to have become the slightly Charles-like influence in his ear to counteract the more bellicose and irrational Shaw.

Sometimes the letters he received from Erik were tense and terse, other times they were lurid, and yet other times they were just detailed and meticulous. If anything the frequency made him feel a touch guilty at his several day-long forays into the wilds where he couldn't send letters in return.

Moira's correspondences were fewer and farther between, although Lord Cassidy did respond; Charles had seen the letters, awkward declarations that he missed Moira and little else. Charles knew Moira wanted more; that seemed to be the bane of their existence at the moment. Still, Moira was slowly becoming much more handy with negotiating and bargaining, her Asante creole was getting much better and she seemed to be enjoying herself.

"I don't know why I thought this wouldn't be fun," Moira said to him - using her newfound skills in Asante as they trekked back from their latest exploration in the jungle.

It had been almost four weeks of trading and talking and learning. Moira's creole was hardly fluent, but they'd spent so much time in Asante territory that she was getting quite good with all the basics if not any of the nuance yet. Additionally, years at court, if only spent in the kitchen listening to gossip, had made her much better at understanding the complicated - and yet sometimes ridiculous - motivations between inter-clan feuds; Charles' intellectual knowledge of the history, and Moira's occasionally more practical knowledge, meshed well. Charles was getting better, but he'd last been on a trading expedition when he was eight, and a few months with Emma couldn't make up for years of having an ear to the ground in the palace.

"Because most people don't think walking through the jungle with a pack and a machete, eating snake and mangoes, is much fun. It's why Cain and Kurt will never replace dad at the game."

"You should replace them," Moira said, immediately.

"I... I want to return to Erik." He felt a bit bad, saying so, because he knew Cassidy had been far less forthcoming with romance and declarations than Erik had been, but he burned for Erik. It had been weeks since he'd lain with anyone and he missed Erik terribly. "I don't know what form our future will take but I want him by my side."

Moira nodded, silent, and Armando and their new guide politely ignored the conversation they could easily overhear, talking about something else entirely up ahead of them. "I think I might like to keep doing this."

"Get a little ship, fly around, trading things..." Charles thought about it, thought about everything else he also wanted from his life... "Maybe we could." It wasn't as though Erik was likely to change his mind about bastard children any time soon, or would keep him from being able to travel. A month or two away from each other every year might do wonders for their life.

"Really?"

"Why not?" He considered the practicalities. "We'd need a proper ship, one that we owned, a crew, all of that costs money, but we are already doing quite well at this. The Princess' son will continue to need medicine and expeditions to the south. Someone will need to be here, regardless."

"Perhaps the Princess would fund it herself." Armando interjected into their thoughts. "You are trading, yes, but you are also doing the King's will, and the Princess'."

He had a point. "There is always a danger in being beholden to one king or one line," Charles said, completely serious and well meaning.

Moira just snorted. He responded - rather maturely - by sticking out his tongue. "He does have a point..." Moira said. "We're here on behalf of the King as much as on behalf of you."

Charles mulled it over silently. They were here on Erik and Raven's behalf. Too much in that direction and you were little more than a merchant at the direction of a king, buying and selling goods because Genosha needed coffee or did not want mangoes, and that road was a difficult one to walk. It was far too soon to be concerned about that, however.

"Something to consider when we get back."

Eventually, finally, they had collected all the herbs that Charles needed - and perhaps a nice silk outfit because Erik had asked - and they were almost ready to go home, all that remained was for Charles to learn the process from the medicine men and they returned to the original tribe, and Charles spent a whole day learning how to cut the herbs properly how to sweat some of them and mix others, and under the watchful eyes of the tribe he was finally ready to go home. Of course they had other ideas.

He was an omega, of course, and some of the tribes were a bit more conservative. They were concerned by his unwed status, and it was only after Charles assured him that he had a lover - and that lover was nearly as good as a spouse - that they desisted in attempting to send him away with charms for attracting a mate. It was obviously something of an exaggeration but they were very concerned. After that, however, they decided he didn't need charms to attract a mate, but instead charms for getting pregnant, so that was how he ended up on his back being painted with plant dye on his stomach.

Moira found him like that a few hours later. "What in the world?"

The dye was setting and Charles just rolled his eyes. "Never say no to a gift, unfortunately. Apparently I will most certainly have an alpha male son now." He sighed and Moira snickered at him like a traitor. "You're evil."

"No, no, I look forward to the king's response when he hears you will undoubtedly bear him an alpha son, that should be fun." She sat down next to him and stroked his hair. "At least it will wash off before you get home."

"Actually it can last a few weeks if it's not scrubbed constantly." It was considered bad luck to do so, actually. "I'm sure Erik will think it's funny."

Moira gently scratched her fingers against his scalp. "I think there's something Sean's not telling me."

"Like what, love?"

"If I knew then it would have been because he was telling me." She shook her head. "No, there's something going on, perhaps he's already married, he said something about moving into the palace of all things, though. You'd think maybe he'd want to start a family, not stay there."

Charles waited, but Moira didn't seem to have anything else to say on the matter. "Well, Emma informed me that apparently Logan 'cleans up very nicely'. I'm not sure what to do with that."

Moira's eyes grew wide. "Could you imagine their children?"

"No. I don't want to." They would somehow be both blonde and furry and even the men would need constant depilatories to manage their over-abundance of hair.

The two of them giggled for quite some time, until Charles' stomach was aching from the strain.

"I don't want to go home," Moira said.

Charles did, desperately. "We'll be back in a few months at the latest. You can't run from it forever."

"I know." She stroked his hair, face somber, for several minutes, neither of them saying anything. "I'm a touch jealous. I wish I weren't, but I am."

"I understand, love." Moira had worked so hard, and as much as she'd prepared herself for what seemed to be happening it still hurt. Cassidy was a fool. "Come here." He gave her a tug, and she laid down beside him, not touching the dye on his belly, just throwing an arm over his chest and the two of them stayed curled like that. "When you're a Merchant Princess at my side he'll rue the day."

She laughed and kissed his cheek, but he could feel the wetness that she left there. "When are you done with that dye?"

"Just a bit longer, then we'll go home."

It didn't take much longer, thankfully, and they got back to Asante to a few more letters, none of them with anything particularly interesting to say. Everyone sent their own letters back on the final flyer and they were up in the air soon afterwards. The flyer wouldn't be coming back, as it was too risky to land on a moving ship with the model they had.

He found he felt a bit silly like that, with the weird brown doodles over his belly, but he enjoyed the pleasant thought of Erik and the idea that Erik might actually like their meaning. He doubted it, Erik seemed so... fastidious about the act of avoiding bastards. He didn't hound Charles for it anymore, or watch him like he had their first nights together, but he made it clear it was expected that he have his moon tea and avoid a child. It wasn't a happy or productive thing to think about. The idle thought bloomed into something more distressing when he considered the idea that plans of a 'brood' would necessarily be curtailed by Erik if he chose to have no one else in his life.

Dwelling was counterproductive, however, so he did his books, discussed with Moira where they could sell or offload some of the goods, which merchants in the city of Genosha would be most interested in getting which wares. The two of them used it as a crutch, Charles to avoid dwelling on one of the issues in his life, Moira to avoid thinking of an entirely different issue.

The feelings that came over him as Genosha - and the palace - came into view were a bit obscene; he felt a bit desperate, the hot flare of love and lust settled into his belly, he felt warm and tingly and achy. Home. He felt like he was coming home. He wondered if it always felt like that, if his father felt this when he was coming home to Charles' mother during happier days when she'd been less drunk and more a mother. Brilliant and pleasant thoughts of Erik meeting him at the docks and sweeping him off his feet, pressing him against one of the dock's support beams, hands all over him... it was a warm thought.

Sadly the docks were empty. Pack of herbs flung over his shoulder, he headed out into the port and saw almost no one, far fewer people than he would have expected. Moira stood behind him, frowning.

"Charles?"

He shrugged. "Start taking care of the offloading, love. I--" He hated thinking something so clichéd as that he had a bad feeling, but he did, the streets felt too quiet. "Is that alright?"

She gave a quick nod and a shove on the back. "Off you go. You have herbs to deliver and a king to seduce."

In spite of his promise to come home in kohl and silks and perfumes he was mostly just wearing kohl around his eyes and some rather un-daring pants and a loose shirt. It wasn't quite so sexual as the harem omegas in some parts of the south, but he thought he looked delectable. The natural heat of the south meant the clothing was either layered for sun protection, or loose and breathable to allow what little breeze was available to cool the body, especially on the coast. The shirt was a bit looser than anything Genoshan styled - not tailored and tight in the waist - it just hung loose around him and his shoulders did not fill the shirt out and it left his neck and collar on display.

The trip to the palace was less quiet; there were people buzzing about enough that Charles was not overly worried, but he'd been out of communication with Genosha for three days and a lot could happen in three days.

A hush filled the streets right by the palace, and Charles walked up, hesitant and nervous now. There were four guards outside the entrance he usually took.

"Is everything alright, sirs?"

One of the guards eyed him, almost annoyed. "No entry."

"I see." He frowned now. "Not even for me?"

"What's so special about you?"

"Charles, Charles Xavier?"

Another one of the guards finally seemed to be looking at him, shocked and then nervous. "My apologies, you weren't expected until tomorrow."

He walked through the small open door, one of the guards trailing him for no apparent reason. "Has something gone wrong?"

"Beggin' your pardon, but it's not for me to say."

"Is the king quite alright?" That was his first real fear.

"He's a'ight, it's the prince, little Kurt. There was an attack not four hours ago."

Charles' blood ran cold. Kurt. He was-- well Charles didn't know the boy, but he couldn't imagine he deserved anything that he was going through right now. He was a pawn, in all honesty, a bargaining chip that Charles had found Erik to assure the good behavior of Raven and Azazel, perhaps to even keep the Klettgau emperor in check from open war. If the Prince died here, under Erik's watch, it would be a disaster for their diplomacy.

"Take me to him right away!" Charles demanded, never mind his station and the guard's and that he really was more a guest in the palace, and he certainly was not someone who should be addressing a guard that way.

"That's where we're going, sir."

"Well we must go faster, there's not a moment to waste."

The guard started to hustle, Charles almost running after him. He could only hope that his herbs, and the knowledge he learned in the south, would be enough.

~15~

The sick room was stuffy with burned incense and chanting, Charles was not ill and he thought he might become ill just from the oppressive stench. Henry, his dear friend, Doctor Henry McCoy, was standing awkward to the side, a few bandages in hand and obviously unable to get close to Kurt to practice any medicine. The little ring around the Prince consisted of the Cardinal, a scepter clenched tight in his hand, Queen Edith, Princess Raven and Azazel, and some courtiers he did not recognize. They were all so caught up in their praying that they did not even seem to notice him.

"Hank?" He whispered the question to his friend.

"I'm sorry, Charles, but the Cardinal..."

Charles' eyes swept the room, he saw Erik in the corner looking stern and ridiculous and angry. He hadn't even noticed Charles' arrival, either. He hurried over to his king. "Erik, we must air out these rooms, Kurt will not get better this way!"

"Charles?" He could hear Erik's voice break, and a moment later he realized that Erik must have been crying recently. Erik grabbed him around the waist and kissed him, needy and desperate, as though they had been away for ages, which was true, but unhelpful. Charles pulled away.

"Erik, love, I will kiss you and make love to you and anything else you want but we must save the prince and it cannot be done with this non-medicinal incense and chanting. Please?" He rubbed a hand over Erik's cheek and kissed him again, soft on the lips.

"Out!" Erik bellowed, breaking whatever chanting Shaw had been in the middle of. "There's no point to having an herbalist and a doctor here if we will not use their services."

"Thank you," he whispered in response.

Shaw glowered. It seemed to Charles that he might have been angry with Erik, but he took it out by glowering at Charles instead. That was marginally safer, Charles supposed. Charles was not an especially godly man, but he mostly understood the allure and he made his services at least monthly. The Cardinal, however, did not seem to agree with Charles about his state of grace. Charles believed the Cardinal thought his chanting would help, but it would do nothing without medicine and science to back his faith.

The Cardinal pressed a hand to the Queen's back and started to guide her from the room. Edith looked at him, again, also displeased, and Charles held his head high. He did not care what the woman thought of him. He was going to save the boy.

He stepped away from Erik and headed over to the vacated space beside Kurt. As he left his fingers trailed along Erik's arm and he wished he could just melt into him, forget the world and just hold onto his ridiculous and beautiful and wonderful man. It was not to be, however. Hank took to the windows and flung them open, letting in light and air. Charles took Raven by the shoulders, very lightly.

"Princess, could you please come up to his head? Just touch him there on the hair. We will need to have access to the rest." He felt awkward now, and ridiculous, dressed as he was, but he was not going to let it deter him. "Hank, bandages?"

The doctor headed to his pack. Charles returned to the table as well, setting down the pack and starting to work on herbs.

"He's still bleeding," Hank said. "Thankfully."

"Thankfully?!" Raven's voice shrieked through the room.

Hank stuttered. "A-a-apologies, Princess; I merely meant he still has blood to bleed. The wounds did not break the skin as much as they might have."

"Oh," she answered, looking abashed.

"Princess," Charles said, she turned to him. "It is best that the boy is relaxed, I can see him panting. He must be calm."

She did her best to go about soothing, Hank began to attend to the cuts and bruises that were welling in the boy's chest, he was splotched red where blood had come under the skin but not broken through. Charles began to cut his herbs, preparing them to his notes. Erik was at the periphery of his vision, pacing, and then standing beside him, fingers flexing to touch where Charles could see them.

It was easy to feel a bit of pity for Erik's position, truth to tell, Charles really just wanted Erik on him, inside him, panting on his neck, but that was beyond inappropriate, there was a little boy who might be dying. He reached out and put one of Erik's hands on his own shoulder, and then took the other to wrap around his chest. "Don't be inappropriate, but I like feeling you here with me."

Erik hugged him, and then kissed his temple softly before he behaved again. His fingers were still a distraction, though, but Charles was mostly able to ignore him, checking his notes before continuing.

"I missed you."

"Me too." He wasted a few moments to squeeze Erik's wrist before returning to his cutting.

Erik leaned in, mouth only an inch or so away from his ear. "I love you."

Charles nearly cut himself from the distracted warmth of his king's words. "I love you, as well." The declaration earned his ear a kiss.

"Charles." Hank interrupted their moment together. "The boy is still too panicked, breathing too hard, his heart is racing and he's wasting blood."

That brought a new seriousness to Charles' movements. "Love?" He turned to Erik. "Can you help?"

Erik's eyes widened and he shook his head. "I'm not good with children!" He hissed.

"Just talk to him, tell him a story, sing to him, hold his hand, and tell him it will be alright." Charles stroked a hand across Erik's cheek, amused by the way his eyes were wide and panicked even at the very idea of it. "You'll do fine."

"I--" His jaw tensed. "I suppose if I intend to have a brood I should at least learn how to treat them." Erik turned and headed over to Kurt, the king taking up position beside Kurt's frail little body on the bed. He touched the boy's knee, very gently. "Kurt. It... is going to be alright. You have the very best of doctors working on you."

Charles thought he was the one who wanted a brood...

Still, he turned back to his cutting, a sweet, low voice coming from the king as he sung something like a lullaby with words Charles couldn't listen to while paying attention to his cutting. He ground some of his herbs and mixed them, and then ground them again. Made the paste like he was supposed to, and then added even more herbs and a few oils. The process took longer than he would have liked. While he worked, Hank bandaged the boy tightly and gave him drinks that would help keep his blood from becoming too thin, sugar juices and blended eggs and other items.

When the boy's breathing finally slowed and he dropped off to sleep, Erik let go of Kurt's hand and returned to Charles' side.

"He's sleeping."

Charles nodded. "Thank you. You're surprisingly good at that."

"I suppose I might not make a horrible father."

"I already told you that you would make quite a good one, a few weeks did not change my opinion."

The air stayed somber, and when Charles had finally finished his concoction they roused Kurt for a few moments to get him to choke down the medicine before he seemed to drift off again.

"What is the exact action of the medicine?" Hank finally asked, the boy was asleep, his bandages complete, and he'd eaten as much as possible.

"The tribe there said there are certain elements of the blood that create scars and close your cuts when you are injured, this is meant to enhance them. If given to someone with a poor heart, however, it can be dangerous and cause a block of some kind."

Henry nodded. "I hope it works as promised."

Charles did as well. "Hank, could you please see to it that the Princess and the Ambassador get something to eat? I will watch over him."

They did not want to leave, of course, but Raven was obviously not coping well and it would likely do her some good to take time away from watching Kurt's slow, labored breaths, the way he shifted uncomfortably in his sleep and Charles lightly pinned him to keep him from thrashing and injuring himself further. He truly was a beautiful boy, his skin a touch dusty, like his father's but his hair light and blond and quite angelic. Erik sat down behind Charles, fingers touching low along his back, firm and not overly arousing. He must have noticed the way Charles' back had grown tense and so he massaged gently.

