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I want to know you, Locus, before that chance is taken from me forever.

When the words had been spoken they had seemed almost ominous, a pall cast over an already dark day, a weight to crush down on him though he could not explain what he had done to earn such ire from the twistings of fate herself. Oh, and how unique he must be in that respect, to consider such words from the crown prince to be more a curse than a blessing. Many would vie for the attentions of their future ruler, in hopes that one day he would come into his power with a fond remembering of them. To be the bosom friend of so fickle and feckless a man would no doubt be to their advantage upon their own inheritances if they were still young. The conniving of mind would seek to use the Prince to the ends of their own wealth and power, failing to see how, for all that he acted the fool and jokester, the Prince was ever the one in control.

Never had young Locus Castille, heir of the Earldom of Highridge, known a more in control man in his life. Of course it was to be granted that he lacked acquaintance with many of his peers when he first met the Prince upon the night of the Faceless Ball, a winter gathering in the capital. Had he but known that night for what it was to be--his first time entering the manor owned by the Duke of Chorus and his future father-in-law, the first time he would meet his future king and perpetual thorn in his side, the first time he would find his pulse quickened by the self-same man--he would have found himself stricken suddenly ill, and thereby been unable to join his parents. In so doing he could have spared himself much of the grief of the right and more for the experiences to follow. As it was here, he was here, and there was no getting out of it, for as Felix had implied these months ago when they were out riding with Locus’s betrothed: the invitations I know will be extended in the future, they come from me, even if they arrive through my cousin.

One such invitation rested open in his hand at this moment, a mate in all but specific details to those that had been vaguely sprinkled through his summer and fall months. The script as ever was the flowing elegance of his betrothed, Vanessa Eloise Angelica Kimball, eldest child of the Duke and Duchess of Chorus, cousin of the Crown Prince Felix Hamilton Elliott Rafferty Winton the Third. The two were quite close, closer than either were with their immediate relatives or associated court lackies, closer even than Felix was to his older sister Alexandria, of whome Locus had never had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of despite the fact that…

“He has to go, Samuel,” Locus’s mother was announcing over the top of her teacup. Her voice allowed no room for argument, despite the clear guard on her father’s face. “Yes, before you speak, I do understand that there are matters to attend to here. I applaud the vigor with which you attend to our son’s tuition....”

“Our son and my heir,” his father grumbled as he reached for another of the delicately arranged morsels set out with the tea. Today mother had chosen candied date slices topped with a dollop of cream and an artfully placed mulberry and sprig of mint atop it, and that was part of his mother’s plan to win out in this conversation. Father was always easily swayed as he struggled with the dainty treats of noblewomen, as if his confusion over what to do if cream were to get on his fingers disconnected his higher reasoning. Truly anyone who implied women were unfit to inherit due to a lack of wits had never tried to set themselves against his mother. Or Lady Vanessa for that matter.

“...but much is to be said for this proposition,” his mother continued as if nothing had been said. “This is not some random city lord who would house our son, but the King’s very household. The fact that they deign to notice our house with such an honor cannot be dismissed. You may be Earl in title, but this family’s holdings being distant from the capital, when added to the disdain both your father and yourself have fostered toward court life has led to an estrangement from the core nobility that effectively puts us on par with a mere barony in political clout. Gaining a betrothal to the family of the Duke of Chorus was an amazing windfall, and facilitated in no small part by the King himself by my suspicions, is an attempt to bring a wayward noble back into the fold. We can by no means decline, not without offering great offense to all parties involved.”

Chances were, Locus expected, the only one who would be offended would be the Prince who had no doubt arranged this farce. Yet he could not explain that to his parents without being more forward about the nature of the whole situation, a bigger picture that he dare not reveal. How would they feel to know that his future-bride was more concerned with the woman working in her father’s stables? Nor would that be the worst of the scandals. That honor was reserved for the kiss that even now, nearing a year later, he still felt lingering upon his lips when he least expected it to set upon him? The truth before the eyes of the gods was that he needed no chaperone to defend the honor of his future lady, but rather one to defend his own from the willful prince.

