Actions

Work Header

my crown is in my heart

Work Text:

Once upon a time, a prince was born in the kingdom of Cheshire. Second child to King Des and Queen Anne, and younger brother to Princess Gemma, the prince’s birth was celebrated throughout the land. Villagers rejoiced at the news of the birth of a future king and the celebrations in the streets and towns of the kingdom advanced well into the spring season.

When the celebrations finally ceased, his future betrothal became a great source of gossip and speculation in taverns, with barters made on whether he might marry Princess Taylor, born several seasons past with a mop of bright blonde curls and a cherubic smile. When Lady Kendall was born, there was an increase in bartering in the local taverns and in the castle kitchens on whether King Des would make an advantageous match with the newly monied family from the land far away across the sea.

Yet King Des made no betrothal announcements.

As the seasons passed, Prince Harry turned into a mischievous, delightful toddler. The town was kept busy with tales of the little prince running amok in the castle, stealing biscuits from the kitchens only to be found with crumbs around his cherubic face or racing through the castle away from his poor, harried nanny with loud, excited squeals that made the servants giggle into their hands when they saw him rush past.

All who worked within the castle walls had aided and abetted his youthful hijinks by the year of his tenth birthday, and Prince Harry was truly beloved by all who met him, both to his parents’ delight and dismay as they tried to instil some semblance of obedience into the castle staff. While Gemma was a dutiful scholar, already betrothed at 14 years of age to a prince with whom she’d never met and who lived several days ride north of their territory, Harry was harder to pin down for lessons. He read when he was in the mood; seldom though that was. Teaching him to ride was a lesson in humility for both His Highness and those working in the stables as they worried endlessly about the little prince falling from his saddle and breaking a bone or two. Lessons in gentility were sporadic at best, and yet diplomacy came easily and naturally to the young royal.

When the young prince and princess travelled into the village in their royal carriage, Prince Harry was often seen hanging out of the door, his dimples flashing as he waved excitedly to the villagers who were powerless to resist his enthusiasm, waving back with beaming smiles, hands clutched to their bosoms as they whispered blessings on the royal family. Many a baked pie or loaf of bread were gifted to the boy and his sister as they slowed through the town, and when news spread that those goods had later been passed onto the poorer townsfolk, the siblings snuck even further into the hearts of their people.

Life was idyllic for those first formative years in young Harry’s life, and he spent many an hour daydreaming about running free for just a day, unbound by his duties or responsibilities. At other times he dreamed about the day he would become king, a duty his nanny frequently reminded him about when he was scolded for missing another lesson. His most heartfelt desire was to be known as a just, fair and loving king, worshipped and adored by his subjects, bringing more prosperity to the land of Cheshire and living in a time of extended peace and fortune.

But in the harsh winter that befell his eleventh year, tragedy struck the castle. King Des had been struck down with a fever, and Prince Harry spent long days in his own rooms, staring out of the window as he prayed for good news to find him. But when Gemma stole into his room in the dark of the night, her cheeks damp as she slid into his bed and wrapped her arms around him, Harry knew it wasn’t to be. He pressed his face into her shoulder and wept for his kindly, warm-hearted father.

The castle fell into mourning. Prince Harry held his sister’s hand as their father was lowered into the ground and their mother wept silent tears. The weight of their future fell heavily onto Harry’s shoulders, and he felt it keenly.

From that day, Prince Harry applied himself to every lesson with a single-mindedness that caused his heartbroken mother no end of worry. Queen Regent Anne kept a close eye on the daily reports made to her by her advisors on her son’s progress, and made sure to carve out family time with her children every evening where they would discuss the politics of their neighbouring lands, the troubles of the townsfolk or, if Prince Harry had a particularly pinched look on his face, she would relent and allow Gemma to share gossip from within the household.

By the time Harry reached his sixteenth year, he had grown tall and strong, helped by the frequent physical exercise he had undertaken with the stablehands and training with the knights who served under his mother’s rule. His work with a sword required much improvement, and it was secretly whispered amongst the knights that Prince Harry would never be a master at close combat. His horsemanship though had advanced beyond any of their expectations. The prince was rarely seen without a book in his possession, even during his training, and he was a master of gentility, to his mother’s delight.

He slipped away from his advisors more often than not, and Queen Anne was certain that Prince Harry often snuck out of the castle, roaming the village and the nearby forest without care or abandon. She had no proof, since her son was as crafty and devious as he was charming and sweet. And as long as he came to no harm, she left him to his childish endeavours. Soon enough, his political life would consume his days when she stepped down and as a mother, she was in no rush to steal the rest of his childhood from him.

Besides, when he appeared after his disappearances with bright eyes and pink cheeks, his hair windswept and his humour improved, it was hard to deny her child anything he wanted.

*

In Harry’s eighteenth year, the queen received written threats against her children, found within the castle grounds. A guard was assigned to watch over the prince and princess at all times to their dismay, and Harry’s trips out of the grounds came to a complete halt. But the queen slept a little easier at night, knowing that her well-trained guards were looking after her children.

When Harry was in his nineteenth year, Princess Gemma was wed and she departed with a single tear running down her cheek, her husband sitting by her side in his golden carriage. Harry barely left his rooms for a week, and Queen Anne herself felt like taking to her own bed, so she could hardly blame her son for missing his bright, bubbly sister.

Just before his twentieth year, the prince escaped an attempt on his life by a whisker. The arrow designed to penetrate his heart was true, but Harry’s brave guard pulled him free just in time. The perpetrator was eventually caught by a band of knights, who served justice on behalf of the royal family in a clearing within the forest to the west of the castle. The queen slept fitfully for weeks, until her advisors suggested a solution that soothed her worried brow and yet made her heart ache for her youngest child. But she was a queen, and making difficult decisions for her subjects, including her son, was her duty. And she would do her duty as always, by her father and her late husband, and now by her son.

*

“We’re holding a what?”

“A tournament,” the queen tells her son calmly.

“But we haven’t held a tournament since before-,” Harry breaks off suddenly and turns his face away from his mother’s sympathetic gaze. He has to swallow a few times past the lump in his throat and blink away the wetness in his eyes. Before Father died he finishes silently, and lets the familiar wave of grief roll over him.

“I know, Harry,” his mother says gently.

He hears the swish of rustling skirts before he’s being turned slowly and she enfolds him in her arms. He’s over a head taller than her now, and has been since his eighteenth year. He leans down until his cheek is resting against hers, closes his eyes and simply breathes in.

“It’s time,” she murmurs simply.

“And in whose honour will it be?” Harry asks quietly. All the tournaments they’d held over the years, before his father’s untimely death, had been held in the King’s name. Knights had travelled from near and far to battle each other over three days, until a winner was declared and granted a token from the king – usually a horse from the royal stables or even an offer of land in the realm if it had been a bountiful year.

Anne cups his face and kisses his cheek. “Why, yours of course, son of mine.”

His mother leaves him to drop down into a chair and stare into the fire, pulling his knees up into his chest as he remembers tournaments of years gone past. They’d always been happy times in the castle, with the hustle and bustle of servants as they raced around trying to get everything in order in time, new garments to be chosen with the latest fineries from lands far away and the grandest feasts filling every table in the Grand Hall.

A tournament is a reason to celebrate.

But this time, there will be no king to officiate the formal proceedings. No Gemma for him to sit with and laugh with as they rate the knights throughout the day. No, this time he will have duties. And responsibilities.

Harry sighs and picks at a loose thread on his tunic. Gemma used to tell him all the time that change was a good thing. Usually straight after something awful had already happened and she was trying to cheer him up. Or before something awful happened, like Gemma moving hundreds of miles away. But he’s almost 20 years of age now, and probably past time that he grew up and took some of the workload from his mother’s shoulders to ease some of her burdens.

So he’ll open the tournament and he’ll clap and cheer for every knight that battles on his grounds. He’ll bestow a token on the winning knight and he’ll celebrate at the ball to close the tournament. And he’ll do it all with a smile on his face and as much cheerfulness as he can muster.

But tonight, he’ll stare into the fire and mourn all he’s lost, and all that’s changed since the last tournament held at Styles Castle, so many summers ago.

*

News of the tournament spreads quickly. The servants walk a little faster in the corridors, whispering to each other as they move from room to room. The village is abuzz with excitement, and soon the visiting knights start to arrive and set up camp, stirring up more anticipation as they stride around town, smiling and laughing with villagers and buying new wares. Harry hears gossip that the blacksmiths have never been as busy as they hammer out swords and armour for the new visitors in town.

Harry himself is kept busy with his advisors as they coach him in the correct way to behave at the tournament. He’s given a scroll of rules long enough to reach from one side of the library to the other but he forces himself to sit down and learn them all. He practices his opening and closing speeches so many times that he swears he mutters them in his sleep. And with each knight that arrives in town and registers for the tournament, he has a new name, coat of arms and family history to learn that makes his head spin, and renders him desperate for escape, if only for a few hours, out into the forest where he can be free from rules and expectations.

*

The first day of the tournament dawns with a bright, cheerful sun and barely a cloud in the sky. The weather is warm, and Harry feels a pang of sympathy for all those participating with their heavy armour and wieldy weapons.

Breakfast is a lively affair as everyone chatters and gossips about the tournament and wonders who will be victorious. Almost fifty knights have arrived, which is more than Harry recalls attending the tournaments held within the castle grounds during his youth. Niall has been giving Harry the rundown on almost every knight who arrived over the past week, from Sir Edward with his mismatched armour to Sir Jeffery, who appears to be from one of the wealthier families in the region. Sir Louis seems to be making quite a stir in the knight’s quarters, with his loud laugh and sharp observations, and Sir David is charming the entire village, if reports are to be believed.

As a second son, Niall had been given the lesser title of Duke of Mullingar, while his brother was granted the dukedom of Meath. Bored of country life and in search of adventure, Niall had stumbled into Harry during one of his walks in the forest, and after a very confusing morning of assuming Niall to be a commoner or peasant, Niall had revealed his true peerage and Harry had invited him to stay at the castle as a guest of the prince.

Six months later, Niall had shown no desire to leave and Harry had no wish to send him away. Niall was easy company, happy to sit in silence or regale Harry with tales from back home, depending on the prince’s mood. He had charmed the Queen within five minutes of his arrival, and he was frequently found in the village, boosting the coffers of local taverns as he bought drink after drink for the villagers and serenaded them with his lute or a fiddle he’d borrowed from some kind stranger if he was feeling particularly raucous.

Prince Harry’s trust was harder to earn in these post-assassination attempt days but his love for Niall was true and well-earned. So as Niall whispered in his ear during breakfast, Harry listened and nodded and tried to memorise everything he could. One of the easiest lessons he’d learnt in the past few years was the power of knowledge, and while some of the information Niall passed on seemed useless or merely humorous, perhaps knowing that Sir James was afraid of goats would come in useful one day.

“Have you remembered your opening address then, my prince?” Niall asks finally, when Harry had finished pushing around his porridge long enough that it had congealed and been taken away from him by a disapproving servant.

“Yes,” Harry says, just about masking his sigh. “Tournaments were more entertaining when all the responsibility fell to Father.”

“Well, now it’s your turn so make sure you do your tunic all the way up today,” Niall says cheerfully. He waves a hand towards Harry’s chest, where his white undershirt is showing, as usual. Harry’s never been a fan of the restrictive uniform of royalty, and his mother had shown remarkable leniency with his state of dress for the past three years, so much so that Harry had almost forgotten the formality of these occasions. “Don’t want to distract those knights with a flash of your tantalising skin. They might get their head taken off if they’re staring at your exposed neck rather than concentrating on their opponent, you know.”

Harry bats away Niall’s hands where they’re pawing at his chest and quickly fastens his specially tailored tunic. He’d chosen the material himself – dark blue with a braid of gold threaded through the seams. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he says with a grin. “If anything were to distract them, it’d be these.” He waggles his hands in front of Niall and laughs when Niall just rolls his eyes.

“Well, keep them to yourself then, Your Highness. Sit on them if you have to.”

Harry just gives his friend a leering look that makes Niall snort with laughter. “Perhaps that was bad advice. Just try to remember that you’re the future king and behave accordingly.”

“Spoilsport,” Harry murmurs but he straightens his shoulders a little and reaches up to run his fingers through his hair where it curls down to his shoulders. “Any other advice before I stand up in front of all the nobles, knights and townsfolk and try to not embarrass myself, my family or ruin the legacy of my ancestors?”

“Don’t trip over your big feet,” Niall says seriously, getting to his feet and patting Harry on the shoulder. “And don’t try to jest. You know it always falls flat.”

“Does not,” Harry mutters under his breath before he stands up too and makes his way to his mother’s chambers to escort her down to the royal box. Unlike his own schedule, which demands that he sits through all three days of competition, his mother is only attending the opening ceremony. He’d be resentful of it, except he knows she’s got three days of budget discussions to sit through and he’d rather stab himself in the eye repeatedly than suffer through that particular chore.

“Good morning, son of mine,” his mother greets him as he steps into the room. With her hair braided away from her face and adorned in traditional tournament robes in a vibrant green and yellow, she looks as stunning and youthful as the last time he saw her wearing them.

“Mother, you look beautiful,” Harry says, taking her hands and lifting them to his lips.

“And you look very handsome,” she says with approval, her gaze taking in his buttoned tunic with a pleased nod. “Are you ready for your big moment?”

“Of course,” he tells her solemnly as they make their way through the castle, Anne’s arm resting through his. “It’s about time that I took on some of the royal duties around here.”

“Oh, Harry,” Anne says, and when Harry glances at her he realises with faint horror that her eyes are watering and her smile is wavering. But before he can call for assistance, Anne reaches up to kiss his cheek and hug him. “You grew up without warning me,” she says softly against his shoulder. “To me, you’ll always be my little boy, running in with a scrape on his knee and wailing about how terrible his sister is.”

“Well, she was pretty awful,” Harry mumbles, not meaning a word of it. “Now come on, you’ll make my tunic all damp and I’m trying to make a good impression on our esteemed guests.”

Anne pulls back and straightens out his shirt before she takes his proffered handkerchief to wipe at her eyes. “You’re right, of course,” she says, with a twinkle in her eye. “A good first impression is absolutely crucial.”

Harry gives her an odd look because that statement seems a little too facetious, but his mother just pats his cheek and continues to walk towards the tournament field, leaving her son to hurry behind her and catch up.

A roar from the crowd erupts when they step out into the sun, and both mother and son lift their hand in acknowledgement before Harry helps guide his mother up to her seat. She smiles and waves at the crowd while Harry moves towards the front of the royal box, lifting his hand and waiting for the crowd to quieten before he speaks.

“Nobles, knights and countrymen,” he says, hoping his voice carries to the far edges of the crowd. “On behalf of my mother and myself, I thank you all for coming today. This is the first tournament to be held here at the castle in many years, and we hope it lives up to the noble tradition of its forbearers. The tournament shall last three days, with the winner of each battle progressing to the next stage until there is only one knight left standing followed by a celebration that shall be upheld by a grand feast in the winning knight’s honour, four days hence. I wish you all the very best of luck, and may the best knight win!”

With legs that only shake a little, Harry takes his seat next to his mother and nods at the herald to announce the first round. Niall sits on his other side and helps to make the first few melees pass quickly, with the surviving knights given a pass to the next day’s activities and the losing knights graciously bowing out to receive treatment and enjoy the rest of the tournament. His mother slips away sometime during the first battle, her temperament not suited to the loud clash of swords and the sight of so much blood and injury.

With so many knights taking to the field at once, it’s hard to keep track of who Niall’s talking about as the ringing of clashing metal fills the air. Sir Edward and Sir Jeffery leave fairly early on during the proceedings, and Harry feels a twinge of regret when Sir David leaves during the third melee, his arm hanging uselessly at his side.

He notices Sir Louis, who seems to be a bit of a wildcard with his sword, winning more by luck than judgement and taunting his rivals into making a mistake for him to capitalise on. Harry likes him immediately. There are other knights who stand out simply because of their size, and others who are more skilled, slicing their weapons through the air with grace and ease.

During the last melee, when the field is stained with blood and there is more dirt than grass beneath the knights’ feet, Harry leans in towards Niall and nudges him with his elbow. “Who’s that?”

The knight in question stands out simply because he’s given a wide berth by half the field, and yet his size doesn’t suggest a fierce and strong competitor. He’s about Harry’s height, no bulkier even under his ancient-looking armour and a helmet that looks to have seen too many summers. He’s holding a sword that looks familiar, and as Harry squints at it, he realises it bears the Styles crest.

“That’s Sir Liam,” Niall says, frowning as he looks at Harry. “He’s been a knight here for over a year, squired here since his thirteenth year of birth. You must have seen him around the castle. I think he was assigned as your guard for a time, too.”

Harry leans forward, his elbows resting on his knees as he watches the knight wield his sword, vaguely impressed by the way he downs his opponents with minimal fuss and barely an injury to the fallen knights. “Why are they moving away from him?”

“He’s probably the best swordsman in the Queen’s guard,” Niall explains. “He’s kind of quiet in the ranks, keeps to himself mostly but he has the respect of his fellow knights.”

Harry wonders what this Sir Liam looks like, and whether he’d notice him without his helmet. He’s spent many an hour in the field training with several knights as they’d taught him to ride and fight well enough for a future king, and he’s always been courteous with his guards, unless he was trying to slip past them to escape to the forest. The thought that this knight, this Sir Liam, could have escaped his attention makes a bitter taste form on his tongue. He’d promised himself long ago to treat all those under the royal family’s protection, whether nobleman, knight, villager or passing journeyman, with kindness and respect. He cannot imagine how this knight, who obviously fights with skill and respect, could have been living within the castle grounds for who knows how long without Harry noticing him.

A frown mars his brow and doesn’t lift, even when Sir Liam stands victorious with three other knights and removes his helmet before bowing to the royal box. Harry gets a good look at the knight, and he can see, even through the grime and dirt smearing the knight’s face, that he’s handsome, barely older than Harry himself, with short dark hair that curls slightly around his face and warm, brown eyes that frame a kind looking face.

