"Now remember what I've told you, Draco," King Lucius says as the carriage he rides in with his family bounces along the rocky road. "Lord Black has kept his ward out of sight completely; we don't even know his name, but when he abdicated the throne to Black Castle and Islington, he named a Steward to rule until his ward came of age."
"I know, Father," Draco says. He's heard variants of the same speech a dozen times in the last two weeks. "When he announced that he had a ward, it sealed the contracts between our families."
"There have been many visitors to Black Castle in the last dozen years and none of them saw hide nor hair of the little Prince. Wherever he was raised, it was not in Black Castle."
Although the Lord Black was called the Lord of Black Castle and Islington, he was also the de facto ruler of the surrounding area too.
"The Prince may be crowned the King in as little as two years, but Lord Black is making him take his debut soon, which means he's likely going to take it sooner. You, as the Consort of Islington and future king of Wiltshire, will be his guide in how to be proper royalty."
"Enough Lucius," Draco's mother said. "Draco is clever enough to know what he should do in almost any situation, and if you think Sirius didn't raise his ward to be as cunning as the others in our family, then I'm not sure you should be giving him advice." Narcissa, the Queen Consort of Wiltshire was royalty in her own right, though the older Draco got, the more he thought his father forgot that.
Draco had just passed his twenty-first birthday and while he'd had offers of marriage from many of his father's associates for their sons or daughters, he'd not accepted any of them. Draco was aware it was because he was supposed to marry Lord Black's ward but as the child had never been seen, they all thought he had died while he was young, thus opening Draco up for more offers.
In the last three years alone, Draco had found letters asking about a marriage offer from no less than seven people, two of them sisters. And when Draco was younger, he had squired for the eldest son of one his father's lord and had to practically beat off the knight's younger sister with an actual sword. She had been convinced he was there so they could get to know each other before they married, not so Draco could actually learn something he would need in the future.
The Lord Edwin Parkinson had sent his daughter to another household for the remaining years Draco had been there and he'd never been happier, though it had taken a lot of effort on his part.
"Regardless, my dear," Lucius says in a placating tone, “it will not be a bad thing for him to make sure he is aware of what he needs to do."
Draco has often wondered what his life would have been like had his uncle taken the throne and married his mother instead of his father, but Wiltshire, it seemed, survived in spite of his father's ambitious and often overzealous plans. It didn't help that Draco's uncle and grandfather had been killed just days before Lucius's wedding, forcing the coronation of the younger son thirteen months later. Everything Draco learned about ruling his kingdom in the future, however, he learned from his mother.
His father's teaching had revolved around weapons training and not much else. Lucius had passed hunting over to the falconers, equestrianism to the Stable Hands and when he was fourteen, he was sent to squire and there he learned more than he could ever hope to use in these more peaceful times. It had been twenty years since the last war after all, and while it had been brutal, they had recovered from it admirably.
Narcissa blinks once, long and slow. "You are a fool, Lucius, if you think Sirius will leave the sole reign of Islington to a boy with no education." She turns to Draco and the look on her face softens. "Sirius has kept his ward out of the eye of almost everyone for years. I wouldn't think it's likely he'll introduce us to him before the day of the ball."
"Why would he do that though?" Draco asks. It's a question that's been in his mind for a while now and like it or not, he doesn't know as much about his mother's family as either of them would like. "Keep him hidden away from everyone, including family?"
"We're not going to be the only family there, Draco," Narcissa says. "A lot of the families of the kingdoms surrounding us and Islington will be hoping to wed Sirius's ward into their own. Depending on who his ward is, your contract may not even be valid if he decides it's not."
"Why would he do that?" Draco is used to people with power doing what they like but it doesn't make sense for Sirius, who Draco thought was intelligent, to sign a contract and then say it doesn't matter.
"Our grandfather wouldn't allow Sirius to marry who he wanted," Narcissa tells him. "Sirius wanted to marry for love, I'm sure he'll give his ward that option."
"And I will show him the contract he signed," Lucius says with a slimy smirk.
"Then Sirius will laugh in your face," Narcissa says. "He'll probably ask if all your shields are made of paper and wonder how you are still alive."
Draco tries not to laugh, but his parents arguing has always been amusing to him.
"Unless Sirius's ward marries Draco, the crown of Islington will be out of my family for as long as it takes for our line to produce someone that may make his ward's children or grandchildren fall in love with them. Sirius thinks on arranged marriages as old-fashioned and his ward will likely do away with them by law when they take on the crown. If nothing else it will allow Sirius to marry whoever he chooses."
"Mother, why do you continue to refer to the Prince as Lord Black's ward?"
Narcissa smiles, aware, not for the first time, that she is an outside in Wiltshire. "Sirius has always liked to play jokes, Dragon. It would be just like him to claim the child is a prince and instead produce a princess to be crowned."
Draco is quiet for most of the rest of the ride. He's grown up thinking he'll marry the Prince of Islington and now his mother is telling him that not only that he may not marry him, but also, he may not even be a him. Draco doesn't mind; he doesn't think it would be a problem if it were a prince or a princess he was set to marry, but the idea that it's all down to Lord Black's ward and that he has no option in it at all makes him think a little more.
