The beautiful green plains around the palace of the Ackles’, former Royal House of Laren, the very ones he had looked forward to seeing in all their glory, are red and muddy from blood and rain. The small purple flowers Jared has heard so much about are trampled and crushed, trenches have been dug, and the worst thing is the bodies; they pile high on either side of the make-shift road, Padalecki and Ackles alike.
“Your Highness, please be careful!” Commander Mamoa calls out, leading him around a stack of dead bodies that he can’t really look at, try as he might to as to not look like a weakling. “Guide your horse well, the ground is ruined.”
Jared nods, unable to speak. He’s been to battlefields before, as an archer in his father’s army only of course, his life is too valuable to risk according to the King. However, nowhere he’s ever been has the carnage been this severe. Mostly, the opposing armies ran in the heat of the battle, not so the Lares, who fought to the death and beyond. They lie broken and defeated amongst a host of Padalecki men.
When they reach the gate of the Ackles fort the Commander yells that the prince is here, and Jared is whisked away, unable to take in the fort much. The only things he really sees are the servants, who are cowering in a corner of the courtyard with terrified faces. There is a surprising number of dead servants as well, but before he can take a second look Mamoa pulls him away, following the soldier who guides them through a dizzying array of rooms and halls until they go through a very large, gilded doorway with no doors into what must be the throne room.
“Ah! Jared, here you are!” his father says from his place on the throne. It’s not very elaborate; carved out of an enormous oak tree, it’s only a rudimentary chair shape, without any gold or gems. It doesn’t look comfortable either. “Come, come son.”
As he walks to his father, and his mother who’s standing behind her husband with a hand on his shoulder, the room fills up with so many loud, talking people that he can’t distinguish a single voice. “Congratulations, your Majesty,” he says, nearly having to yell, as he bowing to his father.
“Thank you,” the King says with a satisfied smile. “It took a little longer than expected, but we won. Speaking of,” he claps in his hands.
Jared turns to face the rest of the room, which is filled with their soldiers and peasants and servants belonging to the Ackles'. They all fall silent as a small door to the side opens and a group, bound by heavy shackles, is forced to walk up to the throne flanked by armed soldiers, and Commander Hoechlin.
Gasps and cries sound from the servants and one old woman even falls to the floor, unconscious from shock. “The former king, queen and prince,” Hoechlin says with his typical, stoic expression.
King Ackles is standing tall, a dignified, quiet yet authoritarian expression on his face, bright blue eyes almost shining. His wife is slightly more upset, but she strikes an impressive figure anyway, with her hair swept up in intricate braids that make her beautiful face look even more regal. It’s no wonder then, that the Prince almost makes Jared’s heart stop.
Green, fiery eyes, a solemn but beautiful face. His shoulders are square, arms visibly muscled under his clothing, his hair short in a military cut. He has this amazing confidence and calm that leaves Jared somewhat breathless. Here’s a man.
“Ah, thank you Commander,” Father says, raising from the throne. “Your armies have fallen, your castle is stormed, and now all that’s left is your lives.” He says, that kind of ruthless stare in his face that terrifies friends and foes alike. “And that, you will not even have when the sun rises tomorrow.”
Mother walks up to Father quickly and puts a hand on his shoulder. “Sire, might I suggest something?”
He frowns and turns to her, but he nods to let her know she can speak.
Meanwhile, Jared’s eyes go to the Prince again. His name is Jensen, or so Jared has heard on the way here. He was on the other side of the kingdom, negotiating trade accords when he received the message he was needed in Laren. Jared left in the middle of the night with only his two personal guards, who told him something of Laren. It’s only been for the past year that it bordered their kingdom, so when he was still in the schoolroom he had no need to learn anything about it. The only things he knows for certain is their names and alliances—who were all deposed by his own Father. Oh, and the beautiful scenery. More, his guard didn’t know.
Prince Jensen is staring straight forward, almost like he’s blocking out the conversation around him, but then his eyes shift to Jared in a flash. His eyes bore down in his and Jared feels blood rush to his face as he’s caught staring like a child. He quickly looks back at his father.
“… and you understand how a show of power would work better than an execution. We did that last time and the people were unsatisfied. Our court isn’t here, our enemies aren’t here, what’s the point. They’re beaten!” Mother says softly. “We can make a display out of this.”
Father looks thoughtfully, nodding. “You’re right.” Then he grabs her arm and tugs her closer. “But don’t you ever address me in such a way in open court again, woman.” He hisses. Mother nods, rubbing her wrist when he lets it go. Jared, like he’s done many times before, tries to let it go.
Father has walked back to the Ackles. “You can keep your miserable lives a little longer it seems,” he says, then he spits—spits—in the former King’s face. Even the Padalecki soldiers stiffen when he does so, and Jared can’t help but clap a hand over his mouth to keep his own in. “Take them out of my sight!”
Hoechlin, with an even more blank face than usual, leads the family back out of the room. Father sits back down, muttering under his breath and accepting a cup of wine from a servant as the soldiers and the servants slowly leave the room too. Jared tries to sneak out as well, but his father calls him back sharply.
“Jared! I know it was a terrible journey for you, but it’s good you’re here, this has been exceedingly difficult!” he says, leaning back and brushing a hand through his beard.
“Oh?” Jared asks. “How so?” He’s never much involved himself with his father’s coups. For one, he knows his father can do it with his eyes closed, and two, he has no desire to see the particular brand of cruelty his father sometimes can’t help but let out. He much prefers to be the mediator between them and their allies; the reason he didn’t know of this conquest until it was already over.
“Well, the battle was tough, Ackles must’ve paid his troops well,” Father says, “and when we broke through to the castle, those stupid servants nearly staged a revolt! They hid Ackles, his bitch and his whelp and we had to torture nearly five of them before we could find out where.” He grunts. “Meanwhile they set fire to the grain reserves and smuggled all livestock from castle grounds. Dogs, the lot of them! I’ve applied an old technique to punish them, and now every fifth servant the soldiers count will be lashed. Hopefully that’ll keep them in their place.” He sniffs with disgust. “Fortunately we were prepared and brought enough food of our own, otherwise we’d have to ration! Can you believe it?”
The simple truth is no, Jared can’t. The servants would’ve mostly gone on with their lives, except for the personal staff of the Royal family of course, who would have to be interrogated and then put to death. But by acting against Father, the entire household brought down the axe upon their own neck. It is a surprising show of loyalty. Most of the time, the regular citizens of the countries they invade welcome them with open arms.
Your Majesty,” a silken voice sounds from behind them. Iain Glen, his father’s first Minister, bows. “Your attention is needed, sire.” Jared can’t stand the man, there’s something untrustworthy about him that makes the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. Nevertheless, he has served well. He and Father share the same wits and ruthlessness.
“Yes,” Father says, thrusting the cup back at the servant and getting up. “Wife, please be sure that out accommodations are spotless. I’ve earned my bed tonight,” and with a wink at her, he follows Glen out of the room as well.
His mother looks at Jared with her overly bright smile. “Why don’t you arrange a bath for yourself, and a bed? I’ve had the Prince’s room prepared for you, and you must be so tired, riding through the night.” She beckons a maidservant closer. “I’ll make sure you will be woken in time for tonight’s banquet.”
“Yes, thank you,” Jared says, “until tonight, Mother.” He kisses her gloved hand and walks out of the throne room as fast as he can, Prince Jensen’s stare still haunting him.
It takes four days before most of the Endar court has gathered in the Ackles’ castle. It’s more hectic than ever, with food having to be brought in, the dead need to be cleared from the fields around the castle to prevent the whole region from smelling like a wet graveyard, and loyal servants traveling to the castle in all haste.
Jared keeps to himself as much as possible, working on his agreements and contracts in the Prince’s rooms and sending missives to the ministers of commerce and internal affairs. He only comes out when he needs to, making appearances at dinner to appease the nobles who’ve already arrived, and sometimes when his father takes a walk around the castle to remind the willful people who is lord and master now, but that is such tedious work he’d rather muck out the stables at sunrise for a week.
When he can’t focus anymore late the second night, he examines Prince Jensen’s—now his—things. He has a massive library in his room that stretches the length of an entire wall, novels and historical texts both represented as well as a beautiful, no doubt very expensive atlas. Another wall holds decorative but functional weapons arranged around a beautiful tapestry depicting the seashore in west Laren. A desk stands under it that Jared uses every day, the drawers filled with different qualities of parchment and ink, penknives, quills, some powders that Jared can’t figure out the use of, and a black leather-bound book that is the Prince’s journal. Jared hasn’t opened it further than the first page when he found it early on the third day.
Normally the castles his father has conquered have already been stripped of most of the personal belongs of the former inhabitants, but this time it’s different, and Jared feels like an intruder. It is as if Prince Jensen might walk in at any moment, and Jared can’t bring himself to invade his privacy any more. He put the journal between his own papers, and when his father’s men searched the room for useful information, Jared kept it hidden despite its obvious political worth.
He rummages through Jensen’s clothes the last, smelling them and trying to ignore their rousing scent, pine and musk and faint sweat that has Jared nearly floating. He takes one of the plainer belts because his own is terribly worn and he has no time to find a new one, but he leaves the rest untouched and forces himself to return to his work.
At night though, at the end of the third day, he presses his nose in the pillow and tries to catch the Prince’s scent guiltily. Who knows what his father has in store for the poor prince and his father and mother, and here Jared is, quite literally sniffing into Jensen’s life needlessly while his subject might be gruesomely killed! But he can’t stop. For some reason Jensen intrigues him more than even his work.
That morning he’s woken early and dressed in his very best clothes. He’s nervous for what will happen today; his father didn’t say anything for what he’s planned other than that he plans to humiliate the Ackles.
When he makes his way down he sees a large tent being erected in the courtyard of the castle, which makes sense because the castle is filled to bursting. Meals already have to be taken banquet style, in shifts that give Mother quite some trouble because of seating and such. The courtyard is the only place where the whole court can sit and eat at once. The Ackles fort is heavily fortified, but it is small, unlike the main Padalecki palace Jared grew up in, with its marbled halls and gilded mirrors and ballrooms that will fit five hundred. Jared doesn’t know why the fort hasn’t been expanded even though it clearly was too small for the Ackles.
He walks to the head table and sits next to his mother, who looks very tired but also content. “Good morning, Father, Mother,” Jared says, inclining his head. Father only nods back, but Mother pats him on the forearm.
“Well, everyone of import is here,” she says, and Jared nods.
“My servant told me,” he says. “You’ve managed very well, Mother,” he says, impressed both with the past few days and the seating of the people right now.
“I’ve had some practice, haven’t I?” she says with a chuckle. “But I’ll admit this was a challenge.”
“Very true,” Jared says. “So what will happen today? I haven’t heard of the Ackles, are they dead yet?” his stomach turns at the thought, something that annoys Jared. He’d be very wise not to get himself involved with their fate… make this much of the fate of a man in particular. To distract himself he looks at the feast in front of him; it might be time for breakfast, but it is a full course dinner. Finally, he decides on a big piece of pheasant.
Mother shakes her head. “No.” Jared ignores the relief he feels, “They will be brought out when the meal is done and your father will make a speech. I suspect he will offer them a position and land on the other side of the country, the Ackles are loved in these lands and he would be well to make peace with the common folk.” She sighs. “We were slightly unprepared this time. The nobles insisted we invade though, there wasn’t much we could do. We hoped it might be better for the populace as well but it appears we have big shoes to fill; and their tax has been ridiculously low. How they kept the castle running, let alone the country, still baffles me.” She sighs again.
“It is rather small,” Jared agrees, frowning. “It is fine for defense, although I hear the inner gate was easy to burn down.”
