The carriage rolled to a stop as they came to the very end of the emperor's highway, and Stiles clambered out of it with a happy sigh. On a summer's day such as this, it was no cooler outside than it had been in the carriage, and the dust kicked up from their passage was enough to make him sneeze. To be able to stretch his legs was welcome, though, as was the chance to look back the way they'd come. Stiles had spent almost all of his life in the hills that were now little more than a green smudge on the northern horizon. Standing here in the heat and dust of the lowlands, it already seemed hard to recall the sharp scent of the pine trees or the shocking cold of plunging your hand into the rush of a mountain stream, but Stiles still concentrated on the sight as hard as he could—as if by sheer force of will he could imprint on his memory every detail of a home he would likely never see again.
Behind him, his father too climbed out of the carriage. "I swear," he grumbled, one hand pressed against the small of his back, "that thing was built entirely without suspension."
Stiles rolled out his own shoulders; he too had felt every mile of the last stage of their journey. They'd ridden down from the hills on their own sure-footed horses, Stiles' belongings strapped to a string of pack mules, but had had to switch to the carriage once they reached Ulmendorf. The carriage was an ancient, cumbersome thing, and Stiles was sure that his father was right—the money the builders could have spent on a suspension, they'd most likely squandered instead on yet more gilded decoration for the carriage's already florid exterior. Stiles would have happily made the journey here on his own plodding, elderly mare, but the imperial staff had looked horrified at the very suggestion. "It's probably against protocol to think of your own comfort," he said, deadpan.
A packet of papers had been waiting for them in Ulmendorf—mostly treaties and declarations of safe conduct, with one letter even signed by the Emperor himself in a quavering hand, but there had also been two books. One was slimmer, on the procedures and customs which accompanied royal weddings; the other, much fatter and bound in brightly gilded leather, was called Youth's Behaviour, or Decency in Conversation Among Gentry. The accompanying note made the polite but firm suggestion that Stiles should read them cover to cover and with great attention.
"Well," his father said, with the wry twist to his mouth that proclaimed them to be father and son better than could any similarity of colouring, "that's probably why an old soldier like me never could get the hang of protocol. I never had much by way of book learning."
While the rest of the carriages and the wagons slowly joined them and the other members of their company alighted, Stiles turned in a slow circle, examining the area around them closely for the first time. It wasn't that he'd never come down out of the mountains, but he'd never before been in an area so thoroughly flat as this. The valleys were one thing, but here the low, rolling countryside stretched out towards the horizon in all directions. The grasses were tinged with yellow thanks to the summer heat, their expanse broken only by the occasional tree, and by the broad, brown slash of the river that flowed along sluggishly some hundred feet beyond the carriage. The Empire ended on the river's eastern bank; beyond it lay the kingdom that Stiles would soon call home. It looked no different, and Stiles was a little disappointed by that, though he couldn't think of what change he'd thought he might see.
This was by a great distance the furthest west Stiles had ever been—in truth, it was likely the furthest west that most people in their entourage would ever have travelled. Few people lived in this part of the borderlands, where the soil was better suited to grazing than to tillage, and most who did were smugglers and bandits. Most people who crossed over into Francia did so further to the south, through one of the bustling Free Cities, but this was the most direct route from his father's demesne. More importantly than that, it was the most symbolic one.
In the middle of the river was an island, one hardly big enough to deserve the name—a flat, narrow ribbon of land which seemed able to support little more than reeds. It was neither part of the borderlands nor part of Francia, and that was why a small gazebo had been set up in the middle of it. The gazebo was covered with rich brocaded fabrics, worked with the coats of arms of both families involved; there were people waiting in its shade. Stiles had never thought of himself as a particularly shy person, but something in him still balked at the thought of walking across the narrow bridge to meet that group of strangers, knowing that he would leave with them and likely not see his father again for a long time, if ever.
"Dad—" Stiles said, but there was no time left. They'd had their time for goodbyes back at the coaching inn, and though his father embraced him for one last time, the Chancellor was already waiting.
"You're wearing the hat," Stiles said, gesturing at it. "I suppose that means we've reached the point of no return?"
How Chancellor Morrell could manage to look that disapproving without actually having an expression was forever a mystery to Stiles.
He coughed, and then let her lead the small procession over the little footbridge that connected their bank of the river to the island: Stiles first, and then his father, and the various priests and priestesses and notaries and local notables whose witness was thought essential to a marriage of this calibre. Stiles' father may have been no more than a marcher lord who rarely attended court, and as yet Stiles had distinguished himself in nothing at all, but Stiles' mother had been a kinswoman of the Emperor, and now Stiles was to marry a king's nephew. That was an occasion indeed.
Stiles had been to weddings before—every so often, one of his father's knights would marry, and his cousin Lieselotte had wed the year before. That had been a happy affair, full of drinking and dancing, with music and toasts from the proud parents. Even though the bodice of the bride's dress had fit noticeably more tightly than it had a few months before, her father had been so happy at the thought of a first grandchild that he'd brought in three casks of the finest Rhenish wine and had the local innkeeper roast a whole pig in celebration. But even when those marriages had been the result of the skill of the local matchmaker rather than true love or an ill-timed fumble in a hayloft, the couple had at least met before the day; Stiles hadn't seen so much as a rough miniature of his future husband.
All Stiles had was the order of protocol, which he now knew almost by heart. The text of it rattled around inside his skull as he stepped into the shade underneath the gazebo and blinked, taking a moment to let his eyes adjust. The delegation sent from Francia was smaller than the one at Stiles' back—no surprise given that the journey for them to get here from their capital would have taken three times as long as the one Stiles had made. There were more priests, several soldiers in fine blue livery who could only have been members of the king's renowned Musketeers, and a bald, brown-skinned man with a goatee and a calm expression.
He, it turned out, was Morrell's counterpart, and was to be Stiles' husband by proxy. Stiles knew that for this man—Chancellor d'Éton—the ceremony was nothing more than a polite legal fiction, something that would allow the treaty between the two realms to come into immediate effect and let Stiles enter the kingdom already possessed of the rank of a member of the royal family. For d'Éton, taking the place of a prince for a moment was just another requirement of his membership of the privy council, but this was Stiles' wedding day. He'd never expected to be in love with the person whose hand was bound to his by a priest with the traditional red cords, but he had hoped that the expression on the face of the person standing opposite him would be something more than polite boredom—and, for that matter, that he would actually get to see his spouse on his wedding day.
After so much preparation, the ceremony was over remarkably quickly. Stiles said, "I am willing and thus give my consent," in all the right places, and fought valiantly against sneezing at the clouds of fragrant incense smoke that floated up from the portable altar. Then, while his hand was bound to d'Éton's, Stiles watched as his father and the others affixed their signatures as witnesses to the marriage contract.
"My life's work has been to ensure the honour and security of Francia, and I believe that this accord offers such to both our peoples. May I be the first to congratulate you and Monsieur le Prince," d'Éton said as he unwound the cord and gently deposited it into the brazier on the altar: a burnt offering to the gods.
It seemed less a question than a statement.
"Yes?" Stiles hazarded in response.
From the look d'Éton shot him out of the corner of his eye, this first attempt on Stiles' part at court etiquette and diplomacy hadn't gone so well.
There was no music, or dancing, or even food afterwards, not if the little group to which Stiles now belonged was to make the first coaching inn before nightfall. Stiles stood and watched as some servants carried his few trunks from one bank to the other—they contained the clothing that had hurriedly been prepared for him, the gifts his father and the Emperor were sending with him, his mother's books. It had seemed like a lot of things, in the frenzy of packing, but when Stiles thought that the corded boxes contained everything that he might ever see again of his homeland, they looked very small indeed.
His father shook his hand, and clapped him on the shoulder. "My blessings go with you, son. Do us credit."
Stiles nodded, blinking heavily. "I'll write to you, as often as I can. So much detail about Francish customs and music and, and how they pickle their beets—you'd swear I was right there with you."
"You'd better," his father said, trying to sound like he was teasing. He was no more successful at that than Stiles was at looking like he was unaffected.
To hell with protocol, he thought. Stiles reached out and hugged his father again, fiercely, before taking the west bridge off the island. He refused to look back, not knowing what he'd see, or what he'd want to see, and stormed over to the waiting group of carriages and wagons. They were all hitched up to fine looking beasts, who stamped their hooves against the road every now and then and seemed much more eager to be heading off to Lutetia than Stiles himself was. However, Stiles realised as he stood looking at them, he had absolutely no idea which one was meant for him.
He looked around for Chancellor d'Éton, but the other man was nowhere to be seen. Stiles was just about to do what was surely against the dignity of a new-minted prince of the blood royal, and ask one of the servants what he should do, when a Musketeer approached him. He was a young man about Stiles' own age, with a neatly trimmed goatee and eyes that crinkled pleasingly when he smiled.
"Monseigneur," he said, sweeping his hat off his head and bowing. "The Chancellor suggested that I should show you to your carriage and make sure that you have everything you need for the journey."
When Stiles found out that he had a whole carriage to himself, he insisted that the Musketeer travel with him—the prospect of so many hours of solitary confinement was a special kind of torture to him. The Musketeer was hesitant at first, but before many miles had passed, he was cheerfully answering Stiles' many questions and correcting Stiles' sometimes mangled Francish pronunciation. Stiles had read much in Francish, but he had had little opportunity to converse in it.
"And what kind of name is McCall?" Stiles asked, curious. "It doesn't sound like most Francish names to me."
"It isn't," McCall said, shaking his head. "My mother is Gascon through and through, but my father was Ivernian."
"An Ivernian?" Stiles leaned forward, entranced. "But I thought they hardly ever left their country?" He'd read accounts of them in some of his mother's books—tales of travellers shipwrecked on rainswept beaches, or of daring young magic-workers who had gone to Ivernia in the hope of learning the druids' secrets—but never met anyone with such a close tie to those islands before.
McCall's jaw worked. "He was a privateer, monseigneur," he said shortly, and then looked out of the carriage window, his cheeks flushing a dull red.
Even Stiles was capable of tact enough to steer away from that topic.
The carriage rolled on and after a while McCall came back out of himself enough to partake in conversation once more—Stiles didn't get the impression that he was the kind of man who held grudges for long. Around them, the countryside slowly began to shift from pasture to tilled fields, the vista broken here and there by hamlets which clung to the side of the royal highway every few miles or so. The landscape mostly consisted of stretches of wheat and oats and clover; the stalks of grain were golden, their heads nodding heavily and looking almost ready to harvest. It seemed a prosperous country, calm and orderly, and little like the place that Stiles had left, where despite his father's best efforts, there were always bandits and smugglers in a place where the Emperor's writ scarcely ran, and many petty lords preferred to solve their disputes with fist and sword rather than in front of the magistrate's bench.
As the sun began to sink in the sky, they came closer to the small town where they would spend the first night. Stiles had thought that their lodgings wouldn't be so very different from the coaching inn where he and his father had spent the night before. He hadn't expected that instead, the carriage would trundle into the town's only square and stop in front of a large townhouse—perhaps home to whatever the Francish equivalent of a burgomaster was. There was a crowd of several dozen people in the square, and for a moment Stiles thought they had arrived in the middle of some local festival, but then he climbed out of the carriage and realised, to his deep mortification, that they were all there waiting for him.
A cheer went up as he climbed down the steps of the carriage, startling Stiles so much that he missed the last step and almost landed face-first on the cobblestones.
The townhouse did indeed belong to the local burgomaster, who read out a speech in a loud voice proclaiming what an honour it was for the most noble prince to condescend to visit so humble a place as Neuville-sur-la-Frette. People applauded; small children sang a borderline inappropriate and frankly terrible song wishing fecundity on Stiles' nuptials; and the burgomaster's wife presented him with a ceremonial vase filled to overflowing with bright blue flowers. Stiles accepted the gift with what he hoped was appropriately regal grace, nodded at the townsfolk's curtsies and bows, and had rarely been so relieved as he was to finally be shown into the bedchamber that would be his for the night.
"Ugh," Stiles said to McCall as he tugged his boots off. "Is it going to be like this at every stop we make?"
"But of course, monseigneur," McCall said, with what Stiles thought was an entirely unwarranted degree of cheer.
McCall was right. Francia was large, and the carriages in which they were travelling weren't speedy—it would take them at least ten days to reach Lutetia from the kingdom's eastern border, Stiles calculated. Every morning, he woke up in a new bedroom belonging to an aristocrat or wealthy merchant whose home lay on their route; every evening he got out of the carriage to the sound of music and applause, to the sight of barons' daughter curtseying before him, of villagers waving the royal standard and craning to catch sight of him. It never grew any less strange.
Stiles had grown up the son of a marcher lord, who had neither great wealth nor extensive landholdings. He'd thought that he would one day take over the family responsibilities in the Leuchtfeuer Berge, and hoped that one day he might be half so well-respected as his father was. Stiles had never imagined a grand political match in his future, let alone one arranged by the Emperor himself. He couldn't shake the feeling that whoever these people were cheering for, it wasn't really him. He smiled his best smile at the crowds, and waved, and hoped that he didn't look sadly demented in doing so—though from the way he caught sight of McCall repressing a wince every now and then, Stiles didn't think he was entirely successful.
In contrast, the days spent on the road were almost peaceful. The juddering of the carriage was just bad enough that Stiles couldn't read without being queasy, so he spent most of his time looking out of the carriage window, admiring the view, or quizzing McCall on the Francish names of various things. Stiles' command of the language wasn't terrible, but it had been acquired almost entirely from reading works of history and natural science—his vocabulary was lopsided and he knew his accent wasn't the most polished. On the fourth day, Stiles calculated that McCall had relaxed enough in his company to realise that Stiles was not the kind of person who stood on ceremony. While they made quick work of the cheese and bread that had been packed for their midday meal, Stiles said, deliberately nonchalant, "Tell me of my husband."
McCall blinked. "Your husband, monseigneur?"
"Yes," Stiles said, tearing off a bit of crusty baguette. "What is he like? I know his name, and that he is the nephew of the king, and some few years older than me, but that's all anyone has seen fit to tell me. I don't even have a miniature of him. Is he terribly ugly?"
"Monsieur le Prince?" McCall considered for a moment, then shrugged. "No. He's tall?"
Stiles squinted at him.
"He has dark hair," McCall went on, "and a beard."
"Well, with observations like these, I can see why the Musketeers are renowned for their investigative prowess. My husband is not ugly and has hair."
"We serve the royal household, but we're not part of the Garde du Corps," McCall said. He shrugged again, but there was something in the show of diffidence that Stiles didn't entirely believe—a vague discomfort at this line of questioning, though Stiles couldn't think why. "I'm not stationed in the palace itself very often. I don't think the servants speak ill of him, though I've heard it said that he does like to ride out often, into the woods. A rather solitary sort. I'm afraid I know nothing more of him than that, monseigneur."
"Hrm," Stiles said, leaning back in his seat. He had hoped for more information than that, something from which he could construct a mental image of his husband, but maybe it was best that he didn't do that. No matter what McCall could tell him, Stiles would surely never be able to accurately picture the reality—and regardless, in less than a week Stiles would be standing in front of the man anyway.
Time seemed to go very fast and very slow on the journey—no doubt because Stiles was at once impatient to reach his destination and acutely aware that each mile they travelled took him that much further from his father and his home. He still felt disoriented to find that the little village in which they stopped for the night was but five miles from the royal palace of Trianon that sprawled on Lutetia's outskirts. Stiles had never seen so much as a woodcut of Trianon, but he had heard tell of it from travellers who had passed a night or two in his father's keep—they had all spoken in awed tones of how the Francish monarchs had truly recreated the glories of the Romish empire within the walls of their palace.
"We should arrive by noon tomorrow," Chancellor d'Éton told him while Stiles was picking at his evening meal. D'Éton seemed just as impassive now as he had the day of the wedding. "His Majesty is inspecting the garrisons in the north, but Monsieur will be there to meet you. I'll arrange for my valet to help you with dressing." That last was said with a barely perceptible wrinkle of his nose, and a flickering of his eyes over Stiles' body.
Stiles didn't understand—his clothing might not have been the highest kick of fashion, but it was perfectly respectable. Yet d'Éton's valet clearly shared his master's opinion. The next morning, he took one look at the trunk that contained Stiles' clothing, sighed heavily, and said he would do his best in the tones of one who had been deeply put upon. Stiles had never felt so much like a bird trussed up and ready for serving as he did when he stepped back into the carriage for the last time. His coat had been brushed so severely that Stiles was surprised there was any nap left to it, and the waistcoat hurriedly altered so that it fit more closely to his waist.
Once they passed through the gates that separated the palace's grounds proper from the forest around them, Stiles thought that he understood d'Éton's insistence on finery. The gates themselves were towering things of wrought iron, all gilt and paint; the carriage rumbled up a neatly raked avenue that was lined by mature oak trees and neatly trimmed lawns. It was as if nature itself had been brought to heel with a careful hand—nothing at all like the rutted track that Stiles or his horse had scrambled up to get back to his father's tower house. Here and there through breaks in the trees, Stiles caught glimpses of a building made of marble and warm yellowish stone, but it was only when the carriage rounded one last bend in the avenue that Stiles caught sight of the whole. The palace of Trianon was beyond doubt the largest building he'd ever seen, and Stiles felt his jaw drop. Two long wings led out from a square central block; the yellow stone and the hundreds of windows caught and reflected sunshine, making the whole palace seem to glow against the blue sky.
Stiles suddenly realised that he'd underestimated his new position entirely. He'd thought that he'd been bundled off to Francia at short notice because he was the closest member of the extended imperial family of the right age who was then free to marry, and a marriage was needed to consolidate the treaty. Perhaps that was still true. But Stiles hadn't thought much beyond that, or of what it would mean to marry into the very heart of royal power. He hadn't stopped to think of all the things he didn't know—and that, he realised, as the carriage rolled to a halt in front of a flight of steps, might matter a very great deal indeed.
The steps were flanked by serried rows of footmen in identical livery and maids in neatly starched uniforms; on top of them were clustered courtiers, if Stiles had to guess, all clad in brightly coloured silks. One of the footmen on the bottom step hurried forward and opened the carriage door, and Stiles stepped forward into the heat of the midday sun and dozens of curious gazes.
"Monseigneur le duc de Picardie," d'Éton said in ringing tones that carried on the still summer air. Stiles still wasn't used to thinking of that as his title and it took him a moment to react to it as he should. He repressed as best he could the urge to startle, and then recalled what d'Éton had told him the night before—when introduced, bow, and then walk up the stairs.
Stiles made his best leg, and then carefully climbed the steps. His clumsiness had become something of a watchword among his father's knights, ever since the time he'd tried to carry a jug of mead and a bowl of pottage at once, and almost set fire to a tapestry. It wouldn't do to fall now, not in front of what was surely half of Francia's grandees, and so Stiles focused on his steps and used that to distract him from the fact that there was a lone figure waiting for him.
As he got closer to the top, Stiles looked up and nearly did stumble. Derek, fils de Francia and duc de Picardie, stood on the uppermost step with his hands clasped behind his back and an unreadable expression on his face. McCall had been right, Stiles realised faintly. Stiles' husband was indeed tall, and dark-haired, and bearded—McCall had just neglected to mention that he was also very handsome. His clothing wasn't elaborate, but was cut to show off broad shoulders and a trim waist to a nicety.
"Monsieur." Stiles bowed again, not so deeply as before, then straightened and said, "I'm pleased to finally make your acquaintance."
"You are welcome here," Monsieur said. Though his voice was softer than Stiles had expected, and though there was nothing objectionable in his words, Stiles couldn't say that he felt as if Monsieur meant them. In fact, from the set of Monsieur's jaw and the flat look in his eyes, he seemed as if he would far rather be ordering Stiles off his property than welcoming him onto it. "I trust your journey was pleasant."
"It was good," Stiles said. "Long. Your country is very large. I—not that I'm complaining, it's not your fault that it's—obviously, I just—" Through sheer force of will, Stiles clamped his jaw shut against the rest of the babble that threatened to spill out. This was hardly the way to make a favourable first impression on his husband, or on the curious courtiers who watched from behind fluttering fans and quizzing glasses. From the way Monsieur arched an eyebrow, he would surely agree with Stiles on that score.
"Yes," Monsieur said after a moment. His expression was utterly bland. "My valet will show you to your quarters. I'm sure you're tired and would like to rest." He nodded at someone over Stiles' shoulder, and Stiles turned to see a tall, curly-haired man step out of the line of footmen.
"Isaac, monseigneur," the footman said with a bow. "If you would please follow me."
"I—" Stiles looked back, feeling as if he should say something else to Monsieur—tell him of the gifts he'd brought with him from the Emperor, perhaps? Enquire how his day had been? He didn't know if there was anything in the protocol guide to aid him in situations such as this—but Monsieur was already walking away. He vanished into the interior of the palace, leaving Stiles to stand there feeling as lost and friendless as he ever had since leaving his father.
Stiles had never thought of himself as having a poor sense of direction, but he found himself quickly growing disoriented as Isaac led him deeper into the palace. There must have been more wings to the building than Stiles had glimpsed from the outside, for it seemed as if there were miles of corridors branching off from one another. It was difficult to keep track of the turns they took, for the walls were uniformly painted and gilded, and the parquet floors were all buffed to the same deep shine. Though the day outside was hot, the interior of the palace was much cooler, and though there were fresh cut flowers in abundance, beneath their fragrance was a faint note of damp. Stiles supposed that all of this had been built more with an eye to how best to impress the visitor than to practicality.
Just as Stiles started to suspect that perhaps a glamour had been cast on him, to make him think that he'd been caught forever in a labyrinth, Isaac threw open a set of doors.
"The king has decreed that these will be your apartments, monseigneur," Isaac said, standing back to let Stiles enter. "I hope they will be to your satisfaction."
Stiles walked into a tall, bright room hung with yellow wallpaper. A fire crackled in the hearth which faced the door; sunshine streamed in through a window to Stiles' right. It was sparsely furnished: an armoire set against one wall, some spindle-legged chairs against another, with a bare stretch of parquet floor between them. He presumed it was an antechamber of some kind, for all that it was as big as the solar of Stiles' father's tower house. A door stood open next to the fireplace, and Stiles walked through it to find a withdrawing room. It was papered with a blue and white figured pattern, the ceiling painted with scenes from ancient myth. Some comfortable-looking chairs and a low table were arranged in front of another cheerfully blazing fireplace. Through this room another door again gave onto one last room, a bedroom. Another armoire, larger this time, was built into the wall and a small altar to the gods took up one corner, but by far the most striking piece of furniture in the room was the bed which stood in its centre. It could surely have slept half a dozen and with room to spare.
To be fair, the bed itself was hard to see—it was hung all around with a tester of stiff, richly embroidered red brocade and topped with the wolf's head crest of the Francish royal family. There were bolsters, and cushions, and comforters, but Stiles was reasonably certain that there was a mattress beneath all of that. The bed looked both luxurious and intimidating, and Stiles could barely fathom that it was meant for him.
"I've arranged for a bath to be drawn for you, monseigneur," Isaac said, from so close behind him that Stiles jumped. "And your luggage will be brought in shortly. Should you need anything, there is a bell pull in the corner nearest the door."
"Thank you," Stiles said, but Isaac was already bowing and leaving.
Stiles wasn't left entirely alone for the rest of the day. Some servants did indeed arrive shortly afterwards, bringing with them a copper washtub and great quantities of heated water. Stiles rid himself of the grime of travelling—it felt as if grit and dirt had worked their way into his very pores—and rejoiced afterwards in the feel of new, clean linens against his skin. After that, a meal was laid out for him in the withdrawing room, and Stiles was hungry, it being well past lunch time. He ate with good appetite, for all that he was still becoming accustomed to the different taste of Francish bread and couldn't have put a name in any language to some of the fruits on his plate.
But that was the extent of his contact with others. Once the remains of the meal were removed, he at first assumed that he would soon be fetched to meet again with his husband, or to be introduced to some other member of the royal family—wouldn't that be expected, for the first evening at court of the new husband of the heir to the throne to be marked in some way?
Yet no one came. The sun slowly declined in the sky, and Stiles sat by himself in his beautiful, empty apartments. He was nervous and fidgety at first, then confused. He'd been fêted more by strangers on his journey here than he had been by the members of his supposed new family. By the time some servants slipped in to ready his nightclothes and to put heated bricks between his bed sheets to take the chill from them, he felt quite irritated. Irritated, and not a little afraid—what if Monsieur had taken a disgust at the very sight of him and had decided to repudiate him? Stiles had as yet no particular opinion on marriage one way or the other, but if he was sent back across the border within the month, it would surely not only anger the Emperor but bring shame upon Stiles' father. Even danger, if some of his rivals decided to make hay out of it and encroach on the family territory. It was almost enough to make Stiles storm out in search of someone, anyone, who could tell him what was going on—but he had no idea of where to begin to search for a person in a place this vast, and even he could tell that it wasn't the wisest plan. And so, even though the last light of the sun had barely faded from the sky, and though his mind was still whirling with impressions of the day, he put on his nightclothes and clambered into the big, strange bed.
