The breathing of his poor horse is getting labored, but Steven pushes it anyway; a little effort and they'll be back in Winterfell. The mare knows it, too. She gives a burst of energy as they round the last bend in the road before the stretch that leads to the moat and the castle. The road is busy and they weave between chariots and other riders. When Steven enters the castle's walls, the courtyard is full as expected with the funeral. God, the funeral. Steven went up North trying to stop the skirmishes, foolishly thinking he could prove himself worthy of his new rank. He stayed away too long and now King Howard and Queen Maria are dead. Their carriage had an accident when coming back from a visit to the Twins, but there have been whispers of foul play. Or at least that's what Steven heard in the last inn he'd stopped at to sleep a few hours (he was almost falling off his horse with fatigue). And... well, he had to change his mount or risk killing it. He hates pushing horses this much, but his place is at court under the circumstances.
The more he approaches the stables, the more people Steven has in his path, slowing him down. Judging by colors and banners, visitors are from all over the realm. King Howard had been a severe but appreciated monarch, mind like quicksilver and a knack for strategy in battle that had benefited multiple allies.
"Captain Rogers!" Steven hears. He smiles when he sees Peter the stable boy making his way towards him. The boy is more skipping than running, his brown curls bouncing. He grabs the reins of Steven's horse and beams. Peter always watches the practice drills and tells everyone that will listen about his dream to become a knight when he grows up. He's a sweet kid. "You're back! Did you have a nice ride?"
"Yes, Peter, thank you."
It's been a long journey, but uneventful. He passed only a few travelers on the road until Last Hearth, and if anyone had bad intentions, they sure didn't show it. Being an armed soldier on a war horse tends to give him space when he wants it. Steven barely stopped and rode all night, and now he's so tired his eyes and head hurt.
Peter is leading the horse to the stables; the poor thing's fur is matted with sweat, and Steven feels guilty.
"Give her a good rub down, okay?"
"For sure," Pete says.
"Did I miss everything?" Steven worries, looking towards the keep. If he strains, he can perceive the murmur of voice. He should have made a better time.
"I'm afraid the ceremony is over. The banquet should start soon though."
It's disappointing. Steven is not a particularly devout man, but it would have been a show of respect towards King Howard and Queen Maria to be at the ceremony. Even more so for the heir. The banquet is still formal, but as a soldier - even a captain - Steven's place isn't with the nobles.
"You have time to change," Peter says, eying Steven's travel-stained tunic with critical eyes.
He is right, Steven is a mess. He will have only one chance at a first impression with the heir and his entourage, so he should clean up a little. But that's trivial, maybe they need him elsewhere. One man will know.
"Surely Commander Rhodes-"
"He's not expecting you today, of what I heard," Peter interrupts.
It's borderline insulting. "I tried."
Washing up the grit of the road is on the other hand definitely an appealing idea. Steven hurries to the casern, that he finds almost deserted. Everyone must be security detail; he'll see to join them soon.
The last week has been a daze, and Anthony is just getting his bearings back. He supposes that it is normal, or even appropriate to be numb after losing both of your parents to a freak accident.
Anthony had been plucked unceremoniously from his chosen lifestyle of a dissipated prince in Casterly Rock and rushed to Winterfell. One day he was among other bored and rich fellows, several of them wards like him (also known as hostages); the next he was shoehorned as the leader of the North just because of his birthright.
He'd known the time for all of that shit would come, but it should have been in decades. Anthony was supposed to party and invent and fight and sleep around for years more before settling down and taking on those responsibilities. But... he's always been bad at doing as expected from him, at least in his late father's eyes. Why should it be different now? Anthony refuses to be rushed into being the ideal heir to the perfect monarch that had to bring prosperity and safety to his people. Fuck this: he's been back for a week, it will wait a little.
He needs to fall back on his feet, first. Check out what awaits him. Look things over with Rhodes, his childhood buddy who is now the official Commander of his army, and ask Jarvis when he arrives. He spent years at head of the household staff, Jarvis will undoubtedly be a great resource to know what is going on in the castle (and way more than that). Younger, Anthony contemplated becoming a blacksmith or an alchemist... when he thought he had control on his future; in time he understood that being the only son of a King left him very little options. Which doesn't stop Anthony from loving doing experiments and mix chemicals, and everything that goes with designing and building war machines, precise weaponry or equipment for the war horses.
