18-December, 1697, Midgard – Western Hemisphere
My Lady and Friend,
I regret to inform you that the carriage sent to bring King Howard back to the royal palace has had a terrible accident and he, along with his wife and son, have tragically lost their lives. Please be assured that everything is being done to retrieve their bodies and bury them in their homeland. The royal army will return to the castle shortly. The king’s personal belongings have been recovered and brought here to Stark Castle.
I am so very sorry, my Lady Sarah, I know that Howard and you have been close since childhood. This is a great tragedy for all of Midgard and I assure you that you and your family will have my support when it comes to succession to the throne.
There is an open invitation to you, your husband and your son to join me here for the burial.
Lord Obadiah Stane
Steward of Stark Castle
* * *
The garden around Prince Steven was filled with every color of the rainbow. There were red poppies, yellow wildflowers, miles and miles of green grass, and very blue skies. The smell of fresh water from the ponds and the sweet scent of the flowers filled the prince’s nose, calming the raging tide of emotions that brewed at the edges of his mind.
A canopy of pine trees kept him sheltered from the castle’s windows. It was his favorite clearing in the royal gardens and the only place where he did not feel watched, these days. It was mostly secluded from the more frequented parts of the garden; the grass wasn’t as neatly trimmed, as it was otherwise, the flowers just growing wherever they wanted. It was his own little sanctuary. The only place where he wasn’t followed around by one of his noblemen. Where he could breathe without choking on someone’s perfume and fake smiles.
And still. The sounds coming from the castle and wafting in the air around him made a heavy sigh escape the prince’s lips. The preparations for the great engagement ball were well underway, and it wouldn’t take much longer until the festivities would begin.
“Are you going to sit around here all day?”
Steve looked up from his sketchpad, smiling as his best friend Bucky sat down next to him. “I thought it was worth a try.”
Bucky rolled his eyes and crossed his arms on his knees. “I’m sure it won’t be that bad.”
Steve huffed, dropping the pad down on the grass. “And what makes you think that?”
“I don’t know… because I have eyes?” Bucky asked on a low laugh. “Come on, Stevie, I’ve seen Peggy and if I were you, I’d be all over her. And if all of the candidates look like that, you should call yourself one lucky man.”
Steve shook his head, smiling fondly at his friend.
“I mean it,” Bucky continued, unabashed. “If you’re really not interested, I’d be happy to take your place.”
“Sure you would,” Steve said quietly, before he turned his gaze back to the calming serenity of the garden.
Only a few days ago, his mother and the Council had decided that Steve had to get married at last. It wasn’t as if Steve hadn’t seen it coming. By law, he would only get to be king if he found himself a queen. And Steve knew, with the many years of war behind them, the royal family had to give a strong signal of hope to the people.
So he had eventually agreed to host a ball in which all of the Kingdom’s eligible young women were invited. His mother had suggested inviting only nobles, and then only beautiful young women, but Steve had decided against it. At the very least, everyone, men and women alike, should enjoy the king’s hospitality for the duration of the ball… even if Steve would have to choose a lady of royal status in the end.
“I hear even Lord Stane is going to be in attendance tonight?” Bucky asked, obviously trying to get Steve to lighten up and not worry so much. “People are really excited about that. He was a good friend of your mother once, wasn’t he?”
“I suppose so,” Steve said, frowning. His mother had never called Stane a ‘good friend’. She’d been close to King Howard, as far as Steve knew, but Stane had barely been a regular acquaintance.
“Maybe he’ll bring one of his inventions along. I’ve never seen one up close! Have you?”
“No,” Steve replied as he continued to stare out into the landscape. “He hasn’t been at court in years.”
Lord Stane had served as King Howard’s armorer for many decades. His weapons were the best ones in all Midgard and therefore world-famous, making Lord Stane one of the wealthiest lords of all Midgard. Even after the terrible accident that had cost the life of the whole royal family, Stane’s inventions kept amazing the whole Kingdom.
It had been one of the greatest tragedies in history—at least as long as Steve could remember. King Howard had always been loved and admired by his people, and what he had lacked in empathy and kindness, he had compensated with his marvelous inventions and weaponry.