Before she can answer one of his mother’s Ladies starts to talk to her about some illness her husband has contracted, so Jared returns to his breakfast quietly, trying and failing to control his nerves. After what seems like the blink of an eye, his father has risen from the table and is spreading his arms. “Lords, Ladies, good citizens of my dear country!” he says in his deep, booming voice. The whole courtyard quiets down.
He smiles smugly. “Did not you say to me: we want Laren?” he calls loudly, to which the nobles raise their goblets. “And did I not deliver?” he goes on, his grin widening.
“You did, sire, you did!” Duchess Clarke yells cheerfully, eliciting more cheers from other nobles.
“Now that the kingdom of Laren is no more, I present to you: Harald, Renata and Jensen!” his father says, making a come-hither movement with his hand to Hoechlin, who leads them to stand in front of the table, in front of Father.
Jared very carefully keeps his eyes off of a very rumpled, raw looking Jensen and instead focuses on Harald. Unlike he expected, the man doesn’t appear to be angry. Sad, resigned and fearful, but not angry, or proud. It’s disarming, and even more so when Renata has the same expression; her beautiful dress stained and torn but not any less stately somehow.
Some people clap, others whistle when the Ackles are stopped by Hoechlin, but other nobles, locals who see their former King and Queen brought so low do not appear to share the same sentiments. Mother seems to pick up on this, a wrinkle appearing between her brows.
“So,” Father says, leaning back in his chair, “I thought I should have you beheaded, but that would be somewhat extreme, Harald,” he says. The offence of addressing the King incorrectly is punished severely in Endar; fifty lashes of the whip is not uncommon. Jared feels very uncomfortable.
“So I’ve decided to spare your life,” his father goes on as their shackles are removed. “You and your wife will be given a quiet estate in the west of Endar, with enough income to support yourselves, far enough to not cause me any trouble here,” Father says. It’s clear he finds it a huge concession, but the people who looked dissatisfied now do appear pleased, and the others don’t seem to care one way or another. That makes sense; they only care about the lands and money they’ll get from this invasion.
King—no, just---Harald inclines his head. “I thank you, Your Majesty,” he says gracefully.
“You have my thanks as well, Your Majesty.” Renata adds. The pair sounds surprisingly sincere, but then, their predecessors have fared far worse. Getting a small manor in the sunny countryside is not that bad in comparison.
“You’re right to thank me,” Father says, “but the mutiny of your servants cannot go unpunished.” He thinks for a moment, then his eyes turn dark and he smiles and nods to himself. “So and your wife may go free, but your son, he has to learn proper servitude. And who has no pride?” he raises his voice as he asks the question.
Harald and Renata look worried, and appear to be biting their tongues. Everyone else eagerly holds their breath, and Jared stares at his knees, as tense as a bowstring.
“I know just what needs to be done,” Father says. “Prince Jared!”
Jared takes a breath, then he stands and walks to stand behind his Father, dreading what will happen. “Yes Your Majesty,” he says respectfully. He chances a look at the Prince, who has his eyes downturned, his face as expressionless as Hoechlin’s.
“Would you say Jensen is a handsome man?” he asks calmly.
Jared feels his face flush red and there’s laughter all around. “Yes Father,” he says.
“Jared can know, too. I have half a mind to find a husband for him, he finds the male form so pleasing,” his father explains to the people at large with a sharp edge to his words that others probably won’t recognize. “Why, he could be the bride!” he adds.
Jared swallows and tries not to hang his head in shame. Meanwhile, Prince Jensen’s eyes have finally moved, from their position of staring into the distance to Jared’s face. His expression is still unreadable.
“Pawel!” his mother mouths disapprovingly to his father.
“At least with a slave, he would remain in control,” Father says loftily. “A bull to ride, then put away when it suits him.”
The whole courtyard goes completely silent for the blink of an eye, then everyone starts talking. Jared himself has to use every ounce of self-control not to show how horrified he is at the idea of making Prince Jensen a slave, a station that doesn’t even exist in their kingdom anymore. But as much as he is his father’s son, disrespecting him here in open court? Well, Jared doesn’t want to think about what the consequence of that would be. He certainly wouldn’t be helping anyone.
“But your Majesty, you yourself have made slavery outlawed!” O’Brian, one of the local nobles, says loudly, seemingly unable to keep the words in. He claps his hand over his mouth and looks down again.
“This is the exception to that law,” Father says sharply. “Yes, Jared, I’ve decided. Jensen will be your personal slave.” He looks up at Jared with an expression that says all; he won’t be swayed.
“I… I thank you for this gift,” Jared squeezes out. Renata draws in a loud breath, but her husband draws her away to the side of the tent.
“Do you not wish to view your gift, Son?” Father says casually, taking a sip of wine.
“Father?” Jared asks, looking again to Jensen. He doesn’t understand why Jensen is given to himself in particular; his father hates his attraction to males ever since he caught Jared in bed with the gardener inside of him in the rose garden.
“Commander Hoechlin, please remove the slave’s clothing so Jared might see what he is given,” Father says.
Jared jumps when Jensen himself starts to strip, his moves efficient and unhesitating. Jared can’t look away when the muscled and scarred body of a warrior prince is revealed to his eyes, not even when the end of the red trail of hair on his belly is revealed. Jensen stands completely still, arms next to his sides, when his cock hangs soft between his legs. Jared wants to shout at the injustice, but just can’t take his eyes away at the same time.
“Well well,” Father says contently. “Go on then Jared.”
Jared half stumbles, half walks around the table, as slowly as he can to control the shaking of his hands. When he stands in front of Jensen he looks into his face, taken aback once again at the intensity of his eyes, the intelligence in them. “Very good, Father, thank you,” he says, finally, finally able to take his eyes away at the realization of Jensen’s humanness, and the memory of his things, his weapons, his books. Here is a man who lost everything.
“Wonderful!” his father says, and he starts eating. The others follow his example, casting curious looks at Jensen, but most have looked their fill.
“Follow me,” Jared whispers, and with shaking knees, he leads Jensen inside.
Additional warning for this chapter: mentions of castration
After bringing Jensen to his own former rooms, appalled and frankly embarrassed at seeing Jensen in such a position, he finds courage to enter into discussion with his father again. However, after only a few moments of pleading it becomes clear his father has no intention of changing his mind.
Somehow he manages to have Jared tied up talking to diplomats all day instead, cumulating into having him seated next to Lady Genevieve, daughter of the Duke of Temaire, a large region in the north of Endar. The man is also the single most richest man in the country, even richer than Jared’s father himself. By his mother’s expectant winks and not so subtle elbows in the side it is expected of him to try and get close to her, and make a proposal.
When Jared manages to talk his way through dinner without making a single effort to charm her, his father draws him apart after dessert.
“Jared,” Father says after having scared away the servants who had been working in the small store room, “Son, I know you are an intelligent young man,” he says in a cheerful tone that Jared knows has an undertone of steel. “So I know you recognize that to marry her is to consolidate our two fortunes under the crown,” he pulls his pipe and matches out of his pocket and strikes a light.
“Yes Sire,” Jared says nervously. “But she isn’t the only option, and—”
“Enough,” Father says softly, his voice booking no room for argument. “I won’t have any opposition on this, Son, not now. After what I did for you with that damned Ackles, I expect you to fall in line.” His eyes glint with anger.
Jared takes a step back in surprise. “B-but… How do you….” He says. He gave no indications about Jensen, no sign he was special to Jared in any way!
Father takes a long draw from his pipe and laughs. “Boy, I know you’ve been hankering for a good cock to plow that nilly arse of yours. And I saw your face when you looked at Ackles,” he grins. “I thought to myself, well, the perfect solution to our little problem.” He sighs. “I won’t give you to the King of Ryterrik as some perverted bride, that country and its disgusting customs,” he sneers. “Besides, you’re a good marksmen and strategist, and your political work is very good, so you’re not all disappointment,” he adds, “You don’t deserve to be sent off to live with the heathens.” He pats Jared on the shoulder.
Jared is terrified that his father has even considered the possibility. They still castrate the ‘wives’ in Ryterrik, for God’s sake.
“But you need heirs, Jared!” his father goes on. “And there is no magical cure for you to somehow produce them, so you will need a wife. Why not take Lady Genevieve? I’m sure she’ll want to be away from you as much as possible, women are simple creatures that will spend their days embroidering and arranging and doing other nonsense. You need hardly see her.” His father says confidently. “And if you choose to share your bed with that Ackles boy, well, there’s no harm in that. A perfect arrangement, if I do say so myself! He can’t even complain, because you’ll have the right to chop off his head!”
Jared feels the blood drain from his face, and he sit down on a dusty stool quickly. It’s his fault, Jensen’s situation. It’s because of him a man, and not just any, but one as fearless as Jensen, is now without even his freedom!
“Oh save your remorse for better things, Jared! Would you rather I’d killed him?” Father asks impatiently.
“I think Prince Jensen would have preferred that, Father,” Jared says miserably.
“Oh I don’t know. I heard some rumors about him that tell me he isn’t opposed to plowing some young boys himself,” his father says with another lecherous grin. “Now, do we understand each other? Because otherwise I’m afraid I’ll have to become rather unpleasant, Jared,” Father says.
Jared nods, defeated. “Yes Sire,” he gives in.
“Wonderful! I expect you to present your suit to the Lady Genevieve within a week. Temaire himself is in accord, naturally. We discussed it already.” Father relights his pipe, the hands Jared a vial of oil. “Do use that,” he says, some care in his voice. “It wouldn’t do to have you damaged.” And with those words he walks out of the room.
When Jared finally opens the door to Jensen’s rooms sometime later, his heart jumps up to his throat in shock when he sees the Prince, naked as he was in the courtyard, sitting on the floor and mending one of Jared’s shirts with an intense look of focus.
“Why are you still undressed?” he blurts out, unable to stop himself from talking. He puts the oil Father gave him in his pocket before Jensen can see it.
“I wasn’t aware you had ordered me to dress, my Lord,” Jensen says from his knees, back ramrod straight, his face a mask of distant civility. Jared is immediately terrified, because if Jensen is good enough to hide his feelings about becoming a slave, Jared will never know if or when he plans to make an attempt on Jared’s life.
Nevertheless, shame rises in Jared’s chest. He’s been sitting there all day and his body must be sore and cold. He is Jared’s responsibility now, whether Jared wants that or not, and he is here to stay, that much his father made clear. He can’t neglect him like this.
“That is true,” Jared says, squaring his shoulders before ringing the bell next to the door. It doesn’t take long before someone comes in. “Please bring some clothes for…my man, and make sure they're warm and cover him properly,” he says, and if his voice shakes, well, Jensen probably didn’t hear that.
“Very well milord,” the girl says, hurrying way.
“Thank you, my Lord,” Jensen says in an even voice. “One of your staff suggested I started work on this,” he waves at the shirt.
Jared nods. “Very well. Have you eaten dinner?” he asks, sitting down at the desk. “And you don’t need to assume the position, sit how you want.” They had slaves when he was small, when Grandmother was still Queen Regent, but he seems to have forgotten all the protocols.
Then again, Grandmother had them kneel all day long, draped in beautiful cloths and made up with kohl and crushed pearls, so that it would be a pleasure to the eye to look at them. He doesn’t want to think of what she would do with such a handsome man as Jensen. Most likely drape his penis in pearls and fit him a mask of gold and emeralds. Not the example he should follow.
“Yes, thank you, my Lord,” Jensen says, sitting with crossed legs. He goes back to his mending, but he also keeps looking at Jared every so often. It’s very unnerving, so Jared opens one of his books and gets out his quill and gets to work for something to distract him.
It is nearly two hours later when Jensen scrapes his throat. In the time passed fireworks have gone off, Jensen has gone and come back for his clothes, the sounds of the after-dinner excitement in the courtyard and gardens has changed into that of a wild feast with drunken shouts. Only in Jensen’s rooms is it quiet, but no less tense.