"What happened to him?" Charles finally asked when the couple had left with Hank.

"He was pushed," Erik said, blunt. "There are some welts, not unlike the size and shape of hands around the boy's upper arms. It seems likely he was picked up and lifted, taken near the stairs and pushed. He was lucky to have not just broken his neck."

"You poor boy," Charles said. "Everyone using you as a pawn, but who would do such a thing?"

The question was rhetorical, but Erik answered anyway. "I'd been thinking on it. I think they must want Klettgau to make war on us. Why else hurt the prince? He's not likely to see the throne, there's three Princes ahead of him in line, at least."

Erik pulled his lip lightly while he thought, his brow furrowed.

"You are rather attractive when you're pondering politics, Highness." Charles didn't look over at Erik, coy, or anything, it was just a statement of fact. He wet a cloth and carefully wiped away the sweat from Kurt's brow. "Someone who was willing to kill a boy to do so. Cold hearted."

"Politics, Charles."

"Would you kill a boy, a little child, to accomplish your goals?"

Erik was silent for far too long, but he eventually brushed a finger to Charles' neck and then took the cloth so he could wipe the boy clean instead. "If I would have considered it before, I cannot imagine doing so now." Erik wiped the boy's hands as well, and then set the cloth down and they huddled together, sides pressed together, warm.

"The goal seems to be to see your dynasty fall," Charles said, quietly. "A bride to give you sick sons, a child murdered with you to blame..."

"But the marriage was organized by the Cardinal, he has served my family faithfully, first my father and then me, for over twenty five years." Erik shook his head. "No, he is blameless, so there must be some other factor at work here. Perhaps it is the Klettgau Emperor himself, he offered me Raven; he could have sent an assassin." Erik sighed, wrapped an arm around Charles. "I have missed you. I need your input and your insight."

"That is why you have the Cardinal and your mother; she was regent for many years, I'm certain she's more than aware how to run a country." He yearned to be that for Erik, the wise voice that would keep Erik from making the big mistakes; Erik let his passion rule him, and this series of events could not have been leaving him calm. Charles stroked his ear softly. "I love you."

"I want you, Charles. I want you by my side, not the Cardinal, not my mother, I want you."

Would it could be so, but Charles closed his eyes and nuzzled Erik's ear but he knew that what Erik said could never come to pass. "I am just a merchant and a courtesan."

"Brilliant, compassionate, wise, and beautiful." Erik kissed his forehead in return. "Would that I could have a consort half as good as you."

Would that he could have Charles as his consort. Charles thought he heard that in Erik's voice, but thinking about that was madness. Charles did not know the rules on that. Emma had explained it lightly in passing, the Church - in the form of Cardinal Shaw - would need to bless any union; that was why he had selected Raven. "You will find him, eventually, or..." His voice hitched. "Or you can have whoever is best politically and I will be by your side."

"You would give up everything, a legitimate family, a husband or wife, the finery you deserve, all of that, for me?" Erik's voice was soft, barely audible between the wind near the window and even Kurt's soft breathing.

"Children though?"

"Yours?" Erik asked.

"Yours," was Charles' only answer.

"Oh." Erik fell silent, fingers stroking along Charles' side. "Yes. As many as you want. A brood around the palace, ill-behaved little monsters, to take after their alpha, brilliant little angels when they are in your sight."

Charles smiled, biting his lower lip to keep the grin from becoming manic. "I'd like that. I think--" He looked over at Erik, a bit tentative now. "Moira and I found a great deal of fulfillment in trading and making deals out in the wilds of the south. I know she would like to return and... I would like to as well, if only because Kurt will need medicine constantly to keep this from happening again." Charles did not say something like 'if he recovered', he was a realist, but he lived in a happy world where sometimes the best outcome could be achieved with hard work and a lot of luck. He wanted Kurt to get better, and hopefully it would come to pass.

"Abandoning me with your children while you have adventures with a pretty little omega?" Erik's voice was light, but still held some sort of edge.

He couldn't tell from Erik's tone how he meant it, and he bowed his head. "If you don't allow it then..."

"Oh, Charles. I could hardly tell you no, and it will be needed."

Hope, true hope, not a fool's hope, something he'd not felt in quite some time, suddenly seemed like it was in reach. Children, an alpha who loved him, a place in the kingdom, his father's trade back, Moira at his side as he headed south and expanded his business, it sounded like an amazing and perfect dream that he could actually touch.

"Thank you."

Pure bliss could only last so long, Charles had to get up, check on Kurt's temperature and the look of his bruises, they were slowly purpling, which was actually a good sign, and he fed the boy more of the concoction and wiped his brow and settled him to lay back down, brushing his hair out of his eyes and looking down at him. He was such a sweet little boy, beautiful and exceptional and perhaps someday he would even be wise.

Erik sang the boy gently back to sleep, and Charles thought he might have fallen just a bit more in love with him after that.

Hank returned over an hour later, the Princess and Ambassador in tow. He checked the boy's pulse, his breathing, his color, his temperature, and everything else he could think to check. "It's not quite a miracle, but I believe the worst of the danger has passed. Some of the tinier cuts have even started to close."

"That normally takes days..." Raven said, and then she hugged Charles, just crying into his shoulder. "Thank you, thank you. It's... it's magic and I would give you anything just... thank you."

Charles pressed his fingers lightly into her back. "Hush. It was the right thing to do, and I promised you I would."

"I..." She laughed, one of those uncomfortable, watery sort of laughs that came out more like a bark than a proper laugh. "If His Majesty will allow it, I would say I was yours to command."

"It is unnecessary, but thank you, Princess. Raven." He hugged her closer and kissed her forehead, almost like a sister more so than a Princess. Even Azazel did not seem to mind the affection; between two omegas it was not considered particularly threatening. "Hank, do you need a rest?"

His friend shook his head. "You should go, Charles, you look very tired yourself."

"I feel rather fit, Hank," Charles said, finally breaking away from Raven and dabbing her tears dry.

Erik stood and looped an arm around Charles' waist. "No, I think the doctor is right, you need a rest."

Hank looked down, almost blushing. "Yes, bed rest."

"But I'm perfectly..." Oh. "Yes. I think I will go do that. Um... if I might be so bold as to ask Your Majesty to see me safely to my chambers."

Erik, of course, ruined absolutely any tact the moment had by just saying outright: "My quarters are closer." And then, really, there was nothing for it. He blushed slightly, and the rest of the occupants of the room looked to be stifling laughter, and Erik dragged him bodily out of the room and down the corridor towards his chambers.

~16~

Erik had him in the room and pressed up against his door in a matter of minutes. The hot weight of Erik pressed against him triggered something deep and primal in him, something not quite forgotten after five weeks out of Erik's presence. If anything, the absence had made him all the more hungry for Erik's lips and for his hands. The king leaned in, nipped hard against his neck, enough that it would bruise, before he whined and pulled back.

"I'm sorry..." His hands didn't seem sorry, pressed as they were on Charles' belly, creeping lower, while Erik's eyes all but devoured him. "I was going to be gentle, make love to you, take you slowly."

As appealing as that was, Charles realized that he did not think he could stand for that slow stripping, a sensuous mouth around his cock, all in anticipation of Erik finally fucking him. "Come, take the edge off, and then we can reacquaint ourselves properly. I want you as much as you want me."

With a soft push - insistent but not enough to bruise Erik's feelings - Charles maneuvered them around so that Erik's back was against the thick wooden doors that stood at the entrance to the king's quarters. "Charles..."

Erik's tone wasn't warning, but it did hold a slight edge, Charles ignored it, falling a bit roughly to his knees. It was a bit inelegant, but he wanted this, desperately. He attacked Erik's lacings, tugged at them as purposefully as his slightly lust-addled mind could manage. It took longer than he would have liked, but he was urged on by Erik's hand reaching down and rubbing his thumb down Charles' throat, fingers brushing softly over his jaw.

When Charles' fingers finished their task, he nudged the breeches down and just looked. Erik was always attractive to Charles, and he'd had the king inside him more than enough to become well familiar with the king's... girth and length, but there was something uniquely pleasant about such an up close view. He licked his lips - heard the answering groan as the king thudded his head against the hard wood doors - and then leaned in to press a very chaste kiss to the tip.

He'd never done this with Erik, of course, but he was more than ready to try. It could have been over quick, a hot, slick heat for Erik to thrust into and spend himself, but Charles was not Erik's concubine or even truly his courtesan anymore, he was Erik's lover. As the man's lover, he was going to make this good for both of them.

So he reached out, gently took Erik in hand, fingers ghosting back over the man's balls and then closed his lips around Erik's tip, sucking gently. Erik whined. Charles eased off, licked his lips again and pressed back in, sucking harder this time.

"Charles." Erik made his name sound like he was a deity, being beseeched for absolution. He slid his mouth down along Erik's length - almost half of him inside Charles' mouth - tongue pressed wet along Erik's underside.

What surprised him most, as he slowly drew off, lips popping as he did, was how wet just the simple act of having Erik in his mouth was making him. He was never unaffected by Erik, always warm and ready, but his body had already started to grow slick from it, without Erik touching him.

"Love you," he said, softly, before sliding back down again.

"So much," Erik answered. His fingers of one hand tangle in Charles' hair, the other stroking Charles' cheek gently. "Beautiful. Perfect."

Charles sucked in again, and Erik trailed off into a bout of incoherent mumbling and whining. It was such a thrill, usually it was Erik unmaking him, making him gasp with incoherence or whine with need, but right now he had His Majesty right where he wanted him and it was intoxicating. He should do this more often...

The thought was interrupted by Erik thrusting wildly into Charles' mouth, making him realize he actually had to pay more attention. Charles put both his hands on Erik's hips, pinning the king to the door and sucking in earnest now. He couldn't take Erik in completely, but he tried his damnedest, throat stretched uncomfortably for a moment before he had to ease off, sucking again.

"Charles."

He recognized the pained gasp for the warning it was and eased off enough to not choke on Erik's hot semen as he came, swallowing somewhat inexpertly, and then gently licking the rest from Erik before he rested his head on Erik's lean thigh. Erik's fingers stayed gently twined through Charles' hair.

"You taste wonderful."

Erik just laughed and stroked Charles' hair gently.

They rested like that for long enough for Charles to start to develop a crick in his back; he tried to stretch, whimpered slightly, and then leaned back on Erik's thigh, giving the stretching up as a lost cause.

"Are you alright?"

"Just my back." He laughed. "And my knees." He straightened up and then stretched properly. "Apparently I'm unused to that position."

The silence in the room was comfortable, and Charles felt Erik stand from where he'd been resting on the door, the two of them stretching out the kinks that had started to attack their backs and legs from the strain of their position. A lazy sort of familiarity covered the room. Charles had thought, perhaps, with so long away it would be strange or awkward to be back in Erik's arms, but if anything it felt right in a way he hadn't even expected despite the romance of the idea.

Erik slowly started to unbutton his shirt and led the way to the bedroom, not to display himself, or to be sensual about it, just the casual work of stripping, unhurried. It felt... married. Charles turned away from the uncomfortable thought. They were a touch like two husbands, one long away, but the innate comfortableness settled over them and they just... were. Charles shucked his pants and flattened them out where time on his knees had wrinkled the silk, and then he set them neatly over a bench.

"I did not get a chance to ask," Erik finally said. "How went the trip south?"

The change in tone that shifted their familiarity from bed to everywhere-but-bed was comfortable to Charles. He liked both sides of Erik, but his question reminded him that the king loved him in his entirety, not just for the pleasure he brought Erik physically.

"Very well, actually. A few of the tribes remembered my father and they were most happy to work with me." Charles smiled. It had been wonderful, really. "Apparently they like my eyes, think they are very trustworthy."

"That's not why I like your eyes, Charles."

He blushed, but Erik couldn't see, unless the color managed to creep down his neck. "Well, we've made some contacts. I think we'll be able to have even more luck next time; I got a better fix on the markets and what they are interested in right now. Moira and I will be handling the sale on this side soon." He shucked his shirt and set it over the bench as well, feeling weirdly self-conscious of the colored swirls across his belly.

"That's... great." The hesitation in Erik's voice was clear, and the man laughed, rueful and some other emotion Charles didn't quite catch. "I'm sorry, Charles, I feel as though I am asking everything of you and offering nothing in return. I find I want to keep you."

The thought warmed him. "It's enough, Erik."

"I asked the Cardinal..." Erik fell silent again. "I asked him for permission to marry you."

Charles swallowed, throat dry and heavy. "He said no." It was hard not to feel a touch bitter - although Charles tried to avoid such thoughts. He knew Shaw never much cared for him, and he was lowborn. The answer from the Cardinal did not surprise him, sadly. He wanted Erik, certainly, but he knew there were too many steps between the two of them for it to be reasonable. Charles had little dowry to his name, he had skills but they were not in politics, and he would bring no alliances with his marriage if it came to pass. He was a valuable commodity, but not a good spouse.

They still were not facing each other, and Charles hung his head, trying not to think about... everything. Erik was behind him in a few steps hugging him and tugging him so he was tucked in to Erik's arms, snug against his back. "Charles, I..."

"Thank you." He wasn't certain where the words came from, but he found he meant them. "For asking." The knowledge that Erik had considered it, considered the idea of Charles being his consort, made him feel like everything else was just details. He turned and pulled Erik into a slow kiss, warm and slow, his teeth nipping at Erik's lips. "I would have said yes, of course."

Erik hugged him, lips pressed to his neck, head bowed. At first he thought Erik might say something, might give voice to the swirling emotions between them, but he kissed Charles' skin lightly and then pulled away to take him to bed, fingers wrapped gently around his wrist.

"Charles?" Erik's eyes drifted downward and saw the swirl of dyed skin on his belly, and Charles flushed in embarrassment.

Before he had a moment to think, Erik was down on his knees, touching the pattern there. Charles' body responded instantly to the new position, his cock twitching for attention.

"It's..." He laughed, fingers threading through Erik's hair. "You remember what I said they would give me for being an omega?"

"A blessing for strong sons." Erik fell silent, fingers tracing the pattern, followed by lips. "Is that what it is?"

"Yes." He felt hot and flushed just saying it. It felt silly, a quaint superstition that held no root in science.

Erik kissed him just below the navel. "How does it work?"

"It's... just dye. It can't actually..." Erik looked up at him, eyes... sad of all things. "Magic." He raked his fingers through his king's hair, mussed up the short hairs and made them stand up in every direction. "Southern magic to make me fertile and... omega-like and..." He laughed at how foolish he felt just saying it. "Just take me to bed, my king."

Erik stood, scooping him as he went and dragging Charles the few feet to the bed, laying him down gently. Charles spread his legs in lazy invitation even though it would be some time until Erik could take him. Erik wasted no time in settling in between his legs, fingers lightly touching his knees, spreading him, and then running fingers down Charles' pale legs. He was already slightly wet from taking Erik into his mouth, but his arousal was steadily increasing, the slow burn in his belly becoming a nearly painful twist. He whimpered.

"Shhh."

Erik gently stroked him, fingers ghosting up his cock before thumbing his tip. His fingers touched, gently, like he was caressing something fragile, but the pressure was not nearly enough. Just when Charles thought he might bite out a demand, that Erik stroke him earnest or suck him, Erik took him and started to touch him more firmly, his hand moving slowly. A moment later a finger pressed inside of him. He bit his lip, not quite able to stop the slow thrash of his legs as he managed something between a pleased writhe and thrusting up against Erik's hands.

"God but you are tight," Erik remarked, probably more to himself, but Charles couldn't help but agree. There had been no one since Erik, not since he left Genosha, not even his fingers, and his body had grown more used to that state. "I'm going to feel like I'm deflowering you."

"Again?" His eyes fluttered closed, remembering their first night together, Erik's frenzied lust and his passion as he took Charles.

Fingers paused, no longer stroking his cock or inside of him.

He pouted, his red lips full and frustrated. "Erik?"

"I..."

Charles' eyes snapped open, looked up at Erik, the king's face was pure shock, jaw slack, eyes wide, gazing down at Charles like he was some mysterious wonder, never before encountered.

"You were a virgin?"

He'd been... rather in the middle of things. Erik's finger was still inside of him, fingers still wrapped around his erection. Charles tried desperately to concentrate. Instead he just bit his lip and nodded.

"You didn't even know me." Erik's voice was nothing short of awed. "I should have done better by you, Charles."

There was no one thing he could say, but Charles reached up his arms and Erik withdrew his hands, the two of them tangled in a hug, Charles' fingers digging gently into Erik's back. "Better than loving me? Better than giving me both the children and the freedom I want? Better than telling me you would make me your consort if you were able? How might have you treated me better?"

