Leander had just closed the shop when the knock came at the back door. There was only one person it could be. He sighed as he removed his apron. Why couldn't Alaric come 'round the front? If he didn't know any better, he might have thought Alaric was ashamed of seeing an apothecary. What other reason could he possibly have for sneaking in the back way as he always did?
When he opened the back door, Alaric was there, face lit by a sunny grin. Immediately, Leander forgot his annoyance. He could never keep it up in the face of Alaric's smile; he always forgot to ask him about the back door thing once Alaric was inside. He was always a whirlwind, it seemed, with his laughing dark eyes and tousled brown hair. Leander could not imagine him existing outside of the shop, did not know how his boundless energy translated to some profession or other. He did not know how someone as bright and lively as Alaric had become interested in Leander, with his dishwater-dull hair and his fingers usually stained by whatever he was making.
"Well, come on in then," he said, ushering him in. "I've just closed the shop and dinner's been simmering all afternoon. It should be ready by now."
"Excellent. I brought bread. Fresh from the kitchens." Alaric held up a bag from which peeked the end of a long loaf of bread. The smell made Leander's mouth water.
"I mean the market." He leaned in and gave Leander a clumsy kiss. "Look, I've got something to tell you."
"Oh? Is it good?" Leander led the way as they climbed the stairs to his modest apartment above the shop. It wasn't much, but it was comfortable, like the rest of the shop he'd inherited from his mentor. Lucretia had plucked Leander off the street and seen his potential; he owed it to her memory to be the very best apothecary he could be.
"I hope so. I hope you think so." Alaric hung up his hat on the hook just inside the door and began taking off his cloak. He seemed more jittery than usual. Ordinarily, Alaric seemed to not have a care in the world. Leander wondered if it had something to do with the shop. Or whatever the family business was. Alaric wasn't terribly forthcoming about how he made his living.
"It smells good in here." Alaric bounded over to the stove. He grabbed the ladle and took a generous sip from the pot. "Delicious. I wish you could cook for me every day."
"I could, you know."
"Well." Leander looked down at his boots. "I could if you lived here. With me." It wasn't exactly a romantic proposal, but it was time one of them took another step. Their little arrangement had been going on for over a year and, even if they turned out to have different objectives in mind, well, it was high time they figured that out.
"I've a better idea." Alaric spun, still brandishing the ladle. "You move in with me."
Leander's mouth dropped. "Is there room?"
He'd been able to glean precious little about Alaric's family, but he knew he lived with his brother and sister-in-law and their three children. He'd always pictured the two brothers in business together. Whatever it was kept him in silks and velvets. Merchants, perhaps, though Leander had often walked up and down the streets where the more upscale shops were (the places the likes of him could never afford to shop at) and he never saw Alaric among the clerks hard at work inside.
Alaric threw his head back and laughed. "Is there room?"
"Well, what was it you were going to tell me?"
"Ah. Yes." Alaric schooled his features. "Leander, I'm sorry. I haven't been… entirely honest with you." His dark eyes held an uncharacteristic air of seriousness.
Leander's heart sank. Oh no. There was some terrible secret, some reason they could never get married. He tried to mentally rehearse where he'd tell Alaric he could stick the ladle.
"I had a talk with my brother about you. There was the question of the heir, you see, but now that they've got one—and the spares—they really don't need me anymore and I never liked to think about anything happening to Norman because I love him so I decided to tell him all about you and." The torrent of words stopped. "I guess I ought to have told you earlier."
It all clicked into place rather swiftly, like an anvil crashing through the floor. It had been a stupid fantasy ever since he was young that he might marry a prince, but now he had Alaric. Who, incidentally, had the same name as the First Prince. And whose brother apparently had the same name as the king. Who apparently had two boys and a girl, just like the king.
"Told me what? That your family bears an uncanny resemblance to the royal family?"
Alaric smiled sheepishly. "Leander, my family is the royal family."
His knees felt very weak, which was just as well because he supposed he ought to bow. "Y-Your Highness. If I'd known, I—"
"Don't be silly." Alaric waved his hand dismissively. "I didn't tell you on purpose. I didn't want all this. I just wanted you. I hope you don't blame me. I was shut up in the palace all my life, and I really wanted to marry for love. And now that our line's comfortably secure, well." He paused. "I can. Not that you don't have to if you don't want to. But." He swallowed hard. "Just know we can."