He lay flat on his back and stared up at the canopy overhead, tired but unable to sleep. After the intimacy of life at his father's keep, and the constant bustle of life on the road, the Trianon seemed shockingly silent; like being asked to live inside a temple. Perhaps, Stiles thought, he was being overly anxious—perhaps the court was a staid one, or his husband anxious not to overtax him after such a long journey. There were the obligatory marital intimacies to come, of course, and while Stiles would not have classed himself as nervous, as such, he was keenly aware that he was very inexperienced and Monsieur very handsome.
He'd just have to see what the new day would bring.
The following morning, Stiles was neither embraced nor cast out but pampered instead. Servants showed up to help him dress, to provide him with the latest news-sheets from the city, and to lay out breakfast for him in the little drawing room. The clothes were new, and newly tailored to fit him; the pastries were light and flaky, the hot chocolate whisked to frothy perfection and served in a porcelain cup of eggshell delicacy. In the news-sheets, Stiles read with fascination of events which had occurred in places as far-flung as Manden or Perse mere months ago—it would surely have taken years for tell of them to filter through to his homeland in the mountains, if at all.
This should all have felt exciting and luxurious and new, and it was, but rather than idle the morning away, Stiles asked one of the servants to fetch Isaac for him as soon as he had finished dining.
"Isaac, monseigneur?" the woman said, darting a look at one of the other maidservants out of the corner of her eye.
"Yes, I believe he's Monsieur's valet," Stiles said, trying his very best to look authoritative. "I would like to speak with him."
The woman bobbed a curtsey and hurried out of the room. Within the space of ten minutes, just as the last of the servants were leaving, Isaac appeared. He bowed and said, "You're in need of assistance, monseigneur?"
"I wanted to know what my schedule will be," Stiles said, clasping his hands behind his back. "What I'm expected to do today," he clarified, when Isaac directed a polite look of vague bafflement towards him.
"Your schedule, monseigneur?" There was nothing overtly rude in his words, but something in the man's tone and in the constant repetition of Stiles' new title made Stiles feel as though he were being obscurely mocked.
"Yes," Stiles said through gritted teeth.
"I'm sure I couldn't say," Isaac said, both eyebrows lifting. "That is for your highness to decide."
"But what of my husband? Surely he must wish to meet with me, surely there are… obligations?" Stiles finished limply, realising only as he spoke that such phrasing make it seem as though Stiles was only concerned with the matter of consummating the marriage. Such a thing was inevitable, of course, if for no other reason than to make the treaty irrevocable and unassailable, but Stiles did hope to spend some time getting to know his husband first. Moreover, he didn't think that he could spend a full day cooped up in these quarters with nothing to do and no-one to talk to. The afternoon before had been bad enough. Stiles had been following his father on almost all of his daily rounds since the time he could toddle. The course of education he'd followed may have been old-fashioned compared to the ones now thought modish for the young noblemen of Lutetia or Vedunia, but it was one designed to prepare him for a life of active lordship. Idleness was not considered a virtue in the mountains.
Judging by the faint smirk on Isaac's face, he'd only picked up on the unintentional innuendo. "Monsieur has already ridden out for the day."
"The whole day?"
"Monsieur is a great believer in the restorative power of lengthy exercise for the constitution," Isaac said in a show of wide-eyed earnestness. "And the forests around here are large. He likely will not return before late afternoon."
It was clear that no more information would be forthcoming, though whether through Monsieur's orders or Isaac's own spite or a combination of the two, Stiles couldn't tell. "Thank you, you've been very helpful," Stiles said, and made no attempt to keep the sarcasm out of his voice.
Stiles watched Isaac leave, and then silently counted to one hundred, thinking furiously all the while. When he felt quite certain that Isaac was long gone, Stiles opened the door which led from the antechamber of his apartments to the corridor outside. This too was empty, but when he poked his head around the next corner he spotted a young footman hurrying along.
"Psst!" Stiles said, then waved the footman over to him. The man came cautiously—he clearly either didn't recognise Stiles or didn't know what to make of the sight of a prince of the realm sticking his head around a corner in order to accost a footman.
When the man got close enough, Stiles said in a stage whisper, "I need you to find me a Musketeer, urgently."
Stiles didn't think the footman's opinion of him improved.
In the end, it turned out to be simpler for Stiles to declare that he was going out to the Musketeers' guardhouse than it was for one lone member of the corps to be identified and brought into the palace proper. Though "simple" was perhaps not the right word for it, Stiles thought as he headed outside—his request was greeted with so much genuine bewilderment that for a moment he thought he'd forgotten to speak in Francish.
"'Does Monseigneur feel unsafe?'" Stiles muttered to himself, tugging his jacket straight. "'Has something happened to Monseigneur?' Only if the deprivation of fresh air and conversation counts."
The footman had eventually divulged the location of the guardhouse to him. He'd walked Stiles to the nearest exterior door and explained that if Monseigneur headed north through the gardens and passed the smaller pond, he would turn to the left and see a red brick building in which the guards were stationed, and was Monseigneur truly adamant that he did not wish for anyone to accompany him?
"He is," Stiles had said, with a degree of firmness that was surely verging on the rude. If his father were here, he would no doubt be rolling his eyes in exasperation, but Stiles put that thought to one side and set out along the path that led north. They were much larger than he'd expected: neatly raked gravel paths stretched out between sparkling fountains and knee-high box hedges, whose greenery struggled to contain multicoloured masses of flowers. In the early morning sunshine, their perfume was heady. Stiles didn't think he'd ever seen flowers grow in such abundance before, nor such a variety of colours—he presumed that the gardens must be tended to by an alchemist. If he squinted, he could see the faint afterglow of the spell outlining the flowers. The cost of such an extravagance was surely staggering, but perhaps for a king it was something that barely signified.
It took him so long to reach the smaller pond that Stiles thought for a while that he must have missed the proper turning, and even when he did reach it he thought at first that he was again mistaken. This looked more like a lake than it did the millpond at which Stiles and his childhood friends had once passed many happy hours in fishing. There was more than enough space here to sail several small boats, and when Stiles peered into the water, he had the distinct impression that this was a much deeper body of water than one might expect of an artificial water feature. The larger pond, Stiles imagined, must look something like the ocean that he'd read so much about.
By the time Stiles finally reached the guardhouse—a two-storey building with what looked like its own attached stables and courtyard—he was quite certain that the palace grounds were nonsensically large, and said as much when he pushed open the guardhouse door and went inside. For all that it was near midday, there were only two people seated at the long, scrubbed pine table which took up much of the room. One of them was McCall, who was oiling a battered-looking old sabre; the other was a sullen-looking man who seemed intent on carving his initials into the table's edge.
As soon as McCall saw him, he leapt to his feet; the other man did likewise, though with much less show of willingness. "Monseigneur," McCall said, "is something amiss?"
"I wish to consult with you about something," Stiles said, trying his best for a show of nonchalant authority, "if you have a moment free."
"I—" McCall shot a look over at the other man: one which, however unintentional, told Stiles that he was not to be trusted. "I'm sure the Chevalier will grant us a moment's privacy."
The Chevalier stood with a roll of his eyes so elaborate that Stiles was reluctantly impressed, and then left the room without a word, the door banging shut behind him.
"I apologise," McCall said. "The Chevalier de Saint-Jacques is one of our best swordsmen, but he can be…"
Stiles could see McCall searching for words to describe Saint-Jacques that were honest but which were not disloyal to another member of the Musketeers. Stiles did not possess such qualms. "A jackass?"
McCall coughed, but did not disagree, before he drew out a chair for Stiles. "I'm afraid I can't offer you much by way of refreshment, monseigneur. Most of our company and all of our attendants are away in the north with the king, and we don't stand much on ceremony here at the best of times—"
Having spent much of his childhood wandering in and out of the guardroom where his father's knights spent their days, Stiles was sure that this was a masterful understatement. It was in fact surprising that there were no spilled tankards of ale on the table, or lurid woodcuts strewn about. He shook his head. "Thank you, but answers are of more pressing concern to me."
"Answers?" McCall asked, tilting his head to one side.
"No one else here seems inclined to provide them," Stiles said, spreading his arms wide in supplication. "Or, frankly, to talk to me at all. I haven't seen my husband since I arrived, and I think if he had his druthers that is how it would always be. I've spent hours doing nothing more than sitting around over-decorated rooms while servants are impertinent to me. I like to think that I'm a patient man, though in all honesty that is an utter untruth and I am swiftly approaching the end of my tether." He paused, but McCall remained silent. "Well?"
"Monseigneur will forgive me," McCall said, "but you haven't actually asked me any questions." His mouth twitched slightly, as if he were trying not to laugh.
Stiles sighed heavily. "You told me that you know nothing of Monsieur, but you are not a foolish man. And I'm quite sure that while any idiot might be able to buy his way into the Musketeers, it's difficult to remain one if you don't learn how to pay attention to which way the wind's blowing. I would like to know more of my new kin and what it is, exactly, that I have married into."
McCall's mouth tightened. "A Musketeer's sworn duty is to his monarch, and to the monarch's family," he said after a long pause.
Stiles sat back in his chair. He hadn't thought that things were that bad.
McCall excused himself for a moment, then returned with a quantity of bread and cheese tied up in a napkin, together with a stoneware jug of small ale. He led Stiles outside, to a little patch of grass some distance along the water's edge. McCall spread his cloak on the ground, and the blue cloth was more than enough to provide both of them with a seat and a makeshift table for their lunch. He divided up the food between them, before saying, "What do you know about Monsieur's family?"
Stiles shrugged, tearing off a piece of bread and topping it with a wedge of cheese. "They have ruled Francia for centuries; the stories say they came here first with the Norsemen, and then by—"
McCall huffed. "I'm not talking about that far back."
"Um," Stiles said. He was always on stronger ground when it came to the information he had gleaned from the little library of books that his mother had bequeathed him. "He is the king's nephew?"
"And who were his parents?" McCall said. So far he had more played with his food than consumed any, balling up bits of bread into pellets and casting them out into the pond's still waters.
"The late queen," Stiles said, searching his memory for what d'Éton and Morrell had told him before coming up with a name. "Thalie. And her consort—a Helvetian count."
"And his sisters?"
Here Stiles stalled. No one had said anything to him about sisters. McCall must have worked that out from the way Stiles' mouth hung open.
"He had two sisters," McCall said. "The older was Marie-Laure, known at court as Madame Royale, and the younger was Coralie—Mademoiselle. Marie-Laure was to have inherited the throne."
This much, Stiles knew—unlike the practice in the Empire, here in Francia inheritance worked on maternal lines and so titles and lands passed in preference from mother to eldest daughter. Yet something about McCall's phrasing stood out to him—she was to have inherited—as did the careful way McCall was holding himself.
"But she didn't," Stiles said.
"They all died on the same night," McCall said. "The queen, her husband, the mesdames... It was six years ago now—not long after I arrived here to begin my training. They were at a hunting lodge on one of their estates in the west. There was a fire. It caught suddenly in the small hours of the morning." He hitched a shoulder, his mouth turned down unhappily. "There was nothing anyone could do."
The spring before, one of the peasant cottages in the village that lay below Stiles' father's castle had burned. For all that the day had been a damp and mild one, a spark had caught in the thatch and the whole roof had flared with surprising speed. By the time the village's hedgewitch was fetched back from the fields, in the hopes that she had some charm that would be efficacious, the cottage had long since burned to the ground. The family who had lived there had lost almost everything they owned, and the smoke had lingered in the air for days. That had been bad enough; Stiles couldn't even begin to imagine what it would have been like, if the smell of charred wood had been mingled with that of burnt flesh.
"Monsieur wasn't injured?" Stiles asked, repressing a shudder.
McCall shook his head. "He stayed behind—the rumours were that he was caught up in a flirtation with a courtier, but with whom, no one knew. De Vernon—one of the Musketeers—was in the room when the messenger brought back word of what happened. He said he'd never seen a man so destroyed. And then Monsieur's uncle took the throne."
In a land where titles and property passed in the maternal line. Stiles thought through his next question carefully, mindful of what McCall had said about the oath he'd sworn to his monarch. The king must have acted legally and quietly and with utter finality, because Stiles had never heard of any rumours of unrest in Francia, and if Monsieur had been thought a true threat to the throne, he would not still be alive. "The king's accession was welcomed?"
"It was the wish of the late queen," McCall said. He had given up all pretence at eating; his brow was furrowed. "There was a will. It disinherited Monsieur, and so with his sisters dead, the throne went to Pierre. There are no other close relations."
"And this, too, was… accepted?" Stiles said, trying not to let his impatience overcome what little tact he had.
"The will carried the royal seal, and the palace gossipmongers all say that the charms and incantations embedded in the page were correct and hadn't been tampered with," McCall said, though his dubious tone gave the lie to his words. "The privy council accepted the will, so what reason would there be to question it? To speak against it would be treasonous."
"What reason indeed?" Stiles agreed, already thinking through all the implications of this. "But Monsieur is yet the heir to the throne."
"The king was magnanimous," McCall said, mouth twisting. "He told some of the, uh, less discreet courtiers that it was a risk, but that he dared to hope that with time and tutelage, Monsieur might prove himself worthy of retaining a place in the succession."
No wonder, then, that Stiles' husband had not been inclined to trust him—their marriage had been arranged by the king, and the king was, at best, a faithless opportunist who relished the opportunity to rub salt in his nephew's wounds. At worst—well, Stiles would have to try his best not to let his imagination run away with him.
Six years ago. Monsieur must have been very young indeed. Still, while this was an unexpected setback in the establishment of a contented marriage and the confirmation of the peace between their two realms, things could have been much worse. McCall could have told him that Monsieur had no fancy for other men whatsoever, or that he found the sight of Stiles' face repulsive, or that he was in love with another and detested Stiles' for coming between him and the one he'd wanted to marry. This was a complex problem, but not insurmountable. Monsieur would just have to be brought to realise that Stiles posed him no threat.
Stiles leaned back on his elbows, and turned what he thought was his most charming grin on McCall.
McCall looked faintly alarmed.
"Tell me," he said, "what recreations does my husband enjoy?"
The sun was setting as Stiles made his way down one of the palace's many chilly corridors. He carried with him a little map, hastily sketched by McCall, which told him the way from his apartments to the Trianon's great library. Several servants passed him—some carrying stacks of neatly folded linens, others with letters on silver salvers or boxes of beeswax candles—but if any of them thought it strange that Monsieur's new husband was wandering the building, peering at pieces of paper and muttering to himself, clearly none of them were going to mention it to him. Stiles received nothing more from them than brief bows or bobbed curtsies.
"Truly, I've never been inside it," McCall had said when Stiles pressed him for more information on the library. "But Saint-Jacques has and says it's very impressive. If there's any room where you're likely to regularly meet with Monsieur, it's that one. It's said that if he's not riding out, then he's in there reading."
The route took Stiles back into the palace's central block, up a flight of steps, and around a double-height gallery so intricately and elaborately carved that it stunned him into pausing for a moment. Each one of the columns holding up the ceiling was so carefully wrought that they seemed less like sculptures and more like living trees that had been turned to marble. Witchcraft, perhaps, Stiles thought as he peered at the nearest column—he reached out with one hand and ran his fingertips along it, finding it as rough as bark but as cool as marble. What must it have been like, he wondered to himself as he finally approached the door at the far end of the gallery, to grow up in a place like the Trianon? Could anyone ever take a place like this for granted?
"Surely not," he breathed in answer to his own question when he pushed open the library's door. Stiles had thought the collection of books his mother had left him modest but certainly respectable—books of history and geography; some works of literature from which Stiles had gleaned his knowledge of Francish, Brittonic and Old Romish; even some rarer works, the hand-written herbals and bestiary and spell books. That had been nothing compared to the grandeur of this collection. In fact, Stiles thought that there were surely more books gathered in this one room than he had seen in the whole of his life thus far, three or four times over. The library's ceiling arched high above him, hard to discern in the twilight, though Stiles had the sense of dark wood beams and a multicoloured blur of frescoes. And from ceiling to floor, a distance at least three storeys in height, the room was lined with beautifully wrought bookcases, and every shelf of every bookcase was full of books.
He might spend his whole life in this room, he thought, and never be done reading—never be done learning—and the thought was at once so exciting and so overwhelming that Stiles couldn't decide where to begin. Should he simply begin with the nearest bookcase and work from there? Should he try to find an inventory—surely a collection of this size would be inventoried—but before he could make up his mind, he was startled by an unfamiliar voice.
"Either come in or leave," a woman snapped, "but whatever you do, close the door. That draught will put out all the candles."
Stiles leapt forward a little, unintentionally, and the door swung shut behind him.
"Better," the woman's voice said. Now she sounded more bored than snappish.
With the door closed behind him, the library was darker and it took Stiles' eyesight a moment to adjust to the gloom, but once it did, he saw her. She was sitting at one of the tables near the centre of the room, her focus seemingly all on the large book in front of her despite the darkness. The woman—though really she was no older than he was, Stiles realised when he drew closer—was dressed all in white, her gown a stark contrast to the reddish hair that was piled up on top of her head. All the Francish noblewomen Stiles had seen so far had dressed in exactly the opposite manner—their hair was fashionably powdered, their clothing as brightly coloured as the plumage of a bird of paradise—but he didn't think her attire was precisely unbecoming. She was, in fact, very pretty.
"My apologies," he said, setting his candle down on her table and making an awkward bow. "I didn't mean to disturb you. I'm—"
"Monseigneur," she said, looking up at him for the first time. There was a glint to her eyes that spoke of fierce intelligence, and which made Stiles feel more than a little uneasy. "Our new boy novelty from the east. I know who you are. No one else here would be so uncouth as to open a door for himself, or to introduce himself to a lady unbidden."
Stiles felt himself flush. He'd read the etiquette guides that he'd been sent with the greatest of care, but he should have known that he would forget something when distracted. "I—my apologies, I—"
"That was an observation, not censure," the woman said. "Believe me, if it were the latter, you would know."
Stiles peered at her. If what Stiles had done hadn't been strictly in accordance with the rules of etiquette, then neither was the way this woman was behaving. "Who are you?"
"The marquise de Mont-Martin," she said, and when that seemed not to obtain the reaction she wanted, she continued, "I'm the librarian in charge of Monsieur's collection."
"This all belongs to Monsieur?" Stiles said, looking around him with fresh eyes. "I presumed the king—"
The marquise gave an elegant little half shrug. "Technically, perhaps. But Monsieur is the one who orders new acquisitions, and he's the only one who ever comes here. At least until now." Her tone was pointed, and Stiles had to fight to keep his spine straight. He was Monsieur's husband, and a member of the royal family, however new that connexion might be—he did think that he had a right to be here.
"I came in search of something to read," Stiles said, trying his best to project nonchalance. From the sharp look the marquise shot him, he didn't think he'd succeeded. "One of the servants suggested that I might find something here."
"Shouldn't a newlywed—"
"No," Stiles said firmly. "There is nothing else that I'm, I'm…" He sought for a phrasing that would be seemly in front of a woman whom he'd known for less than five minutes, though he was certain that the fact that Monsieur had not yet visited his bed was common currency among the courtiers. "Nothing that I have been required to do, and no one in this palace who seems to wish to see me, and unless I take to staring at papered walls as a hobby, I am unlikely to find something to entertain me in my apartments. So I would very much like a book. For reading. Please. Thank you."
The marquise stared at him for a long moment, a quizzical look on her face, before her expression cleared to a perfect neutrality that was no less intimidating. She rose from her chair. "Was there a particular genre you had in mind? Our collection runs mostly to works of history and the natural sciences, though the late mesdemoiselles were also partial to novels."
"Ah…" Stiles rubbed at the nape of his neck for a moment, and then thought the hell with it—in for a penny, in for a thaler. Trying to sound as casual as possible, he said, "Is there any book which is a favourite of Monsieur's? I thought perhaps I might—"
"—read a work which he is known to enjoy in the hopes that it would allow you to spark up a casual conversation about your mutual interests?" the marquise asked, cocking her head to one side. "Did you plan to keep the book on display in your quarters or were you going to linger here in the hopes that Monsieur would show himself?"
Stiles blinked, stunned.
"Well, what else do you expect when you concoct a plan so transparent?" the marquise continued. "As a ruse, it's paltry and clichéd—but to be fair, it's not as if he hasn't been easy prey for such things before. Wait here."
Her heels clicked on the parquet flooring as she made her way over to a nearby bookcase. It took her a moment's rummaging, and then the marquise returned with a volume bound in faded red morocco. "Here," she said, holding it out to him. "If he asks, I didn't give it to you—you stumbled across it while idly browsing."
Stiles opened the book to the flyleaf. On top of the page, someone had scrawled in an untidy hand, To my Thalie, most dear. Below that was a woodcut of a wolf in a tangled thicket of woodland, beneath an outsized moon. Below that again, printed in large capitals, was the title: Des Contes des Fées et Autres Vraies Histoires. For a moment, Stiles thought that his Francish had deserted him. "Fairy tales and other true stories?" he asked the marquise. "But aren't—"
"Hush," she told him. "Consider it essential reading for life at this court."
It wasn't hard to understand what she meant. "This was his mother's favourite book."
"Yes," the marquise said, then sat back down at her desk and seemed to return her attention to her book. Without looking up at him she said, "I begin work here every morning after breakfast, cataloguing the newest accessions. If you wish to help me, be here by nine. Monsieur generally visits around noon."
Stiles understood this woman not one little bit, but he could tell when someone was trying to be of help to him. It was the one of the few attempts at—well, not at kindness, exactly, but at seeing him as anything other than an inconvenience that he'd experienced since he arrived here. With the exception of the Musketeer McCall, Stiles had never felt so friendless. "Thank you," Stiles said, making a bow and then retreating with as much grace as he could muster. Which wasn't much—he tripped over the edge of a floorboard and almost fell—but since he stayed upright, Stiles decided that he would count it a victory.
By the time that the approaching dawn was starting to leach the stars from the sky the next morning, Stiles was already awake. Nerves, he told himself, at the prospect of taking on something so utterly out of the realm of his experiencing: not just the wooing of someone, but the wooing of his own husband. The wooing of his own husband for reasons of state. Accordingly, Stiles spent the hour before the servants arrived with breakfast seated at the writing desk in his bedroom, scribbling a letter to his father. He didn't dare tell his father everything—not only did Stiles not want him to worry, but even if Stiles applied the strongest secrecy charm he knew to the letter and wrote it in an obscure dialect of Alleman, there was no guarantee that the charm couldn't be broken and the contents of the letter read. His role was to keep the treaty between Francia and the Empire strong, not to inadvertently plunge the two monarchies into war.
Stiles spent much of the letter describing sights and sounds, the landscapes he'd spied from the carriage windows and the new foods he'd tasted, the songs he'd heard and the scale of his apartments at the Trianon. If his father read the letter carefully, he'd see that there was almost no mention of Monsieur in it, beyond an offhand remark that he seemed to be in good health—a mention diffident enough to alert his father, but hopefully not enough to alarm.
Stiles handed over the letter to be placed in with the dispatches heading east, breakfasted quickly, and hurried through dressing with just as much speed. The little clock on the mantelpiece was barely striking eight by the time that Stiles left his apartments and headed in the direction of the library. He had plenty of time to make it there, but he was under the distinct impression that the marquise de Mont-Martin was not a woman who appreciated being left waiting.
The marquise was already there when he arrived, serenely at work—if not for the fact that her hair was arranged a little differently, and she was wearing a different white dress, Stiles might almost have sworn that she had not moved from the spot the entire night. She nodded at a stack of paper-wrapped packages sitting on a table near her desk without looking up from her work. "Check each volume off against the list of purchases, and then enter each one into the book of accessions. Write legibly. I have no desire to do your work over."
"I am at your service," Stiles said, bowing before taking a seat across from her.
It took Stiles a little while to work out the marquise's system, but by and by, comparing the colophon of each book with the cataloguing work which she had already done, Stiles caught on. There was something soothing in the repetition of the work, in assigning a number to each new text and in seeing himself accomplish something in line after line of black ink. The worst of it was forcing himself not to be distracted by some of the more interesting volumes—the new acquisitions ran heavily to works of natural history, many of them describing lands that Stiles hadn't even known to imagine. The time passed quickly and quietly, and before Stiles knew it, he looked up blinking from his work to find that the sun had crept steadily across the parquet floor. It must have been noon, or close enough to it, he thought as he rubbed idly at the ink stains on his fingers. He was about to suggest that they ring for some luncheon, when he realised what had made him look up from his work in the first place—someone was standing in the library's main doorway, watching them.