“Yes?” Jared asks stiffly. His eyes haven’t much left the desk, not when he was brought new missives, not when Jensen was whisked away to be dressed and not when Jensen came back, he just couldn’t bring himself to look, but it’s just rude not to when one’s being addressed.
“My mother and Father are leaving early in the morning, my Lord. Would it be acceptable to you if I rise early tomorrow to see them off?” Jensen asks, and this time it is he who refuses to meet Jared’s eyes, although his face is still carefully devoid of any emotion.
“Yes,” Jared says, feeling the humiliation in his place. “You may, of course you can say goodbye to your parents!”
Jensen nods regally, very much like a prince, and the wrongness Jared has felt the whole evening spikes again. Jensen dressed in his plain clothes, barefoot, seated on a carpet, while Jared has fantasized so much about him in this room, about him astride a horse, sitting and writing at the desk, in bed tangled in the white sheets… He tears his eyes away and feels himself flush.
“My Lord, I thank you sincerely for the privilege. In anticipation of my early rising, may I go to bed?” Jensen asks.
Jared nods shakily, waving to the large bed. The floor is out of the question, and he doesn’t want someone to bring in a mattress for Jensen, because his father would surely hear about it, and he isn’t keen on more arguing. Avoiding discussing the topic of sex with his father is worth the small chance that Jensen kills him in his sleep tonight, but he doesn’t think Jensen would do it here.
No, Jensen would be smart enough to bide his time for a better opportunity, where he isn’t the likeliest suspect and it won’t affect his family. “Yes.” He finally stands. “Have you had a bath?”
Jensen nods. “Yes my Lord, when I was given these clothes.” In line with what Jared knows about him, he speaks very clearly, not unlike how one would issue a command. He also meets Jared’s eyes head-on, assessing, but there is no fault in that. Slaves were always expected to anticipate their Master’s needs, and they only could do so by looking at them, reading their body language. That isn’t why Jensen looks, but he isn’t wrong for doing it.
“Then see yourself off to bed,” Jared says, “In my trunk you can find a night shirt you can wear.”
Jensen’s eyebrow twitches. “And… Lord, will I need to prepare myself?” he says, giving away some emotion for the first time in his face, but which one exactly is still not clear.
Jared frowns, then he becomes aware of the oil in his pocket and he feels his face heat up. “No!” he yells, then he composes himself. “No,” he repeats more calmly, “you needn’t worry about such things. I’m not interested in… having you.”
Jensen nods, relief nor disappointment visible on his face. “Should I prepare you then my Lord?”
Jared feels the blood go north and south at the same time, his face coloring even more and his cock jerking to life. “No,” he croaks, “Jensen, I am not interested in your sexual services either way, for myself or others. Please do not talk about this again unless absolutely necessary, and doubly so to my father the King.” And damnation, that was a request instead of an order, again!
“As you command, your Lordship,” Jensen says with a nod, before he starts stripping.
Jared quickly turns to look out the window to avoid the sight, taking in two young Ladies being chased over a field by a gray-haired Lord instead. Once the bedsprings creak he turns again and sits at the desk to finish his work.
“Good night your Highness,” Jensen says, voice muffled from where his face is pressed into the most worn pillow, the one that Jared can’t use because another’s—Jensen’s own—shape has already formed it too much. Only the very top of his head is visible.
“Goodnight, Jensen,” Jared whispers back, and after some time, Jensen starts to snore. Jared works until the darkest hour of the night before he too goes to bed, too tired to put it off longer. Though fortunately, even though Jensen is no small man, trained as he is, there is more than enough space for Jared to comfortably lie down without being in danger of touching him.
Like he has been reminded of this morning, he never, never thought he’d get the opportunity to really love someone. Bound as he is to wed a woman from either another noble family, or at least one with substantial funds, he never expected to fall in love with his spouse or even feel lust for them, as he only ever feels for the male form, and an heir is needed from him for succession.
Now here he is, with the most handsome prince he’s ever seen completely at his mercy, and he can’t bring himself to touch his soft-looking hair, his calloused hands, his muscled chest. As for love, he knows better to ever expect it from the man forced into slavery because of him.
It’s as if Fate wants to rub in that his hopes and dreams are doomed to fail. And Father, of course.
He blinks and is surprised by the tears that roll down his cheeks. He quickly dries them, contemplates rolling over to see if Jensen is faking his snores, but thinking the better of it in the end. With a sigh, he resigns himself to solving his problems tomorrow.
A few hours later he’s woken by movement. Opening his eyes only a tiny bit he watches as Jensen gets out of bed, illuminated by the grey light of the very early morning, the servant that woke him slipping back out of the room.
Jensen looks over his shoulder at Jared and apparently decides he must still be sleeping, because he dresses in complete silence, careful not to wake Jared. Jared meanwhile is very happy he’s lying on his stomach, because the sight of Jensen dressing is terribly arousing.
When he’s dressed, Jensen sits down—at the desk, where he’s not allowed—and quickly starts to eat from the tray the servant left behind. When he’s finished everything he sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose. He looks so tired Jared can feel it. Jensen is older than he is, but not by much. Right now though, it looks like he is ancient, with the weight of the world on his shoulders.
Jensen sits there just breathing a few moments, before he walks back to the bed and kneels next to it, and Jared manages to hear nothing of his whispered prayers by thinking of a document he wrote last night very hard.
Finally Jensen opens the door to the rooms and slips out with a last look at Jared, his face finally open, and Jared can only just prevent himself from flinching when Jensen looks at him with a look of such rage that it terrifies him to the core. It’s only for the blink of an eye, then Jensen slips out of the room.
Jared presses his face into his pillow and cries.
“Isn’t it a bit early for that, highness?” An amused voice says, the click of heels on wood sounding as Lady Genevieve walks into the library. Dressed in a dark blue gown and adorned with sapphires, she looks every inch the courtly lady from her tiara to her slippers.
Jared himself is dressed in the most simple clothing he owns and drowning his frustrations on his father, Jensen and the mess of treaties in front of him with some of the strong wine brewed by the local breweries. He grimaces at being caught out and stands, the almost empty glass of wine still in hand as he bows. “My Lady,” he says politely, “good morning.”
She inclines her head. “And you, my Lord,” she says with a longing look at the carafe. Jared obligingly pours her a glass and hands it to her.
“It’s never too early to drink in this place,” he confesses quietly. They haven’t talked much for the last few days they’ve been sitting together, but he if he doesn’t seek her out she finds him, so her father must’ve made an impression on her as well. It certainly isn't Jared's charming disposition. “Especially for you and me.”
She takes the cup and smiles. “Oh Jared, it’s not so bad for me,” she says, sitting down at the table Jared’ been ‘working’ at. “I get to court a Prince. He is a bit somber and quiet, but who cares! Maybe I’ll be Queen one day!” she says cheerfully, raising her glass.
Jared lets out a surprised laugh and sits down as well, raising his glass in return. “My apologies for my poor company, my Lady,” he says softly.
She nods. “Accepted. So, instead of me talking of crochet endlessly, let me be a friend on whom you can count,” she proposes with a grin. “Now, let me see those papers and I’ll do what I can to help.”Jared laughs again and slides the pile of parchment her way.
Some hours later they discover that they’ve accidentally missed the noontime meal because of their work (and frankly, their drinking too), so they make their way down to the kitchen to see if there’s anything edible, especially since they drank on an empty stomach and need to both finish drafting some papers and look presentable by dinnertime.
When they find the kitchen, laughing about something silly, Jared also finds Jensen. He hasn’t really seen the man for the past week, only a glimpse in the morning and at night. Jensen always times it so that Jared’s already in bed, or far from it when he goes to sleep.
And, since Jensen very clearly prefers to stay far away from him, Jared sends him to the housekeeper each morning to be assigned tasks in the upkeep of the castle. Jensen doesn’t seem to mind them; sweeping chimneys, working with the gardener, or even working the field because of his strong body do not seem to give him pause. He even helped with repairing the roof, hammering along with the rest of the workers without fear, with a content look on his face. The only thing he shies away from are those tasks that bring him into direct contact with the Court, such as serving during meals or cleaning hallways at noontime. Since Jared is told by a man in the service of Minister Glen about what the housekeeper orders Jensen to do each day, he can only assume others do those chores for him. Jared really isn’t surprised by this show of loyalty from the servants.
Now Jared knows where Jensen spent some of the afternoons he was supposed to be making beds or cleaning pieces of art in the grand entrance.
Jensen’s sitting at the big table in the middle of the kitchen with one of his intense looks on his face. Cook is standing behind him, her small stubby hands clasped over his strong, calloused ones as she helps him knead dough for something. “There you go, that’s a good lad,” she says proudly. “Mind not to make it too dry or wet.”
Jensen looks up at her and smiles, his whole face lighting up with pleasure. For a moment he looks like a young boy, completely without worries. “Yes Ma’am!” he says, and she pinches his cheek.
“Oh dear, how many times must I tell you that you can call me Bab!” she says with a fond shake of her head. “Silly boy! Leave that nonsense for when those outlanders are close!”
Jared is so busy with soaking in Jensen’s handsome smile that he doesn’t notice that the kitchen’s gone quiet and everyone is staring at him and Genevieve.
“Oh!” Cook says as she notices them as well, high color on her round cheeks. “Your Royal Highness, Lady Genevieve, my apologies! How may I serve you?” and she sends an urgent look around the room, making all staff start working on their tasks again. “If you require Jensen, milord, I must tell you that I have urgent need of him here,the house keeper hims—” she says.
Jared holds up a hand, leaning against the door post unstably as the drink rises to his head again. “I didn’t come for Jensen,” he says, “the Lady Genevieve and myself were hoping you could feed us, since we missed lunch.”
“It needn’t be anything complicated,” Genevieve adds, “Some bread with cheese will do, perhaps some fruit?” both of them have been raised in a similar household as this, and both of them know not to make an enemy of the Cook.
The short woman glances at Jensen, who is kneading his dough in silence and not looking at anything else, before she smiles at Genevieve. “Of course, milord, milady,” she says. “We have some left over meats from lunch, and some freshly baked bread, and an egg or two. I also believe there is some wine—” she says more confidently.
“No!” Genevieve blurts out. She takes a deep breath and smiles politely. “Juice or water will do for His Highness and myself. Please have something brought up to the sitting room on the second floor, the one with the painting of the sea.” she says politely. “Oh and Cook, is there a possibility we might also have some of your delicious lemon cakes?” she asks.
“Yes milady,” the Cook says, “one of my girls will bring it up in a moment,” she promises, visibly relaxing.
“Thank you, Cook,” Genevieve says sweetly before she pulls at Jared’s arm to lead them away. With a final look at Jensen, he stumbles after her.
The very next night at sunset, he finds Jensen in the library. He’s on his knees, cleaning the desk where the librarian sits and keeps score of the books that have been taken out of the library; the old man himself is talking to Jensen softly. In the dim light of the library Jared can still see that the floor Jensen is cleaning is already spotless. Whether he cleaned it himself or one of the servants did it for him he can’t tell, though he imagines it’s the latter.
“Your Highness, please,” the old man whispers with anguish, “just give us the sign and we’ll smuggle you out of the city!” he looks incredibly frustrated. “I know you as our general could rall—”
Ice spreads through Jared’s veins as the illusion of peace he so foolishly started to believe in shatters. Jared scrapes his throat loudly, walking into the room. “Mister Monmoth, Jensen,” he says softly.
The old librarian croaks in distress at being caught in this damning position and gets to his feet as quickly as his body permits him, terror in his eyes. Jared looks into the hallway to see if anyone else is close by before gently closing the door behind him
Jensen, who has gone pale in the face from shock, stands and walks over to Jared to kneel at his feet. “Master,” he says solemnly, touching Jared’s boot, “please accept my deepest apologies, I’m afraid I misled Mister Monmoth into speaking on this topic. It was my fault entirely.” Despite his position, his whole body is straight and proud, his eyes fiery as they bore into Jared’s.