And Harry doesn’t recognise him at all.

The defeated knights clear the field, and the winners of the melees are lined up together as Harry makes his way down to the field. He shakes the hands of every competitor, and tries not to grimace at the dirt and blood that smears across his skin. He shares a few words with each knight as he makes his way down the line, but his gaze keeps wandering towards the man standing at the end, shifting his weight from foot to foot like he’s nervous. Or possibly full of pent up energy.

“Hello,” Harry greets him warmly when he finally reaches Sir Liam. “Congratulations on making it through to the next round.”

Liam nods slowly, but he doesn’t say anything.

Frowning, Harry offers his hand and watches in bemusement as Liam just stares down at it, without offering his own.

“Oh, um,” Harry mumbles, realising that his hand probably looks even more filthy than Liam’s at this point. He laughs and puts the offending hand behind his back, surreptitiously wiping it on the back of his trousers. “Sorry. So uh, good luck then with the rest of the tournament.”

“Thank you, your Highness,” Sir Liam says quietly, his shoulders hunching slightly as he appears to be staring somewhere over Harry’s left shoulder.

Resisting the urge to look back and try to figure out what Liam’s intense gaze is focused on – unused as he is to attention being diverted from himself - Harry leans on years of training to merely nod slowly and turn to head back to the castle. Except his feet somehow tangle themselves, as his feet are wont to do, and he feels himself lurching forward, resigned to his fate of falling face first in the mud and having to live with the humiliation of the entire village seeing their clumsy king caked in mud and dirt.

A hand reaches out and grabs his arm, firm and ironclad. His hands flail in front of him for a moment before he catches his balance. Sir Liam’s hand withdraws after a moment’s pause, and Harry’s gaze follows the movement.

“Thank you,” Harry murmurs softly. “You just saved my dignity and a year’s worth of mockery from my mother.”

Liam bows his head down again, keeping his eyes on the ground. “I am sorry, my liege, if I overstepped my bounds.”

A bubble of laughter builds up inside of Harry but he wisely swallows it back at the stiffness in Liam’s shoulders. “Not at all, Sir Liam. Rather, you have my undying gratitude.”

A faint blush steals over Liam’s dirt-streaked face that softens Harry’s countenance.

“Sleep well tonight, Sir Liam. Tomorrow will be a long day, and you will need your rest.” Harry offers him a smile, unsurprised when the knight barely lifts his head in acknowledgement. And this time when Harry turns to leave, he even manages to stay upright.

Niall appears at his side just as he steps inside the castle, looking a little smug and far too knowing for Harry’s liking. “So. How did it go?”

“Fine,” Harry says warily as they make their way to Harry’s rooms where he can clean up before dinner. “Were you expecting anything else, my lord?”

“Oh no,” Niall assures him, but his eyes are twinkling and Harry can spot mischief from a mile away. “I just wondered if anyone had caught your eye today.”

Harry has a brief vision of brown eyes and strong hands, but he pushes the thought away and keeps his face utterly blank. “Not particularly,” he says. It’s the tiniest of white lies.

“Not even the dashing Sir Liam, coming to your rescue?” Niall prompts, elbowing Harry lightly in the side as they walk through the hallways together.

“He’s quick, and strong,” Harry allows. “But what does that matter to me? He’ll have to be all that and more to get through the jousting tomorrow. And since his skills seem to favour the sword, perhaps a lance and horse will be his downfall.”

“Perhaps,” Niall says cheerfully enough that Harry glances towards his friend to see an innocent looking smile upon his ruddy face. “Or perhaps not.”

“I suspect you are up to something, Duke,” Harry says with resignation. “But I shall leave you to have your fun and games, for Mother will be demanding my presence at dinner within the hour.”

“Don’t forget that your sister arrives tonight,” Niall reminds him, as though Harry could forget such a happy occurrence. “I’ll send someone up to pour you a bath, for you stink worse than the horses after a long gallop.”

Harry sniffs delicately at his shoulder and grimaces in acknowledgement. “How the knights bear it, I’ll never know.” He places his hand over Niall’s. “Thank you, my friend. Will you be joining us for dinner or does someone in the village take your fancy tonight?”

“An old friend has turned up to watch the tournament and I thought I would drop by to see if I can beg some crumbs from his undoubtedly plentiful table,” Niall says with a grin. “Please give my regards to your mother and sister, and tell Princess Gemma that I will see her bright and early in the morning for a catch up on all the gossip.”

“I know that means you will be telling tales on me, my lord.” He’d long since resigned himself to being the third wheel whenever Niall and Gemma got together, for he was often the subject of all their teasing and mockery. “I will tell my sister that you have grown tiresome and boring, a drunkard who has no grasp on reality and poorer taste than ever in wine, women and song.”

“The princess has more sense than to fall for your tall tales, Your Highness,” Niall returns smoothly before he bows with only the slightest hint of mockery and leaves Harry at the door to his rooms.

Harry strips off and washes the worst of the dirt using the bowl of water on his dresser while his manservant fills the tub for him. Stepping into the almost scalding water feels like bliss, and Harry hums a little ditty he learned from Niall under his breath while he scrubs the rest of his body clean until he’s pink and a little wrinkled.

He dresses in his usual casual attire, since it’s just family for dinner tonight, and he heads downstairs to find Gemma already arrived, sitting with their mother in her drawing room.

“Harry!” She bounces up and rushes towards him, arms outstretched and a big smile adorning her face.

Harry gathers her up, silently cursing all the skirts and finery she’s dressed in as befits her status as the future Queen of Aus. But he twirls her anyway, laughing as she shrieks and begs to be let down. “Missed you, Gem,” he whispers into her ear as he finally acquiesces and lets her find her feet again.

“As I missed you,” she whispers back, before she’s pulling away and sweeping them all towards the dining room. “So what have I missed, brother?”

“Nothing much,” he tells her as he helps his mother to her seat. “Same as ever here, isn’t it Mother?”

“Well, there’s a little more excitement in the castle these days,” she says dryly, cocking her eyebrow at her son. “I seem to recall a big event underway right now, in fact.”

“Ah yes, the tournament.” Gemma’s eyes are shining as she leans forward and waggles her eyebrows at Harry. “Anyone stand out after today’s battle?”

It’s eerily similar to the question Niall asked him earlier, and Harry’s gaze narrows on his sister’s face as he tries to read whatever secret she’s obviously hiding from him. “Not particularly,” he says, mimicking his earlier answer. “Just a bunch of knights in varying states of armour, bashing each other around the head in a pointless melee.”

“I’m sure they’d be delighted to hear of their talents being described as such,” Anne says with a wry smile. “Perhaps someone will stand out after the jousting tomorrow.”

“Oh I love jousting,” Gemma says excitedly, clapping her hands together. “I arrived just in time.”

Harry himself isn’t that thrilled with jousting, probably because he’d tried to pick up a lance once and he’d nearly beheaded himself. They were lot heavier than they looked and even with his skill on a horse, Harry knew he would be no match in a joust for any man.

He listens to his mother and sister as they catch up on missed gossip since the last time they’d exchanged letters over roasted pork. There’s an itch building up inside of him that feels both familiar and urgent, and he’s already working out a route to sneak out of the castle for a few hours of freedom tonight before the tournament begins again tomorrow in earnest.

Harry excuses himself after dinner, begging an early night so he can be fresh-faced for the day ahead. His sister gives him a knowing look but his mother just kisses his forehead, brushes his hair away from his face and wishes him a goodnight.

In his room, he reads for a bit as he waits for the castle to quieten. When he’s certain the coast is clear, he slips out through his window onto the balcony and shimmies down the apple tree growing outside. Then it’s just a quick walk before he’s into the forest, and his breathing eases and his heart immediately feels lighter. He walks with confidence, having trodden this path many times before and he soon finds himself by the edge of a small lake. He sits by the water’s edge and pulls out his book, toeing off his shoes so he can cool his feet in the shallow water. The moon is bright enough to read by and the sound of the forest settling in for the evening calms him well enough.

He’s just splashing his feet when he gets a prickling sensation on his neck. Slowly, his hand reaches down towards where his dagger lies cool against his hip. When he’s got a firm grip, he spins around with the dagger raised, only to find himself alone.

“I know you’re out there,” he calls, although he’s not really sure at all. There’s silence for a moment before a twig snaps just to his left and he sees someone moving towards him. Harry squints a little and then takes a step back, splashing water on the cuffs of his trousers as he realises who he’s staring at. “Did you follow me?”

Sir Liam stares back at him, looking mulish and a bit embarrassed, his face cast in shadows. “Maybe?”

Harry steps out of the lake and shakes his feet a little before he slides them back into his boots, wincing at how cold and wet they still are. “Is that a maybe, or a yes your Royal Highness, I did stalk the prince all the way out into the forest and creeped around watching him from the shadows?”

Liam’s head rears back and he suddenly looks utterly terrifying, out here in the woods where Harry has absolutely no protection save for a small dagger and no one within shouting distance. Harry notes the broadness of his shoulders and the casual strength in Liam that he’d demonstrated earlier that very day.

“I wasn’t creeping around,” Liam says stiffly. He’s staring over Harry’s shoulder again and Harry can’t see clearly but he thinks Liam might be grinding his teeth.

“Well whatever you were doing, you can leave,” Harry says in his most regal tone. He doesn’t care to use it much because he knows he sounds like an arse when he does, but he’s not averse to using it when the occasion calls for it.

“No, I’m afraid I cannot, Your Highness,” Liam says quietly but firmly. “You’re too far from the castle. It’s dangerous.”

“I appreciate the concern, Sir Liam,” Harry says without any truth whatsoever. “But I spend half my time out here in the woods, and no harm has ever befallen me. I am perfectly safe.”

“Not always,” Liam mutters under his breath, causing Harry’s eyebrows to raise in surprise. “I’m truly sorry, Your Highness, but I cannot leave you out here alone.”

“So what, you’ll just sit there behind that tree and wait for me to finish reading my book?” Harry scoffs. His face drops quickly though when Liam merely stalks back into the night. There’s some rustling of leaves and twigs and then utter silence. “This is creepy, you know,” Harry calls.

“Let me know when you’re ready to leave,” Liam calls back grimly.

Harry kicks off his boots and stroppily stamps his feet back into the lake. “Didn’t realise I was acquiring a guard dog during this tournament,” he mutters under his breath. “A big, brawny, dumb guard dog who doesn’t understand basic commands from his future king.”

He splashes his feet idly for a few minutes, but he can’t concentrate on his book any longer. His gaze keeps straying to where he knows Liam is standing hidden away from view.

“Oh fine,” he says huffily, standing up and wiping his feet roughly on the grass. “Sir Liam, I’m ready to go back.”

He stomps back to the castle, not caring how much noise he makes or that he’s behaving like a petulant child. The lake was his special place, and now Sir Liam has ruined it. Possibly forever.

“Goodnight, Sir Liam,” Harry says over his shoulder when he climbs up the apple tree, barely giving Liam a glance before he slams his window shut and draws the curtains for dramatic flair.

*

Harry wakes up tired and in a foul mood. It’s an unfamiliar feeling for him, as he’s usually eager to start his day. But he’d been up half the night, tossing and turning as he’d cursed Sir Liam for ruining his fun. He may have even punched his pillow a few times in frustration.

He’s even more annoyed when he can’t enjoy the purple brocade tunic he’d chosen especially for the second day of the tournament, and even his best golden boots don’t cheer up, and he eventually kicks them off to wear his old brown tattered pair. Breakfast is miserable, even as Gemma and Niall do their best to cheer him up.

“It’s a good thing you don’t have to make any speeches today then, Your Royal Grumpiness,” Gemma says eventually when their plates have been cleared and she can lean back to stare at her brother. “Honestly Harry, what’s up with you today?”

“Nothing,” Harry grumbles before he instantly feels bad and takes a deep breath to try to clear his mood. “Sorry, Gem.”

Gemma gives him a searching look but she lets it drop, at least for the moment. “So are you excited about the jousting?”

“Not as excited as you,” Harry teases her gently with a smile that only feels a little forced. “Although there is something satisfying about watching knights fall on their arses in the mud.”

“Only because it’s not you for once,” Niall says, sipping from his goblet.

“Heyyy, I haven’t been unseated in over a year,” Harry protests. “But yes.”

The gentle teasing continues as they make their way outside where the jousting arena has already been set up and the crowd seems even bigger than yesterday. As soon as Princess Gemma steps up into the Royal Box, a huge cheer goes up. Harry watches his sister leaning forward as she waves and blows kisses to the crowd, and realises that she’s probably missed home almost as much as he’s missed her being here. He steps up beside her and curls a hand around her waist while he lifts his other hand to wave too, and the last vestiges of his bad mood disappear as he gazes down on the happy faces of their people. He blows a kiss to a little girl with flaxen hair and deep green eyes who squeals and turns to hide her face into her mother’s skirts. Laughing, Harry guides Gemma towards their seats and once they’re both seated, the herald steps out to quieten the crowd and announce the start of the joust.

“How many of our own knights are still in the tournament?” Gemma leans over and asks him as the first two opponents trot out on their horses, clothed in the coat of arms of their rider.

Niall leans over Harry, completely ignoring protocol. “Just the one, I believe, Your Highness. His name is Sir Liam, and he presented very well during the melee yesterday.”

“Sir Liam?” Gemma frowns as she scans the field. “I do not know this knight.”

“He’s only been with the guard for the past year. He squired in the stables since his thirteenth year and came of age last summer.”

“And his parents?” Gemma enquires.

“Sir Geoff is retired, and lives with his wife Lady Karen far beyond the forest,” Niall says, because of course he knows Sir Liam’s entire life history. Niall knows everyone’s life story. Harry tries his best not to scowl but he fears his attempts are rather futile. “His two sisters are married, one to the local rector and the oldest to a landowner just across the brook from Sir Geoff’s land. A very respectable family, by all accounts.”

Harry’s about to ask what Liam’s family standing has to do with him winning a horse or a bit of land if he does triumph at this tournament when Gemma pokes him in the side, causing him to let out a very un-regal yelp.

“And you, baby brother,” she murmurs, leaning in close. “What are your thoughts about Sir Liam?”

Awkward, stubborn, annoying, strong and frustrating, Harry thinks. But he can’t say that to his sister, who would pry at just how well Harry knows the knight, and he’d inevitably confess to his whereabouts and misadventures last night. So instead he shrugs and reaches behind him to check that his hair is still bound in the ribbon his manservant had tied earlier. “He seems competent enough, for a knight,” Harry allows. “He wields a sword well. I haven’t seen him on a horse yet, but if he can hold his own today, he could acquit himself well in the tournament.”

“Yes, yes,” Gemma says impatiently. “But what about him? Is he handsome? What is his stature?”

Harry rolls his eyes and looks to Niall for support, but Niall seems to have been distracted by something in the crowd, leaving Harry alone with Gemma’s inquisition.

“I don’t know,” he admits finally when Gemma refuses to back down. “I saw him yesterday and he was covered in dirt, as were most of the winners. He doesn’t seem to be as tall as some of the competitors, but he’s not short either. My height, I think.”

“Oh Harry,” Gemma says, shaking her head and sounding a little sorrowful. “Sometimes I wonder if there is any hope for you whatsoever.”

Harry turns away from her disappointed face and looks out blindly into the crowd. It’s not the first time Gemma’s voiced her frustration with what she believes is his lack of interest in men or women. It’s not like he isn’t attracted to people he meets, he just hasn’t had the time or the inclination to ever take that attraction further. Since Gemma had made a fortuitous match with King Ashton, his mother had barely mentioned Harry’s own prospects, and he presumes that his own future marriage will be of his choosing, when the time is right.

A hand drops onto his knee, squeezing gently. Harry covers it with his own and turns back to give his sister a small smile.

“Hey, there’s still time,” Gemma says quietly. “Let’s just enjoy all these big, strong men falling off their horses and spluttering around in the mud for the entertainment of the masses.”

“And to compete for their honour,” Harry says with a straight face.

“That too,” Gemma allows with a barely concealed grin.

They settle in to watch the tournament, and both siblings rely on years of training to not laugh whenever one of the knights does fall from their horse, getting to their feet covered in dust and mud and trying to keep their dignity intact.

Sir Liam appears halfway through the morning for his first round, his horse draped in the colours of Harry’s family. Gemma nudges him, clearly having recognised the coat of arms but Harry just ignores her and secretly cheers for Liam’s opponent. To Harry’s annoyance, but not to his surprise, Liam is comfortable on his horse, a dark brown thoroughbred, and his strength makes the lance seem light in his grasp. Liam’s first blow misses its mark, and Harry claps for the knight on the other side of the tilt, who raises his hand in victory. Liam seems annoyed, calling for his squire and having a quick conversation from atop his horse before he’s handed a new lance and lining up to charge once again.

Harry doesn’t realise he’s holding his breath until Liam’s lance hits the opposing knight square in the chest, unseating him with such force that the knight goes sprawling into the dirt.

“Not bad,” he hears Gemma murmur next to him.

He watches as Liam climbs off his horse, giving her a quick pat on the rump before he lifts his helmet and strides over to the fallen knight to offer his hand. He helps the knight to his feet and they walk off together as the losing knight rubs at his chest, and Harry drags his gaze away with a small frown.

“A gentleman too,” Gemma says, sounding pleased.

“You’re married,” Harry reminds her, perhaps a bit too sharply.

“I still have eyes, brother of mine.” Gemma rolls her eyes and settles back against her chair for the next competitors to line up. “And he looked handsome enough to my old married eyes.”

And yes, Harry had noticed this time around. But even if Sir Liam was perhaps one of the most handsome knights he’s come across, it didn’t excuse his personality - which Harry had found sorely lacking. With several knights still in the tournament and the need to whittle down the numbers to just two for a final fight tomorrow, there was still plenty of time and opportunity for Sir Liam to lose to a stronger, more fierce competitor.

