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fola an chroí

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The royal palace of Sciath sat upon a hill, overlooking the Southern Sea. It was a great stone structure, shimmering gold accenting pale walls, with three tall spires reaching for an ever blue sky. It was a rare jewel nestled at the edge of the sea, a monument to the artistry of past masons.

High within the palace, nestled among silken sheets and downy blankets, the crowned prince of Sciath was slowly waking. Steve struggled to open his eyes. The fever that had taken him made it a nearly insurmountable feat, his lids like leaden weights over his hazy gaze. He stared at his empty bedchamber and wondered what had woken him.

His throat clicked as he swallowed, his mouth unbearably dry.

“Bieta?” He murmured hoarsely, asking for the servant girl that acted as his nurse. She was always close by, Bieta, and so attuned to him that he need never tire himself by raising his voice to be heard. It did not bode well, Steve thought blearily, that his call went unanswered.

He blinked slowly, trying to get his mind to work. It was to little avail; the only thing he could do was stare blankly at the teal walls of his bedchamber, his eyes idly tracing the ornate golden vines carved from it. Those vines were intricately patterned, he knew. The walls, too, were supposed to have a similar, leafy design. He could see none of that. His eyes only showed him the vaguest shape of the golden vines--blurred mess against blurred mess. No matter how much he blinked, he could not force his vision to focus.

Idly, he wondered when his eyesight had gotten so terrible.

Just as he parted chapped lips to call for Bieta again, a cry penetrated the haze of his fever--a terrible, gut-wrenching wail. Cold fear trickled down Steve’s spine, his breath catching in his throat,  as he finally realized why he’d been pulled from sleep.

Gritting his teeth, Steve put a sweaty palm onto the bed and pushed. If opening his eyes had been a struggle, then sitting up was the kind of feat for which songs were written. Every part of his being protested the movement. He ached down to his bones, his head swimming painfully, but he persisted. No matter how his body begged for it, he did not let the weariness take him back down to the mattress. If he did, he feared he would never get up again.

A breeze blew in through the open doors of his balcony. Steve trembled as the covers pooled in his lap and the air hit his skin, goosebumps rippling across his flesh. He ignored it. That cry--that was the sound of someone in trouble, of someone in fear and in pain; he could not merely lie on his deathbed and allow it to continue.

“Bieta,” he rasped again, forcing his voice louder despite how it hurt his throat.

His gaze swept across his empty room, trailing between the doors to the east, which led to the other rooms of his palace suite, and the door to the south, that led to the halls outside. There was no answer, no calls of reassurance, nor was there the scurrying footsteps to signal her approach. There wasn’t even a guard coming from the southern door to explain where his nurse had gone. Everything within his world was ominously still.

Slowly, Steve slid out of his bed. The ache in his body intensified, protesting painfully, but it was summarily ignored. He was used to hurting by now, used to each of part of his body working against him. He had been sick for too long. When he stood, he kept his hand on the soft mattress of his bed, leaning against it until his weak, trembling legs became used to holding his weight again.

Another wail rent the air, the sound carrying through the open balcony doors. Steve’s head immediately snapped toward it. He stood there, trying to work through the wave of dizziness that had swept over him. There was a hint of smoke on the breeze, he realized.

Stumbling toward the balcony, he winced as his eyes were exposed to sunlight for the first time in far, far too long. The very moment that his vision adjusted, Steve wished that he could be blinded again.

His room was one of the highest in the grand palace and, from its balcony, Steve could see nearly all of the capital city--Dóchais, it was called, a city of hope. He’d always held that close to his heart. Being able to see the city, watch its citizens, had delighted him as a child and comforted him after he’d left boyhood behind. He’d spent whole days just watching the bustle of everyday life on the streets below.

Now, his city burned. There was no bustle, but rather a desperate scramble of survival as soldiers in black marched through the narrow streets. His people scattered like mice, trying to escape the stomp of boots. On the wind, there was nothing but the scent of blood and ash and the piercing cry of more terrified screams.

“Highness!” A voice called from behind him and then Bieta was by his side.

It was the brush of her fingers on his arm that sent Steve crumbling to his knees. Somehow, that simple touch turned the nightmare into waking truth. It wasn’t a fever dream; it was reality. He looked to her, seeking answers, but stopped when he saw her.

Over her normal dress, she wore the breastplate of a warrior, and a bloodstained sword was grasped firmly in one hand. Her long hair had been pulled into a messy braid. Dark swaths of red were smeared across her cheek and forehead.

“W-what?” He breathed out. “What has happened?”

Bieta knelt before him, fingers gently brushing over his forehead in a move he was much familiar with; she was trying to gauge his fever.

“Tarakrov, my lord,” she answered softly. “They are at our door.”

Steve’s brows knitted together in confusion.

“I don’t understand,” he said hoarsely. “How? Why?”

Did they not send tribute to Tarakrov each year to avoid this very thing?

Their neighbor to the north was powerful, undoubtedly. It boasted the most feared army in all of Mérivel and had the territory to prove it. But, tribute paid was peace earned. Why would Tarakrov attack them if they’d settled their debt?

Bieta did not take the time to answer him. Instead, she grasped his bony elbow and lifted him to his feet. She was undoubtedly strong, but Steve didn’t think it took much strength at all to lift him. He’d always been thin and now, after a small eternity of this slow creeping sickness, he was barely more than a wisp of a young man.

“Come,” she said, drawing him away from the balcony and the horrors beyond. “We must go, Highness. Strigoi have breached the palace gates.”

Steve’s blood ran cold.

Strigoi.

She’d whispered the word as if it were a secret that she was not supposed to say out loud--a curse that would have dire consequences if heard by the palace walls.

It was a wholly irrational, childish thing, the urge to scoff and reply, Fairytales. Steve couldn’t, though. His fever-addled mind would not allow him to lie and it had been many, many years since he’d believed Strigoi to be a mere myth.

His heart pounded in his chest and with each painful beat, a new memory surged forth.

A pitch black dungeon, rooms that he’d never seen before. The shape of a man’s shadow in the dark. Vivid, bright eyes the color of ice, engulfed by red as sharp teeth split his soft flesh.

His parents’ bodies arranged on wooden pallets. A trembling man kneeling before the King’s brother, Aleksander, and wailing into his own hands as he begged forgiveness. His breathless sobs as he spoke of the Strigoi attack that had claimed the lives of the King and his queen.

The dark stain of dried blood on the man’s clothes, on the clothes of Steve’s dead parents. Both of their throats were torn open.

Strigoi were the kind of creatures born from nightmares. Blood-drinkers, the whispers said, and born with abilities that no mere human could ever hope to possess. Tarakrov was their birthplace, their home, their haven.

“Only the most uneducated of men would believe in such folly,” Steve’s uncle, the Regent Aleksander, had once said. “You’ll find, my boy, that most men’s deeds are simply rumor. When a light is shined upon the truth, they are not nearly so dangerous as they’d have you believe.”

Steve had never admitted to his uncle that he had firsthand knowledge of Strigoi; that he had not only met such a creature, but known the sting of its bite. Then again, he hadn’t told his uncle a lot of things.

With a slow, trembling breath, he blinked away the memory of his dead parents and the hot tears that inevitably came with it. Instead, he put his focus in trying to follow where Bieta guided him. His legs trembled as he took one unsteady step and then another. Three steps into his bedchamber, his knees buckled under him; he hit the floor with a dull thud. A series of deep, hacking coughs took hold of him at nearly the same moment, his body convulsing as they wracked through him. In their wake, his throat was raw and blood coated his hand. Steve closed his eyes, exhaustion settling in his bones.

“Please, my lord,” Bieta said desperately as she tried to tug him to his feet. “We have to go.”

He shook his head, drawing away from her.

“Go,” he said.

She was good, Bieta. A girl of twenty, the same as him, but a foreigner of Sciath. She had no allegiance to him, no reason to have any feeling toward him save for hatred--the prince of the land that had stolen her. But here she was, trying her best to save him. She would stay by his side, even to her own detriment, and Steve could not allow it.

In direct contradiction to his order, she knelt in front of him. Her sword clattered noisily on the stone beneath them as she grasped his shoulders.

“Everyone has gone, Highness,” she told him, “there is no one to--”

“I’m dying, Bieta,” he said, interrupting her. He held up his bloodstained fingers as proof, his entire arm trembling with the effort. “What does it matter if I die today, at the hands of our enemy, rather than tomorrow from a sickness that no one can name? I will only slow you down. Better that you escape than die beside me. Leave me a weapon to defend myself and go.”

She had a child, Steve remembered distantly, a young daughter of perhaps two. Was the child with Bieta’s husband, waiting for them in some alcove? Putting themselves in further danger the longer they waited? He would not be the reason that a child so young died. He would not be the cause of a torn family.

“Go,” he said again, as forcefully as he could. “Save your family.”

She stared at him for long, precious seconds. Steve thought she might ignore his wishes, but finally, she nodded just once. Picking up the sword, she laid its hilt in his palm.

“I’m sorry, Highness,” she whispered. “Senin să fie cu tine.”

She lingered for a moment longer, squeezing her eyes shut as she pressed a kiss to his sweat-dampened forehead. When she tore away from him, she stood and fled the open door without looking back.

All was silent now, save for the distant sounds of his city crumbling. For a long while, Steve just stayed where he’d fallen, allowing himself to rest. He did not know how long he sat there before he heard a single set of footsteps in the hallway. It was a slow, measured gait, completely unhurried despite the fact that there seemed to be a war going on in the streets.

Those footsteps were headed straight for him. Every second brought them closer and he would be damned if he met his fate crumpled on the floor. Using the sword to leverage himself, Steve slowly made it to his feet. He paused when he was upright, swaying unsteadily as his vision swam again. Another cough rattled his chest, the taste of blood blooming on the back of his tongue.

In the hall, his executioner halted. Seconds ticked by, marked only by the beat of Steve’s heart. As the quiet stretched, he wondered if perhaps he hadn’t hallucinated the footsteps. Just as his body began to relax again, he heard it: one step, then two--that same steady gait drawing every closer.

Steve raised his sword and moved toward the open door. He had never been taught how to use a weapon, but it hardly mattered. It wasn’t about winning; he had no hope of that, not in his weakened state. He just refused to surrender to death so easily. He would fight with what strength he had left.

At the last moment, his body betrayed his defiant mind, determined to bring him low. He stumbled the last few steps toward the door, sword scraping the floor.

A soldier dressed all in black stepped through the doorway. The lower half of his pale face was covered in a mask, his dark hair loose and brushing his shoulders. His gleaming, crimson eyes gave him away.

Strigoi, Steve thought hazily. How fitting.

He would meet the same fate as his parents.

The Strigoi’s haunting gaze held his focus. It was the last thing he saw before the world went black.

*

Firm hands on his body. Strong arms lifting him, cradling him. The soft, familiar embrace of his bed.

Cool cloth on his forehead. Water down his throat. The metallic tang of blood in his mouth. Again and again and again.

Voices above him, around him. Soft and cajoling, sharp and loud. Arguments took place, but none that he could parse. It was all noise without meaning, as if he were underwater.

Darkness dragged him under again.

*

Steve did not expect to wake up, but wake he did.

It was a slow, gentle rise to consciousness, rather similar to what he thought floating on a cloud must be like. This time, when he opened his eyes, it was no struggle at all. He blinked and then blinked again, marveling at how light and effortless each movement was. To his amazement, the fog had lifted from both mind and vision. He could once again trace the intricate details carved into the molding of his ceiling with ease.

He cautiously drew in a breath and found it was similarly uncomplicated. His chest was no longer tight or heavy in that way that made every breath hurt. There was no itch of fatigue or burn of fever--not in his eyes, not in his bones, not anywhere. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt like this.

The room was dim, the shadows of nightfall surrounding him. Somewhere, a flame was lit, its warm light flickering over the mural of Brigid painted above his bed. Icons and symbols of the goddess were a common practice among his people. New mothers provided such, praying to Brigid daily so that she might protect their children. His own mother had spent the last several months of her pregnancy painting this mural herself.

Steve had been told the story many times in his life. He had only the vaguest recollection of his father regaling him with it, the memory now more impression than anything. His more recent memories were of the odd advisor or councilor visiting his sickbed. If any of them happened to glance up and catch sight of the mural, they would inevitably shake their heads in disbelief and retell the story of the eccentric queen that had painted it.

“Such an odd woman, your mother,” they would say. “The best artisans at her disposal and she refused to let a single one near.”

None of them could understand why the Queen Consort would choose to do for herself when she could order others to do for her. Sarah had been a noblewoman, of course, but she came from the highlands of northern Sciath. Her people were of earth and stone; even the nobility knew a hard day’s work in those regions. Life in the city, different as it was, had never quite been able to stifle the wild heart that had loved him so. It was no surprise that she would want to paint the symbol of protection for her own son.

Effigies of Brigid were usually taken down once the child was in adolescence. By the time Steve had reached the age where the mural would customarily be repainted, his mother was gone, and it was the last piece of her he had. Held within each brushstroke were her hopes and dreams, her prayers and love. It had been painted by her and now, it represented her. He would never rid himself of her image, not for as long as he lived.

The mattress beneath him shifted as someone sat down near his hip. Fingers pressed into his skin, a cool, light touch to the inside of his wrist.

“Bieta?” He murmured, turning his head.

The woman sitting next to him was not Bieta, nor was she someone that he’d seen before. She wore light blue robes, her straight black hair pinned high on her head; tendrils of it stylishly fell out of the bun to frame her face. Her features were Eastern, but there was only the slightest hint of it in her Northern accent when she spoke.

“Easy, my lord,” she said gently. “You’ve had quite the scare.”

The words revived his sluggish mind. His memories came back to him in a rush--waking to his empty room, the sight of his city aflame, Bieta and her bloody sword, the Strigoi.

Steve surged into a sitting position, yanking his hand away from the woman. He dizzied at the sudden movement, but it was not like before. The spell ended nearly as quickly as it came.

He glanced around. It was, indeed, nightfall. His balcony doors were closed, but through the glass, he saw the night sky and the flicker of torches in the distance; the city no longer seemed to be on fire. His room was the same as it had always been; nothing had been taken or moved.

“Who are you?” He demanded. “What’s going on?”

The woman held up her hands placatingly.

“My name is Helen Cho,” she said, keeping her voice low and calm. “I am the personal physician of His Majesty, the king. Please, lie back. You still need rest.”

“My uncle?” Steve asked unthinkingly. He allowed the woman--Helen--to guide him back against the pillows.

He’d never heard anyone refer to his uncle as such, but it wouldn’t surprise him at all to learn that they’d snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, only to have his uncle declare himself proper and rightful ruler in the aftermath. Still, Steve had met the Regent’s physician before--he was sure that he’d met all the physicians of Sciath at this point--and it hadn’t been this woman.

Helen Cho frowned.

“No, Your Highness. I’m sorry to tell you that your uncle has,” she hesitate, before delicately saying, “passed.”

There was another pause. This one to allow the news to sink in, Steve thought. Perhaps she expected him to mourn. He wouldn’t. Aleksander had been his only remaining family, it was true, but there had never been any love between them. Steve had been envied too much as Sciath’s true heir for his uncle to ever hold any affection for him. If anything, he now mourned a reconciliation that never could have been.

“I speak of King James,” Helen said finally. “The crown of Tarakrov.”

Steve sucked in a breath, recoiling from her. He’d never met the warrior king of Tarakrov, but there was enough rumor about the man to fill entire novels. In the end, they all boiled down to the same whispers.

He was a ghost. He was a god. He was the devil made flesh. He was Strigoi.

Steve fought to keep his voice steady as he asked, “Why would the physician to the king of Tarakrov be tending to me?”

Before Helen could answer, the door to Steve’s bedchamber opened. A group of three entered and of them, Steve only recognized one face. Relief flooded through him.

“General Phillips!” He exclaimed, lurching forward, but Helen put a hand on his shoulder and pushed him back down again.

The General smiled tiredly at him, his grizzly face more worn than Steve had ever seen it. He leaned heavily on a cane; this, too, was a new development.

“Good to see you, kid.”

Behind him, a woman lingered by the door. Her dark hair was perfectly coiffed, lips painted in deep red, and her clothing made of the finest silks and linens--a noble woman, Steve guessed. She was so pale that her unblemished skin seemed to glow in the shadow of the doorway. There was something not quite right about the way she looked. Her porcelain skin and dark, glittering eyes giving her the appearance of an ethereal being.

When she noticed him looking, the woman smiled the slow, indulgent smile of a predator sighting prey. It was only when she did so that Steve realized how still she’d been in the moments before.

Beside her, a soldier stood rigidly, his hand resting on the hilt of his sword. He wasn’t Sciathian, this soldier, dressed in the black uniform of Tarakrov instead of the vibrant reds and blues that compromised the service uniforms of Steve’s own country.

In his bedchamber, there was a soldier of Tarakrov, the personal physician to its king, and perhaps a Tarakrovi noblewoman, all of them accompanied by the leader of Sciath’s military. Steve’s stomach twisted sharply. This did not bode well; not at all.

The soldier’s eyebrows shot up at the General’s greeting, but Steve was not perturbed. He’d known General Phillips since birth and the man had never been one for platitudes or protocol. It was the one thing that Steve’s uncle had hated most about him, even above the General’s loyalty to the deceased king and queen.

“Is he ready for travel?” The noblewoman asked, moving her gaze to look at Helen.

Helen jolted at the question, her parted lips very clearly conveying her bafflement.

“It’s the middle of the night,” she said incredulously, “and he’s only just woken. It will be several more days, at least.”

“His Majesty--”

His Majesty,” Helen interrupted, “gave very clear instructions about the Highness’s health before he left.”

The noblewoman looked ready to argue, but Steve interrupted before she had the chance.

“And where would I need to travel to?”

The question seemed to ring through the room. The guard’s gaze was fixed firmly toward the balcony, as if oblivious to the goings on, while Helen and the noblewoman exchanged glances. General Phillips grimaced, his eyes falling shut. He looked even more tired than before. It did not escape Steve’s notice that every person had carefully avoided looking to him.

Finally, Phillips glanced over his shoulder to the noblewoman.

“May I have a minute alone with him?”

Steve’s heart stuttered in his chest as he realized that Phillips was not simply asking them to leave--he was asking for permission to speak with Steve alone.

Another glance was exchanged between the two women and then hesitantly, Helen stood.

“Only a moment,” she said. “He still needs rest.”

Silence fell once again when the door closed behind them. Slowly, Phillips made his way to Steve’s bedside, his cane clicking quietly against the hard floor. He sat heavily on the mattress with a weary groan, laying the cane across his legs as he stared out at Steve’s empty bedchamber. Sighing, Phillips drew a hand down his face, as if his exhaustion were droplets of water that he could easily wipe away.