Jared nods despite the obvious lie, clasping his shaking hands behind his back. “I see. Please do not do so in the future,” he adds the last part impulsively. “Mister Monmoth is a valuable librarian.” He tries to salvage his words.
“Thank you, Your Highness,” Monmoth says carefully, bowing. “Do you require assistance?” he asks in a tone that is not only polite, but slightly friendly now.
“No, thank you Mister Monmoth. Jensen, we will speak of this later in our rooms,” Jared adds to Jensen. Immediately after he could slap himself in the face. Our rooms?
Jensen inclines his head and Jared flees the room, walking through a few halls before he hides behind one of the many suits of armor on display in another with a racing heart. This information should go directly to his father; apparently Jensen has more connections and power in the castle than they all thought. Servants doing Jensen’s chores for him is one thing, civilians begging Jensen to rally forces to organize a resistance is another.
But if he does bring this to the King’s attention, there is no possibility that Jensen will come out of this alive. And no matter how the former prince feels about him, hates him, Jared can’t seem to stop his embarrassing infatuation. To see Jensen die now… it’s unthinkable. And there is no proof Jensen has actually participated in this line of thought, not yet.
No, he must do something else. Clearly, Jensen can’t stay here in the capital, or even in Laren. He must leave, before his father’s men start to suspect, and before he gives in andstarts what could be the next civil war.
An unpleasant thought occurs to him. No one would think it strange if he travelled to the seat of Genevieve’s House, nor that he would bring his slave with him on such an occasion as their engagement. He would remove Jensen from a place where he can do harm, and Jared won’t have make a decision that could cost Jensen his life, and cause an extremely painful death.
The unfortunate side of this is that he will really need to propose to Genevieve. It’s the only reasonable explanation for why he would choose to go back to Endar now, so early in the development of the new court. Normally, they stay at least a year in a new province before his father sets his sights on another country.
She isn’t what he hoped for in a spouse, but it’s time he accepts that this is his life now. He might for some strange reason love Jensen, but he will never have him, if Jensen doesn’t hate him he is indifferent at most.
And Genevieve is his friend, he’s found that out the last few days. They can do this together, he’s sure. Her work with him today has shown him she has a sharp mind, suitable for ruling. He can count on her to help him when he’s king.
And even if she isn’t, does Jared really have a choice?
“Oh Jared!” Mother squeals the following morning, opening her jewelry box and taking out her rings. “Of course you may have a ring of mine, I would be honored! Choose any of these for Genevieve, whichever she likes best.” She spreads them out on her vanity; eight rings so costly they are probably each worth an estate.
There are only two of them he really appreciates. One is a finely crafted ring with a very large ruby in it, ringed with smaller orange stones. The other is a thicker golden band, with a small emerald encapsulated in the band itself. Though it’s plain, it has an understated beauty. “Any? Are you sure mother?” he asks.
She nods. “I am, love. Only the best for your future wife, and I never wear these anyway,” she says with a shrug. Jared is painfully aware of the starving farmers not half a mile away when he looks at them.
“Can I keep these two with me? I haven’t decided yet.” he asks, taking the two he likes and holding them in the light so he can see them better. The ruby especially flames up in the sun streaming into the room.
His mother waves him away. “Of course, of course. Now, tell me about the proposal dear! You must get it right!” her eyes, a warm brown, are round and sincere. His mother, his only ally. And he will once again leave her behind, alone with him.
Jared sticks the rings in his pocket before he scratches the back of his head. “I thought I’d propose tonight. I know there’s a ball, but I also know that Genevieve would enjoy a midnight walk more than dancing. There’s a spot near the pond, by the waterlilies, that I think will be suitable. ”
Mother nods thoughtfully. “I know where you’re talking about, it’s very lovely. Perhaps I can have the kitchen prepare a light meal and have some good wines brought along,” she says. “And if you do it before complete dark, she will be able to send a messenger to her poor mother at home with the good news,” she adds with significance.
“That sounds wonderful,” he says, “and of course I wouldn’t dare to make her mama wait for the news one moment more than necessary.” He assures her.
“Good boy, I’ll arrange it then. Now off you go!” she says. “Lunch has already long passed. If you want to give her time to dress properly, you must invite her now!”
Since Jared knows a Lady’s toilette may take several hours for full court clothes, Jared opens the door to her rooms and beckons to the page standing there. “You!” he says, waving the boy closer. “Give this,” he scribbles a hasty note on a piece of his mother’s parchment, “To Lady Genevieve of Cortese. I am Prince Jared.” He smiles and gives the boy a copper piece, and the boy smiles, takes his coin and runs off. “Mother, will you inform father?” he asks, looking in the mirror to straighten his clothes. This way, she has good news to soften his temper, and Jared won’t have to look at his smug face.
“I will, he’ll be glad of these tidings too love,” she says, giving him a little push. “Now you and I must prepare for dinner as well. Be assured that you’ll have a wonderful meal, and good luck tonight.”
He kisses her hand and sets out for his own rooms, sweating with nerves.
Jared has only just led Genevieve to the pond when she gasps and claps her hands. “Oh Jared!”
A low table and comfortable chairs have been put down by the water, with a feast fit for a king on it. Candles, placed on high standards stand around it in groupings of two and three, giving the scene some delicacy instead of Laren’s usual harshness and functionality. It looks quite nice and cosy.
“Please, sit,” Jared says, heart pounding. I’s fundamental that she says yes, not only for his future but also that of Jensen’s and perhaps the country, now province, of Laren.
She does, straightening her skirts. “This is wonderful, Jared,” she says with a small smile.
“Good, good,” he says, sitting down himself. “Wine?” he asks, lifting a carafe.
She nods and starts to serve them something of every plate. “So,” she says, “I believe I know why we’re here, Jared, and I must admit I’m so very relieved.” She looks up sharply. “May I be frank?”
He nods, filling his own glass. “Please. We’ve been open with each other so far, I would hate for that to stop.”
“My father…” she grimaces, “my father had made it perfectly clear I had to entice you into marriage before we arrived. He expressed his desire for the match very…. pressingly,” she takes a sip of wine, and tucks her hair behind her ear. “However, as soon as I arrived your father made that terrible speech and his Highness Prince Jensen’s ordeal happened before my eyes.” She shakes her head disapprovingly, taking a risk with Jared. When he only nods in agreement, she goes on. “As you can imagine I panicked when I found out that you don’t find the female form to your tastes. So I was very relieved when you and I connected regardless, and when my father told me I had secured you I was very relieved. But Jared, why me? And why now?” she smiles a bit. “Not that it matters. My answer is yes, I will marry you, regardless of what you answer.”
Jared slumps in relief, blindly taking a ring out of his pocket—it’s the ruby one—and putting it in the palm of her hand. “I like you, Genevieve. I won’t lie, my father wanted this as well as yours. But although I might not be in love with you, I know we can be good together, be friends, partners. That’s worth a lot to me. And you were here, you know what happened with Jensen. You know what my father is capable of. That lesson… my wife needs to know and be prepared.” He says with difficulty.
She pats his arm gently and slides the ring on her finger, examining it. “This is incredibly lovely, Jared. Thank you.” She bends towards him. “I promise to be a good ally, to be your friend when you need me, and to always work towards your goals.”
Jared takes her hand and kisses it formally, before holding up his glass of wine. “To us, future King and Queen,” he proposes.
She quickly raises her glass as well. “To us!”
And that is that, Jared is engaged.
Sorry it took so long. I'm doing a thesis at uni so my time is very occupied. I also want to do this right, so I planned the story out and drew a map for myself of Endar so I can be consistent in their travels. I would share the map but I'm terrible at drawing!
Immediately after the toast Genevieve asks for a messenger, writing a letter to her mother between the salt and her plate of pastries. Jared stamps his personal seal in the hot wax keeping it closed, and draws the messenger who comes running to the table. “Deliver this to the Duchess of Temaire. Take the river, the Senar, as soon as you can. It will be the fastest way. Bring another man if you need to.” And he presses a handful of coin in the man’s hand.
The messenger bows with his fist on his chest. “Yes Your Highness,” he says, and with a bow to Genevieve, he is gone. Jared abruptly sits down as well because his knees are buckling and his heart is pounding in his ears.
“Should we go inside? To tell our fathers?” Genevieve eventually asks, her voice muffled. When he looks up she’s staring into the distance and rubbing her face.
“We should,” Jared answers, “but we can take another moment. Surely they both already know.”
Genevieve shakes her head, resolutely rising from her seat. “No,” she says decisively, “let’s tell them,” she says. “We’re both dressed well, we are sober, and we’ve done what they’ve asked of us. Let’s not delay the good news. They can only announce after an official confirmation.”
That makes sense, so Jared gets to his feet, takes a deep breath and holds out his arm. “Yes,” he says, “my Lady?”
The great hall is hot, smoky, and full of people when they make their entrance, with so much talking people and music that when they’re announced into the room, no one hears it. He carefully escorts Genevieve through the throngs of young girls, the circles of older men, past the table of the mothers and grandmothers, until he sees his mother and father seated in a corner with Genevieve’s father.
It’s his mother who sees them first. Her eyes slide to Genevieve’s right hand in the crook of Jared’s elbow, where the ring is, and start to twinkle, her hand covering her smile until her fan is snapped open to do the same.
“Papa?” Genevieve says when they’re in earshot, the picture of gracefulness. “Your Majesties, good evening.”
The Duke of Temaire rises to his feet and inclines his head to Jared. “Your Highness,” he says in his baritone, “Daughter.”
Jared’s father stands as well, holding out his hand. “My Lady Genevieve,” he says to Genevieve charmingly. Jared had forgotten how polite and diplomatic he can be, he won’t forget again. “Jared,” he says with a broad smile that is as insincere as it is wide.
“Your Grace, Your Majesties,” Jared says, sparing a glance at his mother, “The Lady Genevieve has graciously agreed to become my wife,” he says with a fake smile of his own.
The Duke grins. “That is great news.” He looks at Genevieve with all the smugness in the world.
Father claps him on the back jovially before kissing Genevieve’s hand. “Wonderful news!” he says, looking at Mother. “Isn’t it dear?” he asks.
“Absolutely,” she says with the only genuine smile of them all. “My dearest Lady, you must come and sit with me for a bit,” she says to Genevieve, patting a free chair next to her.
Genevieve, who must be glad to be away from her father for a little while, curtsies and sits down, taking a drink. “Thank you, your Majesty,” she says.
“Well, Jared, that was faster than I expected,” Father says softly, drawing him away from the others for a moment. He eyes Jared speculatively. “It's true Genevieve is a beautiful lady,” he says, “maybe you aren't as abnormal as I thought.” He says, watching Jared like a hawk.
Jared looks down. “She's very beautiful, father,” he agrees, letting his eyes linger over her breasts, feeling horrible as he does, but he must take this chance. If his father has only one doubt about his preferences, that will still be better than none.
It works. Father’s expression turns to a leer and he claps Jared on the back again. “Well done, Son.” He walks back to the Duke. “Robertas, shall we announce it now? I think now is a good a time as any...”
In the early hours of the morning Jared finally makes it back to his rooms. He's smells badly from all the dancing with Genevieve, the alcohol, and the smoke of the men and widows, but he wouldn't wake servants up for a bath at this hour, so he strips, tossing his clothes on the floor and sliding in bed.
Jensen is there already. The man snores like the best of them, but it’s silent in the room so Jared can tell he's awake, and very tense too, by his half-discernible expression in the dark.
More tense than he has been… Ah, their conversation. Jared had almost forgotten after everthing.