When King Howard and his whole family, Queen Maria and Prince Anthony, had died, the Kingdom had been devastated. Dark times had followed; wars and uprisings in the smaller counties. The line of succession to the throne had not been clear, though Steve’s family had had the best claims and the most supporters. Still. It had taken years before Steve’s father had been crowned king. Tragically, he had died of some strong form of influenza only a few years later, and it was now Steve’s turn to become king.
Whether he wanted to or not.
“I guess you bring out the good in people,” Bucky replied smiling. “Rumor has it he’ll even offer one of his noble ladies to you.”
Steve raised an eyebrow. “How do you know that?”
Bucky grinned wolfishly. “Nat intercepted the messenger when he delivered Stanes agreement to attend the ball. Apparently, he tried to find out everything about our ‘Prince Charming’ in the process. Looks to me like he’s interested in finding you a suitable queen.”
“Well, he needs to queue up, then,” Steve said bitterly.
“How can you honestly complain about any of this?” Bucky asked, clearly exasperated. “Every pretty girl in the whole Kingdom will come here and they will all want to be your wife. How can you not be thrilled about this?”
Steve inhaled deeply, smiling as he released the cleansing breath. “I’ve just… I had hoped to one day find true love, but I guess that was a stupid thing to wish for.”
Bucky’s features softened. “There is still time for love,” he told Steve. “You like Peggy, don’t you? I’m sure if you choose her, she’ll see to that.”
Steve chuckled softly. “I love Peggy. Just not like that. Real love is passion and… a burning in your soul that tells you you’d give everything to be with the other. Love is mysterious and overwhelming, and it leaves you breathless. It’s something everyone should deserve the chance to experience.”
Bucky heaved a long breath and laid down on the green grass, staring up the sky. “You’re a hopeless romantic, Stevie. A better man than me, but… completely hopeless.”
Steve cast him a gentle smile, and his eyes travelled to the sky as well.
He knew, deep down, that this was necessary. The Kingdom needed a strong king, someone they could look up to in times of need. He knew that an alliance with a wealthy noble house would help rebuild some of the damage done by decades of war.
The marriage would form a powerful force—and apart from his wish for true love, Steve also knew that affairs of Kingdom would always come before the affairs of the heart.
* * *
“The guests have arrived, Sire.”
Steve turned, smiling at his groom Jarvis before pulling himself away from the window. Jarvis had been a member of the royal household longer than anyone could even remember. He had been one of the closest confidents of King Howard and Steve considered the old man one of his dearest friends.
With a last lingering look towards the garden, Steve walked over to his large mirror and took stance so that Jarvis could dress him properly.
“How often do I have to tell you to call me Steve,” Steve said, smiling as the man nodded, just like he always did.
“Anything you wish, Sire.”
Steve huffed, and shook his head. “What I wish is to be in a faraway land, miles away from all these people waiting for me downstairs,” he said dramatically as Jarvis helped him slip into his white tailored jacket.
“Well, at least the ladies look very beautiful, if I might say so.”
“I’m sure they do,” Steve told him quietly as Jarvis draped the purple cloak around his shoulders. He made to grab for a brush for Steve’s hair, but stopped as a light knock on the door was heard.
“Are you ready?”
Steve turned, smiling as the Queen entered his chamber. She was wearing a black dress. The fabric was silky and brimming with pattern of small, graceful white roses. “You look wonderful, mother.”
“As do you, my dear,” she said smiling. “I had hoped we could talk a little but it seems every woman in the country has decided to show early.” She laughed slightly. “I’m sure they all want a chance at marrying the most handsome prince in the land.”
Steve’s smile fell as he stared at his mirror-reflection. “Whether or not the prince actually wants that, yes…”
His mother sighed, and Steve knew it was unfair of him to make her feel guilty. It wasn’t her choice either. “I know this isn’t how you wanted to marry, sweetheart. I’m truly sorry. If I could, I would do anything to let you have that chance at finding someone on your own.”
Steve sighed, too. He had always known a marriage without love was going to be his fate; he just never imagined it would hurt so much. “I know the Kingdom is in greater need. Don’t worry. I will try to flatter all ladies in attendance.”
Sarah bit her lower lip, clearly trying not to laugh at that. “Of course you will…” …try, she probably wanted to say. They all knew that Steve had a hard time flirting. He wasn’t as awkward and stammering as he had been only a few years ago, but he’d never quite learned the art of charming people.
Didn’t mean his mother had to rub it in like that.