Questions bubbled in Steve’s mind, each one spawning dozens more in its wake. He didn’t know how he kept silent as he waited, but something about the general’s disposition told him it was the time for it.

“It’s a damn mess, kid,” Phillips said finally, but his gaze did not stray to Steve. “The whole thing, a damned mess.”

“I feel as though I’ve been asleep for a thousand years,” Steve confessed, “and I’ve woken to an entirely new world. An attack from Tarakrov? Truly?”

Phillips did not answer immediately. It was clear that he did not know where to begin. Steve waited in silence, allowing him the necessary time to get his thoughts together, even though it pained him to do so.

“You may not be aware,” Phillips said finally, “but since he took the throne, your uncle has refused to pay tribute to Tarakrov.”

Steve blinked in surprise. No, he most certainly hadn’t known that.

He tensed, leaning forward as he opened his mouth to ask--what? Why hadn’t he been told? Why would his uncle be so thoughtless? If that were the case, then why would Tarakrov retaliate now when his uncle had been in charge for years?

Phillips held up his hand, halting all of these questions before they could be voiced.

“When I realized that he would not see reason that first year,” he said, “I took it upon myself to send the tribute without his knowledge. The other councilors aided me in this. We all knew how important it was to keep peace with Tarakrov, especially with Anthony needing us in the West. We couldn’t fight a war on two fronts.

“It worked, for a time,” he continued. “We sent tribute, year after year, and kept the peace we needed. All the while, your uncle thought he was displaying whatever kind of power he imagined he had. Except Tarakrov never breathed a word of the unsent tribute and that--that seemed to anger Aleksander. He eventually found out what we were doing and then, we were watched too closely to do it. When Tarakrov did not get their tribute last year, we began having trouble at the border. Skirmishes here and there that seemed to happen more and more frequently as the months passed. After several weeks of it, Lady Margaret came into the city.”

He glanced over his shoulder at the closed door.

“The noble?” Steve asked and received a nod in answer.

“She argued with Aleksander for days about the tribute owed to her king,” Phillips answered. “There wasn’t much heat behind it, I’ll admit. It seemed almost perfunctory. When Aleksander steadfastly refused, she finally took her answer and went. After that, the skirmishes seemed to get worse. There were more Tarakrovi soldiers amassing than normal and more of our soldiers were coming back to their loved ones on their shields.

“Then, a week ago, Lady Margaret arrived again and declared to the court at large that Tarakrov would forgive the debt if we surrendered the Regent to her king. It couldn’t be done, of course, even though I’m sure every noble present would have liked nothing more. Our resources were being drained, money was being squandered, and too many had already lost children to the border. They were all angry at the Regent for keeping this up as long as he had. But we sent the ambassador on her way with the same answer as before. The next morning, Tarakrov’s army was at our gates.”

Steve knew he should be questioning so much, but what came out of his mouth was:

“A week ago?”

Phillips seemed to understand what he was asking without the need for elaboration.

“You were very unwell,” he said carefully. “It was decided that the best course of action would be to keep you sedated while you were treated.”

“Oh.”

Steve looked down at his hands pillowed in his lap, a little frown twisting his lips. Idly, he drew his fingers carefully across his left wrist, petting the delicate skin and the faint, twin marks  that could be found there--pin prick scars from a time when he’d been too young and recklessly brave to understand the danger he’d courted.

No one had ever noticed the marks. They were his little secret, his private shame, but touching them had become something of a comfort response. When he was nervous or unsure, he touched the scars on his wrist and reminded himself that he had survived something far more dangerous than what he now faced. Even if what he now faced was an entire week’s worth of missing time, of the world going on around him and not even having the decency to wait for him to catch up.

What had happened in the time since he last opened his eyes? But, no, it wouldn’t do to think of that now. There were too many other things to worry over.

“So, we did not send tribute,” Steve said slowly, his thumb still slowly caressing his scarred wrists, “and nearly a year later, Tarakrov decides to take action. Why? If it was offense enough to go to war over, why not do so immediately? Why wait?”

“No one knows, kid,” Phillips said, shaking his head. “None of it makes any damned sense. Whatever quarrel Tarakrov’s crown had, it seemed to be with your uncle and no one else. Perhaps Lady Margaret had relayed that Aleksander was the sole reason behind the lack of tribute? There’s no way to know for sure. All I know is James’s sword was still dripping with the Regent’s blood when he offered peace once again. We agreed, of course. We agreed to everything. What else could be done? The Regent was gone and you on your deathbed, what was the point? It was peace or perish.”

He glanced at Steve’s pale face, balking when he realized the vivid imagery his own words had painted.

“I’m sorry, son,” he said. “I didn’t mean to--”

Steve waved a trembling hand. “You have always spoken bluntly,” he said, his voice little more than shaky breath. “It’s something I’ve come to appreciate about you, General. Your apologies aren’t needed. My uncle and I were never close.”

“Still,” Phillips said, “family is family. I shouldn’t have been so thoughtless.”

He reached to cover Steve’s hand with his own, patting it gently. His hand was work-roughened and calloused, his knuckles gnarled with old age, but the touch was still a comfort. They stayed like that for several moments of blissful silence before Phillips pulled away again. When he did, he was once again avoiding Steve’s eye such a way that Steve couldn’t help but notice it.

“General?” He asked cautiously. He tilted his head to try to catch his gaze, but was studiously ignored. “What is it?”

Phillips cleared his throat, his gaze sweeping across the bedchamber.

“Tarakrov demands their tribute,” he said slowly. “But they demand more than just gold and spices this time in order for our debt to be paid. We couldn’t refuse them, Your Highness. We were backed into a corner. We didn’t even think that the demands would come to fruition. You were so ill, we did not think you would make it...not even with Tarakrov’s interference. Now that you are well again and it seems that their demands will be met, I can do nothing but beg your forgiveness. We’ve put you in an untenable position.”

It was the formal title on the General’s lips more than anything that had a knot of ice settling in Steve’s belly, fear trickling down his spine.

“Tell me,” he whispered.

Phillips closed his eyes, allowing his head to hang.

“You,” he murmured finally. “That was what the crown demanded. You’re to be sent with the rest of the tribute to Odihnă, where you will wed the king. A new royal line will be chosen here. In exchange, the king will sign a peace treaty with us. No more tribute. We’ll be the first of the seven realms to have Tarakrov as a true ally.”

Steve’s eyes widened as he lurched forward.

Marriage?” He exclaimed incredulously. For a terrible moment, his heart seemed to stop beating. Wild laughter bubbled in his throat. “I can’t marry him! I can’t provide an heir, what need would he have of me?”

Phillips snorted, lips twisting in amusement.

“Tarakrov’s succession doesn’t work  as such,” he said dryly. “A fact that you should well know, if you had paid attention in your studies. They are a kingdom of warriors--when the monarch dies, there is a tournament. The best will take the throne. With no line of succession clear, there is no pressure or need to provide the kingdom an heir.”

“Then what? Does the brute mean to use me as a hostage? Does he hope to ensure better cooperation if he has me in his grasp? How disappointed he will be to find that no councillor holds me in such high esteem. I am not my parents, I do not have the loyalty of our government.”

“I doubt he has any such plan,” Phillips said and his impatient tone told Steve just how hysterical he was being. “Even still, I would advise you that his plan, whatever it may be, should not be your chief concern. No, that should be the plan of those who had hoped to be in your place. The jealous thirst for power will drive someone to do many things and you will be in a place with no one on your side.”

A terrible, hollowing ache spread in Steve’s chest. His home. He was being made to leave his home. Every face he had ever looked upon was there, within those palace walls, and now his time there was in its last days. He would go to a foreign land and reside among strangers, with no friendly face in sight.

I can’t, he wanted to say. I can’t marry such a brute. I won’t.

But it was selfish. His people needed peace. He could sacrifice himself for their good. He had to or what they’d been through would have been for nothing. Phillips was right about everything, as always.

Steve took a deep, steadying breath and swallowed the revulsion he felt when he thought about his future.

“I will miss you,” he said quietly, “and your counsel.”

Phillips’ gaze softened and he reached to pat Steve’s hand again.

“Me too, kid,” he said. “Me too.”

*

Despite how much rest he’d already gotten, Steve fell asleep with relative ease after the General’s departure. He hadn’t thought he would, given all that had transpired, but the excitement and revelation of the conversation had only tired him further.

The next morning, Helen Cho was at his bedside once more. She stayed there in the following days, only leaving him for an hour or two at a time to attend her own needs. If she was not there, then the ambassador or her guard stood vigil in the doctor’s place.

Helen made sure he ate, sometimes more than he felt like eating, and encouraged glass after glass of water down his throat. She drew him from the bed to take a turn around the room in small intervals, allowing Steve to clutch her when his knees were ready to give out under him. It had not been the fever, then, that had made it so difficult to walk, but his own weakened body from being bedridden too long. Without the adrenaline of potential danger to propel him, he was as weak and unsteady as a newborn foal.

Steve was not a stranger to being attended so diligently, for Bieta’s service was the same, and he was a prince besides. He was, however, unused to his every step being shadowed by a stranger. He’d known his guards from boyhood; his maids and attendants as well. Whenever a new face appeared, it was always tempered by the comfort of other familiar faces. Now, it was only Helen.

When he voiced his frustrations after the second day, during one of their small walks, she only smiled her regret.

“I do apologize, Your Highness,” she said, allowing Steve to sit and rest a moment. He was on the opposite side of the room from his bed and the walk back seemed daunting when his legs ached so. “His Majesty ordered me not to leave your side. I do as my king bids.”

Steve scoffed. “Does he think I will do myself harm if left alone? Or attempt to escape from the palace? I would not do anything so cruel to my kingdom as leave them defenseless and at his mercy.”

Helen Cho had proven herself to be an incredibly kind and patient woman. She did not deserve to take the brunt of his ire, not when her only crime was her king, but she bore it well.

“No, Highness,” she said patiently as she urged him to sip on a glass of water. “He worries that you will fall ill again without a physician to tend to you. He worries that your recovery is only temporary and that after it reverses, you will be worse off than before. A feat, I assure you, since you were in your last days when we came to you. With you so far gone, we were not sure if there was anything left we could do for you. But you seem to be recovering well. I don’t believe a relapse is imminent.”

“And what was it that would have claimed me, if your king had not so generously decided to invade my country?”

If he were truthful with himself, Steve had wanted to ask this very question since he’d realized that he was, indeed, getting better. It was not a temporary break in fever before he was claimed again, as he had first assumed; he was growing stronger by the day. Asking such a question had felt like a slight to Sciath’s physicians, who could not even name what ailed him, let alone cure it. He had not wanted to give anymore credit to Tarakrov, no matter how kind its doctor might have been, but now his curiosity was too much for him to hold back any longer.

Helen looked to him with wide eyes, her expression a mess of warring emotion; surprise, shame, trepidation.

“Surely you must know,” Steve said, “if you were able to reverse its effects.”

Helen hesitated for a breath, then two.

“I do, my lord,” she said finally. “But my king has bid that you not be told.”

White-hot fury flooded Steve’s veins, fast as lightning. This man--this brute that had taken his city now sought to deny Steve the basic knowledge of his own body? Who was the crown of Tarakrov to decree such a thing? It had been Steve’s body attacked with fever and sickness. It had been Steve on his deathbed. Shouldn’t he have the right to know what would’ve killed him?

His hands trembled where they were clenched in his lap, but as he opened his mouth to retort, a new voice interrupted.

“You were being poisoned.”

Both he and Helen looked to find the ambassador, Margaret, standing in the open doorway of his bedchamber. Her arms were crossed over her chest, expression placid as she watched Helen sputter in a most undignified manner. There was that terrifying stillness again, that appearance of a lifelike statue rather than a person. He’d never seen anyone hold themselves in such a way before.

Helen began, “His Majesty said --”

But this time, it was the ambassador’s turn to cut her off about their shared king’s wishes.

“His Majesty isn’t here,” she said, shoes clicking quietly on the marble floor as she walked further into the room. Even in motion, there was something different about Margaret. No movement seemed thoughtless, but rather a deliberate choice. “And the prince is hardly a child. He should know the truth of his situation.”

She waved a hand toward the door before placing it delicately back over her chest.

“You may go,” she said, “I will attend the Highness for now.”

The dismissal bothered Helen. Her lips thinned, hurt flaring in her dark eyes as she obediently left the prince’s side. Margaret seemed to realize this, too, because she caught the doctor’s arm as she passed, bidding her to pause.

“Rest,” she said gently, her gaze softening considerably. It was as much an apology as she would allow herself, it appeared, but the tension in Helen’s shoulders eased. “You will be called if you are needed.”

“Of course, my lady,” Helen said, dipping her head. She offered a tentative smile before she disappeared through the doorway.

When they were alone, Margaret considered him for a long, silent moment before she drew close enough to offer her hand.

“Come,” she said, “you look like you could use some fresh air.”

Her skin was cool to the touch when Steve finally accepted it. She did not lead him out of his room, but instead to the balcony. A wise decision, Steve thought, for he didn’t think he could make it back to his bed on his own feet should they go any farther.

The wind rustled his hair gently as he took in a deep breath, filling his lungs with fresh air untainted by smoke or the screams of his citizens. He had not been outside since glimpsing the destruction of his city and he did not know what he expected to find now, but it was not the sight that greeted him.

The streets below were almost empty, a far cry from the bustle of life that Steve had grown up seeing. The few people that were out, however, worked diligently to rebuild their ransacked city, aided by soldiers in Sciathian uniforms. But the surprise was not the citizens or the Sciathian soldiers--no, it was the soldiers in black working alongside them that had Steve slack-jawed.

“You’re helping to rebuild?” He asked in astonishment, leaning against the balcony for support as he watched the slow progress below.

“Of course we are,” Margaret said dismissively, as if it were a common practice for the conquering to aid the conquered in this way. “It is not the fault of the commoner that those in power will never cede. King James knows this. It is his wish that when you are well enough, you will travel to your new home in Odihnă. But it is also his wish that I stay here until we have helped put the city to rights again. Then I will follow you.”

None of it makes any damned sense, the General had said, and Steve found that he utterly agreed.

“It was my uncle,” he said, rather than try to make sense of these oddities. His gaze stayed on the streets below instead of looking the ambassador in the eye. “Wasn’t it? The poison.”

Margaret was quiet for several long moments as she, too, watched her soldiers help in the replacement of a canopy that had been destroyed.

“There is no way to know for sure,” she answered finally. “No one will even admit to knowing that your sickness was not a sickness at all, of course they wouldn’t admit to knowing the perpetrator. It would be admitting treason. But yes, we believe it to be Aleksander’s work.”

Steve nodded to himself.

It made sense in a terrible, sickening way. Now that he knew, he thought himself a naive child for not suspecting it even once. Since his parents’ death, he’d had the odd bout of ill health--always more prone to it than anyone else, it seemed--but it hadn’t been until he reached the age of majority, when he could take the throne, that true sickness had befallen him.

Of course, his uncle would not want to surrender the throne. He would do everything in his power to prevent it--even if it meant killing the only family he had left.

“How did you know?” He asked. “The best physicians in Sciath have treated me, but none could say what was the matter or offer any solution. But you did both in a matter of days.”

Margaret’s mouth twisted in a wry smile.

“There are many reasons for that, Your Highness,” she said. “I would wager any who knew were paid to say otherwise, but given the progression of the illness, it’s very likely that none figured it out. Most poisonings do not occur so slowly.”

“Most likely, that was my uncle’s intent,” Steve replied. “It wouldn’t do to have suspicion cast on him with the mysterious death of the last royal heir at the very moment that heir was old enough to take the throne. Better it appear that I die from a rare illness that he tried in vain to treat.”

Margaret nodded her agreement, turning to bestow him with an appraising look.

“Very astute, Your Highness,” she said approvingly. “That was my theory as well.”

“You did not answer my question, though. How did you know it was poison?”

A slow smile spread on her red lips.

“That,” she replied, “is a conversation that I shall let His Majesty have with you.”

Steve clenched his jaw, making no reply. He didn’t intend to give the crown of Tarakrov any such satisfaction.

Chapter Text

Steve swayed unsteadily with the motion of the carriage. Since gazing upon his home for the last time, his days of travel had been primarily spent feeling like a ragdoll. Whenever they came upon unexpected twists and turns in the road, he was thrown this way and that, unable to keep seated. He hadn’t the bulk of the armed guard sitting across from him, nor the experience he and Helen both seemed to have, to be able to ride with such ease.

Their journey from Dóchais had been a long one thus far, and despite such recent practice, he was still utterly unaccustomed to extended travel. This was the furthest he’d ever been outside the capital city’s walls. As a child, his parents had always chosen to leave him in the safety of their palace rather than bring him along whenever they visited foreign dignitaries. In later years, he’d been much too sick to join his uncle.

It was, of course, a rather trivial complaint. There was no reason for Steve to find true fault with his travel arrangements, not when he was safely ensconced in the carriage, shielded from the elements and as comfortable as one possibly could be given the circumstances. Outside, his escorts hadn’t the luxury of a roof to shelter them or walls to keep the cooling temperatures at bay. They were making the journey on horseback, with no protection at all against the rain that had plagued them for days. Rain that, as Steve looked beyond one crimson curtain to the scenery outside, had turned to--was that snow?

His lips parted in surprise. He’d never seen snow before; the palace in Dóchais was too far south. He’d heard stories of it, though, descriptions that matched what he now saw. Crystalline flakes drifted aimlessly in the air, landing on branch and rock and ground alike, with a gentleness that seemed unearthly.

The carriage listed suddenly to the right as it went around a curve in the road. Steve, distracted and unprepared, was flung to the side. Across from him, Helen had been sleeping soundly. The sudden turn did nothing to wake her; instead, she merely went from resting her head against one cushioned wall to slumping against the guard beside her. She didn’t wake at all. It was a feat that Steve envied terribly; he wasn’t sure how she could find any rest in a commotion like this.

He huffed indignantly as he righted himself, eyeing the guard across from him in annoyance. The dark-skinned man hadn’t moved at all; he hadn’t even needed a steadying hand to keep him in place, unlike his two companions. The guard’s lips twitched every so slightly, but he kept his gaze studiously away from Steve.

He was Tarakrovi, this guard, the very same one that had accompanied Lady Margaret to Dóchais and had been present the night he’d woken. He’d been a quiet, constant presence ever since; an emissary of the North, ensuring the promises to his king were kept.

Despite the time they’d spent together, Steve still didn’t know his name; more than that, he’d rebuked all attempts at conversation until those attempts had finally stopped. That was not usually his way. Growing up, he’d always taken great effort to get to know his Sciathian guards; their names, the names of their husbands and wives, their children, the odd story of their youth. They were people just as he was, deserving of kindness and respect. Treating them as such only solidified their loyalty, elevating it into something tangible and real.