"Somehow." The answer was mumbled into Charles' shoulder and he grabbed Erik, rolled them both so he was on top, straddling Erik's fine waist.

"I could love no one better than you, and I could love you no better than I do."

"Fine words, Charles. My Merchant Prince."

Charles smiled, bent his head, and started to lick against Erik's throat. "True words."

Erik reached down - now at slightly worse an angle - and pressed his fingers back inside of Charles. There was no hurry in the way Erik was slowly touching him, pressing inside and letting one finger slowly work him. Erik's other hand sat loosely on Charles' waist, fingers running along the edges of the dyed skin of his belly.

"Why did they paint you?"

Charles huffed. "It's all well for you to talk, you already came once."

Both of them laughed just a little, Charles holding himself up, hands against Erik's chest. Erik didn't let up, however, fingering him while his hand roamed.

"It was either this or something to attract an alpha; I said I had an alpha so obviously the next logical step in the progression..." He bit his lip as Erik rubbed inside of him just right, not too firm, just a light caress that made his body shiver and continue to produce slick.

Erik made a noncommittal humming noise and slid in a second finger. He was lazy about it, and Charles just shut his eyes and let himself feel Erik touching him. A warm, dry hand wrapped around his cock again and Erik started to stroke him again, the double stimulation even more intense with his eyes closed. He loved Erik, loved how much Erik seemed to want to please him, wanted to make him feel so damn good, took care of his body.

His king was teasing, not quite enough to satisfy, but enough to make him ache for more. He pressed a hand low across his belly, pushing as though that would massage away the feeling in his gut, need and want and Erik... he wasn't certain what the sound torn out of his throat was, raw and strangled, but it made Erik quicken the pace on his cock, the tense feeling in his balls cresting slowly.

Hands grabbed at Erik's shoulders for support as he came, spilling between them and all over Erik's belly, his body shivered as he panted through his orgasm. "Erik..."

Erik dragged him down, kissed him, tongues in each other's mouths after only a moment.

He ended up on his back, Erik over him rubbing his hands down Charles' shoulders, warming him, hot breath on his neck and then lower, wet kisses warming his skin and leaving cool marks when Erik's lips moved on. He took Erik's chin in between his fingers, tilted so that he could look into Erik's eyes.

"My king."

"Yes." Erik didn't even hesitate. "Always. I am yours."

He couldn't breathe, and he shut his eyes so Erik wouldn't see the tears welling there. Erik slid up, kissed the beginning prickle of tears.

"My consort in everything but name."

They were slow with each other, fingers lazily playing across each other's skin, Erik's fingers returning, time and again, to trace the ridiculous pattern that had been painted on Charles' belly and Charles' fingers unable to stay away from the long lines of Erik's throat, his neck, his shoulders, everywhere.

When Erik finally started to grow hard again, Charles rolled the king onto his back and made himself at home astride the man's hips; he rode Erik slowly, hips grinding them against each other, at first inelegant and misaligned before they finally found their rhythm. He could live like this, everyday; Genosha didn't really need a king, he could just have Erik stay inside of him all the time. They fit too perfectly; Charles never wanted to be apart.

He came again, a bit after Erik, and then he set his head down, intent on using Erik as a pillow, but he ended up rolled onto his side, Erik face to face with him under silk sheets, head resting against fluffy pillows. He grinned; Erik returned it, all teeth. His king rubbed soothing circles into his chest, and then low against his belly, before finally pressing Charles face down, fingers working away a month of separation and tension from Charles' spine. He felt... loved, warm and slick and filled and taken and... owned.

Erik kissed his shoulder.

But he knew he owned Erik in return.

Complete.

~17~

Charles woke with a start as he was dragged from bed, hands on his arms, but not warm, comforting arms, they were hard ones that dug in deep enough to bruise. He whimpered at first, mind too sleep-fogged to do anything but register the wrongness of being tugged out of bed, but a few moments later he flailed, fought against the hands. A kick behind him met a hard leather boot and made him whine. His shin was likely to bruise from that.

"What is the meaning of this?" Erik growled.

Charles shook his head, again trying to clear it. He realized - belatedly - that he'd been dragged from Erik's bed, naked, dried remnants of last night's lovemaking on his thighs and still inside of him. He could still feel the pleasant ache where Erik had taken him. He was not on display for Erik, however, there were at least a half-dozen guards and... the Cardinal.

"Well." Shaw's eyes trailed down him, along his shoulders and his chest and his belly and unless Charles was mistaken as low as his cock, possibly even to the dried evidence of last night on his thighs. "It seems I was not overzealous to assume charges of witchcraft." He sneered.

"What the hell are you talking about, Your Eminence?" Erik said Shaw's title like a curse.

"There were some... irregularities with the messages we intercepted coming in for Margravine Frost from Xavier." The Cardinal took the opportunity to rake his eyes down Charles' body again and Charles tried to wiggle so he wouldn't be so entirely exposed for everyone in the room. He was not ashamed, but the hard look from the Cardinal made him feel uncomfortable somewhere deep in his gut. He couldn't move, though, his arms were pinned by guards, one on each side, and what little moving he could do felt more like a display. The Cardinal's gaze lit up every time he squirmed and that, more than anything, made Charles stand straight and tall, giving Shaw nothing to admire.

"To hell with your irregularities," Charles said, braver than he felt. "She is my friend and we discussed any number of things, most of them personal in nature."

"Yes, your personal relationship with the Margravine has been well noted by the court, almost as well noted as your engagements with any other number of lords and ladies who so chose to take advantage of your time." The Cardinal's eyes finally fell away, and Charles almost collapsed with relief. He turned to where Erik was climbing out of bed, tugging on a robe and tying it shut. "I am hard on a trail of evidence to implicate both Master Xavier and Margravine Frost in an attempt to assassinate Prince Kurt of Klettgau."

"That is a lie." His voice was hard, and he knew his eyes must have been as well. "I would do nothing to harm the boy. I traveled south to help save him. I could hardly have organized an assassination from the south while I was looking for the very herbs to help him."

"But that is the delight of accomplices," Shaw answered. "And the Frosts have long since proven that they are the most excellent of accomplices."

Charles' mind started to race and he actually started to wonder if perhaps Emma had... perhaps set him up. He trusted her, he did, but then she had released him from being her omega even though they had made a deal, and Charles hadn't much thought of it but Emma got nothing from the arrangement.

"No biting defense, Xavier?"

Erik came up to him now, finally, and wrapped a cloak around his shoulders and brushed away the guards' hands. His eyes, however, were not warm, but hard, and Charles looked up at Erik, eyes own already welling with tears. "You cannot believe this, Erik."

The king did not answer.

"I did nothing wrong," Charles answered, finally. "Any evidence you have has been misinterpreted at best. I helped Erik-"

Shaw backhanded him. "His Majesty," he corrected.

Erik barred his teeth, animalistic but apparently effective in communicating that if Shaw persisted in that behavior Erik would remove his hand from his arm, Cardinal or no.

"I helped His Majesty secure Kurt's safety to help keep war from coming with Klettgau. Whoever attempted to kill the boy wants war with Klettgau." Charles wondered if the Cardinal's reckless actions might be playing directly into the conspirator’s hands. The thought was chilling. He hated to ask, but... "What would you have me do to prove my innocence, then, Your Eminence?"

Shaw waved his hand, dismissing the entire concept. "There is an investigation underway. If you are, indeed, innocent, then clearly that will come out over the course of the investigation, the attempted assassin found, evidence taken, and your name cleared."

"Clearly." Charles had no doubt he was innocent, but... he could not deny that the Cardinal did not like him. "And where am I to be kept while this investigation is underway?"

"The Tower," Shaw answered immediately. "There are several very serviceable rooms there where you can be... comfortable."

A tiny box of a room with a slit window. He did not like the idea at all, but he saw no option that would not mean giving Shaw more ammunition against him.

"Might I...?"

Erik cut off his request, however. "You will wait outside and when Master Xavier is ready he will submit himself to your escort."

Kings did not ask, Charles took a deep breath as everyone left, hands wrapping around his own shoulders, shivering and cold. When they were finally alone, Charles took a deep breath. "Erik, I would never betray you like that."

"I..." Erik fell silent. "I believe you."

"Then I can withstand anything else."

They kissed, just a soft peck of lips, and then Charles went about scrubbing himself a bit, his teeth and his thighs, before he was finally dressed. He kept the king's robe rather than his silk finery; the Tower was not warm and comfortable, from what he'd been told. A few of his things were already there when he arrived, pants and shirts and a few books - just novels, none of his herb books - and of course none of his herbs or ledgers or anything of the sort.

He needed a plan, but as it stood he was tired, dreadfully so, and he ended up curled up on the uncomfortable bed in his small - drafty - Tower room, curled in on himself as he gave in to a certain childish desire to just cry.

He rose again a few hours later and started a small fire, dressed and washed. He was starving and a quick check from his window slit allowed him to discover it was nearing noon. A harassed servant arrived with a fairly boring lunch and he reheated the chicken bits over his fire when Emma strode into his room.

"It seems we are both in a bit of a fix then, Charles."

"You're here too, then?"

She shook her head and sat neatly on one of his chairs, picking at her own food with quiet disdain.

"You didn't do it, did you?"

"Of course not. But you're to be commended for assuming that was a possibility. No." She sighed. "The conspiracy - as it stands - is that I slept with Logan to acquire contacts in the army, having gotten the contacts I enlisted the assistance of a hired gun and used him to attack Kurt."

"Do they have any proof?"

"No. The Cardinal does not appear to need proof." Emma patted the chair beside her and Charles slid in, starting to chew on his food with some disinterest. "Thankfully in looking for his proof he will naturally find all manner of other things and it will take him some time. If I did not know any better I would think he was looking for evidence to frame us."

Charles frowned and took a bite of chicken. It was very bland. "Do we know better?"

"What do you mean?"

"I know he does not like me, but..." Charles shrugged. "He said I was practicing witchcraft on Erik, perhaps he thinks--" Charles shrugged. "That Erik's reign lost God's favor or something?"

Emma rolled her eyes. "God's favor." But then she seemed to think about it. "He did bring the Princess to His Majesty."

"It could have been an honest mistake," Charles answered. He did not like the Cardinal, but to assume the worst in him was against Charles' nature. "King's Disease and its mechanisms are not well known."

"He does not like you being close to the king."

"I'm a courtesan, immoral and degenerate and corrupting." He rolled his eyes. "His dislike of me can be ascribed to simple prejudice. Her Majesty the Queen also does not care for me."

"But Shaw has had her ear for years, he was her closest advisor for the decade and a half when Erik was too young to be king."

"Erik's rule ending will not place Shaw back in charge."

"Perhaps it could."

"I don't see how," Charles answered. "He's a Cardinal, he can't be married or have legitimate issue, and he's common born just like me."

Emma sighed. "Stop arguing."

"Alright. Let us assume one of two things: Either the Cardinal legitimately believes us to be at the head of a conspiracy to destroy Genosha, or he is at the head of it himself. In both cases uncovering who is truly to blame serves us well."

"Good." She prodded her chicken and ate another bite. "I've had Logan working on it since we woke."

"We?"

Her jaw clenched, defensive. "Well he rather attached himself to me to keep from getting married."

"Attached?"

Emma made a crude hand gesture that suggested they'd gotten rather attached in the pelvic region. He just had to laugh, laugh to keep from going a bit mad. "So are congratulations in order?"

"He has no interest in children, he would be a poor choice for Margrave."

He snorted again.

They kept each other company for almost a week and a half before anything changed. Erik did not visit him, no one else did either, and he and Emma did their best to plot eventualities and consider ways Shaw might have benefited from their current position.

Change came in the form of Logan - who apparently had finally used his position as Emma's favorite omega to whine his way in for sex, and Hank had come as his doctor. Emma retired to her private chamber and started to bang about rather obscenely loudly while Charles tried to ignore how much he missed Erik.

"I need more treatment for Kurt," Hank said without preamble.

Charles just nodded and got to his feet, taking the herbs Hank had brought and started to work.

"And I wanted to check on you. Are you alright?"

Charles started his work. "I'm stuck in The Tower, my lover hasn't visited me even though he's the king and of course he'd be allowed to see me, I'm... tired, Hank, not sleeping enough, and I'm worried they'll find something even though I'm innocent."

Hank pressed fingers to his forehead, followed by his lips. "You are a bit warm."

Charles blinked.

"Have you had any other symptoms?" Hank started to poke and prod him; Charles shook his head, ignoring the weirdly impersonal way that Hank put his hands on Charles, pressing against his throat, under his arms, and on his abdomen.

"Yes, thank you, Hank. I'm fine, there's nothing wrong with me and I assume from all that fiddling that there's no reason to suspect infection?"

Hank shook his head and sat down next to him in a chair. "No, you seem fine, nothing out of the ordinary. I wouldn't even call it a fever, just a touch hot."

"Maybe it's because it's a bit cool in here?"

"I'm demanding you get more blankets, Charles, this is unacceptable. Are you eating?"

"Yes, mother," Charles answered. "The food is awful, but I am eating it."

Charles continued to work on the herbs.

"What is going on, Hank?"

Hank wiggled slightly, looking awkward and nervous. "Well... I heard from the Princess - who sends her thanks, she does not believe the accusations against you - that Shaw believes you have placed the king... under a spell. The king is not well."

Charles made a throaty sort of whimper in response.

"He is not ill he just... he does miss you, Charles. The Cardinal insists this is a sign of your sorcery, the Queen agrees and so the King has not come to see you in order to prove that you've not bewitched him."

So he would have to go without Erik. He hated the idea, but he was proud of Erik for doing so. It would not help with Shaw, but it would not hurt, either. "Will you see to it that he knows I forgive him?"

Hank nodded, roughly. "Of course. Do you need anything? I am a physician."

"Moira, actually, if you can manage, and food, maybe at the same time, perhaps the palace staff could provide the food not whatever idiot thinks they know how to cook in the Tower?" His stomach gurgled slightly in response and he patted it. "See?"

Hank just shook his head, laughing despite the ridiculousness of the entire situation. "I'll see what I can do."

Emma returned a few hours later, breezing in and sitting down as though she hadn't been fucking Logan as loudly as possible for hours next door. Charles rolled sulkily towards the wall when she came in.

"Oh, Sugar, if I thought you wanted it from me, I'd offer, but pillow talk is the best time for conspiring." She handed him a thin sheaf of papers that contained very little of importance. There was no progress on finding the assassin, no progress on ‘decoding’ more of Charles and Emma’s notes, and no progress on proving any of Charles' herbs might be used for poison or any other application.

"How did you get these?"

"Logan."

"They didn't check him before he came?"

"You don't want to know."

Charles grimaced and continued to flip through he pages, sitting up now, still feeling sulky. "So no progress, that's... good?" He considers. "It's a point against Shaw potentially being the organizer, though, isn't it? He would have been forging evidence all over the place if he wanted us killed quickly."

Emma nodded. "So, either he's not organizing this or he hopes to have us around for some other purpose."

"Or he wants to make a convincing forgery."

"Or we're not the only factors in play."

"Too many options," Charles concluded. "We need eyes on the Cardinal, Gabriel Summers, maybe?"

Emma nodded. "He can't arrest all our eyes, thankfully."

"I'm worried about Erik," Charles finally admitted. "All of this... no matter who's doing it, it begins and ends with hurting Erik, ending his dynasty."

"We won't let that happen, Sugar, I promise."

~18~

The waiting was killing Charles. It had been weeks, and even though Moira had come and gone twice - with better food, and Hank had come and gone once a week for seven weeks for medicine for the prince, and Erik had continued to not come, it seemed as though nothing was happening. He'd even been allowed out of the Tower twice - with Emma - to go to services, even though neither of them were feeling particularly well inclined towards the Cardinal or his faith at the moment.

He could feel the stress ravaging his body. He'd never thought himself particularly prone to stress but it was driving him to distraction, he found himself waking early, unable to even consider food while nausea played with his body. If he was lucky he could tolerate food by midday but it was never what he wanted.

Moira had successfully sold most of their goods, enough that Charles knew she would be more than taken care of if the worst happened. The prince was improving enough to wake but he could not identify his attacker, there were no obvious attempts to forge evidence against him and Emma, although Shaw had been at least so kind as to point out the areas that were 'clearly code' outlining the pre-planned contingency of the assassination.

"You look a bit gaunt," Moira told him.

He shrugged; he'd been eating as well as he could in the Tower. "Any news, love?"

Moira shook her head, but Charles could read the evasiveness in it, she didn't want to talk about it.

"I'm stuck in a little box; please, entertain me."

"Sean... Lord Cassidy, apparently his fortune has evaporated. His father is so deep in debt he's all but sold Sean's younger sister to a merchant for the coin."

