Take a breath.
The only option is to succeed.
Red streaming down.
Heavy enough to fall.
Jared knocked his head against the stone wall at his back, the cold hard rock punching a little wakefulness back into him. He couldn't trip up now, not after everything he'd endured to get this far. The cold nights, the hunger, the lies and deceit, the physical altercations… He was a skilled thief to be sure, but stealing his way into Castle Ackles was no mean feat by anyone's standards. He attributed his 'luck' mainly to the current unrest amongst the nobility – tensions were frayed, people were questioning the King's ability to rule, and (more importantly) the King knew it. The eyes of interested parties were looking towards the Prince and wondering whether he would step up despite his father's desperate stranglehold on the throne. The Prince was still young by kingly standards, but if he made known his will to fight the King for power he would surely win. Jared had only ever laid eyes on him from a distance, but he had no doubt that he'd know the Prince on sight. He'd heard enough stories about his 'prettiness', but also of his cold demeanour. Even the merchant-classes and peasantry nicknamed him Ice Prince as they gossiped – Jared had overheard enough of it in his travels.
But none of it really concerned him in the end. Jared was there to kidnap the Prince, icy temperament or not.
Another day or two's reconnaissance would have been his preference, but when Jared had caught wind of the move-up in schedule, he'd had to do the same. Duke Harris's daughter had supposedly been secreted into the castle in the hope to arrange a hastened marriage, and the usurping of the crown would then take place in a matter of days. Jared couldn't let that happen, however. He'd been ordered not to let that happen.
Of course, his haste was to his detriment. Having not had time to study the guard turnover more thoroughly, he'd miss-stepped and ended up on the wrong end of a cat-and-mouse chase. He'd finished off the two pursuing guards in the end, but not without a vicious knife wound to the shoulder for his trouble. Dark blood had stained the entire right side of his tunic and was even still seeping slowly down his arm, but he'd already made too much of a fuss. He had to get the Prince and get gone before the guard's bodies were discovered and the entire castle was put on high alert.
Edging along the hallway, Jared slowed as two nearby voices drifted along the breeze.
"We could have… We could still work something out to benefit the both of us, but you refuse to talk to me, or anyone else for that matter. Spirits damn you, Jensen, but I might as well be having this conversation with the curtains. You're the one with the royal standing here, and I fail to comprehend why you won't do anything!"
"What would be the point? My saying something would change nothing. My father… he would… He finds me loathsome – you know that well enough by now. And his advisors are like serpents from the pit. I've learnt my lessons over the years. If I stick my head out I'll get bitten, that's just the way it works."
"And you can't risk getting bitten one more time even if it's for your own gain?"
"There's nothing about this situation that I would necessarily say is for my own gain."
"We've known each other many years by now, Jensen. I've always been aware of your chronic pessimism, but I must have missed the moment when you became cruel."
Danneel walked away, embroidered satin shoes clicking on the stones underfoot, but Jensen made no move to turn after her, uncaring that she was unhappy with him even if it reinforced his apparent 'cruelty'. It was true that they had known one another since they were children, but the Duke's lands were many days' ride away and they had only ever visited on special occasions over the years. He had no idea why she acted as though she knew him so intimately, even less so on the matter of their too-soon-to-be marriage. Yes, perhaps it could help calm things down from a political perspective, but his father's inner circle would still be full of vipers and he didn't trust them as far as he could throw them. More to the point, because the King and the Duke already had an amicable relationship, his and Danneel's prospective marriage was seen as little more than a convenient transaction. Though, naturally, they would need to produce a male heir for everyone to be satisfied.