The fact that he didn’t know this guard’s name troubled him far more than he’d like, guilt gnawing at his stomach whenever he thought about it. Stubbornly, Steve tamped down the feeling, unable to understand why he should feel guilty at all. This man and his king had stolen everything from him; it was well within his rights to hate them all.

Even still, Steve found that after countless days of it, he had finally grown weary of his own childish antics.

“Are we far from the border?” He asked, raising his voice to be heard over the rumble of the carriage.

The soldier blinked in surprise, his gaze shifting from a spot over Steve’s shoulder to his face. He lifted a single eyebrow, mouth curving up on one side, and Steve saw in that single expression the words that he didn’t say aloud.

Finally speaking, are we?

Steve looked back to the window and the snow beyond.

“We passed the border some days ago, Highness,” the soldier said, amusement heavy in his voice. “By tomorrow morning, we should meet with His Majesty’s convoy.”

Steve’s head snapped toward him again, shock rocking through him.

“His Majesty?” He demanded. “Surely, you mean another emissary of his?”

“I don’t,” said the guard. “We are to meet the king and his guard at Dremota. It is something of a southern home for the royalty of Tarakrov. We’ll take our rest there for however long His Majesty wishes and then the king will escort you to our capital city of Odihnă. If you had been paying attention, Highness, you would know this. We discussed it before we left your capital.”

Steve blushed fiercely, embarrassed and angry that he had been chastised for the second time in as many minutes.

“Forgive me,” he said tightly, “if I had other things on my mind.”

It was the guard’s turn to look abashed.

Good, Steve thought triumphantly.

The man should be chagrined. They were only in this damned carriage, traveling down a icy road in the snow, because this man’s king saw fit to use Steve as both a political pawn and something of a war prize.

It wasn’t enough that his city had fallen to the treacherous king, or that so many lives had been needlessly lost in the process while Steve had been helpless to do anything about it. Now, even his home had been taken from him--not just Sciath, but the capital city itself, the palace where he’d spent every moment of his life thus far. But more, still, he was robbed his choice of marriage.

He was a prince, of course, and one of a practical nature. Steve knew that he would likely never marry for love. However, even in marriages of political gain, there might have been some measure of choice, some say in which royal or noble he took to be his consort. That was no longer a possibility. Now, he was to be the consort. The king of Tarakrov had demanded his hand in marriage, and unless he wanted more bloodshed, Steve could not refuse him.

Backed into a corner, indeed.

The thought had only just crossed his mind when, quite suddenly, the carriage jerked. Steve was thrown forward into the laps of his companions. Helen shrieked in surprise as she was pulled from her sleep. The soldier placed a calming hand on her shoulder and he reached for Steve with his other, steadying him before he injured himself. Outside, the horses whinnied frantically, the driver shouting something impossible to understand. The carriage jerked again and then abruptly stopped.

They remained motionless for a long moment, staring at one another, before the guard slowly guided Steve back to his seat.

“Are you alright?”

“Yes,” Steve replied. “Thank you. Why have we stopped?”

He reached for the door, only to have the soldier grab his wrist.

“Highness, no.” The soldier pulled his hand away, urging Steve to sit back. “We don’t know what’s out there.”

“Don’t be silly,” Steve said. “There’s nothing but forest for miles. Hardly anything we need worry about.”

The soldier would not be dissuaded. Steve was made to sit idly by and watch as he first checked to make sure Helen was well and then peeked out the window. When the line of his shoulders stiffened, Steve knew that his flippant words had been a mistake.

He turned to look at Steve, his expression grim, and then he uttered the one word Steve hadn’t known he needed to fear.

“Bandits.”

Steve’s jaw slackened, eyes going wide as the word resonated through him.

“Bandits?” He repeated, as if he couldn’t comprehend. “What--I don’t--”

His breath hitched, heart thumping wildly as loud, harsh voices drew closer to the carriage.

Bandits, his mind whispered and this time, he could imagine very well what the soldier meant. The voices had somehow made it real.

“Don’t fight them,” the soldier warned quickly. “Do as they say and I promise to get you out of this alive.”

There was no time to question that promise. Steve was still trying to understand what would possess him to give such an order when the doors on both sides of their carriage were ripped open. A gust of bitterly cold air swept through the carriage, driving out the warmth and leaving only the deepest chill in its wake. A man appeared in each opening, blocking any chance of escape, the two of them dressed head to toe in black. Although their garments were tattered and worn too thin to keep the cold at bay, neither of them seemed particularly affected. They both wore threadbare rags over their faces, hiding everything except for their eyes.

Out,” one of the men hissed.

“Of course,” the soldier answered cordially.

He reached for the handhold to pull himself out. Without warning, the man in front of him grabbed him and yanked him from the carriage. Steve heard his grunt as he hit the ground outside. Helen sucked in a shocked breath, lurching to follow as if she could defend the soldier from such rough treatment. She was pulled from the carriage in the same manner.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise when Steve followed them into the mud and snow, but his heart thumped wildly as he, too, was yanked out and all but thrown to the ground. While he was still trying to orient himself, someone snatched the coat from his body. He looked up just in time to see one of the bandits shaking it out and then running his hands along the lining, checking for anything that might be hidden inside. When he found it empty, the man threw it carelessly into the frozen mud by the rear carriage wheel.

Steve’s clothes were wet and growing more so by the second as he sat, dumbfounded, in the bank of the road. His body trembled with the cold, his arms and legs left unprotected now that his blanket and coat had been taken. His only clothes were Sciathian made, and thus built for the warmer climates of his southern home. He had nothing in his wardrobe that would protect him from this kind of winter.

To his right, both Helen and the soldier had been similarly stripped of their outer layers. The soldier had also been divested of all weapons he’d had on his person. He didn’t fight the bandits at all as they did this and some part of Steve was present enough to find that utterly alarming.

From the moment that the soldier had uttered the word bandit, his mind had gone blank. Terror had seized him and even though it continued to do so, the shock of cold was bringing him out of the confusion. However, the chill settling into his bones didn’t concern him nearly as much as the horrors now surrounding him.

The area around their carriage was strewn with bodies. In fact, as Steve scanned the road behind them, he realized that their carriage had left a trail of them. As far down the road as he could see, there were the lifeless bodies of soldiers, red and blue uniforms damp with blood and snow, caked with mud.

Steve never even heard the attack begin. How long had the bandits been hunting them, picking them off one by one?

The surviving guards had been subdued in other ways. Some were knocked out, others wounded, but all were being tied together by a few of their assailants. The carriage driver lay limp and lifeless a few feet in front of the carriage. A tall, massive man stood over him. He watched with a cold, assessing gaze as the others ransacked the carriage and its occupants’ belongings. This, then, had to be their leader.

“How did this happen?” Steve asked, turning to look at his guard.

The man didn’t answer. He’d been tied up sometime during Steve’s dazed musings, his hands behind his back and feet bound in front of him. He sat stock still and Steve might have thought him turned to stone if not for the way his eyes roamed over the scene laying before them. But no--not just the scene. Steve looked at the bandits and then back at the soldier.

Was he counting them?

Steve wanted to scoff. What hope could this one man have against bandits that had apparently taken their entire party? How did he even plan to get free?

Before he could say anything else, someone grabbed his arm roughly, hauling him to his feet. Steve blinked dazedly, staring up into the eyes of the bandit leader. The man was even bigger up close, a wall of muscle with a cold, predatory gaze that zeroed in on him with a fervor that Steve didn’t like. He half-dangled in the leader’s bruising grip, his toes barely touching the ground.

“Ah ha,” his captor drawled mockingly. His voice held the same empty hate of his eyes. “Now if I didn’t know any better, I would say that you looked very much like the coward prince of Sciath.”

Confusion--how did this man know who he was?--warred with anger inside him. Steve’s face burned, fists clenching against his sides.

“Coward?” He spat. “I am not the one hiding my face, sir.”

There was something of a sigh behind them, but the leader didn’t seem to notice. His entire focus was on Steve, eyebrows furrowing with annoyance. The anger in his expression was completely at odds with his voice when he spoke, which held only cruel amusement.

“I might hide my face, young prince,” he said, “but at least I do not whore myself out to avoid war. Will you warm the bed of any man who threatens you, then?”

Steve narrowed his eyes.

He could not say what drove him to do it. He’d never had the best grasp over his impulses, no matter how often his parents and tutors had tried to instill such control in him. He was a passionate, reactionary being and that part of him ran deeper than any princely grooming could ever reach. Still, it was nothing short of sheer madness to provoke a man like the one before him, with his heavy implications hanging in the cold winter air between them.

None of that, however, stopped Steve from drawing his foot up and kicking as hard as he could manage between the man’s legs. He crumpled to the ground as the bandit leader doubled over, an animal noise of pain escaping him.

Steve scrambled backward, trying to put as much distance between them as possible. The anger that had overtaken him was replaced too quickly by panic. He was left unmoored and reeling, without a clue as to what to do next. His heart thumped wildly as the bandit’s gaze, now nearly black with rage, found him again.

“Why, you little--” He snarled, lurching forward.

From somewhere in the darkened woods, there came a low, menacing growl. The bandit froze, his angry tirade dying out as his head snapped toward the sound. Steve only had a moment to witness his eyes widening before a large, dark blur shot from the trees and toppled the bandit over.

Chaos descended. More shapes emerged from the shadows of the forest. It took Steve a moment to realize what he was seeing: soldiers. Not just any soldiers, either; they all wore the black uniforms of Tarakrov. They came from between the trees with weapons raised, charging at a speed that surprised even the bandits.

“Highness!”

Steve blinked, turning to look at his own guard. The soldier nodded toward the small pile of his weapons, just a few feet away from them.

“My hands,” he demanded. “Quickly.”

Steve stared at him blankly for several moments, before he realized what was being asked of him. When his mind finally caught up, he grabbed a dagger from the pile of weapons and made quick work of the soldier’s bindings. Once free, the soldier yanked the rope from his ankles and lurched quickly to his feet. He rushed past them, taking up his sword as he went, and dove into the fray with his brethren. Steve stared after him in a daze until Helen touched his arm.

“Highness,” she said, “come, we need to take cover.”

It was good that someone else was taking charge. He might’ve been prince to a small country, but Steve had never been in the midst of a battle before. He knew exactly what to do in a room of councillors, but he hadn’t the first clue what to do with the dagger between his numb fingers or how to concentrate on anything other than the loud clang of metal all around him and the echoing cries as more bodies began to litter the snow and mud.

Helen herded him back to the carriage and Steve allowed it. She took his coat from the mud, draping it around his shoulders as she urged him to take cover between the massive back wheels with her. Steve went where she bid.

Although his cloak was cold and damp, it was better than having his skin exposed to the elements. He pulled it tighter around his chilled body, slipping the dagger still clutched in his hand into one of the inner pockets. He couldn’t bring himself to let go of it, even though he couldn’t do a single sensible thing with it.

He closed his eyes for a moment, fighting against a wave of revulsion at his own helplessness. He was a useless, pointless being, hardly fit enough to be called a prince. Why had he never been trained as a warrior? Why did he not know even the simplest ways to defend himself?

A shadow fell upon him and Steve looked up to see the bandit leader staring down at him with such cold fury that it made him tremble. His eyes were now a terrible, gleaming red rather than the cold brown of before. Steve’s stomach dropped.

Strigoi. The man was Strigoi and as Steve looked around at the fallen bodies of the other bandits, he saw more crimson eyes than he had before. Were they all Strigoi, the whole band of them? No wonder they’d been able to overtake Steve’s caravan so easily.

The leader stepped closer and Steve’s attention snapped back to him, a fresh wave of fear shuddering through his body. The man had been unmasked sometime during the fight, but his face was such a bloodied mess that it was impossible to make out his features. Three deep gashes marred one side of his face, while the other side of his jaw looked as though he’d been bitten by something.

What had attacked him?

“I’m going to enjoy watching you die,” the Strigoi hissed. It was only then that Steve noticed the bloodied knife in his hand.

The bandit swayed on his feet, no doubt made unsteady from blood loss, but Steve knew he was still no match for the man. His sheer bulk alone was too much to overpower, even if he hadn’t been Strigoi.

“Go,” Steve said to Helen, shoving her to one side, his body finally working to preserve itself. “Go.”

Helen scrambled to obey and Steve moved to follow her, because if he couldn’t overpower the man, the least he could do was try to outrun him. Except, he did not even manage that. As he crawled after Helen, a boot slammed down on his calf. Steve collapsed to the ground, crying out in pain. He twisted around to look up just in time to see the bandit raise his weapon. In his mind’s eye, he could already his own throat slashed open, his blood soaking into frozen Tarakrovi earth.

The blow never came. One moment, Steve was staring his own death in the face for the second time in his short life and the next, his vision was obscured by a mass of--was that fur?

It tickled his nose and brushed against his skin, the body that it was attached to settling over his own. Steve had only the barest moment to enjoy warmth seeping into his chilled bones when the thing on top of him jerked, a yip of pain echoing in his ear.

Sire!” Someone cried out and then there were more sounds of battle, closer than they were before. The thing on top of him didn’t move.

Steve did not know how long he lay there before silence finally fell. His pulse thundered in his ears, his body shivering from fear and the bitter cold of the frozen earth beneath him. The hilt of his dagger dug painfully into his side. He’d landed on it when he’d fallen and Steve took a moment to appreciate how very lucky he was that he hadn’t stabbed himself in the process. His left wrist throbbed dully, but it wasn’t out of pain. It was merely an awareness, as if the skin there had become particularly sensitive to the beat of his pulse.

Finally, the thing on top of him lifted, exposing Steve to the winter air again. As it limped away from him, blood trailing in the frozen mud, Steve took a moment to marvel at the absurdity that had become his reality. There, in front of him, was a wolf. It was a massive beast, big and bulky, with sleek fur so dark a brown that it was nearly black. Its right side was slashed open, the fur wet and matting together from where it had been struck--from where it had taken the blow meant for Steve.

The wolf took several unsteady steps into the open road and then promptly collapsed onto its uninjured side. Steve scrambled after it, crawling through the mud and dirtying himself further to get to the creature’s side. It didn’t occur to him how idiotic and dangerous such a move was until he was already kneeling by the wolf’s back, hands hovering over its wounded side. The wolf had protected him, but it was still a wild, injured animal. It could attack at any moment.

It did not. Instead, it trained one bright, sharp eye on him and then promptly flopped its head back down, as if Steve were so insignificant a problem that it wouldn’t bother wasting the energy.

“That’s terribly rude of you,” Steve told the wolf, a little nonsensically, as he looked the creature over. As if he had a clue what to do. “I could very well pose a thre--”

His words abruptly died in his throat as his gaze caught on its left front leg, tucked half underneath the wolf’s body. The thing was made entirely of pale, gleaming metal. The wolf made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a snort, but Steve didn’t pay it any mind. He was too focused on how such a fine display of craftsmanship could end up on such a large, imposing creature.

Someone else knelt beside him and reluctantly, Steve pulled his gaze away from the metal limb, relief flooding through him when he saw Helen; she was a doctor of people, but perhaps she could help the animal, too. He drew in a breath, ready to argue for her help if need be--this wolf had saved his life, Steve couldn’t just watch it die--but he needn’t have worried.

Helen did not spare him a single glance as she looked from the wolf’s injury to a Tarakrovi soldier approaching them. The soldier was pale and slender, her flame-red hair turning damp with the snow still falling around them. She wiped the blade of her sword with the hem of her cloak.

“Do you have an encampment somewhere close?” Helen demanded of the woman. “We need to get him somewhere warm and I need more light to see by.”

It was only when she said this that Steve realized how close to nightfall they were. The world around them had dimmed considerably and when he looked to the sky, he saw that the clouds were turning to deep purples and blues as the sun’s last rays began to fail them.

The redheaded woman nodded and looked to the gathering soldiers, snapping orders in a language that Steve had never heard before. They jumped into action. Before he knew it, a door from the carriage had been ripped from its hinges and the wolf’s body laid atop it. Four men hefted it up and carried it off into the woods in the direction that their saviors had come. The redheaded woman led the way, while Helen walked in pace with the wolf.

A hand appeared under his elbow, helping Steve to his feet. He turned to see his guard standing beside him.

“Come,” the soldier said gently. “Their camp isn’t far, they say.”

Steve just nodded, finding himself abruptly at the end of his rope for what he could deal with in one day. He allowed the soldier to lead him the way that Helen and the wolf had gone, but the very moment Steve had to skirt the edges of a body, he halted again. His gaze was drawn to the bodies of Sciathian soldiers littering the stretch of road.

The soldier tugged on his arm again, but Steve stayed where he was.

“No,” he breathed out. “I can’t. I can’t leave them, they shouldn’t--”

He took a step toward the nearest of the bodies--as if he could do something, Gods, but how much a child would he show himself to be before the day was truly through? The soldier stepped in front of him, blocking his view, grasping at Steve’s shoulders.

“They won’t be left here, Highness,” he said firmly. “My king will not allow it and even if he did, my conscience would not. I promise you, your people will find proper rest.”

The soldier’s gaze was kind and understanding, his grip gentle. Shame washed over Steve in a crippling wave. He’d done nothing to earn this man’s compassion--truly, his actions had shown that he deserved exactly the opposite--but here the soldier was, offering it anyways. Lowering his gaze, Steve sucked in an unsteady breath.

“I owe you an apology,” he said quietly, “I never did ask your name.”

The soldier squeezed his shoulders.

“It’s Sam,” he replied. “Sam Wilson.”

“It’s very nice to meet you, Sam Wilson,” Steve said. “Thank you.”

When he dared look up again, Sam was smiling at him. He tilted his head, gesturing to the great unknown of the forest. Steve nodded and followed when Sam began their trek again.

He didn’t know how long it took them to find the encampment, only that he was tired, sore, and colder than he’d ever been in his life when they arrived. The Tarakrovi company had found themselves a small clearing, where at least a dozen tents had been erected. Soldiers loitered all around, but they stopped and watched as Steve was led through the encampment. Surely, they knew who he was and why he was there.

Steve’s face heated under the scrutiny, his cheeks prickling painfully. He kept his gaze down, avoiding eye contact as he followed same through the encampment. It wasn’t a very princely thing to do, but he was too exhausted to pretend.

It was at that very moment that the truth of his situation fell upon him. It wasn’t just the frigid winter air stinging his cheeks or the foreign landscape blanketed by snow--it was this encampment and its body of soldiers all dressed in black. It was the Tarakrovi flag flapping in the cold breeze and the snow-covered trees beyond. It was the very lack of Sciath anywhere, everywhere. Not a single tree or rock, not a single cloud in the dark sky, was familiar to him.