"Moira..." No wonder she hadn't wanted to mention. "I'm sorry. Which merchant?" He did know most of them, perhaps he could speak to them, one merchant man to another; his omega status would not help, but hopefully his status as king's favorite would eventually be restored and would hold some weight.

"That's why Sean's been looking for marriages, to get enough coin to nullify the necessity of his sister's marriage."

"Which merchant?" He asked again.

She clearly didn't want to say. "I'm sure you can guess."

"Cain?"

She nodded.

Charles felt... well he always felt a bit ill now, but the twist of morning tea and bacon and the idea of his step-brother ever being allowed to bed an omega made him run for the privy and vomit. Barely digested food and bright green bile couldn't exorcise the sick feeling from his gut, and he threw up again, more food and more bile, before his stomach finally stopped clenching and forcing him to be ill.

"Charles!?" She was behind him a few moments later, rubbing his back and making sure his hair didn't fall in front of his face. "Have you been vomiting?"

He shook his head. This was the first time the little nervous nausea had ever made him vomit. He laughed, bitter. "Weak little omega, poor constitution."

"Don't say things like that." She continued to rub his back. "I'll get you Hank, you must be ill."

He nodded, but as she stood he wrapped a hand around her wrist. "Moira, we'll... you'll do something, you're a merchant now too, surely you can manage to earn some coin in the south, enough to get the Cassidys back their daughter so that Sean does not need to marry someone for money."

"The contract doesn't go for another year, so there's time, she's too young thankfully, but that means I have to be working, with a ship, and with you. You're stuck here."

Charles had never felt so helpless in his life. He didn't like it. Normally these sorts of setbacks would have only disturbed him slightly, but for the past weeks every minor hurdle seemed insurmountable and every time he tried to consider ways out his mind came up blank. He felt as though his mind was not quite his own, drained and lazy. "I will get out, soon."

He brushed his teeth and curled up back in bed where Moira rubbed his back lightly until he drifted off to sleep and Hank returned, later, to wake him.

"Moira said you're ill."

"I just threw up," he said, morose. "Once." Twice really, but only at one time. It wasn't technically lying.

"How long have you been feeling sick?" He pressed a hand to Charles' head. "You still are a bit warm. Strip down, I want a look at you."

Charles climbed out of bed and grumbled about cranky, demanding alphas and their ridiculous behavior. Clad on only breeches, he looked down at himself and saw a bit of what Moira meant when she said he'd gotten gaunt, his ribs were a bit more prominent than usual - as were his hip bones even as his hips seemed a bit heavier. He frowned. Hank nudged him down on the bed and then started to poke his neck and his armpits, traveling across his chest. Charles winced.

"Tender?"

"Define tender," Charles bit out, annoyed.

Despite his cranky behavior, Hank continued to press against his belly and stomach and then lower. When he finished he leaned back in his chair and frowned.

"What?" He sat up, a bit nervous now. "Is something wrong?"

Hank shook his head. "I don't... think so... I'd like you to pee for me."

"How peculiar," Charles sniped at him, annoyed, but Hank waved a container at him a few moments later and Charles took it and headed to the privy while he waited for... nature to take its course. "You're thinking something, though. I can tell. You have a horrible face for ventiuna or any other card game."

"Nothing definite." Charles could tell it was a hedge. "I think you're malnourished, just a bit."

"I haven't eaten anything resembling a fruit or a vegetable in weeks," Charles grumbled.

"What!? Charles that's very serious you need to--"

"Hank. I just mean it's been these mushy greens and this horrid apple once."

"Oh." Hank sounded suitably mollified. "I want you to have a better diet, though. I'm going to speak to the kitchens again."

Charles grumbled while his bladder finally seemed to cooperate. The damn thing was constantly cooperating in the middle of the night when he was trying to get rest, but apparently he had performance anxiety. "You really think I'm malnourished? I've eaten worse when I was a kid. Once, I only ate grilled chicken for a month." His mother had hated that.

He handed over the urine to Hank and then sat down on the bed. It wasn't as though there was much else to do.

"I want you out in the yard more, stretch your legs. I'll order Emma out too, I should... check to make certain she's not suffering similarly."

"She's not," Charles answered, immediately. "Fit as a fiddle."

"Still, it will help make my case for better treatment. That damned Cardinal and his..." Hank trailed off again, sighed.

"Erik still won't see me," Charles said. It didn't even really matter in a general sense. He knew what was keeping Erik from him, that Cardinal and his damn rules and his investigation.

Hank patted him on the shoulder and then handed a piece of paper over to him and Charles unfolded it neatly. He recognized Erik's writing immediately.

Charles. I wish that somehow being king made things any easier. I have asked Shaw to desist with his ridiculous investigation but he continues to claim my bewitchment, and the bewitchment of Princess Raven. I know it is nothing but I cannot deny that part of the court agrees. I must be strong for Genosha, so we can stand against Klettgau as they continue to agitate. If my faculties become doubted, I will lose all their respect. All my love, Erik.

Charles took the letter and carefully folded it up again, pressing a soft kiss to the page. "Idiot."

Erik always did things his own way, unfortunately.

"You will not tell him I am ill. I don't need him worrying about me." He was doing enough worrying for himself, unfortunately. It continued to upset his digestion.

"I'll see to Emma and get you more food for today. I want you to get more sleep."

It was easier said than done, but Hank tucked him under blankets and he did sleep for at least a few hours, when he was shaken awake by Emma.

She was carrying an entire basket of fruit, some lettuce and carrots and even an onion. "I hope he doesn't expect me to eat that raw." Still he rolled over and sat at the table and grabbed a carrot, wiped off the worst of the dirt and then ate a large bite. "Did he make you pee?"

She snorted. "I've heard from Gabriel."

Emma had his attention now, fully. "Hank could have told me that, too."

"You're distressed. He did not want to work you up." Perpetually well-manicured fingers plucked a peach from the tray and began to cut it into neat slices, half of which made their way in front of Charles and he ate them a bit like a sullen child. "He believes Shaw may be employing a counterfeiter."

Charles straightened, picked a slice of peach and started to eat it while he waited for more.

"Apparently some sort of idol has been found in your room."

"An idol? Please. I have nothing that might even be construed as that, and even if it were so it's probably some harvest god or a fertility god or something completely innocuous." He shook his head, annoyed at Shaw's complete narrow-mindedness. "I could easily identify--"

"Well of course you could. That's the problem, maybe Moira could, too."

"Armando might, if it were from the right area."

"He's also considered compromised."

"I didn't sleep with him," Charles grumbled. He didn't mind sleeping with people, but he'd only met Armando after he and Erik's relationship had changed, and Armando was in love with someone else entirely.

"Ah, yes, too hung up on his favorite little alpha."

"What?" Charles blinked. He might have felt sluggish and slow for the last few weeks but Armando was an alpha, he wouldn't have fallen for another alpha.

"I thought you did not care about those things," Emma said, voice cool.

It took him a few seconds, as he realized first that Emma was first talking about Christian's situation, and then what that must have meant for Armando, and then... and then who really was the most obvious choice for an alpha Armando was close enough to fall in love with. "Alex?" More pieces clicked into place. "Is that why he didn't want to sleep with me?"

His dining companion snorted.

Still he frowned, it seemed as though today was the day of problems that he couldn't do anything about. Well, perhaps he could do something about that. He couldn't change how people felt about a relationship between two alpha males. "I'm confused why he wants me framed for witchcraft of all things, surely finding me guilty of poisoning someone or assassinating someone would be more damaging."

"I find it curious as well, and there hasn't been anything on me yet. To be honest... it might allow me the opportunity to get off free, claiming I was bewitched."

"If it comes to that, I want you to claim that." His stomach flipped annoyingly and he frowned; nervous and sentimental, lately, it was a bad combination. "Has the evidence gone to Erik yet?"

She shook her head. "I thought to ask Gabriel to destroy it, but it might be too much. He's a pious man, and he dislikes what the Cardinal is doing but there's only so much to be done."

"Is there anything... special about the charge? Something it gains him?"

Emma leaned back in her chair, and while she did, Charles continued to pick at his food and try to keep it down. His stomach still continued to be nervous and fluttery in an uncomfortable way that he didn't like. Perhaps Hank would have some potion or herb for the nausea tomorrow, it made it hard to think.

"All your possessions belong to the church if the charge is successful."

"I own nothing of particular value, some money, I don't own my father's house, or a business, or even the ship I rode south on. I have some books but none of them are unique or particularly valuable." He shook his head. "And he's already possessed most of my books."

"You... um." Emma didn't finish. Charles looked up, stomach sinking. "You are submitted to the church for reeducation at the hands of a church elder."

He tried to consider that for a moment; reeducation was quite a delightful turn of phrase as it stood, perhaps they would want him to be more pious, or simply be more committed to whatever cause Shaw supported. Shaw. The thought of the way Shaw's eyes raked over him when he was pulled out of Erik's bed came unbidden to the back of his mind, the idea of being at Shaw's mercy made him question what manner of education he might receive.

Bile rose up in his throat again, his hand clamped over his mouth in a desperate plea to his body not to vomit. His throat clenched, his stomach clenched, it was as though his entire body was clenching in opposition and he disliked it immediately.

"Charles?"

He waved a hand at her, brushing away her concern, before he let his hand fall and brush against the table. "All the more reason for you to claim I enticed you."

"There is no good reason for the Cardinal to want you in his purview. The same things that have forced you to become a courtesan in the first place make you not particularly worthwhile as an underling."

Charles made a face. "Thank you for that, Emma, but I am concerned the Cardinal's interest in me may be... personal."

Emma's lip curled in disgust.

"Still, it gives us a good idea what might be coming. What proof is required to convict me?"

"Three testimonies will be all he needs after the idol."

"What if I contest the idol's nature?"

She shrugged. "Do you think anyone will care? The south is a land of dark magic and dark people and dark ways."

Ignorance. Charles sighed. "So... what?"

"Hopefully no one feels particularly bewitched by you, Charles."

He wanted to throw up again.

Hank woke him viciously early, before the sun was even up the next morning.

"Charles! Charles!"

He paid Hank back for the interruption by vomiting on his shoes. Hank didn't even act distressed, just concerned and worried and he brushed Charles' hair out of his eyes while he went to clean up the vomit. "Oh god, I'm dying, aren't I?"

"What? No! You're not dying, this is all perfectly normal."

"Perfectly normal for what? I'm stressed, I feel terrible now, I'm going to get... locked in a box and..." He leaned back on his bed and felt tears start to run down his face. "And why am I crying at any provocation?!"

"Hormones."

"Well of course I have hormones!"

"You should have told me you knew you were pregnant, Charles."

"WHAT?!" He stumbled out of bed. "What? No. Definitely not. I mean... yes, Erik and I... but only once!"

"As I'm certain you learned as a child, once is sufficient."

"Look!" Charles hiked up his shirt and pointed to the slight swell at his belly. "It's just... a belly, from not getting out and exercising." He even sucked it in, demonstrating, and was annoyed to note that it didn't suck properly and was seriously undermining his very rational argument about why he wasn't pregnant. He wasn't quite certain why he was arguing with Hank. Two months ago he would have been thrilled by the news, but now his lover had all but abandoned him to the mercy of the church, he got to see no one but Emma on a regular basis, he felt swamped and overwhelmed and tired and cranky and flighty and over-emotional and he just couldn't think.

"Charles." Hank took him by the shoulder and they sat on the bed together. "I know... I know you've wanted children for a while, but... if you don't want one now there are options."

"Absolutely not!" He put his hand over his stomach, protectively. He might have been feeling a bit confused but he did know, however mildly inopportune, he wanted his child. He just... wanted to be alive to have it. "Hank I..." He ran his fingers through his hair, trying to think through the consequences and repercussions. It was a mess. "God, what better proof I'm practicing witchcraft than a one-off conception. Damn."

"Witchcraft?"

He waved a hand, dismissive.

"Well you need to tell the King."

"No, not now, not like this. He... he needs to be level headed and this won't help." Charles frowned. "I'll have to tell Emma, she'll help me hide it, and... I'll eat more, like you said." His hand went down to his belly again, eyes closed, wishing he could feel it in some way other than vicious nausea battling with his stomach. "I always wanted children."

Hank nodded. "I know."

"I've wanted Erik's children for a while..." He snorted. "You are... horribly inconvenient and I love you anyway."

"I assume you are talking to..." Hank gestured to Charles' belly.

"You are horribly inconvenient too, Henry McCoy." He leaned his head against Hank's shoulder. "I can't believe... If this child is a boy and an alpha, I'll need to seriously reassess my opinion of getting my belly painted by random southern medicine men."

Hank wrapped an arm around Charles' shoulder and kissed his forehead. "I am going to tell the Cardinal and the King that you have a nutritional deficiency that is being aggravated by the Tower, and that you need to return to your rooms in the palace immediately and be put on a more nutritious diet. I want you walking more, not laying in bed, no alcohol. You are naturally very slim, Charles, you only have a few weeks before it will become obvious. You cannot corset yourself either, to keep it... under wraps."

He nodded, taking it all in, the strange unrealness of the knowledge. Hank went over more and more guidelines, finally forcing him into a chair and eating.

After Hank left, he ended up lying back down on his bed, hand ghosting over the very faint bump. He'd barely noticed it, in truth, it was... admittedly a bit odd, but not outside of the shape his body took naturally, especially since he hadn't been out walking as much as he normally might have been. A child. Or, what would be a child months from now. The idea had not yet sunk in. He attempted to make it do so, to grasp the reality of the situation.

A child. An entirely new person, half Erik's and half his own. His fingers clenched against the swell of his belly, unthinking. He would not let Shaw - he would not let anyone - ruin this for him. The slight mental sluggishness and his emotional behavior made some sense now, at least. He stood, walked around a bit.

"Not a good time, your father must be at the top of his game, you know."

He frowned. He wondered if it was considered odd to talk to the bump that represented a tiny speck of human life. He decided he had run out of good sense at least a week ago and continued to yammer. He talked about hating it in this damn little room, he talked about being upset with Erik - an emotion he'd not really admitted to himself until that moment, he talked about wanting to show the child the world, he wanted to show them everything.

Frustration, fear, anger, worry, looming dread, complications, and unforeseeable factors, he let it all... slough off.

Eventually he found himself leaning up against the stone wall of the room, looking out the slit window, eating a plum, and finding himself reciting the story of how he met Erik - omitting the raunchy details for delicate prenatal ears.

"Now I know you've truly gone mad, Charles," Emma said when she walked in and found him later. "It seems two months was your limit. I can't say I blame you with His Majesty avoiding you like something contagious." She didn't sound cruel about it, but she came over and wrapped her arm around his shoulder and pulled him in to a hug. "You must not allow yourself to snap, we have more work to do."

"I'm pregnant."

Emma was quiet for an exceptionally long amount of time. "Well, it's not mine."

"Thank you. I'm well aware of who the alpha is. I need to hide it; the Cardinal cannot know and the king must keep a clear head. If he gets upset, or over-protective, or anything else of the sort, the Cardinal will use it against me. Hank is going to get us out of the Tower. I am 'nutritionally deficient' in his medical opinion."

"That will make it easier to get in touch with certain individuals." Charles nodded. "But harder to hide, you're more likely to be seen."

She stepped away from him, pressed her hands against his sides and then his waist, before finally nudging his belly. He had dressed in a neatly fitting vest, which unfortunately would only fit for a few more weeks before the fabric started to pucker at the waist. Emma was obviously thinking similar thoughts. She brought her hands up to his rib cage.

"There are several styles for the pregnant omega, but if you adopt one you might as well announce it with a little card." She sighed. "They're all so dreary though, mostly you're just expected to stay in and look demure for your alpha."

Charles' stomach twisted, thinking about Erik, but Emma's brusque businesslike demeanor kept it from being too painful.

"Maybe a high waist and something flowing? It will only work for a little while."

"Only you would decide the most important part of being pregnant would be what to wear due to the occasion."

"Sugar, that's why you come to me."

~19~

The move back into the palace took less than a day, apparently the Cardinal was only slightly difficult to persuade, and after he had agreed, Erik had voiced no objection. It meant he spent less time with Emma - who was now in her quarters down the hall rather than in the same room complex - but it was nice to have a bit of space.

It was barely a week before Emma had them both a variety of high-waisted items fashioned. Emma's were typical of her, white, well fitted, and barely covered her bits, falling so high on her thigh even Charles felt a bit scandalized. He ended up in slightly more modest blue dresses with modified trousers that would likely serve him another month or so before they become too tight and hiding would become nearly impossible.

Emma particularly enjoyed wearing her outfit to church that weekend - much to the scandalizing of the Cardinal and the interest of a few of the omegas; perhaps they would start a fashion trend.

