Standing at the parapit, Hercules could see the banners of the Becket family winding up the long road to the drawbridge, across all the flat open country below his castle’s high vantage point. His heart ached. The letters had come yesterday; he knew who would be in that party.
The matter was, however, unavoidable. Long had his country hosted the annual Pacifica Tournament, through peace and war, and this year was to be something special indeed. This was the year his son was to wed the princess of that house, the fulfillment of an engagement reaching back before either child’s birth. The younger Becket son’s attendance at the festivities was something he could wave away on some pretext, no matter how noble his reasons, and his reasons were not noble.
Once, perhaps, they had been. Now, though, he sought only to spare himself more pain.
“Looks to be a fine week for the tourney, my king,” his captain-at-arms remarked, elbows resting atop the battlements. “Young Charles must be well-pleased with the gods.”
“They smile on us all, Tendo,” Hercules grunted. Those banners were closing fast. “And I daresay young Charles is more pleased with the prospect of fighting than marriage. He asked me to delay the damn ceremony until after we finish the games. He has no grasp of priorities.”
“Yes, that is the way with the young,” Tendo agreed.
And Hercules shook his head. “You’ve scarce seen your thirtieth summer yourself, Choi.”
“While Charles has only barely passed his twentieth-first,” Tendo replied with a smile. “And his bride, Jazmine, turned eighteen last month. It is hard, to be so new to the world and so full of opinions about the way it all is.”
“Indeed it is. How is your own bride doing?” Hercules asked, deflecting the unbidden images of another Becket at that same age, how sweet he’d been, how innocent and full of wonder. Golden, he’d seemed.
By the gods, the boy had been so young back then.
“Alison?” Tendo always brightened at the mention of her. “She’s very well. She wanted me to extend you a thanks, sire, for selecting her younger sister as Lady Jazmine’s personal attendant. It’s quite the honor.”
Hercules grunted again. “Your families have always served mine well. I have every faith in her abilities.”
Tendo grinned. “Alison was even more grateful you didn’t select her.”
And at that, the king allowed himself a small smile. “She’s with child again, isn’t she?”
“Has her hands full with the rest of them,” Tendo replied proudly, and launched into the usual chatter about his brood.
Hercules was content to let the man talk as he would. It was soothing, in a way, to know that life continued, despite the Kaiju incursions. His own dear Angela had been killed in one of the first attacks, years back, their younger children accompanying her in a visit to the coastal city of her birth.
Charles, eight at the time, had been training with the pages, or he would have been lost as well. He had taken the deaths of his mother and sisters hard, and it had been all Hercules could do to raise the boy alone, properly. The Becket family, especially Queen Dominique, might as well have been sent by the gods, the way they welcomed Charles in as a third son.
Thinking of her, Hercules shivered. As young men, he and Richard had once been goodnatured rivals for her hand. He hated to think what she would say to him, if she knew what he had done with her son.
The banners were almost at the gates, and Hercules could make out two figures, riding proudly at the front of the small procession, blue capes thrown across light traveling mail, glinting silver in the sun. To Hercules’ skilled eye, one was easy in the saddle, the other, rolling a little more than he should have been, a testament to the past five years of his life.
His poor boy.
Not that Raleigh was ever or could ever be his.
Raleigh had erased any doubt of that himself.
Tendo had long since fallen silent, watching him carefully. “Lost in thought, milord? You seem troubled.”
“Keep me abreast of any particularly strange gossip amongst the men, will you? I haven’t seen my son’s betrothed since she was in pigtails,” Hercules said, clapping his old friend on the shoulder, turning away for the stairs, heart heavy. He had many preparations left to oversee, not the least of which was wrestling his son out of his armor and into his court finery for the evening’s feast, the games to begin the day after tomorrow.
“What do you need to know, sire? She’s a Becket!” Tendo called after him, a chuckle in the words.
A Becket indeed.
A youth on the cusp of adulthood, seventeen winters to his name and an eighteenth approaching, bowing low at threshold of his family’s grand keep.
“Greetings from the Kingdom of Anchorage, my liege. My father apologies for his failure to greet you, but he has scarcely left the war room for a fortnight,” Raleigh said that autumn, hand swept low. “He bids you welcome to his home, with all his gratitude for your presence and gratefulness that you came so swiftly, and, umm...”