“I'm engaged to Lady Genevieve, of Temaire.” He whispers. Jensen must have some idea who she is, seeing as Temaire and Padleck were the first countries to form Endar, the only countries to do so willingly. There is as much Temarian blood in Jared as there is Padleck.
Jensen rolls over to face him and nods.
“We’ll be leaving at the end of the week or possibly sooner for her family’s seat in the country.” Jared says softly. “You’ll of course be accompanying me.”
Jensen blinks, then his face goes expressionless again. Temaire is in the northernmost point of Endar in the mountains, and Laren is close to the West sea. There will be more than 200 miles between Jensen and his power base, 200 miles filled with Endarian soldiers. “I see,” he says. The rasp in voice travels over Jared's back. “Effective,” he adds after a moment.
Jared nods. When nothing else is forthcoming, he needlessly repeats the action. “Good night,” he says in the most polite voice he can muster at this hour, turns his back on Jensen and tries to sleep.
The following days are busy. Their engagement is announced with a horde of messengers to all corners of the country on orders of his father, surely so Jared couldn’t change his mind. Their luggage is packed. Jared has to finish several different documents, one for the dreaded High Sword of Ryterrik with a proposed trading deal, and negotiate with a representative of the local farmers about grain taxation. His decision was right, and his father doesn’t suspect anything, but he’s left them very little time to prepare.
Finally the morning of their departure arrives. Jensen is already seated in their carriage in front of the castle, the King, Queen and Duke not far away from it. The court is scattered across the lawn with tiny glasses in hand, seated in chairs under the apple trees that frame the lane to the outer gate, and looking out of open windows in the castle. Jared gives the rains to his horse to a stablehand and offers Genevieve his arm. Together they make their way to their parents.
“Son!” Father says jovially, clapping him on the shoulder. “Take good care of your fiancée on the road! Laren might be ours, but some of the vermin that calls itself a resistance is hiding out there.” He looks at the soldiers saddling up, fifteen of his father’s most loyal men and five of the Duke’s personal guard, and nods to himself with satisfaction. “and take care of yourself. My Lady, I look forward to your return, and to meeting your Lady mother.”
Genevieve courtesies elegantly. “I thank you, Your Majesty.”
“Yes, give my love you your mother,” the Duke says, “Your Highness, I wish you well and hope to see you return in good health.”
Jared bows and they all make their way to the carriage. Jared helps Genevieve into it, then he gets the reigns to his horse.
Mother is dabbing her eyes with a delicate handkerchief, but her grip is surprisingly tight when she kisses him on the cheek. “Do enjoy the trip, dears,” she says. “The North is beautiful!”
“We will, Mother,” Jared promises, swinging into the saddle. Behind him the soldiers do the same. “I’ll be sure to bring you something. I’m sure Lady Genevieve will know of an appropriate gift.”
She smiles. “Thank you, son.”
The trumpeter sounds his instrument, and the various members of court respectively bow and courtesy. The carriage starts to move after Jared leads them onto the road towards the outer gate, the soldiers behind him.
“His Royal Highness, Crown Prince Jared of Endar, and Lady Genevieve, Daughter of the Duke of Temaire, leaving for Temaire!” a booming voice sounds. When Jared looks over his shoulder, he sees his personal flag being lowered. In that moment it doesn’t feel like his decision is right, and that feeling settles coldly in the base of his spine.
His horse pulls on the lead with a whinny, and he rides on.
The first stop of their journey is in Greenfields, a smaller hold on the border of the Province of Laren, to the east of the Ackles hold. There’s a comfortable Inn there, according to Commander Hoechlin, who has joined them. Jared thinks it’s a waste to bring their most promising Commander along on a peaceful journey, but he is nevertheless glad the man is here for the ride.
The man in question seems less than thrilled to be here. “I understand why you didn’t want to take a vessel over the Senar, Prince, but our journey will be considerably longer.” He grunts as they finally lose sight of the castle of the Ackles. “And I don’t like to be in this rebellious country one moment longer than I have to be.”
Jared nods. “Yes, but taking the river would’ve forced us to stay in Laren for much longer, I believe she runs here for almost a hundred miles. And reaching it would’ve have taken at least a full day.” He says. Laren is shaped like a candle, long but not very broad. The river runs from the northeast diagonally to the southwest until it ends in the sea. It would’ve been the shortest route, but by no means the safest.
Hoechlin nods. “True. On the other hand, it would’ve been harder to attack or block our way on a ship.”
“That is true,” Jared admits. “But the farther away from the south, from the former capital we go, the more motivated the rebel. I am safe to assume that not all troupes have been installed?”
Hoechlin nods gravely in return. “Your father doubted for so long, that when he finally gave the go ahead, only Temaire, the duchess of Hangra and I were close enough. It was enough to overpower the enemy, but not much more.” And he looks through the trees with a worried look.
When they finally break, they do so in a small clearing in dense woods. The thick trees are native to the country in the west of the empire, and if not for the road they would have great difficulty travelling. As it is, deep tracks of a marching legion of soldiers have hallowed it out, making the packed earth loose and wet. The carriage can manage with its high wheels and light load, but the cart with their luggage slows them down to a crawl.
Jared realizes he was optimistic when plotting their route. It will be long after dark before they reach Greenfields.
His men realize the same. They hold their hands on their swords as they feed the horses, scanning the trees restlessly and talking among themselves. They look with mistrust at Jensen who distributes food in silence, without meeting anyone’s eyes. Anyone else would have cowered, but Jensen stares straight ahead, his chin up and square shoulders. Somehow, he looks prepared to fight every last man and still come out alive.
Jared would’ve been worried about that confidence if he had written down their travelling plans or plotted them out on a map, but he hasn’t. Jensen can’t have told anyone.
Still, the Commander doesn’t allow for any luxuries other than a chair for Genevieve to be unpacked from the cart, not even a table. “A half hour, that is all you’ll get!” he says sternly. It’s a testament to the vigilance and worry of the soldiers that they just nod, accept their bread and cheese, and sit down in the grass. They don’t even talk.
“How charming,” Genevieve says dryly, as she starts to eat. “Well, my Lord, I must say, it is a lovely country,” she looks around. “Jensen,” she calls.
Jensen, who is sitting down with his back against a tree trunk with his eyes closed, gets up. “Yes my Lady,” he says.
“Do sit down next to me and tell us about the native species of plants,” she says. “Any poisonous roots or hallucinogenic seeds?”
Jensen blinks, a wrinkle appear above his brow. “I must warn you, this is not my area of expertise,” he says, “but of course, my Lady.” He performs a slight bow that somehow showcases his body in such a way that even Genevieve takes an interested look at it.
Jared hastily retreats to the other side of the clearing where the road passes, standing next to Hoechlin, who is frowning at the cart. “I know you need all of this,” he says while clearly thinking Jared overpacked to extremes, “but this cart is slowing us down. The wheels are very thin, so they sink into the ground, and its height is uncomfortable for the horses. The servants packed it I assume?”
“Yes,” Jared says, “I suspect they picked it as an act of rebellion.”
Hoechlin nods. “My suspicion as well. We will change it at once in Greenfields.” He says, then coughs.
“Yes Commander?” Jared asks, mouth full of cheese.
“If you had given me more time to plot the trip,” Hoechlin says earnestly, “We could’ve ordered a warship from Hangra, we would’ve been impossible to overtake,” he mutters. “Your Highness.”
Jared nods. “If I thought we had time, I would’ve taken it. But one Ackles in Laren is an Ackles too much,” he whispers, with a glance at Jensen, who is holding some sort of leaf and talking to Genevieve. A few soldiers are listening to him as well.
Hoechlin nods. “May I speak freely?” he asks. At Jared nod, he does. “I do not understand why your father kept him in the capital. He could’ve sent him away with his parents, or a better strategy would’ve been to execute him. The servants adored him in the castle, from what I could see. And the Laren are a proud people; seeing their prince brought low, without his honor, does not motivate them to cooperate.”
Jared nods. “My idea exactly, Commander. I feared for staying too long.”
Hoechlin nods. “Executing him now would be terribly inconvenient too. Your Father’s word would be all but worthless.” He says with a sour face.
While the last thing on Jared’s mind is executing Prince Jensen, he is glad he isn’t the only one who noticed how stubborn the Larens behaved. “That is why I brought him. Temaire is Old Endar. I do not have to worry about rebels there.” He explains.
Hoechlin pats him on the shoulder. “No, and with your engagement, even the courtiers will take a pause in their scheming. Intelligent move, Jared,” he says softly.
Jared bows his head and accepts the compliment, because he can hardly say it was a desperate move from a stupid boy in love with his enemy. “Thank you, Tyler.”
The men finish eating and drinking, and the Commander packs Genevieve’s fancy chair back in the cart. She is holding a bouquet of flowers that Jared suspects Jensen to have picked and a tin pitcher filled with water. “Your man proves to be an excellent teacher, my Lord,” she says with a soft smile, accepting his hand as he helps her back in the carriage. “I’ve learned about several new plants and herbs already, especially their medical uses.”
Jared suppresses his jealousy at their innocent exchange and smiles. “Wonderful. To be honest, I’m rather jealous you have someone to talk to other than the Commander,” he jokes. Genevieve laughs, then opens her book on Larenian history.
“He is a bit of a sourpuss isn’t he?” she says just loud enough that the man in question can’t help but overhear them, and the Commander gives them a menacing (and completely insincere) look.
Jensen slips past him in to the carriage, and as he sits down his eyes suddenly go to Jared’s horse; he was Jensen’s horse. Jared spent all the time he had on getting the stallion to accept him, because if he had left him behind, he would have been slaughtered. Jensen’s diary is packed in his saddlebag as well.
“Yes,” Jared mutters while Hoechlin and Genevieve banter good-naturedly, “the stable boy told me his name is Asten?”
Jensen looks at Jared, his face open for the first time since that first night. “I thought he was dead,” he says, both relief and resentment clearly in his eyes.
“He didn’t deserve that,” You didn’t deserve that, is what he means.
“No, he didn’t,” Jensen says. “My Lord, I thank you,” he says with a grave nod.
Jared smiles, heart pounding.
They put an additional horse in front of the cart, which speeds them up somewhat. The journey is still rather unpleasant. The woods are silent, not for lack of animals, but because of the dense vegetal growth that absorbs any sound. The thick canopy of leaves overhead bathes everything in a gloomy, green light, their feet are soaked because of the moist ground, and the horses are in bad moods. There isn’t even a light breeze that can help dispel the oppressing feeling of the woods. Jared is incredibly thankful they will be out of them tomorrow. If anyone wishes to sneak up on them, it will be child’s play.
Fortunately nothing has happened when they reach the 10 mile marker to Greenfields at the end of the day, but the sun is rapidly sinking. “No torches,” the Commander barks, then he rides next to the carriage and knocks on the window.
Jensen opens the small curtain. “Yes, my Lord Commander?” he asks, perfectly civil.
“Lady Genevieve, I must unfortunately ask that you do not light your lanterns,” Hoechlin says.
Genevieve opens the remaining curtains with a frown. “Why, sir?” she demands.
“We will be very visible, and it will hinder our night vision,” Hoechlin says reasonably patiently—for him.
Genevieve sighs but nods, snuffing the flame in her lantern. “Very well.”
They ride on. Luckily, the sky above the road isn’t completely obscured by leaves, so they can make use of the last light, but eventually the final orange ray is gone and only the stars are out.
“Wait,” One of the soldiers in the back calls out suddenly. “Do you smell smoke?”
When they turn, there’s a thin cloud of smoke just barely visible in the sky. “Two, maybe three hours behind us,” Hoechlin mutters. “Everyone knew you were leaving, they saw us heading east.” He sighs.
“If they are in pursuit of us on horseback it can go either way, we might reach Greenfields or they might overtake us on the last leg of the road,” the Commander says, calling some of his man to his side. They keep to a trot, and he has to whisper, but they can fortunately still hear him. “However, if that is smoke from a campfire, they might have stopped to eat. Swords drawn, and pray to the gods.”