"Who likes corsets?" Emma remarked to herself when they were hiding in Charles' room after service.

"You like corsets, they show off your... assets."

"That they do." She turned sideways, looking at herself in a mirror and smoothing the dress tight to her body. The whole point of the outfit was it didn't show off Charles' rapidly developing curves, but Emma liked flaunting her curves. "Maybe I could get Logan to wear one; easy access."

Charles rolled his eyes but came up to join her, tugging up the dress and wondering at the slight bulge that would not move despite his efforts to suck in his gut. Even with the trouser waist slung very low, barely clinging to his hips, they still covered half of the bump. He patted it gently. "I really do look like I just over indulged at a feast."

"Not for long, those trousers had to be taken out since last week." She hooked her finger into the band. They were a bit tight again, actually, would need to be taken out again.

Each passing day brought a tiny increment of growth, and the first week since he'd discovered the pregnancy made each fraction of an increment seem incredibly large. He hardly could have ignored this much longer than he had. He sighed.

In the palace, at least, he ate better, which, in turn, meant he gained a bit of weight that seemed unrelated to the baby. A few more weeks passed and even Moira had noted Charles seemed to have gotten a bit 'thick around the middle' which he ascribed, very pointedly, to his diet at the direction of a trained physician.

It had been... weeks, months since he'd been free of this oppressive worry, the Cardinal trying to frame him, Erik possibly slowly falling out of love with him, and although his stomach had mostly settled, his nerves were still high, and his hormones were still wild. His stomach gurgled slightly and he frowned at it. He'd just eaten a few hours ago.

Hank had told him it would likely be another month or so before the child started to move within him, but in Charles' slightly stressed flights of fancy it was his child and his nerves made manifest. "Yes, your alpha is a very cranky man who has a... very mean man for an advisor. I should have tried to get him kicked out when I had the clout."

The privacy of his own rooms meant he felt more comfortable foregoing trousers, the damn things had to be let out constantly and another layer of fabric just made the swell of his belly more obvious. When he stood straight it was impossible to ignore, even with the looser cut of the top. "Gorgeous little bastard." He ran a hand over his belly, flattening the fabric.

Charles headed out into his sitting room and took the chafing cover back off his plate and picked at some of the chicken while his stomach grumbled. "Yes, yes, I'm eating." He found he desperately wanted mangoes, though, and the nearest one was probably days away.

A soft knock on the door tore him away from his efforts to anthropomorphize his growling stomach. He checked his clothes, showing, but thankfully just barely. It was one of the benefits of having a slightly more robust ribcage than a woman might; it kept the draped shirt-dress from showing the swell even more prominently. It was likely Emma, but it always paid to be careful.

When he opened the door, however, he was face to face with the man he hadn't seen in weeks, the father of his child, and quite possibly the love of his life. He might have whimpered a bit, grabbed Erik around the waist, and possibly cried.

"Shhh..." Erik pressed him into the room, hands running down Charles' back, heading towards his waist, and Charles leaned in more, just enough to guard his sides from roaming hands. "Charles... I'm sorry."

The door closed behind them and Erik guided Charles to the sofa and sat them both down, hands continuing to travel and Charles wondered how he was supposed to arrange himself to avoid giving the entire game away. He ended up nudging Erik down, hoping he could sprawl over him and avoid hands on his waist. He was spending too much time over thinking, not enough time talking. "Erik, I..." He was crying again, damn hormones. "It's alright, truly."

"It's not alright, or... well, it is now."

Charles blinked, blinked again, his eyes looking up into Erik's. "Really?"

"Shaw has decided there is insufficient evidence and is going to drop the investigation."

He would have wept with relief if he weren't already crying. He could tell Erik, they could... see each other, hold each other; Charles burrowed into Erik's shoulder. "I missed you so much."

"Me as well, Charles, God, I..." His fingers reached up and untied the clasp on Charles' hair, running his fingers against Charles' scalp, soothing and relaxing all at once. "Having you for one night and then having you ripped away... I cannot handle that. You can't leave me any time soon. I can no longer do this without you. Please stay."

He thought of the life growing inside of him and it made him laugh, just slightly, in another month he'd be more than cumbersome, and he'd hoped to spend even longer in the south, there was no way he could think to leave now. "Not for many months, my king, Erik."

"I want... I need you by my side, back in my bed, back in my life..." The king dragged him back down, kissing, and his hand slid up his thigh.

"I see 'bed' rates above 'life'," Charles said, trying not to be testy but he hadn't seen Erik in months. His body was not so choosy, however, and he would have gladly spread out to be taken. "I... sorry." Somehow he could be nothing but gruff and annoyed even though he wanted to cling to Erik desperately.

"No, I... I deserve that." He went back to stroking hair, another hand rubbing circles into Charles' back. "I have missed you, and I have been faithful to you."

"Myself as well."

He finally got to look at Erik, he looked so tired; he was a young man, really only a few years older than Charles, barely in his twenties, but he looked so old right now, his eyes were saddled with dark circles under them, his eyes, which were gleaming for Charles still looked tired and worn, his shoulders slumped, there were the beginnings of creases in his brow and at the corners of his mouth, as though he had been frowning almost constantly.

"The Cardinal is away for a few weeks, he is... seeking a new omega for me, but when he returns I have demanded he provide proof of your crimes immediately or he release you." Erik nodded. "I should have done this weeks ago but..."

"Your mother does not care for me, the Cardinal thinks I'm a witch, and you were concerned the courtiers would think so as well." He closed his eyes, leaning against Erik's throat and kissing very softly. "I am not happy, but... I think eventually I can accept that it was needed."

They talked, finally, again, like they hadn't talked in months.

"I have... been reconsidering Genosha's relationship with the church in the form of Cardinal Shaw." Charles' fingers clenched around Erik's waist. "He does not allow me to marry you, he... accuses you of witchcraft with no cause, accuses you of attempted assassination with no cause, and... your council has been wiser than his for some time."

"Perhaps... there is another Cardinal you can show favor to instead?"

They discussed options lightly, there were only a few in Genosha, and most of them were of a mind with Shaw. Charles wished he had an option for Erik, something that would make it easier to decouple Shaw from Erik and his family; it was hard not to see the slow drain on Erik, possibly even Genosha.

"The church will not be pleased," Erik said, finally.

Charles didn't know what to say, so he kissed Erik's chest very softly and nuzzled. "Maybe they won't mind." It was a fool's hope. He laughed, a bit, at his own naivety. "You're doing this for me, aren't you? You're doing this because..."

"Because... I'm going to run through Cardinals until I find one who lets me have you."

"You don't have to," he said, even as hope burned in his chest. "You have a country, it's far more important than me."

Erik didn't answer with words, just dragged Charles up his chest and kissed him, licked into his mouth and ran his hands down Charles' back, squeezing ever so slightly on Charles' ass. He tried not to think about how much rounder it had gotten lately, wasn't even certain why he was still trying to hide the pregnancy but for the just... the worry, he knew Erik wanted a child but this all seemed so much, the instinctual response to hide himself was becoming a bit overwhelming. Still, he wasn't going to deny the delight of Erik under him and they kissed and ran hands against each other, and Charles tried to suck in his increasingly unhideable stomach.

"Love you," Charles panted when they finally broke apart again. He wanted to take Erik back to his bedroom, to make love with him, but... instead he curled up on his lover's chest, tired, achingly so. Erik brushed his fingers along Charles' thigh and they rested there, lazy. He considered it, just telling Erik... maybe he should have as soon as he'd known... He just didn't know, now. It had made sense when he wasn't completely certain of Erik's feelings, now, however, it seemed rather certain Erik loved him...

Erik leaned up and kissed his temple. "I want to stay... but apparently countries do not run themselves and my cousin just lost his father; mother's seeing to it that he's settled."

"Cousin?" Charles asked, stretching slightly, realizing it would cause his shirt to be pulled tight and stopped.

"Yes, distantly, through my father..." Erik shrugged. "His name is Joseph. I don't keep track of such things but I suppose he would be my heir at the moment."

Charles blinked. "I'm sorry, I'm sure he's a good kid."

"Maybe when you're no longer under suspicion you can get to know him some." Erik sighed and kissed Charles' lips slightly. "I'll see you again soon."

Erik showed himself out and Charles ended up leaning back on the couch and just dozing, slightly; he was too tired lately.

He tugged a blanket up around his neck and tried not to think impossible thoughts.

"I wish... I wish I could give your father an heir." He wanted that, desperately, but kings just did not marry commoners, and the Cardinal apparently agreed. "Perhaps you'll be a Lord or Lady." He rubbed the slight swell. "Regardless, you will be my Merchant Prince - or Princess - and will rule the skies and ports with an iron fist for your fathers." It was the least he could give his child. "We will also make certain that Aunt Moira's lover does not lose his sister to your horrible... no, not even your Uncle, the wicked Cain Marko."

He snorted.

"I don't know if I can trust this, though..." He said, hand snaking up his shirt. "The Cardinal has kept me under lock and key for almost three months, and now, suddenly, he's going to release me? What's changed? Has he really given up on blaming me for Kurt's attack? Who attacked Kurt? It was someone in the palace." He hated not knowing the answer.

Emma interrupted his thoughts less than an hour later by barging in. "You look particularly pleased with yourself."

"Erik visited."

"Ah." She swept in and sat down nearly on his feet. "Well... Logan says the Cardinal has left for a few weeks."

"To find a new consort for the king." Charles ran his tongue lazily over his lips as he considered. "He said... the Cardinal will be dropping the investigation against me, and I can only assume you as well. I do not quite know what to make of it."

"It sounds dangerous, sugar."

He'd thought as much, in the back of his mind. "Something will happen then, soon."

"Likely before the Cardinal gets back, maybe sooner."

"I almost wish we could send Logan to Erik's bed." He hated the idea of Logan anywhere near Erik, but he knew the man was a soldier.

Emma sniffed. "Absolutely not."

Charles looked up at her and blinked owlishly. "Oh."

She crossed her arms in front of her chest and didn't look at him, rather pointedly if Charles did say so himself.

"Not his bed, then," Charles conceded, easily. "But he is a soldier, and... perhaps with your growing personal involvement he may be the only one we may trust completely."

Emma nodded stiffly. "You are right. I will make sure he sees to the king."

They fell silent for some time. Usually they would have any number of words between them, they could talk on any number of topics, and yet now Emma had little to say. Charles found himself sitting, hand pressed to the firm swell he had come to think of as his future child. "Do you love him?"

Emma didn't answer.

Charles didn't press.

"He is occasionally thoughtful."

She had not answered his question at all, although Charles supposed that meant that she was unsure of her answer. Emma did not like to seem ill informed, especially about her own motivations. Charles wondered how that had happened, but it seemed useless to wonder about right now. Whether he would make a poor Margrave or not, it seemed Emma had become at least a bit taken with him, more than she'd ever been with Charles. He reached out and pressed a hand to her shoulder and she accepted that moment of comfort from him without protest.

Her shoulders straightened, shrugging off his touch. "I believe whatever is being planned is going to happen soon."

"I'm... worried for Erik." Charles pressed a hand against his belly, as though that would somehow ward Erik from harm.

Emma nodded.

"Apparently a cousin of Erik's, Joseph, has come to the palace."

Emma's face grew icy. "He is... young, impressionable, and the next in line for the throne."

Charles frowned. "Do you think... Erik used to be that way?"

"I know he did," Emma answered, smoothly. "My father... Winston, said that the boy was so reliant on the Cardinal that he might as well have worn the mitre while Shaw wore the crown."

Charles knew with sudden, icy certainty that he had changed all of that. Perhaps he'd begun by enticing Erik with his body, and then his mind, and then his body again, but he had changed Erik, however subtly, turned him away from the Cardinal. Perhaps that had put Erik in more danger than he had ever thought possible. "Damn. Erik was so content to know I would soon be released..." Charles had been so content as well. "I do not think he even has considered the possibility there is more at work."

"I'll have Logan on this, Charles. Do not worry."

It was impossible not to. Even though he knew he was courting disaster he left his rooms several times over the next two weeks, roaming all over the palace, careful to bring his hands nowhere near his belly as the guards to his room followed him closely in his rounds. By Hank's count - which for some reason began two weeks before conception - Charles was pressing quickly into the fourth month of pregnancy and it was now impossible to mistake the growing swell of his stomach for anything other than what it was. He had gained some weight in the face, and the hips, but not nearly enough to account for the pronounced mound of his belly. Only his exceptionally baggy clothes let him continue to hide, and only just barely.

The exercise let him know who his friends were, who came to see that he was alright, and who commented that he looked haggard. Far too many people did not. He tried not to let it bother him.

"Charles..." Moira saw him as he entered the kitchen. "You look terrible."

The two of them stole away with a few plums and then out into the gardens.

They didn't talk much, at first, Charles eating slowly as the two of them circled outside. He was getting tired - wanted to sit down - but he knew that would be unwise, any passing person might see, might start to suspect... He sighed.

"Something's wrong," Moira said, checking over her shoulder and down the garden paths.

He wondered if she was speaking about his awkward health, but he stayed silent.

"The kitchen got a delivery earlier today, we thought it was rosemary." Moira tugged a sprig out of her sleeve; it did look like Rosemary.

Charles took it and sniffed. "But it was bitter when you cut it?" He asked. He wanted to take one of the thin pointed leaves and chew it, but he didn't dare while pregnant.

Moira nodded.

"Did you taste it?"

She shook her head. He handed back the sprig to her.

"I believe it is poison."

"Several of the cooks tasted at least a sprig!"

"It's of no concern in its current state, it takes more processing to become lethally potent." He frowned and looked at the sprig again. "Would you taste it for me?"

"Charles Francis Xavier," she looked at him, stormy. "You told me it's poison and you want me to eat it? Why don't you?"

Too many answers, all of them revealing more than was probably wise. "It's... recommended I stay away from toxins in my current condition."

"You are sick," she hissed. "The kitchen has been talking, you eat and eat but you look so pale and tired all the time; they're worried about you."

"I am sick, it's nothing to be concerned about, but... I need you to taste that sprig for me, tell me anything you taste, anything at all. I need you..." He took her shoulders in his hands. "I need you to trust me, but not ask questions."

"Charles, you're my friend, of course I'm going to ask..."

He shook his head.

"You'll tell me... eventually, won't you?"

"Yes."

She plucked a leaf from the sprig and sniffed it.

"Bite it, on your front teeth, tear it and then taste it..." He tapped the tip of his tongue. "Right up here."

She did so, and spit it out a split second later. "It tastes vile."

"Burnt? Or a bit acidic?"

He watched Moira run her tongue along her teeth, tasting the oils of the herb that were still left there. She winced again. "Acid, I guess?"

"Describe it," he said, getting more and more concerned.

"Not... citrus, like... vinegar? A very harsh one." She closed her eyes for a few moments while she tried to sort it out. "Yes, and bitter."

"Have you gotten more goods for another trip south?"

Moira looked at him, awkwardly, surprised by the change in topic. "Yes, I did, but..."

"I need you to go, take Lord Cassidy, Alex, Armando... and leave Genosha for a time."

"Charles, you're scaring me."

"As well I should be. Moira, there are... a great many people for whom I am concerned, myself included, and I can only watch so many at the same time."

"We could help you," Moira insisted.

Charles leaned in, pressed his lips near her temple. "Moira, I am pregnant with the king's child, I have reason to believe there is a plot to assassinate him at work, possibly with the intent of framing me, and the Cardinal has taken no pains to disguise his dislike for me, and for anyone who has helped me, so, yes, please, I know you could help, love, but I must ask you to leave."

Her hand came to his waist, the heel of her palm pressing just lightly at the edge of the swell of his belly, and she gasped. "Charles."

"You must not tell anyone, and you must leave, please, for me? On our friendship?"

"On our friendship," she agreed after too long a pause.

Moira and the others had left Genosha before nightfall, and Charles felt horribly alone, but he could not protect them while worrying about everything else. It was not a choice he wanted to make, but like so many in his life before, it was needful. His oldest friend would be safe.

All that remained was to protect his king.

~20~

He'd told Emma of the poison as soon as he'd been certain. Emma had told Logan as well. It would have to be delivered through a cut, introduced to the blood stream, so they - thankfully - did not have much concern for the king's food. He'd also told Hank about the poison and its nature, given him a few sprigs of the herb, although he doubted Hank would have much luck. A day passed with no attacks; Logan had taken to stationing himself near the king's chambers at night and shadowing him as inconspicuously as possible during the day. Logan slept rarely, when the king held an audience, assuming no one would be quiet so stupid as to attack the king in the midst of his court.

Charles spent most of the first day yammering to his unborn child, nervous, awkward, and strained. "I love you." He said that almost constantly. "Your father will be fine; Logan was in he army, he's brilliant, your uncle Hank is working on an antidote, and aunt Moira and your other uncles are away and safe."