Except Sir Liam wins his second joust with just one lance, unseating his opponent easily. While the sun beats down on them mercilessly, Harry’s humour is waning and he’s not quite scowling when Liam wins, but it’s a near thing. Of course, his sister doesn’t miss it.

“My dearest Harry, I think there might be something you may have forgotten to tell me about Sir Liam,” she says as the next joust begins. “He does not seem to hold your favour.”

Harry rolls his shoulders and wishes he’d worn something a little cooler for the weather, or that he was at least able to untie his tunic a little. The sun is high in the sky and he’s a little worried about the heavy, hot armour the knights are wearing, as well as the physical exertions they’re making.

“You are mistaken, sister,” he tells her flatly. “I have no acquaintance with Sir Liam.”

“And yet you glare at him when he enters the arena, and pout when he wins,” Gemma counters. “It is most unlike my kind-hearted, easy-going brother to find fault with someone who seems, outwardly at least, to be a shining example of knighthood and gentlemanly manners.”

“Perhaps he’s not as wonderful as he seems,” Harry says sullenly.

“Perhaps not,” Gemma allows. “But until he reveals himself to be otherwise, should we not give him the benefit of the doubt?”

Harry’s only response is to lift a shoulder and drop it heavily, before he turns towards the arena and pretends to give his full attention to Sir Louis, who is squaring off, ready for his joust to begin.

*

The first knight through to the last day is a huge, hulking beast of a man wearing the finest armour Harry can recall seeing throughout the tournament. His name is Sir Nigel, and his family come from a relatively obscure land that Harry only vaguely remembers learning about during his history lessons. When he takes his helmet off, a round-faced, ruddy-cheeked man with several decades under his belt leers back at Harry with a smile that reveals a few missing teeth. Harry returns his bow with a nod and polite clapping before he settles back into his seat and exhales slowly.

“A real looker, that Sir Nigel,” Harry murmurs more to himself than anyone else.

“And a reputation that proceeds him,” Niall mutters back. He’s twisting his hands together and looks a little nervous, so Harry reaches over to twine their fingers together, stilling his movements.

“You look anxious, my lord,” Harry says soothingly. “I’m sure that Sir Louis or Sir Liam won’t come to any harm in their battle tomorrow.”

Niall sends him an exasperated look before he tugs his hand free. “It’s not them I’m worried about,” he says darkly.

“Oh hush, they’re about to start,” Gemma interrupts them and flutters her hands into her lap.

Harry wants to know why they’re both behaving so oddly but the sight of Sir Liam riding out has him closing his mouth abruptly. There’s a modest amount of cheers for him, but it’s nothing compared to the roar that goes up for the popular Sir Louis, who has kept the crowds entertained for the past two days with his quick wit and sharp tongue.

The first run ends in a draw and Sir Louis seemingly goading Liam on from the opposite end of the field. When their horses take off for a second run, Harry completely breaks protocol and cheers for Sir Louis, simply because he’s Sir Liam’s opponent and Harry longs to see Sir Liam at least ruffled. Sir Liam gets a decent shot on Sir Louis but the knight clings onto his horse and the loud guffaw from the errant knight makes the crowd titter in response.

Harry’s definitely not watching Sir Liam but he swears the knight tilts his head towards Harry for a moment before he’s leading his horse to the starting line for the final tilt, lance in hand and poised for battle. The whole crowd seems to hold its collective breath as the horses kick away, gaining speed as the knights lower their lances and lean forward in their saddles.

Harry winces as the sound of a lance snapping in two reverberates in the silence, followed by the sound of a body falling to the ground. But Sir Louis is back on his feet in seconds, before Liam can reach to him, helmet in hand as he reaches out with his other to shake Liam’s. There’s clearly no bad feeling between them as Louis claps his fellow knight on the shoulder and reaches up to ruffle Liam’s hair, giving Harry pause as Liam laughs for a brief moment and swats Louis’ hand away.

Then he’s turning towards the royal box and bowing, as protocol and courtesy demands. Still reeling from the unexpected beauty of Liam’s smile, and the pang in his chest that is definitely not jealousy, Harry turns his face away from the knight and stares pointedly over the crowd. He gets a sharp nudge from Gemma and when he turns his gaze back down to the arena, Sir Liam has left the enclosure and the crowds are beginning to scatter, a faint rumbling among them as they whisper furiously to each other.

He can feel Gemma’s bad temper all the way back to the castle, building with each step they take. Niall had wisely excused himself, after a shake of the head and a disappointed look for Harry that had made him feel a little guilty for his obvious and very public slight towards Sir Liam. Gemma waits though until the doors are closed to round on him, fire in her eyes as she shoves him unceremoniously, causing him to stumble before he finds his balance.

“What is wrong with you?!” Gemma looks spitting mad and Harry gets the oddest feeling that he’s missing some vital information right about now. “How dare you slight a knight’s honour in such a manner? What has Sir Liam ever done to you except fight in your name and for your honour?”

“He’s rude and obnoxious and he’s a creeper!” Harry says without thinking.

“What are you even talking about?” Gemma yells at him. “Niall says he’s one of the most respected knights in the guard and no one has a bad word to say about him! Except you, who has apparently never spoken to Sir Liam before or had any dealings with him to form such an opinion!”

“Now now, what is this?” Queen Anne sweeps into the hallway and ushers her children into the drawing room with a quelling look for both of them that immediately makes Harry feel like a child again. “Why are my two grown up, educated children screaming at each other like banshees in front of the servants?”

“Ask your son,” Gemma says, throwing her hands up in the air like she’s giving up on Harry altogether. “He’s the one who slighted one of the knights that will be competing in the final round tomorrow.”

“Is this true?” Anne asks her son, frowning. “It does not sound like the son I know.”

“He doesn’t even know this knight,” Gemma interjects because she apparently cannot keep her mouth shut. “Sir Liam won his joust fair and square, and showed more gentlemanly behaviour than any of his opponents. Yet when he bowed to His Royal Highness here, Harry refused to acknowledge him.”

Anne gives her son a reproachful look. “I assume you have a good reason for treating this knight thusly?”

The guilt and shame Harry’s been feeling since he walked away from the arena are almost crippling as he looks helplessly between his mother and sister. “This knight, Sir Liam, is one of our royal knights, is he not?”

“He is,” Anne confirms. “He’s been in the guard for the past year, I believe.”

Harry takes a moment to wonder at his mother’s knowledge of a low-ranking knight, before he ploughs ahead. “Well, he must be very ambitious and avaricious then. What would a knight under our guard, who has access to our stables as one of our own, and who must already own land within our borders, want with either a horse or more land?”

Gemma stares at him in confusion. “What are you talking about?”

“The winner of the tournament,” Harry says with a wave of his hand. “Their prize. It has always been a horse, or land. What would a knight who has both want with more?”

His mother sighs and throws him an exasperated look. “I know that sometimes your attention can be diverted, my son, but you have been told by both myself and your chief advisor that the winner of this tournament is to be your husband.”

The word ‘husband’ reverberates around his mind as he stares at his mother in disbelief, getting louder and louder until it’s screaming at him. “My … husband?” he croaks. “What is this - this joke?”

“It is no joke, Harry,” Anne says firmly. “These knights are competing to be the Prince Regent of Cheshire when you take over the throne when you come of age. They will be by your side, protecting you and guarding you from anyone who wishes to try to harm you.”

Still half in shock, Harry blindly reaches down to grab the arm of a chair and lowers his long, lean body into it. “I have bodyguards for that,” he whispers.

“And yet your life has still been at risk,” his mother says, her expression softening a little into something akin to pity. “I know times are peaceful now, but they won’t always be, my son. Your husband needs to be strong, and quick, and willing to put his life on the line to protect the King. Who better to do such a thing than a knight, trained in honour, valour and the duties of war?”

“But there is more to marriage than strength and chivalry,” Harry says desperately. He’d imagined settling down one day, choosing a husband or wife of his own volition, falling in love with courtly letters and demonstrations of passion and adoration. Never had he dreamt of being forced into marriage with a brute, with no declarations of love or even friendship.

“Of course there is,” Gemma says, coming to stand beside him and dropping her hand onto his shoulder and squeezing. He reaches up to cover her hand with his own, ignoring the way it trembles over hers. “That will come in time.”

“Is there no other way?” Harry turns to his mother and pleads with every inch of his body.

“I’m sorry, son,” Anne tells him softly, smoothing her hand through his hair, soothing him a little. “But you will be marrying either Sir Liam, or his opponent.”

Harry stares at her blankly. “I need to lie down,” he says faintly. He manages to stand up and kiss his mother’s cheek, followed by a kiss for Gemma, before he staggers to his rooms on trembling legs. They give out underneath him as soon as he closes the door behind him and he sinks to the floor, hiding his head in his hands as he mourns the future he could have had.

His head spins with images of laughter and joy with some unknown person, mingled with days of dour expressions and rebukes from Sir Liam for all his choices that the knight would undoubtedly disapprove of. He’d be trapped within the walls of the castle, under the guise of it being for his own safety.

Rebellion rises up within him and he’s on his feet before he knows what he’s doing. He quickly strips off his finery and changes into brown trousers and a dark top, which prevents him from standing out too brightly outside the castle. He shimmies down the apple tree and takes care this time to check behind him, wary of being followed as he makes his way down to the stables. The rest of the castle are busy preparing supper and he doesn’t meet a soul on his journey until he pushes open the stable door to find, of course, Sir Liam brushing down his horse.

Too worked up to do anything more than dip his head in acknowledgement, fresh off the rebukes from his mother and sister for his past behaviour, Harry makes his way to the last stall where his horse is whinnying, having clearly scented her owner nearby.

“Shh,” Harry murmurs as he reaches out to stroke her nose. “Fancy a ride, old girl?”

Princess Josephine snickers at him, which he takes as agreement and it takes him no time at all to get her saddled up and ready. He doesn’t look at Liam as he walks past, guiding Josie out and easily swinging up into the saddle. He takes the reins, leaning down to stroke her neck before they set off at an easy pace.

He’d raised Josie from the moment she’d been born, feeling a connection to the long-limbed, gawky-looking black foal. His mother had given her to him as a present, although Harry had already claimed her in his heart and the foal would follow Harry around wherever he went, if she was given half a chance. He’d named her himself, demanding that she be a princess because he argued that Josie was practically part of the family. Gemma had laughed at him, but his mother had simply nodded her head as if her son was making complete sense.

Harry waits for Josie to shake off the nerves and excitement at her unexpected evening adventure before he lets her have her head. She races hard and fast, Harry leaning with her as he urges her forward. His hair quickly unravels from its braid and flows behind him, making Harry laugh as Josie takes a running leap over a stream and heads for the forest. She slows down to a trot as they wind their way through the undergrowth and, without any guidance from him, she stops at his lake. He clambers out of the saddle and pats her damp neck, offering soothing words as he leads her to the water to drink.

Hot and a little sweaty from his ride, Harry unties his tunic and rolls up his sleeves, bending down to dip his hands into the cool water before cupping them to splash some water over his face.

“Much better, hey Josie?” Harry murmurs as he reaches over to stroke her nose, laughing when she pushes into his hand and nearly topples him backwards into the water. “Hey, hey, you know I’m balance-challenged! Stop horsing around!”

He snorts at his own joke and works his hand upwards to scratch behind her ears. “Well, I’ll always have you, hey old girl? You won’t try and marry me off to some stranger, will you Josie girl?”

Josie blinks at him slowly before lowering her head to nose at his pockets.

“Ah, no, haha, no Josie,” Harry says through gasps, trying to push her head away. “No treats tonight, I’m afraid. But I’ll bring you a bushel of apples in the morning, alright?”

Her reproachful gaze has him shuffling his weight from foot to foot before he sighs and takes her reins. He climbs back into the saddle and leads her back towards home with more promises of treats in the morning. He’s distracted enough that he’s almost halfway back to the stables before he glances behind him to find a horse and rider almost a hundred yards behind them. His hands jerk on the reins and Josie tosses her head before Harry gets himself under control, or his grip, at least. His heart is thundering in his chest and he’s grateful that Josephine is one of the highest thoroughbreds in the stables. A few more glances behind him though show that the rider is making no attempt to gain on the distance between them, seemingly happy to follow at a safe distance.

Which is when it occurs to him exactly who his shadow is. Again.

Anger sweeps through him and he urges Josie onwards towards home, nudging her with his heels as he races towards the stables. The wind whips past him, biting and cold despite the season, but still he urges his beloved horse on.

Josie slows as she heads for the stables, hooves clipping on wooden boards before she comes to a pause and lets Harry swing himself down. Even though his emotions are all over the place, he leads her to her stall and rubs her down, throwing a blanket over her hind and refilling her feed with a scratch behind the ears and a soft goodnight before he closes the stall door behind him.

Then he stalks towards Sir Liam, who is just filling his own horse’s feed and waits for the knight to join him outside of the stall.

“What is wrong with you?” Harry hisses, shoving at Liam’s chest and only barely noting the solid feel of muscle beneath his hands. “You have to go into combat tomorrow, this is no time to be out riding! You should be filling your belly and getting an early night!”

Liam blinks at him a few times before his face softens just a little.

It just makes Harry even angrier.

“And why are you still shadowing me?” Harry continues, waving his hand towards Liam’s horse who has his nose buried in his feed and is chomping noisily behind them. “I have managed quite well for the past nineteen years, my lord. I have no need for a babysitter, now or ever.”

Harry spins away, pleased when his footing doesn’t betray him for once, and tries to storm off, only to pause when he hears Liam moving behind him.

“Why are you doing this?” he asks in frustration when what he really wants to ask is why would Liam want to marry Harry when he’s shown no softness towards Harry, no inclination to be his husband at all, and that’s not what Harry wants from a man he’s supposed to lie with night after night, for the rest of his life.

“Because no one else appears to be looking after you,” Liam says quietly.

Harry’s breath stills for a moment, the only sounds filling the air are the two horses as they graze on their feed, unaware of the taut atmosphere between their owners.

Somehow, he manages to put one foot in front of the other until he’s out of the stables and racing towards his bedroom, desperate suddenly to be in the safety and comfort of his bed, surrounded by darkness and the familiarity of home.

*

Harry drops into his seat, swiping his hand through his still damp hair and throws Niall a pleading look.

“Running late, Your Highness?” Niall asks politely. He’s silently laughing though, Harry can tell.

“Overslept,” he mutters. He’d slept better last night than he has in weeks, so much so that his manservant spent twenty minutes rousing him from his slumber. He’d then panicked about his attire for the day – now that he knows he’s the prize in this tournament, his choice of clothing became a much bigger issue – worried that he was flashing too much skin or unintentionally enticing his future husband.

He’d finally decided on wearing the red tunic he’d intended to wear, and he’d even tied it all the way up to his neck. His hair was brushed through for once, and tied back in a fashionable ponytail with a matching ribbon. He’d even allowed his manservant to shave him, something he’d long protested as he was still intent on one day growing a beard.

“You look very nice today, my liege,” Niall says, his eyes missing nothing.

“I thought I would make the effort, as it appears I will be gaining a husband today, am I not?”

“Indeed,” Niall agrees softly. His hand settles on Harry’s for a moment before they turn towards the herald standing in the middle of the arena to announce the two competitors.

Sir Liam comes out first, and he seems as surprised as Harry is to hear the cheers that ring out for him through the crowds. He hadn’t ranked amongst the more popular, charismatic knights on the previous days, but today it seems like he has the crowd’s favour. Harry watches as Liam’s eyes crinkle – whether in a smile or frown, he’s not sure – before he spots Sir Louis front and centre in the crowd, cheering loudly for Sir Liam and by the looks of it, encouraging the crowd to throw their support behind the local hero.

Sir Nigel comes out to polite cheers that barely seem to register with the giant. His face does not soften, nor does he even glance up at the royal box for acknowledgement or favour. Harry frowns; Sir Liam may not be his first choice but even the disagreeable knight had bowed to Harry when he’d entered the arena as is custom.

The two knights line up either side of the herald as he introduces him. Sir Nigel is clearly a head and a half taller than Sir Liam, with size and muscle to spare. He looks practically brutish next to Sir Liam, his expression fierce and without a hint of kindness in it.

Harry remembers the slight softening in Liam’s countenance the night before, and the easy way he’d smiled for Sir Louis. He wonders if Sir Liam would ever offer him such a smile.

The two opponents lower their helmets and pick up their swords and shields before they start to circle each other, moving slowly and deliberately. The first clash comes, a strike of Sir Nigel’s sword heavy on Sir Liam’s shield and Harry flinches a little at the loud noise.

The tell-tale bounce of his knee exposes his nerves, for he’s finally starting to realise that in this battle, Sir Liam is by far the better choice. But Sir Nigel is a brute, strong and deadly with his aim, and he makes Sir Liam seem small and young in comparison.

Sir Nigel lands several blows that Sir Liam manages to fend off, relying on his speed and strength to bear his shield in defence. One particularly heavy blow sees Liam stumble to his knees and Harry gasps, leaning forward and willing Liam to get up, to just get up and fight back. Somehow Sir Liam must have heard his silent pleas because he rolls away and scrambles to his feet, sword raised and ready.

“I think you may have chosen your preferred winner,” Gemma murmurs beside him. Harry wants to shush her but he doesn’t want to drag his eyes away from the horrific scene unfolding in front of him. Sir Liam hasn’t landed a single blow – indeed he hasn’t even attempted to make one – while Sir Nigel hammers him again and again. Sir Liam is quick and lightfooted, but Harry worries anxiously as Sir Nigel tries to wear him down.

“Try not to worry so, my liege,” Niall says, leaning in to place a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Sir Liam has hidden strengths.”

