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The day had been an absolute nightmare, and as Nicholas walked down the torchlit hallway after a servant who was showing him the way in this unfamiliar castle, he wished only that it could end sooner. That same morning, he’d stood on the ramparts of the fortress watching over the river that ran through the whole country, looking for their enemy in the distant horizon. By midday, the conquering armies had reached them, and by early evening Nicholas had been forced to break through the siege with heavy casualties, making away with only a fraction of his men. He’d left all the injured behind, left the fortress to be taken, left like a coward and ridden like hell through the night to outrun anyone willing to follow them.

Nicholas was annoyed and angry, but he did his best to keep it all reigned in. This was not the place nor the time to let people in on what he really thought of the events of the day. He needed to be a figurehead – steady even when there was little to hold onto. He was the prince and heir of his kingdom, his duty was for his country first and what he wanted had to always bow for what his nation needed. He had wanted nothing more than to fight until he could no longer stand, forcing the enemy to pay as high price as possible for the river, but that was not something he could do. Were he to be captured, the only ransom that could be paid for his life was an unconditional surrender and capitulation. Between handing over his kingdom like that and making a run for it in the dark, letting his enemy to have this victory, Nicholas hadn’t really had a choice.

That didn’t change the fact that it grated him to know that he’d barely managed to slow down the conquering armies. It didn’t help that their enemies had been marching undefeated for weeks, led by a marshal who seemed to do nothing wrong when Nicholas was doing everything he could, only to be triumphed by the same man time after time. The Marshal was more legend than a real breathing human being; his banner stood always tall on the battlefield, but not once had Nicholas been given the opportunity to fight him or see more of the man than the bright glow of sunlight hitting his armour.

Nicholas managed a terse nod as the servant finally stopped at a door, unlocked it and signalled for him to enter. These were clearly the rooms of the master of the castle, now quickly vacated for the important guest, but the nod was the only sign of approval that Nicholas had the energy to give. Truth to be told, Nicholas had hardly cared if he was being shown the way to the best bedroom or to the stables – all he wanted was a steaming bath and the silence that would fall after he could finally order everyone else to get out and give him some room to breathe.

The door closed behind him and Nicholas leaned to the bedpost, closing his eyes. After gathering strength for a breath, he pulled himself together and took a step towards the bath. However, before he’d even been able to disrobe, a sharp knock on the door demanded his attention. For the first time that day, Nicholas couldn’t keep his frustration to himself and he groaned aloud. He was about to lose a war, his whole body ached, and now he’d been denied even the simple pleasure of washing away the day’s grime and filth. He unbuckled his sword and threw it onto the bed with more force than necessary and untied the knots holding his gambeson, allowing the garment to drop on the floor before marching to the door.

When Nicholas opened the door, a skittish servant quickly moved back and struggled to meet his gaze, immediately bowing his head down in respect. In the brief moment that Nicholas had been able to see the man's face, he'd noticed that he'd had the audacity to look offended by Nicholas' state of undress. Nicholas had spent the whole spring out on the fields in this vain struggle to protect his land – he had earned the right to go around in dirtied linen shirts like his men did when he was this tired. He waived impatiently for the servant to get on with it.

“Your highness, I am truly sorry to have disturbed you, but a messenger has arrived from the river,” the servant said, bowing even deeper now, clearly having picked up on Nicholas’ foul mood. “They requested a word be sent for you.” He spoke fast and quivered quietly in place while he waited for the reply.

For a messenger to have reached Nicholas only moments after he and what was left of his men had arrived, the messenger must’ve ridden their horse to the point of exhaustion. What message he had to carry that could’ve explained the haste, Nicholas couldn’t guess but neither did he dare to ignore it and allow it to wait until the morning. He gave one last glance at the bathtub waiting for him before he closed the door. “Take me to them,” he demanded.

The messenger had been brought into the great hall of the castle and when Nicholas looked around in the room he could see that it was filled crowd of uneasy people who were too agitated to get back to sleep. When Nicholas had entered, a hushed silence had fallen and as Nicholas’s gaze passed through the room now most of the people bowed their heads and some looked around for a hint of what was expected of them. Rural castles had their charm, but Nicholas was not here to appreciate it.

The messenger was a seasoned soldier and left his broth and ale behind as he came to Nicholas, falling to his knee in front of him. “I bring word from the river, Sire,” the man said.

Nicholas beckoned him to rise. He looked around for privacy, and then realised he didn’t care. A quiet murmur had returned to the room and everyone was doing their hardest not to listen. It hardly meant that nobody was listening, but they would at least pretend not to have heard any words said. Nicholas ran his fingers through his hair and nodded to give the man the permission to give his message then and there. What did it matter if everyone in this castle would know that the war was lost? They’d probably pieced as much together by themselves already.