Greenfields, named for its placement just a stones throw outside the dense woods and in the lush grassy hills to the west of the forest, is a small farmer’s village. Once on the border between the countries of Laren and Resen, decorations and colors grace nearly every house, yet they maintain functionality as a top priority. There are no residents of significance, and the earlier Resian nobles built their castles in the bigger towns to the west. Instead there is an outpost of messengers and a large inn that profit from their position next to the fork in the King’s Road, one leg going straight ahead into Resen and eventually Vandi, and the other, the one that they will follow, veers off to the north.
At least, that is what one of the soldiers tells them as they ride out of the woods at last. The dark prohibits any sightseeing, and the most Jared can see is the lack of trees and the illuminated windows of what must be the inn as they ride through the fortifications and into the village.
“Make sure His Highness’ presence isn't announced anywhere, and do not let them hoist his banner,” the Commander orders the youngest of the soldiers, Jacob, who dismounts and runs up to the Inn. “Men, be alert.” The soldiers around them sit up straighter, still ill at ease from the unknown others in the woods.
The door to the Inn opens and a small woman runs outside, Jacob next to her, and a younger boy appears through the gate that must lead to the stables. “Your Highness,” the women says in a loud whisper, panting a little, “I’m Miriam, the keeper of the inn, welcome,” and she courtesies.
Jared gets off and opens his mouth to thank her, but Hoechlin speaks before he does. “How many available rooms do you have? We need one for his Highness and on for Lady Genevieve, and seven other rooms that fit three men. We also have twenty three horses that need to be watered and fed.” Jared is surprised the man still has breath in his chest. “Oh,” and the Commander adds while the slightly bewildered looking woman is about to speak, “I know you mean well and will try to supply His Highness with the best foods and beds and so,” he says strictly, “but I’m afraid I can’t allow for that. Getting enough supplies for the horses will be hard enough without being noticed, let alone the best meats and finest blankets. My aim is to leave before sunrise tomorrow, which should be before the bulk of the people will know the Prince was even here. If anyone asks, there are a Lord and Lady here from a minor county. I expect your cooperation in his endeavor.”
“What the Commander means to say,” Genevieve says, opening the door of the carriage and climbing out, “is thank you for accommodating our company on such short notice, madam.”
Dear internet people. I know the last update was before the invention of fire, but if only one person reads this, it'll still be worth it I figured.
“What the Commander means to say,” Genevieve says, opening the door of the carriage and climbing out, “is thank you for accommodating our company on such short notice, madam.”
Jared tries not to laugh at Hoechlin’s look at her interruption, and he holds out his arm to Genevieve in a show of support, who takes it. “But I have to agree with his Lordship, please do not try to get anything out of the ordinary,” he adds to prevent Hoechlin from having a fit.
Miriam flushes and nods. “Thank you, your Royal Higness, Milady,” she says before turning to the Commander. “My Lord, I’ll do my very best. This is Simon, he’ll take care of the horses,” she introduces. “I’ll be as silent about you staying here as I can.” She says solemnly.
“Thank you,” Hoechlin says stiffly.
“Boy, show us where to go and we will take care of the horses ourselves,” a weathered older soldier says kindly when he sees the boy’s eyes widen at the thought of handling all the horses by himself.
Hoechlin nods. “ Kanden, Frey, Petorri, you’re with His Highness, Rhoso, Adin, you will guard the Lady Genevieve. You will eat now,” he orders. He levels a look at Jared that means he should also obey, “the rest of you will take care of the luggage and horses and have dinner after the Prince.”
Tasks assigned, they enter the building, bypassing the parlor and taking the stairs to more private accommodations. While they climb the creaky wooden steps, Genevieve comments about the decorated roof and the charming rug and ‘isn’t that the most darling stool, Jared?’ Soon, the innkeeper is chatting with her enthusiastically, more at ease than she was before. Jared tries to play into her cues as best as he can.
When they are led into a private room to eat, the innkeeper notices Jensen for the first time. Her eyes widening she curtsies deeply, wiping her eyes roughly, whispering “my Prince.”
Jensen gently, but very quickly, tugs her to her feet, squeezing her shoulder and shaking his head minimally. Jared’s the only one who notices, because the soldiers and Commander are ignoring her—if they didn’t, they would have to arrest her.
She nods, obviously realizing what she’s done, and straightens out, cheery mood evaporated. “My apologies. Supper will be here momentarily.” She says, and quickly leaves the room. Jensen’s eyes follow her to the door, then he relaxes and moves to a dark corner, almost melting out of sight. Jared can only come to the conclusion Jensen’s trying to help her by making them forget about him.
“Well, isn’t this nice,” Genevieve says, sitting down on a chair. “I’ll be glad to have a bath after all the mud of today.”
Jared nods. “Yes,” he says. “The road is supposed to be better from here on out too, so we’ll be faster at least.” He sinks down in another chair, his aching back protesting the move.
“Before we pat ourselves on the back, we need to talk about the people behind us,” the Commander says, leaning against the door, probably so no one can come in unannounced. “They could decide to attack us tonight.”
“Surely not,” Genevieve says disbelievingly, “I could see that happening on the road, but here in the inn? They’d be fools; lead themselves to the slaughter.”
The Commander glances at Jensen distrustfully. “You. You know who’s following us?”
Jensen stands. “No Lord,” he says clearly, looking Hoechlin straight in the eye. Jared somehow knows he’s lying, but he doesn’t point that out.
“And if you did, you wouldn’t tell me,” the Commander mutters. Jensen neither denies nor confirms that, crossing his arms in silence. “You know, I should give you a good flogging—”
“Leave him alone,” Genevieve says sharply, before Jared can say anything. “I shall speak frankly; I find it appalling you expect him to aid you against his countrymen. He is no longer a prince, but he still cares for his people. Wouldn’t you do the same?” she asks Hoechlin. Jared doesn’t miss the slight look of surprise on Jensen’s face, quickly hidden after a moment.
“My Lady, his feelings are not relevant. I am tasked with protecting yourself and His Highness, and that is what I aim to do with whatever means necessary,” the Commander barks back, hand on his sword.
“Alright, alright,” Jared says, jumping to his feet. “I’ve supervised Jensen when he came into my…care, and it is simply not possible that he knows anything. But Lord, if you are worried, I suggest you send two of your men to scout the woods, and to post guards at my Lady’s door, and mine.” Jared smiles a little, trying to diffuse the situation. The Commander, while lower in rank as Jared, has the authority to do anything he wishes to Jensen for the sake of their safety. Torture is a real possibility.
Hoechlin nods with a frustrated grunt and leaves the room after an exasperated look at Genevieve, who pulls up an eyebrow.
“Jensen,” Jared says, walking to the door as well. Jensen marches after him into the hallway, and Jared stops at a shadowy corner with a rather loudly-colored tapestry and hanging plants.
“Master,” Jensen says, an admirable amount of sarcasm just ever so slightly peeking through his polite tone.
“Do you know anything?” Jared asks softly. It feels as if Jensen is the prince between them, and not he. “if you do, please tell me.” It comes out pleadingly.
Jensen stares him down for a moment, then he sighs. “If I tell you, do I have your guarantee that you will not abuse my people, and that you are the only one I will ever share information with?” he asks. It is the first time since they met that Jensen has really spoken to him.
Sensing that the next words out of his mouth will shape their entire future, Jared carefully formulates them. “You’ll have the guarantee that I shall treat them as fairly as I can under the law, if you accept that I have no control over my father’s policy,” Jared promises, crossing a line he should’ve never, never crossed.
“That is acceptable,” Jensen says with a small nod, holding his hand out. Jared takes it and they shake, tingles going down his spine at the feel of Jensen’s strong fingers and firm grip.
“Thank you,” Jared breathes.
“The men on your trail are probably rebels. They travel in small groups, and will most likely not attack you, especially not with Hoechlin here.” Jensen says like it pains him to do so. Jared now knows this was a true compromise. “He’s quite notorious. Most likely, they’re warning the small farms around that you are on the road and that they may have to accommodate you so they can hide they most precious belongings.”
“You have my thanks,” Jared whispers. Jensen nods roughly, staring at him again.
“You haven’t made use of me. I don’t think you will in the future either,” he grunts abruptly after some time.
Jared flushes so horribly his face feels like it is on fire. “No sir,” he says, then wants to pull his hair out.
Jensen’s lips curl up into an approximation of a smile, but he doesn’t humiliate Jared by responding to the honorific. “How does a father like yours get a son like you,” Jensen whispers, leaning in a little.
Jensen’s face is right in front of his, and his heart speeds up. “I... my mother…” he manages. The scent of Jensen’s body, musk and trees and something else, makes his head spin.
Jensen surveys him for another moment, then withdraws and walks back to the room. Slowly, Jared becomes aware of the sound of cutlery being placed on a table, and he lets out a breath, straightens his clothes and walks back to the dining room.
Later that night, Jared’s alone. Mariam assigned Jensen his own room, and Jared had been too shocked at Jensen’s and his own actions in the hallway to protest at the appropriate time. Hoechlin, who looked like he’d rather chew off his own toe than discuss Jared’s sleeping situation, hadn’t commented either.
Generally, Jared knows that disobeying his father means punishment. As a child, Jared was well-behaved, not because he was a particularly shy child but because the few times he had not obeyed, his father had seen to his punishment personally.
He still does, to this day, but the punishments won’t be one of his hounds thrown into the pond with rocks tied to his legs or his mother, screaming in her rooms, or a beating from the stable master. The last punishment, when he was eighteen, was even worse. Jared had been caught kissing the blacksmith’s apprentice by some servants of his father. The very next day, every member of Jack’s family had gotten gravely ill and Jack himself had disappeared. Jared had been beside himself with fear for weeks, until at last a crumpled note was slipped into his pocket by one of the maidservants tending to his dinner. Jack had been forced to marry and move, and never see Jared again, or die. This time, if his father finds out what he’s done, he’ll have Jared in Rytterik before he can think to run, gelded and all. There will be no mercy for him.
Jensen’s clearly bad for his chances of survival under his father’s rule. Or, alternatively, bad for his father’s rule.
There’s a knock on the door just as he’s trying to put his thoughts to bed, and he sits up quickly, wiping his eyes a bit. “Enter!” he calls out.
Surprisingly, it’s Genevieve who sticks her head through the door opening with a hesitant smile. “Can I come in?” she asks softly. At Jared’s nod, she comes into the room and closes the door behind herself. “You don’t have to get up,” she adds, when Jared reaches for his jacket.
“Hello,” Jared says, not quite knowing what to do. This a breach of protocol that, were they still at the palace, would’ve stained Genevieve’s reputation to the point that Jared would’ve been able to break their engagement without paying anything in recompense. “Please, sit,” he finally says.
Unexpectedly, Genevieve sits down the very bed itself. “Thank you,” she says. “I… I need to tell you something, and I need to ask you something, and the only private moment I could think of was this one,” she says uncharacteristically quietly, fumbling with the pearls on her night gown. “My apologies.”
“Alright,” Jared says slowly with a hesitant smile.
She sighs. “I know you are… I am aware you like… since you…” she grunts and tugs on her sleeves in frustration, “Just, be assured this will not affect our marriage, I won’t let it,” she says pressingly.
Jared, seeing her trouble, gently grabs her hands and squeezes them in encouragement, “tell me.”
She nods and tucks a piece of hair behind her ear. “Before I came to Laren, I was actually about to enter a convent,” she whispers. Jared’s eyes widen in surprise, and she nods with a rueful smile. “Jared, this is a secret that you need to keep for me, I’m taking such a risk in telling you,” she admits, “but when I was fifteen, I feel irrevocably in love,” she says before he can reply, “and I did so with a girl.”