Monsieur, in fact. For all that this was what Stiles had hoped for—the chance to see him again, to begin to convince him that Stiles had not agreed to this marriage out of the basest of motives—it was still a little startling to see him standing there. Stiles didn't dare hope that his marriage might ever be as happy as his parents' own had been, but he could at least try to build an amiable compact, one built on mutual respect and shared goals, if nothing else.
When Stiles stood up, he knocked his chair over. He scrambled to right it, and then made his best bow, mindful of the ink on his fingers and hoping that he hadn't absentmindedly touched his face at any point. On the other side of the table, the marquise executed a much more graceful curtsey.
"Monsieur," Stiles said. "I trust you are well this morning?"
His husband looked at him for a long moment. Stiles didn't quite know how to read the expression on his face: by no stretch of the imagination could it be termed affectionate, but it was not quite the awful blankness which had greeted Stiles on his arrival here. Faced with either feeling or indifference, Stiles knew which option he would always take. "Yes, thank you," Monsieur replied. His voice was still softer than Stiles was expecting, though he did not find it unpleasant. "And you are—I had not thought to find you here."
"Madame la marquise was kind enough to let me offer her my services," Stiles said, nodding over at her. "I'm not used to spending so much time cooped up in rooms with nothing to do—not that the rooms you've given me aren't lovely, they are most fine, I've never slept anywhere so—what I mean to say is, the honour of—it's not that I'm insensible to it, but I much prefer having something to d—" Dimly, Stiles was aware of the torrent of language pouring out of his mouth, but found himself quite unable to stop it.
Both of Monsieur's eyebrows rose.
Surely the authors of Youth's Behaviour, or Decency in Conversation Among Gentry would not approve of Stiles' conduct.
Luckily the marquise was there to rescue him. "I believe that what Monseigneur is trying to say is that he has been doing some cataloguing work for me, in return for my introducing him to the library's collections." Her smile was perfectly sweet and genial, and transformed her face, for all that Stiles wasn't quite sure that he believed it to be genuine. "He has been most helpful."
"I write about the books," Stiles said, in one last uncontrollable verbal burst. He ground his fingernails into the palms of his hands, hoping that the pain at least would be enough to shock him into silence.
"Indeed," Monsieur said, before visibly turning his attention to the marquise. "I came only to inquire if the Thucydides had yet been rebound."
"It was to be finished this morning, Monsieur," she said. "If you can spare a moment, I shall check with the bindery."
She slipped out of the room in a rustle of white skirts, through a small door cut into an alcove between bookcases that Stiles hadn't yet noticed. With her gone, Stiles was alone in the room with his husband—and, Stiles realised with a sudden rush of admiration for the marquise's skill, neither of them could leave abruptly without being abominably rude to her. If she hadn't done this deliberately, then Stiles thought it would surely turn out to be a week of four Thursdays.
The library was suddenly, crushingly silent, and Stiles cast about desperately for something to say. "Did you enjoy your ride this morning, Monsieur?" he asked, clasping his hands behind his back so that his fingers couldn't fidget. "Your valet said that you are a great believer in exercise." Surely that was an unexceptionable thing to ask—a tad more interesting than an inquiry about the weather, but not so personal that anyone could see a hint of presumption in it.
"Yes?" Stiles said, a little nonplussed. He couldn't see why that would be something that he'd lie about—nor Isaac, for that matter.
Monsieur cocked his head—a curious gesture, as if he were listening to some noise beyond the threshold of Stiles' own hearing. A frown flickered across his face, and Monsieur had, Stiles noticed, eyes of a most changeable and fascinating colour. "I like it tolerably well," Monsieur said eventually.
Stiles had entirely lost his train of thought. "I—oh! The exercise. Yes, that—I'm glad," he said, and then took a deep breath and fought to compose himself. If his husband were to chalk him up as a complete imbecile, then Stiles would certainly have no chance at forging an amicable relationship between them. Clasping his hands behind his back, he gathered up his courage and said, "I wondered if perhaps I might trespass on your kindness by accompanying you tomorrow? I have spent so long now in carriages and rooms. Fresh air and exercise would be most welcome, as would a chance to acquaint myself with the countryside hereabouts."
Monsieur stared at him, looking almost nonplussed, and Stiles wondered if perhaps he'd made a mistake in his Francish, or if he'd butchered the pronunciation beyond what a native Francish speaker could tolerate. He opened his mouth to apologise and make the request anew, but then the little door in the alcove was opening and the marquise had returned.
"Your book, Monsieur," she said, holding out a volume bound in grey buckram.
Monsieur took the book, thanked her, and then without so much as a look in Stiles' direction, left the room.
When the door swung closed behind him, the marquise said dryly, "I take it that your plan did not go well."
"No," Stiles said with a sigh. He looked at the closed door, and wondered what it would be like, to have to make the long journey back to the Francish frontier in solitary disgrace.
While the servants cleared away the breakfast dishes the following morning, Stiles stood at the window and crunched his way through the last of a jam-slathered tartine as he tried to figure out how he wished to spend his day. It was warm again, though slightly cloudier, and with a fresher breeze. A walk in the gardens might suffice for the remainder of the morning. After that… Well, the marquise might be annoyed to see him for the third day in a row, even if she was able to put him to profitable use as a cataloguer; his presence would no doubt be a source of distraction to McCall, who surely had many drills and duties to take up his time, but there at least Stiles might be able to claim the benefit of novelty.
He had just resolved on a turn around the gardens before annoying McCall, when from behind him came the sound of someone clearing their throat. Stiles whirled around, uncomfortably aware of the smear of jam on his mouth and the crumbs on his lapel. He brushed them away and licked at his lower lip, before making his leg as smoothly as he could. "Monsieur, good morning."
Monsieur frowned. "You're not dressed for riding."
Stiles blinked. "I did not think—"
"We will ride out from the main stables on the quarter hour," Monsieur said. "If you are there in time you may join us."
He strode out of the room without further comment, but Stiles' swearing soon more than filled up the silence. He hurried back into his bedroom. There was no time to ring for a valet to help him change, or even to second a passing servant from the corridor, so he rummaged through the armoire in search of suitable clothing. The breeches he was wearing would do, and Stiles didn't know how to replace his simple cravat with a more formal stock, but he could shrug into one of the riding coats that had been waiting, perfectly tailored to his measurements, on his arrival. Getting his shoes off and his riding boots on was more difficult, and Stiles ended up sitting on the floor, huffing, as he hauled on the top of each boot with all his might. He finished dressing just as the clock chimed the hour. A quick glance in the mirror showed him that he didn't look stylish but he at least looked presentable, even if the colour was up in his cheeks. He left his rooms at a jog, and accosted the first footman he saw for directions to the main courtyard.
The stables which Stiles finally reached, at almost a full run, were larger than any he had seen before. In fact, had the footman not pointed at them from a window, Stiles would have thought them another block of the palace proper, for they looked as fine as any house. Stiles knew many people who didn't live with glazed windows in their dwellings, but the horses of the Francish royal household were evidently accustomed to living in grand style. In the cobbled yard, Monsieur was already mounted on a fine bay. Next to him was a dappled grey on which sat a handsome, dark-skinned man in the uniform of a Musketeer, and as Stiles slowed to a halt, a groom led out a sorrel mare with four white socks.
"I trust you are familiar with horses?" Monsieur asked, once the groom had helped Stiles to mount.
The question was an absurd enough one for the son of a Markgraf that Stiles forgot himself and snorted, a noise which he tried to hide by turning it into a cough. Judging by the look of faint amusement on the face of Monsieur's companion, it hadn't worked. "Tolerably well," Stiles said, attempting to plaster a look of tractable innocence on his face.
He didn't think he'd fooled Monsieur, either.
They set off out of the yard at an easy trot, the horses' hooves at first ringing off the cobblestones before they turned onto a gravel path that led them away from the palace proper and towards a distant stand of trees. They were perhaps halfway there when Monsieur said, diffidently, "Along the bridleway to the clearing," and then urged his horse into a gallop before Stiles had a chance to ask what he meant.
The Musketeer was a split second behind Monsieur, and Stiles had no desire to be left last and gaping, so he spurred his own mount on, over the green grasses to where a bridleway led into the woods. Monsieur rode at a steady gallop, his seat easy and confident. Though the other two pulled ahead, Stiles never lost sight of them, mindful as he was of potential pitfalls in unfamiliar ground—however obviously managed the woods were, and however broad and flat the path—and of the fact that his horse surely did not yet trust him. He reached the clearing behind the others, but he didn't think he'd entirely disgraced himself, especially not when Monsieur turned his horse and saw Stiles so close behind them.
"I'm not so easy to lose as all that," Stiles said as they dismounted.
Monsieur didn't say anything, but he did snort softly to himself, which Stiles was quite sure was the most honest bit of communication he'd had from the man since Stiles had met him.
The Musketeer led the horses over to the far side of the clearing, where there were rich grasses to graze on. In the centre of the clearing, however, near where Stiles and Monsieur stood, was a small pond. At first glance, Stiles had thought it a natural feature, but he swiftly realised that it was far too symmetrical a circle for that to be true. Its waters were clear and utterly still, and despite the warmth of the day, Stiles had to repress a shiver. He tried to lean in to get a better look at it, to see if the waters were truly as cold as they looked. Maybe they would be chillingly cold, bone cold, but on a hot day such as today, that might be welcome—maybe there would be plants anchored in the soft mulch of the pond's bottom, waterweed that Stiles could tangle his fingers in, down below the sky's trapped reflection where the waters were clear and cold and still. Maybe— Stiles reached out to touch the water's surface, but was restrained by the tight grip Monsieur suddenly took of his upper arm. The shock of that touch, so unexpected, was enough to make Stiles lean back, and then take a step further back again when Monsieur let go of him.
He gaped at Monsieur. "It's enchanted?"
"It's a lunar pool," Monsieur said, words clipped. His hands curled into fists at his side. "It's not safe for you to touch."
That was an old kind of magic, more powerful than any but a handful of modern practitioners could work—a kind of which Stiles knew no more than the vaguest of half-remembered scraps. "Who would make something like this in the middle of the woods?" he asked, trying to see it again without endangering himself this time. Perhaps standing in the protective shade of Monsieur's bulk would help.
"Why did you agree to this match?" Monsieur said abruptly. "What did he offer you?"
Stiles blinked, nonplussed, turning to look at Monsieur. "The emperor?"
Monsieur stared blankly at him.
Stiles didn't know if he should take that for acknowledgement or not, but he decided to speak anyway. He might never again get a chance like this—a quiet place, near privacy—in order to make it plain that Stiles knew what was expected of him, and would not shirk it. "There was no offer, Monsieur. The emperor commanded it of me, to help seal the alliance between our two realms. My mother was his kinswoman, you know—the granddaughter of his late cousin—and so there is a blood connection, of a sort. His Majesty's only daughter is married, and none of her children are yet of an age to contract. The imperial family is not numerous otherwise, and so I was called on to do my duty." He shrugged, aiming for diffident and knowing that he likely seemed only awkward. "I know I may not be the most pleasing—"
Monsieur raised a hand, cutting him off. "You had no communication from the king?"
"The king of Francia?" Stiles said slowly. "No. The closest contact I've ever had with him was seeing his signature above mine on our marriage contract. What—"
"You expect me to believe that you act from nothing more than duty," Monsieur said.
Stiles stiffened, stung. "I keep my word, sir."
"I should trust in your amiability, in your disinterestedness?"
"What reason have I given you to think otherwise?" Stiles fought to keep his voice from rising, but out of the corner of his eye, he could see the Musketeer watching them closely, and was certain that he was not succeeding. "I've not been here a week, I—"
"The son of a petty parvenu," Monsieur said, his upper lip curling. Stiles didn't know how he could ever have thought the man difficult to read—his anger was plain to see now, as was his disdain. "Did you think that I would not enquire as to your father's family, whoever your mother may have been? A butcher's son, ennobled for playing at sentry. Do you think that your smiles and your looks would be enough to make the son of a queen of Francia wish to rejoice in the inferiority of such a father-in-law?"
Stiles had long known that he was possessed of a quick temper, but in this moment he could think that no failing. "My father is a good man, an honourable man," he shot back, furious beyond the telling of it. His father was the only family he truly possessed. "I should not be surprised to find that you are unable to recognise those qualities for what they are."
Monsieur's eyes widened, as if he had not been expecting that Stiles would answer him back. Perhaps no one ever had; that, Stiles thought, might be where the fault lay. "You cannot speak—"
"Oh, but I can," Stiles said hotly, "if you choose to speak to me of honour. I came to this land in good faith, I came to this marriage in good faith. I thought—" Stiles broke off, thinking of the excited nerves that had sparked low in his belly when he'd first stepped onto Francish soil. Hadn't he been naive. "No matter what I thought. Clearly your opinion of me was fixed before you ever met me. You may think of me what you wish, but I won't stand to hear you slander the best of men. Rest assured that I won't trouble you any more."
Stiles turned on his heel and marched over to the other side of the clearing, where the Musketeer still stood with the horses. Stiles accepted the reins of his horse from the man with terse courtesy, and then paused before mounting. "It is only," he said quietly, feeling his cheeks heat with fresh humiliation, "I don't remember which direction we came from. Could you—"
The man nodded. "I will ride with you back to the palace, monseigneur."
"Thank you, uh…"
"De Vernon, monseigneur," he said as he swung easily up into the saddle.
"But I can't ask you to—"
"He can find his own fool way back," de Vernon said calmly, and urged his horse forward. He sounded neither concerned for Monsieur's safety, nor at all apprehensive at having referred to a prince as a fool in front of his husband. Stiles decided that the better part of valour lay in not inquiring about that, especially of a man of such apparent vigour, and settled for trotting out of the clearing in his wake. He didn't turn to look behind him.
If Stiles had been back home—his real home—he would have sought out his father to rant at. Or, if his father had been away on patrol, he would have stormed off into the pine forests that surrounded their keep. There was a small waterfall some half a league away, which was excellent for hurling stones into while pretending that each one was a frustration or a fear that could be swallowed up by the swirling waters. In the months immediately following his mother's death, Stiles had spent many hours sitting out there, avoiding his tutor and with only his father's hunting dogs for company. As it was, Stiles did not think that the courtiers of the Trianon would overlook the sight of the husband of the first in line to the throne tossing pebbles into one of the palace gardens, and so he took to his rooms to fume instead.
That, however, grew wearisome after a while. Stiles tried pacing, because that seemed the traditional thing to do, but he failed to see how it helped at all. Instead of helping him to burn off the excess energy that simmered beneath his skin, it seemed only to stoke it. He thought about writing a letter to his father, though Stiles knew all it would accomplish would be to upset his father in a week or two; he considered throwing something at a wall, but the clock and pieces of china on the bedroom mantel seemed very old and very expensive, and Stiles didn't know if he was quite angry enough to pick up a chair and try to break that. That would just make more work for the servants, besides, and Stiles knew that he'd already been curt enough to them when they'd come to offer him lunch. He had no desire to set everyone in the palace against him.
He marched back out of his rooms and off through the gardens towards the Musketeers' guardhouse. It didn't seem to take so long to get there this time, not once he knew where he was going and not when he was fuelled by an anger that he hadn't yet been able to properly express. Stiles burst into the same common room, this time to find McCall and de Vernon peaceably having their lunch.
"Gentlemen," Stiles said in a rush, "I'm most sorry to interrupt, but I find myself in a foul temper and would very much appreciate if one or both of you would consent to my hitting you with a sword for a while."
The two men blinked at him over their bowls of soup.
Stiles shrugged. "I own that it's far more likely that you will end up hitting me, but at least that would be distracting. I very much need distraction."
De Vernon and McCall shared a silent, speaking look for a long moment, and then McCall sighed. "I have an extra practice blade, Monseigneur. After lunch, we can go out to the training ground for a time."
"Thank you," Stiles said, breathing out a heavy sigh of relief. "Otherwise I would have to go back and smash that porcelain monkey and that just seems a shame, and I've just realised how that sounds but that isn't a euphemism for once."
The Musketeers' training grounds lay on the far side of the guardhouse: a sizeable area of beaten earth separated from the palace's lush gardens by a low fence. Targets were arranged along one end of the arena, allowing for the practice of archery and musketry; near the other, under the shade of a spreading oak tree, was a set of well-worn gymnastic apparatus. In between was enough space for several pairs to comfortably practice swordplay.
Stiles shrugged off his riding coat and left it slung over the fence. He took the épée that de Vernon held out to him. The hilt wasn't the kind that Stiles had grown up with, but the balance of the blade was good and he didn't think he'd have any problems with it.
McCall had likewise removed his hat and coat and left them with de Vernon, before settling into the en garde position.
Stiles mirrored him and said, "Don't go lightly on me just because of my station."
McCall smiled sunnily at him. "Oh, I won't."
And indeed he did not. Stiles' father had trained him to be a passable, if unremarkable, swordsman, but McCall had clearly spent years honing his craft. Stiles got in one or two hits, but by the time the sun was beginning to sink towards the horizon, Stiles' back was damp with sweat, his shirt had at least a dozen fresh small tears in it from the point d'arrêt of McCall's blade. His breeches, too, were stained with reddish earth from where a particularly aggressive attack of McCall's had caused Stiles to trip over his own feet.
By the time McCall helped Stiles back up from the ground for the last time, Stiles was panting and sore but felt much less in danger of punching his own husband. "Well," he asked de Vernon, who was sitting with a book in the shade of the tree, "what's the score?"
De Vernon shrugged without looking up. "I thought it would be better for Monseigneur's dignity if I lost count."
Stiles opened his mouth to protest, but then thought the better of it. There was another battle that he would not win.
Over the next few days, Stiles' days fell into an orderly pattern. He would rise early, and read or write letters to send home to his father while he breakfasted. Mornings he would spend with the marquise in the library, helping her to catalogue the collection while she slowly filled him in on court gossip: how the various noble families were related, and on which side of the sheets; whose niece had eloped with whose brother; which idiot younger son had had to be sent into the provinces because, after a night's heavy drinking, he had retched onto one of the king's favourite chairs before stealing one of his majesty's favourite hats.
"The king," the marquise said, with what Stiles was learning to recognise as the driest kind of understated amusement, "tends to be territorial. Apparently the hat had five genuine ostrich plumes in it."
"Well," Stiles said with equal solemnity, accepting with a grunt the little stack of books which the marquise handed him to shelve. They were heavier than they seemed. "Who wouldn't send someone into exile for making off with five genuine ostrich plumes? The scoundrel."
Stiles would lunch, and then walk over to the Musketeers' guardhouse, where either McCall or de Vernon, or both, would school him rigorously. To Stiles' embarrassment, their sessions attracted a small audience as the days passed—courtiers in their bright clothing who gathered to watch, or offer advice, or ogle, as they saw fit. On one blazingly hot day, Stiles and McCall stripped down to their undershirts as they worked which, bewilderingly, drew a smattering of applause. Once, Stiles even thought he saw Isaac among the crowd, though by the time he and de Vernon had finished their bout and Stiles had picked himself up out of the dirt, Isaac was long gone.
Monsieur, he saw not at all, apart from occasional glimpses: seen from a window when he rode out towards the woods, or when he strode down the hallways in the mornings to sit in on meetings of the privy council.
In the evenings, Stiles bathed, and anointed his bruises with arnica, and then sat in front of the fire reading some of the more interesting magic texts which he'd come across in the library. Many of them were in Old Romish, and Stiles' grasp of that language was not as strong as it could have been. He struggled to parse the more esoteric passages, though he had a suspicion that many of them were so obscure that even if he spoke the language fluently, he would find them difficult to understand, what with their talk of aether and the seven elements and the power of the summer moon. After all, there had been little magic used in this part of Europa for several generations—the last bout of the scarlet plague to move through here had disproportionately killed off those who had the inherent spark needed to manipulate it. While even a small town might now have a resident hedge-witch or alchemist, there were few who had the ability or the knowledge to try to recreate the feats that had once been almost commonplace, and technology had now rendered obsolete all but the most ornate of decorations and glamours. Why hire a magician to light a fire when you could use a tinderbox instead?
If you wanted to seek out true magic, you had to travel many leagues—across the stormy northern seas to the lands of the Ivernians, or over plains and mountains east to the land of Rus, or south through the deserts to the Songhai. Regardless, the texts still fascinated Stiles—as did the thought that once the merest inhalation of breath and a concentration of will had been enough for a person to work wonders—and he filled up notebooks with careful annotations.
Each night, Stiles crawled into a bed that still seemed far too large for one person, and was glad that the day's exercises left him tired enough that sleep came quickly, regardless.
It was a pattern that gave shape to his days, and yet much as Stiles was grateful for that—grateful that the marquise's diligence helped to focus him, and that sharing in McCall and de Vernon's training helped to burn off much of his anger—he was aware that there was still a simmering unease that lay just below his skin. Stiles didn't think that he'd entered his marriage as a total naïf. He'd known that it could fail, known that he might find himself having nothing in common with his spouse, or that his runaway tongue would offend Monsieur as it had so many others over the years. What Stiles hadn't expected, however, was that he could be rejected for things which he had not done—and indeed, for his connexion to the person whom Stiles valued most in the world.
It was that which made him miserable when he blinked awake each morning. What was distraction now would soon become monotony, and Stiles might yet live decades like this. The thought was a dispiriting one.
He gave serious thought to approaching Monsieur and asking for an informal separation. A full repudiation would have diplomatic consequences, but a quiet, tacit end to a marriage in all but name was not unheard of in higher circles. There had never been a chance of heirs, after all. Stiles had had a respectable dower settled on him as part of the wedding contract, including a small estate in the north-east of Francia. It wouldn't give him enough income to allow him to live in a style as lavish as that enjoyed at the Trianon, but it would give him space and freedom. Stiles had no desire to be an inconvenience to anyone on any terms other than his own.
Stiles had just about worked up the nerve one morning to seek an audience with his husband on the matter when he heard the sounds of running footsteps in the corridors—dozens of them—and the distant jangling of service bells. At first he thought there must be a fire, but when he poked his head out of his apartments to investigate, he saw no sign of panic in people's faces. Or at least, not the kind of immediate panic that the threat of the palace burning down would occasion.
He managed to attract the attention of a parlour maid who was scurrying along, arms full of several sets of candlesticks, and asked her what was happening.
"If it please you, Monseigneur," she said, bobbing a hasty curtsey, "it's only that a messenger has arrived to say that the king is returning from the north and there's so much to prepare before his majesty arrives and all the best silver needs polishing. Please excuse me, sir." She curtsied again and was gone.
That put things in a very different light, Stiles thought as he retreated back into his own rooms.
Two days, the servants said. Stiles had thought the Trianon a busy, active sort of place before then, but that was as nothing compared to the way the palace now came to life. Gardeners urged the box hedges into ever greater feats of symmetry. The Musketeers begged off their practice with Stiles, requiring time to ready their uniforms and their barracks before the royal return. Servants polished the floors until all the corridors smelled richly of beeswax; hauled buckets of sand so that they could scour steps that were already impeccable; dragged carpets and tapestries outdoors to beat them. Even some additional alchemists were brought in from the university in Lutetia. Their subtle enchantments filled the palace's rooms with marvellous fragrances, carried on soft breezes. More and more courtiers reappeared, returning from the city to fill audience chambers with their chatter, like vividly coloured butterflies emerging suddenly from their chrysalises.
It was impressive to watch, but the dust and the smells of bleach and polish were strong enough to give Stiles the headache. By the following afternoon, he had resolved to ride out to escape the commotion. There was nothing he could do to help, after all, and he had the strong suspicion that he was actually under people's feet. He kept back a couple of green apples from lunch, and packed them into a saddle bag together with the fairy tale book that the marquise had given him a while ago. The weather had cooled a little, but it was still pleasant outside. A change of scene and a few hours spent reading something diverting in the quiet and the open air would set him up nicely, Stiles thought as he slipped out to the stables.
He swiftly found a stable hand who could procure and saddle him a horse, but then Stiles had to wait a moment in the yard—and in so doing, found himself with nowhere to hide when Monsieur trotted in under the archway, wearing a coat of blue superfine and mounted on the same fine bay stallion as he had been several days ago. Stiles felt his cheeks heat, because he knew what this must look like. It was no secret that Monsieur was a great horseman, and as like to be found in the stables as anywhere else on the palace grounds. Surely he must think that Stiles had come here to importune him, but Stiles had no wish to be thought that desperate.
Monsieur's jaw tightened when he caught sight of Stiles; the look on his face was surely one of anger, and Stiles had no desire to provoke the man further. Luckily, the groom arrived at that moment, leading out a horse for Stiles, and Stiles swung himself up into the saddle as quickly as possible. He nodded at Monsieur, the bare minimum required by the sake of politeness, and would have urged the horse around and on out of the yard without saying anything further, but was stopped by the sound of Monsieur's voice.