“Have they taken the fortress?” Nicholas asked. He felt truly exhausted – he dreaded the answer even though he already knew it.

The messenger nodded. “We hid in the nearby forest as you ordered and watched. They took over the fortress almost immediately after you’d left. They didn’t even seem interested in sending a party after you, Sire.”

“They had no need to. They already got what they wanted,” Nicholas replied. And they had. With the fortress, Nicholas had lost the last hold they’d had left on the other shore. He’d hardly needed a confirmation for what he’d known to be inevitable when he’d stormed out of the fortress. They were losing. All the remaining men of the kingdom could not stop an invading army.

“There’s something more, Sire,” the messenger said and Nicholas snapped his attention back to him. The messenger straightened his back and appeared eager to please, which was curious. If the fortress was lost, what could there be to be triumphant about? Still, Nicholas could do with some good news, or anything to distract him from the bleak reality.

“Explain.”

“We got Thomas Hauthorn,” the messenger said loud enough for some of the people in the hall to have caught the name and look at their direction, then quickly pretending they hadn’t.

The name gave Nicholas a pause, just as it had for their audience. Hauthorn was the marshal that had led their enemies from victory to victory and Nicholas had already counted the fortress by the riverside as the latest feather in his cap. “He fell while storming the fort?” Nicholas asked. Had the Marshal fallen on the eve of his greatest victory? That would’ve been an unexpected stroke of luck for Nicholas and a sign of uncharacteristic haste on the part of the Marshal.

The messenger shook his head. “No, Sire,” he said. “Right after nightfall, we noticed someone slipping away from their camp and heading for the river. We thought it was one of us that had gotten free and Captain sent a few men to watch closer. Once we saw what he was up to we knew that it wasn’t one of us. He was armed when he got to the riverside, but then left his weapons there, Sire, sank them right in the river. Left his heavy cloak there on the shore as well and then swam across.”

“A deserter?” Nicholas guessed.

The messenger nodded. “Once he’d come ashore we tried to ambush him, but something must’ve tipped him of because before we could get to him, he stopped right at the edge of the woods, fell to his knees, Sire, and said that he’d come to surrender. We tackled him down just in case he’d try to give our position away, but he never fought back. When we brought him to the Captain, he said that his name was Thomas Hauthorn and that he urgently wanted to see you, Sire.”

“And you believed him?”

The messenger looked uncomfortable. “It seems unlikely that it would be him, but there’s something about him. He could be the man. Captain thought so too and so he sent us here.”

Unlikely didn’t begin to cover it. However, it seemed like Nicholas would have an opportunity to see the man for himself and find out. “Where is he now?”

Nicholas had not yet had the chance to bathe, eat nor sleep, but he found himself hurrying on his way to the dungeons of the castle. The castle was old and had not had a military importance for over a generation and its dungeons had long ago been converted into storerooms. One of the rooms had been hastily emptied onto the hallways for the prisoner and two men had been put into guard duty at the door. If all this turned out to be for nothing, and the man to be nothing but a scared deserter lying his way out of a predicament, it would truly be a farce fit for the day. On the other hand, if they had truly got Thomas Hauthorn in their hands, Nicholas wasn’t certain what he would do. There were plenty of things he’d imagined doing to the man if he’d ever gotten careless enough to get captured or if Nicholas would’ve met him on the battlefield. Months after months of hearing his men curse the name, and seeing castle after castle fall as Hauthorn had led his army ever closer had made Nicholas in equal parts look forward to and dread the day when they’d finally meet – and now the moment could be just around the corner.

“How is our prisoner?” Nicholas asked the men standing guard at the door as he reached the ground floor of the castle at the end of a small, spiralling staircase.

“He’s been very quiet, your highness,” answered one of the men. He hesitated a moment before continuing with, “There’s something odd about him. He demanded to be allowed to meet with you, and then nothing. He hasn’t moved. He hasn’t made a sound. People usually fight back and try to plead more. It’s unnerving to see one so quiet.” The other guard nodded along, agreeing to the words.

Nicholas doubted these men had guarded other prisoners than drunkards lately – plenty of captured soldiers fell quiet when they knew there was no way out. However, there were always ways to make them talk. Nicholas looked at the door and made his mind.

“Give me your knife,” Nicholas demanded from the nearest man. The man quickly did as ordered although he looked uncertain as handed over his knife, hilt first. “I am going to question him. I do not wish to be disturbed. In fact, I do not want you to enter unless I command you to do so. You can stand guard at the end of the hallway,” Nicholas then instructed and waited as the door was unlocked and opened for him and as the guards backed away to give him the privacy he had requested.