Fisting the sides of his cloak, Jensen began walking in the opposite direction. He had never – would never – voice his distaste at the thought of sharing a bed with Danneel. It wasn't her specifically that made his stomach roil (rather, she would be the best of a bad lot) but it was the principle of the thing. Having to force himself to perform such an act, especially for the good of the country, and with the potential of a child being involved…
If only his younger sister Mackenzie were given half a chance – only twenty-two and already ten times the politician Jensen could ever hope to be. The royal courts always made excuses, something about her being a woman or too young or whatever else, but Jensen knew the nobles kept her away out of fear more than anything else. If only she could get her claws in just a little bit, she'd have their treacherous asses drawn and quartered faster than they could blink. His sister could solve all their problems if only she weren't a pretty, young female.
He was far from being the first prince (or princess) to face such a fate, but his heart and mind were already hanging by a thread. Perhaps Danneel would have understood had he explained, though perhaps she would not have. Mackenzie was the only one who knew his secrets, but she had secrets of her own – they had an understanding. Still, Jensen couldn't take the risk, not in such unstable times.
He'd been exceptionally careful about his trysts over the years. Same-gender relationships weren't technically forbidden, but certainly it felt that way. As his father had grown more hateful over time, his list of 'dislikes' had grown to include certain habits and proclivities, and the King had enough ammunition as it was to fire hate and humiliation in Jensen's direction. At least by now Jensen felt he'd heard it all before, and therefore it couldn't hurt him any worse than it already had. He'd learned how to let it run straight off his back, how to build a wall around himself so that the attacks couldn't penetrate. It was a survival skill.
Jensen uncurled his fingers from the plush material of his cloak, smoothing things down as he stepped around the corner. Had he not been staring at his own boots he might have seen it coming.
Fingers tearing into delicately stitched finery.
The twisting and turning of bodies.
The glint of a blade.
An unclear face – a mask of speed and brown hair.
The threat takes hold.
The guard's timetable might have eluded him, but the layout of the castle did not.
With his dagger pressed to the Prince's side, just barely out of sight, Jared guided them both towards the westernmost point of the castle. He urged Jensen down the staircase and the Prince went almost too easily, taking them down, down, and out to the royal stables. While still on castle grounds they were mostly safe from running into more guards, and since they were largely on alert for dangers coming from outside of the walls, Jared could only hope that that meant his getting out would be easier than his getting in. He was hindered enough as it was, his right arm still very injured and essentially useless.
He picked the first horse still saddled, urging the Prince to free the animal from its stall. Jensen remained oddly blank-faced as Jared moved about, checking that the reins were secure and that they weren't being watched. It wasn't until Jared pulled the iron cuffs from his belt-bag that the Prince seemed to clue in to what was going on.
"You're kidnapping me?"
Jared wondered if he should be concerned that his holding a knife to the Prince's back had elicited so little reaction. "That's about the gist of it, yes."
Jensen's expression returned to its 'neutral' position, apparently already resigned to his fate. Jared concluded that he must have been coached on how to act in the event of such an emergency – it was the only explanation that made sense. That is, from everything Jared had seen and heard, Jensen was not dim. His behaviour was surely some kind of play, which meant that Jared would have to keep an even closer eye on him.
Putting his knife away, he set about cuffing Jensen's hands behind his back then getting him onto the horse. Jared swiped some stray blankets from another stall and draped them around Jensen to hide his face and body, then mounted the horse behind him. With Jensen's hands at his back he would have to rely on Jared for balance, and that gave Jared some encouragement that he wouldn't be able to do anything too stupid – not unless the Prince decided he was desperate enough to throw himself bodily from the horse. And Jared hoped he wasn't. His orders had been to bring the Prince back to his Master in pieces if he had to, and dead weight was as heavy as it sounded. He knew from experience.
They escaped with a mere few guards attempting to chase them on foot. Jared made sure their tracks wove back and forth in effort to confuse anyone who followed, only making a brief pit-stop to retrieve his travel pack from where he'd hidden it amongst some bushes earlier in the day. His arm continued to cause him great pain, every gallop of the horse eliciting another throb of the wound, but Jared knew they couldn't stop so soon, and so they rode into the night.
