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Sworn Fealty

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There is something discomfiting about the halls of King Urtusk’s castle. It wasn’t anything Caleb was able to put his finger on while he and his procession made their way through the grounds of the citadel, it came much later, when he’d exited the lavish carriage he rode in alongside his Lord, Trent Ikithon, silently following along and watching. Observing the behaviour of everyone they passed and cataloguing their actions, their words, unsure of what Ikithon would request in his debrief later in the day.

After he is…gifted to the King
 

No, the uneasiness is heightened by the smiles, the complete ease with which the residents of the castle, both nobility and staff alike, seem to welcome their procession. Kind smiles, lacking the sharp canine quality of the grins he is used to dealing with, ones that give away the cunning nature of those around him.
 

These people are better liars than he’s used to. A good enough reason to not trust any of them in the first place.
 

Ikithon’s cloying voice still rings in his head, reminding him of his task, of his special mission, dear boy.
 

Caleb watches, noting each turn they make as they’re led along by a tall firbolg woman with a soft temperament, who introduced herself as Nila.

“His Majesty is currently in the drawing room, meeting with the Clerics of the Crown,” she explains with a gentle smile as she stops outside of a set of double doors, guarded by two young men clothed in steely blue and charcoal robes, with little to no armour. Caleb recognises the crest on their chests and the sashes around their waists. The personal guard to the king. All trained and serving under their Captain, Beauregard and her lieutenant, Yasha. No family names to be found, only the title and their given name (or chosen more likely, Caleb muses internally).
 

“One moment, please. I will alert them to your arrival,” Nila murmurs something quietly to the guard and they allow her passage but pay little mind to Ikithon, Caleb, and the three personal guard that flank them. There is relative quiet in the halls, the occasional echoing voice from deeper in the castle, but they are otherwise undisturbed until Nila exits the room and, with an inviting, outstretched hand and an equally inviting smile (at least intended to be, if Caleb weren’t so distrusting of the easiness of the smiles in the first place), she opens the door wide enough for them to enter.
 

“Come, I shall send for some tea-“
 

“Oh, I’ve already taken the liberty, Nila, please, join us.”
 

A gravelly but soothing voice calls from inside the room. Nila does as asked but waits for the five newcomers to enter first. Caleb leads the way, instinct at this point (“a weapon is nothing if the master dies before wielding it”), sidestepping to the right of the door to allow Ikithon to enter behind him. The room is warm, a product of the fire crackling pleasantly in the hearth to the left, surrounded in a small semi circle by comfortable looking armchairs and small tables, intended for not much more than supporting a stray drink or perhaps a book if one were forced to put it down.
 

Three people occupy the room, one seated in a chair, a tall, skeletal looking firbolg with pale skin and even paler downy fur from what Caleb could see peeking out of his long, elegant looking sleeves. Even stranger still, than the lanky firbolg is his hair, a bright pink that reminds Caleb of the peonies his mother used to keep in her garden. Caleb doesn’t look at him long.
 

The second is a young woman, a tiefling with vibrant blue skin, dotted with freckles on her apple-shaped cheeks, her curled ram-like horns peeking out of a mass of kinky-curly hair that is half-pinned back with silver and blue pins. She is perched up on a small desk against the wall, her dress fluffing out every now and then in a manner Caleb soon enough realises is her kicking her legs back and forth beneath the fabric.
 

The third, and final, occupant is a man, his teal and green hued skin displaying his orcish heritage. His hair is pitch black save for a single, stark white streak, the short hair combed back but not slick like Ikithon’s is. The deep blues and small flecks of embroidered silver in his jacket and, along with the Urtusk family crest on proud display around his neck seem almost an out-of-place attachment to otherwise simple cut clothes.
 

The emblem reminds Caleb that he should bow to the king, bending low enough to be reverent ‘but not too low, we bow, we do not bend, boy’. The silver chain it hangs on draws Caleb’s gaze up, to the man’s face (so young, he couldn’t be any older than Caleb himself and already in his fifteenth year of ruling Wildemount). His eyes, slitted and gold, focus on Caleb first with an intensity that almost makes Caleb break his composed demeanour before they shift to Ikithon.
 

“Lord Ikithon. A pleasure. Welcome to Zadash,” his words are measured, delivered in a careful manner that shows neither overt fondness or legitimate displeasure. Neutrality that set Caleb on edge because it often preceded the drawing of weapons or threats. Ikithon bows as well, a flourish of his cloak and an ever-present smile.
 

“The pleasure is mine, your Majesty. A lovely trip as always. The servants do such good work here with the grounds,” Ikithon’s words bleed saccharine sweetness that was certainly not present when he was condemning the gardens for their mismatched colours and disorderly arrangements.
 

“The staff.”
 

The king’s short reply as he looks through the documents he shuffles in his hands gives Ikithon pause, the smile slipping into something strained for a moment before resuming its perfect curve.
 

“I beg pardon?”
 

King Urtusk looks at Ikithon with a cool expression, glancing briefly at Caleb, then back.
 

“There are no servants in Zadash. All employed in the castle and the surrounding city are paid and paid fairly. As they should be in all regions of Wildemount,” the underlying tone dared Ikithon to refute him.
 

He would not, of course.
 

“Ah yes, my apologies, Majesty, for the slip of the tongue. Old family, old habits. You know what they say about old habits.”
 