“I’m not worried,” Harry says fiercely as Sir Nigel’s fist comes down on Liam’s shoulder, causing him to roll away once again. He doesn’t miss the wince Liam makes though as he stands, or the way his shield drops just a little, as if the weight of it is becoming too much to bear.

Sir Liam’s armour is starting to look a little beaten and battered, and Harry can only imagine the bruises and cuts that Liam must be suffering. But the knight continues to roll away after each blow, revealing a stubbornness and competitive nature that Harry cannot help but admire, since they are mannerisms that he knows he has himself. In abundance.

The crowd is mostly quiet, oohing and ahhing whenever Liam manages to get to his feet and Sir Louis is still leading the cheers. Harry would like to be cheering along with them, but he cannot outwardly show favour, not when the battle has just two competitors remaining, and he’s too busy trying to stop himself from racing down to the arena to call off the fight and check on Liam’s health.

Eventually, when Liam is finally looking a little unsteady on his feet, a strike from Sir Nigel fails to land on Liam. With the grace of a feline and a force of strength that amazes Harry, considering the beating Liam has already taken, Liam lifts his sword and lands blow after blow upon Sir Nigel, alternating between his sword, his exposed shoulder and his left side, where his sword hangs uselessly. Blows rain down on the giant, who starts to waver from side to side, rolling off-balance.

Harry bites back his cheer but he leans forward, eyes wide as he watches Sir Nigel crumple to the ground, his knees hitting the dirt first before Liam lands one last punch that connects with Sir Nigel’s now-weakened shoulder.

The fallen giant lays sprawled in the dirt, unable to lift his head or even move as Sir Liam sways on his feet next to him. The crowd are on their feet, shouting and cheering for their victorious knight, creating a cacophony of noise so that Harry can’t hear anything around him. He’s on his feet though, clapping as Sir Liam keeps his feet but lifts up his helmet, letting it drop with a thud to the ground as he raises a shaky hand in victory to the crowd. There are bruises forming on his cheekbone and above one eye socket, and Liam’s pressing a hand to his side, wincing as he tries to wave to his enthusiastic supporters. Harry looks away, unable to watch Liam struggling after fighting so valiantly for Prince Harry, looking pale and like his feet could give out from underneath him at any moment.

The crowd quietens, causing Harry to glance back down at the arena. Sir Nigel’s squire is helping him to his feet, and the fallen knight offers Liam his hand, which Liam takes, if perhaps a little gingerly. Then he’s being led away, leaving Sir Liam alone and victorious as he stares up at the royal box. Then he bows so slowly and so carefully that Harry cannot watch anymore, feeling sick and helpless and confused and above all, terribly relieved.

“Niall, he needs assistance,” Harry says urgently, placing his hand on Niall’s arm and squeezing hard. “Send someone down there to help him back to the castle, give him a room and send someone to help bathe and dress his wounds. He needs rest and food and water.” Niall nods, and turns to leave but Harry holds onto his arm desperately, forcing Niall to turn back towards him with a quizzical brow. “Niall, make sure Sir Liam gets the best attention. He is, after all, to be the future king’s husband, and will one day be father to the second in line to the throne.”

It’s the first time Harry’s admitted his future out loud, and his hand trembles as Niall nods again and leaves quickly. Harry feels a bit faint and unsure, but accepting his future, accepting Sir Liam will be his husband, is better for everyone. And he cannot deny, even in his weakest moments, that Sir Liam will be a worthy husband, loyal and brave and honest and true. If perhaps a little stubborn and lacking a little joie de vive.

When he looks back down at the arena though, Sir Liam is no longer before him. He catches sight of his future husband, limping his way towards the exit, ignoring Sir Louis who must have breached the railing and is trying, without success, to offer Liam support.

Sir Liam’s shoulders are hunched and even from here, Harry can see the misery etched upon his beautiful face. Frustrated, Harry shoves his hands through his hair, belatedly remembering that his manservant had tied it up that morning, taking such care to ensure his Prince looked his finest for his future husband. Harry quickly unties the ribbon and lets his hair fall down to his shoulders as he watches Sir Liam disappear out of sight, confused about this man who fought so hard to win, and yet seems to have no interest in Harry at all.

“Mother need not worry about your safety with Sir Liam by your side.” Gemma stands and waits for Harry to lead her off the field. “He will certainly protect you until his dying breath.”

“Whether he likes me or not,” Harry mutters, still smarting from Liam walking away from him.

“Well, have you given him a reason to like you, brother?” Gemma asks reasonably. “If you want Sir Liam’s favour, perhaps you could try smiling at him once in awhile, or having an actual conversation with your husband-to-be.”

Harry gives his sister a pained look, and because she’s evil, she just laughs at him as they walk into the castle, walking away to leave Harry to speak to Niall, who is hanging around in the foyer like he often does.

“Your Sir Liam is being tended to, Your Highness,” Niall says when Harry approaches him. His blue eyes are searching Harry’s for – well, something. “Your mother suggested he take the rooms in the East wing and she sent for the physician, who should be arriving any moment to make sure there is no serious or lasting damage to your betrothed. Who, by the way, hasn’t muttered a single groan or cry, even though he’s so bruised and battered that he can barely move.”

“I guess he’s stoic,” Harry sighs. “Should I visit him?”

“Oh no, he’s in no fit state to be seen by you,” Niall says, placing his hand on Harry’s back and steering him towards the library. “There will be a formal dinner tomorrow, where Sir Liam will be presented as your fiancé to your mother. You can see him then.”

Which gives him an entire night and day to worry about his future marriage and how it was possibly doomed before it even began.

“I do not suppose you want to get drunk and commiserate the loss of my bachelor life?” Harry asks as he’s pushed into a big leather armchair and Niall hands over a copy of his favourite Arthurian tales.

“Aside from that being a terrible idea, what with you needing to be on your best behaviour tomorrow and you know, not being ill with too much mead,” Niall points out with a grin, “I’m meeting someone for dinner.”

“Oh are you?” Harry asks, intrigued as he cocks an eyebrow at his old friend. “The same friend you had dinner with yesterday?”

“Yes, actually it is,” Niall says calmly, but the brazen flush across his pale cheeks gives him away every time. “He came to watch the tournament but I think he might now stay until the wedding celebrations are over.”

“And does this man have a name?”

“Lord Breslin, Marquess of Mullingar.” Niall scratches his chin. “I haven’t seen him since before I left home, as he had been away on a trip for his father. It is good to see an old friend.”

“Tell me, Niall,” Harry says conversationally, crossing his legs casually at the ankles as he settles back into his chair more comfortably, “does this Lord Breslin happen to be a handsome fellow? Tall, perhaps, with clear eyes and dark hair? He probably enjoys an instrument too, I suppose, and can carry a tune. Older? Yes, older I think, with a worldly experience that you long for too.”

Niall stares at him in surprise. “Uh, yes. You have captured him almost completely, sire.”

“Then you shall invite him to dinner soon, and give me sport while I suffer the niceties of my engagement,” Harry says firmly. “No excuses.”

“Yes my Lord,” Niall says, bowing before he takes his leave. He pauses though by the door, turning to see Harry smirking up at him. “If you don’t mind, could I ask how you knew so much about my old friend? Have you met him in your travels?”

“Oh no, not at all,” Harry assures him, his eyes twinkling with mirth. “But you, my dearest Niall, are an open book. And besides, you have a type. A very distinct, very obvious type. At least now I know why.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Niall retorts sniffily before he’s out of the door and leaving Harry with his book, a lot happier now than he had been mere minutes ago. Besides, tomorrow evening seems so far away, so he curls up in his chair, flicks the pages open to his favourite tale of Sir Galahad, and disappears into another time.

*

Harry is just finishing his study in the mirror, turning this way and that to ensure that he hasn’t forgotten anything or that he’s not revealing anything he shouldn’t when a knock sounds at his door. Harry smiles politely at the servant who pops his head into the room, looking a bit bashful and nervous.

“Yes, Felix?” Harry asks gently when the servant makes no other movement.

“Sorry to interrupt, Your Royal Highness,” Felix says in a bit of a squeak. “But I’ve just come from Sir Liam’s rooms. He wanted to know what colour tunic you would be wearing to dinner tonight.”

Harry’s eyebrows raise in surprise. “Well, you can inform Sir Liam that I will be wearing green, for I have been told that it brings out the colour in my eyes.” He gestures to the silk emerald green tunic he’s wearing, one of his finest, with red applique and a silver edge. He’d only chosen it to please his mother, and not for any other reason. Whatsoever. “If Sir Liam would like me to change, then please tell him that this will not be that sort of marriage, and I will continue to wear exactly what I wish to, with or without his approval.”

Felix’s eyes go wide and Harry winces. It would hardly do for the servants to be gossiping in the downstairs kitchens about the future marriage of Prince Harry to his knight.

“No, wait,” he calls when Felix finally makes a move to close the door. The servant waits expectantly. “Please tell Sir Liam that I look forward to seeing him, and I hope his injuries are much improved.”

Felix nods and disappears through the door, leaving Harry to check his reflection once more before he gives up and heads downstairs, only to find his mother and sister already in the drawing room, a goblet of wine in each of their hands and welcoming smiles for him as he walks towards them.

“Ready to officially meet your betrothed, brother of mine?” Gemma asks, holding out another goblet that Harry declines. If he’s going to have to sit through tonight, he wants to do it with all his faculties in working order. He’s never had much of a constitution for wine, which Gemma well knows, and he doesn’t want Sir Liam to think that he’s marrying a lush, or a buffoon.

“Of course,” Harry says smoothly, kissing his mother’s cheek and squeezing her hand. “I hope you find him favourable, mother.”

“I’m sure I must,” Anne says, amused. “After all, I hear he fought bravely for your hand, Harry. How could a mother give her son to anyone less worthy?”

“You seemed perfectly happy to hand me off to the first prince who offered,” Gemma mutters into her goblet.

“Prince Ashton asked for your hand no less than six times,” Anne tells her daughter with a fond smile. “And you, my darling daughter, have been in love with him since your thirteenth year. If I had said yes to the other seventeen proposals I received for your hand in marriage, you would have screamed and shouted until Prince Ashton appeared to whisk you away from your evil mother.”

Gemma sighs happily. “Well, I cannot deny the truth. He would be so unhappy without me to brighten up his days.”

Queen Anne rolls her eyes as the bell for dinner rings loudly through the castle. She lifts her hand and waits for Harry to offer his arm before escorting her to the dining hall, where he notes with barely a raised brow that the servants have used the best earthenware for their guest. Who appears to be late.

“Perhaps he got lost,” Gemma murmurs next to him.

“Perhaps he ran away,” Harry counters, ignoring the swoop in his chest as he wonders if that could really be a possibility.

However, Sir Liam’s arrival is announced a few seconds later and Harry stiffens just a little as he awaits his soon-to-be husband.

The man who appears though is unlike the man Harry has met before. This man is clean-shaven, making him look younger than his years. His hair has been trimmed short, and his lean, handsome face has been scrubbed clean. He’s wearing a dark blue tunic with a silver pattern that Harry covets for a moment before Sir Liam is moving towards his mother, his hand outstretched as he takes hers and bows low.

“Sir Liam, how lovely of you to join us,” Queen Anne offers kindly. “I hope the staff has been looking after your every need?”

Liam escorts her to her chair and waits for her to sit before he takes his place opposite Harry without being instructed. Gemma moves to his right and sits, before the men join her.

“The staff have been wonderful, Your Majesty,” Liam says, his voice roughened from what Harry assumes is probably exhaustion and injury. “I cannot thank them enough for all the assistance they have given to me.”

“And how are your injuries?” Gemma asks as more wine is poured. Harry notes with interest that Liam declines, choosing water instead. “You took quite a beating yesterday from Sir Nigel.”

“He is indeed a skilled knight,” Liam says, inclining his head as the servants busy themselves around them with steaming dishes. “But my injuries are healing, thank you.”

“I am glad to hear it,” Anne tells him, picking up her knife and fork and signalling that the others should do the same. “Your injuries were well won, I hear.”

“Many a wager was had on Sir Nigel,” Gemma says conspiratorially, winking at Liam who just blinks back at her blankly. “It was a pleasant surprise to see Sir Liam still standing at the end of the day.”

“Not to me, Your Highness,” Liam says quietly. He glances over at Harry - the first time he’s even acknowledged his future husband, Harry thinks meanly - before looking back at his plate. “I knew I was going to win. I had no doubts.”

“And that belief has been rewarded,” Anne notes, sounding pleased. “Now Sir Liam, tell me about your family. They live to the north, I believe?”

As Harry listens to Liam telling his mother all about his parents and his sisters, and growing up on their small estate away from the village, he pushes his food around his plate miserably. The knight charms his mother and sister with stories of a boy who turned up every evening muddy and ready to be scolded, who skinned his knees and begged his father to teach him to use a sword since he’d been old enough to hold one. His mother is looking at Liam like he’s already family, and he’s just heard Gemma snort with laughter. Snort.

His mood further deteriorates when Liam self-deprecatingly tells the story of his first arrival in the village with his father, and coming to the castle to apply to be a squire. “It’s all I wanted to do,” Liam says earnestly. “I was but 13 years old and desperate to leave home. To make something of myself and have my parents be proud of me. It took a long time for anyone in the guard to speak to me, probably because I was too eager and too pleased to be cleaning boots and mucking out stables.”

Liam pauses before he flushes. “I probably shouldn’t have said that,” he mumbles.

“Not at all,” Anne tells him with an approving smile. She even covers his hand with her own, careful not to press down against his bruised knuckles. “Hard work and ambition are good qualities to have, Sir Liam. They build character and determination. And they clearly held you in good stead.”

Harry scowls down at his roast chicken, stabbing it with his fork. He’d worked hard, in his own way. He’d spent days learning old texts of history and traditions that had long passed, he’d shaken hands with old men who smiled sycophantically and patronisingly at him, and he’d forgone childhood friends and the freedom of youth because of his royal duties. He’d learned how to be gracious and had an impeccable memory for names and faces, and he was faultless even in the face of extreme rudeness. Everything Harry had learned had been hard to come by for a young boy, despite how easy he might make it seem.

When dinner finally ends, Harry heaves a sigh of relief as Sir Liam excuses himself. He follows soon after, with a reminder from his mother about his duties for the next few days.

Harry trudges through his night time routine, climbing into bed feeling wearier than he has in months. He only has three more nights alone in his bed, before he is expected to share his rooms with his husband. He’s never been very good at sharing – a truth that Gemma could easily attest to – and he cannot imagine how he will share his personal space with someone like Liam.

But it could be worse, he reminds himself as he flops over onto his belly and shoves his hands under his pillow. It could be Sir Nigel sharing his bed and his life. He cannot imagine that Sir Liam, with his faint blushes and warm tales of idyllic family life, would suddenly turn into a monster in the bedroom.

But their wedding, and wedding night, looms on the near horizon and Harry cannot help but worry about what both will bring.

*

Their first official engagement together is a ride through the village in an open carriage. Once again, Felix had appeared at his door to ask what Harry would be wearing, and this time Harry had sent him away with a lengthy discourse on the exact shade of pale pink that adorned his tunic. Poor Felix had looked a little dazed, but Harry was confident that the boy had relayed his message word for word.

Sir Liam is already waiting for him in the hallway, looking dashing in his grey tunic with the shiniest boots Harry’s ever seen. He’s envious.

“Sir Liam,” Harry greets him cordially, nodding as he takes Liam’s offered arm. “I hope you slept well last night.”

“Very well, thank you,” Liam returns stiltedly.

More conversation isn’t forthcoming as Liam leads him out to the carriage and waits for him to sit before joining him. Harry isn’t sure why he expected anything else, based on their previous interactions, but he’d watched with his own eyes as Liam had charmed not only his mother, who never suffers fools gladly, but also his sister, who is notorious for disliking everyone on first meeting (even Niall, which had been incredibly amusing for Harry to watch).

They sit in silence as the carriage pulls away, drawn by four white horses from the Queen’s own stable, and they head into town. Liam’s posture is so rigid that Harry wonders if his injuries are causing him to sit in such an uncomfortable way.

“Would you like a cushion?” Harry asks quietly.

Liam finally looks at him, to where Harry is gesturing to the cushion behind him. “No thank you, Your Highness.”

Harry nods and turns away to stare out towards the village where he can see the streets already lined with crowds as they wait for their first sight of the happy couple. Guilt eats away at him, for no matter his own feelings towards Liam, his people deserve to see a happy prince with his betrothed.

He shuffles a little closer to Liam, who looks a little confused until Harry nods towards the village where they can now hear the excited chatter as they spy the carriage nearing. Slowly, Liam lifts his arm and Harry fits himself into the curve of Liam’s body, pressing as close as he dares without being too intrusive. He smiles widely, lifting his arm as the carriage slows and they make their way through the crowds as they cheer and throw flowers towards the couple. Harry catches a few stems and waves them in the air, laughing as he blows kisses to the children who run alongside the carriage with excitement.

He risks a glance at Liam when they turn a corner, and is surprised to find Liam laughing too, his eyes crinkled in amusement as he holds a wreath made of daisies. He’s throwing the flowers back out into the crowd towards the children, who clasp their gifts from the knight to their chest and beam back at him.

Harry grabs Liam’s hand before he can second guess himself, turning back towards the crowds as Liam’s fingers close around his, warm and secure. Neither of them pull away as they continue to wave through the rest of their excursion, until they alight from the carriage, Liam guiding him down where they can greet some of the villagers with handshakes and acceptances of well wishes and congratulations on their forthcoming marriage.

Harry enjoys these types of royal engagements the most, and he’s always been welcomed and loved by his mother’s subjects. He kisses cheeks and teases children who hide bashfully behind their mother’s skirts. He listens to a farmer’s worries about this year’s wheat crop, and promises to speak to his advisors about an irrigation system that he’s read about that may help the farmer and his neighbours.