For all that the invitation was in Vanessa’s hand, the offer was from the Prince. A suggestion that Locus pass the entire winter court season in the capital for a change. To be away from land and responsibility to instead partake in what Vanessa described as her final full winter at court, as their vows would be to come in the summer next, and she would join him here in the Highridge lands. Of course a woman of her bloodline and stature would be expected to be involved in court life, but full winters may not be possible in the future, and it was custom that for the first year of a married lady’s life she not go travelling near and far as she came to her husband’s family and life. One full and possibly final winter at court with its balls and political play, and of course the intrigue. She would see him fully known by his peers and, what is more, started in connections to further their families in their future.

They wouldn’t even need worry about whispers of impropriety either, the missive had handily implied. For while he would be her escort to events, there would always be chaperones. What was more, her cousin’s family had offered to house him for the duration, how kind. It was, of course, because her cousin had grown quite fond of his wit and refreshing attitude, Vanessa had said. The first time Locus had read that he had nearly laughed. Yes, what a pretty little detail she penned, no doubt to flatter his parents and distract hers. That part was most decidedly worded by Felix, for Locus had never once heard Vanessa use such feminine language. She had grown quite skilled at playing the part of a young woman growing ever more enchanted with him. A pleasant enough lie for the public but a sentiment that rang more hollow for her blunt informing him that she should never love him, and after she bore him the needed heir he would be free to have affairs for she would. That had been their first meeting as well.

“My dearest Dahlia, it isn’t that I don’t find this an honor but…”

Again his father was cut off before he could truly start by the way his mother set her cup down on the table. The faint sound of the cup against her plate echoed far further than it ought for his mother never allowed something so indelicate as the sound of plates touching to occur. No, his father was as muted as a braying day might be by the bellow of an irate master. For the first time Locus found himself wondering where power truly lay in the Castille lands. It seemed the answer may rest with the Lady and not the Lord.

“You know well as I that there is more here than just his betrothed. It is a secret to no one that the Prince himself has stumbled upon the arrangement and some of the arranged meetings. He is fond of your son as a friend and if you cannot see the value in anything else, you can recognize the value of the Prince as a friend to our son and family. For that alone he should go. Add in the missive I received this morning from Her Majesty, our son shall be handled as would befit a man of his birth. Above it even. She has offered to extend any tutelage needs for our son through royal coffers. His weapons training could continue alongside His Royal Highness himself, though His Grace the Duke of Chorus will manage any riding needed as it is well known his stables and trainers are the best in the land.”

“They are,” his father conceded thoughtfully. You received a missive from Her Majesty? WHen did you intend to inform me?”

“Just now.”

To Locus it was apparent that not only did Felix have this all well plotted but that his preferences would not matter. To that end Locus rose from the table, his letter from Vanessa still in hand. This brought the eyes of his parents, and his ignored younger sister Maria, to him. Fancy that they would notice him at last.

“You have not been excused,” his lord father warned, and Locus was hard pressed not to scoff.

“Beg pardon, father,” Locus answered as he spared a brief bow. “It is just that it seems that you and mother have determined that I am to go. There are clearly details to be managed between you, and given that the timing on the offer is so abrupt, I believed it best to hasten to packing. Am I mistaken?”

It would not be a Castille gathering if he was not required to use a plethora of words where a few would do.

The look he earned from his father was both resigned and unamused. Ultimately all he got was a raised hand waving him away as a dismissal, and an impolite one at that. Little could he blame his father, his mother had soundly won the day. No, not that. Felix had backed them into a corner, though only he, Vanessa and Felix knew this.

At least, Locus mused as he retreated from his mother’s solar, he would not have to see the Prince until he arrived in the capital in a few weeks’ time.

 

“You act like you aren’t glad to see me.”

As ever the purr to that voice, spoken far too softly and far too close, sends an odd chill down his spine. This time it had to be spoken a touch louder to be made out over the clatter of hooves and the creaking of the small carriage following him. For all that his parents allowed that he should travel lightly as to not present an undue burden upon those who would house him through the winter, they disagreed on how much ‘lightly’ entailed when one was at the winter court. And by they he most truly meant his mother, who had insisted on the creation of several new outfits to fill what she considered dreadful gaps in his wardrobe. Given more of his time had been spent with his father who rarely met with his equals or superiors, Locus had failed to appreciate just what was considered sufficient for a future earl. What was more, his sister Maria had agreed with their mother, and as she and mother did more socializing at or above their rank to seek a future match for Maria, as well as to entertain for father’s rare guests, he could hardly argue against them.