“They break with enough pressure,” he responds smoothly, a relaxed off handedness to the implied threat makes Caleb’s fingers spark with barely restrained anxiety before he reigns himself in. An unknown danger requires more analysis before reaction, ‘lack of information is a lack of ammunition, boy’.
 

“Hm, yes,” the Lord agrees weakly.
 

“As for the grounds, they’re primarily looked over by Healer Clay, here. A mix of visually pleasing and utilitarian plants for both his and Miss Lavorre’s practice in healing magics and our resident alchemist’s work. A fine use for the space, I think,” Urtusk goes on with a nod of acknowledgement towards the firbolg and the tiefling in turn before he addresses Nila. “Sit, you’ve been after the staff all day. Have tea with us, I’d like to discuss the dinner this evening after we’ve gotten Lord Ikithon’s party settled,” he says with something that borders on a smile, but could easily be called a trick of the light.
 

“Yes, thank you, your Majesty. I believe the young ladies in charge of the guest quarters are just finishing up now,” she says, pausing a moment and pulling a piece of thin copper wire from around her wrist, the metal glowing faintly before her voice takes on a layered quality Caleb is familiar with. “Olive, once the rooms are ready, please bring Callysta and Mina to the drawing room and let us know.”
 

“As for our meeting,” the king’s warm disposition, or at least the thinly veiled peek of it, is gone and he returns to the cool placidity he’s chosen when addressing Ikithon. Caleb feels the growing ire in his master from his place by the door. “Perhaps a lengthier time, after dinner. It will give you plenty of time to settle beforehand. Perhaps enjoy the grounds some more.”
 

“…Of course.”
 

Caleb can almost feel Ikithon’s teeth grinding in his skull and he has some trouble keeping his face neutral. His gaze happens to meet with the pink haired firbolg, just for a moment and the man looks…sympathetic?
 

Caleb returns his eyes front, hearing the click of heels from the hall and a short conversation outside.
 

“Your Majesty, the rooms are ready,” an older halfing woman announces, curtseying along with the other staff just beyond the door.
 

“Thank you, Olive. If you would not mind, please escort Lord Ikithon and his party to their quarters. If you require anything, please, let the staff know and we will accommodate where able,” his dismissal is as direct as it could be without throwing the door open and forcing them out himself. Caleb leads the way out, feeling the prickling sensation of eyes on the back of his neck as he leaves, followed by Ikithon and the guard.
 

Along with the halfling woman are two human women, in that ambiguous age between mid 20’s and early 30’s, all with similar welcoming smiles as they lead the way to the guest quarters. Ikithon does not look at or address them directly.
 

“You have been placed opposite the hall to each other, Lord Ikithon and Lord-“
 

“Mister Widogast, please,” Caleb corrects. “And thank you, I am sure I can attend to my master from here,” he explains, noting how the halfling woman is taken aback at his words. Whether it’s the dismissal or the rejection of the title, he’s unsure but she seems to acquiesce easily enough with no sign of having taken offense, opening the doors to the three rooms and bidding them good afternoon.
 

Ikithon’s things have already been placed within the room and Caleb would bet that his own are already in the same place in the mirroring room across the hall, giving him one less thing to do as he closes the doors behind Ikithon and he, standing at attention by the door.
 

“The gall of his staff, referring to you as Lord. No forethought, we would have the guests’ titles back five generations before they’d made it to the front gate. And the way he allowed them to address him directly-…” Ikithon shudders at the recollection before rounding on Caleb. “Report. What were your observations.”
 

Caleb relays everything.
 

His assumptions about the tiefling girl and the firbolgs’ levels of ability and the domains that fall under their respective deities. About the uses of the plants he’d managed to identify on sight, ranging from healing blooms to antidotes for many different poisons of varying rarity to ones he’d only briefly glanced at in books nearly a decade ago, capable of more intriguing effects.
 

“And Urtusk. Anything about him you were able to glean?” Ikithon asks with a rabid sort of attention to the answer that Caleb is used to after being in his service for so long.
 

“…He does not wants us here. But he is unwilling to refuse us entry.”
 

“That much is obvious,” Ikithon tuts, looking Caleb over with disappointment, making the younger man flush with shame.
 

“My apologies Lord Ikithon. He is…difficult to read.”
 

The lord tsks and turns away.
 

“You know better than to offer excuses as though they make failure acceptable. No matter. It has only been a few hours. You will learn more the longer you are under his…employ,” he spits out the word as though it were poison, waving a hand to dismiss Caleb from the room. “Go. Freshen up. You must appear presentable for your new keeper,” Caleb exits the room swiftly and silently, closing the door behind him.
 

Caleb enters the room opposite Ikithon’s, noting the trunk sitting by the foot of the bed as being his. The room itself is pleasant, spacious without making him feel dwarfed. The curtains are pulled aside, tied off with deep blue cords of silken rope that shine in the low afternoon light spilling in, painting the cool blue and dark tones of the room golden.
 

He stands there, the closed door against his back as he collects his thoughts, reminding himself he may be here for a long long time, the situation and the room itself fading into a haze as he feels his mind drift into itself.
 

By the time he comes back to awareness, he’s unknowingly halfway through selecting clothing for the evening, a deep red shirt with golden trim laid out on the bed, a pair of black trousers and the gold embellished belts he frequently wore with it. A set favoured by Ikithon when they visited other cities, a way of displaying Ikithon’s family crest and colours to denote his ownership over the guard and Caleb himself.
 