As he’s speaking, he turns slightly and sees Liam squatting down to speak to a little boy with brown curly hair, wide eyes and a sweet smile. Liam reaches out to tickle the boy and Harry watches in amusement as the boy squeals and pretends to try to get away. Liam laughs and tugs the boy into his arms, standing up to settle the boy on his hip as he talks to the boy’s mother. He doesn’t even wince as the boy tugs at his hair, just simply reaches up to distract the boy with a flower.

Harry’s torn between being proud that his future husband has been accepted by his people so easily, and in turn seems to exude a warmth and genuine interest for them in return; yet annoyed once again that Liam cannot, or perhaps will not, show him any such interest or warmth.

“The whole village is rooting for you, my lord,” the woman says to Liam as Harry wishes the farmer a goodbye and turns towards his fiancé. “Your mother hasn’t stopped talking about how proud she is of you.”

“My mother is exceptionally good at seeing the best in her children,” Liam says dryly, and Harry moves closer, listening intently. “She frequently forgets how many years she spent yelling at me for being too hyperactive and too focused on learning how to swing a sword.”

“It is the bane of all parents,” the woman tells him conspiratorially before she catches Harry’s eye with a shy smile. “Something that you and Prince Harry will no doubt be looking forward to soon.”

“Allow us to enjoy our time together as husband and husband, Mrs Shaw, before blessing us with children to spoil our peace and quiet,” Harry offers with a laugh, resting his hand on Liam’s lower back as casually as he can manage. “My mother unfortunately does not share this parental problem, as she is more than willing to recite both mine and my dear sister’s every fault from the moment we were born to our behaviour at breakfast this morning.”

“I’m sure that’s not true, Your Highness,” Mrs Shaw offers politely, but Harry can see that she’s trying to hide her laughter.

“Sadly, it is,” Harry says with a sigh. “But unfortunately I have to excuse myself and Sir Liam as my mother is expecting us back at the castle to start wedding preparations.”

“Of course,” Mrs Shaw says, taking her son back from Liam’s arms. “The whole village wishes you both well, sire.”

“Thank you,” Harry says with a smile and a pat of the head for young Henry, who giggles as he hides his face in his mother’s shoulder. “Good day, Mrs Shaw.”

Liam says his goodbyes too, and then they’re climbing back into the carriage, with Liam’s steady hand on his back guiding him into his seat before he joins him and the carriage pulls away to begin the long road back to the castle.

“I think that went well,” Harry offers when the silence in the carriage becomes too much. “You are very good with them.”

“They’re just nice people, like my mother and father,” Liam says. “And I want to make a good impression. I would hate to bring dishonour to your family when they have shown such kindness to me.”

“My mother is very taken with you,” Harry tells him honestly. “And my sister too. I will have to work harder than ever for their affections.”

He’s obviously teasing but Liam looks a little stricken next to him. “I am sure that is not true,” he says stiffly, which abruptly cuts their conversation, the first they’ve managed since their engagement, dead.

Harry looks out across the green fields and sighs in frustration.

*

There’s a flurry of activity in the castle that almost seems normal now, after the hoopla of the tournament, where flowers and food are brought in by the carriage-load and Harry is subjected to more fittings for his wedding outfit, as his mother demands that he be clothed from head to food with no skin showing, to Harry’s amusement. To allow for her wishes though, he decided upon a billowing shirt with ruffles at the neck and wrists and a waistcoat of the finest red and gold silk he could find. His trousers are plain black, and his boots are new and shiny, laced up to his ankles. His tailor had chosen the jacket and it hangs loosely to above his knee, short enough in the arm to show off his ruffled shirt and tight enough to suit Harry’s needs.

As his wedding day dawns, Harry wakes up early to birdsong where his window had been left open after his midnight walk. He knows Liam had followed him, keeping a further distance than he has previously and he’d wondered if that was due to the old wedding day superstition of a husband not seeing his beloved before the altar.

He’s still trying to decide if he finds it creepy or perhaps a bit sweet as he dunks his face in a bowl full of cold water to wake up and refresh his skin. A quick rub of his face reveals that he is in no need of a shave this morning, to his constant annoyance, but he does scent himself with more vanilla extract than he usually allows.

He eats breakfast in his room, and begs a swig of whiskey for good luck from his beloved manservant before he starts to dress, for the last time as a single man, in his room. As soon as the ceremony has concluded, their manservants will move all of Liam’s belongings into Harry’s room, where they shall live together for the time being. If they have children, they will probably have to move to larger quarters, but for now Harry’s rooms will suffice.

Harry keeps darting looks towards his bed as his servant buttons up his collar, feeling an odd mix of wariness and terror and yes, excitement, trying not to think about Sir Liam as a lover because that way leads to nothing but utter madness. If he tries to picture Liam’s strong arms pinning him to the bed, or Liam’s beautiful mouth on his body, lovingly tracing his lean torso, he gets too flushed and has to calm himself down while ignoring the curious looks of his servant.

“You are ready, sire,” his servant says, stepping away so Harry can look at himself in the mirror. His hair is soft for once, choosing to behave itself by remaining bound in the ivory ribbon he’d chosen himself. But he looks distinguished, which is more than he could have ever hoped for, and he feels every inch of his nineteen years.

Then it’s a rush as he’s guided down into the gardens where the ceremony is to take place, and he gives his mother a kiss as he passes her in the aisle, as well as a kiss for Gemma and a handshake for Prince Ashton who arrived yesterday to great fanfare. There are a host of other royals and gentry in the congregation, but Harry barely notices them as he takes his place at the altar, Niall standing behind him with a comforting hand on his shoulder.

He doesn’t realise he’s wringing his hands together until Niall leans in and whispers, “Relax, my Lord, he’s on his way.”

But his shoulders don’t release their tension until he sees Liam walking down the aisle towards him, Sir Louis at his side. Liam stops to smile widely at an older couple, who must be his parents, Harry realises, before he continues to where Harry’s waiting for him.

There’s barely more than a nod of greeting from Liam before the pastor is quietening the crowd and then the ceremony begins.

Not that Harry’s paying much attention because he keeps stealing glances at his husband. Liam is wearing his knight’s robes, looking handsome and strong and steady in a way that Harry can never quite manage himself. His fingers are aching to reach up and touch Liam’s stubble, to see if it’s as soft as it looks or whether it’s coarse and scratchy. But then he’s being asked to recite something and he does, softly, staring at Liam’s birthmark which he’d never noticed before but which sits so pleasantly on Liam’s lovely neck.

He’s partly in a daze as he listens to Liam reciting his own vows, and then they need to exchange rings. They’re just plain bronze, handed down through the family, but something gets caught in his throat when he slides the ring onto Liam’s finger, settling it in place before he has to release Liam’s hand. And when Liam slides his own ring on, he’d been expecting it to feel heavy and awkward on his finger until he grew used to it, but it feels solid and reassuring where it lays.

Then the pastor declares them to be married.

And oh. Yes. They’re meant to kiss to seal the union.

Harry lifts his panicked gaze to Liam’s, immediately calmed by the fixed look in Liam’s eyes as he takes Harry’s hand in his own. Then he lifts their joined hands to his lips, and without taking his eyes off Harry, who is just staring at him in embarrassing thrall, Liam brushes his lips against Harry’s fingers where his wedding band rests.

There’s a collective sigh from the romantics in the congregation and Harry’s not entirely sure whether he expels a breath with them or not. But then the pastor is congratulating them and his mother steps up to kiss them both on the cheek and she’s crying a little and there’s no time to wonder about the kiss. He offers his mother his handkerchief and accepts a hug from his sister and a handshake and clap on the back from Ashton.

Liam’s holding his hand the entire time.

“Excuse me,” Liam says softly, drawing his husband – and Harry tries not to giggle hysterically at that thought – away from his family. “Would you like to meet my parents?”

There’s such an earnest, hopeful look on Liam’s face that Harry melts just a little, although he maybe blames it on the romance of the day and possibly the utter relief that this ceremony is over and Liam is his husband now, for better or for worse.

“Yes, I would be very pleased to make their acquaintance,” Harry assures him, and risks a tiny squeeze of his fingers against Liam’s.

Liam smiles at him.

It’s just a small smile, barely an upturn of his lips, but it’s the first time his husband has smiled at him and Harry’s heart starts to race a little.

“Come on then, husband,” Harry says cheerfully. “I promise I can be very charming when I want to be, and parents adore me.”

“I’m sure they do,” Liam says dryly, making Harry grin back at him before he’s being led towards Liam’s parents, who look as anxious and terrified as Harry feels.

“Mrs Payne, you look lovely,” Harry says before Liam can introduce them. He drops Liam’s hand and takes hers, lifting them to his lips for a kiss.

“And Sir Geoff, it is an honour to meet you,” Harry says, offering Liam’s father his hand. “I can see where Liam gets his handsome looks and gallant manners.”

Karen laughs, her anxiety seemingly forgotten when she reaches for Liam and hugs him tight enough to make even Harry wince in sympathy. “You both looked so handsome up there. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Prince Harry. We were so pleased when Liam wrote home to tell us of your marriage.”

“Not as pleased as I was,” Harry says, reaching for Liam’s hand again because he’s good at charades and playing a role when needed. His hand feels bare now without him anyway. “Liam fought valiantly for my hand, and I could not have married another.”

“Oh,” Karen gasps and Liam’s producing a handkerchief out of nowhere and pressing it into his mother’s hands. “I’m so pleased Liam has someone to look after him. I worry so much when he’s far from home. You’ll take good care of him, won’t you, Your Highness?”

“The very best,” Harry assures her, without a hint of a lie. “There is nothing Liam could want for in this castle.”

“Except for a husband who takes better care of his own safety,” Liam murmurs, quiet enough that Harry’s sure it’s only meant for his ears.

“You’ll just have to continue to watch me then, won’t you husband-of-mine?” Harry murmurs back.

“If you insist,” Liam says dryly and Harry can’t stop the laugh that bubbles out of him.

When he looks back at Liam’s parents, they’re both smiling wide with their own hands clasped.

“I’m sorry to drag your son away, but I’m afraid there are some ceremonial duties we must attend to,” Harry says regretfully. “But we will see you at the reception, and Mrs Payne I insist that you save a dance for me when the music begins.”

“I would be delighted to dance with my son in law,” Karen answers prettily, bobbing into a tiny curtsy that has Harry falling in love with her just a little bit more.

Liam bids them goodbye before Harry drags him away towards the pastor for the signing of their marriage license and other documents that will now recognise Liam as a member of the royal family, registering his family’s coat of arms and other boring stuff that Harry could care less about. But Liam smiles at him and holds his hand tightly and even if it’s just for show, Harry feels a tiny bit better about this whole arranged marriage situation.

*

Harry stares at the feast laid out before them in absolute shock. The tables seem to be creaking with the weight of the dishes laid out upon them. The kitchen must have been working non-stop since the end of the tournament, and Harry makes a mental note to remind himself to visit the kitchen and thank them personally.

The dinner passes quickly, since Harry is hungry enough to keep his head down as he goes through three platefuls of food, and notes that Liam manages four himself. Neither of them tries to make conversation, and soon the dinner is being cleared and the band starts to play.

“I think this is our dance,” Harry says, bowing to his husband and offering his hand.

Liam takes it in his own, and returns the bow before he leads Harry down to the dancefloor, both of them coat-less with their sleeves rolled up. Harry had politely ignored his mother’s disapproving glances and he’d been pleased when Liam had shrugged out of his own formalwear, in what he assumed was the first sign of solidarity in their marriage.

Liam twirls him around the dancefloor in a sweeping circle before gathering Harry into his arms. Surprised at Liam’s grace, Harry lets him lead around the dancefloor, both of them settling into an easy rhythm together that belies Harry’s usual gracelessness on such occasions.

“You’re good at this,” Harry says when he feels comfortable enough to be assured that he’s not going to fall. Or at least if he does fall, that Liam will keep him upright.

“My mother made me learn,” Liam says, a flush creeping up his neck that Harry finds stupidly adorable. “She said that if I wanted to learn to be a knight and a gentleman, then dancing was important.”

“Well, my regards to your mother’s foresight,” Harry says, grinning at Mrs Payne as they twirl past her, catching the tears already falling down her cheeks. “She’s crying again, by the way.”

“She cries at everything,” Liam says, ducking his head a little which just causes his hair to brush against Harry’s cheek. “You’ll get used to it soon enough, I imagine.”

“I think it’s sweet,” Harry tells him, hearing the band beginning to wind down the song. “I’m going to ask her to dance. I hope she doesn’t mind if I step on her toes, I’m usually a lot worse than this.”

“I think you’re doing just fine, my Lord.” Liam sounds embarrassed, but he looks Harry in the eye as the music finishes and they’re left in the middle of the dancefloor, holding onto each other while the room explodes into applause.

“Thank you for the dance, husband,” Harry says, his lips curving up into a smile as he leans in and brushes his lips against Liam’s cheek. Soft facial hair bristles against his skin, answering at least one of his many questions about his now-husband.

They pull apart and Harry barely sees Liam after that, as he’s busy dancing with Liam’s mother and then his own, before Gemma grabs him for a dance. Then he’s circling around the room, accepting well wishes and skilfully declining offers for dinners, pleading a desire to spend time alone with his husband over the coming months. He gets winks and nods in return, but he brushes them all away and feels the tiredness of the day – of the past week if he’s honest – sweeping over him.

He catches up to Liam eventually, who looks as weary as he feels, leaning against the wall and watching couples as they dance past.

“I think we can retire to the bedroom without too many objections,” Harry says, placing his hand on Liam’s back and fighting a smile as Liam jumps almost a foot in the air in surprise. “If you are as fatigued as me, that is.”

“Yes, I think I am,” Liam nods, smothering a yawn. “Your mother won’t mind?”

“She will leer at us over breakfast and tease me for having no stamina, but no, she won’t mind,” Harry assures him. He starts moving towards the doors, pleased when Liam follows him.

Neither of them talk as they make their way through the castle corridors, climbing the stairs towards Harry’s room with slow, tired steps. It’s only when Harry pushes the door open to his bedroom that he suddenly feels nervous, his hand trembling where it rests on the solid wood.

“Well, this is it,” he says brightly to cover his anxiety. “There is a washbowl in the corner, and I’ve cleared some space for your things.” Which are currently in two chests, waiting in the middle of the room by the four poster bed that has Harry swallowing nervously. “I mean, there’s no rush to unpack but. It’s there. The space, I mean.”

“Thank you,” Liam says quietly. His gaze is running over the room, pausing as he sees the open window and Harry definitely does not flush. “Would you like to wash up first?”

Harry nods and strips off his shirt without much fanfare. He might be nervous about their wedding night but he’s never been ashamed of his body. Besides, with the room lit by candlelight, all Liam can see is shadows and flashes of skin so he really doesn’t have anything to worry about.

It’s a relief to kick his boots off, leaving them sprawled across the floor, and the cool water on his skin makes him feel a million times better. He notes with a smile that Liam’s engrossing himself in his trunk as Harry strips naked and changes into his nightshirt, leaving the top untied because he’s not above tempting his new, handsome husband with a bit of flesh to get them in the mood. And he manages not to flush when he climbs into bed and notes the bottle of oil that’s been artfully left on the table for them.

He doesn’t even feel bad when he props himself up on his pillows and watches Liam, his husband – and will he ever get used to that title? – strip off his shirt, revealing a body lean and toned from hard work, with cuts and faded bruises and scars littered across his skin. Harry wonders if Liam might be more sensitive there, and whether he’d let Harry kiss those spots better.

Perhaps later, when they are more comfortable in each other’s presence.

But for now, he enjoys the way Liam’s muscles move when he splashes water on his face, and the way Liam’s cheekbones are emphasised by the shadows cast by candlelight. Unsure of the most seductive pose to strike before his husband turns around, Harry fumbles around for a moment before he decides on putting one of his arms behind his head, the other resting on top of the covers, his eyes half closed in what he hopes is invitation.

He watches Liam pat his face dry before he shirks out of his trousers and Harry gets an eyeful of Liam’s bum. It’s a nice bum, Harry thinks fuzzily, his eyes rooted to the strong muscles of Liam’s thighs as he moves around the room, picking up his own nightshirt and slipping it over his head.

Then Liam walks over to the chaise longue, which Harry tends to use as a dumping ground for all his dirty clothes, and carefully folds all of Harry’s laundry.

It’s weird foreplay, and Harry will have to discover if his new husband has some kind of clean or tidy kinks, but he waits patiently. Until he watches in utter astonishment as Liam climbs onto the chaise longue, looking fairly ridiculous as his long legs hang off the furniture, his head pillowed under his arm.

“Goodnight, Your Highness,” Liam says softly into the darkness. “Sleep well.”

Harry sits bolt upright and stares at Liam, still trying to wrap his head around what the ever-loving hell is happening. “You’re sleeping there tonight?” He can’t keep the disbelief out of his voice. His husband, who fought so hard to win Harry’s hand, and yet can’t seem to stand talking to him generally, doesn’t even want to share Harry’s bed? No, something doesn’t add up.

“I thought it best,” Liam says, keeping his voice low and Harry’s traitorous body can’t help responding.

“And how long will you be spending the night on my chaise longue?” Harry asks, shoving his hand under his nightshirt and squeezing his poor, neglected dick in sympathy. “Is your husband so unattractive to you?”

It’s quiet enough in the room that Harry can hear Liam’s sharp intake of breath, and wonders at it.

“You are very handsome, my Lord,” Liam says, sounding a little strangled. “The most handsome man I’ve ever met, I should think.”

“And yet you spend our wedding night away from me.” Harry can’t help the tiny burst of anger that surges through him. He’d thought that perhaps if Liam wasn’t comfortable talking to him, that maybe they could learn to like each other in the bedroom, and build from there. But apparently his husband is a prude, and doesn’t have any affection whatsoever for Harry.

He extinguishes the candle by his bed, deliberately not looking at the bottle of oil that sits there, staring back at him mournfully. Then he falls back against the pillows, not even bothering to disguise his frustration.