Jared only manages to not respond; the gasp in his chest only barely stopped.
“I don’t know how I hid it from my parents, because we were together constantly,” Genevieve tells her hands, “but somehow I did.” She looks miserably, “well, my parents never found out about her, but they did realize that something was happening, and after they made sure that I was never alone. It was maddening, eventually she moved away without even saying goodbye. I was so sad, I just never really recovered. But then the possibility of a marriage with you came up, and then it was too late for me to take the cloth, so I came here with my father.” She pauses and smiles at him, a small yet genuine smile.
Jared, still shocked at the similarities between their stories, can’t help but smile back. “Oh Gen,” he whispers.
“I’m truly happy I did come with my father, though,” she assures him. “Once you're King I can see such improvement in both our lives,” she says confidently, then she looks down. "You’re a friend, Jared, and your position is such that we have a unique understanding of each other. This understanding between is is... well, priceless," she adds more hesitantly.
At that moment, he knows that Genevieve without a doubt knows about his feelings for Jensen; it’s clear from her expression. Compassion, sadness, and sympathy are evident in her eyes. She leans in. “I just hope I can help you as much as you’ve already helped me,” she says warmly.
He smiles, eyes wet. “You do. Gen, you’ve no idea how much you’ve already helped me,” he says thickly.
Her face brightens and she squeezes his hands this time. “Good, good,” she says. “That just leaves my question.” She squares her shoulders. “Do I have your permission to find her again after… when you’ve been made King?” she asks, her eyes guarded again, like she’s preparing for Jared’s ‘no’. “It would be secret, of course, if she even wanted me still, and only after an appropriate amount of heirs have been born to us,” she hastens to add.
Jared smiles, because this request is easy to grant. “Yes, of course, if that makes you happy.”
Genevieve almost jumps forward to wrap her arms around him, embracing him tightly. “Thank you, Jared! I truly wouldn’t know where I’d be without you in my life,” she whispers solemnly.
Jared doesn’t know where he’d be without her either.
“Would you like more sausage, sir?” Miriam asks nervously, a large skillet in hand as she hovers by his side at the breakfast table.
Jared shakes his head; the sausages are delicious, but too greasy after last night, which he spent very much awake and nervously. “No thank you,” he says with a smile he hopes is polite.
Jensen, in his typical undisturbed fashion, holds out his plate. While he has stayed mostly out of sight of the Commander and the soldiers, Jared has noticed him speaking to the servants in whispers, and helping them with their work. “May I have some more?” Jensen follows up with a slight familiarity to Miriam, reinforcing Jared’s observations about him.
Miriam immediately slides three more onto Jensen’s plate. “Of course… Jensen,” she says, clearly uncomfortable at using his given name.
The Commander, who insisted on eating gruel instead—sending the kitchen maids in a flurry trying to locate some they deemed appropriate for a Lord—bristles at Jensen’s uncharacteristically polite tone. While he’s never been outright disrespectful, Jensen certainly knows how to balance on the very edge of politeness when dealing with the men. To be more polite to a servant than the soldiers is one of those barbs that isn’t severe enough to be punished, but still noticed.
To diffuse the situation, Jared asks a question. “Miriam, please excuse us,” he requests, and waits until she’s closed the door behind her, “Commander, what’s the report on the scouts?” Last night, after his conversation with Jensen, he’d told Tayler what Jensen had told him about their tail, but Tayler hadn’t put much stock into his information. Even though Jared hadn't named his source, Hoechlin knew where the newfound knowledge had come from. He’d still set out the patrol and posted guards outside Genevieve and Jared’s rooms.
“A group of four men were seen, lightly armed. They didn’t come close to the village,” Hoechlin says with a grudging look at Jensen. The former Prince’s only ‘I told you so’ is a single, short glance at Jared before he goes back to his food, not responding in any way that the Commander can take offense at. The way his shoulders fill out the rough-spun brown shirt he’s wearing is enough to distract Jared from the next few words. “…under orders to return without engaging them. They say that they overheard them discussing returning to the capital of the province,” Tayler says reluctantly.
“Gods, that’s a relief,” Genevieve says with a smile, “and the road ahead should be safer as well,” she adds. Hoechlin nods unwillingly. “So, things are looking up!” she says cheerfully.
“They are,” Jared agrees, relieved but not surprised that Jensen’s information had been truthful. watching Jensen over his coffee cup. Jensen meets his eyes for just a moment, then he cuts into his last sausage with an almost violent movement, the tiniest line between his eyebrows. With a shock, Jared realizes that his look could’ve been read as flirtatious by Jensen, and he quickly looks down at his plate.
“We move in an hour,” the commander barks, “please be ready by then. I’ll go see if there is another cart.”
Yeah even I myself am surprised at how long one can take writing a chapter. But as some very brave, very awesome people are still waiting for my glacial ass, I felt obligated to post.
They march much faster the following five days than they did in the woods, which is partially because of the better cart they found at the inn, but also because they’re no longer in Laren. The soldiers joke, race each other up the faint hills in the grassland, and pick apples from a small collection of apple trees that seems to belong to no one but a few scrappy but well-dressed farmer’s children. Even though one of the places they sleep in is a barn, in a prickly haystack on the farm of some very old and rude farmers, the mood of everyone improves by the day now that they don’t have to look over their shoulder the entire time.
Even Jensen seems to be more relaxed, in spite of their conversation in the inn. Jared sees him talk to Genevieve and a soldier every once in a while. When the men see that he pulls his own weight, helping with emptying the cart and feeding the horses, a careful camaraderie starts to form. Jared isn’t surprised; Jensen was a leader of men, a general in his own army, and knows how to navigate this situation.
On the sixth day, they arrive at a large hold, Finsikt. It is the seat of the main family of the province, the Kanes. Jared has had some dealings with one of their sons about the price of the mutton that they keep, that feeds half the empire, but that kind of correspondence doesn’t lend itself to getting to know each other. Still, they are welcomed enthusiastically by the Lady of the hold, Lady Edna, due to the fortunate fact that she and Genevieve have met before, albeit briefly. Jared is rather relieved that they arrived somewhat early, so that the servants aren’t inconvenienced by having to wait for them outside the building.
“My dear Genevieve, you look splendid, and after sitting in a horrible carriage for days too!” Lady Edna says as she guides them over the drawbridge. “Your poor dress is very wrinkled, though!”
Jared doesn’t mention the fact that Genevieve managed to convince Frey, one of the younger soldiers, to switch places with her the same morning; she on his horse and he in the carriage. Frey had only smirked and leaned back in the cushions when the others teased him about being lazy, and then they’d watched in awe as Genevieve, in one of her great gowns, raced over the plains laughing loudly. After the impressive demonstration of skill even Hoechlin had remained silent.
“Oh, you jest,” Genevieve says, hooking her arm through Lady Edna’s. “Fortunately, his Highness is kind enough to see past my horrid appearance,” she says modestly.
Lady Edna looks at Jared. “Oh, I’m sure Your Highness agrees with me on the Lady’s appearance,” she says strictly.
Jared bows a little. “Of course, my Lady. It is I who is lucky to have gained a woman as the Lady Genevieve as my future bride,” he says with a smile. Lady Edna nods in satisfaction and starts to talk to Genevieve about her mother, allowing Jared to take in the castle. It is the same sturdy style as everything in this region, but there are also traces of marble and glass that remind him of Padleck. The floor of the entrance hall is checkered blue and brown marble, both of the best quality that Padleck can offer.
“A gift from your mother, your Highness,” Lady Edna says proudly when she sees him looking. “My husband did help in the war for Hangra. He would tell you the tales if he was here, but he and my sons are out falconing and won’t be back for another three days. In any case, your mother and I met in court when we were both young, and she sent these over after the victory,” she smiles. Meanwhile the men—even their personal guard—quietly disappear in the direction of the stables, knowing they won’t be welcome in the main castle.
“Absolutely magnificent,” Genevieve agrees. “Jared, is your home decorated like this everywhere?” she asks.
Jared nods. “Yes, it is. Once we visit, I’ll have to show you the small garden of our country home,” he says, “It’s the most beautiful place if you enjoy marble. And though our wedding shall take place in Laren, we could hold a commemoration in Padleck, in our family palace. There’s a hall there with marble columns and a mosaic floor that is stunning. My great great-great-grandmother had it constructed after the conquering of Fellst.” It’s obscene, really. Jared never fails to think of the starving people in Fellst when he’s at one of his mother’s parties in the Hall. There’s no farmable land in Fellst, and in those early years... Now they benefit from trading with the much more exploitable west, but the first thirty years or so the taxes had been so high many people died of starvation in the near-desert like wilderness. Those taxes contributed not to the peoples of Fellst, Temaire and Padleck, but were used solely for the construction and enhancement of the palaces and forts of the royal and noble houses of the region. The great hall in the Padleck palace is worth more than the combined earnings of an entire province, even now, and has cost people their lives.
“It’s true,” Lady Edna says with a smile, “It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever had the pleasure of being, Genevieve.” Then her eyes slide past Jared’s shoulder and her lips thin in distaste. “And who is this?” she asks suddenly, friendly demeanor melting away.
Jared follows her gaze. Jensen is the only one of the men who remained and is standing with his shoulders squared and his arms crossed. Jared knows Jensen will never look like a slave or a servant; even now in a dirty shirt and leggings and his expressionless face he looks like a king. “This is Jensen,” Jared says, and Jensen nods at Lady Edna. Nods! Even Jared bowed. “My father has seen fit to make him my slave.”
“I see,” Edna says sharply, advancing. “Former Crown Prince of Laren,” she says mockingly, holding Jensen’s chin in her hand and studying his face. “I am the mistress of this house, Jensen. If you place but one toe out of line, I promise you, I will personally see to it that your punishment will be severe indeed.” She says icily.
“Yes ma’am,” Jensen replies, his eyes again staring off into the distance.
“Hmfh,” Lady Edna says. Then she looks at Jared. “Your father was absolutely right in his actions, your Highness. The Ackles’ have been arrogant and disrespectful to your family, and I am glad to see them humbled.”
Behind Lady Edna, Genevieve’s eyes widen ever so slightly. “Thank you, my Lady, for your loyalty,” Jared himself only barely manages to deliver with another bow. He has heard the same before by many others, but Lady Edna’s anger and satisfaction are more… cruel, than any other congratulations he’s heard before.
“Dear Edna,” Genevieve says with all her grace restored, “I would feel so much better if I could just refresh myself after the journey, and I know his Highness can use a change of clothing as well.”
Lady Edna nods, once again smiling like a sweet woman. “Of course! Please,” she claps in her hands and an old woman in a severe black frock appears. “This is the housekeeper, she’ll escort you to your rooms. If your sent word when you’re done, I thought we could take a turn in the garden before supper. It is my understanding you’re only here for one or two days?” she asks.
Jared had originally planned to stay here for at least four, to stretch out the journey, but now that he’s experienced Edna’s hatefulness he can only be glad that the initial plan had been two. “Unfortunately, my Lady. But I must beg off the walk, I have much work to do,” he adds. Genevieve narrows her eyes at him. “The unpleasant parts of being a Prince,” he says nonchalantly.
Edna nods. “I understand, your Highness. I’ll see you at supper.” After their courtesy and bow the housekeeper escorts them through the fort, until they’re standing in front of an ornate door.
“The royal suite, Milord,” the housekeeper says softly, and opens it.
The room is large and beyond opulent. Every last piece of furniture is mahogany, the bedspread is velvet with a bear skin thrown over, there’s a mirror stretching one and a half the height of Jared himself and the floor is covered in carpets from Rytterik. “Thank you,” Jared says, and the housekeeper courtesies and leaves with Genevieve in tow.