The horse eventually came to a stop when even the waxing moon wasn't enough to light their way. The hay-ridden blankets hanging over him only allowed for a narrow scope of vision, so Jensen listened attentively as his captor dismounted and started moving around the small clearing they seem to have stopped in. The man's movements came accompanied by a lot of hissing and grunting, and Jensen determined his theory to be correct – that his captor's clothing was indeed covered in his own blood and not someone else's as he'd initially supposed.
Soon enough his makeshift hood was pulled down and the man helped Jensen down from the saddle, obviously not intending to remove the heavy cuffs from his wrists. And so all Jensen could do was sit and watch as the man rustled around in the near-dark for some kind of kindling, building a small fire. It seemed to be as much for the light as for the warmth, and thus Jensen could see all too clearly as the man peeled his clothing from his upper body, exposing the wound in his shoulder.
"Do you have a medical kit?"
Jensen wasn't sure what it was that made him speak up, though it probably had something to do with the ashen complexion and glassy eyes of his captor. He looked on the verge of passing out. And being that they were hidden in a forest in the middle of nowhere, Jensen's hands still chained behind his back, he didn't want to fathom what kind of trouble he'd be in should his captor keel over from blood loss.
"I have a few bits and pieces. Why?"
The man looked properly curious, which Jensen supposed was the correct response. It wasn't every day that a prisoner willingly offered help to his captor.
"I've studied some aspects of medicine, including open wounds. Being that I'm at your mercy, it's in my best interests that you be alive and breathing, so I'm hoping you might let me help you."
Nodding but wary (and clearly too worn to deny the offer) the man pulled a key from his belt, unlocking the iron shackles. He wasn't so quick to trust, however, as he then re-locked one of Jensen's ankles to his own. He then produced a pouch filled with 'bits and pieces', exactly as he'd indicated. Had Jensen been in another time and place he might have laughed.
Still, Jensen treated the stabbing injury as best he could with the limited supplies, cleaning it, packing it, and covering it up. It offered him the perfect opportunity to study the man, to note his roughened hands, his shabby belongings, and, of course, admire his physique. He was strong and well-muscled, but not with the bulk of a labourer, nor a swordsman's one-sided strength. Rather, he was toned and lithe like an assassin – a particular sort of form that Jensen recognised from meeting one of his father's secret brigade once upon a time. His captor even had the scars to match, though Jensen was more concerned about the dark bruises blooming down the side of the man's ribcage. He could only figure he'd had a run-in with some castle guards at some point, and Jensen wondered how many bodies he'd dropped.
Jensen held back a sigh at the thought of the castle. Perhaps he should have been more upset than he was, having been kidnapped and all. But despite it having been his home all his life, Jensen felt little tying him to that place. He felt no loyalty to an overblown stone monstrosity that housed no warmth within its walls. Since childhood he'd been reminded constantly that he would be King one day, yet how could he inspire strength within a monarchy that only made him - the Prince - burn with resentment. His sister was more forgiving, strangely enough, but last he'd heard she was off somewhere to the east – the King's sub-standard attempt at keeping her nose out of his business.
He met his captor's eyes as he announced himself finished and pulled away from the other man's body. For some unknown reason he wanted to confess his thoughts right then and there, pour out all his rage onto this stranger until he was left empty. But even when he opened his mouth, the words refused to come. He knew should have been angry, fuming mad that he'd been suddenly ripped out of his life without so much as a by your leave. Instead he was just… void of energy.
The shackles were re-fastened - one cuff to his ankle and one to his wrist. It made getting comfortable awkward, but Jensen was too weary to really care. Putting the fire to his back, he pulled his cloak more firmly around him and attempted to sleep.
Jared slept fitfully, though thankfully the Prince seemed to have done a good enough job that his wound didn't hold the heat of infection. He woke with the dawn and set about dressing himself in clean clothes while the Prince slept on. With Jensen having made do with his plush (and no doubt very expensive) cloak, Jared had been able to monopolise the blankets he'd stolen from the royal stables. They were made of sturdy enough wool that they ought to last him a long time, even despite him sleeping on the ground.