His stomach gurgled, not hungry, just food rumbling around. Nerves had brought his nausea back in full force.

"Stop that," he said, smiling. He got up to stretch his legs again; the waiting was killing him.

The next day, his food arrived from the kitchen along with a serving girl who informed him - quite happily - that the Cardinal had returned early that morning. Soon. Maybe even today. She left him in peace and he started to eat his breakfast.

"Be careful." He continued to speak to the swell of his belly, as though it could hear him. "I want you safe, and... loved, warm and well fed." He sighed again, his body had picked up all manner of aches from his pregnancy, his back, his knees, and he knew it would only get worse. "Alright? You mind me and..." He fell silent, just stroking. "Be good."

He spent the rest of the morning stretching, bending, and moving in ways that Hank had instructed him so that he would stay limber and fit through the pregnancy. A healthy omega meant a healthy baby, and although Hank wouldn't be so insensitive to say it out loud, he seemed a bit concerned that Charles hadn't eaten as well as he should have for the earliest stages of the pregnancy. Charles had committed himself immediately to his and the child's health as soon as he'd known. It was hard, though, with nerves constantly draining him and making him worried.

"Your father can be a bit of a dunce sometimes." His back twinged. "Don't tell him I said so, alright, my darling?"

There was no avoiding the fact he was now showing no matter the garment. The bump was still disguised in the vaguest sense, since it seemed very few people actually expected him to be pregnant, and the folds of fabric weren't stretched taught enough to leave no room for debate, but he was very obviously pregnant now. It meant, guards or not, he couldn't afford to be wandering and having more eyes on him, one casual brush of the hand would end his charade. If Erik came to visit again he would likely have to enlist the help of a cleverly placed fruit bowl or something.

He prodded the harpsichord in his room, playing something soothing. He'd heard that was good for the baby. It also helped calm his own nerves.

"How quaint."

Charles' head snapped up from where he was playing to see Cardinal Shaw sliding his way into the sitting room. He felt exposed, his back to Shaw, but to turn would mean... well there were no carefully placed bowls of fruit to use. "Your Eminence."

He stood, hiding his belly as much as possible by bowing low and then placing a couch between him and the Cardinal. The action made Shaw smirk, and was almost enough to make him wonder if Shaw knew, somehow.

"You'll be happy to know His Majesty has talked me into graciously lifting your house arrest." Charles was happy, but that only made him more wary of what was coming next. "The guards have been removed, you have your liberty, and the investigation has ended."

"How..." Charles searched for a word, found none appropriate. "Thoughtful."

"I thought so as well." Shaw circled. It was hard not to notice that the Cardinal now stood squarely in the door, blocking any escape route. "It's too bad, though."

Charles could feel it, the tension of waiting for the other shoe to drop. "Oh?" He could play along for now. Shaw seemed to be in the mood to play with Charles, tease him; maybe he could get the man to make a mistake.

"Well, with you taking advantage of my generosity." Shaw said it like he was a very slow, very dumb child.

The sinking feeling continued. "And how am I going to do that?" Charles thought he might know the answer, he was terrified he might know the answer.

"By slipping into the king's chambers and killing him."

Charles whimpered, fought against the urge to touch his belly, but he did close his eyes, sending a silent prayer to whatever god didn't favor Shaw that Logan was close and could handle whatever was coming. "You're going to just take his cousin, then, control him the way you have Erik for so many years?"

"I knew you were too clever," Shaw answered, eyes following Charles and watching him, Charles circled slightly around the couch, there was nowhere he could go, although... if the guards were truly off the doors, he might be able to get passed Shaw and out into the hallway. "You must be fantastic."

From Shaw's tone there was no doubt what the Cardinal thought was fantastic about Charles, and it was not his intellect.

"Perhaps Erik just needed someone to guide him. He's a good man."

"A good man who doesn't go to see his lover for months?"

The blow stung, more than it should have. "He had his reasons." Charles thought they were poor reasons, but reasons nonetheless. "He's the king, it's not easy to have that weigh on you. Perhaps if you lightened the load for him instead of trying to control him..."

"Oh, I will lighten his load, or, I should say that you will."

"You can't get away with this for long." It made Charles think he would not long survive if Erik did get assassinated. "Too many questions, too many obvious holes in the story. People will notice."

"People will think what I tell them to think. They are miserable little ants."

"They are Erik's subjects."

"And they could have been your subjects if you were just a little more vapid."

The idea hurt. Shaw was all but admitting he'd kept Erik from marrying Charles for no good reason, spite, even. But he knew that Erik never would have loved him if he didn't know about coffee and birds and trading. Erik loved all of him, not just the man he was between the sheets. It was only that part that Shaw seemed to think counted. He was a little miserable man.

"They'll be my subjects when I've exposed you for the fraud you are," Charles snapped back. "After I've thwarted your assassination plans and helped Erik make peace with Klettgau."

"You always were the ambitious one, Master Xavier. I knew that right away. And I suppose they will be your subjects, eventually, after a fashion."

Charles flinched, he balked, he had no idea what Shaw was driving at. "What do you mean?"

"Oh, Joseph is well enough, he's young enough that I have no doubt I could bring him under my thumb eventually, he idolizes Edith, of course." The use of the Queen's first name didn't go unnoticed by Charles, the over familiarity that Shaw seemed to think he had earned with her was distressing even as he already struggled with his emotions. "But wouldn't it be so much better to have Erik's child on the throne?"

So Shaw had known... "All of this just to put Erik and my child on the throne?"

"It is amusing that you think the child would actually be Erik’s. Nonono, in a few months, after Edith has returned to the throne as Joseph's regent we will have the happy news of your pregnancy."

A few months? Charles frowned, confused; his pregnancy would be hard enough to hide in a few weeks. But then it hit him, It is amusing that you think the child would actually be Erik’s He could feel the bile rising up in his throat. "And who... exactly, do you think will be the father of the child?"

The grin on Shaw's face answered the question easily. "I'm not a man without ambitions."

The depth of this man's depravity truly knew no bounds. "You would legitimize your child, saying it was Erik's bastard?"

Shaw answered by very deliberately leaning back and throwing the bolt lock to the den where they were. Charles had no doubt that the bolts to his quarters were similarly locked; each door would present a difficult barrier. It would slow him down, and he was already not as graceful as he might have been, weeks trekking through the jungle had made him fit, but months locked in the Tower had made him slow.

He glanced behind him. The windows were not an option; he was on the third floor and even though he might have risked his leg or arm in a fall it was not that simple now, he could not risk his child.

Raw panic started to overtake him. His goals were simple: get out, get to Erik, save Erik. The way to his goals was unclear. The two of them began to fumble around the room, Charles grabbing at furniture and blocking the way behind him only to have Shaw come at him from the other direction, sending him stumbling over the furniture he'd previously upturned.

Shaw had longer legs than him, and even though his Cardinal robes were long he had far more experience in them than Charles had in being four months pregnant. He was panting, nervous, first things first, the door.

He scrambled, reached the door, grabbed the lock and threw it, but Shaw was behind him before he could open the door, his hand hard on it. Charles tugged, but the door would not budge, not with Shaw's weight on it. A few seconds later he was pinned, an arm on each side of him, Shaw looming over him, pressing him close with his body. Charles twisted, hit the Cardinal in the side with an elbow, but Shaw grabbed him and flung him down.

Instinct took over, Charles' hands flew out to stop him from hitting the floor, but he landed, pain jolting up his arms and knees, he struggled to stand, but his arms buckled slightly under him. No...

Shaw was on top of him in a moment, his knees neatly pinning Charles' legs wide, the pressure making it impossible for him to kick out. He tried to twist, tried to find somewhere to scratch, but every time he moved Shaw grabbed the back of his neck and shoved him to the floor. "Stay down, you little bitch."

Charles tried again. Shaw slammed him down again.

"Or don't. The fight makes it more fun."

The thought made him retch, damn... hormones, damn body. Think of Erik... think of Erik... he heard a buckle behind him, the Cardinal undoing himself, apparently; the heavy belt landed on the floor by his thigh...

Maybe... A moment's hope flitted in his mind.

He felt a rough palm on his ass, and then a finger, parting his cheeks even with a few layers yet between them. A moment later he heard the rip of cloth, the Cardinal rending his skirt in half up the back of his thighs. His breath quickened, he thought he might start to breathe too fast; stop, stop... slow, think. Had to think, had to escape... get to Erik, save Erik, save his child... The icy chill up his legs where he was uncovered made him shiver. Had. To. Think!

"Trembling with want, you little temptress, dressed like a whore in church," Shaw's voice was gravely with some emotion Charles didn't like to think about, smug, superior, lustandownership; Charles was beneath him in Shaw's eyes. "I'm going to enjoy you as many times as it takes." A still-clothed hardness rubbed against Charles' crack. "Fill you with--" Shaw's hand went to Charles' belly, obviously meaning to make his own point but instead of a soft flatness, he met with the firm swell of Erik's child, Charles' child. "You little--"

He grabbed Charles, flipped him, pinned him down, thighs still spread, but he grabbed at the tatters of Charles' outfit, rucked it up. Charles saw the embers of Shaw's plan snuffed from his eyes, and he couldn't help it, he laughed.

Shaw slapped him, hard, so hard he felt his lip split.

"You Goddamn witch," Shaw spat out. "I will cut that little bastard out of you if I have to."

He had a knife in hand a few moments later, drawn from the folds of his sleeve. Charles panicked. His child, Erik's child. No. Nonono, absolutely not. His hands flew out grabbed the rough leather of the Cardinal's discarded belt and swung, the buckle took Shaw square on the jaw, unexpected. He staggered and Charles swung the belt back, backhanding him just as hard, struggling to sit, pushing, grabbing that stupid fucking robe by the goddamn embroidery and shoved with every ounce of strength he didn't know he possessed.

Shaw's arm was up now, trying to guard his face, but Charles whipped the belt down again, hard, this time he caught Shaw in the eye and he started to scream, to flail, blood welling up. Charles felt himself tremble and dry heave, the sight disgusting and overwhelming. Shaw was in too much pain to mount a defense anymore, and Charles pulled away, grabbed the discarded knife and the looked at it for a moment... it held no sign of poison.

This man was a menace; he would never stop... This man had spent months planning this, years manipulating Erik, and he would not ever, ever stop. The idea of this man being able to come again, try to hurt Charles' child or Erik again, was intolerable. He had to end him.

Weeping bitterly, even as he knew it had to be done, Charles stabbed the Cardinal's knife down into the demon's belly, low, low enough to nick bowels. He sliced up, hopefully clipping guts and liver. Shaw screamed as he did it. Belly cuts were brutal, the infection impossibly painful; Somehow he doubted the current physician in residence would have anything to save him.

"That's for my child you son of a bitch." He stood. "Maybe if you're lucky Erik will come and save you the misery of a slow death. Godspeed."

The sarcastic rejoinder was out of his lips before he could think of anything better. He flew out of the study. Unlocked the double bolt to his quarters and all but screamed down the palace corridors. No guards... how far did the conspiracy go?

Only one thought remained on his mind as he ran: Erik.

~21~

Charles arrived at Erik's chambers, he found no guards at the door. He frowned at the door, slightly ajar; he took a moment, grabbed as his belly, as though leaving a bloody palm print across his belly would ease his child in the womb. Perhaps it would; the blood was Shaw's, after all. "Please be alright, love."

Whether he was speaking to himself, to the child, or to Erik, he wasn't entirely certain, but a moment later he pressed into the room. Nothing was amiss.

"Erik?!" Charles shouted into the chambers, feeling ridiculous for a moment when he finally realized Erik could have been anywhere in the palace.

"Charles?"

Charles heard the slightly weak and shaky voice of his king, a few rooms away. He pushed through the sitting area, back through a side study, and he finally ended in one of the sitting rooms - one gloriously pained in glass that let in light. Logan was on the ground, a bright line of blood on his chest. Erik was checking the pulse of one guard and tying the other.

"Charles?! What happened to you?" Erik's voice was filled with terror.

He saw himself, in that moment, as Erik must have; hair askew, tugged out of his clasp, skirt slashed open, blood on his hands and clothing, eyes wild and afraid, and he realized he must have looked truly ravaged.

"Not now," Charles ordered. "Was he cut? Their knives were likely poisoned."

Logan answered by growling, pained, and Charles was on his knees next to the man immediately. "Chuck."

"Yes," Charles said. Looking at the cut, it was shallow, thankfully, but that just meant the poison would get into Logan's system more slowly. He turned to Erik. "Clean linens, I need Henry, he should be waiting in the physician's suite, and Emma, the Margravine."

Erik started for a moment, surprised, but the moment passed and he stumbled back out to do what Charles had said.

"And be careful, there are people here to assassinate you and I do not know if we're through with them yet." He might have gotten that information from Shaw, but with Erik standing there looking mostly well he couldn't quite fathom things going wrong right now. "Hold on, my friend." He turned back to Logan. "Help is on the way."

He started by ripping the shirt Logan was wearing along the cut, there was possibly poison along the fabric and getting that away from the cut was imperative.

"Deep breaths, calm, we want your heart beating as slowly as possible." Logan's chest was heaving, unfortunately, quick, panicked gasps of air. It would make his heart race, and pump the poison in faster. Charles wiped his hands down on the shreds of Logan's shirt and pulled the edges of the wound apart.

"Crap! Damn it, Chuck, that is not the way it's supposed to go to get it closed."

"I don't want it closed, the more you bleed from the wound the less the poison will work its way into your system."

"Oh." Logan did not seem to think of that, and then he made a conspicuous effort to bleed more slowly.

Erik came back in the interim, dropped off sheets, and then fled again.

"You..." Logan laughed. "You have him on a short leash."

"Oh hush," Charles said. "Actually, don't hush, keep speaking, but no panting." Charles continued to work; doing his best to make certain Logan kept bleeding from the shallow wound. He had no way of knowing how potent the poison was, how concentrated, and how much of it got into Logan's system. It might have been he was living with a fool's hope and it was already too late to save him, but Charles was not someone succumb to feelings of hopeless impossibility. "Nothing else to say? Perhaps I should tease you about the Margravine?"

"Shut up," Logan hissed up through clenched teeth and he winced.

Charles frowned, not wanting to distress him further. "Then you are welcome to be amused at my expense with regard to my relationship with Erik." He didn't exactly want Logan taunting him about it, but right now he'd take anything. He wanted Logan to keep talking, even if his friend kept pressing the niggling worry in the back of Charles' mind. Charles was still terrified, terrified that perhaps as much as Erik said he would want a child that he would not want this child, or not now. Logan might have confidence in Charles' future, but Charles couldn't, not yet.

He took the sheet and ripped off a strip, carefully dabbing at the cut. Logan said nothing, just hissed.

"How do you feel?"

"My chest hurts like a bitch." Eloquent as always.

"Charles!" Hank came in. "Charles you should absolutely be nowhere near him. What happened to you?! Off, go go, let me take care of this."

Suitably chastised, Charles stood and worked his way over to a chair and sat, likely getting blood all over it, Shaw's blood, probably a bit of Logan's as well, his shirt-gown had blood along the front, at the hem, everywhere.

The fear, the pressure, and the anxiety that had somehow been holding him up for hours - possibly months - finally lifted and he found it almost impossible to bear. He was numb. He couldn't even feel his hands, couldn't feel anything; he whimpered, hugged himself around the belly, as though somehow his child could give him comfort barely formed in the womb. Charles started to cry, first slow little tears, one at a time, welling up in his eyes, creeping to the corner and then rolling down his cheeks; moments later, the few tears were replaced by a torrent, he was fairly certain his nose was leaking snot now as he continued to cry.

He'd nearly... Shaw had... He could have... His child...

There was no feeling, just numbness, and yet through it he could do nothing but cry. People came and went, he saw Emma - clothed in white - he saw Erik - just a fuzzy and blurry swath of maroon - and he just cried.

"Don't move him until I've looked him over." Hank's voice. It took him several seconds to realize he was talking about him, not Logan.

How could he not hurt but still be crying so much?

His hands were wet. He looked down to see a cloth on them, Erik wiping them with water from a small basin. "Is that yours?"

The question took several seconds to penetrate. Blood. Erik was asking about the blood. Charles shook his head.

"Whose?"

Charles shook his head.

Erik didn't press. Slowly he watched, as the basin was dyed pink-red and somehow his hands got more clean; the tears did not stop. He pressed his head to Erik's shoulder. The basin disappeared, hands wrapped around his shoulders, he curled into the embrace and just continued to cry. Warmth finally started to seep back into him from gentle fingers rubbing against his shoulders and his back made him start to feel again.

A hand touched his elbow. He flinched. Charles looked up and Logan was on the floor, unmoving, Emma kneeling next to him...

