There is something to be said of the discrepancy between a portrait and a person.
On canvas, virtually all genuine expression is lost; the artist is never in any rush to capture the life in one’s eyes. They are much more concerned with the subject’s likeness as a whole. Their pay is dependent on such.
This said, Derek thought he had seen all planes of the face that belonged to his uncle’s husband.
And yet in the simplest of light, that which fell through split seams of a worn canopy draped over a rutabaga stand, Mieczyslaw Stilinski looked more radiant here than in any portrait he had ever sat for.
Derek was struck dumb in the man’s stead, stupid in the face of his beauty.
Mieczyslaw smiled with his entire being, full and kind and directed towards a market woman with age-tired eyes hidden half under her cloak. He extended to her a hand of silver coin which she exchanged with a small sack of vegetables. Her smile was grateful and reverent and Derek could see, even from the distance, her lips pull and purse around the words “Your Majesty”.
Mieczyslaw’s expression pinched with discomfort, but he nodded his thanks without hesitation and held the woman’s frail hands in both of his own for only a moment. He began to whisper rapidly to her, too quiet for Derek to hear above a man speaking, all of a sudden, in his ear.
“Do you have the coin to pay for these?” The stand owner said, hands still carrying the sack of lentils Derek had only just asked him to bag.
“Of course, apologies,” Derek acquiesced, taking the proffered bag and relieving himself of 2 silver pieces. “Though, might you be able to tell me what business the King Consort has in The Hills?” Mieczyslaw bids goodbye to the market woman, moving to face Derek.
“Have you not heard?” the lentil man asked, skeptic and critical in voice and face.
Derek did not turn, though, meeting the gaze of the King Consort from across the marketplace. They hold the stare for a moment on breath, bated, for far longer than appropriate for two strangers. Mieczyslaw falters the gaze first, tipping his face downward.
“I have been away for some time now, and was never a seeker of gossip,” Derek admitted, reluctant to look away for fear the cloaked man may turn out to be a mirage.
It was both dangerous and unconstitutional for the King Consort to be alone in a place so casual as a farmer’s market, Derek thought independently, seeking the eyes of some hidden bodyguards, but Mieczyslaw was steadfastly solitary.
“King Peter has divorced His Grace with intent to wed Lady Lydia Martin.”
“That’s impossible,” Derek startled to face him, scandalized by the use of the lesser style.
“And yet is our reality,” the lentil man said, none too kindly, “Mieczyslaw Stilinski was de-throned and exiled from Beacon some time ago. The King stripped him of any title aside from that of his birthright.”
Derek absorbed the news with due horror, only just turning to watch the exiled consort’s deep purple cloak vanish in the marketplace crowd.
When Derek arrived home, and shared the news, he was met with a distinct lack of surprise.
“You didn’t know?” Erica asked with a judgmental quirk of a brow.
“Clearly I didn’t know. Why didn’t you tell me? When was the ruling carried out?” Derek responded, defensive.
She looked skeptical, “I mean, the lives of the monarchy have not exactly been your favorite topic of conversation in the past. I assumed you already knew. But I suppose the announcement reached The Hills…” She looked up and right, trying to summon the memory, before looking at her husband across the room.
Boyd shrugged, unconcerned.
Erica sighed, doing some sort of simple math, “Probably two weeks ago. It was in The Post. There were protests all over the square. How did you not hear about it?”
Derek opened his mouth, probably to aggressively defend his obliviousness, but closed it at the slam of the door behind him. Isaac trudged across the threshold, face smeared with black soot from the mines.
“Isaac, did you know about the divorce and exile of-“
“Of the King Consort?” he interrupted mildly, collapsing onto the settee beside Erica, who immediately began to comb her fingers through his tangled hair. “Yeah, that was what, two weeks ago, was it not?”
Derek chuffed, “Nevermind.” He blankly walked past them and towards his room. “Don’t get dirt on the upholstery,” he reminded.
He closed the door gently behind him, pensive.
It had been some time since Derek had paid attention to the news, for precisely this reason.
His Uncle, the tyrant King of Beacon, and his young husband, the favorable Mieczyslaw Stilinski, were all the journals talked of since their wedding, six years ago. It was hardly a scandal when the boy, hardly a breath older than sixteen, was betrothed to the King. Mieczyslaw was expected to be a royal match from his birth. His parents were regents of a neighboring regime and he, the second child, was primed not for their throne but for the support of someone else’s.
The people of Beacon adored him, perhaps more than the people of his home country, because in Beacon he was always stood next to the King: aged, scarred, and cynical. Mieczyslaw was blessedly young, moonlight pale with a charmingly boyish face. He was temperate where Peter was violent; kind where he was cruel. He had a humor appreciated by the masses; Peter was steadfastly humorless.
All of this from word of mouth, Derek could not personally verify, as he and his Uncle’s ex-husband had never formally met.