All of their time together was now flashing before Leander's mind. Their first meeting at the spring festival—Leander had assumed the hood over his face had been because he burned easily, but really, he'd been in disguise. The way he'd always seemed to be sneaking out to meet Leander. (He'd assumed he was skiving work.) The way he didn't seem to know how to do anything and found the most mundane of tasks—like washing dishes—endlessly fascinating.
"I do," Leander managed at last. "I do want to get married."
"Wonderful." Alaric yanked Leander to his feet. "Let's have dinner. We'll worry about the presentation and all that later."
Leander gaped. "Presentation?"
"You'll have to be presented." Alaric grabbed bowls and began ladling stew into them, like nothing had happened. "My brother wants to meet you."
"Your brother the king?"
"I only have the one."
Leander fumbled for a chair and pulled it over. Alaric set the bowls on the table and went to the ice chest to pour two mugs of milk. "You can't just… present me… at court." His throat seemed to be closing over the words. He accepted the mug from Alaric and took a sip.
"Yes, I can," he said easily. "I'm the First Prince."
"Quite." There was a strange sound. Leander realized it was his spoon rattling in his bowl of stew.
"I don't know why you're worried. It's just my brother. My sister-in-law. The kids. You'll love the kids."
Leander cleared his throat. "When do you think that will be?"
"Soon. I guess tomorrow's too soon?" Leander's horrified expression must have said everything, because Alaric suddenly pushed his chair back and dropped to his knees in front of Leander.
"Are you really all right with it?" His face was deathly serious. "I mean it, Leander, I love you. I wanted to do this right. I wanted this to be normal. Nothing about my life has ever been normal. Except you." He squeezed Leander's hand.
Leander squeezed back. He still couldn't quite believe this was real, although the more he thought about it, the more obviously a prince Alaric was. No one's hands were that soft.
"I'll get used to it. I love you." He stroked Alaric's long hair. "I suppose we can make anything work if we have that."
It was late before Alaric left. He and Leander had finished their supper and then gone on to other things that had absolutely nothing to do with his big revelation.
This would be the last time he would have to wrap himself in his cloak and sneak back up to the palace. There was a downside to this. He would be losing this little bit of stolen freedom. Once he and Leander were married, it would be back to his old life: court functions and meeting dignitaries and all the boring bits of helping Norman run the country.
Alaric whistled a little tune as he strode through the darkened city. Right now, he was just an anonymous citizen. It had been his dearest dream for his entire life up until he'd met Leander. A sickly child, Alaric had been kept safely from the public for most of his life. Going to see Leander had let him have the freedom he'd always desired.
It was too bad that would be coming to an end, he reflected, as he lifted his cap for the guards. They bowed and he nodded to them. This late, everyone would have turned in. He made his way through the empty halls up to the royal apartments. Maybe he would take a peek and see if there was a light burning in Norman and Lovisa's room.
"Come in," Lovisa called when he knocked. She was reading. The king was stretched out next to her on the bed, his arm thrown over his eyes, as if he needed to block out the offensive light of her candle. "We were waiting up for you. Your brother is just pretending to be asleep."
"I didn't want to wait up for you," Norman muttered. "You're not fifteen."
"So," Lovisa said, putting her book aside. "How did it go today? Well, I suppose, since you're back late."
"Yes." Alaric let out a sigh of relief. "I told him who I was."
"Good," Norman said. "Did you ask him what title he wants?"
"Norman, he didn't know who I was before today. I didn't ask him what title he wanted."
Norman shrugged. "It'll have to be soon. Maybe when he comes up for dinner. I trust that's soon?" From his expression, he appeared to be of the opinion that Alaric was handling the matter all wrong. This was not unusual.
"As soon as I can make it happen with your schedule, Your Eminence."
"Does he know what he's getting into?" Lovisa said suddenly.
She glanced down at Norman. "I just wonder. I can't say I was really prepared myself, and I come from a noble family. Leander doesn't even have that."
Alaric scowled. "Are you suggesting—"
"No. You should know me better than that."