Crying.

"Is he--?"

"As well as can be expected for now," Hank answered the question. "You're turn, idiot."

Erik growled; that, of all things, was what brought a smile to Charles' face and he shushed this lover.

"Come, I want you in bed." He eased Charles up. Erik moved to follow. "Alone."

They ended up in Erik's bedroom, Hank threw the bolts on the door and carefully started to strip Charles and he ended up on the bed. Finally, Charles' thoughts started to take proper shapes and proper concerns. "I fell," he told Hank. "On my hands and knees." He touched his fingers to his belly and realized he would have given anything to feel his child stir within him. Hank said it would be soon, a matter of weeks, but the stillness under his hand perturbed him.

"And you're in shock, and you obviously cut your way through someone to get here. That did not all come from Logan."

"Shaw." The name tasted like bile. "He wanted..." So many things, none of them he could quite give words to.

"Did you kill him?" Hank asked in clinically, like 'does it hurt when I touch here?' or 'how have you been eating?' somehow that made it easier to answer. Charles nodded. He might not be dead, not yet, there was likely still some dying left in him, but the deed was set in stone now, unavoidable.

Even though he remembered being stripped, it was a shock to realize he was naked. Hank's hands were gentle on his stomach, pressing very lightly, feeling for something, perhaps.

"Is it...?"

Hank only frowned.

"Hank?!"

"Shhhhh." A soothing hand touched his belly. "It's too soon to feel movement; I've told you as much."

Hank drew away, returned with an ear trumpet, which he placed against Charles' chest. His own heart was racing; Charles could feel it pounding in his chest. Hank drew away and sat down next to him, polite and mostly unconcerned.

"Charles, I need you to relax. I can't hear anything with your heart hammering like that."

Deep breaths, he breathed, forcing his heart to slow, to relax. Hank waited several minutes before he listened at Charles' chest again and decided it would be adequate. He returned with a broader trumpet, Hank had used it just a week earlier, listening to the child's heartbeat. Charles wished he could have heard, but the angle was quite impossible.

"Now, please remember, the child may have moved, I may no longer be able to hear it for reasons that are entirely benign."

Hank was steeling him for the worst, then. Charles nodded, fresh tears welling in his eyes, but his friend squeezed his wrist.

"Charles... you know nothing is certain until the child is born."

"Please, just..." Charles was fighting down panic, he thought... he knew if there was anything wrong, if his child was anything less than perfect, he would feel as though he was responsible, not even the thought that there might be other children in the future, or that losing a pregnancy was wholly natural, could prepare him for that idea. People lost children, people lost pregnancies...

Hank pressed the ear horn to Charles' belly, listening calmly to the area where he had found the child's heartbeat last week - after a great deal of searching and listening. He listened, waited, waited longer, before finally shifting a few inches, where he repeated the process. Over and over.

And over.

And again.

And again...

It meant nothing it merely meant it was not a good time, in a few weeks the child would quicken...

Hank lingered in one area, a hand pressed very lightly against Charles' side, soothing. "There is a heartbeat." They both exhaled. "Very fast, however. You must relax, Charles. For the child, please."

"Anything."

He had Hank poach one of Erik's spare robes and Charles wrapped himself in it, tying it loosely around him. "Sleep. I want you to sleep for as long as necessary. I want you to think happy, pleasing, and comfortable thoughts. If you would like... I could tell the King."

Charles shook his head. "I will do it, after I sleep."

"When you wake, I want you to eat, and I want you to take a warm bath."

"No hotter than my body," Charles remembered.

"The most stressful thing I want you doing is walking around the gardens arm in arm with the King, thinking of nothing more important than how blue the sky is." Hank chuckled as he helped Charles back into the bed, pulled down the covers and then tucked Charles in to the voluminous bed. "Back in the King's bed."

"Where I belong." As his lover... he only hoped Erik would... thoughts for another time, after he'd slept.

"I will tell the King you were distressed and handle the rest. Please do not worry, Charles it will all be fine."

It wasn't particularly easy to believe that at the moment, though. Still, Charles curled onto his side, hand placed protectively over his abdomen, and he rubbed very softly. Hank left him.

"Please..." He wasn't certain how he felt about God right now, not after the Cardinal, not knowing he was a man of that same God, but he had to have some words, even if he were only giving voice to his desperate plea to an unhearing void. "Please... I have fought so hard for you, please be alright." Everything, he'd given up so much for the child and he couldn't stand to think...

He dropped off into an uneasy sleep that finally evened out and when he woke the light cast in from the sitting room suggested late afternoon. Charles climbed out of bed slowly, hand ghosting over his belly. The robe was thick enough to hide his bump just slightly, but he let his hand fall and headed out towards the sitting room.

The carpet where Logan had fallen had been removed, as had the couch that Charles had no doubt stained with Shaw's blood. They were replaced with other pieces, likely from somewhere else in the palace, as though nothing had ever happened. Erik was sitting in a chair, looking out over the gardens, a glass of wine sitting at his elbow as he casually scrawled on a piece of paper.

"Hello..."

Charles watched as the quill comically scratched against the piece of paper Erik was working on. The king turned, eyes slightly red. "Charles!" Erik had stood and gotten his arms around Charles' shoulders impossibly quickly. "How are you feeling, love? Hank said not to wake you but I..." Erik's voice broke, he coughed, tried his words again. "I was so very worried."

"I think I will be fine." Reasons to not be fine banged about in his head, but he pushed them aside and dismissed them as useless to dwell on.

"Hank said you should eat." A half-dozen plates, each of them in various stages of cooling, sat on a nearby table. Charles smiled. Erik must have had the kitchen bring a fresh plate almost every half hour.

He sat, picked the plate that seemed warmest and most appetizing and started to pick at the tender beef there. It didn't sit well with him, too bloody, and he set it back down, picking instead the blander chicken that was a bit older but more familiar. There were no forks, Charles picked at it with his hands, even going to far as to pick up a small new potato in his hand and eat it like that.

"I'm sorry I should have thought..." Erik shook his head. "Wine?"

Charles' mind screamed its protest. "No... no... juice?"

Erik grabbed four of the plates - never mind that was what servants were for - and scrambled towards the door. "Juice. Which juice? It doesn't matter. I'll bring them all. Every juice we have."

"Erik!" Charles shouted after him, laughing. "Erik just some grape or apple will be fine."

Erik returned barely five minutes later with a carafe of both. Charles tried not to giggle and failed.

"At least I can still make you laugh."

"Always." Charles' face grew somber, though, even as he sipped his apple juice and tried to not think about the hard things.

"If... if it's not too presumptuous, I thought you might not want to return to your rooms for some time."

"No, you're right. I would rather not return."

"Your things are here, now, but..." Erik looked awkward, looked away and down and every direction but at Charles. "Hank was uncertain if you would be comfortable with..." Erik fumbled for the words. "Me. Anyone. The Cardinal... was already dead when I arrived. It spared him being killed by my own hand. To attempt..." Erik scowled, but didn't complete his thought.

Charles nodded. He wondered how obvious it must have been that Shaw had intended to violate him. He wondered if anyone in the room could have missed the signs, the Cardinal unbuckled and mostly unclothed... he shivered. "I think... I do not know how I feel, to be honest. I would ask you not to come at me from behind, I think?" He didn't even know what might cause him to remember, perhaps nothing, he didn't know, perhaps everything. Perhaps even feeling Erik anywhere near him would be too much right now.

"Of course, anything." He watched his king fumble and fidget for words again. "He said... there would be no need for... moon tea."

A morbid chuckle burbled up in his throat, it transformed to a laugh, strained and uncomfortable, before it finally blossomed into sobs. Before he had ahold of himself again Erik was next to him, a gentle hand on one shoulder, fingers rubbing very slowly. He glanced up, Erik looked completely lost, scared and overwhelmed, but he was obviously trying desperately. He had no idea if Hank had been able to determine that Shaw had not entered him or it was a simple statement he'd used to try to comfort Erik without knowing for certain. "There will be no need for it, no."

Erik seemed to take that as more assurance than it really was, but it eased his obvious tension.

He was trembling again, his hands shaking so badly he could barely drink. The king was at his side in a flash, took the plate and started to tear up pieces of food with his own fingers, bringing up bites of food to Charles' lips where he ate them. Erik avoided touching him overmuch, which Charles found himself both pleased and frustrated by.

"Anything you need, Charles," Erik promised him.

"You. You by my side."

"Always."

"And..." He looked up at Erik, awkward. "Maybe a bath?"

"Of course, nice and hot."

"Warm," Charles corrected. "Hank says it should be about the temperature of the body."

"Right..." Erik trailed off again, but leaned in, kissing Charles softly on the cheek. "I love you."

Charles managed to gulp down a few more swallows of juice and more food, his stomach protesting having much more right now, and he finally... steeled himself and headed towards the bathroom where Erik had just finished drawing the bath. He dipped his fingers in to the water. It was a bit too hot, leaving his fingers pink, so he waited for it to cool slowly.

"I should leave you to bathe."

"Stay." Charles pressed his fingers to Erik's wrist. "I... I have to tell you something."

Erik stayed, the two of them reached out for each other and fingers tangled together. Charles brought the king's hands up to his and brushed kisses across his knuckles.

"Hank told you I've been ill, yes?"

"Yes. I... I have been very worried for you."

"He has not told you what is amiss?" Erik's face said it all, confusion, worry, fear of what Charles might tell him. He had no idea. Charles took his lover's hands and guided them down to his waist, let Erik's fingers brush against the knot that held the gown closed.

Erik looked down into Charles' eyes, question obvious. Charles nodded. Erik's fingers fumbled slightly with the tie, the look on his face a mix of eagerness, lust, and worry. When he finished, Erik's fingers fell away, the robe falling open to show Erik everything from collar to toe. Erik looked, obviously confused at first, but then his hand reached out to the swell of his belly. When he encountered firmness he pressed very gently. "Charles?"

Hope. Erik's voice was wrecked with hope. "It's yours."

"Mine?" Erik fell to his knees. "You're..." His fingers splayed gently. "With child?"

"Yes."

A choking gasp, barely human, came from Erik's lips. "How--?"

Charles carded his fingers gently through Erik's hair. "You're far too old for the mechanics of conception to be a mystery, Highness." His voice was light and teasing, but when Erik looked up at him, teary, he reconsidered his approach. "The night I returned... we never discussed tea and I could not have made it for myself anyway, imprisoned in the Tower."

Erik sniffled again. Hands light against his belly. "You've been... imprisoned, poorly fed and kept, nearly... nearly..." Erik couldn't even choke out the word. "I have been a poor king and a poor lover to you."

"Hush." Maybe he had, a touch, but right now Charles could just weep from relief, and he did, big fat tears he thought he must have complete cried out but now they were back. "I know it was selfish of me..."

"Selfish?" Erik leaned in more, nose pressed against Charles' belly, he felt Erik press his lips there, light; he could hear Erik cooing at his... bump. "No, certainly not. You were more than right, revealing this could have been dangerous to you, and to me." Erik continued to dote, rubbing and touching and almost purring at him. A thought seemed to strike him. "Charles... that's my heir, a prince or a princess."

"The Cardinal--" The word stuck in his throat.

"I'll have new ones until I get one that lets me marry you, let's me claim your children as my own. I don't need a consort, and if there must be a consort it will be you and no one else." Erik planted one final kiss on Charles' belly before he rose. "What is the point of being an absolute monarch if I cannot marry the person I love?"

"No point at all," Charles answered, smiling, before he checked over his shoulder and touched the surface of the bath, it was just warm to the touch now. "I... Hank said I need to relax."

"Of course." Erik pulled away instantly. "I'll... leave you to that."

"Or you could stay."

Erik fumbled to get naked and slide into the tub with Charles, and it made Charles laugh, exactly how much Erik seemed to want to touch him now. His hands were by no means confined to the swell of his abdomen, but no matter where his fingers lingered they always ended up back there. After a few minutes of trying to get comfortable, Charles eventually settled in, back against Erik's front, nestled between his legs. Erik's hands seemed to find their natural home cradling Charles' belly, his nose pressed lightly to Charles' neck.

"Have you... considered what you might name it?"

He hadn't. It had seemed so unreal, even as his stomach grew and he avoided the true consequences of his pregnancy. Now it seemed almost like tempting fate. Charles had hardly treated himself well for the first half of the pregnancy, and he knew omegas who had lost a pregnancy after having been through far less. It was as though naming a child, putting voice to a name, would somehow make it more likely to be snatched away from him. "No."

"Well... I think it will be a boy," Erik declared, suddenly.

Charles smiled. "The odds are in your favor, a male alpha and a male omega do have almost a two-third's chance of a male child."

"Do you know why?"

He started to babble about theories of gender and conception and contributing factors and spontaneous miscarriage of early pregnancies and Erik just laughed and laughed.

"Of course you do. How could I have thought you wouldn't? And perhaps he will be an alpha, and I will send you back south to be painted again and again so you will give me strong sons."

Charles snorted. He had better things to do than be painted, superstition or not. "It is still usually the alpha who names the children. If it is a boy he will be your heir apparent."

"But the boy would be your son. Tell me your name and I will tell the world it was my idea."

There were so many things he didn't dare hope for that Erik was just setting in front of him gladly. "David."

Erik considered the name for a few moments, fingers stroking along Charles' side and over his belly. "Beloved. Always beloved. Every single one of our children will be beloved."

They stayed in the bath until it grew cool, and the two of them stepped out, Erik drying Charles off as though he were a delicate doll or dish, before they finally dressed. Charles picked a thin dress and slid into some of his looser pants.

"You barely show like that!"

"That was rather the point."

Erik pouted, and Charles allowed him to retie the waist of the gown so it was a bit tighter, drawing a more obvious contrast between Charles' flat chest and curved belly.

"You seem inordinately pleased with yourself, Your Majesty."

"Every child is a step towards that brood you wanted, Charles."

The idea filled Charles with an intense sort of glee. Each one of his children, loved and beloved and wanted by both their fathers. "I look forward to every step in the process." Except perhaps the birth itself... he would likely curse Erik's name mightily then.

~22~

Hours turned into days and weeks became a month. His child continued to grow - conspicuously so - pants became a forgotten dream. Logan was slowly recovering; Charles visited him daily. Moira had not written from the south yet; Charles thought it was likely a wise caution on her part. It seemed as though everyone in the palace knew, now, that Charles was rather pregnant and who the alpha was.

Erik already had a half-dozen gowns and vests and things made - all in Lehnsherr colors - and had already roared his way through two cardinals and a bishop waiting for a 'more suitable replacement' from the Church.

Charles found himself hiding in the gardens more frequently, taking Hank's advice as much as possible to remain calm. There were negotiations with Klettgau happening, however, between Erik's sulking rages at the church. Charles attended them all, calm and quiet and as collected as possible. Today, however, he was free to wander to his heart's content, Erik caught up in some request for a land grant or another that Charles felt no need to accompany him.

"It's lovely out today," he said, to himself, to... David-or-Anya. The child. "Genosha is usually so cool in the winter, but today is nice." It was almost warm, and Charles was huddled up in a thick wool vest to match the heavy wool of his dress, bundled up even against the winter almost-chill. "But you'll come in the spring. That's a bit on the nose, isn't it?"

"Renewal for Genosha?" A voice, female, one he didn't recognize immediately, startled him out of his monologue.

He liked to avoid looking insane - talking to his bump - in front of people, but as soon as he turned and realized who had spoken he felt even more ridiculous. Queen Edith. He hadn't seen her since... well since Before. He got the impression she'd been avoiding him, and could only assume she'd sought him out now.

"The court seems... excited for the child," he answered.

Edith nodded and circled towards him, finally stopping just a few feet from him, at the other end of the bench. "May I sit?"

Charles nodded, a bit wary.

"I remember what it was like when I was expecting Erik." Edith sat down next to him, sweeping her gown out from under her to sit neatly. "There was a great deal of pressure. I felt very overwhelmed."

"I suppose it's easier since I'm not Erik's consort."

The Queen... snorted. "In name only. I am certain the court has more than gotten the message that you are Erik's alone and he will have no other. Or do you wear that bauble for your health?"

She indicated the metal bracelet around his wrist, the one conspicuously adorned with the royal crest. He covered it with his palm, not embarrassed, but the queen did not care for him and he wasn't certain how to respond. "I love him. I wish you to be aware of that."

"It has taken me some time to realize I... do not understand you, Charles Xavier."

"I'm not so complicated, Your Majesty."

"Edie."

He blinked. "Edie." For a moment he wondered if that was some sort of word he didn't know, but the more he reflected he realized that the Queen had invited him to call her by her name. "I... met your son, I fell in love with him, I... I'm going to have his child, hopefully the first of many. I'm not quite certain I am ready for all that would be required of me as a consort and I... love him."