Perhaps the point had been best made by Felix himself as he watched Locus’s chest being wrestled into position on the carriage. The man had made an audible noise of displeasure and asked where the rest of his things were. That had been quickly followed by the Prince offering to join him in the carriage so he would have someone to speak to which was why Locus was even now astride his favorite mare, letting her pick her own pace along the road. This was also why Felix was mounted, riding not too far from Locus. It had been the best means of maintaining distance that Locus could envision, for he could easily foresee Felix finding an excuse to drape himself all over Locus. Not that he was of the belief that he could avoid the Prince on all of the trip to the capital. Inevitably they would tire and Locus would retire to his carriage as he waited for them to reach one of the inns his mother had sent ahead to arrange lodging for him in. Yet even that brought a lingering concern to him, for he could not begin to imagine how Felix would manage that situation. Would he acquire his own room? Would he take Locus’s. Or would he find some contrivance to place himself in a room with Locus? All of it proved no end to concern for him, as he had dealt with those eyes on him as he had changed before and it had been… a unique experience he was not seeking to repeat.

“I mean, I came all the way to your backwater lands to find you at my cousin’s request, to ensure you would spend the winter at the palace. I even promised my mother that I would accept nothing but agreement from you. Would you have me disappoint both of those wonderful women?”

“Why are you here?”

For all of his effort, Locus could not help the low growl in his voice as he asked the question. When he glanced over toward the Prince he wasn’t surprised to see Felix smiling despite the harshness of the question. If he was right, there was a touch of amusement there, but could he truly be certain? For all that Felix had invaded nearly every meeting Locus had managed with his betrothed, he had struggled to avoid the man as much as possible. Now that lack of attention to the man meant Locus would require more time to know truly how to need the Prince, if it was even possible. The man had repeatedly proven to manage to shape things to his desires, as this trip itself proved. Could a man such as that be so foolish as to let his feelings, and intentions be writ so plainly on his face?

“Just told you,” the Prince chuckles, and as he did his horse ‘strayed’ closer to Locus’s mare. Given that Locus was well aware of Felix’s skill as a rider from a few outings with Vanessa and her cousin, it was unlikely this was anything but deliberate. ‘I was asked.”

“You weren’t,” Locus countered, but after a moment he found himself wondering. “Actually, it is possible you were, but only after you caused the idea to form in Vanessa. And from there you took the idea to your mother for propriety. I know you had a hand in this.”

Perhaps even both,” the Prince admitted and that left Locus a touch shocked.

To gain such honesty from Felix wasn’t unusual as it were, not by any means. Had he not been blunt and direct at the Faceless Ball? The kiss had been straightforward, had it not? Then again Locus could still not determine what had provoked that, what led to the fascination the man had with him. That night Felix had said the great interest in Locus had come from Locus’s lack of interest in him. Could Locus have avoided all of this if he had just received that he hadn’t known who Felix was at the time?

“Is it so wrong?” Felix continued, unaware of Locus’s line of thought. “Are you that hurt to see me? My Lord Castille, you wound me. I stretch out the hand of friendship and you rebuff me at al turns. Pray, what have I done to offend?”

“The overly florid language doesn’t help.”

That earned him a burst of laughter and a shake of Felix’s hand. Truly that was amusement that danced in those hazel eyes, and the way they shone with his mirth was compelling. Enough so that Locus tore his gaze from the Prince, not willing to feel so responsive to his presence, especially not when it had his heart rushing in ways he couldn’t account for.

“If that’s what you want than by all means I will try to provide. Yes, I arranged it. No, I won’t repeat my actions. Yes, you should get used to my being around,” the Prince offered after a moment. “I’ve put too much work into all of this to lose out on my chance because you are a stubborn man.”

Of course the question is what he hopes to gain, being this way. There had been times, very few but times nonetheless, where he had seen the Prince surrounded by those who paid court to him. They were boisterous, energetic, playing for the favors of a man who could not and would not be predicted. Why him? Why all of people, him?

“What chance do you foresee?” Locus could not help but ask. There had to be something Felix was after, beyond seeing how far he could drive one of his future earls toward madness. In a way it would be a good plan if certain end goals were considered, for instance a mad noble with no heirs could have their lands and titles stripped and given then to a more loyal retainer. Rumor suggested that a deliberate work as this had occurred via poisoning of the old Baron of Feldis, who was responsible for lands under the purview of the Duchy of Chorus. In his own case Locus doubted the likelihood of such a ploy. There was no denying Felix’s fondness for his cousin Vanessa, unless that too was an act, and Locus would not be a weapon Felix wielded against her.