"Sir, I wished to—that is, I wished to convey to you that I…" Monsieur huffed out an exasperated breath, his gaze fixed somewhere over Stiles' left shoulder, though at what, Stiles knew not. "I am aware that my opinions could have been better expressed."
Stiles stared at him.
"Will you not accept my apology?" Monsieur said.
"I was not aware that you had uttered one," Stiles said hotly. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted the stable hand slip away into an empty stall; that was probably wise. "Since all you said was that you wished you had conveyed to me your disdain for my family in a more elegant manner."
"My concerns were valid ones," Monsieur snapped, then paused to visibly collect himself. "But I—"
"There we must differ," Stiles said, not in the mood to entertain anything else that the man had to say. "I wish you a good day, sir."
He turned his mount away and headed out of the stable yard, away from the palace and the formal gardens and towards some of the rolling meadows which stretched to the south of the Trianon for some miles. There was a low hill he'd spotted some time before, which turned out to offer a view of the palace that was most picturesque, and an excellent site for some quiet reading. Stiles hobbled the horse and shared one of his apples with it before letting it graze, then sat on a tuffet of grass with the book and the rest of the food. He tried his best to lose himself in tales of crystal mountains and talking dragons, sprites and salamanders and mattresses layered on top of peas, but Stiles' thoughts kept wandering back to the look on Monsieur's face.
"Valid concerns, indeed," Stiles muttered to himself.
As thoroughly as the palace had been scoured the day before, so too was Stiles the following morning. The water for his bath was so hot that he felt parboiled by the time he emerged from it, his skin still pink as a team of valets helped him into his outfit. Stiles had never seen the valets before, nor had he chosen the outfit, but any protests which he raised were met with murmured disclaimers that they were merely acting on Isaac's orders. Eventually, Stiles submitted with something approaching good grace, though he still felt as if he were being trussed up like a goose for the Saturnalis feast.
"Are these breeches supposed to be so tight?" Stiles asked, twisting and trying to catch sight of himself in the mirror that stood against the far wall. "They feel very tight."
The valet said something about not putting a lamp under a basket, which Stiles understood not at all.
When what seemed like whole days had passed, Stiles was released and some of the valets accompanied him to the grand reception hall, which was in a part of the palace that Stiles had not yet visited much. As they got closer to the hall, Stiles was certain that he could have done without any chaperone, for it seemed that there was a great crush of people, decked out in their finery, all determined to be there to welcome the king on his return. Stiles' rank helped to carve him a path through the crowd, though others weren't so lucky. He saw the little marquise de Mont-Martin be buffeted on all sides by those much taller than her, and signalled for her to be brought to his side.
"Madame," he said, "I hope you were not injured."
The marquise frowned. "Some oaf stepped on the hem of my gown, but I hope it will not signify." She was once more dressed à la Bordelaise, all in white, and the contrast between her stark mode of dress and that of the courtiers around them struck Stiles with renewed force.
"Standing out of the crowd has its perils," Stiles said as they entered the reception hall proper. It was an enormous room, very high and very long, whose mirrored walls reflected a blaze of candlelight and the bright colours of the marble floor mosaics. At the far end of the room was a dais, on which sat a great throne, flanked by three smaller and much less opulent chairs.
"So says the husband of the heir to the throne," the marquise said wryly. Stiles left her standing amid the throng of aristocrats—who seemed to be arranging themselves loosely along the room in order of precedence—and let the valets lead him along to the dais. Monsieur was already there, standing in front of one of the smaller chairs. Stiles stood next to him, and tried his best not to fidget, or glare at Monsieur, or let his cheeks heat. It was unnerving to feel himself the object of so much scrutiny, for the room was almost full now, thronged with people and with the low buzz of conversation. That people would be curious about the newest member of the royal family was unsurprising, but Stiles still wished that they could have been a little less blatant in their scrutiny of him.
One woman seemed to be observing him through a pair of opera glasses.
It felt as if they stood waiting for a very long time. The room grew hotter, and the smell of perfumes more overpowering; ladies waved fans that did little to move the still air around and sweat beaded at gentlemen's hairlines. Just as Stiles was thinking of asking if etiquette would permit him to sit down for a few moments, Chancellor d'Éton appeared in the reception hall's main door. He carried a staff of office in his hand, the butt of which he rapped against the floor three times.
The Chancellor's voice was loud in a room that was otherwise, suddenly silent. "The most high, most puissant, and most excellent prince, Pierre, by the will of the gods, King of Francia," he declaimed before stepping to one side.
His place was taken by a new man: one Stiles' height, or a little shorter, who wore a trim, pointed goatee and an expression of banal geniality. The king wore a broad-brimmed hat from which curled several large white feathers, the tip of each dyed a different colour; the rest of his outfit was equally as extravagant. One hand rested on a gold-topped cane.
The hall was filled with the sound of rustling fabric as the women sank into low curtseys and men bowed. Stiles did likewise, and held the posture while the king made his way up the reception hall. The king reached the dais, handed his cane and hat to a waiting footman, and sank down onto the throne. He gestured carelessly with one hand, and the assembled court rose as one in another sigh of silk.
Monsieur was the first to speak. "We are honoured by your majesty's return, and trust that your journey was a comfortable one." His tone was as stiff as his posture. From what Monsieur had said previously, and indeed what McCall had told him of the curious case of the late queen's will, it came as no surprise to Stiles to see that there was evidently no love lost between the two men. Monsieur looked as if he would soon throw himself through the window as continue with this conversation.
"Your sense of familial duty does you credit, nephew," the king said brightly. There was yet something in his tone—a twist of emphasis—that Stiles couldn't wholly identify, but which he was nonetheless quite sure that he disliked. "As does your new spouse." He turned a broad smile on Stiles. "Or should I say rather, my new nephew. I bid you welcome to Francia, Przemysł. I hope that Derek has been treating you well?"
Stiles bowed. "Yes, I thank you, your majesty."
"I'm glad to hear it," the king said, propping his chin on his fist. "What a wonderful thing young love is."
Stiles would have been quite certain that he was being mocked, even if he hadn't been able, out of the corner of his eye, to see how Monsieur was slowly flushing a dull red. He couldn't think why the king chose to act this way, though, so he remained quiet, and let him continue.
"It grieves me," the king said, "to know that my duties called me away from home at the very moment when my nephew was to enjoy the happiest days of his life. It is something I must remedy." He stood and raised his voice so that it would carry to the very furthest corner of the room. "We shall hold a ball a week from now, in honour of my nephew and his new bridegroom."
The room burst into studious applause. Something heavy dropped into the pit of Stiles' stomach. That was something he would have expected, even appreciated, on his first arrival at the Trianon. Now, the thought of being feted by so many for a marriage which he knew to be a sham, and one which his spouse loathed at that; the thought of having to pretend at happiness in front of a room full of people—not one of these was a welcome idea.
By the look on Monsieur's face, he was no more enthused.
If the king noticed that, he chose not to remark on it. Instead, he gestured for his cane and made to start back down the steps of the dais. "I find myself fatigued by the journey. We may discuss arrangements on the morrow."
Stiles blinked. All of this preparation, all of this fuss and bother, for a mass audience with the king which lasted mere minutes?
No one else in the room seemed surprised by this, however. Once more, the men bowed and the women curtsied—all except for Monsieur. He took a step forward as the king tried to pass him. "The fourth chair," Monsieur said, just loud enough that Stiles could overheard. "Who is it for?"
For a moment, Stiles was thoroughly confused, until he remembered that there was one more seat on the dais than there was a member of the royal family to occupy it.
"Oh now, come, nephew," the king said, reaching out to pat Monsieur on the arm. The smile on his face never wavered, though Stiles did not like the look in his eyes at all. "Surely you don't wish to be spoiled for the party's guest list?" Then he passed on and out of the room.
The next morning, Stiles was woken at an obscene hour by a harried looking seamstress and her assistants. "Monseigneur is to have a new set of clothes for the ball," the woman said as she wielded a set of pins that were far too long and too vicious-looking for Stiles' comfort.
"I have new clothes aplenty," Stiles said, gesturing over at the armoire full of them, and trying his best not to stumble when there were so many sharp implements so close to his inseam. He was not his best before he had breakfasted. "Surely there is something in there that—"
The seamstress tsked at him. "No, none of those will suit. His Majesty has requested that you and Monsieur coordinate so—turn to the left, if you please—so that it will look better for the first dance."
"The first…" Stiles blinked down at her. "The first dance?"
"Yes, monseigneur," the woman said slowly, as if she were talking to a simpleton. "The dance at the ball."
"The ball which is being given in our honour, where we will have to dance," Stiles said, turning the horror of the thought over in his mind. He would have to dance in public with Monsieur.
Surely soon not a servant in the Trianon would think him in his right mind.
As soon as the seamstress and her assistants had left, Stiles hurriedly dressed in his day clothes. Then he badgered one of the waiting staff, who had brought this morning's breakfast, into showing him the way to Monsieur's apartments.
"It might be better," the man said nervously, "if Monseigneur were to wait for a valet, this isn't my—"
"Not at all," Stiles said with as much brio as he could muster, "you've done splendidly, here's a ducat for your trouble, down this hallway you said?"
"And turn left," the man said, "but Monseigneur—"
"A splendid job," Stiles said, clapping the man on the shoulder and hurrying off down the hallway.
Stiles burst in through the doors which he was reasonably certain led to the right apartments. There were some servants in the chilly antechamber—one trying to coax a fire into greater life, another dusting—and both stood to rapid attention when they saw Stiles.
"My husband?" Stiles asked them.
"In his withdrawing room—but Monseigneur, you can't—"
"Thank you, most helpful," Stiles called over his shoulder, and continued through the next door. Beyond this lay a receiving room, far larger and more lavishly decorated than even the withdrawing room in Stiles' apartment; and then another, more opulent still; and then a bedchamber which held a four-poster bed of truly lavish proportions, carved out of heavy dark wood. When Stiles drew closer, he saw that carved wolves chased one another endlessly around each of the four posts. There was, however, no more sign of anyone in the bedchamber than there had been in the other rooms.
For a brief moment, Stiles entertained the thought of getting down on his hands and knees to check if Monsieur had hidden under the bed. Then he spotted a door cut into the room's wood panelling and almost hidden behind a tapestry. It stood slightly ajar. When Stiles went through that, he found himself in a withdrawing chamber—much smaller than any other room Stiles had seen in the palace so far, and much cosier. There were windows that looked out over a secluded part of the gardens, and a fire crackled merrily in the grate. A desk was arranged to take advantage of the view, and a small bookcase full of papers and scrolls stood near to hand. In one corner of the room was a camp bed, neatly dressed with some thin blankets.
Monsieur was sitting in a fauteuil near the fireplace, his back to the door. Stiles had just drawn breath to speak when he realised that Monsieur was not alone. There was someone sitting in a second chair, facing him.
"Oh," Stiles said, feeling all sense of urgency suddenly leave him. "I—I beg your pardon. I didn't mean to interrupt."
Monsieur twisted around in his chair to look at Stiles with a frown. The woman, however, seemed in no way so discomfited. She would likely be almost as tall as Stiles, standing, dark-skinned and beautiful. She was dressed well, but plainly; the only item of ostentation in her dress was the curiously old-fashioned, high collar which hid her neck from view. Her hands were folded neatly in her lap and when she looked at Stiles, he had the uneasy feeling that she had sized him up almost instantly.
"What are you doing here?" Monsieur asked, at the same moment that the woman stood. Stiles suddenly remembered that the last time they spoke had been in continued anger.
"I should be going," the woman said, rising and straightening out the fall of her skirts. "You will let me know if I can be of any further assistance, of course." She dropped a polite curtsey to Monsieur, nodded to Stiles, and left the room on quiet feet.
"I didn't realise you were—that is to say, of course if you wish to—I should leave you in peace," Stiles said, trying to back his way out of the room.
Monsieur now, too, was on his feet, and in the confines of this much smaller space, the scant inch of height advantage which he had over Stiles seemed like so much more. Stiles couldn't read the look on his face at all, and now that he had time to consider, he realised how foolish an idea this had been—why would this man care if Stiles were embarrassed in public?
"Is something amiss?" Monsieur said. He was close enough that Stiles felt awkward meeting his gaze directly, and yet it would have been doubly awkward to look away. Stiles' brain chose that moment to remind him that he was married to a most handsome individual, an observation which he tried to suppress as thoroughly as he could. "Has my uncle threatened you?"
"No," Stiles said, "Well, not as such. This is—I'm sorry, I shouldn't have—"
Before Stiles could move, Monsieur took hold of him by the upper arm—not roughly, but firmly enough that Stiles couldn't leave. "What did he do?"
Stiles sighed. He felt a fool. "It's just that he's requested that we open the ball, you and I. The first dance."
Monsieur frowned, letting go of Stiles' arm as if the very touch burned him. "You would refuse to stand up with me in public?"
"No!" Stiles said. "No, not at all, you're very… I would… it's more a matter that I do not know any of the court dances."
Monsieur blinked, looking genuinely taken aback. When startled, Stiles noted, he seemed many years younger. "You cannot dance?"
"I wouldn't go so far as that," Stiles said, hedging. "I can acquit myself quite creditably in the Stick and Bucket Dance."
Monsieur's face did something complicated. "I take it that that… performance can be classed as neither a gavotte nor a minuet."
"Not unless either of those involve the use of a goat as mascot," Stiles said firmly. "So I thought that you might be willing to help me find a tutor. But if you have an…" He made a hand gesture which he hoped conveyed the terms assignation or affaire du coeur in a succinct and suave manner; after all, Stiles had read novels, and knew how marriage was commonly conducted among the sophisticated elites of society. Judging by the confused look on Monsieur's face, Stiles had not succeeded. "A… a dalliance arranged, with your lady friend, that is—I have no hold on you."
"I have made my marriage vows," Monsieur said coldly, clasping his hands behind his back. "Mademoiselle Renard is a valued confidante, but no more than that."
"Ah. Well, that is… good?" Stiles said, in the absence of knowing what else to say that would not make it seem as if he were encouraging his husband to have an affair.
Monsieur stared at him for a long moment, and then sighed. "I have an appointment with my steward soon, but come back after lunch. We'll begin then."
It was Stiles' turn to blink. "And by 'we'll begin', you mean…"
"Come prepared," Monsieur said. "We'll start with the basic steps, and if you have the aptitude for them we'll work from there."
"And if I do not have the aptitude?" Stiles asked carefully, knowing that his name had been a by-word for clumsiness back home.
"You shall," Monsieur said grimly.
The worst thing was that having several hours between the time he learned that he was to have dance lessons and the time that he actually had lessons afforded Stiles ample space in which to panic. He hurried to the library, where the marquise was studying several ancient parchments that she had spread out on one of the desks.
"I mean," Stiles said as he paced back and forth, "what did he mean when he said 'come prepared'? What necessities can I bring with me other than my legs? And shoes, I suppose—wait, are special shoes required?" Stiles stared down at his feet, which were clad in sober shoes of plain black leather. They were comfortable, but unremarkable, and Stiles had no idea if they were truly the done thing at formal dances.
The marquise slowly looked up at him; the expression on her face suggested that she did not truly grasp the seriousness of the situation.
"You could be more supportive, you know," Stiles said, throwing himself into a nearby chair. "The future of the marriage of the heir to the throne may turn on whether or not I trample on Monsieur's instep this afternoon."
"Does he propose to teach you how to dance, or to induct you into a provincial amateur dramatics society?" the marquise asked, all studied mildness, as she turned back to her papers.
Stiles pulled a face at her. "I knew I should have gone to McCall—what prospect of sympathy did I have here?"
"None, Monseigneur," the marquise said blithely, "something of which you were quite aware."
Stiles tilted his head back, staring at the frescoes on the ceiling high above him. The central panel showed some of the Dei Consentes chasing one another through the heavens—Gradivus striding along, grim-faced, with sword in hand; Volcanos wreathed in flame; and racing at the head of them all Lucina, the crescent moon on her brow and her wolf companions loping by her side. Perhaps, Stiles thought morosely, all of this was happening to him because he had been remiss about offering up even a token libation to them of late.
"Don't you owe me fealty? Constancy? Allegiance?" Stiles asked as he got back to his feet. The energy that simmered just under his skin showed no signs of abating, and he started to pace again.
"You misconceive how the system here works," the marquise said, refilling her pen from an inkwell. "Whatever debt I may owe to Monsieur is not considered joint marital property."
"This system is terrible," Stiles said.
"Of course it is," the marquise said, "but complaining about it will not serve you. Now go—you are nothing but a distraction, and I'm quite out of patience with you."
"This all seems very complicated," Stiles said, folding his arms. He shot a dubious look at Monsieur. "Are you sure this is the dance that will be used to open the ball?"
"My uncle will choose it because it precisely because it is complicated," Monsieur said with an exaggerated kind of patience. The furniture in one of his withdrawing rooms had been moved back against the walls, leaving nothing but an intimidating expanse of polished parquet. "And because he will be able to say that he chose the Grande Polonaise in honour of your ancestry."
"So if I cannot dance it well, I will look doubly a fool," Stiles concluded. It was not as if Stiles had a broad base of experience on which to draw, but he had never known a family to treat one another the way in which the king and Monsieur did. "Why do you two hate one another so much?"
Monsieur flinched, and the look on his face was, for a brief moment, so terrible that Stiles regretted having asked the question. He didn't answer, though, just set his jaw, held out his hand to Stiles, and said, "Let's begin."
In truth, the steps were not too difficult to comprehend—it was performing them in time with both the beat and with Monsieur's movements that gave Stiles the real trouble. He turned in the wrong direction, or tripped over Monsieur's foot, no matter how patiently Monsieur kept time. It didn't help that this was the longest Stiles had ever spent in his husband's company, and the most contact they'd ever had with one another. Monsieur's hand was solid and warm in his as they moved around the room; he smelled faintly of fresh soap and cologne. Stiles tried his very best not to be distracted by that as they turned circles around one another, but it was a trial, especially when Monsieur insisted on keeping Stiles' gaze the whole time.
By the time they had made it through one complete round of the dance without mishap, at least an hour had passed, but Stiles was starting to feel somewhat confident as to his ability to perform the Polonaise in front of the king without fatally embarrassing himself.
"Well, this wasn't so terrible," Stiles said when they stopped. "I might never be able to turn professional but I think I will be able to acquit myself well."
Monsieur's eyebrows rose slightly. "That was but the first part."
Stiles stared at him. "Of how many?"
"There are three in total," Monsieur said. His mouth twitched, as if he were working to hold back a laugh at the look of dismay that was doubtless clear on Stiles' face. Stiles wondered briefly, idly, as to what Monsieur would look like if he were ever to smile.
"But this is of course the moment where you vouchsafe to me that the first part is the most difficult," Stiles said, struggling to refocus on what was happening. They were spouses who barely knew one another, or tolerated one another; that they were standing so close together spoke to nothing more than their desire not to be an object of fun for the courtiers. It was merely a distraction, that Monsieur's cologne smelled so pleasant. "And my mastery of these steps means that I have nothing to fear from now on."
"Everything gets more difficult from now on," Monsieur said, placing his hands on Stiles' waist.
Stiles swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry. "I feared you were going to say that."
By the time Stiles returned to his rooms, his feet ached, and he was more exhausted than he felt like he had a right to be, given that he had spent the last few hours simply walking in circles around a room. He was humming under his breath, contemplating ringing the bell, ordering up some dinner and hot water for a bath, when he realised that his withdrawing room wasn't empty.
"Your Majesty," Stiles said, bowing. "This is a… surprise."
This was no doubt neither the most polite nor the most diplomatic thing that Stiles could have said. Yet it was impossible to be anything other than taken aback at the sight of the king of Francia sitting in a chair in front of his fireplace. The room was twilight-dim, and the flames crackling in the hearth cast shadows over the king's face, making him look almost malevolent.
"I'm sure you'll forgive the intrusion, nephew—you do not object to my calling you nephew?" The king smiled vaguely. "We are family now, after all."
"Your Majesty is too kind."
"Well," the king said, "The things we do for family." He stared unblinking at Stiles for long moments, that faint smile still on his face, for much longer than Stiles thought could be seemly. The way his nostrils flared briefly, as if, improbably, he were trying to smell Stiles from across the room, didn't strike Stiles as being any more polite—in fact, it was downright unnerving. "You've been with Derek?"
"Yes, Your Majesty," Stiles said. He thought back to the lessons contained within all those etiquette manuals, and decided that discretion would be the best form of valour.
"I speak only out of concern," the king said, spreading his arms wide. "I don't wish to pry, but if there is ever anything you feel that you need to confide in someone, well, I've been told that I'm quite a good listener."
"Confide?" Stiles parroted back, as blandly as possible.
"You are far from home, and a newlywed. This must be a trying time for you, and my nephew is… well." The king rose from his seat and shot his cuffs so that the fine white linen of his shirt peeked out from beneath the gorgeous brocade of his jacket. "I'm sure you know."
"Know what, Your Majesty?" Stiles tried to look as innocent as he could, though he knew the chances were fair that he merely seemed dim-witted instead.
The king's smile flickered for a moment, and Stiles saw something in the man's eyes that he could not identify for certain, but which half-scared him—a pure and low-banked rage. Then it was gone, and the king was all geniality once more. "Well," he said, "we wouldn't wish to be crude, would we?"
"Of course not."
"After all, I have only your best interests at heart." The king paused and looked around the room. "You have been at ease here, I trust? Everything has been satisfactory?"
"What complaints could I possibly have?" Stiles asked, parrying question with question.
"What indeed?" replied the king.
When he left, the very air in the room felt easier to breathe.
Stiles ordered his dinner, and had his bath, and then retired early to bed with a cup of hot cocoa and the book of fairy tales which had once belonged to the late queen. He had intended for the drink to soothe and the stories to divert—he had just reached what promised to be a most entertaining section on shapeshifters—but he found his mind wandering back to the puzzle of the Francish royal family. Try as he might, he couldn't make them out. Perhaps it was all down to the fact that they'd lost so many of their own, so suddenly. Stiles knew that in the months following his own mother's death, his father had too often sought oblivion in the bottom of a beer mug, too often neglected his patrol duties and his guardianship of the Leuchtfeuer Berge. He had come back to himself, but things had been strained between him and Stiles for several months after, and Stiles didn't have much tolerance for people who spent all the time in their cups. Grief could change people, that much Stiles knew, and it could drive people apart, but he didn't know if it could create the kind of distaste—the anger—that Stiles had seen exist between the king and Monsieur.
He set the book down on the nightstand and blew out the candle before settling back against his pillows. Over his head, the canopy was a dimly-patterned heaven. Stiles tried to trace constellations in it: the Twins, eternally at war; the curve of the Sickle; the many-headed hydra. As his eyes grew heavy, he thought he could even see the moon, and when he closed his eyes, Stiles could see her wolves tumbling around her, over and over.
It was not that Stiles learned how to be a better dancer, precisely. Though he tried his best, the very length of his limbs seemed to work against him, and as often as not he misjudged the timing of when a new part of the dance began. It would take more than a week to teach Stiles how to move to the music with something like elegance, no matter how much Monsieur insisted that following the beat was as easy as breathing.
"Come," he said, when Stiles had once more turned left instead of right, catching Stiles by the hand and pulling him back into the proper position. "Can't you hear it? It is the easiest thing in the world. Again."
What Stiles learned was how to read Monsieur's movements. Where the music's rhythm remained opaque to him, it was easier by far for Stiles to watch Monsieur's face and anticipate from that when the music was soon to turn faster, or slower; when they were to step nearer to one another or when they were to move apart. Over time, Stiles realised that Monsieur was not so difficult to read as he had once thought. It was all a matter of knowing what to look for.
Stiles told McCall and de Vernon as much one evening. He had long since grown tired of eating every meal in lone splendour and shuddered at the thoughts of attending one of the king's Grand Public Suppers, where a hundred courtiers might stand around and watch him drink over-salted broth. An informal picnic with the two Musketeers seemed far preferable, especially one leavened by two bottles of rather excellent wine.
"Really?" McCall said, as he slathered honey on a bit of bread. "He's always seemed very… what's the word?"
"Frustrated," said de Vernon. He was lying on his back in the sun, face half-covered with his uniform hat. Stiles thought his blatant lack of interest in Stiles' marriage most unprofessional.
"Your support is most helpful to me," Stiles said, as he poured himself another glass of wine. "Truly."
"We live to serve," McCall said sunnily. He had a smear of honey on his chin.