The Queen nodded. "May I?" She held out her hand near his waist and Charles nodded. He could barely feel her hand through the dress, but he could feel it. "Have you felt it move?"

"From time to time; it seems to enjoy waking me up at all hours with a kick to the bladder when I sleep, but is not much for command performances during the day." He smiled. "It even woke Erik once, as he... sleeps with his hand on me most nights."

"He told me." Edie... smiled. "He was very excited. I think he believes the old tales that say a strong kicker will be an alpha."

Charles shook his head, smiling. "I hope he will not be disappointed if it is a girl, or an omega."

"I am certain he will not be."

The two of them fell silent, the Queen's hand gently resting on his belly for a few more moments before she pulled away.

"Edie?" She looked at him, eyes curious. "Not... to seem ungrateful but... I do not think I imagined that you did not much care for me for many months."

A complicated emotion Charles couldn't quite read crossed her face. "Yes... I..." Silence stretched between them. "I do not believe I can apologize as much as is necessary for that. Klaus... Cardinal Shaw, told me that he had been told that you meant Genosha great harm."

"Told by whom?"

"God." Edie flushed. "I have long believed, and my faith is still strong despite the blow he struck against it a month ago, but it is now obvious that the one who did not approve of you was not God, but was the Cardinal himself. He was a great comfort to me after Jakob's death, and I allowed that to blind me to the truth."

"I wish Genosha nothing but prosperity, truly, and happiness for Erik."

"I see that now."

They ended up walking through some of the gardens, Edie offering up a few tips to handle the strain his back was slowly finding itself under, more and more, and the two of them finally returned back to the palace; Charles declined her invitation to tea before he went in search of Erik.

He found the king in one of his studies near the throne room, working at a desk on some paper or another.

"Charles, there you are." He held out a short stack of papers. "I was hoping for your opinion on the latest movements in Klettgau, and a letter has finally come for you from the south full of the most inane detailing of the past month I think I have ever read."

"Be kind to Moira, she has no idea if I was still imprisoned, or worse, best to look innocuous than dangerous." He punctuated that by landing with a bit more force than expected on Erik's lap.

"Ooof!"

Charles glowered. "There will be no commenting about my royal backside."

"Your... royal backside is squishing the crown jewels."

The two of them repositioned themselves so that Charles was sitting comfortably across Erik's legs, Erik's hands sitting so that one could rest lightly on Charles' belly while Charles scanned through the documents Erik had handed him. "I think do nothing with Klettgau. I have spoken to Raven and I have come to believe it is some sort of elaborate game of positioning from the Emperor."

"How so?"

"I believe both of the alpha princes suffer from King's Disease, a third seems not to suffer from it but it seems... possible he's an omega. He's not yet reached sexual maturity, and is the youngest." Erik made a face as though he didn't see why this was important. Charles sighed and gave his king a very soft kiss. "There are only about fourteen people between you and the Klettgau Emperor in succession by current succession laws, and one of them is the Archduke of Alsworth, who I think we can all agree is an inappropriate monarchical candidate. Fourteen seems like a great deal when discussing succession, but... if, perhaps, the King of Genosha has an alpha male child who does not suffer from King's Disease, one who is only six or seven years younger than the only Klettgau prince not to carry the disease..."

"You're saying the entire Klettgau Dynasty could fall down around its ears like the Alekov?"

Charles nodded. "Not quite so spectacularly, but again, speaking to Raven, the Emperor is obviously concerned about his issue, his succession, and who to name as his heir. He is doubtless wondering if perhaps it might be better to bed the devil he knows than risk seeing Klettgau fall into Alsworth's hands. All I know is that it seems wise we make a state visit some time after the baby is born."

"And the wedding."

He felt his heart skip a few beats. "Um... wedding?"

"Yes, Bishop Gabriel Summers is quite amenable to legitimizing your child and having us married after the birth."

"Bishop Summers?" Charles giggled at the idea, Alex would not be pleased when he returned home, but it mattered little, he and Erik would be wed, and Charles found it difficult to spare concern for Alex in that moment. If Charles had his way perhaps he and Armando could see past their inhibitions and become more than old friends. "I suppose it would be too crass to wear white."

"My consort can wear whatever color he would like."

"Do you have to wear the purple?"

"Maroon."

Charles pouted, but Erik ignored him in favor of rubbing Charles' belly while Charles composed a letter to Moira. The child decided to kick rather spectacularly for the duration. "Little show off."

"It knows its father," Erik answered, very smug.

"Yes, and the little monster was not interested in showing off for your mother earlier."

Erik didn't seem to mind one bit, instead setting to work massaging lightly into Charles' back while his hand rested on his belly and then rubbed at his thigh. Charles set aside the matter of Klettgau. It was a depressing business, really, and instead he answered his letter from Moira. It was awkward summarizing the past month with any sort of accuracy, but he tried. The very thought of it made him smile.

"Oh you look lovely like that." Erik leaned up and kissed Charles' jaw, and then his neck.

"Smiling?" Erik nodded. "Well... stop that, I must finish this letter to Moira and then you can inform me exactly how lovely you find me." Honestly he thought he looked a bit plump, but he wasn't going to disagree with Erik's assessment for no reason.

"Something to do with the crown jewels?" Erik asked, obviously hopeful.

Charles made an undignified snort, but he leaned in and kissed Erik's forehead. "Whatever my king wants."

"Your king wants you, and anything you want."

Charles slung his arm over Erik's shoulder, leaned in to kiss him softly. "It's convenient that I want my king, then, isn't it?"

The letter to Moira sat forgotten for a few minutes, as he and Erik's hands tangled around each other and they kissed, slow and warm. Charles had little acrobaticness left in him, probably until at least a few months after the child was born, but Erik was still completely enamored, even with lazy kissing in the study.

He decided the saying that, after you entered the king's bed there was truly nowhere to go but down was absolutely untrue, one simply had to get the king to fall rather madly in love with you while you were there.

~epilogues~

Charles was fairly certain that prince-consorts-to-be were not supposed to waddle, however that was exactly what he did at this point. He was nearing the end of his eighth month of pregnancy and found himself rather large. Moira had impolitely called him a waddling navigational hazard and Charles hadn't spoken to her for at least three hours. After she'd plied her way back into his good graces with a chocolate pudding the two of them had set about talking The Wedding.

The Wedding was slated for approximately one month after the birth of HRH David-or-Anya, however that meant that there were hundreds of little preparations that could only be tended to while Charles was the size of an airship, or possibly two airships if he was being realistic, a tandem pair of airships waddling down the corridor at a pace that some might have found alarming. The palace guards had long since realized that it was best to simply get out of the way, because the prince-consort-to-be would simply continue to tear through the area and leave guards fumbling in his wake. Charles wasn't entirely certain he was cultivating the appropriate sense of gravity for his royal personage, but honestly he couldn't give a damn. Sometimes he needed cake, sometimes he needed desperately to pee, and sometimes he was running late because he could barely fit into any of his clothes anymore, so regardless he thought it was important that people understood the necessity of getting out of his way.

Sadly, today there was no cake, only the wedding dress. He made his way into one of the many sitting rooms that made up the living area of the palace, with Emma, Moira, and Logan working with three tailors. Charles was fairly certain the outfit might have fit a man of approximately his height, but he considered it unlikely his waist would ever fit in something so narrow again.

"Really, Emma?" He asked as he all but collapsed onto a waiting sofa. "I'll be lucky if I fit into that a year later."

"Ha!" Moira smirked at him. "In another year you'll probably be pregnant again."

Charles decided to ignore her statement and huff over-dramatically.

"That's why there's a bodice, sugar. Your organs can take one day of squishing."

The idea of celebrating finally popping out a child by squeezing his insides back into some heavily corseted binding was not particularly exciting. The trousers - also white, why had he thought white was a good idea, he was fairly certain his ass was quite a bit larger now - sat almost entirely un-sewn, and would have to wait until the baby arrived before they could see how pear-shaped he'd gotten in the interim. It looked very well put together so far.

"I suppose they will manage for one day." He set his hand gently on his belly and rubbed, softly.

Everyone took his action as a cue to come over and touch his belly, Moira sitting beside him, Emma on the other side, and Logan just... looking.

"Now that our situation is a bit more secure, Sean and I are discussing the possibility of a child."

Charles beamed at Moira, thrilled for her. He had been so upset that he could not help her with Lord Cassidy, but in the end he had, rather spectacularly. Since the new Bishop was Alex's younger brother, he had a decidedly more enlightened view on several topics, the marriage of a noble and a commoner among them. It also had the added benefit of a forgiving opinion on the relationships between two male alphas - something for which Darwin and Alex were quite pleased. With the Cassidy's fortunes slightly more secure due to Moira and Sean's time in the south, the two of them could do what Charles would soon be doing: marry for love.

"Will you keep traveling?" He asked. The one thing he disliked about the whole arrangement, although it was very pleasing to him in general, was that he was unlikely to make his father's former trade empire his own again. He could not afford to be away for months at a time.

"Of course! Well... likely not when I am pregnant. We can't all fight our way through scores of guards while pregnant."

"It was one man, and not even a guard!" Charles protested, immediately. "But I cannot say I dislike the vigor with which the king has made it up to me since then." Frequently... and satisfyingly. They'd had to cease their lovemaking recently and that had left Charles rather put out.

"More than we needed to know, Chuck," Logan said from where he stood. He looked at Charles oddly for a moment but then leaned in and... patted Charles' belly, more like a cat than a bump, but Charles didn't mind.

"I suppose my one consolation is getting all of you in dresses for the wedding."

Logan pulled his hand away, clearly withdrawing his favor. Emma scowled. Both of them were disinclined for their own reasons. Emma, although she was more than happy to show off legs, thighs, or even her stomach, she tended to prefer alpha trousers to the omega skirts; Logan similarly preferred his trousers, a hold over from his time in the military, and didn't want to be done up in the flowing dress for the wedding. Moira was absolutely pleased for the dress. They were a soft blue that didn't overly clash with the maroon suit that Erik would be wearing.

Moira eventually left to bring back juice and Emma headed off to browbeat one of the poor tailors and Logan sat down next to Charles, scowling.

"What seems to be amiss?" He asked, since he didn't need Logan's scowling at the moment.

"Just..." His frown deepened. "You're big as a house."

"Yes, thank you." He could do with a bit less commenting on his weight.

"Do you like it?"

"Being a waddling navigational hazard? No I actually don't. The end result..." He pressed a hand gently to his belly, fingers ghosting over the swell. "I'm really rather excited for. The king and I want several and I'm rather looking forward to it. Ask me again after I've gotten the child out however."

"You've killed a man, it's can't be that hard."

It took a few moments to realize that was supposed to be some sort of bizarre comfort to him. He laughed.

"Do I sense a possible change in your... anti-child policy, Logan?"

Logan didn't answer, just scowled.

"Regardless, all of our children will be taught by you when it comes to defending their honor and virtue - and the honor of those they love." Not even Logan nearly dying for the king had swayed the opinion of the Army generals, and although Erik no doubt could have forced the issue, Logan knew it would not be the same as truly being accepted back into their ranks.

The man had always struck Charles as a bit of a lone wolf, regardless.

"Good."

Charles felt an annoying twinge in his spine, and wriggled slightly to try to get comfortable, hand settling protectively over his belly. It took four of them before Charles finally realized what the foreign feeling was.

"Oh... um... best be getting Hank, then, I think."

*

Charles wanted a nap, desperately. Of course the high-pitched waling of his son - David - was doing him no favors in that department. His son was not taking kindly to the warm cloth being used to clean him, or generally being touched at all. Charles was so wrung out he could barely lift his head to track the movements of his son around the room. Hank pressed a cold cloth to his forehead, wiping.

"I don't think I'll be doing that again any time soon..." Charles said.

His friend smiled and wiped the back of his neck and his face, even carefully running fingers through his loose, sweaty hair. Charles reached up - half-hearted - to straighten it.

"He's quite alert and healthy, well-formed."

They had both had their concerns, Charles more so than Hank, and the news made him very glad. "You should tell Erik... I suppose I could see him now..." He felt like a wreck.

"I will tell His Majesty, but you will be freshened up before I allow him in here." Hank retreated, mumbling something about the wonders of childbirth.

David continued to cry until he was placed carefully in Charles' arms; he could have pretended it was due to some mystical childhood bond, but mostly it seemed related to the fact that Charles placed a bottle gently to his lips and David started to drink. The absence of crying - Hank ducked his head in to check to see the cause - meant that he could now overhear the conversation in the next room if he strained.

"...son." Hank.

"Is Charles alright?"

"He is well, yes. Tired, of course, but he is going to be just fine."

"Can I see him?"

"Not at the moment." Erik made a low noise that sounded like a grumble. "He has just had his first child, it is not an easy task, and he requires rest. You will be allowed in when he is comfortable."

Charles leaned in and pressed a kiss to David's head, clean and soft and ruddy. "I told you your father was very silly."

The nursemaid very politely ignored his rambling.

Once David had finished eating and Hank and the nurse had gotten the room clean and almost presentable, and Charles changed into a different outfit, Charles felt almost human. Finally settled to one side of the bed - David resting, momentarily quiet, in a cradle just to the side - Hank allowed Erik into the bedchamber. He was not nervous, at least, but a certain air of false casualness that made Charles grin.

Erik sat down near Charles' feet, a hand snaking up to rub at Charles' leg; he seemed unable to decide if he should look at Charles or David, and Charles did not mind his son taking some of Erik's attention.

"How are you feeling, love?"

Charles shrugged. "Wrung out and tired."

Erik squeezed Charles' thigh in sympathy. "I'll see to everything. You relax."

David started to fuss again, and then whine. Charles watched, rather amused, as Erik awkwardly picked the boy up and tried to cradle him in his arms. David yelled louder.

Erik's face was raw panic the likes of which Charles had never seen before.

"Not so smug now, are you, Your Majesty?"

Erik - carefully - fled from the room, screaming son in his arms, presumably to find someone who might be able to get his son to stop crying and leave Charles with a few moment's rest. He snuggled down into the sheets of his bed and all but collapsed in sleep.

*

Charles probably shouldn't have been overly surprised when he spent his first morning aboard the Banshee vomiting up breakfast. Still, he could have picked a better time. He was needed in the south for negotiations, not just trade but also diplomatic, there was some agitation on the borders and he and Erik had no intention of bringing it to war. Erik would not be pleased.

Oh, well he would be pleased, but the idea of sending his consort into a diplomatic negotiation was something he had come to accept in the four years since their marriage; sending his possibly pregnant consort would likely make him antsy, and trigger happy, and annoyed.

"I was never airsick with David or Anya," Charles moped to Moira as he sipped some tea, waiting for his nausea to subside. "David was a delight - beyond the circumstances - barely any vomiting, no ridiculous cravings." He'd had a bit more nausea with Anya, and weird cravings, and the last two months he'd been a bit frail, but again nothing too onerous.

"I consider it justice for the fact that I was sick as a dog with Theresa," Moira answered. "I was out of commission for almost a year."

Charles could scarcely afford to be away from his duties for weeks, let alone months. "Then let's hope it's not nearly so serious. I cannot trust anyone else with these negotiations at the moment."

"Armando?" Moira suggested, cautiously. "We could return to Genosha and fetch him and Alex. At least Armando would not find himself... in a family way." He and Alex had been considering fostering an orphan, actually, although they hadn't come to a decision on that yet.

"Too young."

"He's four years older than you!"

Charles grumbled into his tea. "Hush, I'll have none of your logic right now."

"I don't see why I need to take this abuse, there is a perfectly guilty king back in Genosha. I think the blame best lies with him, not me." Moira's tone was not nearly so harsh as it could have been, and Charles had to admit she had a point. Erik would be thrilled, really.

By the third morning of their trip, Charles had given up on anything so quaint as eating before his stomach had had its early morning rebellion. After the bile, he'd drink some water, usually vomited that as well, before finally tea would be allowed to settle and he could be more adventurous with such delightful items as toast and eggs.

"I think we can at least both agree that we hate Logan?" Moira offered as she rubbed his back.

Charles nodded. The man was... insane, he'd barely looked pregnant for almost six months, and Charles was fairly certain he had strangled a bear with his bare hands while he was seven months pregnant. And then, then, two months after Marie was born Logan didn't even have the decency to look like he'd been pregnant. Logan was the enemy, certainly, the enemy of all omegas who did such dainty things as fainting or throwing up while pregnant.

Jerk.

"I feel like I'm choking on hormones," Charles complained. He felt very grouchy, it was not a good combination for a peace conference, but he had every confidence in his abilities assuming he was allowed to sulk before meetings.

"Maybe it's twins?"

Charles lightly banged his head against the galley table and cursed his... lovely, beautiful, wonderful, adorable, and frightfully virile husband.

~the end~