Would the king request he change the colour of his clothing after Caleb is gifted to him?
 

His musings are cut short when there is a knock at his door, gentle raps that break through fog of uncertainty he’d allowed himself into in a rare moment of lacking mental fortitude and it takes him a full five seconds to realise the room is dark around him, his internal clock informing him of the much later hour than he’d intended to allow himself to stew.
 

“Enter.”
 

The door opens and Nila hovers in the doorway, accompanied by one of the young woman that had been attending to their rooms.

“Mister Widogast, when you wish, you and your companions are welcome to join King Urtusk in the dining room,” gesturing to the dark haired human woman behind her. “Callysta will escort you. The meal will begin properly in one hour but you are more than welcome to converse with his Majesty and his company until then.”
 

“Thank you, Nila. I will change and attend with my Master when he desires,” he informs her, seeing the kind smile falter for a brief moment, but returns just as warm as it had been all afternoon.
 

“Very well,” she bids him goodbye and gives him his privacy.
 

Caleb’s fingers run over the fine material of the shirt spread out on the bed, imagining for a moment if it were blue and silver. He banishes the thought and undresses, readying himself for dinner with his new master.

Chapter Text

Chapter Two

 

Caleb enters ahead of Ikithon, just as he always does, his lord considerably more covert about his dislike of the location and its people after his moment of isolation. The dining hall contains the same cool tones as the rest of the castle, the steely blue curtains drawn, arrangements of white, lavender, soft periwinkle blues in crystal vases across the unoccupied section of the table, all places set on the end by the fire where King Urtusk, Miss Lavorre, Mister Clay, and two other individuals Caleb is unfamiliar with.

 

A darker skinned human woman in blue robes, hair secured back in a bun save the short-shorn portion by the base of her skull, a glass of something amber in her hands and the distinct impression in her posture and expression that she would prefer to be literally anywhere else in the world right now than in this dining hall.

 

Beside her, potentially the source of her agitation, is a purple tiefling, his ostentatious, multi-coloured clothing an assault on the eyes before Caleb even makes it to the mass amounts of jewellery adorning his horns. He somehow manages to appear lounging even as he stands upright, speaking animatedly as he plucks cards out of a thick deck in his off hand, he and the woman beside him seeming to be in an animated argument.

 

“Lord Ikithon, please,” Mister Clay announces, a young man appearing in their view with a tray of drinks for them. The guard remain outside at Ikithon’s nod as he takes a glass himself, leaving Caleb to follow his lead. “Join us. Dinner will not be long and the conversation is always pleasant.”

 

“Speak for yourself,” the blue-clad woman snorts, earning an exaggerated look of offense from the purple tiefling.

 

“My magicks are a conversational goldmine. Nothing like divination to add some energy into the atmosphere,” he gives the blue tiefling a conspiratorial wink to which she responds with a giggle. “Allow me to introduce myself. Mollymauk Tealeaf. Advisor for Foreign Affairs and Trade,” he announces, giving them an extravagant bow.

 

“You practice divination magic?” Caleb asks, shutting his jaw with a click when Ikithon glances towards him but, thankfully, his expression seems calculating rather than reprimanding.

 

“Its all b-“ the woman cuts herself off with a quick glance to King Urtusk, his expression difficult to read as she corrects herself. “The cards aren’t magic. Its targeted guessing.”

 

“Oh ye of little faith.”

 

“Oh ye of no faith.”

 

“Please don’t mind the bluebell with the grumpy disposition,” Mollymauk states, “our charismatic Captain of the Guard, Beauregard, isn’t often in attendance of these events. Not for lack of trying.”

 

“My job is to keep people from breaking into the castle and wrecking the place, not haggling with merchants and schmoozing dignitaries,” she retorts, taking a hefty sip of her drink, waving at Ikithon and Caleb with her free hand. “Come on, play your game, I’m sure your dying to.”

 

“Mollymauk,” Urtusk’s tone urges restraint, which the tiefling acknowledges, likely only because there are outsiders in the room.

 

“I promise, no riling. Only a thin glimpse into our companions’ intentions,” he assures, receiving a gesture from the king to continue. He faces back towards Ikithon and Caleb with a vulpine smile that reveals his fangs in earnest. Predatory in all senses of the word.

 

“Please, pick a card.”

 

Ikithon takes one first, looking over it with feigned interest in the image before him. A king, seated on a throne with a sword placed reverently over the arms of his chair, Ikithon’s thumb covering text at the bottom of the card, its position in reverse for the tiefling. A quick glance at the card and Mollymauk’s smile takes on a severe edge as he meets Ikithon’s gaze.

 

“Thank you very much, Lord Ikithon,” he returns the card to the deck, turning towards Caleb with it extended, the intent obvious. Caleb gently pulls a card from the pile, flipping it over and taking care to maintain its direction. It also faces towards Caleb, the text beneath his thumb in a script he is familiar with but unable to read without his magic. The image itself is of a man, suspended upside down with a red cord around his ankle, a look of resignation painted in broad strokes on his face. The smile fades from Mollymauk’s face and he looks at Caleb with something akin to…concern. The smile returns quickly, before Caleb can gauge the odd expression better.

 

“Thank you, Mister Widogast.”

 

He returns the card to the deck and turns towards the king, a silent conversation between the pair of them. Caleb’s fingers itch towards his components, wanting to determine if it is the deck itself that is enchanted or if divine skills were in play with the man but decides against it as the Captain eyes him over the rim of her glass.

