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Ritual Self-Torture

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Sebastian took the news of Charles's pregnancy surprisingly well.

It may have helped that Charles announced it in front of the entire court, giving the king two options -- delight in the long-awaited conception of an heir, or immediate denouncement and accusation of adultery. The latter would have necessitated Sebastian admitting his sterility, and Charles knew -- hoped -- bet the lives of Erik, himself, and their child -- on his utter and everlasting refusal to do that.

So delight it was, and if an unsettling coldness lay behind it, perhaps only Charles knew the look well enough to recognize it. Delight and joy, and Charles and his pregnancy suddenly the center of every conversation, the subject of every toast, the man of the hour for the next nine months.

And Erik, the very next day, sent off to the front.

This newest war of Sebastian's was a blatant land-grab, one that was costing them allies and piling up casualties. Every report from the front put the king in a sour mood and gave Charles a fresh crop of nightmares, variations of Erik blood-streaked, blank-eyed on a battlefield with crows descending. Every morning he wept with relief to find it had not happened -- yet. Wept and rubbed his swelling belly, murmuring to its tiny occupant that its father was a great warrior and would keep himself safe.

Sebastian, meanwhile, amused himself playing the doting husband and delighted father-to-be, showering his consort with gifts -- clothes and books and jewels and food, always food, meat and milk and candied fruit -- and Charles wasn't fool enough to turn any of it down. He filled Charles's rooms with quilts and goosedown pillows and extra firewood, and the court cooed at how their king pampered his pregnant mate. Charles was paraded before every kind of dignitary and warlord, petted and praised like a good-tempered brood mare.

It made Charles sick, all of it, but at least Sebastian wasn't hitting him anymore, or coming to his bed. Of the two options, Charles would take an eternity of predator-eyed coddling.

A woman's baby could come when it chose, but for an androji, birth was carefully scheduled, attended by surgeons rather than midwives. Charles was numbed, cut, peeled open -- Sebastian held his hand throughout, and Charles gripped back tightly and tried to pretend the hand was Erik's.

All the fear and blood and eager anticipation came together in a wave of dizziness and clouded vision when Charles saw the surgeon lift a tiny body into the air, heard the trembling little wail he'd been waiting for for nine months.

"Congratulations, Your Majesty," said the beaming surgeon. "You have a lovely daughter."

"Daughter," Charles breathed, reaching for the baby, making impatient motions with his hands while the doctors cleaned her up and tied off her cord. She cried and kicked all the while -- strong! healthy! spirited! -- but settled instantly into whimpers when Charles curled her into his chest to nurse. And wasn't that an odd sensation, but androji had been doing it for centuries, surely he could manage. For the sake of his daughter. "Oh, isn't she beautiful?" He looked up at Sebastian, expecting, for a careless moment, to see the same wonder and joy he was feeling. Sebastian had wanted a child--

No, he remembered, watching the king's face settle into cold, angry lines -- No, Sebastian had wanted an heir. A son.

Sebastian put on his well-used mask of good cheer, letting the doctors and passing servants congratulate him, sending out a messenger to make the announcement -- Charles couldn't stop a breath of relief at that, it meant that at least he wasn't planning to take the unwanted child and cast her out to die, as the kings of not-very-long-ago had done -- then shooed everyone out of the room to give him some time with his consort and their new little one.

Once they were alone, Sebastian stared down at the baby girl, eyes hard. Charles swallowed chill and nausea, kept his chin up, unflinching.

"I suppose it'll be useful, someday, to have a princess to barter," Sebastian said at last. "Women. Good for nothing but breeding, and we have androji for that. But some men prefer them, and they're a rare enough commodity. Very well, keep it. If Sir Erik survives to come home, you'll be ready for him in a month or two, won't you, pet?" He laid a pseudo-affectionate slap to Charles's bare flank, hard enough to sting at the periphery of the numbness in his middle. "Try, try again."

"Yes, my lord," Charles said, downcast and demure. When Sebastian had gone, he nestled his forehead against the baby at his chest, trying not to drip tears on her, and prayed for a half-dozen daughters.

***

It was the nastiest campaign Erik had ever fought; treacherous terrain, cold and wet, his men falling to enemy ambushes on the one side, rampant disease on the other. As a young soldier, when the nights were cold and the camp reeking of fear and death, Erik had comforted himself with the belief that he was serving a greater purpose, a righteous cause. Now he lacked even that illusion to keep him warm.

But he had Charles. He had the memory of every glance, every touch, every moment, to re-live until they were worn thin. The memory of a night together that he'd given up hope of ever having. And he had the knowledge that when he returned -- if he returned -- he would have a child.

It was all poisoned, of course, twisted by King Sebastian into a mockery of the family they should have had. But it was something.