Or so he hoped.

“Many,” Felix answered with a frustrating vagueness, the same that pervaded much of their interactions to this point. “For now, I see you as a way to reliably keep my cousin happy.”

“I will not be able to perform that function, contrary to your apparent beliefs,” Locus sighed.

To hope for an arranged and contracted marriage that led to affection and even love was not to be often looked for among their class. A strong partnership was perhaps more common, but while Locus was aware that his already wedded sister and his mother had found some joy in their arrangements, he had never assumed the like for himself. Hoped? Of course he had hoped. Who wouldn’t long for something more while they were young and full of dreams? His father, Locus’s mind helpfully supplied, and Locus ignored it immediately. What hopes he found himself holding onto, though, were dashed by some of the first words from Vanessa’s mouth. With no preamble or gentleness he had been informed only to expect heirs, not affection or devotion or even loyalty. Those would belong to the lover her parents would deny her but he was expected to employ.

How, then, was he to make her ‘happy’ when she came in intent on misery?

“Yeah, the thing with Carolina,” Felix chuckled, had the true and horrid gall to chuckle over his knowledge of pending infidelity and the implication of pre-marital relations! “That’s why I suggested she point her family toward you in the first place.”

The whole of Locus’s body tensed at those words, and he could not help the heat of anger that rose in him as he turned once more his gaze upon his future ruler. His fingers itched to drop his reins and reach instead for the blade at his side, to demand honor for what Felix, crown prince of schemers and fools, had chosen to inflict upon him. To raise a weapon against him would be a grievous crime, however. It was not this, though, which stayed his hand but the way his mount took the tension. While it was not to say that A’rynasea was given to skittishness, he had possessed her since she was a filly and knew it was far from her nature. No, the mare was responsive to him in a way other mounts had never been, and now he could not blame her for shying at the darkness of his reaction.

All of the confusion, distress, and yes even shame, that had come to him since his first meeting with his betrothed had come as a direct consequence of this man and his meddling. Perhaps he may not have found an agreement as valuable to his family as with the daughter of the Duke of Chorus, but perhaps a better match in the form of a woman who would not have cuckolded him before they were even wed. So much of his pain came back to this man. A man he could do nothing to, could not even shout his displeasure at given the servants and guards around them. There was little he could do but spur A’rynasea on, coaxing her up to a full gallop to gain some distance from Felix. By no means did he expect it to lost long. Like as not at least one of his two escorts for the trip would race after him. More likely, Felix would race after him, thinking this some kind of game.

Sure enough Locus soon heard hooves pounding counterpoint to A’rynasea’s, perhaps a stride of so faster. Not surprising as many of the horses in their contingent had a few hands on his mare. Maintaining distance was not something he could do, not in a sprint. Endurance, however, was her strong suit, so he could keep going longer on her than many others. If it were a choice for him to keep going, that was. Which, of course, he did not.

“I desire no company at this time, Your Highness,” Locus found himself snapping. The language was ill suited to the situation but he was glad to use it if it might secure him a few moments of peace.

“My Lord,” a man spoke, not Felix’s voice at all. That would make him the guard his father had ordered be sent on with him. The fact that it was not Felix was almost a relief. At the same time he wondered why the Prince had not come after him in person. And why was he bothered by that fact? Given all he had come to feel about the man it would have made more sense to be relieved, not annoyed.

“Come to tell me not to ride on too far? I am aware that to do so is foolish. I just wanted to allow A’rynasea to stretch her legs. She has been quite restive. I hoped the brief stretch would calm her.”

Here he was, justifying himself to another. To a lesser. His father would disapprove of such behavior. It was for him to command, to lead. Such was hardly appealing now that he knew how his own life had been influenced by another senior to him. How must those ‘lower’ than them feel when they dictated orders? Was it as displeasing as he felt at this moment, could he fathom it knowing the pain he held now that he knew how easily his family had danced to the Prince’s tune? Would this man not feel the same? Did he not already? Locus could not generate the guard’s name, which was of course a failing of his own. Surely he was no better than the Prince.

“No, my Lord,” the guard spoke from behind him. A proper place for a lesser when true danger was not anticipated. With a sigh Locus gestured for the man to ride up equal with him, which was done almost immediately by the man. “I did not come to speak of that. You would know better than to risk yourself, sir. I have been sent with a message.”