He was well and truly a foreigner.

“Sam!”

Steve looked up tentatively to see a sandy-haired soldier approaching them with his arms held wide and a huge grin splitting his face. Sam grinned back at the stranger, meeting him halfway in a bear hug. They laughed, slapping at each other’s backs, before pulling away to exchange a few words in a language Steve couldn’t understand. Sam’s head tilted toward Steve as he spoke, bringing the unfamiliar soldier’s attention to him. The soldier’s smile dimmed into one that was reserved and polite. His head dipped in a small bow.

“Your Highness,” he said, stepping around Sam. “I am Soldat Barton, a member of His Majesty’s royal guard. If you’ll allow me, I’m here to escort you to the king. He is very eager to meet you.”

If you’ll allow me.

There was some part of Steve that wanted to laugh. He held it back, but only because he wasn’t quite sure if it would come out as a sob--or, worse yet, accidentally give voice to the words echoing through his mind as he stood in this enemy encampment.

I cannot do this.

When Steve did not move or give any answer, Sam touched his elbow again.

“Come,” he said, still far more kindly than Steve deserved. “No harm will find you here. You’re safe, I promise.”

Swallowing thickly, Steve nodded.

“Yes,” he whispered, his gaze flicking back to Barton. “Yes, of course. Lead the way.”

In the heart of the encampment, there was a tent at least thrice the size of the others, and it was this tent that Steve was led towards. He pulled his cloak tighter around himself as they approached the large tent. His heart skipped a beat when his fingers brushed against a smooth, wooden hilt.

It was the dagger he’d used to cut Sam free; he’d forgotten that he’d put it in his cloak. Steve didn’t dare take hold of it for fear that someone might realize what he had, but the feel of the hilt beneath his fingertips calmed him. Even though he could not defend himself should anyone attack, the illusion of protection comforted him.

Barton held back the thick canvas flap, allowing them through. Sam stepped in first. Steve reluctantly followed behind him, but only because he was quite sure that Barton wouldn’t allow him to run.

As he crossed the threshold, he was engulfed in the sweltering, oppressive heat that only ever came from a roaring fire. After being so long in the cold, the warmth hurt him, but it was a welcome pain; he would rather the prickling pain of it over the shivering cold any day. A small lifetime had seemed to have pass between being protected in the mild warmth of his carriage and this moment.

Inside, the tent was dim and filled with soldiers. The crowd parted for Sam, a few offering smiles when they saw him, but just as with Barton, those smiles faded when they saw Steve.

A hand appeared at his back, urging him to follow Sam forward. Steve glanced over his shoulder to see Barton, a small smile on his face as he gestured forward. Reluctantly, Steve did as he was bid. Without such encouragement, he might have stayed rooted to the spot for the rest of his days.

He was led from one end of the tent to the other, past a roaring fire and toward a small dais with a modestly fashioned throne atop it. As he neared it, he once again became aware of a dull throb in his left wrist. The sensation was somehow a tickle, an ache, and the impression of a phantom touch all at once. He rubbed at it self-consciously.

On the throne, there sat a man at least ten years his senior. The red-headed soldier from before stood just behind the man’s right shoulder, her expression displeased. Helen knelt to his left, her hand resting on his forearm. She seemed to be speaking to him, but her voice was so soft that Steve couldn’t even detect the barest murmur.

If anyone had ever asked him, Steve would have had to admit that he had no idea what to expect of the crown of Tarakrov. Not much was known about the mysterious King James. He’d only ascended to the throne a year or so after the death of Steve's parents, not quite a decade past. Since his coronation, he hadn’t ventured outside the borders of his country. The little information about him available couldn’t be counted as much more than rumor; they were retellings of retellings by the rare merchant or dignitary allowed in his court. Still, the things that Steve had heard about him hadn’t painted a welcoming picture.

Brute, Steve had called him, and that was, perhaps, what he expected to be faced with: a man whose appearance matched his brutish actions. A man that matched the fearful whisperings.

The man he saw now both did and did not fit such an idea. He was a warrior, that much was obvious. Dark hair brushed shoulders that were broad and rounded. His black shirt molded against defined arms and his bare feet were set apart as if he were ready to jump into action at any moment. His gloved fingers visibly tightened on the armrests of his throne, one side of his mouth jumping up in a move that could have either been a grimace or a snarl, before he seemed to get hold of himself. He looked very much like a barely restrained animal trying to play the part of a human.

This, Steve thought, was the brute he’d expected. Except--

Except those guarded hazel eyes softened when they rested on his soldiers. His body relaxed incrementally and although he didn’t smile, his expression was as close as it could get without his mouth actually moving.

“Soldat Wilson,” he said in a low, rasping voice. He nodded in greeting. “Bine ai venit acasa. How was your trip?”

Confusion fed the fear gripping at Steve’s insides as Sam answered, “It was fine, Your Majesty. There were no problems until…”

This time, James’ mouth did tick up.

“Until,” he agreed.

He stood, then, and although his fluid movement never faltered, his jaw tightened visibly, nostrils flaring as if he were in pain. Helen shot up with him, taking hold of his arm.

“I told you,” she said fiercely, “you must rest, this is madness--”

Steve did not hear the end of her admonishment. His pulse had increased to a near-painful drumbeat and now, the blood rushing in his ears drowned everything else out. This--this was the man that had set his city ablaze. The man that had ruthlessly killed his uncle. The very same that had taken Steve’s freedom, his future.

How?

How could a man so cold and ruthless just stand there and allow a woman well beneath his station to berate him in front of an audience? How could he do this, but not show the same mercy to Steve?

This king was poised and guarded, but there was a noticeable give to him that Steve couldn’t succinctly explain. It was there in the relaxed posture of his shoulders, the way his eyes fell away from Helen’s. It was in his chagrined expression, as if he knew he deserved her admonishments.

James’ gaze suddenly snapped to Steve, pinning him in place with a single impenetrable look. Steve sucked in a painful breath, a strange kind of awareness prickling underneath his skin. It was said that Strigoi could sense what others could not. If this man was truly one of them, would he able to hear the gallop of Steve’s heart? Would be he be able to sense the torrent of emotion rising quickly within his chest?

Steve had told himself not to touch the dagger again, but without consent from the rest of his body, his fingers slowly, carefully moved toward it. He stared helplessly into the bright, icy gaze of King James as he gripped the hilt under the cover of his cloak.

Steve swallowed thickly. The area just behind his eyes suddenly burned, his vision going just the slightest bit watery, and he realized with abject horror that he might actually cry in this tent full of enemies. He’d managed to remain dutifully steady and unruffled by his new circumstance, but perhaps that had been the shock of it all. He was reaching the limits of his discipline; his capacity to keep his wild emotions at bay was now so worn and frayed that he was held to reason by a single thread.

He’d been taken from his home, forced into a new life, a new country, a marriage that was not of his own making. He’d been attacked by bandits, threatened, almost killed, and now he stood before his conqueror, his husband to be, in such a pathetic state that he was raw from it.

What a sight he must’ve made, damp and muddy, his clothes ruined and torn, his body worn and most likely bruised. Had James meant for this when he’d demanded Steve’s presence? Had he meant to humiliate Steve in front of his men? He’d known about the bandits. Why would he ask for an audience before giving Steve the chance to clean up?

The air was thick around him as King James moved past his physician and guard to approach Steve. Was it Steve’s imagination working against him or had the room gone silent with his nearing?

“My prince,” said James, stooping to bow more formally than a king should to someone in Steve’s position. The cold, guarded expression that Steve had first seen was firmly back in place when he straightened again. “You honor me with your--”

Steve’s single thread of reason did not snap so much as crumble into dust. He jerked into motion before his mind could catch up with the decision to do so. The dagger was out of its hilt in the space of a blink, pain and anger choking the air from his lungs as he lurched toward James. The blade was mere inches from its target when Steve was grabbed by several hands all at once. The tent dissolved into dissonance and chaos.

Someone had his wrist in an iron grip and there was a gentler touch at his forearm, firm but not bruising. Hands were on his shoulders, more on his chest, an arm around his waist--pulling and pushing in a dizzying argument of bodies as the surrounding soldiers tried to get him away from their king.

In the pandemonium, the furred cloak covering him fell away, immediately trampled underfoot. Despite the fire and the press of bodies, Steve was immediately chilled, his damp, thin tunic and mud-caked sandals not nearly enough to shield him from the cold, even within the tent.

The red woman pushed between her king and Steve, her face ablaze with fury. It was her hand on his wrist. She shoved him back, plucking the dagger from his fingers in one swift movement, and the hand on his forearm fell away. He saw James’ arm fall to his side and realized the gentle grip had been his.

The red woman’s voice was right in his ear, near-deafening as she demanded, “Where did he get this? Who allowed him to have it?”

Steve stared at James over the sea of bodies. He was only able to see over the red woman’s shoulder because someone had lifted him off his feet.

“You dare,” he shouted, his voice rising over the chaos. “You dare to act as if I had any choice?”

James said nothing. With the initial surprise of the attack now melted away, he stared at Steve with an expression that could only be described as amused and--was that pride?

But no, it couldn’t be. That made even less sense than everything else Steve had been through that day.

Move,” the red woman snapped, but she was looking at the soldiers trying to aid her and not at Steve himself.

They scrambled to obey. He was put back down on his feet, breaking the connection he’d had with James. The woman pushed him backward, making him stumble over his own feet as she herded him forcefully toward the entrance of the tent. Abruptly, she reversed their positions, taking the lead so that she could forcibly drag him out. They were on the threshold when a voice called from behind them.

“Natalia,” James said and everything stopped. The red woman--Natalia--whirled toward him, fury still radiating from her. James seemed completely unconcerned as he said, “Du-l la cortul meu.”

She blanched.

После того, что только что произошло?” She snapped back. “вы глупец.”

A ripple of unease swept through the gathered soldiers. Steve didn’t know what she’d said, but it couldn’t have been good. He glanced over his shoulder just in time to see James quirk an eyebrow at her. Natalia huffed.

“My apologies,” she said through gritted teeth. Her voice held a thick Tarakrovi lilt. “I will do as my king commands.”

James’ gaze shifted to Steve as she turned away. The last thing Steve saw before he was pulled into the frigid evening air was the pride glittering in those intense hazel eyes and the small, almost imperceptible uptick at the corner of James’ lips.

Chapter Text

Natalia marched Steve across the encampment as if he were an errant child. Her stride and expression were so severe that soldiers jumped clear of her path, preferring to knock into one another rather than impede her progress. Steve’s wrist was caught in her bruising grip and every time he tried slip free of it her fingers only tightened further.

Steve dug his heels into the dirt, yanking backward to halt their progress. It was as futile a task as trying to move a mountain. He and Natalia were of a height but she outmatched him easily in strength. Not only was she a warrior with the training to accompany such a thing but Steve was still recovering from a small lifetime of being bedridden. Truly, it was no contest at all.

“Stop,” he demanded, when his attempts to do just that went unheeded. She ignored him. “I said stop. Let go of me, I--”

Natalia turned on him so suddenly that Steve very nearly ran into her. The expression on her face killed his tirade before it ever properly began. His own anger seemed like child’s play compared to the fury burning brightly in her eyes. Unease trickled down his spine, dampening his indignation.

“Stop this nonsense,” she snapped.

Steve glared at her.

“Unhand me,” he retorted fiercely. “I will not be treated this way!”

With a snarl, Natalia pulled him closer until their faces were mere inches apart.

“The only reason you still breathe in this moment,” she told him very, very quietly, “is because my king wishes it. If you do not shut up and follow me, then I will revisit the notion that I do not want to upset him. Do you understand?”

The truth of her words was easy enough to read. It was in the deadly tone of her voice, the tense line of her shoulders, the way she unflinchingly met his gaze. If he gave her cause, this woman would gladly harm him--or worse--and ask for her king’s forgiveness after. She might even be granted it.

Steve stood there, utterly frozen, as that realization sank in. Thus far, the Tarakrovi soldiers that he’d met had been cordial and in Sam’s case, even kind. This was the first inkling he’d seen of the Tarakrovi that the rest of the world spoke of--the warrior nation with its cold, ruthless natives. He’d been vexed by the Tarakrovi thus far, but he’d been given no reason to fear them; not until this very moment.

He was utterly alone and at the mercy of a woman whose king he’d only just attacked. She could do anything to him and it could easily be justified. Terror shivered down his spine, overtaking his anger in one fell swoop. Swallowing thickly, he nodded in silent assent.

Satisfied, Natalia turned and resumed her march, snatching a frayed rope from a passing soldier’s hands as she did so. The soldier in question looked up sharply, ready to argue, until he saw who the offender was. His jaw snapped shut again. It had been the right choice, then, to not argue with her any further.

She led Steve to a tent that was smaller than the one they’d left, but larger than the ones surrounding it. He only had a vague moment to assess this before he was shoved inside, stumbling over his own feet and into the darkened space. Natalia had no such problems when she entered behind him. Without pause, she took him by the elbow and dragged him toward the thin shadow of what Steve eventually realized was a beam at the tent’s center. She shoved him to his knees and tied his hands to the wooden post. She left without another word, but Steve was not a fool. He knew that if he caused any more trouble, she would hunt him for sport.

When the tent flap fell behind her, he was plunged into darkness. Outside, it was that murky time between sunset and true nightfall, when the last vestiges of light were on the horizon and the world was growing dim. Inside the tent, however, it may as well have been the darkest part of the night. Steve couldn’t see anything except for the vaguest shapes and of those, he wasn’t sure what was real and what his eyes had falsely conjured.

Steve shivered as he surveyed the black space around him. Although he was shielded from the wind, he could still feel the season outside. His bare arms and legs prickled in the frigid air. A deep chill settled inside him once again as the cold from the frozen ground beneath him began to seep into his bones. He wondered if he would ever know true warmth again.

With only shadows and the cold of night to keep him company, Steve had nothing else to do except replay the night’s events. There were so many things that needed his attention--the death of brave soldiers, the attack on his carriage, the narrow escape of his own death--but he couldn’t focus on any of those things. Whenever he tried, his mind always strayed back to the same thing: the warm tent, James’ hooded gaze, the knife between his fingers, James’ gloved hand cradling his forearm.

Swallow thickly, Steve closed his eyes and rested his forehead against the beam. The reality of what he’d done was finally crashing over him in a wave of disbelief and shame.

He hadn’t just alienated himself from his future husband with his brash actions, he’d also alienated himself from the entirety of Tarakrov. Even if there had been anyone who’d felt sympathy for him, he’d tried to harm their king. Those who witnessed it would tell their story and soon, there would not be a soul in Steve’s new life who didn’t know about it.

Anger still simmered beneath the surface, but it was now accompanied by despair, loneliness, and a thousand other tangled emotions he couldn’t hope to parse. His throat and chest were tight. Furious tears burned behind his eyes as he struggled to get hold of his spiraling emotions.

He did not know how long he sat there, trembling in the increasing dark, left with only the cycling thoughts of What have I done? and I hate him and I want to go home.

Just when he thought he might truly be left to freeze all night, the tent flap opened again to reveal a looming, bulky shadow. The shadow huffed softly and turned to look to its right.

“Is this Natalia’s doing?”

It was James. Steve’s heart quickened, his body curling more tightly than it had been before.

“Yes, my lord,” said a soft, female voice. “She bid that I not tend the fire or turn down your bed until you arrived.”

“In you go, then.”

A slimmer shadow darted inside ahead of James’s, the flap closing silently behind his shape. Although Steve couldn’t see a single thing in the darkness, James and his companion didn’t seem to have any such problem; they moved within the dark tent without hesitation or incident. There was the hiss of a match being struck and then a lantern was lit. It was a small light, but after being so long in the dark, even that little bit hurt Steve’s eyes.

As his eyes adjusted, he saw James’s companion: a young footsoldier with dark hair in a long braid down her back. The lantern she’d lit sat on a small wooden table on the far side of the tent. Steve saw an unlit fire pit just a few feet to his left and a large bed piled with furs to his right. The only other furniture in the tent were two chairs situated near the table and a large trunk that Steve had to crane to see behind him.

Although the space was sparsely filled, each item within it was the finest of its kind. The table looked newly made, as did the chairs, and the furs were skillfully cared for. If the tent’s size was not a clue itself, then the items within it told Steve all he needed to know. They spoke of station and money; they spoke of royalty.

This was James’s tent.

His heart thumping wildly, Steve turned wide eyes to the man in question just as James set a tray piled high with food upon the table. The footsoldier began to build a fire in the pit.

“Natalia is the commander of my personal guard,” James said casually. He’d donned a fur-trimmed cloak in the time since Steve had last seen him. Pulling at the knot near his throat, James began to untie it as he slowly approached Steve. “We’ve known each other since we were children. She takes it very personally when someone tries to kill me.”

Kill was possibly too strong a word for what Steve had tried to do. Still, he hadn’t been on the receiving end of it, so perhaps he wasn’t allowed to dictate what it was called.

James squatted down in front of him, perfectly balanced on the balls of his feet. He reached out with a gloved hand, pausing only when Steve jerked away from his touch. The golden armlets snaking around Steve’s bared biceps thumped quietly against the wooden beam as the two men stared at each other. Silently, James withdrew his hand and rested his elbows on his knees. His gaze flicked down the armlets before lifting to Steve’s face again; his expression was still damnably neutral.

 

 

Steve blushed furiously. Until that moment, he’d honestly forgotten that he’d been wearing them. It had been silly to do so, especially when he was only going to cover them up with his borrowed cloak. When he’d slipped them on that morning, before obediently climbing into his carriage once more, they’d felt like armor in much the same way his Sciathian clothing did, impractical as it was. Now, Steve just felt foolish.

“You fear me,” James said finally, and though his voice was confident, it held no mockery. “There is no need.”

“I’m tied up in your tent,” Steve returned fiercely. “There is plenty need.”

The amusement that he’d seen earlier was back in those hazel eyes, though James’s expression never shifted.

“You tried to stab me, princeling,” the king reminded him.

The flush in his cheeks only deepened as Steve admitted begrudgingly, “Only a little.”

This time, James’s lips did twitch.

“And you are only tied up a little,” he said. “I believe we are even.”

Steve huffed indignantly.

Behind James, the fire had grown considerably. Heat began to spread from it, teasing Steve’s icy limbs with the promise of warmth should he just get a little closer. The footsoldier, now satisfied with it, moved to turn down the bed. James ignored her movement around the tent, keeping his gaze on Steve.

“I will not harm you,” he promised, keeping his voice low and calm. “Nor will I touch you in any fashion that you do not wish. You have my word.”