Jensen strides in the room and closes the door behind himself with a thud, heading straight for the chest of his clothing other servants must have brought up for them. Jared sees the muscles in his jaw twitching—in what must be fury if Jensen struggles to his hide his emotions— as he takes a new white shirt out. He pulls the one he’s wearing out of his leggings with an angry yank and tugs it off carelessly, revealing his muscled back to Jared for a moment before he visibly regains some control, methodically putting the new shirt on again and tucking it in.
“I think…” Jared tries tentatively, feeling very much like an intruder even though he does not know why, “I think it would be best if you didn’t mingle with the staff here.”
Jensen whips around and glares at him. “Yes my Lord,” Jensen snipes. “I shall attend your every want or need, Master.”
Jared sighs and wraps his arms around himself. “The servants here aren’t like yours in Laren. They’re not on your side, they don’t have the luxury. That woman is scary enough that they must think of themselves first. You can’t help them, that would just make her mad at them,” he explains. “ and... I also fear for your safety. Jensen, I know you do not like me and I don't blame you, but please, take care.” he asks.
Jensen looks a little surprised, then he tugs on his shirt and nods stiffly. “I understand,” he grunts, lacing the sides shut. “That old bitch,” he mutters, open about his thoughts for once.
Jared doesn’t bother protesting. “What happened between you? Her anger, it felt personal,” he admits, taking a step closer. Jensen rolls his shoulders and walks to the window, looking out over the woods, just barely visible as a dark line in the distance that edges green fields and farmlands.
“I had a sister,” he finally says. “She died a few years ago in child birth. The boy who’d made her pregnant was Kane’s youngest son, and he’d… he’d forced her. While my family sat here dining and blabbering about wool, he…” Jensen almost growls the words. “When she told me what he’d done to her, I…” he pinches the bridge of his nose. “I executed him, you could say,” he says. “My father wanted to give him a trial, but I… was too angry. I didn’t kill him so much as just tore him apart.” He looks at Jared over his shoulder, a tense expression on his face. “Then she demanded the babe and my sister, said they belonged to house Kane now. I was never going to let that happen." Jensen nearly spits the words out, then he slumps somewhat. "My sister... she died during childbirth, the babe as well." He rubs his face roughly. "Her son killed my sister, and I killed her son. And she went on to write to your father. And now here we are.”
Jared feels dizzy at this information and bites his lip. “I’m so sorry,” he whispers, taking another step forward. "I know it must be agony to be here; but we will leave soon.”
“Do you know?” Jensen scoffs, but then he sighs. “You’re right, though. I should do well to stay out of her sight.”
Jared nods. “Thank you for telling me,” he says quietly. Jensen shrugs, abruptly pulls a book from the small book case next to the door, and starts to read. Jared takes out his papers and sits at the desk and starts to write. For once, the silence isn’t fraught with tension.
“God, what a woman,” Genevieve laments as she sneaks into the room that evening, after they’ve gone and returned from a horrid dinner and are dressed for bed.
“I know,” Jared says. “Brandy?” he offers her. She nods and sits down on a sofa covered in crushed velvet. Her nightgown is a heavy green silk with a huge skirt, edged with gold embroidered thread, and when Jared hands her a crystal glass with brandy, he completes the look of her as a highborn Lady lounging in wealth.
Jensen, who’s already in bed—and by now, Jared’s gotten used to that, a both frightening and thrilling thought—frowns at her entry into the room and pulls up the thick covers. Genevieve laughs at his expression. “Don’t worry Jensen, I won’t rob you of your virtue just yet,” she says with eyebrow waggle. Jensen flushes a rosy pink and lies back down.
Jared, carefully keeping a smile to himself, joins Genevieve on the settee. “Were the gardens nice?” he teases her.
She elbows him. “You’re a terrible fiancée, you know! I had to listen to her go on and on about court fashion, and what kind of flowers I want for the wedding, and what number of children I desire, and all kinds of gossip,” she says with an eye roll, taking a sip of her brandy. “Though she does have good taste in liquor,” she admits grudgingly.
“We can work in the library tomorrow,” Jared offers, taking a drink himself. “It’s all important agreements so she couldn’t protest us requesting some privacy,” he adds.
“No,” Genevieve says with a dramatic groan. "If I have to read one more complaint from Lord Renly about the tax on flowers I can never look at a rose again." She purses her lips for a moment. “Oh, I know! You can accompany me for a walk in the patch of woods,” she tells Jensen, who inclines his head in acceptance gracefully. “That way Jared gets to work and you and I are far away from her. We could even bring lunch!” Even though Jared has not told her what happened to Jensen's sister and the role Lady Kane has played in Laren's conquering, she had expressed concern for Jensen, demanding he serve her during the meal when Lady Edna snapped her fingers at him. The excuse had been that Jensen knew the way she prefers plates to be offered to her, a flimsy one, but Lady Edna had fortunately accepted it.
“I would be honored, my Lady,” Jensen says with more warmth, as princely and courteous as Jared on his finer moments-maybe even more so.
“Thank you, I’ll see you tomorrow,” she says, drinking the last of her brandy before slipping out of the room.
Jensen closes his eyes and turns his back to Jared, the covers over his head again.
The next morning after breakfast, Genevieve manages to slip away from the castle with Jensen not a moment too soon. Jared has only just opened his books when Lady Edna comes in to the corner of the library he’s working in, looking around. “Your Highness forgive me, but have you seen the Lady Genevieve?” she asks. "And that wretched boy? I fear for the safety of my silver."
He smiles. “I’m afraid she has taken some of my men and my slave to go to the woods, my Lady. She’s very fond of drawing, you see.”
The corners of Lady Edna’s mouth move downwards, “And you deemed that was safe?” she asks, a strong undertone of disapproval. Jared just looks at her, to let her know it’s not up to her to question him.
“She is well protected, Lady. Do not worry.” He eventually says.
She slumps. “I only… That Ackles boy is dangerous.” She finally says.
“He was. Now he is my slave. I admit, he is a skilled fighter, but she is with an armed guard.” He replies lightly.
Lady Edna grits her teeth and nods. “Far be it from me to doubt your father, but I would have had him executed.” She says after a moment of deliberation. “The whole country is primitive, and he is the epitome of that barbarianism.” There are two unattractive patches of color on her cheeks from anger.
“Well, that country exists no more,” Jared says, leaning heavily on his training in diplomacy to remain calm and pleasant. “In fact, the citizens in the Provence of Laren are your countrymen now, and my father’s subjects.”
She opens her mouth, clearly to protest, then visibly realizes that what Jared is saying is the truth, and closes it again. “Yes, you are right, Your Highness. I shall leave you to your work.” She courtesies and briskly walks out of the room.
Jared sends for water, afraid what he might say if he drinks more wine
Long after lunch, when Jared has received yet more missives from various people around the empire, Genevieve and Jensen walk into the library, both smiling, both with mud on their shoes.
“Hello,” Jared says, glad for the interruption and putting his quill down. “How were the woods?”
Genevieve smiles even wider. “Very good.” She says, patting her chest of drawings. “I did a lot of work.”
Jared smiles. “Did Lady Edna find you?” He asks, looking at Jensen.
He smiles very briefly. “No, my Lord,” he says. “Her Ladyship protected me well.” Genevieve squeezes Jensen’s arm very inappropriately, but Jared’s just glad they get along and there is no one here to see a LAdy of the court touching a lowly slave.
“Go on, go hide in the servants’ rooms,” Genevieve whispers to him. Jensen simply nods at the both of them before opening a door built into the wall, clearly for the servants of the castle to use and disappears from sight when he closes it behind himself.
“He’s actually rather nice,” Genevieve says with a faint smile, sitting down. “And very polite and charming.”
Jared smiles wistfully. “He was a Prince and a military man. I think he could actually get along with anyone, if he wanted. But I supposed I will not find out soon, if ever. He has no reason to want to get to know me, after all.”
Genevieve smiles at him. “I’m sure he will. When he’s had time to accept what’s happened to him, he will. After all, it was not your fault.” She says pressingly. Only after he has nodded back she looks down at his papers and sighs. “Need some help with these? I know Lord Boyega well enough.”
Later, when Genevieve is dressing for supper with some held from Lady Edna's maids, Jared makes his way to the barracks where the men are staying. When Jared approaches, the door is opened by Hoechlin. The commander, though an incredible military talent, isn’t of noble birth, so he has been staying there as well; Lady Edna is not one to overlook such a thing. “Come to see how the common people live?” He jokes, then his face smooths out like he shouldn’t have said that, claps Jared on the back with a dutiful smile and invites him into the dining room. Jared doesn’t respond for fear of making the situation even more stilted.
The soldiers stand when he walks in, but he waves them back down with a smile. “How is your stay?” he asks the room at large. “Please be at ease.” His men sit back down as they were, in the middle of their dinner.
“Fine sir,” Frey answers, still standing. “The food’s good and so are the beds,” he says with a smile.
“Do you all need anything?” he asks, pleased with the answer.
“Well,” An older soldier that Jared’s travelled with before says carefully, “where’s the boy? We heard a few things about the Lady of the house, and how she might not be treating him fairly.” Some of the other soldiers nod, and a few even make agreeing sounds. “He’s already been punished, you see,” he adds after a moment, looking down at his plate.
“Piotr,” the Commander says admonishingly, but as the soldier just sounds worried about Jensen and no one from Lady Edna’s household is here, Jared just puts his hand on Hoechlin’s shoulder.
“He’s alright, Piotr,” Jared says. “I shall tell him you asked,” he adds, feeling warm on behalf of Jensen.
Piotr raises his cup of wine with a ‘sir’, and Jared lets himself be led to a corner with Hoechlin. “So, how is the stay in the house? Are you sure you don’t want any guards?” Tyler asks, leaning in.
Jared shakes his head. “We’re leaving tomorrow, it’s not necessary,” he says, which is all he really needs to say. To the left, a soldier groans, but some nod in agreement.
“I see,” Tyler says carefully. “Well, just as well.” He takes a drink from his glass and waits for the men to go back to their own conversations before leaning in. “The next real stop will be where?” he asks in a whisper. Nobody but Jared knows the route he plans to take, for all of their safety within the firmly established borders of Endar it’s not impossible that they’ll be ambushed otherwise; even the most loyal soldiers blab to the scullery maid they’re bedding, and once there the information can easily be bought.
“Ipenhall,” Jared whispers back. “It should take about two weeks. There’s an inn at Plentum where we should be able to switch horses, and with those, we should be able to make it to Ipenhall shortly. If we leave early tomorrow morning, a farm I’ve stayed at before that should be prepared for us by the time we arrive. We should only have to make camp for a few nights until Plentum, and then it’s not far.”
Tyler nods. “Alright. I’ll make sure we can leave tomorrow morning.” He promises. "You can make sure you're in time for dinner with the Ladies," he adds, and Jared swears he does so with a grin.
“So, Prince, I can’t wait to see the wedding, it must surely be the feast of the century.” Lady Edna is standing on her drawbridge with a slightly unsettling smile.
Genevieve does a neat courtesy before kissing Lady Edna on both cheeks. “We’re honored you are willing to make the journey, my dear Lady,” she says effortlessly, and Edna’s lips relax slightly, into a sincerer smile. “Please convey my compliments to your family, I am sorry we’re missing them.”
Lady Edna nods with a dramatic sigh. “Yes, I am very sure they’ll be sorry to hear that they’ve missed you too,” she says, “are you sure you can’t stay for a few more days?”
Genevieve looks at Jared pleadingly, her act impeccable as always. “I’m so very sorry, my Lady, but we would be terribly rude. Our next stop has already been prepared for us,” Jared says in his most polite voice.
Lady Edna smiles in an as fabricated manner as Jared. “I understand, Your Highness. Well, I wish you all a pleasant journey, and look forward to the wedding.” She says—to Genevieve.
Jared bows and nods to Hoechlin, and finally, thankfully, they’re off.