Sarah leaned in and kissed his cheek. “I have to go,” she told him. “We will start the audiences as soon as you are ready.”
Steve watched as his mother left his room, wondering—not for the first time—how he was going to make it through an entire evening listening to Lord after Lord tell him why his daughter would be best suited to be his wife.
* * *
Steve stood at the top of the stairs, staring down at all the guests mingling in the banquet hall. His stomach was in knots as he waited to be announced.
“You’ll do fine,” Natasha said next to him. She was the only woman in his king’s guard, and also one of his closest friends.
“What,” Steve asked, straining his neck to get a better view of the room, “you mean it’s too late to run?”
Natasha chuckled. “Not necessarily,” she said and leaned up to whisper in his ear, just as the musicians raised their horns. “I hear Lord Stane has a really fast carriage.”
Steve snorted, then straightened his back as he made to follow his guards. The horns signaled his arrival as he paused at the balcony for a moment, before slowly making his way down the stairs. All eyes were on him and the pressure alone was almost more than he could take.
As far as he could see, all of the big houses had followed his invitation, every known sigil of the noble houses on display, but he was pleased to see that there were also some more, well, ordinary looking young people around. They looked a bit out of place within the extravagant dressed crowd, but seemed to be having fun nevertheless, and that was all that mattered.
Steve smiled in spite of his nervousness, but the dread he was feeling at choosing a lady who would rule the land with him only got worse. The rules were clear: He would meet everyone, then select a few ladies to dance with him. Then he would get a few days to decide which of them he’d marry, and pay them a visit at their own castle to announce their engagement.
“Lords and ladies,” his herald Sam announced, “Prince Steven, heir to the throne and future King of Midgard.”
Steve smiled brightly as he was introduced to all in attendance, stopping as he reached the reception line where the noble houses had already lined up for the audience. He could already hear the ladies giggling among themselves, and all but forced himself to curtsy each of them, before he was joined by his mother.
They stood on top of the lower stairs, right in front of Steve’s throne, waiting for Sam to introduce each house.
“Your Majesty,” Sam said. “May I present the Duke and Duchess Carter and their daughter, the Lady Margaret.”
Sarah and Steve both nodded their heads as the three bowed. Peggy looked beautiful in her yellow gown, with red lips, and brown, curly hair that was pinned accurately on top of her head. She cast Steve a small and decidedly exasperated smile, making him grin in return.
“Your Majesty, it’s a pleasure to meet you again,” she said in an obviously mocking tone that made Steve want to kneel down and hug her tightly. Her smile was genuine and her voice always held a kindness that he had yet to hear from any of the other women present.
All eyes were on Steve and whispers were heard as each lady was introduced. By the end of it, Steve was barely listening anymore as the last houses in line were called up. There wasn’t a single woman that held a spark of interest to him. The only lady even bold enough to speak for herself had always been Peggy, and while Steve loved her dearly, it just wasn’t like that between them.
Still. Peggy was the only one that was interested in him and not the crown she would be receiving, and at the end of the day, he knew he’d choose her. If he truly had to marry for the sake of his Kingdom, Peggy was the one he trusted most. And even if his noblemen would be giving him a hard time about her house not bringing enough wealth into the marriage—well, Steve would give them a piece of his mind.
Peggy would be a wonderful Queen, kind to his people and loved by many, and that was all that was important.
Only as Sam called up House Stane, Steve’s eyes widened. He hadn’t seen Lord Stane in person before—there had only been the fantastic stories about his many marvelous inventions. Seeing him now, though, he didn’t look anything like the slightly crazy but all the more interesting genius that Steve had always envisioned. Stane’s eyes were cold as he regarded Steve, and the pleased smile around his lips seemed fake. On his left side stood a younger man with brown hair and a crooked grin, and on the other a redheaded young woman who looked very uncomfortable, like she didn’t even want to be here.
Steve could fully relate to that.
“My Queen, my Prince,” the man said, ignoring Sam completely, who had taken a deep breath to introduce them. Instead, he simply reached for Steve’s hand and shook it with a sweetly smile. “I am Lord Stane, and this is my son Ezekiel. My Queen, it has been far too long. Your Majesty, we are deeply honored to finally make your acquaintance. Since I don’t have a female heir of my own to present to you, I would like you to meet the Lady Virginia, who, as I assure you, is the most beautiful and well-mannered noble lady of my household.”