He knows that Lord Black's ward will likely be watching how their potential spouse acts while they're not around; it's what Draco would do, anyway. They'll probably want to see and hear how Draco and his parents act with their own retinue of household servants and how that treatment differs from their own household. Draco's family may have their own guards and personal servants with them, but they will need to rely on Lord Black's household staff for most things.
Draco, and his mother most probably too, are more than aware that Lucius's disregard for the help will hinder them in appealing their family to the Lost Prince.
"Do we know which other families have been invited?" Draco asks as they move closer to Black Castle.
"A few that will be here are not from the Isles," Narcissa tells him. "The Zabini family, for example, have been invited, and for all that they are not royalty themselves. The Patils have two daughters, neither of whom can take the throne in their kingdom, and although they're princesses, their family is struggling enough that marrying one of them to a foreign king would be a coup for them."
"Anyone else?" Draco asks. He doesn't like his chances against Blaise Zabini, the son of a Countess from Italia. Draco's only met him twice, but each time he had thought himself a little in love with him. He doesn't think the Lost Prince would fare much better. He also knows of the Patils, though he's never met them.
"Some I can guess at, mostly from knowing Sirius," Narcissa says. "But we'll be here longer than all of them regardless. As relatives of Sirius's, we've been invited to spend more time at Black Castle. Most people won't arrive until a week before the ball."
"Are any of our other family members going to be there?" Draco asks. He doesn't say as such to his mother, but her sister Bellatrix has always creeped him out.
"My sister Andromeda and her family may be there, but Sirius hasn't let Bella back into Black Castle since her husband was found fornicating in the stables with a servant."
"I don't think I've ever met Andromeda," Draco says. His statement is met with a derisive snort from his father.
"No, nor would you ever if my grandfather had his way after his death," Narcissa tells him. "Andromeda, much like Sirius, wanted to marry someone Grandfather disapproved of. Unlike Sirius, she was threatened with disownment if she didn't comply. Sirius had the protection of being Grandfather's heir after all. Andromeda was never one to sit quietly while others decided her fate, so she and her chosen husband ran away to the kingdom of York. King Francis accepted them both immediately and Grandfather disowned her and any children she would have, as well as banning her from Islington. He couldn't deny her access to the London Lands but, once he died, Sirius revoked the ban."
"So why have I never met her?"
"We've not had many family gatherings, Dragon," Narcissa says. "And she was happy to stay in York with her family."
"I am quite glad you're not prone to the same dramatics as the rest of your family, my dear," Lucius says to Narcissa.
Draco looks out the window he's sat next to and watches the countryside pass by to distract himself from his father's stupid blunder. He knows that soon enough the countryside will give way to smaller towns, and then to the city where Black Castle stands tall and proud. He can't wait to get on to a smoother road again, Draco thinks he'll have bruises on his arse from the hundred miles of rough road between the castle he grew up in and Black Castle.
At this point in his life, Draco feels confident enough about his ability to say he hates travelling. He hates the endless hours on horseback when he is in Wiltshire and he hates the miles in a wheelhouse when he has to take longer trips.
With no direction, Draco's more than happy on horses; he loves the bounce when his steed gallops around fields and he loves letting them decide where they're going and how fast they go. He hopes he'll get a chance to ride properly when they get to Islington. From what he remembers, though, the castle is in the middle of a city and he wasn't allowed to explore beyond the keep when he was younger.
Maybe Draco will be able to convince Lord Sirius that having one of the stable hands take him for a ride will be a good thing. Maybe he can say that he's interested in learning more about the lands surrounding Islington and London.
Maybe his father will think he's asking for another reason and not tell him he can't.
It's a few more hours before the fields give way to small towns, and a few miles outside the city gates, Draco begins to get agitated, more so than he was before.
"Just another hour or two, Draco," Narcissa says, as though she can sense her son's discontent.
"The stronger the smell of shit grows, the closer we are," Lucius adds.
"As if we don't live in a castle surrounded by fields of livestock and the smell of shit anyway," Draco grumbles. He doesn't hate his father, no matter how he feels most of the time. He doesn't even dislike him all that much, but sometimes Lucius thinks he's the cleverest person in the world and that grates at Draco, not only because he knows he's smarter than his father, but also because he knows his mother's intelligence outstrips them both. But Lucius, like a lot of people, think that women are worse than men at everything besides sewing.
Draco would love to give his mother a long sword and see how much she can remember with it. His own sword fighting style is influenced largely by the way his mother taught him to dance, saying it would help him with swordplay to make him more interested. He knows that he's odd when compared to most other people because he'd gladly choose a lighter blade over a bastard sword if only for the ability to move around more in a fight.
Draco wonders why it is that the closer they get to their destination, the more time seems to drag on. He's been looking out of the window at the slowly growing towns they've been passing for what feels like days. It's only when he spots the walled city from the top of the hill they're travelling on that he realises how close they are. Another hour or two at most and he'll be able to clean up in a proper tub, use an actual garderobe instead of a hole in the side of the road. Gods, just thinking about it is making him anxious to be there already. Even if he does nothing else for the rest of the day than wander around a new castle and try to find hidden passageways, it'll still be better than being stuck where he is now.
He loves his parents, but two or more days in a confined space with them would be too much for anyone.