 

“I believe we have yet to introduce ourselves as well,” Mister Clay says by way of apology, extending his hand. “Caduceus Clay, Cleric for the Crown, along with this lovely woman here-“

 

“Jester Lavorre,” she says, a glass of milk in her hand, unlike the rest of the dining party. “Also Crown Cleric.”

 

“Two clerics under the crown? Strange to split the title traditionally meant for the best in the field,” Ikithon muses, swirling the contents of his glass before sipping at it, barely concealing a wince at the flavour. Caleb does so as well but finds little wrong with the taste beyond its strength.

 

“Titles mean little to me. The two are equally the best in their chosen professions. No point in placing one above the other for the sake of tradition,” Urtusk explains, finishing off his glass, accepting another of chilled water.

 

“Titles are interesting things. So easily gained. And lost,” Ikithon adds, watching his glass so he manages to avoid the subtle narrowing of eyes from the king, just as Nila approaches from the doorway.

 

“If you’ll all please take a seat. Dinner is ready,” she announces as the staff file in with trays and dishes of a range of foods, a mix of vegetarian and meat based recipes, the vegetables skewing more towards Caduceus’ and Nila’s seats.

 

Dinner proceeds with easier conversation, primarily from Mollymauk who went on at length about his recent expedition to Marquet, taking in the sights and, in the process, securing a contract with them for trade for the foreseeable future. Caduceus informs the party of the new herbs he had planted in the garden, a potential for instilling magic dispellment into something consumable. Caleb pays close attention to this, quietly offering questions to the conversation which Clay is happy to answer, but Caleb quiets almost immediately after he catches Ikithon’s eye, his master quirking his brow in a look of disapproval he’s relatively familiar with.

 

Dinner is followed by a spread of desserts Caleb is surprisingly familiar with, but definitely not in this setting.

 

“Honey coated…Fruit?” Ikithon asks, turning his plate in front of him, the underlying tone to his words and expression making it seem he thought if he turned his food to the right angle, it would somehow make it more appetising.

 

“Yes,” Caduceus nurses a cup of steaming tea, his own plate remaining untouched for the moment. “Simple fare, light and good for ensuring active minds for discussions of state,” he plucks his own peach segment from his plate and takes a bite. Caleb notices, all of the plates are identical in their presentation barring one. The king’s is free of the honey drizzle the rest have, instead accompanied by a small saucer of something crystalline and white that he sprinkles on the fruit before he eats, the lack of tusks peeking from behind his lower lip not as much a surprise to Caleb more than it is something he notes for future reference.

 

“Not a fan of honey?” Caleb finds himself saying before he realises he’s even opened his mouth to speak. The king shifts his gaze from Mollymauk, who had been aprising Jester of his dalliances with a Marquetian noble, to Caleb, a curious expression on his face.

 

“…I don’t eat sweets often,” his answer is strangely evasive, not that it needed to be with such an innocent question.

 

“Sugar is not so different,” Caleb points out, receiving something akin to a smile from the half-orc.

 

“It isn’t sugar. It’s salt,” he sprinkles some of the crystals on another piece of apple and eats it, making eye contact with Caleb the entire time, something daring in his expression, but daring Caleb to do what, he could not answer.

 

“…I would not mind trying it.”

 

The king has a silent conversation with one of the servers and a small bowl of salt and some un-honeyed fruit is placed in front of him. Urtusk watches as Caleb mimics his actions, eating the strange combination with far less fanfare than the silence and looks of avid curiosity from the rest of the table seems to warrant.

 

It is…strange. Not bad, far from it. The combination of the tart sweetness from the apple and the savoury flavour of the salt sitting pleasantly on his tongue but its definitely far removed from the familiar taste of the honeyed fruit he’d enjoyed in his childhood.

 

“It is…interesting,” he sucks the lingering salt and juice from his thumb, catching Urtusk’s gaze for a moment, his golden eyes and the calculating expression making Caleb’s cheeks flush a little under the scrutiny. He hears Mollymauk make a muffled noise of pain, attention snapping towards the tiefling as he rubs at his side, Beauregard beside him looking suspiciously neutral as she drinks her wine

 

Caleb finds himself focused enough on the plate before him, trying to avoid the gaze of his current master, that he’s  startled when Nila called them all for coffee in the drawing room.

 

What is obviously intended to be a relaxed affair is wrought with an underlying tension Caleb can’t help but feel emanating from Ikithon, Mollymauk, and Urtusk, all fixated on Caleb. Ikithon’s bubbling irritation seems to have transformed into an eerie grin, one he usually had when he’d decided on something and thought it particularly effective in pursuing his goals. Mollymauk looks as though he’s deciphering a piece of art, turning it on its side and upside down before he makes his final assessment.

 

And Urtusk just watches, brow furrowed in contemplation as he sips his coffee, adding to the conversation only when called to it until he seems to have decided to forgo the pretence of aimless, amiable chit-chat.

 

“So, Lord Ikithon. You had mentioned some business you wished to conduct with me. Perhaps now is a reasonable time to conduct that business?” His suggestion read more like an order, one that Ikithon was quick to follow.

 

“Ah, yes. I am here to offer you…let’s call it a gift,” he gestures towards Caleb, who stands almost as though controlled by invisible strings. Urtusk appears confused, looking over his person, the way Caleb’s arms are clasped behind his back, before returning his attention to Ikithon.