He traces the pattern of wood above his bed, and wonders if he is destined to forever live in a loveless marriage with a brute of a husband who can barely tolerate him, despite the progress he’d thought they were making today.

Clearly, as usual, he was mistaken.

*

Their first week of marriage passes with surprising ease. They sit through Gemma’s gentle teasing at breakfast the morning after their wedding, neither of them saying a word as she points out that they left early before she winks at them both. When she and Ashton leave to head home, it’s almost a relief.

For two people who barely talk, it’s almost effortless to give off the façade of a happy marriage before retiring to bed early and finding a routine that has them in bed almost before dusk falls, the candles blown out and the two of them sleeping on opposite sides of the room. Harry had casually draped a blanket over the chaise longue on the second day, and managed to find some cushions to match the furniture that he assumes Liam uses for pillows. Since his husband still trains with the knight’s guard every day, it could hardly be healthy or safe for him to wield a sword with a bad back or a crook neck.

Everyone falls for the charade. Except for Niall, who corners Harry one morning in the library where he had been reading up on some ancient boundary disputes that seem to have stemmed from a well, and whether it belonged to their kingdom or the neighbouring one.

“Please save me from this boredom,” Harry pleads, putting down the ledger and clasping his hands together in prayer. “Come give me some gossip to feed my soul.”

Niall steps into the room and take the seat next to Harry. “Well, there’s an interesting rumour coming from the servants’ quarters. It’s about you and your lovely new husband.”

Harry’s grin falls and he sighs heavily. “Yes?”

“There was some oil left in your room, to help with your wedding night,” Niall says, his cheeks flushing and his gaze fixed on the floor. “Apparently it hasn’t been touched all week, and is gathering dust in your room.”

“So even the servants know my husband can’t bear to touch me,” Harry mutters. “Great. Perhaps I’ll just borrow a bugle and make the announcement in the village in the morning.”

“Oh, Harry,” Niall says softly, reaching over to touch Harry’s knee and letting his hand rest there. “What happened?”

“He sleeps on the chaise longue,” Harry says, and his laughter only sounds a little hysterical. “Can’t bear to even share a bed with me. I don’t understand, Niall. Why did he want to marry me if he doesn’t want to talk to me and doesn’t want to share my bed either? Was it for the title? The money?”

Niall shakes his head firmly. “Absolutely not. That’s not the knight I know. Are you sure he doesn’t want you? Have you tried talking to him?”

“We don’t really talk,” Harry mumbles. His stomach twists in knots that almost make him double over in pain. “He just apologises a lot and stares at the ground.”

He figures he deserves Niall’s incredulous look. Followed by his loud sigh. “Perhaps you should try again, my Lord. Perhaps he feels alone and unsure in this castle, when he is used to his family’s home or the knight’s quarters. Or maybe he wanted to take the time to get to know you before jumping into your bed. He has been raised as a gentleman, after all.”

Harry thinks back to the tournament, to the way Sir Nigel had leered at him and made him feel distinctly uncomfortable. “Alright,” he sighs. “Tell me what I should do, Niall.”

“Date that beautiful husband of yours,” Niall says simply. He lifts his hand away from Harry’s knee and lifts his mouth into a smirk. “Take him away somewhere private and seduce him with your charms. I’ve been told that your dimples are a weapon to be wary of, by some of the ladies in the village. And I know you can be a charming fucker when you want to be.”

Harry laughs, shaking his head as he covers his eyes with his hand. He feels lighter for the first time in days. Hopeful, maybe.

“So, the question is do you want to be?” Niall asks.

Harry remembers the way Liam had refused to leave him in the middle of the night, despite a direct order from his prince. The scars and bruises on Liam’s body that still haven’t faded entirely. The brush of his lips against Harry’s knuckles when they were declared to be legally wed. The strong arms that had led him around the ballroom. The promise he’d given Liam’s mother to look after him.

“Yeah,” Harry says, closing his eyes. “Yeah, I do.”

*

Harry tries not to abuse his station in life, but he has no qualms about striding into the kitchen and charming the head cook into preparing a picnic basket.

“For you and your husband?” she asks slyly, already pulling ingredients out of the larder.

“Perhaps,” Harry teases her, but his grin clearly gives him away.

He’s soon laden with two baskets full of food and wine that he takes to the stables, dropping them by Josephine’s stall and giving her a quick nose rub and a promise to be back very soon. He then walks into the middle of the battlefield where the knights are practicing, walking straight up to Liam where he’s leading the group. Everything falls silent as the knights bow their heads to Harry, and even Liam drops his head, until Harry reaches over to cup his face and draw it back up.

“I know you are busy, husband,” Harry says, keeping his voice low even though all the knights can still probably hear him. “But we are still on our honeymoon, and I have an urge to spend time with my husband. Could you spare me a few hours, perhaps?”

The look Liam gives him is complicated, his eyebrows knitted together in confusion and his stance defensive. Harry keeps his own gaze steady though, and doesn’t lower his hand from where it rests, his thumb scraping gently across Liam’s jawline.

“Of course,” Liam says finally, stepping back so that Harry’s hand falls away. “Sir Louis, please take over the training.”

“Of course, Sir Liam,” Louis says cheerfully, bounding up towards them. “Anything to support true love and to get that scowl off your face. Please, Your Highness, try to improve his mood somewhat. He’s been a miserable excuse for a knight since your wedding. He must be missing you during the day when you’re apart.”

Harry flushes bright red. “I will do my best,” he manages, before Liam’s tugging him away with a glare for Louis as they go.

At the stables, Harry passes Liam one of the baskets with a small smile. Liam fastens it to his horse before they both swing into their saddles and Liam lets Harry take the lead. Harry keeps Josie at a walking pace, letting her have her head because he knows exactly where she’ll go. Liam doesn’t say a word, although he must recognise the path by know, weaving through the forest with ease. When they arrive at Harry’s lake, he doesn’t bother to tie Josie up, letting her drink her fill from the lake before she wanders off, and Liam lets his horse do the same.

“Do you mind if I-?” Liam gestures towards the lake with a grimace. “I have been training all morning, and I’m sure I am in need of a wash.”

“Of course,” Harry says, swallowing a lump in his throat as Liam starts to strip off his armour.

Harry busies himself with setting out the blanket and arranging the food just right until he’s happy with everything. When he looks up, Liam’s shed all his armour and is dressed in just his trousers and undershirt, looking a bit embarrassed as he shifts his weight from side to side by the blanket.

“What a good idea,” Harry says, kicking off his own boots to join Liam’s and undoing his tunic just a little. “Please, come join me Liam.”

It’s awkward, watching Liam sit on the very edge of the blanket like he’s trying to take up as little room as possible.

“At least you didn’t have to shadow me this time,” Harry teases gently.

Liam’s smile drops a little and Harry sighs. “Well, I hope you enjoy the food. I asked the cook to make all your favourites, as I don’t know them yet.”

He hands Liam some bread and gestures towards the cold meats spread between them.

“I like ham,” Liam says quietly. “All meats, really. My mother always said I had the constitution of an ox.”

Harry helplessly stares at Liam’s biceps. “I can imagine.”

Silence once again falls between them as they eat. Harry catalogues everything Liam puts on his plate, determined to learn more about his husband somehow. His husband eats a lot - his mother wasn’t wrong - but Harry figures that’s only fair as he trains every day too. There isn’t an ounce of fat on him, and Harry only wishes he could say the same about himself.

After they’ve eaten, Harry packs the leftovers away and lies down on the blanket, leaving enough room for Liam to lay next to him, although he doesn’t hold out much hope. He watches Josephine as she wanders around the lake, nosing at the ground and flicking her tail, occasionally whinnying and interrupting their peaceful surroundings. Liam’s horse seems to be following her, eventually catching up and rubbing his face against her neck. Josie whinnies again, but she doesn’t move back.

“Well, at least our horses seem to like each other,” Harry says, turning his face to see Liam surprisingly close, although he’s sitting cross-legged on the blanket.

Liam looks over and laughs as Josie has somehow managed to push Liam’s horse into the lake. “Ace loves water, he’s just flirting with her.”

Ace flicks his tail, causing the water to splash up and hit Josie’s flank.

“He’s a terrible flirt,” Harry muses, flashing his dimples at Liam, who somehow looks a little softer now. “Although Josie’s not much better. She loves male attention.”

It becomes a little easier after that. Harry convinces Liam to lie down next to him, although Liam’s determined to keep a distance between them. He asks Liam about his childhood and he closes his eyes, smiling as he pictures a younger Liam causing mayhem in his parents’ house. He shares a few stories of his own, unable to stop his voice from turning wistful when he recalls his father. But he makes Liam laugh a few times, and when they eventually turn back to the castle in time for dinner, Liam smiles at him and Harry’s belly definitely does a swoop.

Dinner is a lighter affair, with Harry teasing Liam a little, encouraged by the more and more frequent smiles he gets and offers back, in return. When they retire, a little later than usual, Harry lets the back of his hand brush carefully against the back of Liam’s hand, and neither of them pull away.

That night, Liam still sleeps on the chaise longue. But Harry feels like they’ve made a huge step forward today, and he hugs one of his pillows to his chest in hope that perhaps one day, he might convince his husband that he’s desirable, and even worthy of love.

*

Less than a week later and Harry is no closer to enticing Liam into his bed, despite their warming relationship. He’s made Liam laugh no less than 36 times since their first date, and less than half of those were because of Harry’s clumsiness.

He’s learned that Liam isn’t nearly as stuffy as he first appeared. Liam’s sense of humour runs dry, and it always catches Harry by surprise. He’s well-read, with definite opinions on everything from wartime to the best way to build support as a leader. And his husband isn’t shy, exactly. He just needs a little time to warm up, Harry thinks. There’s no shyness when Liam walks around their bedroom half naked, or when he goes out of his way to be kind to the servants as they try to fuss around him. He’s perfectly amiable, in fact. And although Harry has made no attempts this week to escape his room and go for a midnight walk, he knows Liam would get up with him and follow him, despite how tired he might be, simply to make sure Harry was safe.

His husband, he’s learning, is possibly the most chivalrous, gallant person he’s ever met.

And the warmth in his dancing brown eyes when he laughs is utterly mesmerising.

But Harry’s bed remains empty and cold on one side, and Harry’s growing weary of trying to win his own husband’s affections.

“I thought the date went well.” Niall frowns as Harry drops his head into his hands and all but wails.

“It did,” Harry says, muffled by his hands. “But he’s still sleeping on the chaise longue while I wake up every morning – well, painfully.”

Niall snorts. “So you’ve got over your aversion to Liam then.”

“He’s goddamn perfect,” Harry complains, lifting his head and shooting Niall a mournful look. “Help me, Niall.”

“Well, you obviously need to seduce him.” Niall sits back and folds his arms over his chest looking pleased with himself. “Perhaps Liam’s waiting for a sign from you that you are willing to have him in your bed.”

“I think I’ve made it clear enough,” Harry mutters darkly. “But perhaps I could try again.”

“No one could turn you down, my Lord. Not when you’ve set your sights on him.”

“Well, my husband is doing a very good job of completely ignoring my wiles,” Harry grumbles. He gestures to the very obvious red mark on Niall’s neck that he’s completely failed to cover up. “You, clearly, do not suffer my misfortunes.”

Niall’s hand reaches up to cover the mark left by someone’s over amorous mouth. “Perhaps not, my Lord, but at least yours was willing to wed first.”

Harry covers Niall’s hand with his own. “You are worth more, my Lord. Do not settle.”

“I am not, Your Highness,” Niall says sadly. “I think perhaps he is though.”

“Then he is a fool,” Harry declares. “All men, Niall, are absolute fools.”

Niall smiles at him a bit sadly. “Yes, Your Highness. We really are.”

*

Harry reclines on his bed, dressed in his most flimsy nightshirt that he suspects might be transparent by candlelight if he moves in just the right way. He’d taken a bath that afternoon, scented with as many rose petals as he could gather from the gardens, and washed his hair until it was gleaming, falling in soft waves to his shoulders.

He’d excused himself from dinner, feigning an ailment as he’d assured his husband that he was fine and that he should stay and eat. Then he’d rushed upstairs and set the scene, lighting a dozen candles and turning back the bed covers invitingly.

Except he’d mistimed everything and Liam was taking longer at dinner than Harry had first thought, and now his arm was half-asleep where he was leaning on it. But he kept his position, one leg bent behind the other, his eyes pinned to the door as he waited impatiently for his husband to appear.

It’s another half hour of Harry anxiously wiggling his fingers to make sure they’re still attached to his arm before a knock sounds on the door.

“Harry?” Liam’s voice comes through softly. “Are you alright? Can I come in or do you want me to sleep somewhere else tonight?”

“Come in,” Harry calls in his most seductive drawl.

“You sound awful,” Liam says as he walks in and then stops. Just completely freezes as he stares at Harry giving him his best come hither gaze.

“Liam, come to bed,” Harry says, patting the bed next to him enticingly. “We are married, after all.”

Liam just keeps staring at him blankly so Harry shifts a little, and only partly so he can make sure his hand doesn’t go black with lack of circulation.

“Married couples don’t need to sleep on the chaise longue, Liam,” Harry says helpfully. “They can sleep together on the marriage bed and consummate their marriage. I mean, it wouldn’t look good if anyone came into our room accidentally and found you not sleeping in our bed.”

“People don’t just walk into your bedroom, Harry,” Liam says, sounding a little strangled.

“But they could,” Harry pouts. He pats the bed again. “Unless you don’t want to consummate the marriage. In which case it was incredibly selfish of you to win the tournament because I’m certain that I will enjoy sex, whenever I get the chance to have it. And I’d really, really like to have sex.”

Liam’s turned away and Harry panics. “I mean, I could always order you to sleep with me. I am the Prince of Cheshire, after all.”

Liam looks over his shoulder, staring straight at Harry with hurt clear in his eyes. “I’m sorry, Your Highness. But I think I should sleep elsewhere while you are not – feeling like yourself.”

“No, Liam, wait!” Harry calls but the door slams shut before he can get to his feet, tangled in the covers and kicking at them in frustration.

He makes it to the door but the hallway is empty and Liam is long gone.

It’s easy to tell himself that Liam will come back to bed later, when he’s calmed down. Or it is for the first few hours, until the moon is high and Harry is sitting in his bed, alone and cradling his knees to his chest. It takes another few hours of sleeplessness before Harry gets out of bed and changes into trousers and a shirt and steps out of his bedroom, determined to find his errant husband and apologise.

Checking all the unoccupied bedrooms reveals nothing, and neither does a trip to the kitchen or the rooms downstairs. Yawning, Harry makes his way out to the stables, cursing at the cold ground beneath his bare feet, but Liam isn’t there either.

He finds Liam in the knight’s training room. He’s worked up quite a sweat, and Harry wonders how long he’s been there. Liam’s stripped to the waist and barefoot, swinging his sword around in graceful arcs.

“Hey,” Harry says softly from where he’s stood by the door. He waits for Liam to pause and bring the sword down to his side, his shoulders slumping and making Harry feel a million times worse. He moves towards Liam slowly, until he’s close enough to get his hand around the hilt of Liam’s sword and pull it away, throwing it to the ground behind him. “Hey.”

Liam blinks at him with tired, drawn eyes.

Harry gently cups his hand around Liam’s cheek, searching his gaze for a moment. “I’m sorry,” he says quietly. He can feel Liam exhale softly against his cheek. “I’m so, so sorry.”

Liam shudders against him, closing his eyes and it’s easy to draw Liam into his arms, holding on tight as he lets his husband catch his breath, warm and ticklish against his skin. Liam’s hands fist around his shirt and he lets Harry hold him.

“I’m sorry,” Harry repeats, over and over again until Liam pulls back and presses his forehead against Harry’s.

He’s not sure which of them moves first, but he feels the soft brush of lips against his and he can’t help the tiny noise that escapes from his lips, or the way he tries to get closer to Liam. The kiss is tentative at first, neither of them willing to push for more, simply giving comfort and accepting it in return. Then Liam makes a funny noise and Harry finds himself stepping back, and back until he’s pressed up against the cold wall with Liam plastered against his front, giving off enough heat to keep Harry warm and toasty. His fingers are tangled in Liam’s hair and he opens his mouth, inviting more.

Liam obliges, his hands smoothing down to Harry’s hips where they keep him pinned in place while he assaults Harry’s mouth in the most beautifully erotic way until Harry’s panting, breathless as he clings to Liam for dear life.

Liam’s touch gentles, and Harry manages to catch his breath as Liam plants soft, open-mouth kisses against his cheek, jawline and down his neck. “Come to bed,” Harry manages, his hands fumbling blindly to grab at Liam’s. “Please. Come to bed and sleep.”

Liam must nod or make some noise of approval because he steps back and lets Harry lead them both out of the training room, through the grounds and back into the castle. Harry doesn’t let Liam stop until they’re in their bedroom and drags him across to the washbowl. He waits while Liam splashes water over himself before patting him dry and pulling him over to the bed.

“Come on,” Harry urges him softly. “You’re tired. Sleep with me, okay? Just sleep.”

Liam lets Harry manhandle him into bed, barely protesting as he relaxes into the soft mattress and closes his eyes. Harry blows out the candle before he climbs into bed with him, settling himself on the pillow so he’s facing Liam, mirroring the way he’s curled towards Harry. They breathe together, staring at each other until Harry covers Liam’s hand with his own. Then he very deliberately closes his eyes, and waits for a few minutes. When he opens them again, he sees Liam fast asleep next to him, his face relaxed and softened in sleep.

Smiling, Harry closes his eyes again and lets himself drift off too.

*

Harry wakes up to find his husband watching him.

Embarrassed, Harry rubs his hand over his face and tries to hide his smile. “Did I drool?” he asks, only half joking.