When he could sleep for more than an hour at a time, he dreamed more and more often of Charles -- of the day they met, the day King Sebastian brought his knights home victorious and Erik, bone-weary but triumphant, clean and well-fed for the first time in what felt like centuries, caught a pair of brilliant blue eyes across a crowded ballroom. Charles Xavier, resplendent in lace cravat and green silk waistcoat, having only recently reached his majority and wrested the title Duke of Westchester from his stepfather-regent, had been on his first visit to court. One of the few titled androji, charming and beautiful -- two thirds of the court wanted him as husband, and the other third just didn't want such formality.

But though Charles flirted cheerfully with everyone who came near enough to smile at, it was Erik who caught his eye, for reasons still beyond him, Erik whom he danced with four times in succession (quite scandalous), Erik whom he walked with in the gardens until nearly morning, and took his leave from with a teasing near-kiss that left Erik's every nerve tingling, wild with delighted frustration.

It was all tease, and hint, and game, and dance, a warm pure joy after so long on the battlefield, and Charles was -- Charles was everything Erik had ever imagined wanting, kind and clever, fascinating, radiant, a light that could not be hid. And he should have, should have snapped him up while he had the chance, but he'd thought they had all the time in the world.

"If I don't marry Sebastian." Sometimes that was the voice Erik heard in his dreams, on bad nights, Charles's voice dull, hoarse, scraped raw. "If I don't marry Sebastian, he'll... he can prove my stepfather stole from the Crown while he was regent. He can make it look like I was involved. Me, my mother, as many of my aunts and uncles and cousins and family retainers as he chooses. I can choose to marry Sebastian, or I can choose death in disgrace for myself and half my family."

Waking from that memory-dream usually meant a day of his men praying for an ambush, anything to direct their leader's murderous mood onto the enemy instead of themselves.

He tried to think as little as possible about the dangers and discomforts of pregnancy, tried not to fill his head with all the ways a surgical birth could go wrong. Sometimes when he lay down alone in his tent, he imagined he was coming home to his pregnant husband, kissing his forehead, rubbing his sore back and feet, bringing him little treats and soaking in his sleepy smiles and maternal glow. He wasn't sure what was worse -- to think of no one doing these things for Charles, or to think of Sebastian doing them.

It would be one thing if Charles loved Sebastian. If Charles had married Sebastian because he wished to... Erik could, perhaps, have lived that way, pining for Charles from afar, contenting himself with Charles's happiness. Would Sebastian's sterility have come, then, as a less-mixed blessing, Erik knowing himself a distasteful necessity, but happy for the single opportunity to show his love, however little it mattered to Charles? They might both have been happier if Charles had never loved him.

But Erik was a selfish, selfish man, and couldn't bring himself to wish for that. Instead he hoarded the knowledge of Charles's love, carried it like a jewel too precious to show anyone, something for him to touch and stroke and gaze upon alone, and feel its weight tucked against his heart throughout whatever nightmare the days threw at him.

When news of the child's birth reached the front, the entire camp took it as an excuse to drain the last reserves of their beer toasting the new princess.

Princess. A girl. Erik's daughter.

Women had once been just as common as men, before the Virus, or so Erik had been taught. It was hard to imagine. Erik's mother had been a woman, the first in her family for six generations, and Erik had been seven years old before he saw another one. Some men preferred the fragile beauty of women, despite their physical weaknesses and emotional instability, preferred them strongly enough to pay exorbitant prices for female whores or the even higher cost of a woman's bride-price. Others found women unsettling and strange, avoiding them or even preaching against them. Erik fell somewhere in the middle; the occasional tumble with a laundress might be a treat, but it was hard to imagine falling in love with, marrying someone so... different. All in all, he was very grateful to the scientists who, in the aftermath of the Virus, had cooked up androji.

What in the world would it be like, raising a daughter?

Not, he supposed, that he was to be permitted any hand in raising her.

Although rumor had it that the king wasn't terribly interested in the girl himself; he had declined to name her as heir. The kingdom, seeing the birth of a rare and precious girl-child as a good omen, was a little puzzled, but supposed it gave the princess more flexibility as a bargaining chip, if she could be dangled as a prize without attaching the crown to its awarding. Some said Sebastian was reducing a queen to a pawn, while others argued that he was wise to do it, that women made terrible leaders anyway.

What did it mean for Erik and Charles? Erik refused to wonder, refused to sit around and hope for more 'charity' from Sebastian. It was humiliating enough to know he would jump at the chance if it were offered.

A second messenger came a week later, to announce the naming of the princess, and that was another thing to puzzle the kingdom. Because the girl was to be called Raven.

The unhappiness of the king's marriage was an open secret, and ravens and swans, as birds that mated for life, were frequently used as symbols of fidelity and eternal love. Swans were the more popular choice for wedding decor, ravens for epic tales of tragic love. It was a strange, dark name, but one that nevertheless indicated a deep and tender affection between the child's parents. No one knew what to make of it.

Erik excused himself rather brusquely from table as soon as the messenger had finished speaking, and barely made it outside before the tears slipped his control.