The last time Derek wore his ceremonial robes it was to bury his parents. On the day of his parents’ funeral the chapel had been crowded with mourners. Not today. This morning, with the ghostly pre-dawn light barely softening the darkness, the chapel is empty except for Derek, Peter, Boyd and Isaac.
The chapel is cold and dark this morning, another thing it has in common with the day of his parents’ funeral.
There are things better done in the darkness, Peter said last night. And this, Derek knows, is one of them.
Isaac looks half-asleep still. The flickering candlelight from the sconce on one of the pillars illuminates the sharp angles of his face. There are dark circles like thumbprints under his eyes.
“Isaac,” Peter says in an undertone. “The charter?”
“I shall fetch it, my lord.” Isaac slips away and is swallowed up in the gloom.
Derek keeps his gaze fixed on one of the stained-glass windows. In the sunlight they blaze with color, but now they are dark and nebulous, every panel dull and gray.
Peter’s blue eyes are almost black in the gloom. Derek sees the apology in them—an apology he knows will remain unspoken even in private—but also the resolve.
The Hales have been weak since the loss of Derek’s parents. Too many outsiders have thought that means they can come and pick over the bones of a once stable and prosperous kingdom. Peter, as regent, has pushed back any way he can against those who would seek to usurp the Hales: diplomacy, bribery, and outright hostility.
Derek’s not entirely sure into which category today’s little charade falls.
It doesn’t matter.
He doesn’t think Peter has slept a full night since he became regent.
The gods know Derek hasn’t.
He doesn’t blame Peter for this. Peter is a man caught in a very tight net. He’s working with the scant wriggle room he has, for all their sakes.
“If I start disregarding the treaties your mother signed, we risk any one of our so-called allies using our faithlessness as an excuse to attack.”
Still, the request from Beacon had come out of nowhere.
Beacon. Stupid name, but nobody has ever seemed to come up with a decent alternative. Its language is obscure. Opaque. Derek has seen the name of their land translated into anything from Beacon, to Laindéir, to Light-in-the-Woods. Its people are as incomprehensible as its name. They’re barely civilized. They’re barely human.
Why Talia Hale, Derek’s mother, had signed a treaty with them in the first place will forever remain a mystery to him. A marriage treaty, to foster an alliance between their people.
“Fuck.” Peter had stared blankly at the letter when it had arrived. The strange, spindly writing had announced the coming-of-age of the prince of Beacon. Prince, or foremost male child of the ruler, or some other title or designation that did not translate. And then: “No.”
Peter, always cleverest with his back to the wall, had pored over Talia’s treaty with Beacon and seized on the fact that Talia had promised a child in marriage. Not a daughter, since the treaty dated back to before there were any children to speak of. A child.
He had been so sure that the king of Beacon would refuse his offer of Derek. Even Derek had grudgingly smiled when Peter had sent his reply to Beacon. What king would send his son to marry another man? Marriages are for the making of heirs, which is precisely why Peter had offered Derek instead of Laura or Cora. That way Peter would have technically complied with the terms of the treaty, leaving the king of Beacon to be the one who broke it.
Except the king of Beacon did not send an insult for an insult. Instead he sent his son, and now here they are.
Isaac hurries back toward them, the charter of marriage in his hands.
Derek tries not to look at it, even though he’ll shortly be signing it with his uncle and Isaac and Boyd as witnesses. The priest, too, if the man ever appears. And… and the boy from Beacon with the name no translator has yet managed to pronounce the same twice.
Derek has grown up on the stories. Beacon lies to the north of Triskelion. It is small. It has no cities, barely even villages, and how the people prosper Derek has no idea. Because they aren’t quite people, probably. They are known to practice magic. It is said they can move through the veils separating the worlds like the fae can. It is said they are cold-blooded creatures, vicious and uncivilized. It is said they sacrifice trespassers to their ancient horned gods.
Peter is right to guard the Hale bloodline against them.
A door creaks open from one of the small rooms off the chapel transept. Deaton appears, holding a candle aloft. His robes sweep the floor behind him as he approaches the dark altar. He lights the candles on the altar one by one.
Isaac steps forward and sets the charter on the altar. Then he steps back again and takes his place behind Peter.
“Are we ready?” Deaton asks in a quiet voice.
Derek nods, his stomach twisting.
Deaton looks back toward the transept. “Come,” he says, and beckons. “It is time. Come.”
Derek turns to look.
At first he gets an impression of a monstrous figure, but then the light from a sconce illuminates the boy who steps out into the transept and Derek sees that he’s wearing a headdress made of antlers, with flowers woven to the points, and a veil hanging from the bone. He is pale-skinned under the veil, and fine boned. His eyes shine almost yellow in the candlelight. He wears a red undershirt, the collar standing up, with a white robe with blue trim over it. There is a thin red cloak over his shoulders. He carries a silver cup in his hand.
Derek gazes at him wide-eyed.
It is the first time he has seen the boy, who only arrived the night before. He’s not sure what he was expecting, but not quite this. There’s a strange beauty to the cast of the boy’s pale features that is both compelling and unnerving.
He thinks of the old song where the woman followed her fae lover into the woods.
Light down, light down, you are come to the place where you will die.
The boy meets Derek’s gaze and his steps falter.
“Come,” Deaton says, and beckons him forward again. “Come.”
The boy steps up to the altar, his eyes wide.
Derek steps up to join him.
And then it’s done.
The boy has been given a room down the passageway from Derek’s.
Derek follows him inside and shrugs his cloak off.
The boy touches the embroidery on his robe, his long, pale fingers tracing the shining blue threads. He lifts his gaze to Derek’s and then drops it again. His headdress dips, and his veil flutters.
Derek motions him forward. “Take this off, yes?”
The boy nods, his brow furrowing.
Derek tosses his cloak onto the trunk at the base of the boy’s bed. His crown follows. He has never liked to wear it, and must remember to give it to Boyd to return it safely to the treasury once he is done here. Derek presses his mouth into a thin line and ignores the dread sitting like a stone in his gut. He glares around the room at the low-burning lamps on the dresser, at the jug of wine beside them, and at the turned down blankets on the bed. The morning light might be filtering through the shutters, but the bedroom has been prepared for more nocturnal diversions. His glare lands on the boy again.
The boy is wide-eyed under his veil, his cheeks splotched with red. He lifts his fingers to the embroidery on his robe again, and moves his trembling fingers along the raised threads.
Derek feels a sudden burst of irrational anger that he’s expected to deal with the weight of both his own fear and the boy’s. The boy hasn’t made a damn move to remove his headdress.
“Take it off,” Derek repeats.
The boy shuffles forward. He folds his veil up, and lifts his strange headdress off. He sets it down on the dresser, and curls his fingers briefly around one of the points on the antlers.
Derek glances at him quickly.
The boy has dark hair that’s now sticking up at odd angles, and a smattering of moles across his face. Apart from his cheeks, which are still brightly flushed, his skin is pale.
Derek wants to open the door and flee.
Instead, he screws his courage and nods at the bed.
The boy’s sharp intake of breath seems very loud.
The boy keeps his face averted and his eyes squeezed shut. Derek fixes his gaze on the bedding, and tries not to be present in this moment. When it’s done, Derek straightens his clothes, and the boy—his husband—straightens his, and Derek has no idea what to say to him, and so he collects his cloak and his ceremonial crown and leaves the room.
When he pulls the door shut behind him, the boy is sitting on the bed blinking rapidly at the wall.