No overeager guard would spoil him this moment if the man waiting for him was truly Thomas Hauthorn.

As Nicholas stepped into the room and closed the door behind himself, the first thing he noticed was that a decent amount of bleak morning light was streaming in through the small windows, painting the room in tones of grey. Immediately after, Nicholas noticed the man sitting on his knees, head bowed, right in the middle of the floor, positioned as to make an impression. Already after the first glance Nicholas could see what the guard had meant by calling the man’s stillness unnerving. The man was not just sitting still – he was drawn tight as a bow, controlling every single muscle and forcing himself not to move. He had not even moved to look up to see who’d entered the room.

Nicholas took a few steps further into the room and studied his prisoner. He could see why his men had thought this man worthy of dragging all the way here. He was a fascinating sight. Older than Nicholas, maybe in his middle thirties, he possessed an impressive physique. He was more wiry than muscled, but Nicholas didn’t doubt the strength he possessed. His brown hair was hanging slightly too long in front of his eyes, curling at his ears at the back, making him look more like a common soldier than a fabled marshal. He’d been stripped down to nothing but simple breeches and a shirt, clothes still clearly made of fine linen and soft wool, and despite the lack of emblems there was no mistaking of the aura of someone who was used to command. The man might’ve had his head bowed in an act of humbleness and hands tied behind his back, but he had obviously a fight left in him. He could as well be who he claimed to be.

Nicholas found himself smiling and toying with the knife. Could his luck really have turned around in the end? Could this really be Thomas Hauthorn kneeling in front of him? Why had this man had left the safety of the conquered castle? Why had he surrendered in the first place? If he was who he claimed to be, his actions made very little sense.

There was something dangerous about this man, something that Nicholas struggled to understand, and that was worrisome in itself. Nicholas could usually read people around himself easily – someone wanted recognition, another could be convinced to do what Nicholas needed by applying force. Nicholas had expected open arrogance and impatience from a man who’d had the audacity to walk straight into enemy hands and demand to meet with him. Kneeling in submission was an interesting choice, but Nicholas didn’t for a moment doubt the insincerity of the gesture. The man wanted something and kneeling like this was just a tool for him to getting it.

Nicholas walked slowly around the prisoner, keeping his eyes on him and looking for any changes, all the while slowly rotating the knife in his hand. Asking for the knife had been an impulsive decision, but having it in his hands allowed him to enforce the power he held over the man in a very visual manner. However, the theatrics seemed to go completely unappreciated by the man. Nicholas completed his circle around the man without him looking up even once.

Pausing once more right in front of the man, so close that he must’ve been able to see Nicholas’s feet, Nicholas took a moment to stare down at him. There was a seductive thrill of danger to this situation that Nicholas hadn’t gotten to feel in a while. Standing on the battlefield had since long left him cold, and interrogating prisoners meant normally meeting those of noble birth that they’d managed to capture and listening to their never-ending demands. This man, if he was truly the Marshal, was not playing by the rules. His position gave him the right to demand to be treated like the most pampered guest and yet here he was, silent, putting on an act of humbleness.

Behind that curious silence was something uncontrolled and potentially dangerous and Nicholas wanted it to surface. He needed it. He wanted an excuse to push too far, to get his hands dirty, to lash out at this man for all the mistakes that Nicholas had made. To fight this war as a human being and not as a noble leader of his people. To pick a fight he could win.

To have Thomas Hauthorn at his mercy.

“You know, I was there this morning, watching you slaughter men under my protection,” Nicholas said. “I certainly did not expect that the day would end with you here, at my feet. And I’m not sure if seeing you on your knees will be enough to satisfy me.”

There was no reaction.

Nicholas crouched down to get a better look at the man he was dealing with. The sudden movement made the man tense up visibly before he forced his muscles to relax again. Nicholas wasn’t about to let this sign of lack of complete control go unpunished.  He took hold of the man’s chin and forced him to look up. He didn’t struggle against Nicholas’s grip nor shy away with his gaze and for the first time Nicholas could see eye to eye with him. The confrontational edge that he’d been expecting to find was nowhere to be seen. Nicholas tightened his grip until his fingers were pressing against the man's skin with bruising power, daring him to react, but the man stared back without a hint of emotion. When Nicholas let go, disgusted, the skin displayed angry red marks where he’d held tight.