“No,” Liam says softly, his lips curving into a smile. He lifts his hand, hesitating before he lays it on Harry’s cheek. Harry just about resists the urge to purr, but he does push into Liam’s touch just a little and smiles back at him. “Is this okay?”

“More than okay,” Harry murmurs before he leans in and kisses Liam softly. “Good morning, husband.”

“Good morning,” Liam mumbles back. “Your Highness.”

Harry laughs and kicks out gently with his foot, connecting with Liam’s shin before he slides down to tangle their feet together. “Is this a kink you have, my husband? Is this something we should explore in bed together?”

Liam laughs at the gentle teasing, to Harry’s utter relief. “No, that’s not one of my kinks,” he assures Harry.

Which just makes Harry wonder what kinks his husband does have. But that’s a conversation for later, or perhaps a wonderful new discovery he’ll make while in bed with Liam.

They only get out of bed because Harry’s belly makes loud noises, since he’d skipped dinner the night before. Getting dressed together is a mix of sneaky looks at each other, laughing and hands reaching out to touch – just to reassure themselves that this new bond between them is real.

After breakfast, Liam has to head down to the knights’ quarter and Harry pulls him in for a kiss that soon turns far too heated for the south corridor. Harry’s mouth is bruised and Liam’s tunic is pulled in all the wrong places, but Harry doesn’t care because when Liam leaves, he glances over his shoulder and smiles at Harry where he’s watching his husband walk away.

The week passes in a blur of sneaked kisses, fumbling hands and long nights spent kissing and whispering to each other under the covers. Harry discovers that Liam is a hand-holder, which Harry takes terrible advantage of. Especially in front of the other knights, although Liam doesn’t seem to be bothered, and neither does his mother. In fact, she sighs happily at them whenever she happens upon them making out where they really shouldn’t be, and just reminds them tartly that they have a room they can go to.

Liam even sneaks up on him in the stables one evening, when he’s checking in on Josie and making sure she’s not being neglected. Hands slip around his waist and Harry leans back, already grinning as he tips his head back and kisses Liam’s delectable jaw.

“You shouldn’t be out here alone,” Liam tells him.

“Hello, husband,” Harry greets him happily, ignoring the faint trace of reproach in Liam’s voice. “You stink.”

“I do not,” Liam says, feigning outrage. His hands dip dangerously low on Harry’s hips, his thumbs only a few millimetres from where Harry’s dick is already incredibly interested in the proceedings. “It’s the stables, Your Highness. Perhaps it’s you who stinks.”

“Lie,” Harry says with a laugh, turning in Liam’s arms to tilt his head up for another kiss. Which of course leads to another kiss, and another. Harry’s a bit blurry on the details as to how he ended up in the empty stall, flat on his back against the hay with Liam grinding against him but he’s not about to protest. It’s been a long, desperate week of feeling Liam’s cock hard against his thigh, or his hip, but they haven’t crossed that line yet. Harry’s been happy to let Liam take the lead, since he seems to have very precise ideas about how and when their relationship should progress.

“We’re going to be late for dinner,” Harry mumbles as Liam mouths at his neck, Harry arching back to give him better access.

“You want to go?” Liam asks, his hand running down Harry’s chest. His thumb brushes against Harry’s nipple, making him gasp and arch up before he shakes his head in firm denial. “Didn’t think so.”

Harry shouldn’t be turned on by the surprising confidence that Liam’s shown in these moments, but he is. God help him, but when his husband growls at him and suggests that they blow off a few royal duties, Harry’s dick gets hard and he forgets everything except the feel of Liam’s stubble scraping against his skin or the way Liam can shift his hips to make Harry groan in desperation.

They’re late for dinner, to Anne’s amusement as she plucks a piece of hay out of Harry’s hair. But she doesn’t say a word, and Harry spends the rest of the meal with his foot hooked around Liam’s ankle, smiling stupidly at everything Liam says even though he doesn’t hear a single word.

*

“I think I might go for a ride today,” Harry says lazily, his fingers tangled in Liam’s hair where he’s lying on Harry’s chest. “I haven’t been to the lake for a while.”

“What time?” Liam’s tracing an outline across Harry’s tummy, over his nightshirt.

“Maybe before lunch?”

Liam hums thoughtfully. “I can probably rearrange a few things.”

“Who invited you?” Harry teases him gently. This thing they’re developing between them is still fragile, easily tipped over with the wrong word or a stray look. And in the quiet early morning, everything seems a little more delicate in their bedroom, as the sun rises slowly through the window.

“Do you not want me to come, Your Highness?” Liam teases back, pulling his arm away as if in offence.

Harry laughs and tugs Liam back into his arms, where Liam settles comfortably. “That’s not what I said, Liam. But I can go by myself, you know. I am fully capable with a sword, and besides, the woods are as safe as the castle itself. You do not need to worry about me, husband.”

“And yet I do,” Liam murmurs, reaching up to cup Harry’s face and pulling him down for a long, drugging kiss that makes Harry want to bury them both under the covers and never emerge. “I worry about you all the time. If something happened to you, Harry, I would never forgive myself.”

Harry’s heart skips a beat at the sincerity in Liam’s voice. “You’re my husband, Liam, not my keeper,” he says as gently as he can. “You have to let me do things by myself, or I’ll be stifled here in this castle, trapped in the tower like a prince in need of saving.”

“Only from yourself,” Liam says, tipping his head back to smile up at Harry. “I thought I had already saved you.”

“From a fate worse than death,” Harry agrees, thinking briefly of Sir Nigel before he shakes his head. “Please Liam, do not worry so. You’ll develop wrinkles and then how will I explain that my husband looks so old when he’s barely a season older than I am?”

Harry’s flat on his back with Liam leaning over him before he can blink. As usual, any show of strength from his husband has Harry breathless and a little glassy-eyed.

“You’re a horror,” Liam tells him with a glint in his eye, before he ducks down to kiss Harry stupid, grinding his hips against Harry’s because his husband is a terrible tease.

And when he walks into the stable after breakfast to get Josephine saddled up, he’s not even surprised to find his husband waiting for him with an apologetic grin and Ace beside him.

“I’m not condoning this behaviour,” Harry tells him firmly. But he pats Ace’s neck and spends a lazy morning making out with his husband by the lake, so really, he hasn’t got too many complaints.

*

It’s halfway through dinner that Harry notices something different about Liam. He’s normally politely listening to Anne talking about her day, or teasing Harry about something he’d done – or not done – that day, or telling a story from his own day training the knights.

But tonight Liam is quieter than usual, and he’s watching Harry intently. He’s trying to be subtle about it, but one thing Harry’s learned about his husband is his complete lack of artifice or subterfuge. There’s no mistaking the way Liam’s gaze follows Harry’s fork as it travels from his bowl to his mouth. Or when it lingers as Harry deliberately flicks out his tongue to lick his lips.

The intensity of Liam’s attention makes Harry shiver every time he looks over at his husband and sees the dark, naked look of hunger on his handsome face.

“Uh, Liam, you said you’d help me with that thing,” Harry says as soon as dinner is finished, pushing his plate away and standing up abruptly.

“Oh, yes, of course,” Liam says, standing more gracefully if no more hurriedly than Harry.

Anne waves them away with a fond smile, shaking her head as the two men hurry away, practically sprinting away the moment they step through the door.

Harry knows Liam’s a faster runner than he is, but he lets Harry lead, a hand on the curve of his back as they race towards their bedroom. Harry fumbles with the knob, cursing when the door won’t budge until Liam lends his weight and they tumble through together. Then he’s being spun around and walked back towards the bed, the intent in Liam’s eyes absolutely clear.

“Please, please tell me I’m getting my hands on your dick finally,” Harry says, just to be sure.

Liam’s answer is to reach for the hem of Harry’s shirt and whip it over Harry’s head before he finds himself falling back against the bed and staring while Liam shrugs off his own shirt.

“Liam, I swear if you are teasing me again …” Harry grumbles, making grabby hands at him.

“No teasing,” Liam promises in a soft voice.

Harry’s mouth actually waters when Liam strips the rest of his clothing away. They’ve been married for almost a month and this is the first time he’s seeing his husband naked, and Harry thanks his lucky stars that Liam is his. He takes his time to look his fill, taking in the broad shoulders he knows so well and the sprinkling of hair across Liam’s chest that he loves to slide his fingers through tapering down to Liam’s lean waist and hips, framing his dick. Harry almost whimpers, aching to touch, to make Liam feel good.

He scrambles to kick the rest of his own clothes away, sprawling out shamelessly across their bed when he’s completely naked. A happy sigh escapes from his lips when Liam reaches out to circle his ankle before tracing a light path upwards. Harry spreads his legs in invitation, humming happily when Liam steps between them and leans down to kiss him.

“Please, Liam,” Harry mumbles, his hands stroking down Liam’s muscular back and tugging him closer.

“Want to take my time,” Liam says, kissing Harry’s jaw before dipping down to suck a horrifically large and beautiful bruise into Harry’s neck. “Make sure I don’t miss anything.”

Harry bites back a groan, arching his body upwards while Liam kisses his shoulder.

Minutes – or maybe hours – later, Harry’s a trembling mess because Liam wasn’t lying. He’s covered almost every inch of Harry’s skin with soft, teasing kisses, lighting fires across Harry’s skin until he’s twisted the sheets in his fingers and he’s begging Liam for something. His dick is leaking over his belly and he’s close to tears with how desperate he feels.

“Shh,” Liam soothes him with a hand on his thigh, squeezing gently.

When he opens his eyes and looks up, Liam’s tipping oil into his hands and Harry almost sobs in relief. He tries to reach down to squeeze himself but Liam gently bats him away with a reproachful look. “S’mine,” he murmurs, sinking down onto his knees between Harry’s legs and nuzzling his cheek against Harry’s dick and breathing in deeply.

Harry almost comes right then and there.

Except then Liam’s teasing him with a finger, stretching him open and Harry digs in deep to hold off.

When Liam pushes into him, it’s slow and steady and with quiet, encouraging words that make Harry feel warm and safe and eager to please. Liam keeps his rhythm unhurried and kisses Harry until he feels dizzy with emotion and want. It’s easy for Liam to pull his orgasm from him with just a few strokes of his dick, and then he gets to watch Liam follow, and catch him in his arms as Liam falls forward when his trembling arms give out.

“S’yours,” Harry mumbles, stroking Liam’s hair as they lay together, damp with sweat and utterly wiped out. “Y’mine.”

He feels Liam’s smile against his neck, and Harry closes his eyes, not even bothering to hide his own smug grin.

*

The nights get shorter as winter approaches, which is fine by Harry because he discovers that Liam is not averse to getting naked on the sheepskin rug in front of the fireplace in their bedroom and letting Harry crawl all over him. It also gives them a good excuse to turn in early, where Harry can sit by the fire, reading his book while drinking his wine, curled up next to Liam who reads almost as much as he does, although his husband’s tastes tend towards war and diplomacy, while Harry reads enough of that during the day. Liam’s also surprisingly warm all the time, like a furnace that Harry can cuddle up to with his cold hands and feet. Liam never seems to mind, which is one of many things that Harry adores about his husband.

All in all, Harry muses one winter's night when he’s sitting by the fire with Liam’s head in his lap, stroking his hair idly, life is pretty idyllic right now. He’s just about to suggest that they retire for the night so he can leer at his husband’s naked bum and maybe see if Liam’s up for a bit of manhandling when something foul rises in his throat. He scrambles to his feet, his hand over his mouth as Liam tumbles to the floor ungracefully and he makes it to the chamber pot just in time.

There’s a hand on his neck, another hand gently pulling his hair back and comforting words being murmured while he retches, feeling utterly awful. He heaves until there’s nothing left in his stomach and he can sit back on his heels, staring miserably at the floor.

“Hey, are you alright, my love?” Liam asks, rubbing Harry’s back carefully.

Harry feels a little like crying. “You’re not going to fuck me tonight,” Harry all but wails, turning his face into Liam’s neck and sniffling.

He knows Liam’s laughing, even if he can’t see his face. “No, my love, not when you’re not well.”

Harry grumbles a little more, but lets Liam pick him up and deposit him carefully into bed, stripping him of clothes with minimum fuss and getting Harry into the nightshirt he hasn’t worn since the night they’d consummate their marriage. Then he empties the chamber pot and rinses it out, placing it by Harry’s side of the bed.

Liam changes into his own nightshirt with a clinical efficiency that has a drowsy Harry frowning. “Were you stripping for me every night? Before that night I found you in the training room?”

Liam’s deep flush is all the answer Harry needs, and he’s still giggling softly when Liam slides into bed next to him and pulls Harry flush against his chest. “Go to sleep, Harry,” Liam murmurs, his hand running slowly up and down Harry’s back. “You’ll feel better in the morning.”

Cocooned in warmth, Harry drifts off easily.

But when he wakes in the morning, he’s still feeling a bit off even though he tells Liam that he feels as good as new and waves him off with a lingering kiss and a bit of a grope of his bum.

When he wakes up feeling off-kilter for the third day in a row, he goes to see the court physician. And he knows, before the good doctor can even say a word, that he’s with child.

“Congratulations,” the doctor offers with a beaming smile. “Your mother will be pleased that your union with Prince Liam has been blessed so quickly. And, of course, your husband.”

Harry just nods numbly, taking the herbs the doctor recommends and shoving them into his pocket before escaping back to his room. Once he’s locked the door behind him, he sinks to the floor and rubs his hand cautiously over his flat belly. He’s deliriously happy, or at least he will be once the shock wears off.

Liam comes by to check on him, bringing soup that he’d begged from the kitchen and a roll because the cook has a soft spot for both of them.

“Everything okay?” Liam asks, watching eagle-eyed as Harry stirs his spoon around the bowl without paying much attention to his food. “You seem distracted. Are you still unwell, my love?”

Harry can’t remember the exact moment Liam started using endearments, but he knows it never fails to make him feel warm and squishy inside.

“Yes, sorry, I’m just a bit tired I think.” Harry offers him a smile. “Perhaps an early night would cure my malaise.”

Judging by Liam’s frown, Harry estimates that they’ll both be tucked up in bed long before the winter sun sets. Not that he’ll be complaining, since he’s already feeling fatigued and will for the next few months if the tales told by mothers and fathers are to be believed.

“Are you sure that’s all, Harry?” Liam asks, lifting his hand to stroke Harry’s cheek.

Harry leans into his touch and watches his husband fretting so lovingly over him. He’d decided earlier to not mention his pregnancy, at least until he started to show and it became unavoidable. His husband has already spent far too many hours worrying about him, and Harry doesn’t want to distract him, or add to his burden.

“I’m sure,” Harry lies, turning his face until his lips are pressing against Liam’s palm. “Do you have to rush back to the knights?”

“I can stay if you need me to,” Liam says immediately.

Harry smiles, closing his eyes. “No, you have a responsibility to your guard, Liam, and you shouldn’t let your husband sway you for a few stolen kisses and cuddles.”

“Perhaps not,” Liam admits, leaning in for a sweet kiss that Harry sighs into. “But that doesn’t make you any less tempting, my love.”

Harry laughs, his eyes bright as he gently pushes Liam away from him. “Go! Go and train those knights of yours. Make sure the castle remains protected and secure.”

“Always,” Liam tells him, getting to his feet a little sluggishly as if he doesn’t want to go. “After all, it hides treasures within.”

“I will pretend that you are referring to me, although I suspect that you mean the crown,” Harry says with an exaggerated frown.

“Perhaps,” Liam says, doing something weird with his face before he slips out of the room.

It takes Harry a few moments before he realises that his perfect, wonderful husband can’t wink.

He laughs for the next ten minutes straight.

*

For the next few weeks, Harry lives in his own little bubble. He keeps stroking his belly when he’s alone, whispering promises to his unborn child that he’s determined to fulfil.

“We’ll tell your daddy soon,” he promises one afternoon when he’s alone in the library. There’s a slight roundness to his belly now that he’s hoping he can pass off as overeating, even though he’s skipped more meals than he’s eaten in the past week. The morning sickness should wear off soon, according to his physician, and as soon as it does, he’ll tell Liam the news and surrender to six months of overprotective nonsense from his husband.

“Prince Harry?” Felix appears at the door and Harry drops his hand guiltily. “There is a visitor downstairs. A Sir Nicholas of Oldham. He says that you’re old friends.”

Harry’s eyes light up and he’s out of his chair like a shot. “Thank you, Felix. I’ll receive him downstairs. Could you bring tea and whatever cake is in the kitchens?”

“Of course, Your Highness.”

Harry hurries downstairs and finds Sir Nick waiting for him, leaning against the stairwell like a ruffian.

“Nick!” Harry greets him with a hug and a beaming smile. “It has been too long, old friend!”

“Indeed, for you seem to have acquired a husband,” Nick replies, pulling back to study Harry critically. “I’m not sure marriage agrees with you, young Harold. You seem paler than usual.”

“Oh, just an ailment that is making the rounds,” Harry says breezily, sliding his hand through Nick’s arm and dragging him towards the sitting room. “But enough about my terrible constitution. Wherever have you been these last few months?”

“My father demanded that I fight in the Northern wars, and then I was waylaid on my way back by a scoundrel who jumped me and stole all my worldly possessions,” Nick says with a sigh, but he’s smiling and he looks well so Harry tries not to worry too much as they settle into their armchairs. “But I made it home eventually, and I have been making my mother very happy by playing the grateful patient.”

“So you’re here because you’ve worn out your welcome then,” Harry teases, leaning back when Felix appears at the doorway with a tray. “Thank you Felix.”

They remain quiet while Felix pours the tea and serves rich slices of cake. As soon as he disappears through the door, Harry’s leaning forward again, his hand dropping to Nick’s knee with the familiarity of old friends. “You have been gone so long, Nick. You have to stay long enough to meet my husband.”

“I’ve heard tales of your Sir Liam,” Nick says around a mouthful of cake. “Such tales, Harry. They cannot possibly be true.”