Norman sat up, running a hand through his hair. "She does have a point, Al. You told him who you were, but did you tell him anything else?"
"I was trying to ease him into it. It's a lot to take in."
"No doubt. But there's a lot more that goes along with marrying into our family than coming to court and being titled."
"I know." Alaric suddenly felt about twelve years old, like he was sitting through one of Norman's lectures about statecraft and responsibility. "I figured we would deal with it after the presentation. Start with the wedding and then go from there."
Norman grunted and flopped back onto the bed. "All right. We'll talk about it in the morning. Go to bed. I'm glad you're finally settling down. I'm getting too old for this."
Lovisa smiled. "Good night, Alaric. I'm sure he'll be fine."
"Me too. Good night, Lovisa. Norman."
Alaric turned the matter over and over in his mind as he made his way to his own chambers. Soon to be shared, he hoped.
As he got ready for bed, he tried to picture having Leander here with him. It made for a cozy image, as he pictured talking with Leander about their days. He wondered what sorts of things Leander would find to amuse himself at court. Definitely clever things.
He pulled his nightshirt on over his head. The only thing that might cast a pall over their happiness was the bandits. They'd been growing ever bolder over the past few months and the time would come sooner or later when they would need to ride out and deal with them. But with any luck, it would be after the wedding and the honeymoon were over with.
Leander could handle it, he decided. He had done just as good a job at picking a spouse as Norman had.
Leander was sure he was never going to get used to this. Even after they were married—and living in a bloody palace—he wasn't going to be used to this. He was standing by the door of his shop—shut early for the occasion—and dressed in the nicest clothes he owned, which, while not ostentatious, were well-made.
They were, naturally, very plain, though, and he wondered if he oughtn't have asked Alaric for something better to wear.
Well, it was too late for that now. The carriage was approaching. He could tell it was coming by the rising chatter of the crowd that was gathered outside. He steeled himself, swallowing hard.
You are the same person you always were, he told himself. Even if you're going to marry a prince. All those people are your neighbors, your clients.
Although, he supposed, they wouldn't be for much longer. He would have an entirely different life in a few weeks and it probably wouldn't include working behind the counter of a shop.
By then, the carriage had rolled to a stop outside. A footman—dressed better than Leander—hopped down and made his way through the crowd to knock on the door. Leander opened it immediately.
The footman bowed so low Leander worried about his nose hitting the floor. "My lord."
Leander felt his spine straighten instinctively. He wasn't a lord. But he supposed there was no good courtesy title for somebody as lowborn as he was.
"Are you ready?"
Leander would never be ready. But he smoothed his clothes, took the key from the counter and followed the footman out, locking the front door behind him. The crowd pressed in around him, but he fixed his smile in place and forged on toward the carriage.
Alaric was waiting for him inside. "You made it," he said brightly. "That's the first step."
Leander exhaled heavily. "Is it always like that?"
"Yes. From now on." Alaric suddenly looked very serious. "I'm sorry, Leander. I truly wish it didn't have to be this way. I wish I could come live a little anonymous life with you."
"You don't mean that," Leander said dismissively. "You wouldn't like it here."
He sighed. "I did like getting to get out of the palace."
Leander didn't know what to say to that. He didn't know that he could promise anything about their life together. He felt very lost in all this. He thought back to when he'd suspected Alaric was a clerk in a shop. He would never have traded his Alaric for some shop clerk, but he did wish he'd been right about that.
The carriage made its way up to the palace much quicker than Leander could have walked. Perhaps that was one benefit to being with a prince.
As they passed through the palace gates, a sudden fear gripped Leander. He was going to have to meet the king and the queen. Even the thought of meeting the little prince and princesses were making him nervous.
Alaric squeezed his hand. "You'll be fine. Norman and Lovisa are going to love you."
Leander's heart began to pound. The carriage stopped. A footman opened the door and Leander followed Alaric down. He didn't break his stride as he made for the front doors, which were already being opened. Leander had to hurry to catch up.
"They'll be in the throne room," he was saying. "I'll bring you in, you bow, they'll all look at you." He was listing these things off as though they were a shopping list. "It's just a formality. Then we'll go to dinner and the rest of the court will be dismissed. It'll be just family at dinner. Not more than twenty at the high table."