A message? With a light touch Locus worked his mare back down to a walk, which the guard and his own mount soon matched. The change of pace gave Locus a quiet moment to evaluate the man, someone ultimately unimpressive with the commonness of his looks for the Highridge area. The normal black hair, the unremarkable blue of his eyes, they were a mark a dozen at home, the only thing to be noted being the slightly paler skin tone like Felix’s that spoke of some relative from closer to the capital.

Locus fought back a sneer. Why should he care about the appearance of another man? Why seek to compare one against so poor a scale as the Prince who had been naught but a burden upon him? Why did his lips feel the weight of the Prince’s against them once more?

No, he would not turn his mind upon this once again.

“From whom?”

“His Royal Highness.”

Lovely, now the man was sending Locus’s own guard after him to chastise him on behavior unbefitting a future peer of the realm. Which would mean the guard taken to task in his place. Efficiently as well, for there had been little delay between Locus’s riding off and the sound of his pursuit. Much then might be said for the degree of practice the Prince had at shaming others, which made him further distasteful to Locus. WHat sort of cad became so adept at such practices?

“Let me hear what he has to say then,” Locus directed at length, though he could not keep the sigh from his voice. The briefest of moments he had felt he saw a flicker of amusement on the man’s face, but only briefly.

“He wants us to stop long enough for him to make use of your carriage.”

With that Locus rinfally reigned A’rynasea to a halt. “He wishes what?”

“His Royal Highness said he found the road wearying and asked leave for a small break to allow him into your carriage. SEnt me on to ask permission to call us to a stop.”

Locus found himself looking back up the road toward his slowly approaching carriage. Even from this distance he could pick Felix out, the brilliant splash of orange and gold clothing astride a strong black courser. Could one say from such distance if the way he sagged a little in his saddle was feigned or not? Had he not seemed energetic but minutes ago? Yet from the Prince’s own words he had come far quite fast. It was nearly a week between Highridge and the capital by horse, and Felix had insisted on leaving immediately for the capital again, despite the offers Locus’s mother had made to delay them a day so the Prince might rest. His ever present guards had seemed to wilt in their saddles.

“Call for a stop. A brief one,” Locus found himself directing the guardsman. “Both he and his men are welcome to make use of the carriage to rest at this time. Have their horses’ reins tied to the back of the carriage. Advise them that we will be stopping for a meal in a few hours and they are welcome to share. My Lady mother insisted on packing extra to share. And guardsman?”

“Yes my Lord?”

“Forgive me, but the Earl did not see fit to provide me your name. Might I know it?”

Truly the man seemed shocked to be asked the question, though not surprised that Locus knew him not. Would that be strange? How many of his family’s retainers or servants did he know by name? While he had been trained to rattle off the name, status, and heraldry of ever vassal family of the Highridge holdings, as well as many of the noble lords of the kingdom in general, he could not name those in their employ save his tutors, the man who managed the stables and his senior groom, and the aged man that managed their armory.

“Xenos,” the man offered after a moment.

Locus swore he would not forget it. He would be better than his father or the Prince.

 

By far the worst part of any long travel was when one was beset upon by weather. Late autumn was frequently wet in the earldom of Highridge, and to have hoped for clear skies for his trip would have been foolish. Amongst what his mother had arranged in the way of new formal clothing she had included a thick, oiled cloak to keep him from excessive weather. Granted she had also admonished him that in heavy rain he should seek the carriage for shelter. It would be wrong if he grew ill and spent his early days under a healer’s eyes when he had such distinguished hosts. There had been wisdom in all she had said, save that not even she had foreseen the prince when this all started. Nor that Felix and his men would opt not to vacate the carriage even for their lunches. Such as it was Locus was presented with no further contact with his Royal Highness until they reached the inn they were due in early that evening.

Nor could his mother have foreseen this, though Locus wondered if he should not have. Stretched out upon the bed, warm and dry as you like, was the Prince. Locus, for whom the room had been reserved, was left to drip as he sat by the fire on a stool. The cloak itself dripped by the door, having served him well. Even it, however, could not cover him completely or face the gusts that more than once had carried its hood from his head. Thus it was that Locus sat in his room, samp and chilled, while the Prince lazed.

Another blow dealt me by him, whether he knows it or not.

“I didn’t bring a cloak.”