Eventually he had to nudge the Prince awake. Jared was hesitant to linger in one place for longer than necessary, especially when the castle would be aware by now that Jensen was missing. He passed the Prince a small portion of stale bread and cheese that he'd had stored in his pack, keeping a little for himself. Neither of them spoke as they ate their poor excuse for a meal, Jared thinking that he'd have to keep a look out for small game on their journey so that their dinner that night wouldn't be another non-event.
Kneeling at Jensen's feet, Jared could feel eyes on him as he rearranged the shackles so that the Prince's hands were secured at his front this time – the smallest inkling of trust. He decided to take the chance that if Jensen hadn't struggled or tried to run thus far, that he would continue to behave. Perhaps it was a foolish thing to do, but something in Jensen's demeanour told Jared that he had no intention of making a getaway – ridiculous as it might sound.
Helping Jensen onto the horse, Jared then mounted behind him. Without the blankets and a pair of cuffed hands in the way their bodies sat much closer together on the saddle, and Jared was all too aware of the Prince's body heat radiating onto his chest and thighs.
"I suppose I should ask where you're taking me."
It wasn't voiced as a question, but Jared took his time in answering all the same.
"To see my master."
"He has some business with me, then?"
"My master gave me orders, I am following them."
"Fair enough," Jensen replied with a slow nod. He remained quiet for a mile or two, and then spoke once again. "He must want me for something unpleasant if he sends a thief to steal me away in the night."
Jared bit down on his tongue. "Seems logical."
The Prince turned slightly, enough that Jared could see the sceptical rise of his eyebrow. "You won't tell me of your master?"
"Ask me again tomorrow."
"Mm. You'd think I'd be used to being in the dark by now," Jensen muttered as he turned back to face the road ahead, "Yet here I am suddenly full of questions."
Sighing, Jared gave in just a little. "All I will tell you for now is that my master wanted you out of the castle before the wedding could take place."
The Prince's response was muffled, but Jared decided it sounded something like 'Him and me both'.
"Just answer me this one thing, then, and I will stop with the interrogation."
"You and I have very different ideas about what an interrogation is, but ask away."
"What's your name? I assume you know mine already…"
"My name is Jared. Now be quiet."
It was oddly pleasing to finally put a name to the face, and Jensen gladly honoured his promise to be quiet.
The world passed them by at a steady gallop, the sun already beginning to dip towards the horizon. Jensen could tell they were heading south towards the borderlands, but that information meant little in the scheme of things. He was still clueless as to who Jared's master might be, and there were countless reasons as to why someone might have wanted to sabotage a royal wedding. He would just have to sit tight until the players revealed themselves.
And Jensen could have slapped himself. His lack of self-preservation was astounding, even to himself.
The shadows lengthened and the temperature dropped, his face flushing against the cool wind. Jared was hot against his back and Jensen had to stop himself from seeking it out further, lest Jared take it the wrong way. Not that Jensen would have minded Jared having his way with him, since he was all too close to his 'type', but the thief was still an unknown quantity and the last thing Jensen wanted was to upset him. Not to mention he was a reckless fool for even thinking such a thing – he was still a prisoner for Spirits' sake.
They had been travelling through farmlands for several hours when Jared brought them to a stop by a clear stream, though it was hidden well enough by the surrounding trees that they would have some cover as they rested. Jared unlocked one of the shackles and bid Jensen to wash, then he disappeared before Jensen could see where he went. They reconvened a while later, Jensen still slightly damp, and Jared sitting by a small fire, puzzling over what looked to be a small fowl and an even smaller pile of vegetables.
Jared watched, more than a little baffled, as Jensen took charge, preparing both the bird and the vegetables with Jared's knife, then dumping them all into single cooking pot that he travelled with. What eventuated was the best meal he'd had in weeks. This Prince with the cold green eyes was even more of an enigma than when he'd first held him at knifepoint.