“I am sure of that,” Steve said, bowing his head slightly as he looked at Virginia. She really was beautiful. She was wearing a cream-colored dress, trimmed in blue ruffle. The waist was tight, and the skirt flowed beautifully over a small bustle. “I do pray you like it here?”
“Yes, quite so,” Virginia said with a small smile. “The invitation just came a bit unexpected.”
The words were out of her mouth before she had really thought them through. Steve could see it in the sudden tenseness of her small shoulders, and the nervous glance she cast at her lord, whose expression had suddenly darkened a fraction.
“I do beg your forgiveness, your Majesty,” Lord Stane addressed the Queen. “I hope that the absence of a noble suitor will not decrease our chances in negotiating for your son’s hand.”
Steve almost begged his mother not to pick her, then and there. He was sure Virginia was a nice enough girl, he just wasn’t sure what it was about Lord Stane—but something seemed very off about him.
His mother, however, returned the smile in kind. “Of course your place in the negotiations is secure. Every lady in attendance will be considered. I am very happy that you chose to come here, my Lord, it truly has been far too long since we’ve seen you at court,” she told him and even accepted Lord Stane’s hand for the first official dance. It was clear that she was doing it for the sake of the noblemen, who were all hoping that Steve would forge a strong alliance with House Stane, bringing the royal court back to the wealth it had had before the long war.
Steve took a deep breath, as he made his way to the throne, taking his seat. He smiled tightly as music began to fill the Banquet Hall and the feast was brought forward. He looked around the room as everyone took their seats. The dread of the evening began to ease a little since Steve knew the worst part was now over. The union would be at his sole discretion, and at least, he wouldn’t have to have an answer right away.
* * *
Steve was watching intently as his mother spoke with Lord Stane. He was currently dancing with Peggy, swaying her around the Banquet hall. He only caught glimpses of their conversation, but a fear was creeping up his spine, nevertheless.
“Your Majesty, I can assure you the continued support of my house will be infinitely secured,” Lord Stane promised. “With your army, and my weapons, the Kingdom would be able to crush every foe. We could bring peace to all Midgard. As a wedding gift, I would present you with the Iron Monger, a state-of-the-art suit of armor for your knights that is built from an exceedingly heavy metal and offers unparalleled protection.”
“I have infinite trust in your marvelous inventions, my Lord,” his mother said, then cleared her throat. “I must admit that I had thought those inventions would cease to amaze our Kingdom after King Howard’s unfortunate demise. But it seems I have not given your part in the creating process enough credit.”
Lord Stane’s smile turned even sweeter than it had before. “It seems so, your Grace.”
Steve took a shaky breath as he regarded the contemplative look on his mother’s face. What if his mother would be trying to convince him of Stane as the most suitable alliance? He knew that the benefits from a marriage to House Stane outweighed Steve’s personal doubts by far…
The music slowly came to an end, and Steve smiled as he glanced back up at Peggy.
“You look unhappy, my Lord,” Peggy said with a small, worried smile and squeezed Steve’s hand.
Steve shook his head lightly. “It’s not you, Peg, it’s—”
“—I know,” she interrupted and leaned in to press a small kiss on his cheek. “You know you don’t have to explain anything to me.”
“Thank you,” Steve whispered, then raised his voice. “…for the dance, my Lady,” he added, bowing as he pressed a small kiss on the back of her hand. “I do hope to get to speak to you again, soon.”
“Yes, that would be quite wonderful, your Majesty,” Peggy said with a wink and turned away from him.
He spotted his king’s guard at the other side of the hall and made his way through the crowd. Sam laughed slightly as Steve all but collapsed against the wall, trying to hide behind Thor’s bulky form. Bucky, who was leaning against Natasha and sporting a huge grin, said, “You seem to be having a wonderful time, Stevie.”
“Why does the sky not ever open up when you need it to?” Steve asked as he stopped in front of his friends. He took off his heavy crown and the purple cloak and handed both to Sam. Now that the official part of the ball was over, he might as well have a little fun.
“What's wrong, Sire? The company of every woman in the country's too much for you?” Natasha asked slyly.
“Yes,” Steve said without hesitation.
“Well, what about Peggy? She seemed to enjoy her dance.”
“Yes, well, she is also still not in love with me.”