Derek had been exiled from Beacon from the age of seventeen.
Once the prince, second in line for the throne after his late sister, Derek lived under the rule of his late mother, Queen Talia Hale. The royal family was the victim of arson some fourteen years ago, killing all but Peter, Laura, and himself.
Peter, left horribly disfigured by the flames, took the throne out from under his sister, who was well of age to retain the crown, and murdered her in cold blood.
When the journals began snooping around for the truth, the reason behind the fire and the death of their new Queen, Peter formally accused and condemned Derek for his own crimes.
The people largely didn’t believe the “truth” Peter tried to sell them, but he had a cult following too violent and loyal to the new King that all refused to contest him.
That was thirteen years ago, though, and Derek no longer felt the rage he once had.
He moved to sit quietly on his bed, remembering the anger and betrayal that once rattled his bones. He wondered if Mieczyslaw felt a similar emotion.
The sun rose as it always did, old reliable, and Derek ventured outside his room, finding his sleep to have been remarkably normal.
Isaac was chewing exaggeratedly on doughy bread, tearing it apart with his fingers and gazing out the window. Erica and Boyd were unseen, likely still sharing their bed. Isaac noticed Derek approach.
“Are we going to talk about you being surly yesterday?” He asked.
Derek sighed, shaking his head neutrally. “Surly,” he repeated.
“Yes, surly. I didn’t take you for one to pick up secondhand offense from Peter making bad decisions. At least not anymore.” He offered Derek half of the bread, which he took.
Derek shrugged, honestly unsure of the emotion he was feeling. “Neither did I.”
Was he offended on the regent’s behalf?
“It is strange though,” Isaac admitted, “seeing him around The Hills. He sticks out like a thumb. I feel like I should be on my knees at all times.”
Erica chose that line to emerge from her bedroom, “Aren’t you doing that already?” She snarked with a satisfied grin. “I’ve seen a few of the miners come straight from work to the bar looking pretty chipper for having spent the entire day underground-“
“Erica!” Isaac turned bright red, fumbling over a response. He haphazardly laced his boots, retreating.
“I’m going to work!”
“Yeah, you are!” Erica hounded him, door slammed loudly in her face. She huffed a laugh, looking at Derek and snagging the remaining bread from his hands. “So, Derek-“
She moved closer to him, predatorial and smug, “Are you going to seek out that fine boy now that your Uncle’s done with him?”
Derek frowned, “You really shouldn’t talk about him like that.”
“It’s not like it’s taboo anymore. He’s a regular now, like you and me,” she gestured between them.
“He still has his birth given rank-“
“What, are you his estate manager?”
Derek sighed, frustrated. He moved away from her, took himself to the kitchen to make himself lunch for later. He had one hand in the cupboard when he answered her, glad to have this distraction.
“Why would I seek him out anyway?”
Erica shrugged, leaning on the windowsill and feeling the morning sun warm her back through the glass panes. “I figure, you both have a lot in common now. You were both royalty, both exiled in disgrace, and judging by the circumstances he probably doesn’t like Peter very much either right now.”
Derek did not want to mention to her that he had already thought of seeking out Mieczyslaw on his own for those exact reasons. He shrugged her off, tying off the sack with his lunch and moving toward the door.
“He probably wouldn’t even know who I am, Erica. We were in Beacon seven years apart-“
“So you’ve already done the math-“
“I’m going to work. Leave it alone,” Derek said, firmly. She deflated, rolling her eyes and walking back into her bedroom.
“Alright, alright. Just do me a favor and take the stick out of your ass before you get to the shop. People might not go there for your sunny disposition, but it certainly won’t hurt,” she sniped, smiling apologetically.
Derek smiled, small, back at her and shut the door gently behind him.
The smith shop was rarely busy in the mornings, or really busy in general, so Derek rarely rushed to make sure the door was open on time. A few minutes really wasn’t going to affect his business.
Derek sighed quietly, his sack of lunch a reassuring weight in his hands. The streets were still relatively quiet, just a few early-risers walking to their morning shifts or setting up shop in the market square.
As he passed the vegetable stands and tents, he was reminded of his conversation with the man running the lentil stand. There was no sign of Mieczyslaw today; his plum cloak absent from the growing crowd.
Derek forged ahead, passed the city centre and finally breathed easy when the people become more scarce. His shop was just on the outskirts, a tiny hut with a smokestack and sign that Erica made him on the door saying “Smith.”
It was just coming into view when Derek noticed a figure standing outside the window, peering in at the unheated forge and the mess left inside from yesterday.
Derek picked up the pace, surprised by the visitor this early.
“I apologize for the wait,” he greeted, surprising the stranger into a gasp as he spun around.
He wasn’t wearing his purple cloak today, Derek first thought.
Mieczyslaw Stilinski looked sheepish, embarrassed to have been caught snooping through the windows, and Derek was somehow floored by the emotion.