Unfortunately, at the moment he's not in his smithy, but instead in a full banquet room. Also? Anthony is bored out of his skull. He's not even entertained by the obligatory banner men, lords or vassals or whom ever kissing ass under the pretense of offering their condolences.
As it is wont to happen when he's in a foul mood, Anthony drinks more than he eats, keeping an eye on the entertainment. He also distracts himself by winking at the maids who are already sending him coy looks - property and mourning period be damned. It isn't a fun evening, far from it, but it's tolerable until it's not anymore. He doesn't know what triggers the change of mood. It might be one too many toast boasting Howard's various qualities (no flaws for the dead) but suddenly Antony's act meant to convey that he's got this under control is in danger to splinter. It hits Anthony with crystal clarity that he's alone to play this game now. That his father and mother are dead and not coming back.
Anthony itches to retire to his apartments, or better the laboratories or the smithy, to lose himself in some designs, or build something with his own hands. He has a crossbow he's in the process of redesigning to make more powerful. That would be a good change of air, and Anthony could fire on straw men to boot, work out the restlessness. Distracted, he brings food to his mouth and is blindsided by the sweet taste of a fig; they were his mother's favorites, probably because they are so rare here in the North. Anthony may have butted head with Howard while simultaneously trying to win his approval, but his mom had been an angel send down on this earth to deal with the both of them. Anthony abruptly gets up, sending his chair screeching back. That draws every person in the Hall's attention onto himself. He musters a smile he can feel sit fake on his face.
"Ladies, Gentlemen, esteemed guests. It's been a long and exhausting day, as you surely understand. I will retire to my apartments, but please continue enjoying this evening, as the King and Queen my parents would have wished. My most thankful thoughts are with every one of you. I appreciate your support in this and in everything. If you want to take advantage of your presence in Winterfell to discuss State matters, please take an appointment with my advisor. Counselor Obadiah Stane and I will try to accommodate you. Again, thank you for your comfort in these sad times, and I will always be grateful that you were by my side on this day."
And that should do it, Anthony supposes. He witnesses nods and even one or two olds crones dabbing at their eyes like hypocrites. Obadiah looks pleased that Anthony passed his message, so it's a good little parting speech. Hopefully, he can now avoid every person in the room for the foreseeable future, or more realistically until tomorrow.
James stood up as he did, gleaming in his polished armor and gray cape, and now escorts him out to the corridor leading to Anthony's chambers.
"Are you okay?" Rhodes asks.
"No," Anthony says, surprising himself with the honest answer. "I'll be, though. It was too much."
They are walking towards his rooms and Anthony's is about to tell Rhodey that he wants to go to the smithy instead - he feels like hitting something repeatedly until he's not thinking anymore - when someone coughs to get their attention. He looks up, annoyed, to see a big blond fellow, looking at him apologetically. Anthony hasn't met him yet, he would have noticed. The man is gorgeous, broad and with fair hair and very blue eyes, but Anthony's not in the mood to for pleasantries right now.
He's about to say so, being a shitty host for sure, but to his surprise it's Rhodey who speaks up.
"Steven! I didn't know you were back, you made fast time." Rhodes looks happy to see the man, at least.
"Yes, I just arrived. Too late nonetheless," Steven says, hands clenching open and closed with nerves. That's a man used to a sword, Anthony realizes. "I am very sorry for your loss, Your Highness. I tried everything in my power to be here for the ceremony."
"Thank you. And it's not a problem."
Steven looks at the floor, but at the way he pinches his mouth, it seems like a problem to him.
"And you'd be?" Anthony asks, curious. He can't help how his eyes travel on Steven's form, though he's not certain the man catches his interest. Rhodes sure does and immediately intervenes.
"My mistake. Your Highness, this is Ser Steven Rogers, captain in your armies. Our most esteemed and best soldier, a great leader."
The praise makes the big guy blush crimson.
"You are too kind, Commander, and give me far too much credit. I'm at your service, Your Highness," he says with a bow.