Hercules chuckled at the boy’s hesitation, and dismounted from his charger. “And the Kaiju forces are once again amassing on the coasts to the east, and such threats are better dealt with directly. No need for flowery prose, dear Raleigh. Just say it straight.”
Raleigh had flushed, puffing up at the same time. “Father says I am to greet a king properly.”
“So you have. I am much pleased with my greeting. Now, pray, where is your father’s war room? We have much to discuss, him and I.”
“He has set up in his study, actually. I trust you know the place?”
“Yes, dear Raleigh, I do, but perhaps you would like to accompany me? I have not seen you in years, and I long to know how you have been.”
The boy had smiled at him then, eyes bright.
That, perhaps, was the first time Hercules thought of Raleigh as beautiful.
So there had been firsts with Raleigh Becket. First touch, first kiss, the first feel of bare skin meeting bare skin. It wasn’t as if Hercules had set out to seduce the boy. Far from it; the Kingdom of Anchorage was old and large and incomparably set in its ways, and its traditions did not allow for men, especially noblemen, to love other men. Silly though it seemed to him, his own father had beat statecraft into him from birth, and Hercules knew better than to disrespect another land’s customs. Raleigh Becket was beautiful, but he was firmly off limits.
Nobody seemed to have told Raleigh that, though.
Their old patterns slowly - on that visit - gave way to new. Purely political discussions led to intimate evening chats by the fire, innocent questions turned to more heated suggestion, mentorship gave way to courting. Raleigh snuck into his room one night, after the whole castle had gone to bed, asking for a cup of wine and the rest of the story about the campaigns in the desert mountains, and fallen asleep on his shoulder in the telling. Hercules made the mistake of knocking the boy in a horse-trough during a spar, much to the amusement of the onlookers, and to his own pain; Raleigh had emerged with sodden linen clinging to every angle of his youthful body.
He was sin incarnate, Raleigh Becket was. An angel made flesh. A beautiful, wonderful, terrible temptation.
And, one night, alone in a corridor, Hercules had made his fatal mistake.
He pushed Raleigh into a wall, and kissed him.
He had had no peace since.
He had deserved none.
She could have done worse than a Hansen for her husband. Charles was aggressive, brilliant, and never backed down from a fight, a good match for Raleigh’s feisty sister, and they all knew each other well. Charles had fostered with them, as Yancy and Raleigh had with him, brothers in everything but blood, and even that small technicality would be taken care of shortly.
Hercules had been as much a father to them as their own had been, and in the five years since his passing, a much-needed voice of experience as Yancy struggled to control so large a kingdom at so young an age.
Raleigh had always admired the man. Always looked up to him, practically worshiped him as a child, but even that had gone all to ruin.
The king had lied to him.
By all the gods, it still hurt. Five years since the end of their tryst, eight since its beginning, and it still hurt. He had had tried everything he could think of to heal it, but that last betrayal... it ached. It burned.
“What troubles you, brother?” Yancy asked, coming up beside him, worry in his eyes, the rest of their entourage clattering into the courtyard behind them. “Should I fetch the surgeon for you?”
“No, no, he’s had a long ride himself, and I’m confident that’s all it is,” Raleigh replied, flashing his brother a smile and rolling his shoulder.
He could feel the ache in the muscles, the lingering effects of Kaiju Blue from his last battle. Taking the poisoned blade in the shoulder had been the price of saving Yancy’s life; Raleigh was glad to pay it, even if it had left him badly scarred. He wouldn’t even want you now, he thought to himself suddenly, and grimaced.
Yancy, however, pulled off his riding gloves with pointed slowness. “You are a bad liar. Always have been. I told you to ride in the carriage...”
“And suffer our sister’s prattle about how Charles is nothing but an overgrown child?” Raleigh chuckled, and clapped Yancy on the shoulder. “No, I have endured quite enough of her bile during my convalescence. I’d ride a thousand leagues more to avoid another hour of that.”
“I can hear you, you know!” Jazmine called, descending the carriage’s little stairs, huffy. “What about the respect you two owe a lady, huh?”
“Start acting like a lady and I’ll consider it,” Raleigh told her, only half-joking.