 

“I’m not sure I understand.”

 

“…Mister Widogast is the gift.”

 

Something in that sentence darkens the king’s expression, eyes narrowing almost imperceptibly while he looks over Caleb again, this time lingering on his face.

 

“A gift? You offer him as a gift?”

 

Ikithon is taken aback at the glacial tone and Caleb can see his expression falter out of the corner of his eye.

 

“Ah, yes. A prodigy in the arcane arts, I believe he will have immeasurable value to offer you,” he explains, jumping a little when Mollymauk almost appears at his side, a crystal teacup showing something floral unfurling in the cup as he sips it.

 

“And these are talents that he offers? Or that you do?”

 

“Yes, ah, I mean both. We are both humble servants to the crown-“ Mollymauk lets out a small scoff at the stammering, returning to tea set by Nila.

 

“Mollymauk,” Urtusk warns, receiving a gesture of supplication in response. “Mister Widogast. Do you wish to participate in this arrangement?”

 

Caleb’s throat decides at that moment to cease function. Urtusk looks at him expectantly but not in an unkind way, not in a way that reminds him of lessons with Ikithon, hours spent in discomfort, breaking his body and mind down into pieces before rebuilding them into something sturdier, something worth improving. Its unfamiliar and unsettling in a very different way.

 

“Answer him, Caleb,” Ikithon orders quietly, missing the downward tick of Urtusk’s lips and the tightening of his grip on the cup in his hand. But Caleb sees it, facing almost directly to the king, eyes taking in everything about his posture that borders on aggressive and eyes that pierce through Caleb and towards Ikithon, even though Caleb can’t bring himself to look directly at the man, focusing instead on the pattern of the drapes behind him.

 

“I will participate in the arrangement as presented,” he doesn’t stumble over the words, as much as his tongue attempts to trip him up, nodding his head in a small impersonation of a bow. Caduceus leans forward in his seat, looking up at Caleb, as little as he needs to crane his neck being nearly at Caleb’s shoulder while he’s seated.

 

“I don’t believe that’s the question his Majesty asked. Do you want to?” He elaborates.

 

“I…I do not understand the question.”

 

The room goes pin-drop silent as a non-verbal conversation jumps between members of the court at a speed even Caleb has difficulty following; micro-tics, shifts of posture, taps on their cups, ending on Urtusk who stands, approaching Caleb who tries his hardest to control his breathing. He isn’t valuable enough. The offer is an insult and he will pay the price while Ikithon finds another student capable of accomplishing the task-

 

“I accept your gift,” the king’s lips curl around the final word like the last sip of his coffee were particularly unpleasant, trying in vain to make it appear more palatable but only succeeding in spreading the disdainful taste around his mouth.

 

“Ah, wonderful,” Ikithon claps once, standing behind Caleb with his hand extended to shake. Urtusk just stares at it, a fast reminder of the lack of familiarity between he and Ikithon and the distance between their stations that Ikithon quickly minds, returning his hand to clasp the other in front of his belt. “Well, if I may take my leave, I wish to prepare Mister Widogast for his indefinite stay and perhaps rest before the travel back to Rexxuntrum,” he explains. Urtusk looks hesitant, glancing at Caleb before nodding his head, giving a small wave of dismissal.

 

As the door closes behind Caleb and Ikithon, he catches a glimpse of Mollymauk placing a gentle hand on the king’s shoulder and he’s not sure if he hears the glass shattering after it clicks shut or if its just his imagination.

Chapter Text

Chapter Three

 

The ‘preparation’ as Ikithon called it in front of the court, is a short briefing on the tasks he is required to accomplish.

 

Gather information and eliminate those that pose a threat to Rexxentrum. No exceptions.

 

Caleb acknowledges the orders, remaining where he stands when Ikithon leaves his chambers and returns to his own, the quiet of the room both a reprieve and a curse as his mind rails against the moment of reflection he’s allowed without something outside of himself to focus on. He finds some comfort in the familiarity of his night time routine, his mind dulling for a short time as he cleans himself up with prestidigitation and changes his clothing, pausing beside the trunk at the foot of the four poster bed, eyeing the blues and silvers of the fabric as though it were a mimic awaiting its prey.

 

“Mister Widogast?”

 

He barely register the knock that precedes the songbird voice of Miss Lavorre. He hesitates before opening the door with a quick gesture from across the room.

 

“Lady Lavorre. How may I assist?” Caleb asks, watching the young woman look around the space, searching for something that she doesn’t seem to find if the discomfited expression is anything to go by.

 

“Oh, I want to do something for you, actually. I know it’s weird, being in a new place- See I’m from Nicodranas and I had to leave preeetty suddenly-…” She trails off but smiles something soft and sad before she continues. “Anyway, it’s a loooong story I hope I’ll get to tell you eventually but I know when I first stayed here, I missed home a lot, so Molly, well he got me this,” she announces, presenting something covered in a simple piece of pink fabric. Caleb takes it gingerly, wary of anything originally presented by the unnerving man from earlier. He unwraps it with care, feeling canvass beneath the cloth, secured around a wooden frame; A painting? He reveals the image and finds himself met with a familiar scene that makes his stomach lurch and his chest clench.