The blush is delicious and yes, Anthony would love to have a man like that at his service. He must prod Rhodey later, try to know if that's a possibility with the man in question. He can be persuasive, but it's always easier if there's already a leaning. As if he senses that his mind is going towards the gutter, Rhodey makes a face, and Anthony smirks. His friend still knows him well, even after all of those years apart.
"Thank you, Captain," Anthony says. "Where were you at?"
"North of the Wall," Ser Rogers answers. "There have been a lot of skirmishes with the Wildlings. But I should have been here, to protect the king."
"Nothing you could have done, Steven," Rhodey says gently. "We must debrief on the situation up North later."
"I'd be interested in hearing that," Anthony says.
And it's not - only - because the storyteller is gorgeous. Anthony's heard strange tales about what goes on beyond the wall, and he's curious to learn more.
"If you can get up," Rhodey teases. "By eight, in the war room."
"Not a problem," Anthony says. He probably won't go to bed at all.
They part, after Steven does a last bow, and Anthony steers his and Rhode's path towards the smithy. As soon as they are out of hearing range - at least Anthony supposes it isn't a coincidence - Rhodey speaks up.
Anthony laughs genuinely for the first time in days. Rhodey is one of three people on this Earth who dares give him that nickname, and he loves that they are still close enough for it. But what's hilarious is the way Rhodey says it, in tone but also with body language. It screams of weariness as if he knows Anthony is one bad decision away from doing something outrageous.
"What do you mean, no? I don't understand what you're talking about."
"I'm not kidding," Rhodey says. "Steven isn't someone you can toy with, bed and then discard. He's a good man."
"What, I don't deserve a good man?" Anthony teases. "He's gorgeous, Rhodey. And if he isn't opposed in having a bit of fun, who would it hurt?"
"You don't know him. He's got a gentle soul."
Anthony rolls his eyes. "Come on. He can't look like that, be captain in my armies and not have lived a little."
"You'd be surprised," Rhodey says with a sigh. "He's not high born, but his mother arranged a betrothal with a girl from your mother's entourage when they were very young. His promised, Peggy Carter, either joined the service of a princess from Highgarden or became a spy for your father, possibly even both. The story varies depending on whom you listen too. I am not certain, frankly. What's for sure, the arrangement fell through. I fear Steven might still be heartbroken."
Anthony hums and finds out the information isn't deterring him the slightest. "I see."
"I implore you," Rhodey says.
"You talk as if I'll attack the poor man," Anthony says, shaking his head. "What's the harm in flirting? If he isn't interested, he can say so."
"You'll make sure he knows he's not obligated?"
Anthony splutters, outraged at the implication. "What? I hope you're not serious right now. I never had to force anyone!"
The mere idea of forcing himself on someone makes his skin crawl in disgust.
"Of course not. Not voluntarily, or even by omission or implicitly. But you're the king, now, Tony. People might do things because they think it's expected. I know you would not take advantage. But please be very clear about choices, might it be with Steven, a chamber maid or a high born Lady who responds to your advances."
"Of course," Anthony grumbles.
He can't say Rhodey's fears are unfounded, he knows the domestics could get that impression. That concern was drilled into him frequently, and he knows to be careful about those things. Anthony just thinks it's preposterous that Rogers, who is a grown man and a seasoned warrior, would feel intimidated or pressured by him, even if he's a blushing virgin. Even more unbelievable if he's that honorable, in fact.
Anyway, he can't work on the project of bedding the delicious Ser Steven Rogers until at least the following day; Anthony won't lose time and mental resources worrying about it just yet.
"Why aren't we going to your chambers?" Rhodey asks when they take a turn left towards the central court instead of continuing further in the keep.
"Because I will forge a sword."
"Forge a sword. Before bed."
Anthony grins. "Who ever talked about bed?"
The movement that accompanies Rhodey's eye roll is so exaggerated, Anthony worries he'll get a crick in his neck from the force of it.
"Don't complain and do your job of guarding me if you insist. Or even better, let me do what I want. You go to bed."
"You know I can't leave you alone," Rhodey says. "Not anymore."
Suspicion of foul play in his parent's death restrains even more Anthony's options, he knows that.
"Doesn't need to be you? Go lie down if you're tired."
"You have to sleep too, Tony," Rhodey insists, hovering between exasperated and concerned.