Leander didn't have any family. He'd been alone after Da had died, until he'd met Lucretia, and then after she'd died, he'd been alone until he'd met Alaric. The idea of meeting Alaric's entire extended family—not just the king and queen, but nearly every noble in the country—was a daunting one. But he loved Alaric. He would do it.
He grasped Alaric's arm tightly and Alaric smiled, planting a kiss on his temple. "You'll do fine."
The throne room would have contained about four of Leander's house. The gallery was lined with throngs of people staring at him and the king and queen seemed miles away. Alaric was smiling easily, waving to the audience.
"Just relax and watch me," he said through his teeth and Leander tried to smile, too. He really would have to get used to this kind of pomp, if he was really to be married to Alaric. He tried to imagine himself at the other end of the hall, standing next to the throne, perhaps right behind his soon-to-be nieces and nephew.
At last they came to the king and queen. Leander glanced up at them. King Norman looked stony, serious. He seemed to lack Alaric's warmth. Queen Lovisa, however, was smiling. Beside the throne, the little princesses and prince were crowding each other for a look at him.
"Your Eminence." Alaric took a knee and bowed low. Leander quickly copied him, keeping his eyes cast down. "May I present to you, my fiancé, Leander?"
He dipped his head lower. "Y-Your Eminence."
"Rise." The king extended his hand. "You will join us for dinner, Leander."
"Of course, Your Eminence." He bowed again, not sure when to stop. Alaric put a hand on his elbow.
The king dismissed the court. Leander dropped to one knee along with everyone else as the king and queen left the gallery, their children behind them. Then, Alaric was pulling him to his feet and steering him out after Norman and Lovisa. Anyone who had not already seen Leander was jostling to get a glimpse of him as they passed. Alaric walked briskly and Leander had to hurry to keep up.
The high table was made up of the king and queen, their children, Leander and Alaric, and a whole host of council members and advisors. Alaric happened to be at the king's right hand, which meant King Norman was mere inches from Leander. He could have reached out and slapped him, if he'd desired, though that would have put a decided damper on things.
He looked around the room. The dining hall was smaller than the throne room, but only just. Maybe only two of Leander's house this time.
He glanced down at his plate, carefully studying the silverware arrangements. Start on the inside, he reminded himself. He was pretty sure that was right, though it wasn't as though he'd ever eaten when he was on display like this before. Or knew anyone who had, besides Alaric. Watch Alaric. Alaric will know.
Alaric was happily in conversation with his brother. Leander took a sip of his wine. It was good. He'd never had anything this fine before, except what Alaric had occasionally brought by as a gift.
That came from the royal wine cellar, he thought giddily. The bread was from the royal kitchens and the vegetables were from the royal gardens.
He glanced to his right. With a panic, he realized he didn't know the name of the lord seated beside him. He was obviously a close relation, he had the same wiry build and sharp eyes as Alaric and Norman. Right now, those eyes were fixed on Leander. Leander inclined his head.
The eyes swept over him. Leander smiled. He hoped this would not be just the first in a string of twenty appraisals that found him wanting.
"Uncle, this is Leander." Alaric's face appeared beside his. "Leander, my mother's brother. Lord Fredor. Commander of the army."
Leander searched for something interesting to say about the army. "That must take you all over the realm."
"Wherever there's a war," Lord Fredor said. He took a generous swig from his goblet. "Or those damned bandits. Do you ride?"
"No," Leander confessed.
"Al, you have to teach this one to ride. Or I will." It sounded like a threat.
Alaric laughed. "Don't worry, uncle. I'll teach him."
Perhaps it was Leander's imagination, but Lord Fredor appeared to have a twinkle in his eyes. He felt himself relax a bit. Or perhaps it was the wine.
Thankfully, at this point, the first course emerged from the kitchen. It was brought to the high table first and the king and queen were served. Then the platters moved down the table to Alaric, and then to Leander.
That's the fourth-best cut of fish, he thought faintly.
"You all right?" Alaric asked him.
"Boy can't feed himself, Al." Lord Fredor grabbed Leander's hand that had been hovering over the innermost fork and brought it down to the outermost. Oh. "Where did you pick this one up?"