“And the Lady Virginia?” Thor asked. “She would make a worthy queen. And her beauty alone should make you rejoice. Just think of the wedding night, my friend.”
Sam and Thor laughed loudly, the look on Steve’s face seemingly worth more laughs than they had had in a while.
“I think he’s turning a little green,” Natasha said through a quiet laughter.
“I’d rather marry…” Steve started, looking around the room and just… stopping.
Steve’s breath caught in his throat as his eyes locked in on a knight who had just entered the room at the far side of the banquet hall. He was wearing some fancy looking red-and-gold suit of armor and even from afar, the many overlapping steel plates and rivets looked very elegant. And there was a blue circle of light forged into the armor’s chest plate. The knight wasn’t part of the noble houses, as far as Steve could tell; the colors of his armor didn’t belong to any of the known sigils.
The knight’s helmet was off, showing his dark hair, curling wildly on top of his head. The sharp line of his cheekbones gave him an almost roguish look, which was accentuated by one of the most extravagant facial hairstyles that Steve had ever seen.
Steve could tell just from looking at him that the knight wasn’t a very large man, with a slender figure, and shoulders that were broad in contrast to the slimming of his waist and hips.
Steve blushed as the knight caught him staring and hid his heated cheeks as he ducked his head. When Steve looked up again a few moments later, though, the knight was still very much looking at him. His gaze was now unashamedly travelling all over Steve’s body—and Steve wasn’t sure why his heart seemed to speed up as he took in the man’s features himself, but what he saw there had Steve’s breath coming faster.
As the knight suddenly turned around and walked towards the gardens, Steve’s mouth opened as if to call out for him.
“Uh, Steve?” Bucky said as Steve made to follow without so much as another word.
“I have to, uh… take a walk, get a bit of fresh air,” Steve mumbled, and ignored every offer of company as he made his way through the crowds. A few ladies tried to get his attention, but Steve only had eyes for the man who cast him one last lingering look, before he stepped out into the royal gardens.
Steve forced himself to calm down a step as he rounded the corner. At first, he didn’t see anyone on the patio, no other guests—thankfully—but also not the mystery-knight. Steve looked around frantically, and he experienced a sudden, full-body shiver when a deep husky voice rumbled in his ear.
“Are you enjoying the evening?”
Steve knew immediately that it was him, and he was both excited and scared of turning around. Steve’s heart thundered in his chest and sent his pulse racing. Standing tall, he suddenly wished for his crown as he gathered his bearings before facing the man behind the voice.
Steve knew it was his turn to say something, but instead, he only gave the knight a gaping and very unkingly stare. It took his brain a moment to process what he was seeing and then, when it did, he was left devoid of speech.
The glimpse of the man from across the room hadn’t prepared Steve for the impact of his presence; the way his eyes bore into Steve’s like he could see right into his soul. The way he looked at Steve made the world disappear until there was just the two of them.
The first thing that Steve took in was the color of the man’s eyes. A deep brown, with black speckles, he noticed and committed them to memory. He’d thought the man was handsome from afar, but now that he was right in front of him, facing him, Steve realized he was nothing short of the most attractive man he had ever met.
Steve’s knees almost buckled when the knight took his hand and drew it to his mouth, kissing it without taking his eyes off of Steve’s. And—oh God, Steve couldn’t believe his body’s response. With the most innocent of gestures, the man made him feel more than anyone else ever had. And what that gesture elicited in Steve was anything but innocent.
Well, Steve thought belatedly—and probably a bit hysterically—that might explain why he had never truly felt like getting a girlfriend.
* * *
One day earlier. The Stane Household.
“Tony!” a voice bellowed.
Sighing, Tony dropped his favorite glass screwdriver down on his worktable. Great. He had no fucking clue what he had done wrong this time.
He looked down at Rhodey—his beautiful black Rhodesian Ridgeback—and petted his head. “What do you think Old Grumpy wants this time, huh?”
Rhodey cocked his head, staring at Tony exasperatedly, as if he wanted to say, Well, I’m a dog. How would I know?
“I’m coming. Oh, my fucking God,” Tony mumbled and hurriedly made his way down the small stairwell. His workshop was situated in the highest tower of Stane Castle and it always took a minute or two to climb down to his chamber. When he arrived, Obadiah stood next to Tony’s small rusty bed with a half-empty glass of scotch in his hand. His features were twisted into a grotesque frown and his eyes were glassy, a sure sign of how much he had been drinking.