"I am aware. And I will." One day, he supposes. Not tonight, he's pretty sure.
"If you need a break or want to go to bed, I'm sure you have a minion who could play babysitter."
"It is not babysitting, it's the Royal Guard's job."
"Which means babysitter for the ultra rich and crowned," Anthony says. There is a change of quality if the air when they get to the smithy, and he immediately relaxes, more at ease. There's fire in the earth and the distinct smell of heated metal permeate everything. Anthony sheds his expensive and embroidered surcoat as he walks towards the flame, already rolling the shirt sleeves on his forearms.
"You are serious about this."
"You bet I am," Anthony says, grabbing a metal rod. Upon close inspection the material isn't satisfactory; it rarely is when Anthony hasn't made the alloy himself to control the quality. But it will do for tonight and he puts the iron in the fire.
As expected, manual work does him some good. He proceeds to forge a sword in the following hours, almost as an automatism. The heat of the forge and the repetitive action of folding and refolding the metal also blissfully empties Anthony's head. It gives him a momentary reprieve from constantly thinking about the responsibilities he will have to tackle sooner rather than later. At one point, Rhodey had left, at Anthony's insistence, saying he'd find someone else to stand guard. A tall fellow took his place, not talkative at all, but guards are not chosen for their wit. Anyway, Anthony is working.
He hits and hits the metal, cooling the weapon and starting all over again, in a technique Anthony perfected over the years. Not his best work, for that he'd need his special alloy, but it's still the best quality one can produce with regular ore, just below Valyrian steel. His own? the true ones? They are better than Valyrian steel, something he plans to demonstrate in the next tourney.
Anthony's movements stutter when he realizes that he might have already taken part in his last tourney. No one will risk allowing the king in the jousts and combat, not when they are afraid of a play on his life. Anthony hits with more vigor after that, frustrated. He had stated forging his special project, the one closest to his heart, at fourteen years old: the Iron Man armor. It was light, but still strong enough due to his experiments with iron and various minerals. On top, it was wonderfully detailed as he'd made the armor look just as fabulous as he'd wished.
Armed with the best weapons he could make, Anthony had registered anonymously for tourneys. Everyone knew King Howard didn't want his heir to lose his time with those 'stupidities' when there were studies to do and trade to learn. Frankly, that was hypocritical of him, since Howard had done plenty of tourneys as a prince. So in his armor that shone red in the sun, Anthony had fought and won all of his bouts. He was strong for his age because of his work in the forge, but also fast and agile because his armor was half as heavy as anyone else's. The mystery of his anonymity and the buzz around the armor - which he upgraded regularly - made him a crowd favorite. Antony loves tourneys, genuinely. He can't get enough of the spectators' cheers but even more of the expression on his opponents' faces, especially when they hit the sand.
Maybe, if Anthony is careful and sneaky, he could continue to compete as Iron Man. It would necessitate a lot more logistics, for sure; the king is expected to attend the show and his absence when one particular knight is on the field could be noticed. But it should be doable, with the assistance of a few friends. Barton, for one, is always ready to help.
The sun is rising when Anthony hammers down the sword for the last time and dips it in salt brine. He looks at the blade critically and even though it's more rough than fancy, with no ornamentation for the handle, the weapon has a harsh beauty. Anthony sighs and resign himself to go back his apartments. He's not tired - wired yes, heavy eyed, but not much more than that - but important work is waiting for him and he'll get on it soon. It's only as he's putting down the weapon for good, already planning on coming back to see it in the day - possibly even try it - that a shuffling sound catches his attention.
Anthony expects the blacksmith, even though it's still very early. With the many visitors now crowding Winterfell, there could be an urgent demand for horse shoes or something... but it's his guard. And not any guard: the most intriguing Ser Rogers.
"Huh. I'm pretty sure you're not the one who replaced Rhod- Commander Rhodes," he says. In fact, it's certainly not Rhodey's idea to send this guy after the conversation they had earlier.
Captain Rogers smiles, which is a beautiful sight. "And that would be correct. I replaced Thomas, his wife went prematurely into labor."
Anthony frowns. "Not too early, I hope."
The castle is waking up. It would be a good idea, in Steven's opinion, if the prince got some rest. Or at least cleans up before his day starts. Lots of dignitaries will request meetings even though it would be normal to leave the prince to his grief and to focus on the crowning. It's in three days only, and there is so much to prepare.