The day of the ball dawned misty, and with the first hint of the autumn's chill in the air, though Stiles could sense that the fog would soon burn off. Much of the day was spent in the slow tedium of knowing that little could or would be accomplished that day, save for readying for the ball, and that there was no point in dressing for it too early. Stiles thought of seeking out Monsieur in search of one last practice session, but the idea felt strangely like breaking the Brittonic taboo against seeing one's future spouse before the wedding ceremony. A foolish idea, no doubt, given that they were already married—legally if perhaps not quite fully in the eyes of the gods—but there it was, all the same.
Monsieur's valet, Isaac, appeared around three in the company of a whole gaggle of servants. If Stiles had thought the primping he'd had to undergo before he'd first met the king had been excessive, it was as nothing in comparison to what was inflicted on him now. He was stripped and dunked into a tub of hot water and scrubbed with rough flannels, to open his pores; he was removed from that and immersed in freezing water to close his pores and leave his hair shining. There were pomades and unguents and aftershaves; Stiles' nails were manicured and his hair trimmed. Stiles felt as shaky as a newborn foal when he was finally left to stand, naked, on a rug in front of the fireplace, but only for a moment. Then the dressers descended on him, with the promised new suit of clothes, underclothes of crisp linen and shoes of superbly soft leather.
When the dressers finished their work, they stepped back while one of their number wheeled forward a full-length mirror. Stiles blinked at himself. Or rather, he blinked at the man reflected back at him, whom Stiles scarcely recognised. This was the kind of man who seemed as if he might have grown up in a court such as this, who was used to wearing impeccably tailored breeches and coats cut from rich silks. Stiles would have much preferred to feel as if he could sit down without splitting his clothing at the seams, but there was no denying that if he held himself still, he looked the part.
Isaac looked Stiles over for a moment, and then sniffed. "You'll do."
Stiles thought that was a remarkably understated way of referring to such a transformation, but as he was ushered through the palace's corridors to the ballroom, he realised that this was but one such transformation that the staff had worked in advance of the ball. Though the sun was slowly setting outside, the palace's interior was lit up bright as midsummer, every chandelier ablaze with its crystals refracting the light into even the most hidden of nooks. He could hear music playing as he got closer, a swell of strings that made him, despite himself, want to dance. One of the valets led him up a flight of stairs to the ballroom's grand entrance, where he was handed off to another of the footmen. Stiles had just enough time to admire the smooth way in which the music died down just enough for the footman's announcement of "His Royal Highness, Przemysł, duc de Picardie!" to be heard right at the moment when Stiles began to descend the steps that led into the ballroom proper.
He had now been at court long enough that his appearance didn't attract quite so many overt stares, but the way so many people bobbed curtsies or sketched out bows in his direction still made Stiles feel uncomfortable. It took all his concentration to make it to the bottom of the stairs without tripping, and then Monsieur was waiting there for him, one hand outstretched for Stiles to take.
"Consider this due notice," Stiles said under his breath, as they processed to the dais where seats—and the king—awaited them, "that in moments of stress I've been known to say things that have been considered… ill-advised by others."
"I cannot picture such a thing," Monsieur said dryly, but the press of his fingers against Stiles' was welcome and warm.
The chairs provided were hideously uncomfortable, all gilt and horsehair, but they did at least ensure that Stiles' posture didn't falter as what felt like surely all the nobility and gentry of Francia were paraded in to make their bow and be acknowledged by the royal family. Or at least, the king bestowed gracious nods and smiles on people—Monsieur sat stony-faced, deigning to incline his head only when "Marie-Lydie-Clotilde, marquise de Mont-Martin" was announced.
When all the guests had been ushered in, Stiles saw the musicians ready themselves to start into the first dance—and then to falter when the king held up a hand. He stood and the whole room went utterly silent. From the expectant, curious air in the room, Stiles could tell that this was not the normal pattern to things at such an event; from the set of Monsieur's jaw, Stiles was not hopeful that he would like whatever the king was about to say.
"This evening," the king began, his voice pitched to carry to the far corners of the ballroom, "you honour me by joining me in my belated, but I assure you, heartfelt celebration of the recent nuptials of my only nephew and his young husband. Theirs is a union which binds Francia and the Empire of the Allemani in an alliance of peace and prosperity which will surely last for generations." There was a smattering of applause, and the king paused to acknowledge it. "My duty to my people may have prevented me from being here to welcome my newest nephew, but family—family always brings one back home." There was no applause for this pronouncement, but the way that the king paused, head tilted questioningly, made people quickly realise that they were expected to clap here also. They dutifully did so, and for a moment the king preened like any strolling player before sobering so suddenly that Stiles felt the change in mood like a jolt. "For just as the gods instituted monarchy so that the sovereign might care for the people as the shepherd does his flock, did they not also ordain it that a father is like a shepherd? And any shepherd worth their salt will gather in the lost members of their flock."
Next to Stiles, Monsieur had gone rigid, his hands wrapped white-knuckled and claw-like around the arms of his seat. Stiles caught a glimpse beyond him of the fourth chair on the dais, the empty one, and remembered the king's words of the week before.
"It was made known to you of my time in the north," the king continued, "that I was travelling to inspect the garrisons there, and to ensure the security of our borders. That much is true, but it is not the whole truth."
He paused, and Stiles was sure that if, in that moment, a pin had fallen from a lady's coiffure, that the whole room would have heard it.
"In my youth, I contracted a secret marriage—a mésalliance, if my parents and sister were to be believed, though with a lady as honourable as she was beautiful, and a marriage that was valid in the eyes of the gods. They wished a greater match for me and when they found out they sent my wife away, forbidding me from following her. It is to my great shame that I did not, for now I know that she was already carrying our child."
And to think, Stiles thought vaguely, that just a few minutes ago his worst presentiments about what this evening might bring had involved him tripping over his own feet.
"Some few months ago, I received word that though my lady wife had died some years ago in the northern fastness to which she had been banished, our child yet lived. It took me many weeks more to search her out, for she was ignorant of her true identity. But now," the king said with a flourish towards a door in the corner of the ballroom nearest him, "I present to you my daughter, Marie-Thérèse, fille de Francia."
The door opened and in, haltingly, walked a girl no older than Stiles was. She had brown hair and brown eyes, and wore an elaborate dress of dark green silk with about as much ease as Stiles had first danced the polonaise. Her hands, at her sides, were clenched into fists.
There was, for a long moment, an utter stillness in the ballroom like the presentiment of a storm about to break. Then, slowly at first and then quickly—for who would wish to be the last to acknowledge Pierre's daughter and heir?—the assembled grandees of the kingdom bowed and curtsied in Marie-Thérèse's direction. She looked no more thrilled about this development than did Monsieur, but the king beamed. A slow, whispered murmur started up in the room: the first rumbles of thunder, Stiles thought vaguely. The king had a daughter.
"Well, nephew," the king said, turning to Monsieur and clapping his hands together. At his nod, the musicians struck up once more. "I think now would be the ideal time for you and your young husband to help us celebrate—lead us in a dance, if you would."
There was no choice to be had for Monsieur, Stiles realised, as he took his husband's hand and followed him out onto the dance floor. Dance, with the full knowledge that everyone watching you was achingly, thrillingly aware that your position as heir to the throne had just been very publicly usurped; refuse to dance, and let everyone know that you had been utterly out-manoeuvred and that it stung. Monsieur's face was expressionless, in a way that Stiles didn't think he'd ever seen before—as if every bone in it ached from holding back some terrible emotion. Stiles dared a glance back at the dais and saw that the king's daughter had taken her seat there. The king was smiling and talking to her, but his gaze was slanted towards Stiles and Monsieur. This was a twisting of the knife of a kind that Stiles had never known from his own family. So he stood opposite Monsieur and, as they waited for their cue to begin, said softly, "I'll keep time. Just listen to me and breathe."
Monsieur nodded in response—a little jerk of his head that would have been barely noticeable if Stiles had not been watching for it.
Stiles was sure that they won no great adulation for their performance, but they made it through at least without embarrassing themselves. Monsieur never broke Stiles' gaze, not once, and the whole time his breathing kept pace with Stiles' count: in and out, one two three, one two three.
Monsieur was silent for the rest of that dance, and for the others which the king commanded; he did not speak during the great banquet to which the whole assembly sat down a little after midnight, and Stiles did not see him so much as pick at his food. Stiles couldn't blame him; though a fickle appetite had never been a flaw of his, he found that his stomach roiled at the thought of eating. He sipped sparingly at his wine. The air was thick with ill-feeling and confusion, and the king all too obviously found pleasure in that. Stiles toyed with the idea of making conversation with Marie-Thérèse, who was seated next to him. Alone among those seated at the royal table, she was making a good showing, putting away a great quantity of pottage of partridge with cabbage. Yet the whole time she ate, she glowered at her plate as if it had personally affronted her, and so Stiles thought better of the idea.
It was after two by the time the king finally rose from the table, but any hope Stiles had of a quick and easy escape was short-lived. The king raised a hand for silence and then said with an easy smile, "We all know that it takes more than fine words and legal phrases to make a marriage that is valid in the eyes of the gods. It pained me greatly, that I could not be here to join in the celebration of my nephew's wedding, and to ensure that the gods would look favourably upon the union. It doesn't do to take virtue to extremes, eh? But better late than never—musicians, something cheerful, if you please. Let us ensure that Derek and Przemysł are properly bedded for the night."
Stiles could feel his cheeks heat. It was one thing, to have the vague awareness that every servant whom you encountered knew that you were still a virgin—Stiles' sheets were regularly laundered, and servants talked—and another to hear the king of Francia talk of it as openly as polite society would allow. Stiles had been an utter failure at the one thing which he had been brought to this country to accomplish, and he knew that everyone was thinking of it as they processed, led by musicians, from the dining hall to Monsieur's quarters.
It was only the second time that Stiles had been in these rooms, but whatever vague familiarity he had with them was lessened by the way the candlelight made the shadows in the corner of the room seem thicker, made the carvings on the four poster bed seem to writhe in the early morning gloom. Thankfully, most of the courtiers could not fit into even apartments as spacious as Monsieur's; still, Stiles had to stand there in mortified silence as, in front of the king and the Privy Council and a dozen of the most illustrious peers of the realm, servants stripped both him and Monsieur down to their shifts.
The coverlet on the bed was drawn back and, as Stiles and Monsieur climbed gingerly in, the courtiers laughed and made suggestions that Stiles thought frankly biologically impossible. There was nothing for it; Stiles had to lie there next to Monsieur, staring up at the canopy over their heads and waiting for their audience to leave. Perhaps, Stiles thought, he might be able to sink clear through the mattress through the power of embarrassment alone. Now he wished that he had drunk more at dinner, that he might stand a better chance of remembering none of this come the morning.
"Remember," the king said, with a great show of faux sincerity, slapping one of the bedposts, "the better the show you put on for the Dei Consentes, the more fecund the marriage shall be." He laughed heartily at his joke, such as it was.
When he and the courtiers and the musicians finally left, taking the candles and the singing with them, the bed chamber was shockingly quiet and dark. Despite the weight of the coverlets and the fire crackling in the hearth, Stiles felt cold; perhaps because he was aware both of the sheer heat of Monsieur's body and of the acres of cool sheets that separated Stiles from it.
Stiles lay there, feeling a little stunned at how much could change in the matter of a scant few hours. That morning, his worst fear had been that he would fall flat on his face in front of the whole court; now, he was painfully aware that his very standing in life had changed utterly. Stiles realised now that he had never really grasped the fact that marrying the heir to the throne had meant that he would one day be expected to fulfil the role of prince-consort. Only now that the prospect of the throne seemed to have been taken away from Monsieur did Stiles see both the enormity of the position he would have held, and the vulnerable spot which he now occupied.
Stiles opened his mouth to say—well, in truth he knew not what, but he was lying next to his husband while the whole court expected them to tumble one another. Saying something seemed to be called for. Yet before his mind could arrange his disordered thoughts into words, Monsieur himself spoke.
"That day at the pool," he said. "You weren't lying to me."
Stiles blinked, wishing that he could better make out Monsieur's face in the gloom. He thought back to that day, now several weeks past: the sunlight falling dappled through tree leaves; the clear, cold depths of the pool; the way that Monsieur's words had shocked and stunned him. "No."
"I think," Monsieur said, his voice sounding curiously thick, "that I'm unused to people who don't lie to me. I think you're the only one who doesn't."
"Don't call me that." Monsieur shifted to lie on his side, suddenly so close that Stiles could make out his expression despite the dim light. He looked stern, Stiles thought, and not a little terrified. "Don't. My name is Derek."
"Derek," Stiles said carefully. "Wh—"
He was not at all expecting the kiss, nor could Stiles quite work out what Monsieur meant by it. That it was something more than the desultory prelude to the obligatory claiming of his spouse's virginity was clear from the way that Monsieur's hand shook where it cupped Stiles' face. It was different, too, from the fun but fleeting kisses that Stiles had exchanged with childish playmates—those he associated in his mind with pleasant laughter, but not with the scratch of a beard against his cheek and the kind of hot arousal that now pooled in the pit of his stomach. It made Stiles want.
"Was that for the gods' benefit?" Stiles asked with a shaky smile when they finally pulled back a little. He no longer found himself so cold—Monsieur was closer to him and throwing off enough heat to make the coverlets feel oppressive. "It was very convincing, I mean, not that I would presume to know what they think, but, uh, it was…"
Monsieur looked—no, when they were lying so close together Stiles found that he could only think of him as Derek, whatever about propriety and due deference. Stiles may have married a leading figure in the royal house of Francia, but he had married a man as well. And Derek looked utterly serious, and shook his head before kissing Stiles again. His hands came up to grip Stiles at the waist and tugged so that Derek was on his back and Stiles was half-sprawled across him. This close, Derek's eyes seemed almost to glow in the firelight, and Stiles remembered all over again that this man was his husband, and that there was nothing between them other than the thin linen of their shifts. Perhaps duty might not be unpleasant.
"I warn you," Stiles said, aware that his voice had grown hoarse, "that my experience thus far is limited and that I may not necessarily know what I'm doing."
Derek snorted. "That makes two of us."
It was true that they were both a little clumsy when shedding their clothes, elbows going every which way, and both awkward when figuring out how they might best fit together. Stiles had seen dogeared woodcuts showing people copulating in all manner of exciting and intriguing manners, but in truth he was too nervous to even suggest such things. Just rocking against Derek was terrifying enough, but in a good way: like the moment when your horse gathered itself to leap over a high wall, a little fear leavened with a kind of shocky anticipation. Stiles didn't fear Derek, but he was acutely aware that this would change things between them—one more sudden shift in a day that had been full of them.
"If, if you, uh…" Stiles began, not entirely sure how he intended to finish that sentence. It was difficult when Derek was dragging one hand up Stiles' side, nails scratching unexpectedly sharp and making Stiles' eyes close, making him suck in a hurried breath. He hadn't known that he would enjoy something like that.
"Shh," Derek said, but then spread his legs and pushed his hips up in a way that had Stiles crying out regardless.
Stiles' eyes flew open, and he was on the verge of apologising for being so loud when he caught sight of the expression on Derek's face—a little smug and a little amused, but there was something else there that really caught Stiles' attention. He'd known that bedding someone could be either passionate or dutiful, but he hadn't thought that it could be a challenge. There was a spark in Derek's eyes that dared Stiles to do something, that made it seem as if Derek wanted Stiles to do something—and so he did. This time Stiles was the one to kiss Derek first. He was the one to touch Derek's arms, his waist, tugging him closer even as Stiles rocked down into him.
When Derek smiled—truly smiled—it was spectacular. It made Stiles regret that he closed his eyes involuntarily when he came.
They had clearly slept through the servants arriving to rekindle the fire, lay out fresh clothing and set a large pitcher of steaming water on the wash stand. There was even a light breakfast sitting on a low table near the fire, one that Stiles was quite certain had not been there the night before. Stiles felt vaguely mortified, not least at the thought that he was surely being gossiped about right this moment in the palace's kitchens. The lingering, pleasant lassitude in his limbs, however, made it difficult to care.
Stiles scrubbed away the mess from his stomach with a washcloth, pulled on a clean set of smallclothes, and ate a large piece of brioche before he heard Derek begin to stir. He froze for a moment, wondering what he should say or do. Last night had been, in many ways, their wedding night, and Stiles was certain that he should greet his bridegroom in a way more romantic, more alluring, than stooped over the breakfast table with his cheeks crammed with pastry. Derek seemed not to notice, though, walking over to the washstand with apparent blithe disregard for the fact that he was totally nude.
The lump of brioche hurt Stiles' throat when he swallowed it all at once, his mouth suddenly dry.
When he caught himself staring at the rivulets of water that ran down Derek's flank as he washed, Stiles forced himself to turn away and finish getting dressed. Even after last night, it would not do to presume, he told himself fiercely. Derek might have felt nothing more than an impulse towards comfort, and cared not where he sought it.
That fear was somewhat assuaged, however, when Derek strolled over and, still entirely naked, kissed him. It was a brief, gentle kiss and not, Stiles thought, a prelude to sex. He realised, with a start, that it was how one husband might say good morning to another, and he had to duck his head and pretend to fiddle with a shirt cuff in order to hide his smile.
"I will, uh, will leave you in peace as soon as I am dressed," Stiles said. "I didn't mean to stay the whole night, I know that isn't the done thing but—"
"I didn't mind," Derek said, and when Stiles risked a glance over at him he found that somehow it was this, and not his state of undress, which seemed to make the man blush. "If you—that is, if you would like to stay, I would like that. Too. Also."
Stiles peered at Derek's face and wondered how he could ever have found him cold and unfeeling—then he dared to kiss him again.
The servants appeared to be granting them a considerately wide berth that morning—none were waiting in the antechamber when Stiles and Derek finally left the bedroom. They had just gained the main corridor when Stiles realised that he did not know what to do next. Returning to his own solitary rooms held little appeal for him just then, and he knew that he couldn't accompany Derek to the various meetings with which he usually passed his mornings.
Before Stiles could say anything, Derek took him by the hand, and tugged him away to the left. "Come with me. There's something I would show you."
The steady warmth of Derek's palm against his was distraction enough that Stiles didn't protest, just followed along with unaccustomed obedience. They ended up at the library where, despite the early hour, the marquise was already at work. Or rather, Stiles realised as he stepped fully into the room, she was there but he didn't think she was at work. A box sat on her desk, into which she was placing a haphazard assortment of things pulled from the desk's drawers. Always fair-skinned, she now seemed pallid; her toilette, while not slovenly, was far from the impeccable standards which she normally maintained. Even her white dress seemed to hang limply from her shoulders.
"Lydie?" Derek asked, stepping forward with a frown. "What is the matter?"
She stood and bobbed a curtsey, but made no attempt to hide the fact that her face was drawn. Her hands were clasped so tightly in front of her that the knuckles stood out sharply. "Monsieur, good morning. I must advise you that his majesty has requested my services elsewhere in the palace."
"What?" Derek snapped. "You are a member of my household." "I am ordered to serve as tutor to her highness," the marquise said. "The king feels that in light of her newly acknowledged rank, she is in need of additional tutelage. I was told that you would not object." It was clear from the tone of the marquise's voice that she neither relished this reassignment, nor believed that Derek would find it unobjectionable. "He boxes me in at every turn," Derek murmured to himself. His hands were clenched in tight fists at his side. "I see what he is but I cannot stop him."
The morning was less pleasant after that. Derek made a stiff little bow to both of them and stormed off, as blank-faced as Stiles had ever seen him. The marquise had to leave to begin her new duties, and going back to sit in his own rooms held no appeal at all for Stiles. He felt restless and ill at ease, certain that something truly terrible was approaching and deeply frustrated that he had no idea what that thing was. Without the marquise's quiet but industrious presence, the library felt far too funereal for Stiles' liking. He set out instead for a brisk walk around the palace's gardens, which were so large that he estimated that he had made it barely halfway around by the time the sun was directly overhead. Stiles paused then to catch his breath. He stood on a slight rise in the stretch of parkland that lay between the formal gardens and the wild woods beyond. The position afforded him an excellent view of the palace, its marble and yellow stone gleaming in the sunlight. It looked such a cheerful place, he thought to himself, and yet he did not know of anyone who lived within it who was truly happy.
Stiles stood there for quite some time, so lost in thought that he didn't notice the tall figure which emerged from the gardens until she was nearly upon him.
"Mademoiselle Renard," Stiles said, hastily making his leg. "I trust you are well?"
She wore a practical riding habit of sober dark cloth, cut slim, and with that same high collar that she had favoured before; it suited her. That, and the perfunctory but straight-backed curtsey she made him made it clear that Mademoiselle Renard had more of a military bearing than many of the Musketeers whom Stiles had encountered. She reached into the pocket of her skirts and drew out a thick packet wrapped in oilcloth and tied up with string. "Here."
Stiles took the packet by force of habit. It was light, and he didn't think it could contain anything more than papers. He cocked an eyebrow at Mademoiselle Renard in silent question.
"Monsieur attends the privy council meeting now, and I must away at once to Marselha on urgent business. You must see that he gets these as soon as possible, without alerting the king. It is vital that the king not be made suspicious that I have taken them. I have set a ward on the casket where they were kept. It will be enough to turn away idle thoughts about opening it, but it will not be strong enough to turn away a determined impulse."
Stiles blinked at her. "Why me?"
The lady looked faintly amused. "Monsieur is inclined to trust you, it seems. Give him a reason to be certain that that trust is justified."
She walked away without curtsying, leaving Stiles to clutch the little packet to his chest and think of how best to approach this.
In the end, Stiles hurried across the parkland to reach the side entrance to the Musketeers' compound. This was a much busier place than it had been before the king's return, but it seemed that royalty was a good remedy against too much open curiosity—the painfully young trainee whom Stiles asked to fetch McCall cast him a curious look but then bowed hurriedly and scuttled off.
McCall, too, was all inquisitive looks when he arrived—no doubt the gossip from last night's ball had long since filtered out to the Musketeers—but whatever he saw in Stiles' face stoppered up his questions for now. Besides, he clearly thought that Stiles' request—that McCall seek out Isaac, and ask him to quietly request of Monsieur that he hurry to Stiles' rooms as soon as possible—was sign of nothing more than shy young lovers who wished to become even more intimately acquainted without bearing the full brunt of palace gossip.
"You can be assured of my full discretion, Monseigneur," he declared stoutly.
Stiles knew that his request for one of the battered old satchels in which fencing equipment was usually transported made less immediate sense to McCall, but to the man's credit he returned with one promptly and didn't say a word when Stiles buried the package in the bottom of the bag and then slung the whole thing over his shoulder.
"My grateful thanks," Stiles said, and hurried back to his rooms. He was sure that the king was monitoring all direct communication between Stiles and Derek, as keen as any hawk, but perhaps something this circumlocutory, carried out by those whom both he and Derek thought they could trust, would pass beneath the king's notice.
It seemed that he had to wait for hours until Derek arrived, ones in which Stiles paced the floor of his bedroom, alternately fretting about what was going on and flushing hot when he thought about the night before and the way Derek's body had felt, pressed close to his. Yet the clock on the mantel showed that barely an hour had passed by the time the door opened to admit Derek.
"Mademoiselle Renard asked me to give this to you," Stiles said, proffering the package to him. "She took it from the king, somehow."
Derek looked, if less obviously angry than he had that morning, then much more exhausted. His mouth was set in an unhappy line. He accepted the bundle from Stiles, sat down at the writing desk and began to unpick the string without saying a word.
Inside it was, as Stiles had suspected, a sheaf of papers, tightly folded. Stiles read them over Derek's shoulder. The first few pages comprised a marriage contract in a fine, flowing hand, dated to some seventeen years before. It recorded the union of Pierre, son of Isabeau, late queen of Francia, with one Félicie, daughter of the merchant Jérome de Saint-Loup-du-Désert. Below that lay a much briefer document, dated ten months after the wedding and written in an unpractised hand; it recorded the birth of a healthy girl child in a northern town to one Félicie "called wife of Pierre, here unknown." The final document in the bundle was by far the largest, and written on parchment rather than paper; it crackled when Derek unfolded it, revealing a heavy wax seal which was affixed to the bottom. This was written in a truly elaborate script, the kind over which a skilled scribe must have laboured for many hours. Unlike the other documents, it was written not in Francish but in a high legal form of Old Romish, and the preamble seemed designed to obscure as much as it conveyed.
Stiles squinted at it over Derek's shoulder. "What is it?"
"I…" Derek reached out and skimmed his fingertips along the page to trace the outline of the boldly written signature at the bottom. Thalie, Regina. "It's my mother's will."
Stiles stared, astonished.
"I asked Béatrice to obtain it for me—Pierre thinks that all it takes is pay to make a mercenary his creature, so he doesn't guard against her as he does me," Derek continued. "I thought it would be proof that… yet she really did will it all away from me. I thought he had lied about that part, but my own mother did not think I would ever be worthy to rule. I—" His voice broke, his hand trembling against the parchment.