 

“I’m not a stalker I promise, I can’t actually see what’s there,” she explains, briefly taking the canvass from him to flip it over and display the runes on the back. Illusory magic, mixed with something from the divination school? “It’s a magic painting that shows you the place you love the be the most. I see my house in Nicodranas with my mama, you would love her- anyway, here,” she holds the painting out for Caleb to take. The gentle garden scene on the canvass glares accusingly back at him, the familiar red wooden door at the front of the cottage with a horseshoe above it that was meant to ward away evil, but evil still sought them out-

 

“Thank you, Lady Lavorre-“

 

“Oh, call me Jester,” she encourages. Caleb makes a mental note.

 

“Jester. I…appreciate the gift. But I cannot accept something of such value.”

 

“Its okay, my mama sent me pictures of Nicodranas so I have plenty to remember it. I know how hard it is being away from home,” she urges. Caleb cannot refuse the offering again without potentially offending the young woman. He needs to maintain their favour but the illusory painting makes his eyes burn and the taste of bile rise in his throat as he forces a smile and takes the painting.

 

“Thank you, Jester…If you’d like, you may call me Caleb,” he offers in return, hoping reciprocity will help her overlook his social faux pas in attempting to refuse a gift from his hosts. Her smile lights up her face and for a brief moment, Caleb forgets that everyone here is a liar and these smiles are masks. Well made, but masks all the same.

 

She bids him goodnight, closing the bedroom door behind her to leave Caleb with his gift.

 

He places it facedown on the desk.

 

 

-

——

-

 

Ikithon leaves the next day just after breakfast, most of the dining party from the evening before in attendance, save Beauregard who is apparently running morning drills for the guard, and Mollymauk who’s absence from morning events seems to be a commonplace occurrence.

 

There is little fanfare as Ikithon boards the carriage, giving Caleb a significant look before the door closes and the click-clack of hooves announces Caleb’s fate.

 

“Mister Widogast,” a familiar rumbling voice calls from behind him and Caleb turns and bows automatically, standing at attention when he rises while the king approaches from the entrance to the castle. His lips pinch a little at the display and Caleb notes the reaction; perhaps his technique requires correction. He will need to study etiquette within the castle further if he is to gain a decent standing with them…

 

“Please…’rise’. You’re basically a guest,” the king’s words are soft, gentler than they’d been the night before with Ikithon present. His original assessment, though fairly obvious, is proven correct. Without the lord there, Urtusk seems more relaxed, a little less polished and without the cold demeanour he displayed then.

 

“How may I assist, your Majesty?”

 

“You don’t-…” he cuts himself off, the frown deepening a little more before he schools it into something a little more pleasant, gesturing back towards the castle. “If you’d like, I can take you on a proper tour of the grounds. You haven’t visited before, have you?”

 

“I…I have not. But you do not have to go to such trouble on my behalf-“

 

“I insist. We will need to go over your contract as well, but that can wait until after I’ve shown you around,” he adds as an afterthought.

 

“Contract?” The word slips through, unbidden, and Caleb schools the almost automatic flinch that threatens to overtake him as the king looks at him with confusion at what was practically an outburst. We do not flinch, that is a show of weakness, boy.

 

“Yes. You’re to be employed here, we’ll need go over general pay, requirements of the position, etc,” he says it so offhandedly and Caleb shifts uncomfortably but nods and bows his head.

 

“Thank you, your Majesty.”

 

Urtusk’s expression goes stony again at the expression of gratitude. Did he offend somehow? Caleb’s mind goes into overdrive, stuttering to a halt when the king speaks again.

 

“Where would you like to start?”

 

Caleb’s mind grinds against itself as it tries to work through the broken gear in its system, eyes darting around as he tries to find the answer to what sounds like it should be a simple question based on the casual way the king asks it.

 

“I will follow your lead, your Majesty,” Caleb replies, wary of the small upwards intonation his voice wishes to add to the sentence, to ask a question in return but he manages to stifle it. He cannot appear uncertain.

 

Urtusk seems almost disappointed with the answer and a shameful flush fills Caleb’s cheeks, biting his tongue from attempting to explain away his lack of an answer. You know better than to offer excuses as if they make failure acceptable.

 

“…You’re the learned type, right? Perhaps you’d like to see the library?”

 

Caleb feels his shoulders tense. Another test? Urtusks’ expectant gaze indicates so. When he was vague, the king seemed displeased but an outright no will likely offend as well. But perhaps a ‘yes’ is also a trick? It feels like that but it’s the least likely to offend in the short list of responses he has at his disposal.

 

“May I?” He asks and the King smiles. Not the little hidden thing he’d seen in the drawing room the night before, no, there is a visible curve to his lips as he nods, gesturing for Caleb to join him.

 

“Of course.”

 

Caleb hesitates before he makes his way to Urtusk’s side, feeling the brush of a hand against his lower back, directing him through the winding halls of the castle. Caleb made notes of the twists and turns the corridors take when he entered with Ikithon the day before; the castle seems maze like in its construction, almost random doorways separating halls, rooms that possess no other function than to just split them, providing four way intersections that slowed even Caleb’s mental note taking.

 

“Sorry for the turn around,” Urtusk glances towards Caleb with an apologetic expression. “My…the previous King was a paranoid ruler. As soon as he took the throne, he reconstructed the entire castle so it was unrecognisable to anyone who had been inside before; it took him years. He intended to make it impossible to navigate and he succeeded for the most part. The only people capable of moving through the castle without getting lost were the people that lived here. Even the staff got lost if they ventured too far from their stations.”