She punched him in the good arm, and smiled winsomely at Yancy. “If Charles dies in the tourney, will I still have to wed?”
Yancy chuckled, and tugged on the end of her braid. “Now, Father agreed to have you instructed in the short sword and riding astride because it is the tradition of this land, that their noblewomen be able to defend themselves as well as the men. But do not let that go to your head, dear sister. You are soon to be the lady of a great house, not some shieldmaiden, screeching like a harpy on the battlefield. You understand me?”
“But you two both went to war,” she whined.
Raleigh sighed, and reached out to pull her into a half-hug. “There is no freedom or glory in killing, Jaz. It’s just death.”
“You keep saying that,” she grumped against his chest, “but you spent five years at the front.”
Raleigh caught Yancy’s eyes over the top of her strawberry-blond head. His brother had gone flinty on him. Once, just once, very inebriated on strong old wine, heart freshly broken, Raleigh had confessed his shame, his disgrace, to his older brother. Yancy had just held him as he cried, wordless.
After that, his shame too great to bear, Raleigh had gone to their father and begged him to allow him to head out to the front. Father had agreed that it was a good idea - clear your head, refocus yourself, remember your duty, my son, and find your damned dignity again, a prince of this kingdom, not some stable boy to be tumbled in the barn - and Raleigh had left the next day.
For years after Father died, Raleigh had resisted all his brother’s efforts to recall him to the capitol. Finally, Yancy gave up and simply came out to retrieve him instead. Our sister is eighteen this May, and if I have to hack off all your limbs and drag you home, you will be at the ceremony.
Raleigh suspected Yancy knew why he’d not obeyed any of the summons. And a few months ago, he thought himself justified in that reasoning. But his stubbornness had nearly cost his brother his life, a Kaiju scout force taking them by surprise in the mountain passes on the way home. Raleigh had only barely managed to get them to safety in their own lands, running Gipsy - the only horse that had not been spooked or killed in the ambush - to death, his brother’s favored stallion dropping half a mile from the outmost garrison. Raleigh had somehow carried an unconscious Yancy the rest of the way to the gates before collapsing himself. They later told him he’d still had the knife lodged in his left shoulder.
The months it took him to recover from his wounds Raleigh considered to be penance. For allowing himself to stray from his duty to the family. For being blinded to the realities of the situation. For letting himself get distracted by some unseemly, immoral affair, to the detriment of those who truly loved him.
Father was right.
Men do not love each other. Men cannot love each other.
What he thought he felt for Hercules was the mere, stupid worship of a child, and what Hercules felt for him...
Raleigh spent many a night drinking, trying to drown that question. Forget he had ever had to ask it. If it had not been love, then what? He had not yet found an answer that did not leave him feeling dirty. Used. By a man he’d once thought of as a father, admired as a father. But liquor did little to fill up the hole Hercules had left in Raleigh’s heart. War had been a better balm, even if it had left him numb and exhausted, a solution, not a cure.
But even that was denied to him now.
The court surgeon, Doctor Geizsler, was one of the most brilliant medical minds in the Pacific region, but even he had been unable to restore Raleigh’s full strength, or stop the phantom pains and spasms. Raleigh would never hold a sword again. And even if he had been able to manage it, Yancy refused to allow it.
I do not care what Father's position on the matter was, you are my brother and I love you and I'll not lose you to those beasts, Yancy had told him. So this is my first order to you as king; your military career is over.
“Raleigh is correct, dear sister,” Yancy said. “You are far too pretty, and far too intelligent, to be wasted in that meat grinder. Better you use your gifts to make yourself a good life here.”
“You mean produce little Hansens for the fa...”
And then Mako was by Raleigh’s side, her two-year-old daughter tucked into the crook of her arm, belly swollen with her second child, not at all looking as if she’d spent the last three days in a carriage. “Sister, I love you and your nervousness on the eve of these nuptials I feel as my own, but you deliberately being a brat,” she said in that pleasant, terrifying way of her. “Stop it. Now.”
Jazmine frowned, clearly gearig up for a fight, and Raleigh watched with relief as Yancy’s suspicion melted, replaced by affection for his queen. Mako had been the daughter of the Lord Governor of Hong Kong, the two of them meeting during a treaty negotiation in the island nation. Yancy had been smitten from the first, according to his own account. He’d come home with the treaty, but he’d also come home with a bride. Father had been apoplectic about it.