“And what worth does your word have?” Steve asked, unable to help himself. His cheeks burned from being handled so gently, treated like a maiden prone to hysterics. Embarrassment and resentment rose within him. “You are a man without honor, a thief, and a murderer. How could your word hold any weight? What trust could I have that it will be kept?”

The footsoldier faltered in her duties, a sharp intake of breath signaling her disbelief. James glanced at her, waving his hand in silent dismissal. She left the tent without another word. For a moment, there was nothing but the soft crackle of the fire. James’s expression had not shifted, but somehow, it seemed heavier than it had a moment before.

“Will you allow me to untie you now?” He asked finally. “You’re shivering and it is well past suppertime.”

Steve ignored the tremble in his limbs, his ire only growing the longer he was faced with this man and his patient demeanor. It seemed like the calmer James was, the more annoyed he became. The man was a warrior, as Steve had seen earlier, but this--this was the behavior of a king. He obviously knew exactly what to say and exactly how to speak to get the outcome he desired.

Steve didn’t want him to be kind. He didn’t want a lie.

“Why would you want to do that?” Steve demanded. “I could try to stab you again. Or escape.”

James raised an eyebrow.

“You have no weapon,” he said, “and even if you did, you would fail as you did before. As for escape, I would advise against it. Natalia does not particularly enjoy hunting to capture and you have angered her enough for one evening, I think.”

This, Steve could concede. If Natalia were the one to chase him, he had no desire to attempt escape.

“And if I denied your request?” He asked. “What then?”

“Then I would leave you here,” James replied. “However, that does not seem like a comfortable position to sleep in.”

The mention of sleep caused Steve’s eyes to widen considerably. He jerked back again.

“I won’t share your bed,” he insisted immediately.

“I did not ask you to share it.”

He said it so simply that Steve felt foolish for assuming otherwise. Averting his gaze, he shifted uneasily and then immediately winced. His bindings were too tight and any movement turned his pinkened, sensitive skin a deeper red. His wrists ached terribly from the confinement. He was cold.

James was perfectly, utterly silent as he waited for a response.

Finally, Steve relented.

“Very well,” he murmured, keeping his gaze stubbornly on the ground.

The ropes fell away quickly. Steve took hold of his sore wrists, rubbing them to ease the ache. James shifted in front of him and before Steve could register what was happening, something thick and soft enveloped his shivering frame. He blinked, looking at the cloak now draped over his shoulders, shielding him from the cold that the fire hadn’t yet managed to banish. Warmth slowly began to seep into his aching bones.

Strong hands ran down his covered arms, squeezing lightly as if trying to warm him further. When James reached his elbows, he cupped them gently and urged Steve to his feet. It was such an unexpected display of gentleness that Steve couldn’t even think to protest. He looked up, his lips parting in surprise.

For several drawn out moments, they just stood there, staring at one another in the thickening silence. It took the span of those seconds for Steve to realize that he stood in a half-embrace with a man he’d vowed to hate.

“No,” he blurted out, jerking away from the gentle touch. He pulled the cloak tighter around himself, unwilling to give that up, at least.

James’s expression was mild as he asked, “No?”

No.” Before he could stop himself, the words continued to pour out. “Is this what I have to look forward to as the consort of Tarakrov? Is this what you have to offer me as a husband? Fearing for my life and the constant threat of violence? I have been in your country less than a week and already, I have been attacked by Strigoi! Strigoi! Most go their entire lives without encountering such creatures. Most think they are a fable. No more a reality than the boogeyman under a child’s bed. But I? I have seen them too much. I know the truth of them! I have seen my own mortality reflected in their crimson eyes again and again and I want it no more! I could be safe and warm in my home, but instead I am cold and dirty and exhausted in this strange wilderness, where I must apparently be constantly worried that I will be attacked by creatures who thirst for my lifeblood!”

His voice had grown steadily louder until his last words rang between them. He stood there, breathing heavily, glaring at the man before him and his damnably placid expression.

“Safe?” James asked finally. His voice was the whisper of silk over skin, so soft it was barely heard. “Yes, I dare say you would have been safe if I had not taken you away. You would have been tucked safely into your coffin, entombed alongside your ancestors. That was your future, young Highness. That was your fate. You would ask me to beg your forgiveness for saving your life?”

“I did not ask you to save me!” Steve retorted, cheeks heated and flushed with his anger. “I did not ask for any of this! I woke from a fever only to find my city in ruins and my future gambled away to a man I’d never met, as if I amount to little more than a pawn. You expect me to be grateful? You would have me kneel to you in gratitude for using me for your own political gain?”

“I would have you kneel to no one,” James replied. For every ounce of fevered passion in Steve’s voice, there was an equal measure of ice in his. “You are not my pawn, nor my political advantage. What do I gain by marrying you, Highness?”

Steve jerked back, struck momentarily dumb by the question. He gaped.

“W-What?”

“What do I gain?” James repeated, sounding impatient for the first time. “You believe yourself a pawn. You believe that I have ensnared you for some nefarious purpose that only I will profit from. Tell me, then: how does our marriage benefit me?”

The silence stretched as Steve’s mind remained blank.

“You,” he stopped, licking his lips nervously. “You gain Sciath as an ally.”

Even as he said it, he knew it wasn’t the true answer. Sciath was inarguably the least desirable ally in all of Mérivel. They were a small country with a modestly trained army; their value was in trade, not in war, but even their worth in that was minimal.

“No,” James said, speaking Steve’s thoughts aloud. “Sciath gains Tarakrov. That is their benefit. What is mine?”

There was none. As Steve frantically thought about everything he knew of the events that had transpired between their two countries, he failed utterly in finding what James or his country gained from the treaty that had been signed. Everything had been to Sciath’s benefit. They now had the most powerful ally one could hope for. Tribute was no longer required. Peace was assured--something that his small country desperately needed.

“I...I don’t know,” Steve whispered finally.

Why had James agreed to any of it? What did he hope to gain? There had to be something; he would not have given so much otherwise.

Rather than telling him, James merely held Steve’s gaze, the silence stretching between them as he, apparently, allowed that realization to sink in. When he was satisfied by whatever he saw on Steve’s face, he stepped back and gestured to the food on the table.

“Would you like to eat now?” He asked, and Steve could do nothing but nod in response.

*

Dinner was an awkward, quiet affair. James ate nothing, but instead watched Steve’s every bite as he tentatively chose which foods he would most like to eat. It was unnerving, having his every movement scrutinized in such a way, and even more so when there was nothing but silence between them.

Afterward, James rose to escort Steve to what would be his own tent. True to his word, the crown of Tarakrov would not force his betrothed to share his bed. It should have been a relief--it was a relief--but it only served to keep Steve off kilter. Nothing was as he thought it would be and the more that became apparent, the more he realized how out of his depth he was.

James stopped in front of a modestly sized tent. Turning to face Steve, he reached to brush Steve’s hair back from his forehead. Dried bits of mud fell from the dirty strands.

“We don’t have much in the way of a bath here,” James said. “But tomorrow, we will be back at Dremota and you will have a chance to clean up properly. I will, however, provide you fresh clothes.”

“There is no need,” Steve said. “If my trunk was salvaged--”

James shook his head, cutting off the words.

“If what you have worn today is the most appropriate clothing you have available to you for weather like this, it is not enough,” he said. “I will send someone with clothes for you in the morning.”

Some part of Steve knew that he should express gratitude for the kindness. He was cold again already, despite the fact that they’d only left the warmth of James’s tent a scarce minute or two before. He should be grateful, but he wasn’t. Instead, annoyance flared hot and bright at being dismissed so easily.

“I would prefer wearing my own things,” he insisted.

James raised a single, incredulous eyebrow.

“Your clothing is more suited to Sciathian summers,” he said, “not Tarakrovi winters. You will freeze to death before we can get you to Odihnă if you continue to dress in such a way. Do not allow stubborn pride to keep you from being comfortable. Or alive.”

He hadn’t been condescending when he spoke, nor did his tone hint that he was trying to belittle Steve with his words. He was simply being sensible. That didn’t stop Steve from scowling at him.

“I have not known true comfort since I left Sciath,” Steve snapped back, his tone just as frigid as the air around them. “Good night, Your Majesty.”

He did not wait for a reply before turning on his heel and disappearing into the tent. The air inside was thick and warm, a small fire crackling in the pit at the center of it. The small bed he’d been given was nestled in a corner and piled with thick furs to warm him further through the night. On top of the fur, someone had laid out nightclothes not his own--it was nothing more than a simple pair of pants and a long-sleeved shirt, both appearing soft and thick. They would keep him much warmer than his own nightclothes.

Scowling, Steve went to his salvaged trunk and pulled out the flimsy nightclothes that he’d brought with him. After yanking them on, he shoved the ones laid out for him into his trunk, and crawled into bed.

With both mind and body exhausted, he was sure that he would fall asleep as soon as he laid down. That was not the case. He tossed and turned most of the night, haunted by the memories of a hand on his throat, blood-drenched snow, the bodies of the fallen all around him. When he was plagued by the past day’s events, he was overly aware of the temperature dropping as the fire slowly died out. He burrowed deeper under the furs, pulling them tightly around his body as he tried to ignore James’ words ringing loudly in his head.

Don’t let stubborn pride keep you from being comfortable.

Sometime after dawn, he was woken from another light doze by a dull thump and a quiet curse. Someone was in his tent. He shot up in bed, blinking sleepily until he could focus on the intruder: an unfamiliar footsoldier. The young man was in the process of setting down a basin of water on the trunk. He froze mid-movement when their eyes met.

“My lord!” He squeaked. “Did I wake you?”

“No,” Steve lied. They stared at each other for another few moments before he added, “What are you doing in here?”

“Oh!”

The footsoldier jerked into motion, sloshing a bit of water over the edge of the basin as he hastily set it down. He winced at his mistake, hastily wiping it from the trunk’s surface.

“His Majesty said that you would want to clean up before breakfast,” the boy said, waving at the basin. “And clothes!”

He turned hastily and grabbed a pile of clothes from a small table near the tent’s entrance. If Steve wasn’t mistaken, it was the table that the basin should’ve been perched on, but the boy didn’t seem to know that.

“His Majesty sent clothes for you as well,” the young soldier said, holding the pile eagerly.

Steve crawled from beneath the warm furs, shifting until he sat on the edge of the bed. He went to stand, only to immediately fall back onto the pallet with a hiss. White-hot pain had flared in his right leg, the worst of it centered mid-calf. With a sharp, agonizing breath, he twisted to see the cause. A large, dark bruise marred his pale skin just a few inches below his knee. He remembered, suddenly and viscerally, the way the bandit leader had stomped on that very leg to prevent his escape. He’d been so cold and sore from the entire ordeal that he hadn’t noticed pain in that leg specifically. Now, it was the only thing he could notice.

“Oh no!” The young soldier exclaimed, as he rushed to Steve’s side. His wide eyes were glued to the bruise. “What happened? Should I get Doamnă Cho?”

Steve gave him a small, pained smile.

“What’s your name?”

“Peter,” he said immediately. As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he winced. “I mean Soldat Parker, sire.”

How new he must have been to the service to forget his rank so easily. Except--was it a rank? Barton had introduced himself in the same manner the night before and Sam had been called such by his king. Surely, this boy didn’t hold the same status as the two of them.

“That won’t be necessary, Soldat Parker,” Steve said, the shape of the word feeling strange in his mouth. He gently took the clothes. “Thank you for the water and the clothes, though. I can take it from here.”

Peter stared at him blankly for several long seconds before realizing what Steve was asking of him.

“Oh! Right, yes, of course. Um, I’ll just...I’ll be outside when you’re ready, Highness.”

“Ready for what?”

Peter was already halfway out when Steve’s question gave him pause. He turned back with wide eyes.

“For breakfast, my lord,” he said. “I’m here to escort you.”

With that, he was gone.

The clothing was nothing more than a simple pair of riding trousers and a thick sweater, accompanied by socks of the same material, and a pair of boots that at least looked like they might fit. Steve dropped all of it onto his unmade bed. He limped to his trunk and, as he’d done the night before, pulled out his own clothes. It was silly, he knew, especially when he was already cold, but even after a night’s rest, he could not let go of his own ire. He’d been dismissed and ignored. He would show the crown of Tarakrov how that felt.

Steve took the time to clean himself as best he could with what little he’d been given and then pulled on the blue tunic he’d selected from his trunk. He wished that he still had the cloak he’d been given, at the very least, but it hadn’t been recovered after last night’s incident. Instead, he steeled himself and stepped out into the icy morning air.

Peter stood by the tent’s entrance with his hands clasped behind his back, patiently awaiting his charge. His brown eyes widened as he looked from Steve’s bare arms to the exposed skin of his sandaled feet.

“Did the clothes not fit?” He asked earnestly. “I could find other--”

“That isn’t necessary,” Steve said again, trying to smile in reassurance. He ignored the prickle of goosebumps across his naked skin, barely restraining the urge to rub warmth into his chilled body. “You said something about breakfast?”

“Oh! Right, yes, this way, Your Highness.”

Peter tripped over his own feet in his haste to lead the way. Despite the tremor of cold in his body, Steve found himself smiling as he obediently followed. There was a pronounced limp to his gait, but Peter was patient with him. When he realized Steve could not keep up, he slowed to match the snail’s pace that Steve had set for himself.

It wasn’t long at all, and yet too long for Steve’s shivering body, before they came upon the large tent from the night before. Peter reached the entrance first, holding the flap open to allow Steve through.

The air inside was blessedly warm, a fire still burning in the center pit. The night before, the tent had been empty save for the bodies packed into it and the dais for King James’ throne. This morning, however, there were two rows of tables pushed together on either side of the firepit and every table was packed tight with bodies. The dais was still in the exact place it’d been the night before, but a table had been set atop it. More tables had been pushed against either side of it.

James sat on his throne on the dais, the table before him completely empty. He simply watched as his men took their breakfasts.

When does he eat?

To his right sat Natalia, Barton, and a third man. To his left sat Sam and Helen. Between the two of them was an empty chair--it was to this chair that Steve was being led.

Conversation in the room had quieted when he’d entered. All eyes turned to follow his progress. The reaction to his presence seemed to vary. Some grinned at him as though he were a particularly amusing toddler, while others glared at him in much the same way Natalia had done the night before, and still others seemed to waver between the two--staring at him with mistrust, but with a faint quirk to their lips. Steve resolutely ignored the stares, just as he ignored James’ arched eyebrow and the pointed look he gave to Steve’s decidedly Sciathian clothing.

As he limped to the dais, he slowly became aware of a tingling sensation in his wrist again. It grew until it was a throb that matched the beat of his heart. He scratched at where the throb was centered, wincing when his nails scraped across flesh still tender from where he’d been bound.

“Aren’t you cold?” Sam asked with no small measure of amusement as Steve sat by his side.

At the same time, Helen demanded, “Why are you limping?”

“Not at all,” Steve lied to Sam. To Helen, he said, “I had a disagreement with a man yesterday as to whether or not I should die.”

Sam snorted. Steve turned to look at him, but found his gaze drawn over his shoulder instead. James was staring down at his clasped hands, an amused smile tugging at the corner of his lips. It was there and gone again in the blink of an eye, the smile melting away as soon as he tilted his head and realized Steve was looking. He raised an eyebrow.

Steve’s gaze snapped back to Sam, only to find that Sam was evaluating him in a way Steve didn’t wholly like. As dark eyes traveled over his flimsy clothing, Steve became aware of the chill that couldn’t quite be driven away by the fire. A shiver ran through him, his skin prickling with noticeable goosebumps. He fought not to blush. No doubt, his stinging cheeks and nose were just as red as his aching toes.

Finally, Sam just shook his head and laughed.

“I will say this about you, Highness,” he said. “You don’t make things boring.”

This time, Steve did blush. He told himself it had nothing to do with the way he could see James’s mouth curving up again at Sam’s words.

“Don’t encourage him,” Helen said. She rested a hand on Steve’s forearm, the touch so warm that it felt like a brand on his chilled skin. Frowning, she scolded, “You’re freezing! Why have you forgone your cloak? You’ll catch your death, walking around like this.”

“I lost it last night,” Steve said.

He did not have to specify when or how. It was clear that she knew the answers to those very questions by the way her gaze darted away, cheeks warming subtly.

A plate was set in front of him. It was a modest breakfast of meat and eggs, but Steve didn’t much care about its simplicity. It smelled delicious. He tucked in eagerly, his body slowly relaxing as the thick air and hot food began to warm him properly.

“How are you feeling?” Sam asked. “Yesterday was quite...eventful.”

Steve huffed out an incredulous laugh.

“That is one word for it,” he agreed. “It feels as though it might have been a terrible dream, but my leg is proof of the opposite.”

“I would like to examine that after breakfast,” Helen said.

Steve nodded obediently. Her voice brooked no argument, but he hadn’t intended to fight with her about it, anyways. He’d been under her care long enough to know better.

“I don’t think it’s broken,” he assured her, “but if it would please you, then, yes.”

There was no sound this time to draw Steve’s attention to James, only the prickling awareness of someone’s gaze upon him. When he turned, their eyes met. Steve thought he saw a question in those hazel depths: You fight me, but not her?

Perhaps he saw nothing, and the absence had his mind creating outlandish theories in response. He wasn’t sure. He just knew he had to turn away from that gaze; he couldn’t stand its weight upon him.

Shifting quickly to face Helen again, he asked, “How is the wolf?”

She paused mid-bite, eyebrows furrowing in confusion as she stared at him.

“The...wolf?” She repeated.

“Yes. The one that protected me from that bandit? It was injured and you brought it back here to treat it.”

The confusion cleared from her face. Her eyes grew bright with mirth, lips stretching into a pleasant smile.

“Oh, of course,” she said, laughing. “Forgive me, Highness, I’d forgotten that you didn’t know. That wasn’t--”

She stopped abruptly, frowning again as she looked over his shoulder. Steve followed her gaze back to James. His expression was placid, except for the firm press of his lips. It was impossible to read anything in his gaze that would give a clue as to why she’d faltered, but whatever was there was enough to have her second-guessing her words. When Steve looked back to her, she shook her head as if clearing it. Her smile, when it returned, was unsure.

“That wasn’t...um, that wasn’t anything to worry about,” she said slowly, her reassuring smile faltering at the edges. “He is fine. He just needs to rest and he’ll be right as rain soon enough.”

Somehow, he didn’t believe that this is what she’d meant to say. Steve glanced back and forth between them again. Sam studiously ignored the entire conversation, idly eating the remnants of his breakfast as he peered out at the other soldiers. Steve knew better than to think it was incidental.

“No,” he said, seemingly to no one. To everyone. “That wasn’t what you intended to say. Tell me.”

She ignored him, turning in her seat to face the table again and picking up her fork.