 

Caleb files the information away, watching how easily the king makes his way through the rooms. No hesitation or missteps, despite his focus shifting every now and then towards Caleb as though expecting him to speak but no words make it past his lips despite the way his questions flitter about in his head.

 

“Did you have any questions about the city? The castle ground or the people here?”

 

“…I do not wish to take up too much of your time, your Majesty,” Caleb replies.

 

“Don’t concern yourself with my schedule. I have taken the morning to introduce you to the environment. If there is anything pressing, the court know how to find me. Ask any questions you like,” he instructs and Caleb wants to follow it. But that niggling voice of caution in the back of his head whispers at him.

 

It is a test, surely you do not believe you have managed to gain so much favour with his majesty in a single night? Do not wear on his hospitality so soon.

 

“Thank you, your Majesty. I have no question I will ask at the moment but your offer is greatly appreciated all the same,” his statement is met with a quiet acknowledgement that is nudged aside in Caleb’s focus by the set of wide double doors before them, closed until the king approaches and places his hand on a wooden panel, a flicker of runic symbols glowing blue for a brief moment before the doors swing open and Caleb has to stop his jaw from dropping.

 

“This room was originally a war room, but after I assumed the throne, I did some reconstructions of my own,” he seems proud of this, or at least the small amount of awareness Caleb has of the king’s words tells him that beyond the sheer awe at the room before him. The sprawling ceiling boasts intricate looking chandeliers that crawl up the chain like luminescent vines, lighting up the main portion of the room on the lower level, as well as the ample space of the upper and middle mezzanine surrounding the room. And on each level, shelves upon shelves of books that have Caleb’s hands itching to touch them. He takes a half step forward before he remembers himself, awkwardly clasping his hands behind his back and admiring the room at a safe distance.

 

“What do you think?” Urtusk asks, moving further into the room. Caleb remains where he is.

 

“It is…impressive,” he allows himself to say, spotting some familiar looking tomes on magic theory on the ground level.

 

“Here,” the king startles Caleb a little out of his reverie, ducking back out of the room and encouraging Caleb to follow. He almost hesitates but obeys regardless of the pang of disappointment at leaving so soon. They do not go far, just beyond the door where he sees Fjord tracing one of the runes before he holds out his hand.

 

“May I?”

 

Caleb’s jaw clenches but he obeys without pause, arm stiffening when Urtusk (gently, why so gently?) directs his hand to rest on the same wooden panel the king’s had when he’d unlocked the room, releasing it to trace a circle and a rune on the back of his hand. Activation?

 

“You are…giving me access?”

 

“You deny the King the joy of declaring that to you himeself? How dare you,” Urtusk says, something beneath the words he has difficulty identifying and Caleb feels a warm flush of shame spread up his neck and to his cheeks, eyes staring resolutely at the door as he waits for a more serious reprimand. There is a pause and he can feel the king’s eyes on him, the attention stifling as he waits for the grip around his wrist to tighten. Instead his hand is gently removed from the panel (still so gentle). “My apologies. I did not intend to offend.”

 

“You have no need to apologise, your Majesty,” Caleb replies automatically.

 

“Of course I do. No one is above an apology,” he counters as though that conclusion is obvious and Caleb shuts his mouth, the flush deepening. He wants to deny deserving the apology but that would be refuting the king’s statement, so the two sides fight it out in his head, leaving him flustered and uncomfortable. “I have upset you.”

 

Caleb doesn’t speak, he just continues to stare at the door, feeling his heart rabbit in his chest. He waits; for what he’s not sure. A reprimand? For Urtusk to turn him away from the castle? Or worse?

 

“Mister Widogast-“

 

Whatever the king wants to say, he seems to think better of it.

 

“Would you…Perhaps the full tour can wait, you’ve travelled a lot to get here. Would you like to remain in the library? Feel free to peruse the stacks, I just ask that you notify me if you remove a book from the room, and if you’d like anything-“ he gestures to a polished black stone inlaid in the table by the door. “It’s a short ranged stone of sending. Practically constant use, connected to one in Nila’s office. She will happily provide anything you need.” Caleb is familiar with them. He remembers making them, Ikithon sending them off without a word as to who they were for. But Caleb says nothing on them.

 

He still isn’t sure how to respond, his body is still bow-string taut, waiting for events to shift and to be thrown out. But the king is watching him with kind eyes, waiting for some sort of reply. Caleb’s lips part to speak but it feels as though his throat is strangling the words before they can pass his lips so he closes his mouth again.

 

“I will leave you be, but please, do accept my sincerest apologies. I forget myself at times, that not everyone is used to mine and my court’s sense of humour.”

 

Teasing. That was the tone beneath the ‘reprimand’.

 

“I do. Accept it,” the mage’s tongue feels unwieldy, the words stumbling out of his mouth rather than the more polished speech he uses but at this point, it feels standard for how his day is going. “You honour me with your apology, your Majesty,” Caleb bows again, hearing some aborted noise before he stands upright again.

 

“Mister Widogast, I honour no one by providing something any decent person should,” he explains, discomfort making itself plain on his face, softening into Something Significant that Caleb can’t quit name. Its familiar but hovers in the back of his mind like a forgotten song. “Regardless, I will leave you to enjoy the library while I attend to other matters within the castle. Let me know when you’d like to resume our tour. I shall see you at dinner, otherwise,” he offers with a smile, bending forward in a minor bow that makes Caleb flush a little at the display.