Nicholas pushed himself back up to his feet. He felt the disappointment in his whole body and a hollowness gripping at his stomach. His reasons to come down here to see the prisoner had been far from pure. Ever since he’d been forced to flee, the anger had consumed him from inside, and here should’ve been a way for him to release it and give him some peace. However, this man was not going to give him the satisfaction. He’d not been afraid of Nicholas. In fact, Nicholas doubted there was anything he could do to make the man display any emotion at all.  He had seen that look before in the faces of men that knew it was all over for them, and that accepted their fate. Such utter calm meant only that the man didn't care what was about to happen to him.

Nicholas turned away. He’d not come here to carefully pry open the man and find his reasons of being here. He was curious for the answer, but he also knew that deprived of sleep and filled with anxious energy, he would do a poor job at making the man speak. Sparring with a prisoner who thought he could outsmart him, Nicholas could’ve gladly taken on. A man who had already found his peace could bring Nicholas no relief. Nicholas pushed the knife into his belt and glanced at the windows and the dreary dawn. He wasn't sure whose day would be bleaker - his or his prisoner’s.

It was better to just get this over with. “I heard you have a message to deliver,” Nicholas said and waited. It took a while, but in the end the man sighed.

"If I can make one demand it’s that I want to deliver my message in person," the man replied. For someone with his hands tied behind his back and kneeling in front of someone, he possessed immense confidence.

Nicholas let a little amused huff escape his lips. He turned around and crouched back down and looked at the man. Nicholas waited for the recognition to set in and for the man to realise his mistake. As he waited, he searched for something besides the resignation he’d seen earlier, but found nothing indicating that anything had changed.  “You can tell the message to me right now, I’m listening.”

The man stayed silent. When Nicholas didn’t back down, he closed his eyes and looked tired. "I'm hardly in the position to make demands," he said without allowing Nicholas to intimidate. His voice had a nice timbre to it and an edge of an unfamiliar accent, and Nicholas found himself smiling. Timid this man was not. Maybe he could drag the fight out of him after all. “The only thing I ask for is to be allowed to bring my message directly to the prince”

Nicholas was momentarily rendered speechless. The man had no idea who he was. Nicholas didn’t know why it had come to a surprise to him at all. The man had no reason to think that his request had actually reached Nicholas, or that Nicholas would show up battleworn, dressed like any of his men. Such anonymity was not something Nicholas was often granted, and on a day like this it was a godsend. Now Nicholas only needed to work out how to use that anonymity to his advantage.

“Why ask for so little, Marshal?" Nicholas challenged. The title made the man display discomfort for the briefest of moments and Nicholas felt the thrill of discovery. The man was not too far gone to be impervious to Nicholas’ taunting.  That small a taste of what might lay underneath that shell was all Nicholas needed to keep pushing forward. "Men of titles are usually demanding much better treatment than that you've received. I haven't heard you complain. Why is that?"

"A bit roughness is to be expected and I accept that. I only want to meet with the Prince. I see no need to ask for more."

Nicholas chuckled and revelled in the feeling of knowing that what the man wanted was right in front of him, and that Nicholas could so easily deny it from him. "You can hardly expect the prince to grant an audience to whoever who demands it. Can we even trust that you are who you claim to be? Do you have something that you could prove that you are telling the truth? You are certainly not acting like the marshal of an army."

"Someone believed me or I would not be here. Everything I had with me is already in the possession of your men. Although, if my word is not enough, I doubt a few scraps of clothing will convince you. My signet ring is back in the camp," the man said. He sat up straighter and brought his shoulders back. His movements were surprisingly awkward - having his hand tied must've bothered him. Was he getting more careless because of Nicholas' taunting? God, Nicholas hoped it would be this easy.

“Forgetting the signet is rather convenient, isn’t it?” Nicholas asked.

The man looked annoyed, and there, there was the impatience and arrogance Nicholas had expected to find. Against all logic, Nicholas felt surer and surer that this was indeed the Marshal. The man had no way to prove his identity and yet he expected to be believed – could someone else be that arrogant?

Nicholas got up to his feet once more and took a few steps away from the man. He licked his lips. He could almost feel the tension gathering in the man, and the anger that he'd hoping to find surfacing. The one thing that the man had gambled his life for was a chance to meet with Nicholas - and the thought of being denied it was obviously something that put him on the edge. Nicholas circled the man slowly, now having his full attention. He paused behind the man and looked at his tied hands.

"I can untie your hands if you give me one answer first," Nicholas suggested. He smiled as the man slowly forced his fingers to uncurl and worked some blood to his fingers. He must've been completely numb from sitting still so long.

The man nodded slowly.

"Why this act of humbleness?" Nicholas demanded. “Why wait quietly?” He stepped a bit closer, so close that the man could clearly sense his presence invading his personal space. This was met with a stillness from the man and a pause while he tried to come up with a good answer.