Locus didn’t take his eyes from the blaze before him. Soon no doubt he would need to take off his wet clothes for dry ones. It was something he tried his best to ignore that need for now, primarily because he was not eager to strip himself for the Prince’s amusement. The last time he had done so still lingered in his mind. Never before had a gaze seemed so akin to a caress as they had that day, and he was not eager to see if it was all his imagination. There could be no good result. Either he had imagined the Prince watching intently when he had not, or the Prince had gazed as he thought. Neither were something Locus knew how to address.

“Are you listening, Locus? I didn’t bring a cloak.”

The statement earned a brief huff of annoyance from Locus. Of course their future king would be so thoughtless as to go galavanting around the lands, not even properly equipped. Why not, it was so perfectly in line with all else he had done, was it not?

“Just saying I needed to stay in the carriage. Sorry I used the space. Seems I have annoyed you. Or is this about Vanessa?”

“You had no right to meddle,” Locus snaps. The fire of earlier, which had been quashed by distance and rain, had rekindled in an instant. He rose, turning quickly to level a glare upon the Prince, who seemed ready for it as the man had sat up at last. There was, as ever, an intensity in his gaze, like Felix was expecting something. Well, Locus refused to give him the satisfaction.

Now, however, the chill was reaching him more than before, and no longer could he handle it. Locus moved to match up the bag his valet Doyle had tucked dry clothes from his luggage into. He was tired of being wet, and even more tired of his own cowardice. No man should make him afraid of getting himself dry. He moved and laid the dry clothes carefully out on the edge of the bed the Prince sat upon, and Locus glared hard at the man there. After a protracted moment the Prince rose and from the sound of his footsteps the man walked to the fireplace. The space at least made Locus comfortable enough to strip out of his dripping tunic.

“Maybe it’s true that I meddled. A little. As a Prince I have a responsibility to my future subjects, of whom Nessa is one. Helping her find a good match is vital for me, she doesn’t deserve what is forced upon her. People at our levels don’t get what a burden it is to be a woman of rank. Were she a commoner she could marry who she wanted. Or have a business. Go on adventures. There are even mercenary companies who take on women if their sword arm is strong. Instead she’s born a noble and treated like a bauble. A prize for the highest bidder. I figured that if anyone would know what it is to be pigeon-holed as she is, it would be you.”

Him? Locus, who was part way through shimmying out of his pants, stood straight for a moment and turned his attention to Felix. The man still had his back to Locus, offering him what little privacy there was to be had in this space. By no means did this guarantee Felix had not cast surreptitious looks, but it was clear the man possessed at least some modicum of respect. While it might be unfair to say, Locus was frankly surprised to have that much.

“Why?” Locus found himself asking as he returned himself to the task at hand. “How could I be understanding of that? Because I’m heir to an earldom? There are many heirs to many titles. Is it because I live so far from the capital or because my family doesn’t dance court upon yours as diligently? Is it perhaps…”

“You kissed me.”

Again Locus found himself brought up short. That wasn’t true at all, he wanted to say. That too was Felix. Had it not been the Prince to invite him to dance? Had it not been the Prince himself who had, after it had passed, forced that impure action upon Locus?

Had it not been Locus who had wrapped his arms around the Prince, pulling him closer to savor the kiss before pushing the man away in shock and confusion?

“Correction,” Locus answered as he tossed his wet pants toward the fire to dry and began to pull on the new pair, “you kissed me. I remember that very distinctly. I also remember pushing you away.”

“Which you only did after kissing me back,” Felix corrected. “Something I distinctly remember thanking you for when I sent your betrothal gift.”

A note Locus himself had packed among the personal belongings to come with him. He more feared his father finding the note than anyone in Felix’s household. Of course the question was why he had failed to destroy the note, but it was a question he was careful not to ask himself. There were many such questions he did not ask, such as why he had returned the kiss. Why had he accepted the offer of the dance? Why had he not insisted on private space tonight. Should he not be wondering why he kept allowing this farce?

“You’re mistaken. I was thrown off balance by your action and my only option was to lean on you, lest we fall,” Locus lied as he pulled the loose green linen shirt over his head. When Doyle had suggested something more ‘fashionable’ Locus had refused him out of hand. He would not dress up for this pain of a Prince before they reached the castle.

“Best stumble ever then,” Felix chuckles. The sound is almost harsh, and that causes Locus to turn and regard the Prince. At some point Felix had turned his back on the fire, and when Locus met his eyes now he saw a touch of annoyance there.