Gently, Stiles reached out and took Derek's hand in his, used the other to ease the will out from beneath Derek's hand. It would do no good for Derek to sit and brood over this, he thought; the will didn't hold up a mirror to the man whom Derek had become. For all his faults, Stiles did not think that Derek deserved such censure, to be cast aside by his family in such a way. He made to place the papers back in their oilcloth bundle, but what he sensed when he picked them up made him start. Stiles elbowed Derek aside and spread the pages out, side by side, on the writing table, then ran his fingertips along all of them, as if he were playing a glissando on a piano-forte. There was that same sensation—that same, singular sensation.
"These are forgeries, they're all forgeries," he exclaimed in shock, turning to Derek with mouth agape.
"What?" Derek frowned. "No, the will was checked at the time of its reading—all the right charms are in place, it was sealed and legitimated correctly, it hadn't been tampered with."
"Oh, I'm sure it had not been tampered with," Stiles said eagerly, almost stumbling over his words in his eagerness to explain. "But I am also certain that your mother did not order it to be written. There is a distant strain of magic in my own mother's line, many generations back. I'm no mage, but I can… the best way to describe it might be to say that I can see the shape of a spell in my mind's eye, sometimes, or its colour, especially the more powerful ones. Every spell is unique, but every spell also carries the mark of the one who cast it—it is an irrefutable rule of magic. If it were but the one document, I wouldn't have noticed it, but when they're laid out side by side like this—what are the chances that all three such documents were independently spelled and sealed in the same manner, with the same signature?" Almost infinitesimal, Stiles knew, that a queen's will and an illicit marriage contract and the birth record made for a woman in hiding in a backwater town should all be made by the same person.
"He lied," Derek said slowly, as he clearly thought things through and came to the same solution as had Stiles. His eyes were wide and astonished.
"He lied," Stiles confirmed.
The two of them stared down at the pages silently for a moment. "What do we do with this?" Stiles asked, mind racing through their next steps. "The council—"
Derek shook his head. "We cannot tell them about it, not yet. The chancellor might believe me, but this will not be proof enough for the others." He reached out and touched his mother's supposed signature one more time—in a kind of farewell, Stiles thought—before refolding the papers. "The timing is off. I am but the jealous, thwarted nephew, desperate enough to do anything to regain my place in the succession. In this, he has outplayed me."
"But you cannot think that people trust the king, or admire him!" Stiles exclaimed. He had seen how people responded to Pierre's presence—not with respect or even deference, but with a kind of hasty servility that spoke of an instinctive, unvoiced fear of a blow. There were no hushed whispers of tyrant in the halls of the Trianon, but nor was Pierre the kind of ruler who inspired loyalty in his subjects. If ever a person were to follow him, it would be through fear. "All you need do is give people a reason to follow you. If you showed the court this proof, or went to Chancellor d'Éton—"
"This magical proof that only my charming and recently bedded young husband can see?" Derek asked wryly. "Come, you can reason better than that."
"Well, I…" Stiles slumped against the side of the writing desk. "I do not dispute your concluding that I am charming, but you give in too easily. It frustrates me, to know that a man can get away with twisting his family's death to such a purpose."
Derek shook his head slowly, and then went very still; his mouth twisted, sour, as if something terrible had just occurred to him. "I fear it is much worse than that. For my mother’s power to have gone to him and not to me immediately on her death, the fire must have been... Let me… have you an almanac? I would show you—" He reached up to rifle through the books which were arranged on the desk's hutch, but the book that he seized on was not an almanac. "Where did you get this?" Derek asked, holding up the book which the marquise had pressed on Stiles several weeks before: Des Contes des Fées et Autres Vraies Histoires.
"The library," Stiles said with a shrug, remembering the marquise's advice. "It seemed like it would prove diverting."
Derek shot him an odd glance. "Lydie gave this to you, did she not?"
Stiles subsided with a sigh. "Fine, yes, she did, though I do not know why, nor why she was so cryptic about it. They are but fairy stories—uh, even if," he hastened to add, "the volume itself holds sentimental value for you. I have enjoyed what I have read of it so far. The marquise said that it was a favourite of your lady mother's?"
"Lydie presumes too much on childhood debts," Derek said with a sigh. "But this is is what I wished to show you in the library this morning. There is something you should know, something important. It concerns both myself and the king. And afterwards, if—should you wish me to put you aside, I will not gainsay you. I will not hold you to anything against your will, and your marriage portion will be yours regardless."
Stiles frowned at him, now thoroughly confused and more than a little worried. After all the recent tumult, it did not bode well, to see Derek look so nervous—nor to hear him talk about ending their marriage. "What?"
Derek opened the book to the title page, where the woodcut wolf still slumbered beneath the trees and the moon. "My father had this made for my mother not long after they were wed. A private joke, you might call it. Fairy tales and other true stories—it might as well be a tale written about us." He leafed through the volume, to the first illustration in the tale of the shapeshifters. "The irony in the title lies not where you might expect it. Wolves with men's cunning—have you noticed the animal which our house bears on its coat of arms?"
"The wolf," Stiles said, uncomprehending. "But—"
Derek paged through to a later illustration, in a part of the book which Stiles had not yet reached. It showed a pond in the middle of a forest clearing, perfectly round and reflecting both the moon above it and the face of the dark wolf which peered into it. Stiles recognised it with a start. "That is the lunar pool!" he exclaimed. "The one which we visited on the day we rode out together."
"Wolves are especially beloved of the goddess Lucina," Derek said. His gaze flickered to Stiles, and then away. "So too are werewolves. Just as her shape waxes and wanes with each month, a werewolf can put on and off its skin—now seeming like a wolf, now like a man. When the moon is at its fullest, Lucina calls to them. To us. So do places which are sacred to her, because they can give us answers." He tapped his finger against the picture of the pool.
Stiles leaned back a little, searching Derek's face. He did not seem to be in jest, but Stiles was still not sure that he understood. "You must forgive me for asking, but my father has often joked that I am too prone to flights of fancy and that they… you do speak in metaphor, or, or allusion? You cannot mean what I think—"
“No. This is who I am—what I am,” Derek said. He held up one hand and Stiles watched, his heart pounding, as Derek’s fingernails lengthened and sharpened. Between one blink and the next, Derek’s eyes changed from hazel to an unearthly pale blue, his brow became heavier; predator’s teeth protruded from between his lips. Stiles had kissed that mouth.
It was suddenly as difficult for Stiles to catch his breath as if he had run full-tilt for a mile. There were legends told of werewolves round the hearth during the long winters back in the Leuchtfeuer Berge; tales of blood and cruelty and the dark, entirely unlike those in the book which Derek still held in one hand. Werewolves had supposedly stalked the land in the days before the Romish had founded their empire: descendants of those who had wandered too close to Lucina's mountain fastnesses, lured by the promise of the hunt. They were fast and strong and could rip a man's heart from his chest with their bare hands. They were legends, but they were real, and Derek could do that, if he wished, and he was standing so close.
"I had too much wine last night," Stiles said, distantly aware that he was speaking and yet not entirely conscious of the words which were spilling from his lips. His hands shook. "Or the day before, or, I hit my head while fencing. This isn't—I cannot—"
Derek turned his face away. The tips of his ears, Stiles realised, now came to a point, and were flushed as red as the high points of his cheekbones. "As I said, I will not hold you to this. I will make arrangements, you can leave as soon as—"
"Why did you bring me there?" Stiles blurted out. When Derek looked back at him, quizzical, he continued, "You said the pool gives you answers. What did… what did you want to know? It was about me."
"I led you there because I wanted to ascertain if you were telling me the truth," Derek continued. "I can hear it, often, if people lie, but there is nothing which fits a person so well for effortless lying as does a life at court. When I am near the pool, the goddess lends me strength and I can hear most clearly. Perhaps it was not the most honourable way to go about things. It was deceitful, but I was so frustrated that I could not think of—"
"Is there more?" Stiles asked, cutting him off. The more Stiles studied Derek's countenance, the less monstrous it seemed. As savage as his features were now, they were not entirely unfamiliar. And Derek could have hurt him before now, truly hurt him, but he had not. Stiles let out a shaky breath. "You do not need to drink my blood or, or hunt peasants on the full moon or anything of that sort?"
"What?" In his shock, Derek's features faded back to human. "By the lady, no."
"Then you have not yet said or done anything that would make me leave," Stiles said. He leaned in, bracing an arm against the table. "Let me see you again—your other face."
Derek seemed stunned. “You are not disgusted? Frightened?”
“Did you think I would be?” Stiles asked. In truth fear would perhaps be the wiser course, but Stiles had never claimed to be wise. He watched in fascination as Derek's teeth lengthened once more, his face shifted. Now that Stiles was expecting it, it was not so frightening—quite the opposite.
Stiles remembered other tales from his reading, of how the Old Romish had practiced revels in honour of Eleutherios, frenzied rites in which they lost themselves in the worship of the god and the wild beasts who were his companions. This close to Derek, Stiles thought that he could understand such an impulse. He reached out and, as gently as he could, traced along the ridge of Derek’s brow and down the curve of his cheek. He half-expected to find curiously wrought marble, cool beneath his fingertips, but Derek's skin was warm to the touch—this was all true. “This is a wonder,” he murmured.
"You do not have to try to spare my feelings, I know what—"
"You said you can tell sometimes, if someone is lying," Stiles said. "Do you sense that I am doing so now?"
Derek shook his head reluctantly.
"I will not claim that I am not... surprised," Stiles went on, choosing his words with care. "And certainly, I cannot tell you that I am entirely sanguine about all of this, or that I will not badger you with questions about your kind, for that would be a most grievous lie. But I will not throw you over just because of who you are."
Derek blinked at him. “I do not know what to make of you. I had hoped for—toleration. Acceptance, eventually. My parents taught us to think of our condition as a gift, but they also made it very plain that most would not think of us that way. When you first arrived and it was clear that you were not one of us—”
Stiles’ eyes widened, letting his hand drop away from Derek’s cheek. “You thought me a werewolf?”
“Some of the royal and princely houses of Europa have such... strains in their background. We are stronger than humans, faster, good fighters; successful warriors might marry into a royal dynasty, or found one of their own. The trait has been more persistent in the Francish house than in most others, but my siblings and I were the first generation in quite some time to all be born wolves. Of my mother’s generation, only she and Pierre had the gift. If any of us had been born human, we would have been matched with humans, but for wolves to marry wolves—if that is possible, it is safer. Particularly for the heir.”
Stiles watched Derek’s face carefully as he strove to take this all in. His head felt fit to burst, so full as it was of questions and suppositions. His husband was not human, nor was the king; for all the fine carvings and gilt frames of the Trianon, it was still a werewolves’ den. “I was not your first betrothed, then,” he blurted out as soon as he realised it.
Derek blinked at him for a moment, then said, “No. I was to wed Erika, a princess of Llión. She was bitten, not born, but she is a werewolf. She knows our ways.”
Stiles sat back on the edge of the desk. For the first time, he felt that he was truly getting an inkling of what he had become part of, all unwitting—of how Pierre had made him a pawn in a game that he hadn’t even known was underway. Stiles had thought he had some sense of politics from the history books and treatises which he had read, but the lessons gleaned from a scholar's hindsight were not so easy to apply to one's own situation. Nor, perhaps, were they complete: he was certain that he could spend many hours perusing the books in the marquise's care and never gain an inkling of the fact that a wolf could truly walk the world with a human face.
“And," he realised, "a werewolf princess from a kingdom with a powerful navy that has grown wealthy on trade with the Tahuantin Suyu is a much better match than the ignorant son of a parvenu Markgraf from one of the poorest parts of the Empire.”
Derek looked away and did not answer, which was in itself answer enough.
“What an imbecile I must have seemed to you that first day,” Stiles said softly. In his mind's eye, he saw himself descending from the carriage at the foot of the palace's grand staircase: awkward and gangling and entirely naive.
Derek’s jaw worked. “Never that.”
“Utterly clueless, then,” Stiles said, nudging Derek’s foot with his own. “I was intended to be an insult without my even knowing it.” An opening salvo, even, Stiles was realising—a first presentiment to Derek that soon his place as heir to the throne was to be usurped.
“Status is important in the Trianon,” Derek said bitterly. He took a deep breath. "I must apologise, for the way I behaved towards you there—for what my conduct has been to you, for what I have said to you. When I think of it now, I—I was unhappy and you were convenient. It is no excuse, I know, but I am ashamed, to think of what I was."
“Consider the matter forgotten,” Stiles said, shaking his head. He himself would far prefer to draw a veil over the early weeks of their marriage; neither of them had truly known the other then, after all. "Although the king made one very serious mistake, you realise.”
“What’s that?” Derek asked, finally meeting Stiles’ gaze once more.
Stiles grinned. “He picked me to be your husband. And I think you have already come to understand that I do not gladly suffer attacks on my family.”
“That is true.” The smile on Derek’s face was small and tentative, but it was true, and Stiles was glad of it.
They may not yet have had a plan as to how to deal with the king and Derek still appeared reluctant to act—but, Stiles was quite certain, this was the first step.
They dined together that evening in Derek’s rooms. The cooks, it seemed, were determined to lavish a proper honeymoon meal on them. Not for the first time, Stiles’ mind skittered away from considering just how much his marriage had been a subject of speculation in the servants’ hall. It was easier to concentrate instead on the excellent food, and to think of questions about werewolves which he could ask of Derek, and on what it felt like to have Derek's focus so wholly trained on him—or at least it was until Isaac came in and whispered something in Derek’s ear.
Derek nodded, and then at a look from him both Isaac and the servants who had been waiting at table slipped silently from the room.
When the door closed behind them, Derek’s mouth curled into a tiny smile. He set down his wine glass and said, “The king seemed displeased to learn that I would rather dine with you this evening than attend his coucher.”
Stiles swallowed his mouthful of bread. “Oh?”
“I believe he thought that his actions last night would further embarrass me—that you and I wouldn’t, uh…”
“Come to terms?” Stiles suggested with a waggle of his eyebrows. Let not the marquise say that he was incapable of speaking in euphemisms, if required.
“Indeed,” Derek said. Though the room was lit only by candlelight, Stiles was quite certain that the tips of Derek’s ears had turned red. Surely, Stiles thought with amusement, there were no tales told of embarrassed werewolves. It was a pleasure to observe it, though, as it was to be able now to look his fill at his husband—to feel that his regard was not unwelcome, and to anticipate the later touch of those strong, sure-fingered hands against his skin.
There were few other immediate topics of conversation that were safe for them to touch on once the servants reappeared to remove the remains of the meal. Stiles and Derek rose with their wine and retired into the more private withdrawing room, but scarcely had they gained it when Derek had Stiles pressed up against the wall. Stiles’ wine glass fell from suddenly nerveless fingers, red wine spattering his breeches and the parquet floor in equal measure.
“What are—” Stiles shuddered at the feel of Derek’s warm body pressed against his. “Do—”
“Let me,” Derek said. He had turned his head so that it was pressed into the curve of Stiles’ neck. The scratch of his beard and the hot puff of his breathing against the tender skin had Stiles, all involuntary, bringing one hand up to Derek’s nape to keep him there. “Please, let me—”
“Yes,” Stiles says, “as you wish, whatever you wish—” He knew not to what he was acceding, knew only that Derek’s hands and mouth had brought him pleasure the night before and that he was certain that Derek could do so again.
He did expect that Derek would lead him into his bedroom again, but no: Derek kept him pressed against the wall and, one-handed, opened the placket of Stiles’ breeches and pushed aside his smallclothes. It was a delicious shock, one that had Stiles canting his hips so that the head of his growing erection brushed against the inside of Derek’s wrist.
Stiles bit back a moan. “The servants—”
Derek lifted his head and the glow in his eyes was now unmistakably inhuman. “They won’t interrupt. They’ll know what I’m doing to you. How could anyone not, had they the chance to claim you? Even when I disliked you, I wanted you.”
Stiles shook his head. “No one—”
“You cannot smell the want on others, you did not know how you teased me all through that meal…” Derek paused and pulled back for a moment with an expression that Stiles could not quite parse: regretful, apologetic. “You didn’t know, when you signed the marriage contract, what it was you are agreeing to. Jealousy is a human fault, and I have human faults enough, but werewolves are… we are territorial in a way that humans are not. You should know, you must know that for me, this…” Derek reached out and, carefully, placed one palm flat against Stiles’ chest. He closed his eyes. “It has already begun. Put me blindfolded in a room full of hundreds, and I would know your heartbeat among them all. If there is no more intimacy among us, it will fade with time, but otherwise—if you choose it, I am yours for a lifetime.”
For a long moment, Stiles studied Derek’s face. It was undoubtedly a handsome one: the strong jawline and mobile mouth, the dark lashes which lay heavily against his cheek. Stiles tried to imagine waking up next to it every morning for the rest of his life. That was something that was hard to fathom. He was young, still, and there had been enough emotion freighting Derek’s words to make Stiles certain that he understood only part of their import. When it came down to it, the most Stiles knew of his husband were his faults—he was proud, and stubborn, and irritable, prone to taking too much on himself rather than trusting in the aid of others. Yet Derek’s smile had been true when Stiles had called them family, and he had offered Stiles his heart without hesitation.
That was a gesture which called out to something in Stiles, some reckless part of him that he knew was capable of giving away his heart just as easily and with as much finality. Who could encounter such generosity, such disregard for the self, and not wish to match it with a gesture of equal meaning?
He took a deep breath, feeling his ribcage expand beneath the solid warmth of Derek's hand, and then Stiles leaned in and kissed him. Stiles knew that he had no great skills in such matters, but he hoped that enthusiasm would make up for finesse. Derek made a noise in the back of his throat—low, like a distant rumble of thunder—and kissed Stiles back with focused ferocity before wrapping his hand around Stiles’ erection.
Stiles hissed, hips hitching up without his conscious control. “Mutual,” he managed to say. “I think I might—” But he lost track of all his words when Derek tightened his hand and started to stroke him.
“Mine,” Derek murmured, rubbing his cheek against Stiles’ throat in a way sure to leave marks in the morning. Stiles couldn’t bring himself to care—still less when Derek sank to his knees.
“Oh, are you—” Stiles had heard men talk of this kind of coupling, but he had not truly grasped how good it could feel. Derek nuzzled against the strip of Stiles’ stomach that lay bare between the hem of his shirt, and then looked up and, very deliberately, met Stiles’ eyes before taking him into his mouth.
“Oh gods,” Stiles whimpered, hands scrabbling for purchase against the wall. This sensation was only distant kin to what it felt like when Stiles took himself in hand, or even to rubbing himself to delicious completion against the jut of Derek’s hip. This was Derek taking Stiles into his very body, working him with lips and tongue, drawing pleasure down to pool and peak at the base of Stiles’ spine. This was wet heat and suction and focus, and Stiles was helpless before it. He could feel sweat prickle along his hairline, under his arms, and his knees started to buckle. “Derek,” he warned, “I’m close.”
Yet instead of pulling back and letting Stiles spend in his hand, Derek pinned Stiles to the wall by the hips and took Stiles so deeply into his mouth that Stiles cried out and came. Derek gentled him through his orgasm before sitting back on his heels and looking up at Stiles with a supremely pleased expression on his face.
Stiles reached down and traced Derek’s lower lip with his thumb, where the skin was pink and swollen. Though he was spent, the sight still made Stiles swallow hard. “Your mouth.”
Derek’s eyes darkened, and before Stiles could so much as offer to reciprocate, he was standing and, taking Stiles by the hand, dragged him in the direction of the bedchamber.
Stiles slept deeply, probably as soundly as he had slept since coming to Francia. The great bed in Derek’s bedchamber was soft and cosy, though just before they drifted off to sleep, Derek confessed that he rarely slept in it. “Too large for one,” he confessed to the crown of Stiles’ head. When he blinked awake in the early dawn light, Stiles hoped for a moment that some solution to their problem would have percolated in his mind while he slept: some prophetic dream sent from the gods to illuminate their way.
He had nothing, except for the bleary-eyed realisation that one of his socks had ended up atop the mantelpiece.
After breakfast, Derek suggested that they spend the morning riding out—the horses would no doubt relish the exercise, and Stiles was eager to examine the lunar pool with more knowing eyes. They would be able to speak more freely there, too. Their plans were, however, soon derailed. As they passed one of the picture windows that looked out onto a small side garden, a flash of moving white in the corner of his eye caught Stiles’ attention. He looked over and blinked, then gestured at Derek to follow him.
The marquise was pacing up and down, her tread so heavy and furious that she was likely to wear a furrow in the neatly manicured lawn. She looked no better rested than she had the day before, though now at least an honest rage was providing the colour that rode high on her cheekbones.
“Madame?” Stiles asked, pausing at a distance that seemed both solicitous and mindful of his own safety. “Are you well?”
“We are supposed to be learning geography and yet she will not come out of the hedgerows,” the marquise hissed through clenched teeth.
“I beg your pardon?” Stiles ventured, all astonishment, but Derek had clearly already divined the marquise’s meaning.
He walked towards one of the hedgerows that bounded this small segment of garden. Unlike the hedging in most of the formal gardens, here it had been let grow tall, in order to allow for some benches to be set beneath it and benefit from the shade. Derek crouched down and only then did Stiles catch sight of pale blue skirts poking out from beneath the branches.
“The king’s daughter?” Stiles asked the marquise under his breath.
The marquise crossed her arms tightly together. “I cannot fathom why the king thought me the best choice to tutor a child.”
Stiles frowned. “Surely she can be no younger than I am!”
“In years, perhaps, but in experience? Marie-Thérèse is not unintelligent, but the simplest things appear to confound her, and even writing her own name is a feat for her. Yet there are things that she says so blithely—things which no well-brought up young noblewoman should know.” The marquise’s jaw clenched. “I do not know where he has been keeping her, but no possibility I can imagine leaves me sanguine.”
Stiles looked over at the hedging. Marie-Thérèse showed no signs of emerging, but Derek seemed to be deep in conversation with her. His brow was drawn, but he seemed otherwise calm. Stiles tried to imagine what it must be like, to live all of your life in seclusion and hiding and then emerge into the bright light of a royal court's scrutiny. It had been shock enough, to go from the company of his father's own small troop of men-at-arms to the position of consort in a foreign land; but no one had ever hidden his name from him, no one had ever suddenly laid expectations of real leadership on him. If Pierre's plan held, then one day Marie-Thérèse would be queen. She may have been acquiescent concerning her father's plots, or she may have been wholly ignorant of them, but in that moment regardless Stiles pitied her.
Marie-Thérèse said something that got a reaction from Derek—one of those low, thunderous rumbles and a flash of unnaturally blue eyes—before he responded sharply.
Stiles shot a look over at the marquise, to see if she had noticed this. Clearly she had, but looked not at all startled—then again, Stiles remembered, she had given him the book of fairy tales in the first place. She'd known all along the kind of man that Stiles had married. "Are you a werewolf too?" he asked in a sudden fit of curiosity.
The marquise surprised him with a peal of laughter, ringing out genuine and abrupt in the mid-morning air. She wiped at her eyes when she finally regained her composure. "Oh, no, no, not at all."
Stiles narrowed his eyes. There was something about her tone… "I do believe I detected a but at the end of that sentence."
"Well," the marquise said, with a palpable air of enjoyment at Stiles' bemusement, "perhaps one day I shall present you with another informative book."
It took several more minutes for Derek to coax Marie-Thérèse out from beneath the hedge, and then a few more for her hair and clothing to be divested of leaves and bits of twig. Throughout, the expression on the girl's face was mulish and it was in that, more than anything else, that Stiles could detect the kinship between her and Derek.
"Cousin, allow me to introduce you to my husband, Przemysł," Derek said.
Stiles made his leg, bowing perhaps a little lower than usual in order to hide his wince at Derek's pronunciation of his name. He had not realised that Derek had never before spoken it aloud. It was a valiant effort, no doubt, but that was the most positive thing that could be said of it.
Marie-Thérèse stared at him, but it was only in response to a low but audible growl from Derek that she bobbed a diffident curtsey in response. "Only I do not see why I should," she said, which rather negated the politeness of the gesture. "I do not submit to him."
"It is not a matter of submission," Derek said through gritted teeth, "but of civility."
"That is stupid," Marie-Thérèse said with great finality.
There was a long pause before Derek spoke. When he did so, it was clear that he was determinedly ignoring what his cousin had just said. "My cousin has agreed to continue her instruction with madame la marquise, on one condition."
"Oh?" the marquise said.
Stiles marvelled inwardly at the concentration of tart acidity in that one word.
"That the lessons take place out of doors. It seems that Marie-Thérèse does not find… rooms conducive to study. I will arrange for an awning to be set up on the grounds, with all of the necessities."