"You have an odd array of skills for a Prince."
"During my childhood the healer and the kitchen staff were the only ones who gave me the time of day, so…"
He could pinpoint the exact moment when Jensen appeared to realise what he'd said and quickly clammed back up again. But with each little piece of him that Jared picked up, the picture he was forming of Jensen showed nothing of the entitled brat he should have expected the Prince to be. Rather, there was something both lonely and bitter about him, a combination that threatened to make Jared pity him. It made him wonder if maybe the Prince wasn't so keen on being the Prince in the first place. If maybe kidnapping him was the greatest outcome Jensen had never thought to wish for. And if so, Jared had no idea how to react to that.
He couldn't let his guard down, though. Not quite yet. Jared had been played before and he'd learned his lessons that hard way. That said, he didn't believe that Jensen was putting on a performance, not unless he was the most incredible actor Jared had ever come across. He didn't believe that at all, not in this instance. But for Jared it would always be hard to kick that sense of doubt.
Their routine from the previous night repeated itself – Jensen treating his wound, Jared securing the shackles, both of them sleeping with their backs towards one another.
Two days down, three to go, and Jared's heart was crippling itself with anxiety.
Another day riding. Another day with Jared's heat at his back and Jensen fighting his inappropriate erections.
His stomach was in knots with all the conflicting emotions he felt towards Jared – the fear, the desire, the worry and uncertainty. Somewhere in the back of his mind he could hear his sister's voice saying to him, 'You've got balls, Jensen, why don't you use them for one in your damn life!' She was never one for pulling punches, and she was the one person who's anger he could abide. Which was a good thing, since his indifference towards just about everything often drove her to madness.
His thoughts were interrupted as Jared brought the horse to a stop, helping Jensen to dismount. It was a similar sort of location to the previous night's – the shelter of trees and the sound of water nearby. They got a fire going and Jared presented him with freshly picked mushrooms and what looked like some disfigured root vegetables, then he quickly disappeared in the direction of the stream.
Resigned, Jensen chopped the vegetables as best as his handcuffs would allow and dropped them into the little pot of simmering water. He watched the little coloured cubes floating about, an odd sense of accomplishment drifting over him. Even in such an unreliable situation he'd cooked this meal with his own two hands – the simplest of pleasures, but a pleasure nonetheless. He scolded himself for it, but that didn't stop him thinking for a second that he couldn't recall the last time he'd felt so happy.
Taking the pot away from the fire, Jensen looked up to find Jared staring down at him from several feet away, beads of water dripping down his bare and still-injured chest.
"Are you usually so obliging to people who would do you harm?"
Jensen blinked. "If I'm not mistaken, you have not yet done me any harm."
"Forcibly removing you from your home at knifepoint does not constitute as harm?"
For the first time since being in Jared's company, Jensen cracked the smallest of smiles, before it was swiftly gone again. "I suppose I could have kicked up more of a fuss… But really, I feel as though you've done me a service."
"Don’t let the carpets and tapestries fool you – they merely hide the fact that Castle Ackles is as much a prison as the dungeon beneath it."
Jared clenched his teeth, anger stirring at the notion that the Prince was making light of the situation. The further they got from the castle, the more carefree Jensen became, and Jared just couldn't understand it. They were a mere two days ride from Jensen's ultimate fate, and the realisation had him suddenly on edge.
"You imply that I've rescued you, when I've simply slipped you from one set of shackles into another."
"Better the shackles that have me sleeping under the stars and next to—"
"You talk nonsense."
Jared sat himself by the fire, still only half-dressed, and they ate in silence. The minutes crept by and Jared could feel Jensen's eyes on him through every single one. He wondered if Jensen was simply inspecting the swirls of blue and purple bruising down his side, the too-pink skin around his stab wound, or if there was something more to it than that. Was he just concerned? Pitying, perhaps? Or maybe he admired Jared's physique? Did he desire it? Desire him?