“It’s a good thing he was there,” she continued, as if Steve hadn’t uttered a word. “It’s a good thing they all were, otherwise I fear what would’ve become of us.”

“Helen,” Steve began, but she cut him off.

“Were we not supposed to convene in Dremota?” She asked, looking back to her king. “We’re still hours away. Did you say what luck brought you to our aid so far out? I don’t remember.”

James’ eyes glittered with amusement. Perhaps her babbling entertained him or perhaps he had told her the reason for their venture already. Still, it was clear that she was trying to change the subject and James obliged her, much to Steve’s irritation.

“We heard tell of bandits in the area,” he replied. “Except they were not behaving like regular highwaymen, according to the reports. Their pattern and victim were too specific. It was my belief that they were searching for His Highness.”

All question of the wolf flew from Steve’s mind. He turned to stare at James in wide-eyed confusion.

“For me?” He asked. “But why? I have...”

The words fell away as memories from the evening before suddenly flooded him.

The dead. The dead.

He saw now, with sudden clarity, how even before he’d known the bandits were there, they were choosing their victims carefully. Each dead soldier had worn Sciathian colors. It’d been the Tarakrovi soldiers, all in black, that had been spared. They’d been the ones tied up, instead of laying lifeless in the snow and mud. It was so obvious now. Why hadn’t he noticed that before?

“Oh,” he murmured softly. “They only killed soldiers of Sciath.”

Sam’s expression grew soft.

“Unfortunately so, Your Highness,” he returned gently. “We believe--”

But Steve already knew their theory. It was easy enough to deduce, once he’d realized that only his own men had died. His mind whirled as the dots connected, painting a loathsome picture.

“They were trying to make it look as though we’d been betrayed,” Steve cut in, his chest growing tight as the realization set in. “They weren’t bandits at all. They wanted...they wanted war again?”

He glanced hesitantly between Sam and James, hoping that he was mistaken, but that was not what he found in their gazes. He saw the truth of his fears in both of their eyes.

“Yes,” James said. His bright gaze was pleased, but calculating as it swept over Steve. It was as if he’d only just realized that he’d missed something in his initial assessment. “The treaty between Tarakrov and Sciath is new and fragile. Your death so soon after being taken into our care would not be able to go unanswered, no matter how reluctant your government was. It would tip the scales again.”

Someone, somewhere--even multiple someones--did not want peace between Sciath and Tarakrov. They wanted him dead. Suddenly, Steve found himself unable to take another bite of food. He pushed the plate away, staring at the remnants of his breakfast as he processed this new information.

“This isn’t over, then,” he said quietly, staring down at the table. “They will attack again.”

No one needed to confirm it for him. It was the only logical assumption to make; if war was what they wanted, they would keep trying until they succeeded. A hand landed on his shoulder just as he watched Helen’s fingers cover his own on the gnarled wooden table. She squeezed his hand lightly, leaning to catch his eye so that she could give a reassuring smile.

“You’re safe,” she said, an echo of Sam’s reassurance the night before.

“We don’t know for sure if they will come for you again,” Sam agreed.

Steve turned to look at him, but once more, his gaze strayed to his betrothed instead. James’ jaw had tightened considerably, his gaze flicking between Sam’s touch to his shoulder and Helen’s touch to his hand. If Steve hadn’t known any better, he might have said that James looked annoyed.

“Now that you are with His Majesty,” Sam continued, apparently oblivious to Steve’s distraction, “it’s very possible that they will abandon whatever plan they had.”

“But it would be unwise to allow your guard down so quickly,” James said.

He rose from his seat and on his other side, Steve saw Natalia abandon a conversation with Barton to rise with him. In fact, the handful of remaining soldiers abandoned their conversation and food to stand with him. Impatiently, James waved his hand and after a moment’s pause, they retook their seats. It was another few moments until the noise of their breakfast slowly began to return.

Natalia, however, did not heed her king’s dismissal. She stayed standing, staring at the back of his head as if waiting for further instruction. James ignored her, stepping in between Steve and Sam, offering his gloved hand.

“If you are finished,” he said, “I would like to show you something that will perhaps put your mind at ease.”

Hesitantly, Steve nodded. He slid his hand into the proffered one, allowing James to pull him to his feet. They left the breakfast tent, Natalia following close on their heels. A light morning breeze blew between the rows of tents as they stepped outside and Steve was instantly reminded of how little his clothing protected him. He shuddered violently, clenching his jaw tightly to keep from gasping against the cold. It was his own stubborn foolishness that had brought this about, after all, and he would not give James the satisfaction of saying, “I told you so.”

Without even looking at him, James sighed softly and untied his cloak. He draped it around Steve’s shoulders and pulled it tightly around his small frame.

“I believe you have made your point, Highness,” he said softly.

Steve frowned up at him. “And what point is that?”

“That you will do whatever you wish, no matter what advice is given to you,” he replied. “And also that the more one pushes you, the more determined you are to do the opposite of what you are told.”

Steve ought to have denied it, but he didn’t. In truth, he was caught so off guard by the honesty that he couldn’t think of a single thing to say in response. It was a good thing that James had not waited for one. Instead, he’d merely turned and led the way back to Steve’s tent.

As they walked through the camp, Steve garnered the same looks that he had at breakfast; that odd mixture of amusement and distrust. Those that had already come and gone from breakfast were meticulously breaking down the site. It was something Steve had grown used to since leaving Sciath, the rise and fall of an encampment, but this was on a scale that he hadn’t become accustomed to yet. His caravan had been small. James’s was at least twice the size.

They approached a particularly rambunctious group of soldiers roughhousing among a pile of crates and trunks. They simmered down when they spotted their king, each saluting jovially.

Bună dimineața, Majestatea Voastra,” one of them called as James and Steve passed by their group. When the man’s eyes fell to Steve, his grin only widened. “We’ve frisked that one this morning, I hope. Wouldn’t want the young Highness to cut himself, now would we?”

The other men laughed uproariously. A little huff behind him had Steve glancing back at Natalia. She was trying to glare at the men even as she fought to smother a smile. Steve’s face prickled with heat, embarrassment making his skin feel too tight over his bones.

James raised an eyebrow. “Bună dimineața, Soldat Ward,” he murmured, and then walked onward. He was damnably silent about the soldier’s remark.

Steve didn’t dare look to him as they left the men in their wake. Did James find it humorous, too, then? Is that all Steve’s attempt was? An amusement to these people?

He swallowed thickly. Humiliation seared his flesh, his throat tightening and eyes burning with it. The silence following the soldier’s taunt was suffocating; it only served to remind Steve about the jab and what the man must think of him. He searched for something to say.

“Will you tell me what he said?” He asked, his voice hoarse and quiet. He cleared his throat, trying not to flush. “Not the...not the second part. Of course, I understood that. I meant the first part. The, um. Boo--boona?

Bună dimineața,” James repeated. “It means ‘good morning’ in Română. He also said, Majestatea Voastra. That means ‘Your Majesty.’ We have two languages in Tarakrov: Rusă, the language of the west, and Română, the language of the east.”

Behind them, Natalia tsked. “Russki and Rumynski,” she corrected, in a tone that implied it was an old argument.

James glanced back at her, a fond smile tugging at his lips as he acknowledged the private joke. It dimmed again when he looked back at Steve.

“Natalia understands both,” he said, “but she prefers the western tongue. That is what the languages are called in Rusă--Russki and Rumynski.”

“Do all Tarakrovi speak both?”

“No.” James shook his head. “Nobility are fluent in both. Those in the military understand commands in both as well. But with the commoner, it is usually one or the other. You will primarily be exposed to Română here, but it would be beneficial to learn both eventually.”

Steve nodded silently. He could do nothing else. This strange land with its strange languages was his home now; of course he would need to learn how to communicate with the people that would be his.

When they arrived at Steve’s tent, he promptly forgot about his lingering embarrassment and any talk of languages. A small cart was positioned right in front of it. Men ducked in and out of the small canvas opening, hauling his bedding and furniture to the cart. Two more men came out of the tent carrying his trunk. They pushed it up into the bed of the cart and went back for more. One of the men paused when he caught sight of James heading toward them. He was a stout, burly fellow with a rounded hat on his head and a red mustache that had completely overtaken his bottom lip. He grinned as he turned back to the tent and whistled loudly.

Two men came out immediately. A third rounded the back of the cart and a fourth jumped down from its bed. All of them joined the burly man, pausing in their work to greet their king.

“Your Majesty,” the man said, bowing to James before nodding in Natalia’s direction. “Commander.”

James smiled at them before turning to look at Steve.

“These are some of my most trusted men,” he said, gesturing toward the group. “I have tasked them with your safety. They will be your personal guard from now on.”

Steve glanced at the five men gathered, taking each in, before he looked back to James. This was not something brought on by their discussion at breakfast. These men had been working while Steve was eating, which meant their orders had been given well before he’d ever had to worry about whether or not a group of supposed bandits would haunt his steps. When, then, had they been assigned to him? Had it been the night before, after he’d tried to hurt their king?

The memory made him flush and avert his gaze. Perhaps James did not find it as amusing as his men after all.

“Are they to protect me,” Steve asked, “or are they to protect you from me?”

One of the gathered guards snorted loudly. It’d been a shorter man with jet black hair and what seemed to be a permanent scowl on his face.

“Protect him from what, exactly?” The scowling man asked, and was promptly elbowed in the ribs by his companion in the bowler hat.

“Please forgive Morita, Your Highness,” he said. “He’s been around Dernier too much as of late and has now forgotten all his manners.”

Another man in their group--this one also with a mustache, but his thinner and black to match the mop sticking out from underneath his cap--turned an irritated look his way.

Va te faire foutre,” the man, presumably Dernier, snapped back.

Steve had no idea what it was he’d said, but it scandalized the burly man enough to give him an inkling.

“Jacques, you uncouth bastard,” he said, pressing a hand to his chest. “In front of His Majesty?”

But James did not seem bothered by this exchange at all. In fact, his gaze held that same soft fondness that Steve had caught a glimpse of the night before when Sam Wilson had been welcomed back home. When he turned to Steve again, that softness dimmed, but it did not disappear completely. He bowed.

“I shall leave you to get acquainted, then.”

He’d only taken a few short steps when Steve realized he was still wrapped up in his cloak.

“Wait,” he called, instinctively reaching a hand out to stop him.

His fingers never made contact with James’s arm. Before he could get close enough, Natalia was between them, her iron grip tight around Steve’s wrist. James raised an eyebrow as he looked down to where they touched, a wry smile tugging at his lips.

“Natalia,” he admonished gently.

She scowled. “Я не буду извиняться за то что вас защищала.

Whatever it was she’d said, she still let go of Steve and stepped out of the way. Glancing pointedly in his direction, she added, “He tried to hurt you only last night. Who is to say he won’t try again?”

“I think he has learned the error of his ways,” James said. “At least enough to know better than to try it in front of you next time.”

She scowled. “That’s not funny, James.”

He just smiled indulgently at her, as if her anger were an amusement rather than the terrifying situation that Steve found it to be. Finally, James looked back at him.

“What did you need of me, Highness?”

“Your cloak,” Steve said, reaching to pull it from his shoulders. “I only wanted to give it back.”

James shook his head, putting his hands over Steve’s to stop his movements. The leather of his gloves was cool against Steve’s already chilled skin.

“Keep it,” he said as he re-situated the cloak. “It will not get much warmer today and you need it more than I do.”

He squeezed Steve’s hands just once, before letting go. A look to Natalia was all it took to have her following behind him as he left and even that wasn’t necessary. She was his persistent shadow.

Steve turned to face to his newly appointed guard. Evidently, there wasn’t much time for acquaintance. The men shared their names and little else before returning to their task.

He learned that the burly man was Timothy Dugan, but that the other men inexplicably referred to him as Dum-Dum more often than anything else. The man who’d snapped at Dugan was indeed Jacques Dernier and Steve quickly found that while Dernier could understand their common tongue, he either couldn’t or wouldn’t speak it. The men understood the gist of what he said, but whenever they required a proper translation, they turned to an otherwise quiet man known as Gabe Jones. Jones was apparently fluent in Dernier’s mother tongue and offered up his insights as needed.

The last of his guard was the man who’d snorted rudely at him--Jim Morita--and a tall, thin fellow by the name of Monty Falsworth. Monty deferred to Dugan, who seemed to be the leader of their little group, but did so with the airs of a man not used to taking orders. He also spoke with an aristocratic accent that led Steve to believe that he was either far too educated to be a simple footsoldier, from nobility, or both.

They had an easy camaraderie, the five of them, as if they’d been a unit for years. Perhaps they had. Steve was already too much the outsider to feel comfortable asking, so he kept his wonderings to himself.

Instead, he tentatively asked, “Is there anything I could do?”

The men paused in their work, an argument between Morita and Falsworth falling silent as they looked to him in surprise.

“No offense, Your Highness,” Dugan said slowly, “but I’d rather not find out what the punishment is for making the king’s future consort do manual labor.”

“But you wouldn’t be making me,” Steve replied instantly. “I’ve offered!”

His protests were ignored.

Of course, he hadn’t yet recovered fully from his uncle’s attempt on his life, nor could he walk without the throb of his leg becoming unbearable. Still, it would have been nice to feel useful among this band of Tarakrovi citizens. Everyone had their place and their duties, their skill that made them essential to the process at hand. As the morning wore on, he even caught sight of James hauling crates with the rest of his men. There was always a blaze of red hair at his shoulder. Natalia carried her own load, but her eyes were always caught between her king and the surrounding landscape, ever watchful for anyone who might harm him.

It seemed everyone was allowed to assist, except him. He tried not to be annoyed by that and failed.

Chapter Text

The fortress of Dremota sat at the edge of a cliff overlooking the misty sea. Nestled in the valley between two mountains, it was concealed completely from the view of the main road of travel by a steep hill and a thick copse of evergreens. It was not a city or village, as Steve had assumed, but a lone castle looming on their immediate horizon between forest and sea. The surrounding meadow was barren and flat, a sea of pristine white that dropped suddenly and steeply into the dark ocean beyond.

From afar, the castle appeared large and imposing, sinister and dark. As they drew closer, though, Steve realized that it wasn’t as big as he’d originally thought. It was almost certainly smaller than his palace in Dóchais. Where the Dóchais palace was open and sprawling, built to welcome the sea breeze into its innermost spaces, Dremota was small, compact, and closed. Windows dotted the outer walls of the castle, but they were sparse and small. There were no gaping archways or open balconies, but instead smooth, dark stone and weathered wood.

Its tallest peaks were three towers of varying heights, each crimson roof flying the Tarakrovi flag at its crest. The black banners flapped wildly in the sea breeze, easily catching the eye against the pale sky above. It hadn’t snowed since the night before, but the thick clouds hanging overhead threatened it at any moment.

It was a soft, drowsy sort of scene, though Steve wasn’t sure if it was the snow that made it so or the solitary castle itself. There was a magic to it that wound tightly around his heart and squeezed. He found himself instantly and irrevocably fond of quiet, isolated Dremota.

“It’s beautiful,” he murmured.

“Quite so,” said James from behind him.

Steve blushed. He hadn’t meant to speak the words out loud; in truth, he hadn’t even noticed that he’d done so until James’s response. Slowly, he turned to look at his betrothed.

It’d been an unexpected turn of events, James joining him in the carriage. Steve had known that Sam wouldn’t be accompanying him this time; he’d already joined the rest of James’s guard on horseback by the time Steve was being escorted to his carriage. The door had been cleaned as thoroughly as possible and replaced, but in the watery morning light, Steve had been able to see the faded stain of blood on the cushioned panel.

Helen had been the first to climb into the carriage, but she paused midway inside. Her eyes were narrowed when she turned to look at Morita.

“Where is His Majesty?” She asked.

Morita grimaced.

“He’s preparing that damn horse for the ride,” he responded, lips puckering over the strange word as if he’d sucked on a particularly bitter fruit.

“Horse? What horse?” Dugan called from where he was adjusting the bridle on his horse. His grin was wide and mischievous. “I don’t know which one he’s talking about, do you, Gabe?”

A smile tugged at Jones’ lips as he shook his head. It was clear that the gesture was more toward Dugan’s antics than a true response to his question, but Dugan took it as the latter.

“No, me neither,” he said loudly, turning back to Morita. “Which horse would that be, Jim, ole pal?”

Morita’s ever present scowl deepened. “Fuck you,” he snapped back, stepping toward where the rest of his company gathered.

A loud sigh came from the direction of the carriage. Steve turned in time to see Helen stepping down again, eyeing the group of men irritably.

“His Majesty’s horse is called Dragă,” she explained, as the two men argued. “It means ‘darling’ in Română. Soldat Morita thinks it’s an impractical name for a war horse and so he refuses to call her that. Now, if you will excuse me, I must track down our stubborn king. Get yourself settled out of this cold...and away from the racket.”

She cast a sidelong glance at Steve’s guard, walking away before he had a chance to comment.

He took her advice, if only because his leg throbbed dully and his toes were beginning to ache in the cold. There were furs piled up on the far side of what Steve now thought of as his seat. He tossed them over his legs as soon as he was seated, reveling in their weight and warmth. James’ cloak, while far better than nothing, was laughably inadequate at providing true comfort.

Perhaps if you did not insist on being so stubborn, said a soft voice in the back of his mind. Steve squashed the thought immediately; it sounded far too much like his betrothed.

The argument between Morita and Dugan faded without much fanfare. Steve was beginning to realize that despite how genuinely annoyed they seemed to get with one another’s ribbing, they all ended that way. For several agonizingly slow minutes, there was nothing but quiet. He heard only the whisper of wind through snow-covered tree branches, the muted thud of hooves in frozen dirt and soft snorts of the horses, the occasional whispered word of the men outside his carriage, their voices too soft for him to make out.

He was just beginning to wonder if he should go in search of Helen when he heard her voice drawing near.

“I ask very little of you,” she was saying, her tone somewhere between fond and irritated. “My demands are not at all unreasonable and yet you defy them at every turn. Does it amuse you to do so? Are my lectures really so riveting?”

There was no answer.

A shadow passed over the opening to the carriage. Natalia climbed in a moment later. Her sharp gaze looked him over, lingering on where his hands rested limply over the furs in his lap. Her mouth tightened, a grim shadow passing over her face before she threw herself into the seat beside him.

He was so busy gaping at her that he didn’t even notice Helen climbing in behind her.

“Oh,” Helen said, finally drawing his attention. She carefully eased herself into the seat opposite Natalia, her wide gaze on the commander. “Well, yes. I suppose that’s to be expected.”

Another shadow filled the doorway. James looked at Natalia, his lips curving up on one side.

“Natalia,” he chided, and looked pointedly to the seat beside Helen.

Natalia stared back at him, her expression and tone utterly unimpressed as she simply said, “No.”