And so it was arranged. Though the summer was starting to decline into autumn, the weather was still pleasant enough that sitting outdoors during the day was no hardship. For the rest of that week, when Stiles passed by the patch of garden in which the temporary schoolhouse had been erected, it seemed that Marie-Thérèse was attending to the marquise's lessons—though Stiles remembered, from the days when he had been learning his own letters, that the appearance of diligence could be deceptive.
The king appeared to have settled into abeyance for the moment. Whether that was because he felt he had successfully confined his nephew in a situation so awkward that it left no room for manoeuvre, or whether he was readying himself for a final and decisive blow, Stiles could not say. The atmosphere at the course was tense, though, with many of the courtiers clearly expecting the latter. In his first weeks at the Trianon, Stiles had been treated with an odd mix of blatant respect and obsequious curiosity by the court. No doubt people had hoped to curry favour with the man who would one day be prince-consort of Francia. Now that Derek was in blatant disfavour, however, so too was Stiles.
"This morning, no fewer than three people passed me in the hallway without bowing!" Stiles declared, outraged. He was out in the Musketeers' practice yard with McCall and de Vernon. Though it was still early enough that there was a bite to the air, Stiles was already in his shirt sleeves thanks to his exertions—he had gone a round already with de Vernon and been thoroughly beaten, but hoped to redeem himself somewhat against McCall.
"We did not bow to you this morning, Monseigneur," McCall said, frowning, as he readied his blade.
Stiles pulled a face. "Of course with you I do not stand upon ceremony; that does not signify. But rank has its due, and if there are courtiers who are willing now to defy it—it augurs that the king will not stop at this. Monsieur has few friends at court."
McCall and de Vernon exchanged a look, and Stiles remembered suddenly that they were the King's Musketeers, honour-bound to serve the crown. For a moment, his heart seemed to stand still in his chest, for they would have been well justified to go to the king with reports of talk such as Stiles'.
Then McCall said, "Few, but not none."
"Monsieur often wishes to politick," de Vernon said dryly, "but he's terrible at building alliances."
"But when it comes down to it, the king is worse," McCall said. "Most of our company will stand with the king, if it should come to that, but some of us…" He looked to de Vernon, as if for permission. De Vernon nodded slightly, and when the two of them turned back to Stiles, their eyes glowed werewolf gold.
"Some of us are willing to be persuaded," de Vernon said.
Stiles looked back and forth between the two of them, all astonishment, and then made an abrupt decision. "Do you think that you could provide me with a list of those who are amenable?"
"You have a purpose in mind?" McCall asked.
"I do," Stiles said. Derek would be very angry with him, but it was clear that Derek was not always adept at acting in his own interests. It was, Stiles thought with an inner sniff, lucky for Derek that he had acquired such a consort. "But first I will need for one of you to arrange a meeting for me with Chancellor d'Éton."
"Is everyone in this benighted place a werewolf?" Stiles said in greeting to Derek when they met for luncheon.
Derek paused in the process of taking plates of cold ham and roast chicken from the picnic basket, and blinked up at Stiles. "I beg your pardon?"
Stiles flung himself down onto the grass next to Derek, pressed a kiss to his cheek, and stole a piece of chicken from his plate. "McCall and de Vernon, they're both werewolves. Did you know this?"
"The Musketeers? Yes, though I do not know them well," Derek said, as he took some bread and a covered dish of butter from the basket and set them down on the blanket next to the silverware before closing the basket lid. "Some of the Musketeers are, though most werewolves who enlist serve in the garde du corps."
Stiles tore a piece from the loaf and set to buttering it with a ferocious will. "You may find this perfectly natural, but not all of us can be so dispassionate on learning that they are living in a wolves' den. It makes it much more difficult to dissemble, you know, realising that so many around you can smell falsehoods the way I can a roast chicken."
Derek shot him a quelling look. "We are werewolves, not wolves. We may form packs but we do not live in dens."
"So McCall and de Vernon, they are in your pack?" Stiles asked, as clearly as he could around a mouthful of bread and ham.
Derek shook his head. "Proximity doesn't make pack. That is… something else. More visceral." He pressed the heel of one hand to his breastbone. "And usually requires the assent of the pack leader."
"Who in your case is the king," Stiles guessed.
A gloom spread over Derek's face, like a cloud passing over the face of the sun. "Yes. Pierre's choice to formally bring Marie-Thérèse into the pack rather than just the family was his alone, but since I am subordinate to him, I must feel the bond regardless—though at least with her it is not distasteful. But the werewolves who serve the royal family generally form their own pack—linked, but separate, to ours. Vassals, if you will. Their loyalty is not dependent on the pack bond. There may be exceptions, but Pierre stands too much on ceremony for that."
"Hrm," Stiles said, and thought this over while Derek started in on his own food. "You know, you did not pronounce Przemysł aright."
That earned him a look which was quite affronted.
"Well," Stiles said, nudging Derek's foot with his, "you proffered me useful information, and so I endeavoured to do likewise. Being able to pronounce one's husband's name is generally considered a useful skill."
"Przemysł," Derek said, slowly and with every sign of complete concentration.
His pronunciation still made Stiles wince. "You could always call me by the nickname my mother had for me? It stuck, at home, and I much prefer it. Przemysł is no easier a name for an Allemani tongue than for a Francish one, after all. Most people there knew me as Stiles."
"Stiles," Derek repeated. Stiles liked how Derek pronounced this nickname with as much care as he had Stiles' formal name, though with much more success.
"You know," Stiles said, struck by a sudden realisation. "I think that is the first time that anyone has called me Stiles since I left home. It has been all Monseigneur or Przemysł, but no one has known me well enough to call me by my real name—for I think of Stiles as my real name, you know."
This observation earned him one of Derek's rare smiles; the sight of it gave Stiles a little thrill. "I like that thought—that here you have a name meant just for me."
"Be careful," Stiles said in mock warning. "Anyone listening will begin to believe you an incorrigible romantic."
Not that anyone would have to pay attention to the way in which Derek said "Stiles" to believe that—they would just have had to see that soft, earnest look on Derek's face before he leaned in to kiss him.
They ate and drank their fill, and then Stiles decided that a full stomach was deserving of a nap. He stretched out on the blanket, pillowed his head on Derek's thigh, and let himself drift for a while as he turned things over in his head. The sunshine was pleasantly warm, and in moments like this it was easy to pretend that they were like any other recently married couple—taking the time to become acquainted with one another, with little more at stake than the hopes each had for the other, than the slow slide into marital affection.
"To be pack has meanings and obligations," Derek said quietly, one hand carding through Stiles' hair.
Of course, such pretense could not last for long.
Stiles squinted up at Derek, who was backlit by the sun. "You wish for another piece of information in return?"
Derek shook his head, mouth pinched with frustration and unhappiness. "I'm trying to explain... There is something which I realised a few days ago, or at least allowed myself to believe some days ago. It is more difficult to voice."
Stiles sat up and settled himself so that he was sitting cross-legged facing Derek, his expression as composed as he could make it. Whatever Derek was trying to say, it was clearly a matter of some import to him. "Go on."
"There are ranks in a werewolf pack. The leader is known as an Alpha—and before you ask, I do not know why. It is tradition."
Stiles shut his mouth. Clearly there were some aspects of his personality with which Derek was already well acquainted.
"The Alpha controls and protects," Derek continued. He looked away from Stiles and took to picking distractedly at the grass which hedged their blanket. "The pack takes its direction from the Alpha in many ways—their hopes and fears, their goals, influence their Betas in ways that are subtle but powerful. Most Alphas are female, but every so often, because of necessity or circumstance, the role passes to a man."
"Pierre," Stiles said.
Derek nodded, not looking up. "My mother was the Alpha of our pack, and it is usual that in such circumstances, the position will go to one of her children after her, unless it is deliberately willed otherwise. The powers of an Alpha can be transferred in various ways: the old Alpha might die a natural death, they might choose to cede their powers to a Beta if they feel themselves no longer able to fulfil their obligations, or the rank might be taken from them if they are challenged to a fight."
Derek paused, and Stiles tried to work through the import of what he had just been told. "You think that Pierre killed your mother," he said slowly.
"Almost our whole family," Derek said. His hand stilled and flattened against the grass. "I know that I survived only by chance, because I was... I was in an ill-humour and chose to remain here rather than travel with the others. I had always wondered... we are strong, we're quick, our sense of smell is far better than that of any humans. They should have smelled the smoke and been able to escape. But we are not invulnerable, and if a fire is hot enough and the smoke thick enough, well." Derek's jaw worked, as if he were trying to physically repress some powerful emotion. "He was fond of me when I was a child, I think. He taught me to ride, and chided me when I did not pay enough attention to my lessons. I couldn't countenance the idea that my Uncle Pierre could have done such a thing. I thought if the goddess saw fit for the Alpha powers to go to him rather than to me, that was because of, of some flaw on my part. Not because he—"
Derek broke off, squeezing his eyes shut, and Stiles couldn't stop the low sound of distress he made at seeing such blatant misery on another's face. He crept forward and wrapped his arms around Derek. The angle was awkward—Stiles' right leg quaked from being forced to bear his weight in such an unusual attitude, and his back soon protested from being canted so—but the way Derek fisted his hands in the cloth of Stiles' coat made it so that Stiles couldn't bring himself to care very much. Derek didn't weep, but his breathing hiccupped harsh and loud in Stiles' ear. Stiles still deeply mourned the loss of his mother, but that was an old scar compared to a wound that was yet so raw. There was every chance, Stiles thought, that Derek had never dared allow himself even this much reaction before now.
The storm was noisy but it was brief. Derek tried to pull away almost at once, but Stiles wouldn't let him go far. He clasped Derek's nape and said, urgently, "I meant my vows, you know. You may not have been there to hear me make them, but when I promised to be a helpmeet, I truly did mean it." Perhaps Derek would not agree that Stiles conferring secretly with d'Éton fell under the heading of being a helpmeet, but that was a bridge they did not yet have to cross.
Derek barked out a half-laugh, bitter and sounding as if it must hurt his throat. "Yet these were circumstances you could not have foreseen. I am—I'm not so selfless to regret having you, but I am sorry, that circumstance shackled you to me. That my uncle's scheming—"
"Hush," Stiles said, standing and pulling Derek to his feet. "None of that. What's done is done, and at any rate I prefer my marital discord to be more traditional."
"Oh?" Derek asked, and this time the glimmer of humour that lurked around his mouth seemed a little more genuine.
Derek looked affronted. "I do not snore!"
"—Or set-tos about which novel is the better, or if the bed needs more coverlets or less, that sort of thing. I do not accuse you of these particular crimes," Stiles said, patting Derek on the arm, "but I warn you that once we have figured out what to do about the king, these are the marital delights which await you."
"Such motivation," Derek said dryly, and wrapped his arms snugly around Stiles' waist.
Autumn seemed to arrive in a rush the very next morning. The leaves on the trees were still a bright green, but the day dawned misty and cold, and the sun never grew strong enough to burn the clouds from the sky. Derek, opening a window in the bedroom, inhaled deeply and declared that the weather was caused by a shift in the winds—strong westerly gusts that brought with them a tinge of salt from the distant Ocean of Atlas.
Stiles had never laid eyes on the ocean—the river he'd crossed at the border between Francia and the Empire was the widest body of water he'd ever had to cross—but not even Derek's words were enough to entice him to poke his head out from beneath the covers and breathe in the chilly morning air.
"Close the window, you ninny!" he huffed. "You'll snuff out the fire."
"Ah," Derek said, with an air of sage wisdom, "the marital strife begins already."
It never grew as cold as it did back in the mountains where Stiles was born, but the raw edge to the damp mornings had a way of sinking right into the bone's marrow. Stiles was glad that he had a bedmate. Propriety be damned, he spent most of his nights curled up next to Derek in the middle of his broad bed. Derek's hairy shins were excellent at heating Stiles' chilled toes; his arm, slung over Stiles' waist, was a comforting weight. Only on nights when Derek stayed up late in his private withdrawing chamber, pouring over letters he had received from one of his little network of correspondents—though Stiles suspected the bulk of Derek's intelligence came from Mademoiselle Renard—did Stiles sleep alone. On such nights, Stiles remembered that he did have his own bed, just as comfortable, and a warming pan. He slept there on occasion, mindful of court gossip that would paint Monsieur and Monseigneur as voracious, insatiable, heedless of their duty to the kingdom in the face of their bodily appetites. Yet increasingly, Stiles found it easier to forego his quiet, empty rooms entirely and to crawl into the camp bed which Derek kept in his withdrawing chamber.
The camp bed was far from luxurious—no goose-down pillows, no costly tufted mattress—but Stiles found it no hardship to fall asleep there. As the room was far smaller in scale than any of the palace's grand receiving rooms, the fire in the grate was much better able to heat it. The blankets that Stiles pulled over him when he lay down were thin and smelled faintly of Derek's cologne and more than sufficient to keep him warm. Most nights, Stiles found himself lulled to sleep by the sound of Derek's quill scratching across the page, to be woken only before dawn when Derek shook him awake and ushered him back to their bed.
Though the days were now more wet than they were fine, the king seemed determined to host as many grand glittering events as possible—the better, it seemed to Stiles, to fix Marie-Thérèse's position as rightful heiress to the throne in the minds of his courtiers. There was a masque, several dances of varying scales of lavishness, and musical performances featuring singers and musicians transported specially from Lutetia for the occasion. In all of them, Marie-Thérèse was seated at her father's right hand, though she continued to look both impatient and ill at ease.
Stiles was certain that he could hardly appear to much better advantage to the eager crush of courtiers. He did not understand why d'Éton was so willing to let things continue on in this matter. "Surely a coup cannot take so much time to arrange," Stiles said to the chancellor during one of their furtive meetings, but the man did nothing more than smile with infuriating calm and speak of waiting until they had a full hand to play.
Stiles would have suspected that they were being double-crossed—and indeed that suspicion still lurked at the back of his mind—but both the marquise and Mademoiselle Renard seemed to trust that the chancellor dealt with them in good faith. Stiles did not entirely have faith in d'Éton, but he had enough and to spare in the political acumen of both women.
D'É—. is loyal to the Crown, not to the one who wears it, Renard wrote to Stiles in a note that was spelled to be legible only to him, and to crumble to ash once he had read it. Do not trust him to accord with all of our plans, but know that he will not keep faith with a monarch who has broken the vows he made in the sight of the gods.
Which was just cynical enough an assessment that Stiles was inclined to believe it.
"Madame progresses at her studies," the marquise said one afternoon. She had invited Stiles to drink tea in her apartments, a set of rooms in a wing of the palace which he had not previously visited. Unsurprisingly, the decor here matched the marquise's preferred mode of dress: the walls were papered white, and the furnishings were all white wood and silvery brocade. Only the gilt frames of the great mirrors which hung on the walls and the warm glow of the highly polished parquet floor relieved the room's icy severity.
"She is bright, but rigidly utilitarian in her thinking," the marquise continued, handing Stiles a cup and saucer. The fragrant aroma of the tea tickled Stiles' nose. It had been, the marquise said, a gift to her brought by the ambassador Yukimura of the Nihon Empire, and the flavour was superior to any tea which Stiles had ever before tasted. "If she does not see the immediate practical use in a piece of knowledge, it is a waste of time for her."
Stiles set his cup down on the table and selected one of the macarons from the platter set out before him. The raspberry filling burst tart and delicious on his tongue as he bit into the crackling shell of it. "What puzzles me," he said once he'd swallowed his mouthful, "is why she stays—why she accedes to the king's demands."
"What would you have her do?" the marquise asked, tilting her head. "Her position is a difficult one. Run away, and all the force of the Francish armies will be thrown into hunting for her. Antagonise her father, and she loses whatever sway she might hold in the court—for remember that the king is young enough yet, and healthy. He might live many more years, and remarry and sire more children. The heir now might not be the heir always; Monsieur is the proof of that. The king schemes. If I were to guess, it is that he waits only for the princess of Albion to come of age before he makes an offer for her. Besides, the word 'family' is not freighted with the same meaning for werewolves as it is for us. Once forged, their ties are exceedingly difficult to break."
"Pack," Stiles said thoughtfully, remembering the word Derek had used.
"Precisely," the marquise said.
"But Madame has been talking to Monsieur," Stiles said, picking back up his tea cup. Since the day when Derek had coaxed her out from beneath the hedging, Stiles knew that the two cousins had communicated more. Never at the ghastly events which the king compelled them to attend, but snatched conferences here and there—Stiles even thought that once they had managed to evade all the court's scrutiny and gone for a late night run through the woods in wolf form. What they talked about, Stiles did not yet know; some sense told him that the bond between Derek and Marie-Thérèse was as yet too new, too fragile and fraught to withstand any outside scrutiny, even from Derek's own husband. Still, it was a relationship that might be turned to advantage some day.
"Yes," the marquise said, sipping at her own tea. "That is significant."
"Significant?" Stiles echoed.
"Important," the marquise said, but that was all—she offered no further clarification, merely more of the excellent macarons.
Stiles could not find it in him to protest overly much.
In the end, the king made the first open move. He called together the privy council one morning—a body which yet included Derek. Such meetings generally lasted until well past noon, but Stiles had scarcely sat down after breakfast to write a much overdue letter to his father when the door to his bedroom flew open so suddenly and violently that Stiles startled, his quill slipping and sending a streak of ink right across the page. Stiles didn't know what he expected to see enter the room—a full contingent of Musketeers, perhaps—but it was only Derek. A Derek such as Stiles remembered from the early days of their marriage, however, his brow furrowed and the line of his shoulders rigid.
It was only like this that Derek could truly discomfit Stiles—what were claws and fangs compared to this brand of fierce anger, which seemed as like to turn inwards as not? Derek's eyes shone unnaturally blue, his fingers flexing and baring nails that were cruelly long and sharp. This, Stiles recognised, as was much fear as it was anger. He stood and, with as much slow grace as he could muster, quietly giving fair warning of every movement, he closed the door to his bedroom and locked it.
Then he walked over to Derek and wrapped his arms around Derek's waist from behind, resting his cheek against the broad span of Derek's shoulders. At first, each inhale of Derek's was a great shuddery heave of a thing, and Stiles waited until he had recovered himself somewhat before saying, "My consolation for a ruined letter is that you tell me what has happened without causing any further property damage."
Derek let out a sigh, and settled his weight back ever so slightly against Stiles' own. "My uncle has decided to crown her, a week from tomorrow."
Stiles blinked. "Surely he does not wish to abdicate?"
"No." Derek gently disentangled himself from Stiles' grasp and turned to face him. "It is an old custom of the Francish, old even when my family came to the throne and not practiced in many centuries. The heir to the throne is crowned during the lifetime of the predecessor. It makes for an easier succession, when all know precisely who the new monarch will be and that they have already been approved by the gods. He means to put her beyond all challenge."
Stiles knew that Francish coronations always took place in front of the high altar of the great basilica in Lutetia, a building which had stood since the time of the Romish Empire on an island in the middle of the Sequana River, and which was now in the very heart of the city. He had seen an engraving of it in a book once—a venerable and impressive structure with space for many hundreds, surrounded by a large plaza which could hold two or three times that number again. If Pierre wished for the public to catch a glimpse of Marie-Thérèse and to understand that she was to be their next ruler, he could pick no better spot in the kingdom.
"Huh," Stiles said, thinking it through.
"He wishes to salt the wound," Derek said bitterly, "to make me attend his triumph—to know that my birthright has been put firmly beyond my reach."
"What?" Stiles said, swatting Derek gently on the arm. He was beginning to see what de Vernon had meant, about how Derek did not have the least knack for politicking. "No, don't you see—that is how he wishes it to appear, but it is not that at all. Why go to all the trouble of reviving some long-forgotten practice if he felt truly comfortable in the succession? That makes no sense. He fears you, Derek."
Derek stared at him, and then his eyes widened. "He knows I have the documents."
"Or at least strongly suspects it," Stiles confirmed. He had the suspicion that Mademoiselle Renard had cast some additional sort of glamour over the papers themselves, to hide them from prying eyes and the probing fingers of bribed servants. Yet even if the king didn't know for a certainty that Derek had obtained them, or that Chancellor d'Éton and some other key members of the privy council had seen them, he was no fool.
Nor was d'Éton; surely now was the time for him to act, and for Stiles to see just how steadfast was the clandestine support for Derek that they had worked to build.
"And so he wishes to have her anointed before I can figure out what to do with them," Derek continued. "Once the gods have been seen to confirm Marie-Thérèse as the future queen, there is no law which can undo it. Or at least, the people would not stand for it. None save me killing her to take the throne for my own and I—I will not do that, Stiles. I cannot."
"I would neither ask it nor think it of you," Stiles said firmly, clasping Derek's arms and hoping by the strength of his grip to convey some real measure of certainty. Derek had already lost so many members of his family; to even think about the loss of another, and at his own hand, no less, was surely too great a horror to contemplate. "We will find some way around all this. We will."
Coronations were variable things. They could occur in a matter of moments on a battlefield, with a priestess hurriedly smearing a blessing of oil and blood on a victor's brow; they could be a whole year in the planning, the focal point of several days' worth of feasting and music and revelry. Pierre was clearly inclined more towards the former school of thought than the latter, though with perhaps a little more decorum. Only a little, though, and only where the courtiers themselves were concerned.
McCall told Stiles that he didn't think anyone below stairs had slept in days. "The cooks are in a frenzy about cakes," he said around a mouthful of apple, "every valet is half-distracted looking for boot polish and thread for mending, and the grooms are promising that they'll sacrifice a whole brace of pigeons to Diespiter if they can re-do the gilding on the state coach in time." The stables around them were certainly quieter than usual, with all hands that could be spared from exercising the horses or mucking them out called in to help with preparing the coach.
"I don't think the king will care so much about the finer points," Stiles said thoughtfully as he added a finer point to his dagger's blade with a whetstone, "not once he can make a splash among the city folk and win their loyalty for Madame. He will not care if the paintwork on the coach is a little sloppy so long as it still makes a fine and colourful impression on the Lutetians. He wants them awed and impressed, so that they will write news-sheets that will filter out to the provinces and provide the same effect secondhand."
"There'll definitely be colour," McCall said, feeding the core of his apple to the liver chestnut mare in the nearest stall. "Even if it's only because the head groom's language has turned quite blue." The horse crunched the core down and then butted affectionately at McCall's head. Stiles did not think he had ever met someone with such an easy way with animals as had McCall.
Stiles took a deep breath and used the tip of his dagger to scratch in the earth, painstakingly forming the sigil that d'Éton had taught him. It wouldn't last long, but for a minute or two at least, neither he nor McCall would be overheard by anyone who happened to pass by. "And what of your preparations?"
"At least five," McCall said without hesitation. His gaze was earnest and unwavering, and in moments like this, Stiles could see why McCall was sure to be the leader of the Musketeers one day. "De Vernon thinks more will side with us but only if things go our way."
"Five Musketeers." Stiles nodded. Far from a whole company, but it was at least something to work with. "And if we make it so that the king is corralled away from the others, we will have a definitive advantage."
"I still think that you should tell Monsieur of what you plan," McCall said.
Stiles shook his head. He had given his word to honour and promote his husband's interests in all things. It would shame not only the Empire, but the example his parents had set for him, if he did not try his best in this. "It is not that I do not think him entirely incapable of discretion, but not when it comes to this matter. I will tell him all later, but not now," he said, and swept away all signs of the sigil with the heel of his boot.
There were of course formal preparations required of the royal family. Stiles was to acquire another new suit of finery, though thankfully now that the seamstresses knew his measurements he didn't have to undergo another fitting. Marie-Thérèse, however, was reported to be in high dudgeon at the kind of corsetry which she was expected to wear, even if it would be hidden beneath cloth of gold, and the king alone seemed happy to hear that the whole family was to gather in the coronation's aftermath to sit for a formal portrait.
"Appearances," Stiles said gloomily to Derek one afternoon. "I detest them."
The coronation was to be held that following Monday—the moon's day, Stiles realised, now that he knew what to look for—but the greater part of the court went to the city four days before, the better to allow for preparations and a hurried rehearsal. Travelling with them were d'Éton, the marquise, and Mademoiselle Renard, each charged with preparations both covert and otherwise. The royal family itself went the day before. Compared to the great trip which had taken him from his home to the Trianon, the trip from the palace to Lutetia took hardly any time at all. Yet Stiles would gladly have experienced that journey again, complete with all the long, anxious days spent staring out at the unfolding landscape, if it had let him avoid that journey into the city. The two hours spent in close quarters with Derek, the king, and Marie-Thérèse had been so uncomfortable that even Stiles found himself unequal to the task of breaking the silence.