He wanted to push it away, make Jensen look somewhere else. But at the same time, somewhere deep down, he still wanted Jensen to look.
The Prince was the one to break their tense silence, getting to his feet and moving to clean the pit, put things away, distract himself. Heavy links of chain clinked with even the smallest of motions, reminding Jared so vividly of their current positions he may as well have been poking his own wounded shoulder. He hated what he'd let the situation become, but there was no way back from it now. Jensen endured the weight of the cuffs as though they were the key to his liberation.
Leaping to his feet, Jared forced Jensen back against the nearest tree trunk, the newly cleaned pot and spoon falling to the ground with a clatter. Jensen looked at him with surprise, but made no move to slip away or lash out. He just stood there as Jared grasped the chain with his right hand and pulled, lifting Jensen's restrained arms over his head and holding them there. His shoulder protested the position, but Jared blocked it out.
With his left hand he started to pull at their clothes – Jensen's tunic and both their trousers. He felt Jensen shiver as his skin was exposed, pale and freckled and lean. Goosebumps rose to the surface, but Jared made no effort to cover him again, only expose him all the more. Pants dropped to mid-thigh and they both groaned as flesh met flesh.
He took Jensen's cock in hand, still barely hard, and jerked it with a twist of his wrist.
"Are you going to tell me to stop?"
Jensen stared back at him, silently pleading, his hips pressing his cock deeper into Jared's fist.
Thought so, he said to himself.
Not able to neglect himself any longer, he wrapped his hand around the both of them and began to stroke. Jensen's face was a thing of beauty in that moment. His cold mask cracking as arousal struck, rose-pink flush seeping into his cheeks. All that was present was the tacky slide of skin on skin, the erratic rhythm of their breathing, and the metal clinking of chains.
He pressed his thumb over the heads of their cocks, spreading the few drops of slickness around. Jensen whimpered, and Jared pushed them more tightly against the tree at his back, rolling his hips.
Words died out as pearly white spilled over the top of Jared's fist. It glinted against his skin in the low light, the both of them mixed together and indistinguishable.
He pressed the heat of his face into the crook of Jensen's neck and breathed in.
Waking should have been like a dream.
A warm body against him, curled up in blankets, nothing between them and the sky…
But instead Jensen found Jared hurrying about their makeshift camp, gathering his meagre belongings and strapping everything to the horse. He looked about ready to leave.
When Jared's eyes finally met his, he found both anger and regret staring back at him. Jensen said nothing, but sat back and waited for an explanation. It was only then that he noticed the shackles were already gone from his wrists.
"I have to go. I have to… I'm leaving you here. I can't do this anymore, so I have to go before I do something even more stupid than I've already done."
Jensen studied Jared amid his uncharacteristic frenzy. "Go back to your master, you mean? Without me in tow?"
"I can't do it. He'll just… He wants to make you suffer – it's what he's good at doing. And I just can't let him do that to you."
"But what happens when you go back empty-handed?"
Jared's pursed lips were answer enough.
With a huff of frustration Jensen got to his feet and moved into Jared's personal space. The thief wore a grim look, his eyes drooping with tiredness and his body held in such a way as to ease the pain his wound and bruised ribs still caused him. Jensen wanted to ease that pain, just as he wanted to slap Jared around the head for being so obtuse.
"Why even go back to him? What's he holding over you that makes you stay?"
"Nothing. He just… He took me in after my parents died, when no one else would. He taught me everything I know."
"And I have no doubt you've already repaid any debt tenfold." Jensen crossed his arms over his chest. "Who is he, Jared?"
Finally, he relented. It felt like a weight lifted instantly from his shoulders.
"The disgraced Marquis."
Jensen's breath skipped a beat. "Morgan? Jeffrey Morgan ordered me kidnapped? I see a tiger never changes his stripes. He was deplorable then and he's deplorable now."