The man let his head drop. "I wish not to make it worse for myself than it already is. I expect not to be popular here." Again the same lack of fear in his voice, and yet the words spoke of the same disregard for what waited for him that Nicholas had seen in his eyes earlier. Not exactly the breakthrough Nicholas was hoping for.

Nicholas reached down and took a hold of the rope tying the man's hand together. The man relaxed his arms in anticipation and was taken by surprise when Nicholas, instead of untying them, used the rope to force the man up to his feet. He stumbled and Nicholas pushed him forward until he hit with the wall and then Nicholas pinned him against it, using his weight to lock the man in place. "I think you're lying," Nicholas said, pushing harder, making the man grunt in pain.

"I don't know what answer I can give to make you happy," the man said. His head was locked in place by his shoulder and he couldn't turn it enough to look at Nicholas. He soon realised that the struggle was in vain and tried to relax his body again and not to fight back, moving his arms to a more comfortable position, but hissed and tensed up when Nicholas didn't release the pressure to allow him to do that.

"Let's start from the beginning," Nicholas suggested. "Tell me who you are and why you went to the lengths needed to be brought here."

The man closed his eyes. He sighed and Nicholas could feel him roll his shoulders back, and all the muscles of his back shiver from the strain that they'd been under all this time. There was no question about it - had Nicholas untied his hands, the man would've been able to overpower him easily. However, backed in the corner like this the man seemed to be ready to play by Nicholas's rules, if grudgingly. "My name is Thomas Hauthorn, and until the moment when the fortress was taken I was the marshal of the armies of your enemy. I am not that man anymore. I did my duty. Now the only thing I have left to do is to bring a message to your prince."

“I doubt that titles like yours, Marshal, can be shrugged off so easily,” Nicholas challenged. Nicholas had been willing to believe the man was being truthful of his identity from the moment he'd seen him, but hearing him say his name had vanished the last of his doubts. No-one could be this arrogant in situation like this if they were lying through their teeth. For reasons that Nicholas was about to find out, Thomas Hauthorn had turned deserter and sought to have an audience with him.

“I made a choice when I left to deliver the message,” Hauthorn said. “I rather doubt that I’m welcome back.”

"And this message is something that only you can give to the prince?" Nicholas asked, leaning in closer to tauntingly say these words to Hauthorn's ear. "I'm sure there are easier ways to get a message sent."

"None that are fast enough," Hauthorn replied. "I had to make sure that I arrived before the official word. There's no time to lose. I need to meet the prince. I don't care what happens after that."

Nicholas was almost tempted to give the game away and reveal his identity for the shock it would cause, but that would be letting the man get off easy. Besides, after such a disastrous day – that Hauthorn had played a part in - Nicholas looked forward to drawing this out. "The fastest way to get your message delivered would be to give it to me now," Nicholas suggested, knowing already that Hauthorn would not give in yet. "Why is it so important that only the prince hears what you say? Why would the words of a friendless traitor even mean anything for the prince?"

Hauthorn said nothing, but since Nicholas was pressed so close he could hear how Hauthorns' breath get caught with the word 'traitor'. That was not something that Nicholas had expected, but he welcomed this metaphorical knife that he could - and would - twist slowly until it gave him what he wanted. "You are a man of honour," Nicholas said. "How did it feel like to cast aside all that trust that had been placed in you? How did it feel to fall on your knees in front of your enemy?" Words whispered with only the purpose of hurting and with every stab, Hauthorn breathed shallower, grew stiller as if that would keep his secret safe.

Hauthorn took his time to answer, but Nicholas gave it to him this time. He leaned away, giving the man some more room to breathe. This was the easy part: once one found the key to someone’s secret, one could allow them to do the unravelling themselves with enough time to think and enough room to make mistakes. Hauthorn clearly struggled with the decision he’d made when leaving the castle to carry his secret message – all Nicholas needed to do was to give him the time to dwell on those thoughts.

Hauthorn let a little huff of breath escape before he found the answer he’d spent this long moment searching for. "Humiliating," he said, pronouncing the word calm and clear.

The word Hauthorn had found made Nicholas burst into a triumphant smile. Such obvious calculation, attempt to please him. Hauthorn was clawing desperately for an escape - he knew clearly now that Nicholas was a predator looking for his weakness and that he had gotten a scent of it.

"I do not believe you," Nicholas said. He reached for his knife again with a slow, demonstrative gesture. Hauthorn watched, his look darkening. "You had no problem being on your knees earlier. I think this humbleness is just an act that you hardly feel. What did you say about not wanting to cause trouble?" Nicholas said, leaning closer again, bringing the knife up with him while keeping Hauthorn in place with the hand not wielding it. "I don't believe you. You've had plenty of opportunities to make it easier for yourself, but I've only seen you push them away. Maybe you do struggle with the decision you made. You want it to hurt."