Stiles had to content himself with once more studying the landscape through the carriage window. Here at least the view was more variable than it had been on his previous trip, and showed him a side of Francia he had not seen before. The first stage of their trip took them through the woods which lay to the north of the Trianon, sheltering the palace from the outside world, and Stiles realised for the first time just how extensive the woodland here was. He wondered if that was a coincidence, or if some werewolf forebear of Derek's had chosen the site deliberately. The trees were slowly starting to take on their autumnal colourings, rich reds and golds and crackling browns, and the sight made for a pleasant, if incomplete, distraction. Outriders passed them occasionally, guardsmen riding at an easy canter, their eyes peeled for any sign of a threat to the royal entourage—Stiles spotted McCall and de Vernon among them. After a while, the road started to cant distinctly uphill, and Stiles could hear the jingle of the harnesses and the soft clucking of the grooms as the horses leaned into the climb.
The ascent didn't seem terribly steep to someone who had been born and raised in true mountains, but it was steady and lengthy and by the time the road finally levelled off, Stiles could see that they had gained the top of a ridge of land. There, the coach halted for several minutes so that the horses could get back their wind. The view was one of the best Stiles had seen since coming to Francia: the land fell away rapidly below them into a wide plain that stretched out to the far horizon. A river meandered across the landscape, a pale grey ribbon that occasionally sparked silver in the weak early morning light. It was the kind of expansive view that Stiles had vaguely missed since he'd left home, but where his eyes would normally have been trained on the horizon, now his entire focus was caught by the sprawl of buildings that took up the mid-distance.
Stiles had read the word 'city' many times and thought that he'd understood it, had seen several engravings, but not the village near his father's keep, not Ulmendorf, not all the market towns and provincial capitals Stiles had passed through on his travels to the Trianon nor all the books he had ever read had prepared him for such a sight. He was quite certain that he'd never before seen a place of this size—nor, to judge by Marie-Thérèse's low exclamation and the way she too pressed up against the window, had she. Lutetia's buildings were built of timber and grey brick and mellow stone and there were hundreds of them, thousands, filling up one of the great loops of the Sequana River entirely before spilling over to the opposite bank. The roofs were tiled in a whole panoply of colours: shades of red and brown, mostly, but also blue and green that threw back the light as effectively as any river. And then, in the heart of the city, a cluster of gilded spires that were like beacons even on a dull morning such as this.
Stiles could happily have stayed there a full hour or more, drinking in the sight, but then the king rapped on the carriage roof with the head of his cane and they rolled onwards. The descent was steep enough that they soon lost sight of the city entire, but the glimpses that Stiles got were more than enough to keep his interest as they grew closer to Lutetia proper. There were some scattered small holdings at first, an inn or two, a brickworks next to the muddy gash of a clay pit, and not even the luxuries of a royal carriage could keep out the acrid stench of the piggery which they passed. Workers paused to watch the entourage go past, doffing their caps, though whether from genuine reverence or from mere curiosity, Stiles couldn't tell.
As the fields petered out, so they came to the first part of the city: the city of the dead. Here generations of Lutetians lay buried, in serried ranks of stone and marble memorials centuries in the making that crowded right up against the roadway and which were an effective check on the city's outward sprawl. The carriage moved along at such a speed that Stiles was able to catch no more than a name carved here or there, sometimes in Francish and sometimes in Old Romish, but something about the flat stares of the painted statues which topped many of the tombs made him glad that they could not linger. Beyond the necropolis, the road opened out again for perhaps another mile, but then narrowed sharply as they reached the city walls and the carriage plunged under a gate.
If Stiles had thought the view of Lutetia overwhelming from the top of the ridge, it was nothing compared to making their way through the city's heart. The buildings climbed to four, even five stories in height. The street along which their carriage bowled was broad and straight, but when Stiles peered to look down side streets, he saw that a person could stand on the top floor of some buildings and easily shake hands with the person living opposite. He could still hear animals—the cluck of birds and the yap of dogs—and smell them, but the overwhelming impression was of a mass of humanity crowded into one place, sweat and ordure and food frying and rotting. There were people running alongside the carriage, cheering and hallooing and begging for alms; there were stallholders calling out about fresh fish for sale and hucksters selling buttons and riband. The carriages thundered over the cobblestones, the horses' hooves ringing as loud as any blacksmith's hammer striking an anvil, and the streets smelled like the strangest dungheap that Stiles had ever encountered. It all left Stiles feeling more than a little stunned, and he was not surprised, when he looked over at the others, to see that both Derek and Marie-Thérèse were wincing slightly. Only the king did not seem perturbed.
In fact, as the royal entourage swept pell mell around a corner and out along the quays, Pierre almost looked as if he were enjoying himself.
The River Sequana was no less busy than the other thoroughfares that ran through Lutetia. Dozens of barges plied their way up and down the river, or were tied up at one of the many docks, loading and unloading. Ordinarily, Stiles would have found the sight fascinating, but now he found himself transfixed by the sight of the river island which they were rapidly approaching. It was home to the spires which he had spied earlier: the basilica, Stiles realised, and the old royal palace, the one which had scarcely been lived in since the king's grandparents had built the Trianon.
"The very heart of Francia," Pierre said expansively, spreading one arm out. "Is not it glorious?"
No one in the carriage responded.
The old palace was a far cry from the brightly painted walls and wide corridors of the Trianon. Several centuries old, its undressed stone walls were damp and chilly to the touch and the narrow spiral staircases which gave access to the upper floors and the royal quarters had clearly been built more with an eye to defence than to space or ease of movement. Though the views from the room which was assigned to Stiles and Derek were spectacular, looking out over the basilica and the rooftops of the city beyond, Stiles could understand why the royal family had long since decamped to the Trianon.
Derek looked no more at ease in the building than Stiles felt, though they did not have to linger there long. Barely had their trunks been carried up to the room than Isaac was in the doorway, clearing his throat. "Monseigneur," he said to Stiles with a speaking look. "The king has decided to proceed to the basilica for the rehearsal now."
Stiles bit back an oath. If things were proceeding according to plan, the marquise and Mademoiselle Renard should be there right now, making arrangements in advance of the afternoon. They were ingenious women, but the king would surely realise that something was amiss, even if they managed to misdirect him.
Derek frowned. "I thought we were to have lunch first?"
Isaac shrugged with awkward diffidence. Stiles knew that McCall had spoken with Isaac and gained his support for their plan, but Stiles also knew that Isaac's overriding loyalty was a personal one to Derek. Having to dissemble to Derek in any way did not come easily to him. He kept his gaze cast to the floor as he said, "He was insistent that it be as soon as possible, Monsieur. I have arranged for sedan chairs to—"
"Never mind that," Stiles blurted out. "We can walk." Walking would get them there far quicker and perhaps he could provide some form of diversion—act the buffoon, distract the king.
Derek stared at him. The shift of his face as he started to suspect something was amiss made Stiles' gut twist and curdle. "What is going on?"
Stiles smiled as brightly as he could. "Your uncle wishes for the people to see us all on this auspicious occasion. Is not this the ideal opportunity?" He took Derek's hand in his and towed him hurriedly out of the room and down the narrow stairs. There was no chance that Derek was not now aware that Stiles had kept something from him—that he had lied to him—but Stiles could not afford to dwell on that at the moment.
Footmen and soldiers hurriedly pulled themselves to attention as Stiles and Derek passed out of a door at ground level and through a series of courtyards. Owing to the scattering of soiled straw on the cobblestones and the presence of the occasional stray chicken, not to mention the looks on the servants' faces, Stiles got the impression that this was not a part of the palace which was intended for the personal use of the royal family. Still, it wasn't as if they had time to linger. Stiles barrelled onwards, and shot an apologetic smile at those they passed. As they headed through the outer courtyard which gave out onto one end of a large square, Stiles caught sight of McCall and de Vernon, standing amid the assembled Musketeers with their horses. Stiles grimaced at them and hoped that that would be sufficient to convey his need for immediate reinforcements.
"Monsieur! Monseigneur!" one of the Musketeers called out. "Wait, please, your highnesses should not—"
Stiles paid them no heed, nor did he answer when Derek hissed, "Stiles, what is the matter?"
He paused for a moment to orient himself as they attained the square, a vast public space whose equal Stiles had never seen. Though he had not been here before, it was not difficult to identify how to get to the basilica: its bulk book-ended the north side of the plaza as effectively as the palace did the south. If he had had the time, Stiles would have stopped to stare, to enquire about the purpose of the ornately carved buildings which took up the square's western edge and to peer into the murky waters of the Sequana which formed the eastern one; to investigate the stalls which sold votive offerings and charms, boots and roasted nuts and a jumble of used books.
But there was no time to delay, especially since they were attracting enough attention from the crowd in the square that Derek was clearly uncomfortable. He lengthened his stride, drawing level with Stiles, even as his shoulders hunched.
A murmur rippled out slowly through the crowd in the square. None of them surely would have thought to see a member of the royal family here just yet, but now the information spread from person to person, a gentle wave like the one that came from a stone dropped into a still pond. Stiles had never had so many curious faces turned towards him before, so many strangers craning to catch a glimpse of him as he hurried past—and how much worse the experience must be for Derek, who could surely hear what people were saying.
The basilica was nowhere the size of the Trianon, but it stood far taller: its golden spires tapered up to the heavens as if to reach the homes of the gods themselves. Where it wasn't gilded, the building was carved and sculpted so that it seemed like a forest that had been turned to stone—its pillars might once have been tree trunks, the statues of past rulers who peered down from atop the great doorway unfortunate hunters who had been caught in the path of a spell. Stiles had never seen anything like it. He could well believe it a remnant of the Romish Empire.
"All I ask," Stiles said before they went in, "is that you trust me. Just… yes, there were things that I kept from you but I was trying to help."
Derek did not reply, but nor did he take his hand from Stiles as they entered the basilica. Its main door was huge and red-painted, large enough to admit twenty people walking abreast and firmly barred, but Stiles and Derek cast around and found that they could slip in through a small door set into the base of the tower to the right of it.
After the hum of the square outside, the hush of the basilica's interior was so total as to be jarring. The only sound came from the door closing behind them—Stiles looked around to see that McCall and de Vernon had slipped in after them and were sliding home the door's heavy bolt. Stiles nodded at them. It would make it more difficult for any of them to get away if things should go badly wrong, but it wouldn't do for an inquisitive public to decide that it wanted to see the coronation rehearsal, not if things went as Stiles feared they would.
They walked up the basilica's vast nave towards the main altar, where a small group was already assembled. The dark flagstones swallowed up the sound of their footsteps, but the king still turned at their approach.
"Nephews," the king said, turning towards them. His manner was genial enough, but Stiles could not like the look in his eyes. "What brings you here so early? I had not sent for you." Standing behind him were Marie-Thérèse, who looked downright bored, and the chancellor. D'Éton looked as impassive as usual, but the lines around his eyes were drawn tight and his hands were in fists at his sides. He nodded almost imperceptibly at Stiles, who then had to fight not to sigh with relief. This was earlier than they had scheduled, but perhaps they could still succeed.
"Well, we rather got bored of the posturing," Stiles said, "and if it's time for direct confrontation, where better to do it than such a magnificent space?"
The king cocked his head. "So it was you who took the papers. That's a neat trick, masking your scent trail so thoroughly. I was not told that the Allemani had sent my nephew a magic worker."
"But then there was so much you didn't tell anyone," Stiles said, deliberately making his smile as unsettling as possible. "Your family, your council, your people."
Pierre hesitated for a moment, tugging at the fine lace of his cuffs before saying, "Or perhaps what they sent us was a spy. It will be a sad announcement, of course, because the news sheets have made the young duc Przemysł quite popular with the common folk. But they will understand why I had to execute you when they find out that you schemed to kill your own husband."
"You do realise," Stiles said, "that it is not possible to commit a crime very easily if you tell witnesses about it beforehand."
"And who is here with us?" the king replied, his expression all pantomime innocence. He spread his arms wide, fingers curling as his nails lengthened and darkened. "My obedient heir, recently rescued from a life of feral poverty, and the head of my privy council. I will not say that Alain is loyal, precisely, but he knows where his interests lie—and the kingdom will have need of such firm governance during the mourning period for my beloved nephew, Derek."
Stiles shook his head. "Did it not strike you that if someone had figured out what you had done—if they had proof, no less—that letting you just carry on was rather odd? Did it not occur to you that perhaps we wanted you to come here?"
"There are more of us than you think," d'Éton said.
McCall and de Vernon stepped out of the shadows of one of the side aisles, and the king scoffed. "Two betas from a vassal pack? What a challenge indeed to a mature Alpha."
Stiles cleared his throat. "Ladies?"
There was a sudden blur of motion to the left of the altar, as if the very air there were melting. It made Stiles' eyes ache to look at it, but then as if formed from the air itself stood the marquise and Mademoiselle Renard. The marquise was in her customary white, but she had unlaced one of the sleeves from her bodice and cast it to the floor, a pale silk chrysalis against the dark stone. Stiles raised his eyebrows to see that the uncovered arm was swathed in colourful tattoos from wrist to shoulder.
"A banshee and a spark united can challenge an Alpha," Renard said. "Or cage him." She had a small iron knife in one hand, that she drew first across her palm and then across that of the marquise, before they joined hands. The whole, vast building resounded to the noise of bolts being drawn—hundreds of them, thousands, far more than the building could possibly have had doors.
"You shall not leave here," said the marquise. "Not until this is ended."
"You are making a mistake," the king said. "This is a hallowed place for my dynasty. By tradition we—"
"Tradition demanded that you respect my mother," Derek said, voice cracking. "Your sister. Your Alpha. You killed her."
"It was necessary," the king said with exaggerated patience.
"You burned them alive," Derek said, his words slightly slurred. Stiles looked over to see that his fangs had lengthened; his control was slipping. "Our family."
"Thalie had power and I needed it," Pierre said, shrugging. "And it's a little much, you know, you talking about family when you were off fornicating with the Argent whore at the time."
Derek's hand spasmed for a moment, his grip painfully tight, before he pulled away from Stiles and took off his jacket, tossing it to one side. The change washed over him fully now: fangs and claws and furrowed brow. "I should have done my duty and torn your throat out the first moment I suspected you were lying to me. I don't know why I ever gave you the benefit of the doubt."
"Oh, dear boy," the king said, "it's because you are your mother's son." Pierre didn't bother taking off his jacket before he shifted forms—perhaps because he knew that the rest of his outfit would be destroyed and didn't see the need to spare just the one part of it. Where the changes to Derek's face and limbs spoke of a marriage of human and animal, the transformation that seized the king's body was all bestial. Coarse black hair sprouted over his shifting form, bones and sinews audibly cracking as his limbs reshaped themselves and his spine lengthened and his shoulders broadened, bursting through his clothing. His eyes glowed red and a tail lashed the ground behind him. Stiles stared, horrified, for Derek may have been born a predator, but to Stiles he had never seemed like this: a true and unrepentant killer.
"Submit," the king said, his muzzle distorting his words, spittle flecking his lips, "and I'll let your boy live." He stalked towards Derek on legs that were more like a wolf's than those of a man.
"No." Derek stood his ground. "A beta may owe an Alpha his fealty, but such a bond brings obligations on both sides. You've broken faith with all of us. I'd rather die an omega than acknowledge you."
"And we will stand with Monsieur." McCall strode forward now, his eyes burning steady gold, in company with de Vernon. They stood, shoulder to shoulder, with Derek.
"Treason!" the king snarled.
"Treason is what we heard you confess to," McCall said. "You murdered your queen. No Musketeer can countenance that."
"Nor can I," the Chancellor said. His tone was mild, but his voice yet somehow rang out in the basilica's still air. "The privy council is sworn to work for the good of Francia. Your course of action seems unwise."
That, to Stiles, seemed like a monstrous understatement.
"Monseigneur shared his findings with us," d'Éton continued. "I failed in my duty in not more closely scrutinising the will which purported to be that of the late queen—but then, I had no reason to suspect so heinous a forgery, and it is said that Catherine d'Argent is very skilled at her craft."
"You worked with her," Derek spat. "Had her seduce me so that I would be distracted and guilt-ridden. Why?"
Stiles had never heard of a Catherine d'Argent before, but he suspected he understood what her role must have been. He winced inwardly at the thought of what a blow this surely was for Derek.
The king shrugged his massive shoulders. "There must always be an heir, and you were insurance in case I couldn't find where Félicie had hidden my whelp. Now you are extraneous." He flexed his claws. "And knowing yourself to be so, you attacked me, your loving uncle, because you couldn't bear the thought of losing the throne, and when—"
"You do not seem to realise that you are outnumbered," Stiles said, interrupting him. "We will not help you, we will not submit to you. You are done."
"You know how powerful we are," Mademoiselle Renard said.
"Mere parlour tricks," Pierre spat. "And what are three betas against an Alpha who stands in the very heart of his territory?" He turned his attention back to Derek, McCall and de Vernon, advancing on them once more. "You will submit or I will wash this floor with your blood."
"Four," said Marie-Thérèse.
That halted the king in his tracks. "What?"
"Four betas stand against you. And you have none. I'm quite sure that changes matters."
"You ungrateful little—"
"There's nothing you have given me that I wanted. I hate it here. Your palace stinks and your rules are stupid and these"—Marie-Thérèse plucked at the silk and lace of her bodice—"these stays are uncomfortable. You never asked me what I want, just took—but my cousin listened to me. He is my pack, not you."
Stiles was pretty sure that that was the most he had ever heard the girl utter at one time. As a statement of defiance, it was perhaps not the most eloquent thing in the world, but judging by the rage that twisted the king's misshapen face, it had been effective enough. One last bit of distraction was needed, so Stiles cleared his throat and, waving jauntily at him, said, "For the record, your majesty, while I am not a werewolf nor any real sort of mage, I do have quite a sharp dagger and would also like to state my intention to commit treason."
The king's last semblance of control vanished and he leapt, snarling, at Stiles. Stiles braced himself for the impact, knowing that he would never manage to unsheathe his dagger in time, knowing that he more than anyone else here stood no chance against an enraged Alpha werewolf—but Derek and McCall barrelled into Pierre from the side and bore him down to the floor. De Vernon wasn't far behind them, and then Marie-Thérèse's hated silks were falling to the ground as a sleek, tawny she-wolf raced into the fray. The king managed to throw off his attackers more than once—raking his vicious claws across the flesh of McCall's belly, cuffing de Vernon about the face so that he spat bright red blood onto the floor, sending Derek flying to crash into a pillar—but his Alpha form was cumbersome and the other werewolves determined. Marie-Thérèse's sharp teeth ripped and tore at his throat, and Derek, howling, launched himself at the king's back.
Stiles scrambled back, away from the battle. It might have been four against one, but the king was still formidable and enraged, and in the slight hesitations in the movements of the other werewolves, Stiles saw how much it cost them to turn against the man who was at once their Alpha and their king. De Vernon's fine Musketeer's coat was tattered, and Derek's face mottled purple with the force of his fall.
The marquise and Mademoiselle Renard had not stopped working their magic. They spoke together now, joined by d'Éton, in a low language whose syllables and stresses were entirely unfamiliar to Stiles. The light in the basilica was turning strange: no longer did the late afternoon sun slant in through the windows high over their heads. Instead everything was bathed in the silvery light of a full moon.
"Brace yourself," the marquise snapped at Stiles, and then the building was plunged into a darkness as thorough and unnerving as a total eclipse.
Stiles blinked furiously, hoping that his eyes would adjust and give him some sense of what was going on—he could hear grunts and snarls and what sounded awfully like crunching bone and tearing sinew. Even his nose, far less sensitive than that of a werewolf's, was overwhelmed by the metallic stink of blood in the air. He felt as disoriented as he did terrified—and then there was one last howl, one that cut off abruptly on a gurgle, and the light came back.
Mere daylight now, but more than enough. Stiles caught his breath at the sight before him: the king lay on the ground, his back arched in pain. His throat had been torn open, one arm horrifically mangled, but he breathed yet—his chest heaved erratically, fresh blood ran from the wound, arterial red. Surely he could not have long to live. Around him stood a silent body of judges: de Vernon, one hand braced on McCall's shoulder, favouring one leg as if he could not bear to put his weight on the other; McCall, his mouth smeared with blood; the tawny she-wolf, sitting back on her haunches; and next to her, a large black wolf.
Derek, Stiles realised, his mouth falling open. He had not realised that his husband was capable of such a feat.
Stiles knew what was going to happen next—what had to happen—but even in the best of circumstances, it was no easy thing to stand there and wait for a life to end. His hands clenched into fists unbidden as the tawny wolf shook itself and vanished, leaving Marie-Thérèse standing in her place. She was nude, and her hair was now a tangled mass instead of the careful hairstyle in which it had previously been dressed, but that was clearly a matter of complete indifference to her. She regarded the king dispassionately, wrinkled her nose, and then turned to look at Derek. "Cousin?"
Derek cast off his wolf shape as easily as Marie-Thérèse had hers. He crouched down next to his uncle, apparently unmoved by either the king's pained inhales or by the deep cuts that had carved channels into Derek's own back. Stiles could see his lips move, though Derek spoke so softly that Stiles could not tell if he was saying something to the king or if he was reciting the prayer for the dying. His hands, Stiles could see, remained sharp-clawed, and Stiles remembered what Derek had told him about just how an Alpha's powers were passed on. He held his breath, wondering just how Derek could bear to do it, if the man Stiles had come to know could surprise him again—but then Derek gave a decisive little nod and stood.
"Do it," he said, "your majesty."
Derek turned on his heel and limped away, but Stiles stood and watched the moment that Marie-Thérèse became queen.
Stiles never inquired too closely as to how exactly d'Éton had managed to remove the bloody corpse of a king—a werewolf king, no less—from a building which stood at the heart of the city and was surrounded by hundreds of curious onlookers. He was sure that it would be discomfiting, even if d'Éton had seemed like the kind of man inclined to reveal his secrets. Stiles, Derek, and Marie-Thérèse at least looked more-or-less respectable—once the cousins had pulled back on their clothing and the marquise had fussed over Marie-Thérèse's hair—and Mademoiselle Renard summoned sedan chairs to take them back across the square to the old palace with no one else any the wiser that anything untoward had occurred.
The privy council announced that night that the king had died and proclaimed the accession to the throne of the most excellent princess, Marie-Thérèse, second of that name, queen of Francia.
"A fit of apoplexy," Stiles told Derek, shutting the door of their borrowed bedroom behind him. Derek sat on the bed, his hands resting lax and human-seeming once more in his lap. "That is the story. I'm not entirely sure how many people will truly believe it, but no one seems to be openly questioning it, either."
Slowly, careful to convey his intention in advance, Stiles sat next to Derek—close enough, he hoped, for comfort, but not close enough to presume.
"I could not have done it," Derek said, his voice barely above a murmur. "I looked at him and I could not see a king, or a traitor, or even a rival. I could only see my uncle. She will make a better ruler than I ever could."
Stiles did not know how much of that was true, if any of it, but this was not the time to push Derek on it—if indeed he ever wanted to. He cleared his throat and looked down at his own hands. They trembled slightly.
"I should apologise for lying to you, but I wouldn't mean it. Not entirely. My aim was to keep you—us—safe. I made vows and I swore that I was willing to protect you. I could see no other way to do it." That, at least, was the full and unvarnished truth. "But if you would prefer not to see me again, I would... I would understand." He cleared his throat again, surprised and slightly appalled to find himself on the verge of tears. "I will go, if you want me to."
Derek looked over at him, and Stiles forced himself to meet his husband's gaze. The expression on Derek's face yet spoke of a hollowed-out, raw pain, but there was something else there too. "Once I told you that if you put me blindfolded in a room full of hundreds, I would know your heartbeat among them all. If you left, I could do nothing other than seek it out again. Stay."
For possibly the first time in his life, Stiles could think of nothing whatsoever to say. He settled instead for leaning into Derek, taking his weight and resting his own head on Derek's shoulder—and if this was nothing that Stiles had ever envisaged himself doing, and if where they sat was not their own bed, then this, too, was what a marriage required.
"Stop fidgeting," Stiles said out of the corner of his mouth.
"I do not fidget," Derek said, sounding slighted.
"You're fidgeting," the queen said.
They were all three standing at the top of the grand staircase that led into the Trianon, watching as a convoy of carriages slowly trundled its way up the sweeping drive. The first snows were falling—little enough, to someone bred in the mountains to the east of here, but sufficient to hide the grass from view and cold enough to make Stiles wish that the dignity of the royal house didn't demand that he not wear ear-muffs. Neither the cold nor the stiff formality of the occasion, however, were enough to dampen his excitement.
"I merely wish to be certain that my attire is appropriate," Derek grumbled, checking once again that his immaculate cuffs were still immaculate, that the fall of his cravat was just so. "I can only make a first impression on my father-in-law once, you know."
Stiles grinned and reached out, clasping Derek's hand in his. "If it gives you heart," he said, as the lead carriage drew to a halt before the foot of the staircase, "first impressions can be bettered."