Steve couldn’t ever recall a time when his uncle had allowed anyone to speak to him so boldly. He’d only been a regent, yet he expected the unwavering worship of a god. When he spoke, he expected to be heard. When he gave an order, the idea of disobedience--of being told no--was unthinkable.

James was not a regent. His crown hadn’t come from a lack of an heir, not the blood of a birthright, but rather the blood of war. He had fought for it, won it, rather than it being given to him. And yet, he allowed his subjects to speak to him this way. He allowed them to defy him. Why?

Shaking his head, James climbed in and took the seat beside Helen. The door was barely closed before they started to move. Natalia and James still stared at one another, his expression amused and hers a glare.

“He is my betrothed, Natashenka,” he said cajolingly. Steve couldn’t believe it; he was trying to placate her. “You will have to allow us close quarters at some point.”

“And if he has another weapon?” She asked. “What then?”

Unbelievably, James’ amused gaze moved to Steve. “Do you have a weapon, Your Highness?”

Natalia scoffed loudly. “Of course he would lie, James,” she said derisively. “You expect him to tell you if he did?”

Before Steve could think better of it, he turned to look at Natalia.

“Do you believe your king to be so incapable of defending himself?” He asked. “Are we not speaking of the king of Tarakrov, where the crown must be won in battle? Surely, I am no match for such a man.”

It was nothing short of sheer madness to suggest that he might try to harm his betrothed again, Steve realized distantly. He had no immediate plans to do it--in truth, the first attempt had been in the heat of the moment, a purely animal reaction to the stress he’d been under--but no one else knew that.

Natalia turned her head slowly, bringing the full force of her glare down upon him. Steve swallowed thickly. She really was frightening, this woman; perhaps the most frightening thing he’d ever seen.

Out of the corner of his eye, Steve saw a true smile stretch James’s lips. He turned back to look out of his window, trying to ignore the flush creeping to his cheeks.

The rest of the carriage ride had been spent in relative silence. There were a few instances of polite conversation, but most of it was between his three companions. Steve held himself apart from them, choosing to stare at the scenery passing by rather than attempt to join them.

At one point, James asked, “Do you like what you see, Your Highness?”

Steve tore his eyes away from window to find his betrothed regarding him with another of those inscrutable looks.

“Surely, you must know how beautiful your country is,” Steve replied.

James’s mouth softened, but he did not smile this time. Steve told himself he wasn’t looking for it.

“I do,” James replied, “but I was not sure that you would agree.”

Steve wasn’t sure why such innocent words had him blushing again, but they did. He turned back to the window without another word.

Now, as they passed through the gates of Dremota and Steve met James’ bright, pleased gaze, his skin heated for a third damnable time. It was confusing and infuriating. Clenching his jaw, he looked back out the window and forced himself to focus on Dugan and Morita keeping pace with them.

His newly appointed guards had been in his line of sight all day. Dugan and Morita rode to the right of the carriage and to its left were Dernier and Jones. Falsworth had alternated between riding ahead and falling behind them, keeping a sharp eye on the surrounding landscape.

It would’ve been impossible for bandits to surprise them again once they were out of the wilderness, but seeing them so vigilant around him eased a fear in Steve that he hadn’t known was there until it was gone. These men weren’t like his original escort. They knew how to hold their own against Strigoi; they were trained for it, whereas the Sciathians had not been.

The carriage slowed to a halt just beyond the gateway. In the courtyard around them, their convoy was already in the process of unpacking. Horses were handed off to waiting attendants before soldiers joined the organized chaos of unloading wagons. Still more wagons came through the entrance behind them. Everyone seemed to know where to go and what to do, who needed help and who didn’t.

James opened the door to the carriage as soon as it was stopped. He climbed out and then turned back, holding out his hand to help Helen down. Natalia was close behind, but she only looked at James’s proffered hand as though it were a particularly amusing anecdote as she stepped onto the cobblestones.

Steve did not want to accept it when it was his turn, but his injured leg trembled from the pain of sudden movement. Reluctantly, he slipped his hand into James’ and tried not to wince when he stepped down. After a day of inactivity, his injured calf was stiff and aching. Helen had looked it over during their ride, declaring it only bruised. He wondered how something so superficial could cause so much pain.

Just feet from them, Dugan and Morita dismounted their steeds.

“Your Highness,” Dugan greeted. A wide smile split his features, as though he were genuinely pleased to see him. “A comfortable ride, I hope?”

Steve’s answering smile was strained.

“As well as could be expected,” he said. “I am glad that it is over, though. I find that I’m rather tired of seeing the inside of that carriage.”

Dugan laughed, loud and boisterous.

“I imagine so,” he said. “You will have a few days’ reprieve, at least.”

James squeezed Steve’s hand before finally letting it go.

“I will leave him in your capable hands, Soldat,” he said to Dugan. “I must go check on Dragă. She misbehaves terribly for the stable boys until they bribe her with treats.”

Dugan snorted. “As if you won’t do the same.”

James just smiled as he walked away. Natalia watched him go before she turned and disappeared in the opposite direction. Dugan’s smile widened.

“She’ll be looking for Barton,” he confided in Steve. “They usually don’t ride apart, I can’t imagine she’s very happy right now.”

Steve wanted to question him about that, but before he could, Dugan swept his hand toward the castle.

“Come,” he continued. “His Majesty sent a rider ahead this morning. A bath is waiting for you in your rooms, along with fresh clothes.”

Dugan gave a comically pointed look to the sandaled feet peeking out from under his borrowed cloak; his toes were already starting to redden with the cold. Somehow, coming from Dugan, the admonishment did not stoke Steve’s ire as much as it had when it had been James. Perhaps it was the exhaustion from another day’s ride after a fitful night’s sleep. Perhaps the ever present cold had worn down his obstinance over the subject. Whatever the reason, Steve found that he was more than ready for warmer attire.

“I would like that very much,” he admitted softly. “But first, I really must insist on helping here. I don’t like being the only person with idle hands.”

Before Dugan could even work up a protest, Helen cut in from behind them.

“Absolutely not,” she said firmly. “You need to rest that leg, Highness, you do not need to be carrying around extra weight on it. Go on now, follow Dugan and do as he’s said.”

Steve frowned at her over his shoulder.

“It doesn’t hurt so badly,” he lied. “There’s nothing to prevent me from helping, least of all that.”

“The good doctor is right,” Dugan said firmly. “Besides which, we’ve already been over why I cannot allow such a thing.”

Steve huffed. “His Majesty helped,” he said. “If I cannot do it because I am to be his husband, then why is he permitted to do it?”

“Because he’s the king,” Dugan insisted, as if that settled matters.

Helen sucked in a sharp breath, her expression clouding over.

“His Majesty did what?” She asked sharply. Her gaze settled on Dugan. “Did you know about this?”

When he didn’t look at her or provide an answer, she smacked his arm with the back of her hand. Dugan jumped, shifting away from the abuse. Finally, he met her gaze guiltily.

“He’s the king,” He repeated. “What are any of us to do if he chooses not to listen?”

Tie him down,” Helen said fiercely.

“That,” Dugan replied lightly, “would be treason.”

“Is there a reason why he shouldn’t?” Steve asked, looking between them, but he was ignored.

Helen straightened to her full height. She wasn’t but an inch or so taller than Steve, but somehow, she seemed more intimidating than the men towering over them.

“We shall see,” she said, and promptly turned on her heel and left them.

Steve stared after her. “I think,” he said to no one in particular, “that I may have just gotten your king into trouble.”

It was only when Dernier began to laugh uproariously that he realized the rest of his guard had joined them. Dernier put a hand on his knee, gesturing wildly at Steve with the other as he said something to Jones between bouts of snickers.

Jones grinned. “Dernier’s right, Highness,” he said to Steve. “There’s no question about it, you’ve absolutely done it.”

Falsworth shook his head. “That woman is terrifying when His Majesty ignores her orders,” he added. “Even more so than the Commander sometimes.”

No one is as scary as the Commander,” Morita argued, and though he didn’t say it out loud, Steve privately agreed.

He looked in the direction that Helen had gone. It took him a moment to spot her through the bustle, but once he did, he was following behind before he could reason why. He wove through the crowd, trying his best to keep out of everyone’s way and keep Helen in his sights at the same time. It was more difficult than he’d imagined. She was a woman on a mission, marching quickly through the chaos, as she searched out her king. Steve’s leg would only allow him to match her pace but so much.

“Come now, Highness,” Dugan said, falling into step beside him. Morita appeared on his other side. “Leave her to it and let’s get you somewhere warm.”

Steve wanted to do no such thing, but he also didn’t know how to put what drove him into words. Instead, he chose to ignore the suggestion and kept walking. Dugan sighed.

“Very well, then,” he murmured and obediently followed behind.

They didn’t catch up to her until she’d already found James. The two of them stood between what looked to be the open door of the kitchen and a wagon that contained food and supplies for that very place. James held a large crate while Helen blocked his path to the door, her hands on his hips. As Steve stepped closer to them, he realized that there was a subtle tremor to James’s arm.

“That doesn’t look like Dragă,” Helen said, her voice falsely sweet. “Did you not leave us to tend to her?”

James’ lips twitched. “I did,” he replied. “But young Soldat Parker was on his own. I thought I would help him before I saw Dragă.”

“No,” she said slowly. “No, you will not. Now put that down.”

“I would very much like to,” James said dryly. “If you’ll allow me to pass, I’ll do exactly that.”

She cocked her head, eyes narrowing dangerously.

“You will put that down,” she said, “or hand it over, but you will not take another step with it in your hands. Have I made myself clear?”

James smiled indulgently.

“Helen,” he said, in the same cajoling tone he’d used on Natalia that morning. “Move.”

“I will not,” she snapped. “Put it down or I will take it from you.”

This time, James frowned. He looked at the crate in his arms and then at Helen. She was a small slip of a woman; strong, no doubt, but not strong enough to hold the weight of such a thing.

James sighed reluctantly.

“As you wish,” he said, turning to set the crate back on the wagon.

Rest,” Helen said, “I told you to rest. What is so difficult about that? First, it was that ludicrous idea of riding Dragă here and now this?”

“There are things to be done,” James said, using the same damnably reasonable tone that he’d used on Steve the evening before. “Rest will come later.”

Behind him, Peter had appeared from the other side of the carriage. He stacked another crate on top of the one James had only just set down and picked them up. His body bowed under the weight, but stubbornly, he did not lighten his load. Steve frowned.

“Rest comes now,” Helen said, just as Peter turned and began to make his way toward the kitchen.

He only made it two awkward, stiff steps before the weight became too much for him. The crates wobbled precariously, tipping forward as his arms began to fail him. He stumbled the next few steps, chasing the crates as if he could prevent them from falling. The only thing he succeeded in doing, however, was following them toward the frozen ground.

James twisted toward him quickly, catching Peter around the waist with one arm while reaching to catch the smaller of the crates with the other. The weight of it dragged his arm down further and James’ body spasmed, a flash of pain crossing his face. His arm went slack and the crate dropped onto the stones. Miraculously, it did not break open, but the tell-tale sounds of splintering wood said that it was a close thing.

James hit the ground just seconds after it. His eyes were closed, the lines of his face tense with pain. Each breath seemed to be a struggle.

Steve lurched toward him and then stopped just as abruptly, his fists clenching at his sides. What was he doing? Why did he care that this man was in pain?

How had he gotten injured, anyways?

No. Steve shook his head. No, he didn’t care. It didn’t matter that James was injured, nor did it matter how. He didn’t care.

He allowed himself to believe that for a few blissful moments, as he watched Helen do what he would not and kneel by James’ side. One hand rested on his back while the other pressed lightly over his right side.

“Is it…?” She asked softly, her previous anger gone in the face of her king in pain.

James nodded just once. He finally opened his eyes to give her something that looked unbelievably like a self-deprecating smile.

“I believe you might be right,” he told her, his voice strained with the same pain written in his features. “It’s time for me to rest.”

Helen looked to the remaining men, standing to her full height. Any illusions Steve had of being unaffected vanished into dust as soon as he saw the blood staining her hand. His breath caught for an agonizing, heart-stopping moment.

“Help him inside,” Helen ordered. “To his chambers, now.”

James laughed breathlessly.

“I can still walk, Helen,” he admonished, but she did not retract her orders.

“Best just to do as she says, Majesty,” Dugan said jokingly as he approached. He bent to sling James’ uninjured arm over his shoulder and lifted him up. “She’ll fetch the Commander otherwise.”

James’ laugh immediately turned into a pained wince.

“I’m sure Natalia has already scented my blood,” he replied breathlessly. “She’ll be along any moment now.”

His gaze found Peter.

“A lighter load next time, I think, Soldat,” he said meaningfully.

Peter’s pale skin turned ashen, his mouth slack with horror. They disappeared into the castle before he could work up a reply, Helen hot on their heels, and a trail of guards following in their wake.

In the ensuing silence, Peter shook his head and whispered, “She’s going to kill me.”

Steve had a good idea of who they spoke of, but still, he asked, “Who?”

The Commander.”

“She won’t,” he said firmly. “It was an accident, not an attempt on His Majesty’s life. He’ll be fine. And should she try to do it, anyways, I won’t let her.”

“She’ll kill you,” Peter squeaked.

“His Majesty won’t let her do that, either.”

He had no way to know that for sure, of course, but he had to believe that whatever desire had driven James to ask for his hand in marriage would be enough to overcome any inclination he had to side with Natalia.

“Why don’t we go check on him, hm?” Steve asked, gesturing the way the others had gone. “That way, you’ll see that His Majesty is fine, and that there will be no reason for the Commander to be mad at you.”

Yes, Steve thought to himself, nodding. He suggested this for Peter’s sake--because the boy seemed to be on the verge of collapsing under his own fear and guilt--not because of tension lining his own body. Not because he wanted to make sure his betrothed would be well.

“Come,” he said, after clearing his throat. “You know the way they’ve gone, I hope?”

Peter nodded faintly. He wasn’t wholly at ease yet, but he’d been given something else to focus on. With his mind distracted, he seemed to be calming slowly. He led the way into the kitchens.

The air inside was oppressively warm, but Steve welcomed the heat after the bitter cold outside. The kitchen was large, but cramped with too many shelves, too many bodies, and not enough walking space. The kitchen staff bustled about, hard at work preparing that night’s dinner. It didn’t look like nearly enough food to serve all the people of the caravan, let alone the people that had been here waiting for them. Steve had to remember that not everyone among them ate food--at least, not this kind.

As they skirted the edge of the kitchen, Steve found both himself and Peter under the watchful gaze of more than one kitchen maid. A stout, rounded woman with graying hair outright glared at them from the stove, taking her spoon out of a boiling pot to brandish it at them.

“There’ll be no stealin’ of the food,” she barked sternly. “This here’s for His Majesty’s betrothed, not for you scoundrels.”

Peter’s wide eyes darted between the woman and Steve as he stepped forward, his intent to correct her obvious. Steve laid a hand on his arm, shaking his head. There was no need for Peter to defend his honor or title. Steve did not take after his uncle, nor did he ever want to do so. He did not need to wield his power over those beneath his station.

He smiled politely at the woman.

“Of course, madam,” he said, and even to his own ears, the words were too formal for the footman she thought him to be. “We were just following His Majesty. We won’t touch any food, I promise.”

Confusion flickered across her face and for the first time, she seemed to notice the oversized cloak covering his body. Her gaze traveled all the way down to his exposed feet and the furrow of her brow deepened. Steve pushed Peter toward what he hoped was the way to the rest of the castle.

The woman’s eyes followed them all the way there and she seemed to finally come to an epiphany as Peter hurried out in front of him. Steve smiled graciously at her and dipped his head in a quick bow.

“I look forward to trying your food tonight,” he said, and then slipped out the door as her expression slackened in shock.

“She’s going to burn the food now,” Peter complained.

“She won’t. Now show me the way.”

Peter led him up to the main floor. To the right of the foyer was the dining hall. Stewards carried silverware inside as tables were prepared and places were set for dinner. Someone was putting fresh flowers at the table on the dais, where he and the king would sit. Someone else was busy lighting torches all around the room. A firepit was being constructed by two more men.

“Highness,” Peter whispered, hoping to catch Steve’s attention and no one else’s.

He gestured toward the grand staircase, reminding Steve of their original purpose. Nodding, Steve followed him up the set of wide stone stairs. There was a crimson carpet positioned down the middle of it, softening their footfalls.

From there, it was a confusing series of hallways and several more flights of stairs. Steve was forced to ask Peter to pause several times, his injured leg throbbing its protest over so much exercise. It took a few minutes each time for the pain to recede enough that he felt well enough to continue.

The castle was cool, dark, and quiet. The higher up they went, the less noise filtered from the lower floors. There came a point in their journey where Steve was suddenly, distressingly aware of every step they took. It was the only sound echoing in the dimly lit corridor they traveled down and somehow, it made the sound an eerie, frightening thing. There was not another soul walking about in the upper floors and yet Steve found himself glancing over his shoulder at the empty corridor behind him several times.

Finally, after another grueling journey up an enclosed stone staircase, they came to a long, narrow hallway. There was another red carpet, starting from the mouth of the staircase and ending behind an imposingly large oak door on the other side. A large, leaf-shaped window took up a good part of the outer wall, letting in the last vestiges of light from the setting sun. Streaks of pale light fell across the portraits that lined the inner wall.

It was only when Steve tentatively followed Peter down the hall that he realized they were portraits of past kings. There was no mistaking it, not with the way each and every one of them wore the same silver crown, marked in the middle by a red star. They’d arrived at James’s quarters.

As they neared the oak door, Steve realized that it was standing slightly ajar, as if someone had forgotten to close it in their haste. Voices filtered into the quiet hallway, indecipherable until Steve was only a few feet away.

“--do you mean no?” a familiar voice demanded.

Peter tensed beside him as he, too, recognized it. Natalia was already inside and she was angry.

Steve wondered where she’d come from, since she hadn’t been there when Peter had run into James. Did she have some sort of sixth sense that alerted her when her charge was hurt?

They slipped cautiously through the cracked door, both of them staying quiet so as not to draw attention. Both Steve’s guard and James’ loitered around the small sitting room, still and quiet as Natalia berated their king. Between two hulking figures, Steve caught sight of James.

He reclined on a chaise by a roaring fire, his right arm freed of his shirt. The material had been pushed up over his shoulder, exposing a nasty gash between his ribs and hip. It bled from the middle, where the gash seemed to be its deepest, fresh droplets trickling down his side. Firelight flickered over pale skin and thick muscle, a fact that Steve tried and failed not to notice. James’ eyes were closed, thick lashes resting delicately above prominent cheekbones, his lips parting with each labored breath.