There was a flash of understanding in Hauthorn's eyes that made Nicholas' stomach lurch. A tingling pleasure gathered itself in Nicholas' limbs and he had to tighten his grip on the knife that hovered close to Hauthorn's neck. "You tell yourself it is worth it if you just get the message delivered. That somehow that message will absolve your sins," Nicholas said, dragging the knife all the while closer. Hauthorn was staring at him now, eyes going dark. Not once did he glance at the knife.

"Does it drive you mad that I have the power to decide whether or not your message is heard? I could just end it here. No-one needs to hear the message you risk your life for," Nicholas said. Hauthorn shivered and let a ragged breath out. Sometimes reading people was almost too easy, and yet always as satisfying.

"You can't," Hauthorn said. That little taste of fear behind the words made Nicholas shiver with anticipation. "The prince needs to hear my message. You can’t silence me before he has heard what I have to say."

"He only needs to know that you were a liar" Nicholas said and pressed closer with knife, not quite drawing blood but making Hauthorn try to draw back. “Nothing but a coward.”

The words were a miscalculation.

Hauthorn was anything but a coward and the words seemed to remind him of the fact. Suddenly, Hauthorn moved, sliding down along the wall and making it away from the edge of the knife. Immediately when he was out of the reach of the knife, Hauthorn pushed away from the wall, hitting Nicholas with all his strength in the lower stomach, catching him by surprise and pushing both of them over. Nicholas hit the floor painfully and Hauthorn fell on top of him, making all air flee Nicholas with a pained gasp. Hauthorn quickly rolled away and with agility that Nicholas hadn't been prepared for, Hauthorn was back up to his feet, going for the knife that Nicholas had somehow kept hold of, stamping down on Nicholas’s wrist to make him lose his grip. Almost unhindered by the tied hands, Hauthorn nudged the knife away with his feet and then crouched down to pick it up.

Nicholas watched in growing panic, gasping for breath, as Hauthorn managed to cut his hands loose and came towards Nicholas with their positions reversed. Nicholas had the time to let an abrupt, pitiful yelp before Hauthorn had him by the throat. Nicholas could taste blood as one hand came to block his mouth and the other arm kept him firmly against the floor, holding the knife only a hair’s length from his throat - the message was clear. Nicholas should not try to call for help.

"I ask for nothing more than an opportunity to talk with the prince, in private," Hauthorn said. Nicholas stared at him. Hauthorn had not escaped completely unscathed from his stunt. A line of blood trickled from a cut that had been made to his upper cheek and judging from the blood Nicholas had tasted, Hauthorn had a cut to his hand as well, but neither of the wounds seemed to bother him. He appeared calm as he held Nicholas still with only his slightly heavier breathing betraying the effort it had taken him to reverse their positions. "I cannot let you stop me from talking to the prince," Hauthorn said, allowing every word to take the time it needed to make an impact. “Brutes like you are why I’ve held my tongue. I know everyone in this castle is likely looking for an excuse to kill me so I do my best not to give them one.”

He then withdraw the hand holding the knife and pulled away, releasing Nicholas from his hold.

Nicholas scrambled up to a sitting position and lifted a hand to his throat, still feeling Hauthorn's fingers against his skin. There was not a sound from the door - everything had happened so swiftly that the guards outside must've thought it was nothing. What reason did they have to think that Nicholas needed help? He had made himself clear that he wanted the room for himself. He'd made the request so that he could push Hauthorn as hard as he wanted without having to explain his actions.

He didn't regret that decision, not even now that the tables had turned.

His heart was beating fast, his breathing hardly in control. He felt weak, and not just for having been overthrown so easily. His mouth was dry, and even after swallowing a few times Nicholas didn’t know what to say.

He was achingly hard.

The last thing he wanted now was to have guards rush in to his aid.

Hauthorn sat still in front of him, waiting for Nicholas to make his move, but appearances could be deceiving. Nicholas had not expected Hauthorn to react like this, and judging from the way Hauthorn now cling to the knife he'd stolen with white knuckles, the reaction had been a shock for him as well.

"I could call in more men and see to it that you don’t leave this room," Nicholas said. His threat was somewhat undercut by the breathlessness of his voice.

