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Tony watched the white cliffs rise up on the horizon. If he weren’t so bitter about being sent to the ends of the earth, he’d probably find the sight beautiful.

But he couldn’t. The winds were cold--nothing like the warm, gentle breezes that shook the olive trees of Italia--and he’d heard Northmen were as harsh and cold as their climate.

That was no doubt doubly true of King Steven. The new dragonslayer king of Eire.

Eire wasn’t a particularly powerful or large kingdom, but nobody wanted to cross a dragonslayer king. Word had traveled fast. Soon all the kingdoms and duchies of Europa were sending gifts to the new monarch. And Howard and Gregory were both eager to be rid of him; what better way than to send the troublesome youngest son off as tribute?

Concubine to a great warrior of the north.

Two birds, one stone, and ‘bye-bye, Tony.”

(At least it was better than poison.) Tony’s mouth twisted, half amused and half bitter. (Italia’s reputation in that regard wasn’t unwarranted.)

“Is that Brookline castle?” Tony asked one of the sailors, pointing up to the high keep.

“Aye, my lord.”

“Is King Steven really seven feet tall?” Tony’s page, Peter, asked nearly bouncing with excitement. “Can he really bend a sword in two with his bare hands? Did he really kill the dragon with nothing but a shield!?”

The Northman just laughed. “You’ll see the King for yourself soon enough, lad.”

“But he did defeat the Great Wyrm, right?” Peter asked sounding disappointed.

“Aye,” the Northman answered with pride. “That he did.”

Tony shivered and went below.

Time to deck himself in gold and silks, like a good little gift.

Peter helped fasten jewels to his ears and nipples, draping him expertly in chains and pearls and silks and damask. And as he did so, Peter released a torrent of speculation about the king: what he likes, dislikes, what he looks like, what kind of castle he keeps, what kind of food he eats.

Tony tuned him out. It hardly mattered. He was here now. (And if it was miserable, he had contingency plans for escape.) He wrapped himself in a heavy fur cloak and emerged once more.

A small band of Northmen met them on the docks, dressed in full armor and regalia. They carried standards bearing the emblems of the country and city: the harp and the eagle, and a shield emblazoned with a shining star. The leader of the party had long brown hair and no left arm.

“I’m Sir James, Captain of the King’s Guard,” he said briskly. “I’m to take you immediately to the King.”

“Many thanks, Sir James,” Tony said with a slight bow. The knight led the way, up and up a winding passage carved into the cliff. It led directly into the keep and Tony’s mind was buzzing with criticism.

(Sloppy. Impressive, sure, but hard to defend. Easy to spot from the coast. Disaster.)

The castle itself seemed small, but it was hard to get a clear sense. The guards led them down a long corridor and paused by a large double door.

“The King has requested your first audience be alone,” Sir James told him.

Tony held back a grimace. (So it was like that was it?) At least he’d prepped himself on the boat.

“You may see the king now.”

The guards pulled open the doors and Sir James announced in a resounding voice: “Prince Anthony Stark of Italia!”

Tony strode inside and the doors slammed closed behind him. Never one to back down from a challenge, Tony let his fur cloak fall to the floor as he approached, eyes demurely fastened on the floor. He heard the king gasp.

(Well, that was something. He knew he looked damn good. Perhaps that was the key to keeping the upper hand here?)

The King cleared his throat.

“Prince Anthony,” he said in a clear warm voice. “Welcome to Brookline Castle.”

“Thank you, your majesty,” Tony said.

Now that he’d been addressed, he looked up.

Sitting on a giant throne was a thin, frail looking man. He was dressed in a thick blue robe that looked too big and a simple golden circlet balanced awkwardly on his head. The throne--massive dark wood, elaborately carved--dwarfed the smiling figure sitting on it. For a moment, Tony thought he was advanced in years, but as he drew closer--keeping his face blank--he realized, to the contrary, the king was quite young: bright blue eyes, elfin cheekbones, pale, snowy skin.