The boy - no, man – was remarkably expressive, something that Derek missed. Something that was lost in the only medium through which he had ever seen him before yesterday.
The artist for whom Mieczyslaw had sat was an incompetent fool.
Derek had never seen the man so closely before; seeing the gold spots in his eyes felt sacrilegious. He felt drunk, meeting that brilliant gaze.
“Your Majesty,” Derek greeted, watching Mieczyslaw’s expression pinch uncomfortably.
“Please,” he said pleasantly, voice deeper and fuller-bodied than imagined, “My friends have always called me Stiles.”
Derek privately considered the new moniker. He managed to recover some semblance of composure, unlocking the front door and holding it ajar for the former consort. He hesitantly met the man’s eyes.
“Derek,” he responded in introduction.
A simple smile bloomed across Stiles’ face. “I know who you are, Derek,” he admitted wryly, moving forward and gracefully skirting his slight figure between Derek’s chest and the doorframe.
Derek inhaled, held his breath as the man passed.
“I may not have had the pleasure of holding your company before yesterday, but I did know your Uncle quite well,” Stiles continued, eyes darting wildly about the cluttered shop. He drifted toward the forge, long cold since yesterday. “He spoke of you often.”
Surprised by the man’s honesty, Derek let out an impromptu chuckle.
“All good things, I’m sure,” he said, sardonic. Stiles’ eyes met his from across the floor, shimmering with mirth.
“I ought not say anything more. I don’t know what greater a sin would be: offending my present company by repeating the words of my once-husband-“
He watched as Derek crossed the room to sit in front the forge.
“Or lying to you by saying otherwise,” Stiles smiled mildly at him.
Derek returned it.
“Peter’s feelings towards me were never ambiguous,” Derek admitted candidly, “You need not censor yourself here. To be free from his company these last thirteen years is a true blessing.”
Stiles appeared to have read into that statement, looking pensive over Derek’s words. He raised his shoulders, leaning his back onto the wall and folding neatly his hands in front of him.
“I cannot say I am pleased with my circumstances,” he admitted. He took to ruffling the fabric of his pants, eyes downcast. “As unprecedented as it was, my…dismissal.”
Derek wondered, for the first time, about the feelings Stiles may have cultivated for the King. True, he was a merciless tyrant and the wedding was rumored to have proceeded because of Stiles’ beauty and standing alone. However, six years was no small feat, particularly to be married to a man as cruel as Peter Hale. And to be wedded to such a man at the age of sixteen, Derek thought, Stiles must have seen some alternate side to the King that even Derek, a blood relative, overlooked.
“It seems as though exile suits you,” Stiles said, pulling Derek from the recesses of his mind.
Derek deliberately brushed the vague compliment off, feeling suddenly self-conscious again. “Anything will suit you just fine when you don’t have a say,” he countered, a small snap, likely to offend.
Though Stiles only smiled quietly, tipping his head left as if in agreement. Derek could see the years of self-mediation behind his eyes; he felt guilty, wondering if Stiles had been forced to be so yielding in the years he kept Peter company.
“I suppose you are correct,” Stiles conceded easily. He pushed himself off the wall with ease, approaching Derek’s workbench, forcing Derek to turn in his seat to keep an eye on the wandering royal. Stiles picked up a small sword, iron and warped, and turned it over in his hands. “We have that in common,” his eyes flickered up, “Nothing is ever really voluntary for us, is it?”
The man looked grim for the first time since entering his shop, and Derek ached to hear him abandon all loyalty to the Beacon crown and the man sat beneath it. He himself was not brave enough to ask Stiles something so personal.
The man seemed to sense this, smiling blankly and settling the sword back on the table.
“I spent years by his side, unfettered by anything aside from the loyalty to my home country and to Beacon,” Stiles admitted, practically spitting out the end of his sentence. “I was that country’s savior for six years. Six years spent mediating treaties and trade deals and convincing Peter that he was the rightful king when I didn’t believe so myself.”
He clenched his fists intermittently, anger driving his words as Derek watched, felt pinned to his seat by Stiles’ stare. “And that serpent has the audacity to discard me for some conniving bitch.”
The fight seemed to dissipate from Stiles’ body, and the man sank to sit at Derek’s stool, eyes at the floor.
“The people of Beacon abandoned me,” Stiles said. Derek stood, daring to approach him. “Just like they did you,” he said, meeting Derek’s eyes as he grew closer.
“They were afraid,” Derek explained, itching to comfort, but unsure how.
“They were cowardly,” Stiles bit back, starkly honest. He looked up at Derek, who was scarcely a breath away and standing over him.
Derek could count the freckles on the man’s nose.
Stiles reached out, fingers curling tentatively around Derek’s, held limply at his side.
Time elapsed, some undocumented amount.
Two strangers, intimately connected by the hatred of one man and the betrayal of many.
They sought something out in each other’s eyes.
A pain that mirrored their own.