"You won't," Hauthorn replied. He was not so sure about himself anymore, the words were hasty with an edge of anxiety. "I won't be any danger to you. Just let me speak to the prince." He then bowed his head and presented the knife to Nicholas, pushing it away from himself and laying it on the floor at Nicholas' feet. He then grew very still. I was like he was daring Nicholas to do what he’d wanted to from the beginning: Hauthorn had broken loose from his constraints and he’d threatened Nicholas’s life. If Nicholas wanted, he could justify his need for angry violence now.

Nicholas swallowed hard.  In that heartbeat he found his plans having changed. He needed an outlet for the bottled up frustration within himself, but it need not be violence. He climbed back up to his feet and took a step towards Hauthorn, feeling both the power he now held over Hauthorn and the weakness that had taken hold of his own limbs, making every step a carefully calculated move. When he stopped, he was standing right in front of Hauthorn, and when Hauthorn looked up there was a flicker of understanding in his eyes. From the angle Hauthorn was looking at Nicholas, he couldn’t miss Nicholas’ current... predicament.

“If I leave here satisfied, I’ll make sure the prince hears what you have to say first thing in the morning. I promise to relay him the eagerness you’ve demonstrated to get the message across,” Nicholas said slowly, finding his confidence after a few words and ending the suggestion with a smirk. “Maybe I’ll even forget to tell him what you just did.”

Hauthorn said nothing, but he bit his lip. For a moment Nicholas wondered if Hauthorn would get back up to his feet, maybe even go for the knife. Maybe this was a type of humiliation he drew the line at. Then Hauthorn nodded slowly.

Nicholas untied his breeches with an almost careless gesture. Hauthorn didn’t act disgusted or try to look away. There was something like relief to his gaze, and Nicholas found himself unable to stop looking back at him, taking in the calmness Hauthorn was accepting all of this with. The agitated energy, the fear that Nicholas would actually use the knife or that Hauthorn had gone too far when using the knife at Nicholas, had whimpered away and replaced with something that looked mistakenly like vulnerability.

One last step, and Nicholas stood defenceless right in front of Hauthorn, hard and exposed. Nicholas reached down and wound his fingers in Hauthorn’s hair. He’d meant to enforce his power but the touch was closer to a caress than a firm hold. “Show me how much getting the message to the prince is worth,” Nicholas said.

Hauthorn did not pull back. His expression remained unchanged. And yet, as Nicholas’s thumb brushed his cheek, he shivered, and seemed to unravel right in front of Nicholas’s eyes. Nicholas tightened his grip and pulled Hauthorn closer until he had to either struggle and pull back or give in and accept the humiliation of sucking Nicholas off. Hauthorn kept his eyes on Nicholas until the very last moment and then he leaned forward, willingly pressing his face into Nicholas’s crotch, his warm breath sending shivers along Nicholas’s spine immediately.

To Nicholas’s astonishment, Hauthorn ran his hands along Nicholas’s length first, then wrapped one of the hands at the base of Nicholas’s cock before taking rest of the length in his mouth.

“Is this how you keep your men happy?” Nicholas asked as he stumbled forward so that he could reach to the wall to get support from it. “Do you reward loyal soldiers or is it free for all, a line outside your tent every night? Because if it is, I understand why your men value you so highly.” Nicholas wasn’t sure himself what was meant as a compliment and what as an insult, because there was no doubting Hauthorn’s skill as he swallowed more of Nicholas cock and then withdraw, finding the level of pressure that left aching longing after itself. Nicholas pulled Hauthorn closer to himself, not even trying to fight the growing need he had for that mouth and those hands on his cock.

Nicholas let a ragged breath escape as Hauthorn once more pulled back, the pleasure of the movement peaking right before Hauthorn leaned back in again. This was definitely as good as beating up a prisoner. It would be less messy as well – there would be little to explain, and Hauthorn was likely to keep quiet. He was definitely one to keep things to himself, to an infuriating degree. Nicholas had not gotten anything resembling an answer from someone who kept insisting that he was not looking for trouble and had a message to deliver.

“Why is it so important that only the prince hears what you have to say?” NIcholas asked and found himself fondling Hauthorn’s face as he moved his hand onto his cheek to encourage him to slow down for a moment.

Hauthorn leaned back and sat on his heels. “I’m afraid that he will not heed my words if he gets them relayed through someone else. Besides, what do I have to bargain with if I give my message away?” Hauthorn asked.

“What you were up to just now,” Nicholas suggested.

Without further encouragement, Hauthorn leaned forward again and in a demonstrative gesture sucked just the tip of Nicholas’s cock and then just once taking the whole length of it into his mouth before pulling away far enough to leave Nicholas feeling cold and abandoned. Nicholas shivered when the cold air hit him and he quickly twined his fingers into Hauthorn’s hair again and pulled him back to himself. Nicholas smiled satisfied when the warmth once more engulfed him. This time he did not let go and kept his hand on Hauthorn’s head to encourage him to keep at it.