Steve only had a moment to take in his own labored breathing and the rapid beat of his heart before James slowly opened his eyes and turned his head, unerringly finding Steve amid the crowd.

“Ah,” James said softly. “The informer.”

A few soldiers shifted and looked over their shoulders at Steve. The slight movement gave him a clear view of Natalia hovering over him with a thunderous expression. Helen was a few feet away, holding a needle over an open flame. She turned to James, barely sparing Steve a glance as she knelt on his injured side.

“I wouldn’t need an informer if you would simply follow my instructions,” she remarked with a small huff.

Before she could start her work, Natalia bent over him to stay her hand.

“Stop,” she snapped, and Helen did. Natalia gestured rigidly to a table near them, holding only a pitcher and goblet. “This is ridiculous, James. Drink the damned blood.”

For a moment, Steve forgot how to breathe. He looked at the pitcher and then found he could not look away. It was such an innocuous object, but in that moment, it might as well have been a viper. There was blood in that pitcher, blood that was meant to act as food.

It was one thing to know that Tarakrov was home to Strigoi, to know that Strigoi fed on blood and that his betrothed was widely rumored to be such a creature. It was an entirely different matter to have that rumor confirmed--to stand and listen as someone spoke of drinking blood as if it were normal.

“I won’t,” said James softly, pulling Steve from his spiraling thoughts. He wasn’t angry, like Natalia, yet his tone brooked no argument. “We won’t have enough to last us until Odihnă. I won’t take food from my men and have them go hungry for my own benefit.”

Despite his distaste over the matter at hand, Steve found himself grudgingly impressed. It was certainly noble of James to put his men and their comfort over his own. He’d called his betrothed a man without honor; perhaps he should reconsider his beliefs on the subject.

“You don’t know that,” Natalia replied, her nostrils flaring in irritation. “And even if you did, we would figure something out. Exhausting our supply is the least of my worries when you’re walking around with a hole in your side.”

“It’s hardly a hole,” James said dryly, looking down at the wound in question. “It’s already healed considerably--a few more days and it should be fine. There’s no shame in healing slowly.”

She exploded.

Shame? I have not spoken of shame! It is unsafe to have you like this away from home. We have at least another week’s journey ahead of us and you refuse to listen to anything Helen tells you to do! You refuse to drink and you refuse to rest, but those are the two choices laid before you. We do not know who those men were or if they are tracking us at this very moment, nor when they will attack again. I need you whole, not playing the part of a martyr to impress a betrothed that despises everything that you are!”

The words seemed to echo throughout the room. The soldiers in the room shifted uneasily, a murmur going through them and then quieting abruptly.

Steve’s whole body drew up tight, his stomach clenching painfully as he sucked in a sharp, surprised breath. There was a part of him that saw heads turning slowly to look at him again, but he couldn’t tear his gaze away from James long enough to see if their eyes held the same accusation that Natalia’s words did.

He swallowed thickly. This was his fault. He didn’t need to feel all those eyes on him to know it; it was plain enough in Natalia’s words. If further proof was needed, James’s reluctance to look at him was evidence enough.

Steve had belittled him in front of his men. He’d spurned every attempt at kindness. He’d gone out of his way to be difficult and now, Natalia was throwing all of that back at him in front of an audience. He had to fix it somehow. He had to make this right.

“Commander,” he whispered.

The one word seemed to echo in the quiet room despite his soft voice. Steve reluctantly looked away from James to meet her gaze. He cleared his throat awkwardly, drawing on every etiquette lesson he’d ever attended to project a calm he did not feel.

“It is honorable that your king would sacrifice his own comfort with the well-being of his men in mind,” he said. “I think you know that is not always the case. Do not diminish that sacrifice with such words. What’s more, my quarrels with His Majesty are my own. I am sure they are obvious to everyone present, but I do not think they should be aired so callously or plainly in front of the men under your command. That is more suited to private conversations, is it not?”

New fire flared in her eyes. She bared pale teeth at him in a show of aggression that mostly definitely worked to intimidate him. It took every ounce of his strength not to take a step back, even given the distance already between them.

“I will not be lectured on etiquette by the likes of you,” she snapped harshly. For as furious as she’d been with James, it was nothing compared to the icy contempt her voice now held. She jabbed a finger angrily at James’s injury. “That is your fault. If you weren’t so helpless, he wouldn’t have--”

“That’s enough,” James interrupted sharply. His stared her down, his expression growing dark. “We will not discuss this anymore. I will not drain our supply just to heal when I can do that well enough on my own. Helen will stitch it up again and we’ll just have to be vigilant until it’s gone.”

Natalia pressed her lips together firmly, staring at him for several long seconds as if the look alone would make him cave. When it didn’t, she slowly, rigidly began to roll up her sleeves, revealing pale, unblemished flesh.

“Fine,” she said. “Don’t drink from the supply, then.”

She pulled a knife from behind her and walked to the table that held the pitcher and goblet. James’s eyes widened, as if he already knew what was going through her mind.

“Natashenka,” he protested, lurching forward. The anger was gone from his voice, now replaced by something distressingly close to panic. A spasm of pain flit across his face, but he soldiered through it, determined to reach her.

“Sire,” Helen protested, grabbing his arm. “Please, you’re going to injure yourself further.”

James tried to shake her off, but he wasn’t fast enough. Natalia thrust her arm over the goblet and--without hesitation, without fear or even a flinch--she slashed her arm. Blood spilled from the wound immediately, drizzling into the goblet below. Natalia turned back to look at James, that same blazing fury still bright in her eyes.

“I will not have you suffer,” she said fiercely.

She flexed her fingers, clenching and unclenching her fist to encourage the flow. When it went from a steady drizzle to the occasional drop, she took the knife in the hand of her injured arm, preparing to cut the other one.

Barton stepped forward, his hand closing around hers over the hilt of the blade. Natalia was only a slip of a woman, perhaps the shortest person in the room other than Steve, and one of the thinnest. Barton was taller, broader, and easily outweighed her. Still, Steve couldn’t imagine being brave enough to approach her in such a state. Anything that Natalia lacked in size, she more than made up for in ferocity.

Steve couldn’t imagine approaching her in such a state, but Barton did so with such ease, as if he didn’t fear her at all. He smiled affectionately at Natalia, cupping her cheek with his free hand. He pressed a gentle, tender kiss to her forehead as he took the knife from her.

“That’s enough, lyubov moya,” he said.

Natalia was an immovable force. She’d been that way since the moment Steve had met her and she’d shown no sign to the contrary since, but when she looked up at Barton, Steve saw a different person. There was such pain in her eyes, as if with a gentle touch and a few words, Barton had torn down every defense she had.

“Clint,” she whispered. The word was barely a breath, but it was impossible to miss the note of pleading.

For the first time, Steve thought he understood her. She wasn’t plagued by the physical pain of the wound she’d inflicted upon herself. She was upset and scared for James. He wasn’t just her charge; he was her friend.

Barton kissed her again, this time on the bridge of her nose.

“I know,” he murmured. “It’ll be alright.”

He drew her closer, tucking her face against his neck so that no one could see the naked emotion there any longer. Natalia allowed it, folding her injured arm between them and slipping her other around his waist. With everyone else, she was cold, unrelenting stone, but with him, she was fluid and yielding.

He kissed her temple gently, before shifting to stretch his own arm over the goblet as she’d done. It was an awkward dance, trying to position himself correctly while she was tucked against him, but he seemed unwilling to move her out of the way. He drew the knife over his skin, allowing his blood to join hers in the cup.

Silently, Sam stepped forward, holding out his hand for the knife before Barton had the chance to set it down. One by one, everyone in the room took their turn, cutting themselves open and giving their very essence in service of their king. Even Peter, still sickly pale and watching Natalia fearfully, lurched forward to give his own.

Helen had abandoned her needle and thread. Instead, she’d taken out bandages and as one soldier bled into the goblet, the one before him would be submitting to her care. She cleaned each wound carefully before applying the bandage and allowing them on their way.

Barton and Natalia were not among her patients. They’d tucked themselves into a corner of the room, all but forgotten by everyone else. Natalia pulled back from his embrace. There was nothing but adoration in her gaze as she slowly lifted her injured arm, presenting her wound to Barton’s mouth.

He grinned at her before leaning forward to lick gently at the excess blood. When her arm was clean of it, he gently placed his open mouth over the cut and sucked. The pleasure twisting both of their expressions was enough to have heat creeping up Steve’s neck, revulsion and curiosity and shame all warring for dominance within him.

Someone elbowed him sharply in his ribs. Steve looked to his right just in time to see Peter pale with the knowledge of what he’d just done.

“I don’t--I didn’t--”

His eyes grew round, the same panic from earlier setting in again.

“Forgive me,” he squeaked, flushing with embarrassment. He fiddled nervously with the edge of his bandage, very carefully not looking toward the corner of the room. “It’s only...you’re not supposed to watch. It’s very rude.”

“Is...is he Strigoi, too?” Steve asked quietly. Was everyone in this company? Was Peter? He didn’t think that was the sort of thing that a person just asked, but the curiosity was very nearly killing him.

He was vaguely aware of the end of the bloodletting. Someone carried the full goblet to James, which he accepted with a humbled bow of his head. He brought the cup to his lips and began to drink. Steve looked away again, back to Peter, because he couldn’t bear to know what was in that cup and watch it being consumed.

“No,” Peter answered, his embarrassment only increasing. “They’re, y’know. Together. You only...I mean, you don’t…”

He looked at Steve desperately, as if begging for a reprieve from the conversation. Apparently, explaining Strigoi custom was akin to torture in his eyes. When Steve didn’t release him from the obligation to answer, Peter sighed, his expression growing pinched. He leaned forward, dropping his voice even lower.

“Strigoi need blood to survive, yes?” He whispered furtively. “So they drink it, but it’s generally through blood-letting. Like...like this.”

He gestured to the room at large and then, specifically, to the bandage on his arm.

“Drinking from people is considered...” He paused, wincing as he tried to think of the right word. “It's intimate. Something that only mated pairs do outside of extreme circumstances.”

Heat flooded Steve’s face so suddenly that he thought he might actually combust from it. The throbbing of his wrist hadn’t abated in the time since the attack on their carriage. Whatever damage he might have incurred there seemed to be as long-lasting as the damage to his leg, even though his wrist held no bruise. It wasn’t that his wrist hurt, either, the way his calf did. It was just that his skin tingled with an awareness that it hadn’t before. He’d almost grown used to it in the day since the attack; so much so that he hardly noticed it anymore.

Now, with Peter’s words ringing in his ears and his heartbeat climbing rapidly, the feeling became so pronounced that Steve wondered if everyone in the room could suddenly feel the bite mark he bore. What would they think of him if they knew such scars existed?

“But,” Steve said, his voice cracking. He cleared his throat quietly and tried again. “But Barton isn’t…”

Peter made another pained face.

“Don’t you already know?” He whined.

It took him a second to remember who he was speaking to and when he did, his face paled again.

“Your Highness, I--”

Steve waved a hand dismissively. It was refreshing, really, to have someone who didn’t walk on eggshells around him. Still, he wasn’t above using Peter’s blunder against him.

“I will forgive you if you explain it to me,” he replied.

Peter visibly relaxed. A tentative, relieved smile teased his lips.

“That’s fair.”

Before he could make good on their agreement, someone appeared by Steve’s side, blocking the light of the fire. Helen gave him the same stormy, narrow-eyed look she’d given James earlier. With everyone else cared for, he was now the sole focus of her healing instinct; he fought the urge to make a run for it.

“I thought I told you to rest that leg,” she said, glancing down pointedly.

She couldn’t see the leg in question, not with James’s cloak still around him, but her sharp gaze left Steve feeling as though he were utterly exposed. With that one glance, it was as if she could see the strain he’d put on it by making the trek up to the king’s quarters and feel the tension in his ligaments, the feverish throb of the bruise marring his calf. He fought not to blush under her disapproving stare.

“Peter felt terrible about what happened,” Steve said defensively. “I was merely---”

Excuses,” Helen interrupted, waving her hand. “Now, will you allow me to escort you to your rooms or shall I have Dugan carry you?”

“But…”

He turned to Peter beseechingly. Their conversation was far from over; he couldn’t leave before he had answers. Peter did not feel the same way, it seemed. Relief crossed his face before he saw the look Steve was giving him. In a move of utter, wide-eyed cowardice, he threw up his hands between them, shaking his head frantically.

“N-no, I think Doamnă Cho is correct,” he said, glancing nervously at Helen. It was becoming apparent that he feared her wrath as much as he feared Natalia’s. He confirmed such suspicions by thoroughly betraying Steve and adding, “You did have trouble getting up here.”

Steve gaped at him. Why would he say such a thing in her presence?

“Did he now?” Helen asked, her voice deceptively serene. “Well, that settles it, then, doesn’t it?”

She gestured toward the door. Steve stood his ground, frowning at her defiantly.

“Don’t you need to stay with His Majesty?”

“There’s nothing more I can do for him,” she replied. “He’s consumed enough blood for his body to heal itself now. You, however, do not have that luxury.”

“Well,” Peter hedged. “That’s not strictly--”

He stopped when he saw the look Helen was giving him.

“Nevermind,” he squeaked. “I think I should...go apologize to His Majesty.”

He disappeared from their side in the span of blink. Steve watched him go before turning to look at her in annoyance.

“That happens a lot,” he said irritably. “I don’t like it.”

Helen immediately softened. She put a gentle hand on his elbow, guiding him to the open door again, and this time, Steve went. His fount of knowledge had made itself scarce and the king was well; there was no reason for him to stay.

“I am sorry,” she said, as they made their way past the portraits of James’s predecessors. “It’s just that...well, things here are very different from Sciath. Truly, it is far different from any other place I have been to--Tarakrov is a world all its own. His Majesty has made it known that he would prefer you be eased into it, rather than be overwhelmed by so much at once. And, too, there are some conversations that he’d prefer to have with you himself over having someone else tell you.”

“Well, I am right here,” Steve retorted. “And unless those bandits get their way, I won’t be going anywhere. He’s more than welcome to have those conversations with me at any moment.”

They began their descent down the narrow stairs. It was easier than climbing up them, but Steve’s leg still ached with each movement. His limp was pronounced now, his gait uneven as he tried to keep from aggravating his sore muscles anymore than they already were.

Helen laughed softly.

“I believe he is waiting for you to be more receptive,” she admitted. “You do not easily forgive trespasses, Your Highness. Look how long it took you to decide that myself and Soldat Wilson were forgiven for little more than being Tarakrovi at a time when we were trying to keep you safe and alive. His Majesty bears the brunt of your ire, as you well know, because he has made the most grievous trespass of all in your eyes.”

“And which one would that be?”

“He took away the choice of your future.”

Steve frowned. “And you do not agree that I should be angry about it?”

Helen did not immediately reply. She took several moments to contemplate her answer as they moved through the quiet halls of the castle.

“It is difficult,” she said finally. Her words came slowly, as if she were choosing each one with the utmost care. “I don’t claim to know His Majesty’s every reason behind his decisions. He’s kept many things to himself. Some of it baffles even the Commander. But I do know the state that you were in when I came to you. I know that you were being poisoned by your own family. You were in danger in the very place you should’ve been safest, by the people who should’ve kept you safe. I cannot regret that you were taken out of those circumstances, even if I can regret the way it was done.”

“Those circumstances ended the moment he killed my uncle,” Steve retorted. “He proved his strength and showed Sciath what would happen should tribute be denied again. Why not take what was his and leave? Why demand more and in exchange for a treaty that he doesn’t benefit from?”

James’s words still rattled in his head: What do I gain?

The answer to that question eluded him, no matter how vehemently he searched for it.

Helen cut him a look.

“You are not so foolish as to believe that Aleksander acted alone,” she said, “and even if he had, you were too far gone by the time we came to you. Without intervention, you would have passed, and Sciath would have needed a new bloodline to take the throne, anyways.”

“So, that’s it, then,” Steve replied, and he could not keep the frustration, the utter despair of his circumstance, from his voice. “I am allowed to have my life, but only if I give it to your king. You couldn’t save me because it was the right thing to do.”

He knew of blood debts, of course--the notion of a life for a life. Save a person and they might, out of gratitude, pledge their life to yours. It was done voluntarily, though. Owing a life debt and choosing to serve another in repayment was considered noble. Saving a life and then demanding repayment afterward, though? That was cheap, vile behavior.

“I did not save you at all,” Helen said as they turned down another corridor. Ahead of them, Falsworth was stationed in front of a door. “I only came to care for you after the fact. His Majesty was the one to heal you. If his request of marriage was a result of that, then I’m sure he has his reasons.”

Steve wanted to ask how it was James had healed him. He didn’t know of a single monarch that had ever made such arts a priority and it seemed unlikely that the king of a place like Tarakrov would be the first. He knew that he would not get his answer, though. Everyone around him seemed determined to keep him in the dark until James decided otherwise, and he tired of the evasions.

“You sound sure that they were good reasons,” he said instead.

“I am,” she replied. “He’s a good man, Highness. Perhaps not to you, not right now. But I have never regretted pledging my life to his.”

They came to a halt in front of Falsworth and the door. Helen turned to face him.

“May I give you some advice?”

“If you wish.”

“Tarakrov is your home now,” she said. “You may choose to focus on how you got here, that is well within your rights, and you may also choose to be angry about that. But if you do so, that will be your life: nothing but anger and dissatisfaction. You cannot change your circumstance, so would the better course of action not be to make the best of the hand you’ve been dealt?”

“That’s easy for you to say,” Steve replied, “it was not your future decided without your consent.”

Helen narrowed her eyes.

“I was taken from Pinan as a child,” she said flatly. “They stole me from my mother’s arms and took me across the Great Sea to serve a king far crueler than the one you are betrothed to now. By the time I was free and had the means to leave Tarakrov for home, I had forgotten my parents’ faces. I can’t even remember the name of the village where we lived. I know far more than you give me credit for, Highness, but what’s more, I would not advise you on something that I have not experienced myself.”

Shame flooded Steve so viscerally that he was dizzy from it. He lowered his gaze, heat rising in his cheeks.

“My apologies.”

She squeezed his elbow gently.

“Just think on what I said,” she murmured. “Perhaps you will never come to care for His Majesty, but would it not be better to at least be able to tolerate him?”

She didn’t wait for an answer. Instead, she nodded to Falsworth and started back the way they’d come.

“Oh,” she said, turning back at the last moment. “I will have dinner sent up for you. There is no need to join us tonight. Just rest for now.”

And with that, she was gone. Steve smiled weakly at Falsworth before ducking inside the room. Closing the door to it was like closing a door on the world itself. It was dark and quiet now; he was alone.

The sigh that escaped him should have been one of relief. If it sounded like anything else, well. At least he was the only one around to hear it.