“Anthony,” he spat out—using his full name now, which was always a bad sign, “would you care to explain why there is wine spilled across my six hundred gold oriental rug?”
Tony could almost hear the warning bells ring in his head. There obviously was no answer to this without getting himself into more trouble. He knew exactly how wine had gotten spilled on the goddamn rug, but that didn’t help him at all. These kinds of things were always blamed on him, which was a bit funny since he didn’t even drink.
“How would I know, Obi. Maybe Zeke accidentally—”
“Oh, so now you think you are going to blame this on my son?” Obadiah laughed humorlessly. “Right, try again.”
Oh God. Tony was in Hell. It was the only explanation for all of this. “But it wasn’t me. I don’t even drink—”
“Ezekiel said you stole a bottle of my finest yesterday,” he told him, twisting an empty wine bottle in his hand as if that was any sort of proof. “It seems we have time on our hands, don’t we?”
“You believe that drunk loser?” Uh-oh… that was the wrong thing to say.
The next second, Obi threw the bottle at the wall, shattering the glass all over Tony’s chamber. “What? As opposed to believing you, you little liar?!”
“I’m not a liar!” Tony shouted at him. God, he was so sick of taking the fall for Zeke and his stupid-ass loser-existence.
Obi slammed down his glass on the desk and didn’t even seem to notice the shards as he stomped towards Tony. He slapped him across the cheekbone so hard that Tony fell down on the hardwood floor. “This is how you thank me? I take you in after your sorry excuse of a father almost got you killed! I open my house to you and this is how you show your gratitude? I should have left you in that carriage to die with him!”
Tony raised his hand to his cheek and tried to not let it show when the throbbing pain all but exploded in his face. He was used to being beaten. No need to cry over that, anymore. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled, closing his eyes in defeat.
“Well, it’s too late for that,” Obadiah spat. “You go to your workshop and work on the damn armor, boy! I want it presentable for the Queen by tomorrow!”
Tony blanched. “Tomorrow? But you said I could go to the ball!”
It had been his only wish. The only thing he’d wanted for himself in a long time. He might be insulting the royal family on a daily basis, with all their perfect glitz and glamour lifestyle, but he’d wished… with all his heart, to just… be there with all of the other young people, if only for one evening.
In hindsight… the fact that Obi had agreed to let him go, no questions asked, should’ve made Tony more skeptical.
A calculating and cruel smile took hold of Obadiah’s face, making every last doubt fly out the window that he’d even considered for one second to actually let Tony attend the ball. “That was before you spoiled my favorite carpet. Now get out of my face. And clean the damn carpet first!”
Tony swallowed and scrambled off the floor. He almost stumbled up the stairs to his workshop, careful not to slam the door even though he desperately wanted to. That would just set Obi off again and he didn’t need a black eye to go with his swollen cheek.
He had learned quickly what not to do in regards to his stepfather. Don’t slam doors, don’t talk back or argue, do what he asks of you, and otherwise—don’t even exist. And most of the time, he felt like a ghost. Sometimes he wouldn’t even leave his workshop for days. Of course, that hadn’t stopped Obi or Zeke from accusing him of breaking something in the living quarters whenever they needed someone to blame.
Tony couldn’t even recall the first time Obi had hit him anymore, but he probably hadn’t been older than five. It must have been sometime in the first weeks after Tony’s family had died in that carriage accident during a storm at night. Obi had told him the story numerous times. How his father, some drunken farmer, had steered the carriage right off a cliff and killed not only himself, but also his wife, and very nearly also Tony. Obi had found him there, barely an infant, and taken him home to his castle. Tony would always be grateful for this single act of mercy, although Obi had showed little compassion since.
God, he had to get out of this place. He was rotting away in the white marble Hell of Stane Castle and he feared the future when Obi would lose his temper completely with him. For now, he was still of use, providing Obi with new machines, new weapons, new armory. It made Obi one of the wealthiest lords in all Midgard, and as long as Tony came up with further inventions, he was safe.
Safe, yes, but he might as well be dead, if this was how the rest of his life would be like.