The future king finally lowers his sword that is magnificent even from afar; Steven would love to see it up close. Watching the prince forge metal had been enthralling. There's a mastery in his technique that speaks years of experience. Such confidence in his abilities is extremely appealing, and Steven is fascinated by how the prince focused on his work for the last two hours.
The spectacle was also most compelling aesthetically: Steven has always admired the lines of both fit men and curvy women. He never did more than look after his betrothal, though. Since the engagement to Lady Carter fell though, Steven lets himself admire a little more freely... but it was surely crossing a line to ogle your king to be. Lying with men is not a big deal in the army. On the field everyone turns a blind eye to who you shared your cot with and keeps shut, but at the castle it's a whole different reality. Already, mere hours after being back, he's overheard the kitchen maids giggling about how the prince is a flirt. If he bedded a man, it would be all that they would talk about.
It's like the prince comes out of a daze all at once and he looks at him with surprise.
"Huh. I'm pretty sure you're not the one who replaced Rhod- Commander Rhodes," he says.
Yes, he'd been in a trance all right, and Steven smile. "And that would be correct. I replaced Thomas, his wife went prematurely into labor."
Anthony frowns. "Not too early, I hope."
Frankly, the question surprises Steven. The worry shows a surprising level of compassion and empathy for a mere guard when Steven heard so much over the years about how the prince is selfish and self absorbed. He should have known better than to listen to gossip and almost blushes in shame.
"Only a few days. They were expecting the baby on the full moon."
Prince Anthony grins. "Ahhhh. A Beltane baby, I see."
Steven catches up with the implication a second later. The dates do fit with the fertility rituals on Beltane, he didn't think of that.
"They are married."
The prince rolls his eyes. "Good for them. Did you want something?"
"No, Your Highness," Steven says. "I'm just here to escort you when you're done."
"Please, stop," Prince Anthony says, raising a hand up.
Steven figures he will be dismissed although he agrees with Commander Rhodes that the prince should have an armed escort at all times. He's vulnerable right now, and someone could stroll in the castle and take a shot at him while the kingdom is still in turmoil from King Stark dying. No one wants that.
"First, stop making that face. You look as if you bit in a lemon," the prince says. Steven always struggles when it's time to conceal his emotions, but tries to reign in his worries. He doesn't want to start his interactions with the prince on a bad note. "I meant it to say I don't want to be called 'Your Highness', or 'Your Majesty' or what have you, that was my parents. When there's no need for protocol, you can call me Anthony."
Steven wants to reply that there is always need for protocol, but he doesn't know if he's allowed to be that familiar; again he swallows that answer.
"I can try, Your Gra-, hum, Prince Anthony," Steven stammers, colors rising in his cheeks at the almost blunder.
The prince laughs. "Close enough for now. Captain."
"Are you done for tonight?" Steven asks. It's morning, he hopes the prince will go rest at least a little.
Prince Anthony checks out the sword he's been working on and purses his lips.
"I suppose. I hate leaving something unfinished."
It's better than the majority of weapons Steven has seen – by far – and it hardly seems unfinished to him.
"It's beautiful," Steven says.
"You like it?" Prince Anthony looks pleased, eyes crinkling at the corners as he assesses the blade.
"Yes, of course."
The prince walks by him and shoves the weapon against his chest. "Have it then. A gift. I'll make you a real one soon. Rhodey talks highly of you, and a captain in my army should have the best."
"Thank you," Steven says, awed and a little overwhelmed.
Up close, the sword is even better than Steven thought, and he cannot wait to try it. With the edge of his thumb, he tests the edge and slices his finger. The blade is wicked sharp. By reflex Steven sucks on his digit to stave the blood and when he looks up Prince Anthony is watching his mouth, focused. It makes something Steven cannot explain course through him.
"I'm fine," he tries to reassure.
"That you are," the prince says with a quick smile and a wink, before leaving the forge.
Steven is stunned for a second – what did he mean by that? – before remembering himself and following suit to do his duty.
Thankfully the prince goes straight to his apartments, leaves with a goodnight even if it's dawn, and Steven resumes standing guard at his door until further notice.