“I pushed Vanessa’s attention to you, Locus, because you’re like her,” Felix continued and there was a spark of challenge in his eyes. “You won't be happy in an arranged marriage either, will you?”

“Your meddling has hardly given me a chance to see, now has it?”

The emotion dancing in the Prince’s eyes seemed to be growing. Anger and frustration and disappointment. What could Locus have done to warrant that?

“Has it?” Felix asks, and as he does he moves closer to Locus. Crosses through the room and moves right into Locus’s space. So close that Locus could swear he felt the heat from the fireplace radiating off of Felix’s body, but not so close that they touched. “Tell me, Locus, how many girls had you kissed before me?”

What sort of question was that? It was untoward to have such encounters with any but one’s wife. Perhaps it could be understood of a betrothed were it a kiss on the back of the fingers, but beyond that?

“Oh, and family members do not count.”

“None,” Locus answered, and he found himself taking a half step back at the smile Felix put on. “It would be inapp-...”

“And how many have you thought of kissing? There is no shame in admitting to such a weakness of desire. You’ve thought of it, right? The softness of a body pressed against yours, silken hair under your fingers, the scent of them wrapped around you,” Felix continued, and his voice was that purr that made Locus’s chest ache and his toes curl. Close still the Prince moved and Locus could swear he smelled citrus in the air around the man. He could not help but breathe deeply of the air, so like what he remembered but had told himself could not be possible.

“I…”

Felix didn’t let him answer. As far away he could see it coming from, he could not make himself back away again. It was like he was paralyzed as Felix leaned up and pressed their lips together. A single, fleeting point of contact and yet Locus could feel heat in his cheeks, hear his heart pounding in his ears, almost shock with how his lips seemed to ache over this.

“The reason you work with Nessa is because you won’t want more than your duty to each other, Locus,” Felix whispered, his lips still so close that Locus could feel the breath of the words brush over his own. “Because he’s in love with a woman and you? You may not know it yourself, but you ache for a man.”

The Prince spoke the words as if Locus didn’t know. As if this knowledge hadn’t been gnawing at him for months. As if the kiss had not haunted him, the constant chatter and gossip about it immediately after keeping it fresh in his mind to be analyzed every which way. There had been no shortage of relief that he need not consider it again when his betrothal was arranged. Yet think on it he had, nigh on constantly. To the point where Felix appearing in that first meeting with Vanessa had been… troublesome.

“Why are you doing this?” Locus demanded, trying to keep annoyance in his voice and distance from Felix. “Why do you seek to poke at open wounds as if to bleed me dry?”

“Because maybe my cousin isn’t the only one who wants something and someone that our stations deny us. Maybe I think we three, four if you count Carolina, can find some solution together, until between the crown on my head and the loyalty of a grateful and powerful Earl and Countess, not to mention the mindless profile of my sycophants, happiness can be put within my reach.”

Felix’s reach. Not Vanessa’s or Locus’s. Even here the Prince showed his self-centered nature.

 

“And just what happiness are you seeking?” Locus found himself prompting, taking a step back. He needed to renew the space between them before he did something stupid.

“A kiss, freely given, by lips such as yours.”

The words were their own sort of shock. One made more powerful for the fact that Felix took the step forward to close the distance between them again. A hand coming up to cup his cheek, fingers to follow the line of Locus’s jaw. The pad of a thumb sliding over his lips. All Locus could do was sallow hard. There was nothing about this that was acceptable, that was okay. There was every reason to pull back, to push Felix away, to do something other than just stand there with the touch. Instead he stood there as Felix moved closer still, until their bodies were flush together. Stood as Felix rose on the tips of his toes and pressed their lips together. Soft, yielding lips, offered freely as fingers slid back to grip into his hair. Lips gone not long after they had arrived.

His lips ached as Felix moved away, a smirk curling those same lips that had just been against his. Beautiful. Felix was beautiful in this moment, smiling at him, mischief in his eyes. Somehow Locus managed to keep his hands at his sides, to not reach and hold the slight form of the Prince against him.

“I’ve got all winter to win that from you,” Felix said, his words a whisper that made Locus want to lean in. To hear it closer. To smell the hint of citrus around him once more. “And Locus… I tend to get what I want.”

Gods help him, Locus really hoped he would.