“King Steven,” Tony said, bowing deep and trying to conceal his confusion.

“You are most welcome, Prince Anthony,” the king repeated, then added, “I mean no offense . . . but aren’t you cold, atired thus?”

“It’s traditional,” Tony said with a shrug. The rings through his nipples shook with the movement and sent the web of delicate chains tinkling under the translucent silks that draped his torso.

“Don’t you like it, Your Majesty?” Tony asked cheekily. The King blushed and Tony felt oddly delighted by it.

“I, uh,” The king’s eyes roamed him, up and down, then he blushed brighter. “Let us go sit by the fire where you’ll be warm.”

“As you wish,” Tony said, and couldn’t resist adding, though it probably wasn’t wise or polite, “O Mighty Dragon-slayer King.”

“Oh, that,” King Steven said, looking embarrassed, as he clambered off of his throne and led Tony to two carved chairs by the great hearth. “I’m afraid that story is getting quite out of hand.”

The King gestured for Tony to sit first. As the warmth of the fire poured over him, Tony felt a flicker of gratitude. It was far more comfortable here.

“There’s a good deal of exaggeration, I’m afraid.” The king gestured to himself with a rueful smile as he took his seat. “No doubt you're disappointed,” he said.

“You didn’t defeat the dragon yourself, did you?” Tony asked bluntly.

“Oh, no, I did,” Steven said with a shrug. “I just didn’t slay it.”


“Well, she was laying waste to our forests, fields, and livestock,” Steven said, “She had already killed some of our best knights and the poor king--and Bucky’d lost his arm to her--so I challenged her to a duel of wit instead.”

“You what?”

“Riddles,” Steven said with another shrug. “Dragons love riddles. And they take oaths very seriously. I talked her into a battle of the mind; and if I won, she’d cease to ravage our land and instead protect us from invaders. She’s welcome to eat any invading armies that may come to our shores.”

“Riddles,” Tony repeated. He couldn’t help but laugh. “This is the terrifying King to whom I’ve been sent as tribute!”

Steven shrugged again.

“I guess so,” he said. “You’re free to go if you prefer.”

Tony was surprised to find the idea wasn’t nearly as appealing as it had been an hour ago.

“Don’t you want your concubine?” Tony asked in a sultry voice, leaning forward to look up at him through his eyelashes.

The King’s cheeks went pink again.

“Not sure I’d know what to do with a concubine,” the King admitted, rubbing the back of his neck. “Sounds a little . . . decadent. It might be nice to have a consort, though. If I could find the right fella.”

“Consort,” Tony repeated sceptically. “A male consort would give you no heir.”

“Don’t see how that matters,” Steven said. He tilted his head to the side, looking confused, and the crown started to fall off; he sat up straight and shoved it back into place as he added, “After all, we elect our kings.”

“Elect?” Tony repeated again, jaw falling open.

“Sure,” Steven said slowly. “I was a painter before I defeated the dragon; they elected me after that. And, well, the last two kings had been eaten.”

“It’s a strange land I’ve come to,” Tony said wonderingly.

Steven’s eyes flicked across Tony’s costume and he said, “If you’ll forgive me for saying so, Prince Anthony, it seems you’ve come from a strange land too. At least to me.”

“That I have,” Tony said softly. “That I have.”

“Perhaps,” the King said, “You’d like to stay here a while? With me?”

“I might be amenable to that.”

“Then, why don’t I fetch us some wine,” the King said.

“I’d like that very much, Your Majesty.”

“Please, Prince Anthony,” he said with a smile. “Call me Steve.”

“Only if you’ll call me Tony.”

The king nodded with pleasure, then his eyes flicked down to Tony's . . . adornments. He blushed again.

“Uh, Tony? Are you sure I can’t fetch you a blanket?”

Tony threw back his head and laughed.

"You are not what I was expecting," Tony told him with a grin.

"Is that a good thing?" Steve asked hesitantly.

"A very good thing indeed."