"He would tell me over and over about how you ruined him. Cursing and spitting, like you were the devil incarnate. I might have grown to believe him had I not already figured he was insane."
"I was only a child when it happened. I was playing in the courts and he tripped over one of my wooden toys, fell flat on his face, papers and vials spilling everywhere."
"The poison vials."
"Yes, poison in the vials, and coded papers revealing a conspiracy to kill half the courts. He was exiled before the day was out. I suppose I can't be surprised that he eventually came after me…"
They spent long moments in silence, contemplating.
He couldn't go back, not now. Just as he couldn't lead Jensen to his peril. And nor could he leave him. For perhaps the first time in his life Jared had allowed himself to get attached. Silently he bid the Prince to not say anything more, lest he find himself unable to deny him.
"Jared?" Jensen turned to him once more, a thoughtful look on his face, "Do you think you can sneak me back into the castle?"
Three days ride and they were standing in view of the castle, tentative, when Jensen let go a whoop of joy.
"Well, Spirits knock me down. She actually did it!"
Jared stared at the purple flag flying freely around the castle walls, an unfamiliar insignia printed upon it. He knew all the major house colours and family crests, but this one eluded him. "You're going to have to enlighten me."
"It's my sister. Mackenzie. She was always the one destined for this sort of thing. And she's really done it. She did what I could never have done."
"You mean she—"
"Usurped my father's throne while he wasn't looking? Yes, exactly. She's got more balls than any man I've ever known."
Horse in tow, Jensen made for one of the side gates with renewed fervour, and Jared hurried after. Jensen was greeted by the stable-men as if he'd never left, a page boy nearly toppling over in shock as he recognised the Prince, and then all but dragged Jensen into the castle. More quickly than he would have thought possible, Jared suddenly found himself standing in one of the royal court rooms, Her Royal Highness leaping from the perch of her throne and nearly toppling Jensen over as she wrapped her arms around him, her skirts flying all around.
"Brother, you absolute ass! Where in Spirits' name have you been?"
"Busy, I'll have you know." He pushed back from the embrace and gestured in Jared's direction. "I was kidnapped from the castle by some thug for hire, and Jared here saved me."
The Queen looked at her brother shrewdly, as if she knew he wasn't even telling her half of the story, but she made no comment except to shake Jared's hand.
"I'm glad you're back, either way. So now you can—"
"No. No way. You go be Queen and do Queen things and I'll be content to just sit back here and watch. You are not my placeholder in this."
"Fine!" Mackenzie threw her hands up into the air in surrender. "But you know how much I love all this rubbish, so I'm sorry but not really."
The Queen's smile was infectious, and Jared couldn't help but join in.
A door slammed to one side followed by the hurried clicking of shoes on stone, and suddenly the Duke's daughter appeared, red hair in disarray.
"The rumour mill travels fast, but they're not lying this time, I see."
"There's no need, Jensen. Mackenzie told me all I need to know." Danneel smirked, then moved to loop her arm familiarly with the Queen's. "We're partners in crime now, you see. And, actually, I did have a little something of a problem to discuss with Mack, but I'm thinking maybe I've solved it already… So, Jensen, how would you feel about leading an embassy to the North to declare the new reign of Ackles? It'll be a long, lonely road and nobody else wants to do it."
Jared watched as Jensen pondered the proposal, then held up his hand.
"I have two conditions: one, I choose my own people, and two, you retrieve a certain Marquis and throw him into the nastiest corner of the dungeon for me."
Mackenzie made a show of sighing. "I would have done those for you anyway, but done and done. Easiest deal I ever made."
Once Jensen managed to drag them away from the excitement, he turned to Jared with a look of mischief – it was an expression Jared had never seen before. Yet another to add to Jensen's expanding repertoire.
"I made a bad habit out of disappearing at inopportune times when I was younger. I was wondering if you'd like to disappear with me this time? I would appreciate the company."
Jensen held out his hand and Jared accepted the invitation with the greatest of anticipation.