At the time, it had given Raleigh hope. If Yancy had bucked Father's yoke long enough to marry as he would...
But it had only ever been foolishness.
The doors of the hall swung open, Jazmine's protests dying in her mouth as Charles came striding down towards them. "He's really grown up," she whispered in Raleigh's ear, awestruck.
It was all Raleigh could do to not agree with her. Charles had indeed grown out of his awkward youth into a gorgeous man... and Raleigh squashed the thought immediately. He had tried so hard to do as Father had ordered, to forget the desire that the male body awakened in his heart, but no matter how much he denied himself, he could not make the desire come for a woman.
That had been another wonderful thing about the battlefield. No need to worry about such things. If he needed something, it had been easy to get in the mostly-male camps, nobody questioning the prince availing himself of some junior officer's attention.
This return to civilization, Raleigh realized with a sudden chill, was going to be even more difficult than he'd imagined.
Handshakes and bows were exchanged, Jazmine turning a bright shade of red when Charles kissed her hand - rather stiffly, but Raleigh couldn’t help but smile at the valiant attempt at decorum - but then the king was standing in the doors.
And just seeing Hercules again, older, grimmer, dressed in his usual grays and greens, sent a flood of emotion so strong through Raleigh that his knees felt weak.
He remembered - oh, how he couldn’t forget - sweet words whispered in the darkness, promises, affections, kisses traded in secret, everything terribly new and important and precious, the king’s hands on his skin, caressing him with a gentleness that nobody had ever given him before, the king’s manhood, throbbing deep inside...
“Yancy, Raleigh!” Hercules called, in a voice that could only be described as happy, and Raleigh felt himself shrink back, letting go of Jazmine, even as Charles rolled his eyes. “Dear boys, I feel as if I have not seen you in years.”
“You have indeed been a stranger in our lands,” Yancy agreed, stepping forward, in front of Raleigh, to shake Hercules’ extended hand. “We have missed you greatly. These yearly tournaments are simply not enough.”
“Regretfully, my travel is mostly to the southern front these days,” Hercules said. “These Kaiju bastards just won’t stop coming.”
“You should see the casualty numbers coming out of the north. It’s a fucking travesty.”
“Yes, news of the your encounter has reached us down here. Attacking the king on his own roads. This rabble from the sea has no honor, no honor at all,” Hercules said, and then - oh, hell - Raleigh felt those ice-blue eyes fix on him. “You must be quite proud of your brother. Word was, he put up one hell of a fight to get you to safety.”
“No doubt your training asserting itself, milord,” Raleigh said quietly, and looked desperately to Yancy, a sudden need to flee overwhelming him. “With your leave, brother, I would tend to our chargers. It was a long trip for them, and you know how temperamental stallions can be."
Hercules frowned. Raleigh hated him. He did, hated him for what he'd done. “I am sure our grooms are more than adequate to...”
“It would settle my mind, dear father, if you allowed Raleigh to care for my mount,” Yancy replied, up over the top of the king’s protest. “Gipsy’s heart gave out, carrying us home, and I’ve been sore pressed to get my new mount trained properly. He’s still not quite settled with me, and I’m afraid the journey has taxed him severely. I would not want to be at a disadvantage come this week.”
Lips pursed, Hercules nodded once, terse, and Raleigh immediately began his retreat. “I did not know about Gipsy, Yancy. I grieve with you. A finer creature, I could not imagine.”
“A sore loss indeed. But I have several of his colts, for which I have high hopes. Now, I do have a few matters of great importance which I would have your counsel on, immediately if at all possible, as my sister makes herself comfortable in...”
The words faded as Raleigh beat a quick retreat, down the familiar ways to the stables. The scent of hay and warmth helped soothe his troubled heart, and he busied himself with the mindless tasks of settling their horses in.
But it wasn’t enough.
There were reminders of Hercules everywhere in the place. And Raleigh eventually sunk to the straw in the stall assigned to the yearling he and Yancy had selected as a wedding present for Charles, head between his knees.
He didn’t cry. Wouldn’t do for a prince to be caught crying.
But he couldn’t stop thinking about.
The night when everything had gone wrong.