"We met at the spring festival." Alaric went on to describe their courtship from his point of view—sneaking out of the palace in disguise, delighting in the thrill of walking the city streets without anyone knowing who he was. "You ought to try it," he finished. "I can't recommend it enough."
"What? Wandering the streets at night or picking up strangers?"
Alaric beamed, very pleased with himself. "Both."
After the first course, things got easier. Leander was even able to ignore the faces in the hall below that kept glancing up when they thought he wasn't looking. (He was always looking). And Lord Fredor didn't make a bad dinner companion. His sense of humor was almost shocking, not at all what he would have expected from a member of the royal family.
They were being served the fruit course when the doors to the hall burst open and a guard ran up to the table. He bowed quickly.
"Your Eminence. The bandits have returned to the woods. They attacked one of our patrols."
"Where are they now?" the king asked. Leander noticed they were all listening—Norman, Lovisa, Alaric, Lord Fredor. He laid his own fork down.
"Still in the wood. It was a small patrol, Your Eminence, and they had orders to retreat if they were outnumbered."
Norman stood. Alaric and Lord Fredor were right behind him. Leander pushed his chair back and stood, too, though he was not quite sure what was going on. It seemed to be understood that something was going to happen, though.
The king was barking orders and men were running all over. Leander stayed frozen, gripping the back of his chair.
"Are you coming, boy?" Lord Fredor sounded surprised. Leander did not know the correct response here.
"No, he isn't," Alaric's voice cut in. "We're riding out to deal with the bandits," he added, for Leander's benefit.
"Now." Alaric cupped Leander's face and kissed him. "That's one of the responsibilities of office. Helping to keep the realm safe."
The rich meal sat like a rock in Leander's stomach. He had not considered any of this. Of course he'd known that a king or a prince might go into battle when it was necessary; the old king had died doing it. But there wasn't a war. Somehow, he hadn't guessed that this sort of thing might require the personal attention of the monarch.
"Are you joining us, Al?" Norman did not sound amused.
"Oh, leave them alone," the queen admonished.
"I'll try to come back in one piece." Alaric kissed him again. Then, he was gone, falling in with his brother and uncle as they followed the guard out of the hall. Leander watched them go, until he was conscious of the meal beginning to resume.
"Here," he heard a voice say. "Move down here to Norman's place. It makes no sense for you to be so far away."
Leander picked up his plate of fruit and moved into the king's seat, feeling very self-conscious.
"I should go with them," he said suddenly, as though he would have any idea what to do.
Queen Lovisa put a hand on his shoulder. "No. They don't have time to look after themselves and you. I heard you say you couldn't even ride. Was that true?"
Leander nodded sheepishly. It didn't seem fair for him to remain behind while Alaric was putting himself in harm's way, but it couldn't be helped.
"Now," she said. "Would you like to go home? I'm sure we can spare the carriage. Or would you like to stay here with us?" She glanced at her children, who seemed to be exhibiting far less concern than Leander was. "We are going to wait up for Norman. Or at least as long as we can."
"Do you think they'll be back tonight?"
"They may." She smiled sadly. "This has been happening so often lately. If they can actually catch these bandits, perhaps they will take longer." Her gaze lingered on her daughter. Leander could almost read her thoughts into her expression—if Norman fell in battle as his father had, little Greta could become a queen overnight.
"Mama, I don't like pears," Greta said.
"Then you mustn't eat them." Lovisa laid aside her fork. "Are we finished? Then we shall go upstairs. Will you be joining us, Leander?"
"Yes, Your Highness."
She smiled. "We will be glad of your company."
It was late the following morning by the time the bandits were captured, but at least they were captured. Alaric rolled his neck, stiff after spending the past twelve hours in armor. Nothing sounded better than his bed right now.
He practically rolled off his horse when it came to a patient stop in the palace yard and he gave it an affectionate pat on the nose before relinquishing it to one of the stable boys. He wasn't the only one who needed to rest.
He supposed Leander would have gone home the night before. Pity.
"How's your shoulder?"