“They might be,” Harry says with a smile, before he picks up his tea and takes a sip. He leans back against the chair and makes himself comfortable. “What tales?”

“That he defeated a giant,” Nick muses. “That he saved you from a lifetime of drudgery and slavery, married to a brute of a man. He’s quite the hero, out in the country.”

“All true,” Harry tells him. “And he’s handsome, Nick. He’s so handsome. You’ll be green with envy.”

“I’m sure I will,” Nick says, making a face. “You, my old friend, are blessed by the sun.”

“I think I might be,” Harry tells him seriously. “Oh, but I wish you could have been here for the tournament, Nick. I wish you could have been here. I missed you.”

“No one to fool around with and create mischief, you mean.” Nick arches an eyebrow at him while he dusts cake crumbs from his shirt. “But we are serious men now, Harry. You are married, with a husband and duties, while I am footloose and fancy free.”

“And never far from trouble,” Harry sighs wistfully, his hand unconsciously moving to rub his mostly-flat belly.

“I’m not the only one,” Nick says wryly.

They spend the rest of the afternoon gossiping about the men Nick lured into his bed during his time away, as well as the men who he turned away. Nick recounts his memories of war, keeping his anecdotes light and not, as Harry suspects, focusing on the worst of his experiences. Harry tells Nick about his wedding, and possibly drifts off while he’s trying to explain to Nick the beauty of Liam’s biceps.

They stay talking late into the afternoon, when Anne joins them to Nick’s delight, but eventually Nick rises and declares that he must be going or he won’t make it to his accommodation before nightfall.

“Tell your husband that I’m sorry I missed him, and that I hope to meet him soon,” Nick says when he bids them a goodbye. “He sounds too good to be true. I wanted to see such perfection for myself.”

Harry waves him away with an eye roll and Sir Nicholas soon disappears from sight on his white mare with her dainty little brown socks.

“It is nearly time for dinner,” his mother points out as she closes the door gently. “Should we wait for Liam, love?”

There’s a long, loud rumble from Harry’s stomach that makes his mother blink in surprise.

“Uh, maybe we should eat and Liam can have leftovers,” Harry says, guiding his mother towards the dining room. “I’m a growing lad, after all.”

*

There are nights when Liam doesn’t come to bed until late, because he’s busy in the training room or he’s gone for a ride to clear his head after a long day. If Harry falls asleep before Liam comes to bed, he’s usually woken up when Liam slips into bed, and they share soft kisses and lazy handjobs.

He doesn’t know if it’s the baby that makes him so tired, but he doesn’t wake up when Liam comes to bed. And he’s alone when he wakes up, yawning and staring mournfully at Liam’s side of the bed, which doesn’t even look slept in.

Harry thinks no more of it as he spends the day with his advisors to discuss whether the knights training needs to be increased in case the Northern wars make their way down to Cheshire. Harry tries to argue against it, since Liam is already working too hard at the moment. He didn’t see his husband at breakfast or lunch and he misses him. He compromises by agreeing to promote one of the knights so they can lessen some of the burden from Prince Liam’s shoulders, and that’s the best he can do with five sets of beady eyes on him.

Except Liam doesn’t come to dinner that evening either. And Harry does his best to wait up for Liam to come to bed, but by midnight he succumbs to sleep, confused and worried about where his husband could be.

Liam doesn’t appear for the rest of the week. Harry’s seen glimpses of him out on the training field, working from the break of day to dusk with his knights, but he doesn’t see Liam in the castle at all. Harry explains to his mother with a tremulous smile that Liam is working hard, but he’s not sure she believes him as she takes his hand and squeezes it.

He goes to bed tired every night, hoping that the door will open and Liam will tumble through. But he never does, and Harry is left wondering if he ever will.

“What’s going on with your daddy, little one?” Harry murmurs, his hand resting over his growing bump as he lies in bed for the fourth night alone, sick and worried. “Perhaps he’s bored of me already.”

The errant thought haunts him as he falls into a fitful sleep.

*

Harry wakes up alone on the fifth morning determined to try and win his husband back. He’s early to his meeting with his advisors, and he asks a hundred questions that he probably should have asked before, judging by their shocked but pleased expressions. He spends the afternoon in the library reading some of Liam’s favourite, well-thumbed books on politics and has to be dragged to dinner by his mother.

Determined not to be a boring or flighty husband, Harry spends the next two days soaking up every bit of information he can, memorising facts and dates and opinions and debating with his advisors. He spends more time with his mother, letting her tutor him in the art of diplomacy and nuanced conversation.

And every night, he goes to bed exhausted and alone.

*

Harry dresses very carefully on the day of his mother’s birthday. It’s been a week since he’s seen his husband and he’s heartsick and missing him dreadfully. He opts for a looser style of shirt to cover the slight rounding of his belly and tugs his riding boots on in anticipation of the annual birthday celebration of a hunt within the castle grounds. But more important is that today is the day he will finally see his husband once again. Liam’s attendance in the ride is mandatory, and Harry is starved for the sight of him.

He manages to kiss his mother’s cheek at breakfast before he wolfs down his porridge, then he’s off to the stables to his mother’s bemusement, brushing Princess Josephine down and mucking out her stall to save time later when they return. Ace whinnies whenever Harry walks past him and greedily snatches the apple Harry offers him out of his hand and allows Harry to rub of his neck.

Harry’s the first ready, fighting a blush of anticipation as he waits impatiently where they always gather for the start of the hunt. Niall joins him looking tired but chirpy and soon the rest of the gentry has arrived with his mother arriving last. But there’s still no sight of Liam.

“Where is that husband of yours, my Lord?” Niall asks quietly, keeping his head turned so that they’re not overheard.

“I do not know,” Harry says more heavily than he wishes to. He suffers the sympathetic and curious look Niall gives him but he then turns his gaze towards the stables. Hoping.

Even when the herald gives the call for the hunt to begin, Harry stays stubbornly in his saddle, keeping Josephine in place while the rest of the party kicks away. It’s only when he’s in danger of losing sight of them that he nudges her into a trot, but his heart isn’t in the ride. Not when Liam hasn’t turned up, offering more humiliation to his expectant husband but also slighting the queen herself.

He trudges around the forest keeping half an ear on the calls of the hunt, getting deeper and deeper into a thicket that he knows better than anyone. He knows he’s moping but he doesn’t know how he can win his husband back when he seems to have disappeared with a stealth and determination that he would admire if it wasn’t so adverse to his own wishes and desires. He also knows that the longer he spends alone during this hunt, the less time he’ll have to spend avoiding Niall’s searching gaze that sees far too much, or avoiding his mother’s questions at Liam’s absence.

The call for the end of the hunt is the only thing that drags Harry out of his morose meandering and he heads back to the meeting point, only to spot a very familiar face talking to his mother, their heads bowed together where they’re trying to converse from astride their mounts. Harry breaks into a grin, unable to stop himself from lighting up at the first sight of his husband in too long. He digs his heels into Josie’s flank and drives them forward, paying no attention in his eagerness to reach Liam. Just a few yards away, Harry calls out Liam’s name and his breath catches when Liam turns, his face blank and so very unlike the husband Harry has grown to know.

He’s not sure what causes the lightheadedness, or how he could be so foolish as to let the reigns slip out of his hand.

Everything turns dark, Liam’s name dying on his lips.

*

He awakens in bed – his own – to furious whispers and a chill that chases through his body, despite the warm covers he’s cocooned under and the crackle of the fire.

“He’s pregnant?!”

Harry groans, trying to shake his head as he reaches out to Liam’s voice. He’d wanted to tell his husband himself, to see his eyes light up and watch as Liam reverently stroked his belly, drawing him close as they bonded over their child. But now the physician has ruined his moment and Harry will be having words over such an indiscretion.

“He hasn’t been taking the herb I prescribed,” the doctor says.

The herb, Harry realises guiltily, that he’d shoved under his pillow and forgotten all about in his distress over Liam’s enduring absence.

“I was not aware of his condition,” Liam says stiltedly. Harry hates that tone. He’s worked hard to eliminate that tone from Liam’s voice and he’d thought he’d done a wonderful job. “I will make sure he takes the herb every day, doctor. Is there anything else he should be taking, or that he may need?”

“Just plenty of rest, water and food, since it looks like he has been suffering from pregnancy sickness,” the doctor says and Harry can hear the creak of their bedroom door as it opens. “Look after him, Your Highness. His constitution is not as strong as it appears.”

“Thank you doctor,” Liam murmurs, and then the door closes, leaving the two of them alone for the first time in what Harry thinks might be forever. Or at least, that’s what it’s felt like.

“My constitution is fine,” Harry grumbles drowsily into his pillow, the one that still smells a little like Liam. “Strong as an ox, I am. Doctor doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

The bed sinks down and Harry manages to open his eyes long enough to see a pale, worried-looking Liam watching him. If Harry had the strength to reach up and smooth his thumbs over Liam’s terribly unkempt eyebrows, he would.

“Harry, you fainted,” Liam says, a hint of scolding in his voice. “If I had been a little slower, you would have hit the ground and hurt the baby.”

“Baby is fine,” Harry counters sleepily. He wishes he could ask Liam to pet his hair but Liam sounds too angry for cuddles. “Wanted to tell you myself.”

“Well, that’s of no concern now,” Liam says flatly. “Now we just have to do whatever is best for the future of the child.”

“What does that mean?” Harry asks, his eyes flying open as he tries to sit up, weak as he is. It’s embarrassing how easily Liam pushes him gently back against the mattress.

“It means that we need to decide where to go from here,” Liam says, not looking Harry in the eye.

“I don’t understand what you mean, husband,” Harry murmurs, his heart pounding dangerously loudly in his chest at the look in Liam’s eyes. “I do not know where you have been for the past week, but I demand that you sleep in this bed with me every night, as you should have been. I will not have my husband gallivanting with the knights while his pregnant husband waits at home.”

“Of course,” Liam says stiffly. “Whatever you wish, Your Highness.”

Harry’s hand moves to cover his belly unconsciously. “That is what I wish,” he says unsteadily, refusing to cower in the face of Liam’s apparent disdain to spend time with him. “For now.”

Liam’s head bows slightly before he’s up and moving towards the door. “I will call for some water and soup. And then you must take the herb the doctor gave you.”

Harry nods jerkily, looking away as Liam slips through the door, unable to watch another barrier separate him from his husband when it seems like there are too many already.

*

Harry spends a week in bed, despite his vocal protests and attempts to get up. After spending a week apart, his husband appears to have completely changed his mind and won’t leave Harry’s side for a moment. Harry slowly gathers his strength and spends a lot of time talking to the baby, ignoring Liam where he sits in the armchair by the fire.

Liam doesn’t touch him unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Harry’s almost ready to jump out of his skin by the sixth night, staring at the ceiling while Liam fidgets on the chaise longue which he’s decamped to once more. He waits as patiently as he can until Liam’s movements finally cease before sliding out of bed and changing into warmer clothes. Quick stolen glances reveal Liam’s face still peaceful with sleep, caught by the dying flames of the fire, but when he slips through the door he doesn’t spare a single look back.

The castle is cold and quiet, his footsteps echoing on the stone floor as he makes his way towards the kitchen and unlocks the door that leads out towards the side gate. It’s with sure feet that he walks towards the forest, breathing a little easier as he passes familiar sights until he’s by the lake, drawing his layers close while he drops to the ground, his back resting against one of the old trees, and he relaxes for the first time in weeks.

A snap of a twig has him up on his feet, one arm curling around his waist while the other reaches for the dagger hidden in his waistband.

“It’s more dangerous than ever for you to be out here alone,” Liam says quietly, finally coming into view.

Harry sags back against the tree and slides back down until he can rest his arms on his knees, sheathing the dagger before he eventually looks up at his husband who looks rumpled, like he dressed in a hurry and raced after him.

Harry refuses to acknowledge the warmth that spreads through his body at the thought.

“For someone who doesn’t want anything to do with their husband, you make a good shadow,” Harry says flatly. “What do you care if something happens to me out here? At least that way you’d be free from your entrapment in a marriage you clearly don’t want.”

Liam stumbles over a tree root, drawing Harry’s confused gaze because of the two of them, Harry’s the only one who trips over his own feet. He’s never seen Liam be anything more than graceful, trained, he supposes, from years of swordplay footwork and balance. He takes the blanket Liam offers him, more out of surprise than anything else, and shuffles over to sit on it since the ground is still wet from an earlier downpour.

Liam, however, drops to the ground opposite, leaning back against a rock and kicking his long legs out towards Harry. Silence falls between them and yet Harry cannot draw his gaze away from Liam where the moonlight catches the right side of his face, leaving the rest in shadow. Liam’s staring at the ground, unmoving and yet as restless as Harry’s ever felt from him.

“You are wrong, my Lord,” Liam says finally, his voice pitched low and quiet but Harry hears him clearly in their undisturbed copse. “I do not regret our marriage. At least, I do not regret it from my end, only that it causes you such unhappiness and distress.”

Harry shakes his head, weary and disheartened.

“I fear I want you too much,” Liam blurts out and Harry’s head whips up at a painful speed but Liam is still staring down, avoiding his gaze. “I fear I make you uncomfortable with the strength of my feelings when you do not share them. You have made it clear that you did not wish to gain a husband from the tournament. You wanted someone else.”

“Who?” Harry manages to ask while he reels from Liam’s confession. “Who, Liam?”

“Sir Nicholas,” Liam says despondently. “I overheard you when he came to visit. I did not mean to, I would never trespass on your private conversations, but I was about to walk in when you told him that you wished he had been here for the tournament.”

“Sir Nicholas wouldn’t enter a tournament to win a husband, particularly if the husband was me,” Harry says slowly. His brain is still filtering through what Liam’s telling him. “If anything, Sir Nicholas would want to be the prize, not the winner. I wished for his presence at the tournament to give me an insight into my potential suitors, and to make me laugh when I was in need of humour.”

Liam glances up at him at that, before his eyes lower again, his lips curving down at the edges. “The baby,” he says haltingly. “You did not tell me that you were with child. And you did not take the herbs that would have kept you both healthy.”

“I did not tell you because I wanted to wait to tell you when the time was right,” Harry says. He places a protective hand over his belly, watching as Liam’s eyes zero in on the movement. “I love children. I love our child. I love you, you big idiot. I didn’t always, but I do now.”

“Because of the baby,” Liam says softly and something in Harry just breaks.

His hand scrambles on the ground and he throws the first thing he finds at Liam. Liam looks up in surprise as a shower of leaves drift down in front of him. They’re quickly followed by a few rocks that Liam bats away, a branch that nearly takes his eye out and Harry’s boot.

“Stop it! Stop trying to leave me!” Harry yells, fumbling to untie his other boot furiously. “I don’t want to be alone! I don’t want to be without you!”

“Harry,” Liam murmurs, suddenly appearing in front of him, his hand covering Harry’s where he’s got his laces twisted around his fingers. Harry’s breathing heavily but he stills his movements, eyes flashing at Liam even as he breathes in his scent and aches to tug him just a little closer. “What if I stayed?”

“That’s all I want,” Harry says fervently. He falls back against the tree stump because all the energy he’d worked up seems to have left his body, making him feel weak and tired. “That’s all I ever wanted.”

“You’re-” Liam’s hand lifts to stroke Harry’s face, smiling when Harry rubs his cheek against Liam’s palm. “You’re all I ever wanted. Since I heard about the tournament, all I could think of was that this was my chance. My only chance. I couldn’t let anyone else have you because they wouldn’t be able to protect you like I could. Love you like I could.”

Harry’s face must reflect his blank astonishment because Liam sighs heavily before he smiles at him. A real, genuine smile that warms Harry from inside. “I’ve been in love with you for most of my life, I think. I’ve lived in the same grounds as you since my thirteenth year and you never even knew who I was. I would have died that day in the forest if that arrow had pierced your heart. If I hadn’t pulled you away in time, I probably would have thrown myself into the nearest tavern to drink myself into a grave to follow you.”

“That was you?” Harry’s world is spinning, but he’s got his hands twisted in Liam’s shirt, keeping him close and grounded. He tries to remember that day, but it’s all half-glimpses and fuzzy memories of people yelling and crowding around him. “Liam, I don’t remember you. How could I not remember you?”

“It was my very first day on your guard.” Liam gently strokes his hands up and down Harry’s back, practically holding him up since Harry can’t seem to stop himself from leaning into Liam’s space. “And afterwards, I was placed on your night guard immediately because that’s when you were deemed most vulnerable. I know these woods almost as well as you do now.”

“Prince Liam,” Harry says as haughtily as he can manage when he’s grinning so wide he feels stupid with it. “Were you a creeper? Were you falling in love watching me while I slept in my bed?”

“Well, it is when you’re most angelic,” Liam says with a shrug, laughing when Harry pouts up at him. “Besides, you first kissed me in the training room. Perhaps you only want me for my body.”

“But it’s such a nice body,” Harry muses teasingly before he gestures to himself. “Unlike me. I’m going to get big and fat and you’re going to leave me for the first travelling knight with kind eyes.”

Liam appears to contemplate that for a long, painful minute before he shakes his head and laughs, sliding his hand around to press gently against Harry’s rounded belly. “Not my type. Besides, you’re beautiful. You’ve always been beautiful and you’ll always be beautiful. To me.”

It starts with a sniffle that he tries to cover up. But then the tears start to fall and Harry throws himself forward with abandon, knowing his husband will catch him.

“It’s hormones,” he wails as Liam lands with a soft ‘ooft!’ on the ground, Harry sprawled on top of him.

“Okay,” Liam tells him breathlessly, tucking an errant hair behind Harry’s ear before he pulls him down for a soggy and slightly desperate kiss.

“I love you,” Harry murmurs against his mouth. He feels Liam’s lips curve into a smile beneath his and he lifts his head to beam down at his husband. “Now, take me home to bed, husband. My bed has been cold and lonely of late.”

“Your wish is my command, husband,” Liam murmurs softly. “Always.”