“We need something for your mouth to do since you are not so good at talking,” Nicholas said. Hauthorn looked up and the look of indignation in Hauthorn’s eyes was a sight obscene enough to make Nicholas buck his hips, in turn making Hauthorn choke and try to pull away. Nicholas allowed him to and smiled when Hauthorn leaned in again and dragged his teeth just slightly along Nicholas’s sensitive cock before giving it a few sucks in quick succession, dragging Nicholas closer to relief.

“You could almost think that this is something that you want,” Nicholas taunted. He encouraged Hauthorn to work faster with his hands and hummed satisfied as Hauthorn complied without any struggle. A warmth was gathering itself within Nicholas and he welcomed the tingling satisfaction with open arms, momentarily forgetting all about Hauthorn’s comfort, taking a stronger hold of his head and pushing harder when Hauthorn sucked closer, making him struggle with the rhythm. The rhythm didn’t matter anymore – all Nicholas needed was the warmth and the pressure to reach the point when a wave of exhaustion washed over him.

Hauthorn must’ve sensed what was about to happen as he grew still, pulling away. Few brutal strokes and Nicholas could feel himself coming in short, hot bursts. Nicholas stumbled away from Hauthorn and watched as the man swallowed and then dried his mouth with his hand. Nicholas then closed his eyes - the lack of sleep and the physical exhaustion of the day had finally caught up with him. When he got over the worst of the daze and opened his eyes again, Hauthorn was sitting still, hands in his lap, the perfect picture of surrender. The blood in his cheek had dried and his lips were red, his hair slightly more windswept than it had been earlier.

Nicholas quickly tied his breeched before he crouched down. He could hardly stay on his feet anymore, but he knew that this last push was all that it would take to have Hauthorn truly surrender. He reached out and tilted Hauthorn’s chin up. “Why are you here?” he asked.

This time, after a short silence, Hauthorn opened his mouth to speak. “I did all that they asked of me,” he said softly without meeting Nicholas’ eyes. “I fought for my nation. I did that to the best of my ability. I did that because it was my duty to win back what used to be ours. We were never supposed to cross the river.

 “And now you are commanded to do so,” Nicholas guessed.

“It will only lead to more bloodshed. I fought for peace. I only wanted to end this.” The pain he felt carried through his voice and his posture alike. He tightened his fist almost like he didn’t trust his hands anymore. He turned his head away not in submission but shame. “I was wrong.”

Nicholas forced Hauthorn to look back at him. When he did, his eyes were tinted red but he looked openly defiant for the first time. He was not fighting against Nicholas grip – he was practically inviting Nicholas to tighten it further. “I’m a miserable fool who deserves this,” Hauthorn said in a whisper.

“And what is the message you thought would absolve your sins?”

One last hesitation. Hauthorn closed his eyes. “The message has been sent and peace will be propositioned with the old borders. But any delegation that is sent in reply will only be slaughtered unless they agree to wildly different terms. They have no intention of settling for anything less than a complete surrender. They are overly confident. I only hope that the prince will take advantage of my absence and prove that there is still fight left in his nation. As things stand now, my king thinks that he can dictate the rules of the surrender. That will not lead to a proper treaty that ensures peace.”

Nicholas let go of Hauthorn’s chin. He’d gotten the message that Hauthorn had wanted to deliver. He’d gotten to see Hauthorn truly submit. He could even celebrate a bittersweet victory over the Marshal if he wanted, but all he could feel was a hollowness. Nicholas got back up to unsteady legs without saying a word.

He looked at Hauthorn who was looking at his hands now. “You did well,” Nicholas said. “The prince will surely appreciate your sacrifice.” He allowed the words to sink in before walked to the door. He picked up the knife and after one last check that he could be seen in civilised company without causing gossip, he stepped outside.

The guards were immediately in attention and waited eagerly for him to say something. Nicholas debated a moment if there was something he wanted, and then decided that there was indeed something he needed to get done. “Our prisoner is who he says he is. Please find him appropriate quarters suitable for his position. Not too good, but acceptable. Do not talk with him. And do place a guard on the door of his new rooms. Make him comfortable, but no visitors or messages in or out.” It was, after all, important that Hauthorn knew how much his sacrifice was appreciated. That would be a punishment that he would actually feel.

Nicholas made his way back to his rooms undisturbed. Hauthorn’s message changed little. Nicholas knew how weak his hand was. He could prolong this war by mere days if he threw all that he could at it. Come morning, all he could do was to send a messenger of his own to ask for his father to prepare a delegation.