Alaric looked down at it at Norman's comment. It barely hurt anymore, though it hadn't been exactly pleasant when the bandit's spear had gone right through the chink in his armor. "It's all right." He rubbed his eyes. "Maybe you can send a carriage 'round to pick up Leander, later today? I could do with some sympathy."
Norman grunted. "You'll be fine."
They trudged their way up to the royal apartments. Alaric did not even plan on getting undressed, though he expected a healer would be sent to him.
"You're back, thank the gods!" Lovisa was descending the stairs. "Did you win?"
"We won." Norman gripped the bannister heavily. "Al took a wound."
"It isn't serious." He flashed her a grin that might not have been more than a wince. "I just need—"
"Alaric?" Leander was standing at the top of the stairs. He looked like he hadn't slept. His clothes were rumpled and there were dark circles under his eyes.
Alaric braced himself as Leander hurried down the stairs and embraced him.
"I'm fine." Even as he said this, Leander was examining the dressing that had been hastily applied in the field.
"Let me take a look." Leander turned and made his way back upstairs. "Lovisa, can—"
She smiled. "I'll have some supplies sent up to you."
Alaric was too tired to protest as Leander led him to his bedchamber and stripped the shirt off him. He was also too tired to enjoy it. Leander ground up something foul-smelling and slapped it on Alaric's shoulder, which would not have been so offensive if his shoulder hadn't been so close to his nose.
Leander said nothing as he worked. He did not even look tired, so bent to his task was he.
"There," he said at last, tightening the bindings. "You should heal in no time."
"I told you I was fine."
"Yes. Now." Leander kissed his forehead.
"Did this put you off?" Alaric tangled his fingers in Leander's hair. "Of me, you mean?"
"No." Leander sat on the edge of the bed. His smile was faint, but fond. "You'll have to do far worse, I think."
Alaric slid himself over on the bed and patted the empty spot. "Stay? You haven't slept."
"I really shouldn't impose." Leander suppressed a yawn.
"You can't impose. You're just getting a head start on when we're married."
Leander settled in beside him. It felt good to lie next to him like that, even though he was bruised and exhausted. Leander made it all better. His body fit perfectly around Alaric's, even though Alaric was sure he didn't make the most pleasant bedmate.
"I was worried, you know," Leander said, after a moment, stroking Alaric's hair absently. "I've just got used to, you know, you, and now I need to worry about all these other things, too. When I thought you were a clerk in a shop, I didn't think you might get speared by bandits."
"You thought I was a clerk in a shop?"
"Never mind." He paused. "I thought about a lot of things while you were gone. Like if I was really up to this." He ran his hand gently down Alaric's arm. "The pomp of it all. I did have second thoughts."
"If you hadn't, I would have been worried. Leander, I didn't decide I was going to marry a commoner just so I could have somebody who was comfortable with all that stuff. I've been around it all my life." He grinned. "I guess it would have been nicer if we hadn't had our dinner spoiled by bandits."
Leander's face was grave. "But they would have come sooner or later, wouldn't they?"
"Yes. And there will be other things. War. Diplomacy. I might have to travel overseas."
"Well, I'll go with you then." He said this dismissively, as though it were beside the point. "I'd even go to war with you. I don't see any other way for my skills to be put to use."
Alaric kissed him. "I wouldn't want to put you through that."
"And I wouldn't want you to go alone." He cupped Alaric's face. "If I'm marrying you, I'm taking all of you. I knew that when I thought we could just have a nice, quiet life. And I know that now."
Alaric felt a near-ache in his chest that wasn't from the wound. This was exactly why he'd concealed his identity when he'd gone wooing Leander. Even though it had been dishonest (which he would not admit until pressed—he'd never lied), it had been more genuine than if Leander had been the son of a noble house and they'd met at some court function.
"I love you," he murmured.
"I love you, too." The corners of Leander's eyes crinkled. "I don't know how I never figured it out before. You are too used to always getting what you want."
Alaric's mouth dropped open. "Hey now—"
Leander cut him off with a kiss. "But you do, don't you?"
Alaric could not say no to that.
"Rest," Leander instructed him. "You have to get that thing healed."
"Yes, dear," Alaric said obediently. His eyes were feeling awfully heavy anyhow. It was nice to know he had someone to take care of him.