Sitting down on the cold stone floor, Tony leaned a bit against Rhodey’s warm body, scratching the dog’s ears, and stared up at the face of the Iron Monger, his newest creation. The knight’s armor was far too bulky for Tony’s own liking, and too crammed with all sorts of heavy weapons. It had none of the sleekness Tony preferred in his designs, but Obi had been very clear on what he wanted for his wedding gift to the royal family.
Still… Tony thought with a smile and glanced to a dark corner all across the room, where a similar and yet very different armor was standing underneath a white cloth… Obi had never been good with thinking outside the box.
Not like Tony.
As if to rebuke him for his arrogance, the Royal Palace’s clocktower chimed loudly outside.
“Oh, not you, too,” Tony ground out, and begrudgingly stared out of the tiny window that only brought a few rays of sunlight into his workshop. It was barely large enough to get a glimpse of the giant white castle far beyond the great river—and what Tony felt right then definitely wasn’t disappointment.
“Didn’t really want to go to the stupid ball, anyway,” he murmured and Rhodey promptly answered him with a sloppy lick all across Tony’s cheek.
* * *
“He did what?” Tony asked with an incredulous tone, from where he was still scrubbing the damn wine out of the damn carpet in the castle’s main hall.
Pepper, who was usually so in control of herself, was crying in earnest, opening her mouth to speak a couple of times before breaking into tears once more. She was walking up and down the hallway, the prince’s invitation crumpled in her tiny hands as she waved it back and forth in front of her face, as if she’d faint if she didn’t fan herself with it.
Tony heaved a deep breath and threw the filthy rag in his hands aside. Then he walked up to her, taking her shaking hands in his. “Pep, darling, you need to talk to me.”
“The ball,” she hiccupped, “the one that—”
Tony waited for her to go on, but when the tremors got the better of her voice again, he continued patiently, “—the one that’s supposed to find our spoiled little prince a princess? Yeah, I’m aware of the damn ball. What about it?”
Pepper shook her head in despair. “Obadiah will offer the prince weapons and gold if…” She took a shaky breath, “if he takes me as his wife.”
Well, fuck. That was unexpected.
Tony sighed. Of course, Pepper was heartbroken. A few months ago, she had fallen head-over-heals in love with Happy, one of Obi’s guards. They had been planning to marry as soon as they had saved enough money, which would probably take another year or two, but they’d been so goddamn happy… And it was just like Obi to take that happiness and stomp it right into the ground.
“He wants more influence,” Tony said with a subdued voice. He had always secretly wondered why Obadiah didn’t mingle with the court more often. With his wealth and the popularity that Tony’s inventions provided him with, he would’ve been able get a seat in the king’s council easily. It seemed, though, that Obi had waited for the right time. Marrying someone from your own household to the king? There simply wasn’t a better move. With Pepper under his thumb, he’d be one of the most powerful men in the Kingdom—maybe even more powerful than the king himself.
This goddamn ball. Tony still couldn’t believe that the queen had decided to throw a huge ball with all the single women in the kingdom in attendance, just so that the prince could find a wife. Couldn’t the guy find a girl by himself? It was pretty pathetic, if you asked Tony.
From what he’d heard, the prince was handsome enough to get a marriage proposal without all the arrangement, but seeing how he needed one, it made Tony wonder if there was something seriously wrong with the guy.
Pepper looked at him with new tears in her eyes. “You need to come to the ball, Tony, please,” she said, cradling the invitation close to her chest. “Obadiah won’t let me out of his sight, I know it. Maybe you can talk to the prince. Make him understand…”
“Understand what?” Tony asked with a slight laugh. “That Obi’s an ass? That you’re in love with someone else? Why should someone like the prince care about that? And even so… Obi won’t ever let me go to the ball, Pep. I’m the golden goose, remember? He can’t risk having anyone find out I even exist. It was stupid of me to even believe for a second that he’d let me go just for the sake of it.”
“I know you have your ways,” Pepper said with fierce conviction. “I’ve seen you and James sneak out regularly—”
“—out into the forests to get a bit of fresh air, yes. The royal palace is half a day’s journey away.” Tony sighed, rubbing his forehead. “And Obi’s carriage is the fastest of all Midgard, I personally saw to that. I would need something a lot faster if I wanted to make it back in time here, and the chance of that is practically zero.”
Pepper’s face fell, and she looked on the verge of new tears again.
Tony groaned, his shoulders dropping. “All right, please don’t cry. I’ll see what I can do.”