 

The king takes his leave, turning a corner and quickly vanishing from sight as Caleb stands in the still open doorway of the library, attempting to filter through the interaction but it just makes his stomach turn with uncertainty and anxiety. He had been given permission to access the library, just not to remove books without authorisation. Those are parameters he can deal with at the moment and the comfortable looking arm chairs call to him. Before he knows it, he’s already gathered an armful of thick and heavy tomes and is ferrying them to the closest chair. He arranges them in front of himself and deliberates on which book to start on.

 

He begins with the history of the crown.

 

-

——

-

 

A knock on the door startles Caleb from his reading, buried in some journals by the last Archmage to the crown, before the ruling family shifted from the Malta to the Urtusks and the position was left vacant for reasons unknown. Caleb sees that the door is still ajar from when he’d entered-…he isn’t sure how long ago. He glances at the windows, seeing the blackened sky and the flickering torchlight of the grounds and surrounding city, realising it’s the first time in years that he’s lost track of the time.

 

“Mr Widogast,” the gravelly voice of My Clay calls from the door, peeking into the library and smiling when his eyes land on Caleb. “Ah, there you are. His Majesty mentioned you might be in here and I thought I might accompany you to dinner.”

 

“Dinner-?” Caleb’s internal clock has slowly managed to right itself, reminding him that it is nearing eight in the evening and he has been at this for nearly ten hours, piles of books before him that he’d poured through. “Ah. I apologise. I…I seemed to have forgotten myself,” he murmurs, waving a hand and sending the books back to their homes within the shelves, straightening his clothes as he stands.

 

“I’m not much of a reader myself but I understand immersing yourself in a past-time,” he replies, gesturing towards the door. Caleb makes his way out, nodding in thanks to the cleric as he lets him pass. The doors shut with a click behind him and the pair make their way through the halls, the mage finding it far easier to maintain his focus on the route without the strange unsettled feeling the king’s presence leaves him with.

 

“Do you mind my asking a question, Mister Widogast?”

 

“I will answer as best I can, Mister Clay,” Caleb replies, finding it far easier to conceal his wariness at such questions when he’s not around his Majesty. Perhaps it’s the casual aura he exudes. Someone not easily offended nor bothered enough to keep a grudge if they were.

 

“You seem very cautious around us; the court and the king. Do we frighten you?” The question takes Caleb a little aback, the firbolg notices the surprise and continues on. “Because I promise, we aren’t half as intimidating as we appear. You’re quite safe with us.”

 

“You do not-“ Caleb’s words cut off. Something about Caduceus’ expression stopped the denial in its tracks and he readjusts where his hands are clasped behind his back, fiddling with his focus ring on his right hand. “I am not afraid of all of you. Cautious, perhaps, but no, not afraid.”

 

“‘All of you’ implies you are afraid of someone…Fjord did seem pretty frazzled when I spoke with him,” he muses aloud, and it takes Caleb a moment to reconcile the name Caduceus used. He stops in his tracks, looking around frantically in case someone around them heard him before ducking in close. “What’s wrong?”

 

“You called his Majesty by his given name,” he hisses, as though just speaking of it would earn him the same punishment but Caduceus seems unphased, smiling and nodding in understanding.

 

“Ah, his Majesty isn’t actually all that fond of the title, he uses it to save face with visiting dignitaries and for the public at large but when its just us in the castle, he’s happier when we call him Fjord,” he explains and its as though the gears stop turning in Caleb’s brain, the information being presented once again warring with his, now, deeply ingrained need to obey the rules of etiquette. “If it makes you more comfortable, I’m sure he won’t mind if you keep calling him ‘his Majesty’,” he adds and the offer does help to ease the mild panic in his chest a little; being able to maintain that distance without further offending the king.

 

“I will…take it under advisement. I do not want to assume I have that option available to me so soon after arriving.”

 

“He likes you just fine, I’m sure it’ll come up,” the cleric attempts to assure Caleb. They start seeing more activity a short time after and Caleb recognises where they are, just around the corner from the dining room, a flash of familiar technicolour fabric disappearing just through the doorway and the loud boisterous voice of Mr Tealeaf echoing out into the main hall. Just as they enter, Mollymauk has approached King Urtusk, throwing an arm around his shoulder and leaning in close.

 

“How is my favourite patriarch- you look positively brooding this evening, what’s got your panties in a twist, and how can I assist in untwisting them?”

 

Caleb can’t help the choked sound of shock, snapping his mouth shut with a click and covering it with his hand when the rest of the occupants in the room all focus on him, as if covering his lips would somehow reverse it. Urtusk seems unaffected by the scandalous words until he meets Caleb’s gaze, verdant cheeks darkening and previously neutral expression turning into heated indignation.

 

Mollymauk,” the king hisses and the purple tiefling looks reproached, albeit insufficiently for how he just manhandled the king and mentioned ‘untwisting his panties’ at all, let alone in public and has the audacity to still have a small smile on his face.

 

“Ah, my apologies, Your Most Gracious Majesty. I forgot we had company still. Mister Widogast has grown on me so much he already feels a part of our little family,” his saccharine sarcasm does absolutely nothing to soothe the look of displeasure on the king’s face but his Majesty does attempt to conceal it at least a little with an apologetic expression when he turns to address Caleb.

 

“And my sincerest apologies for the behaviour of some of my courtiers Mister Widogast, they forget my standing in public at times,” his tone gains an edge as he shoots Mister Tealeaf a look.

 

“No need-“ Caleb catches himself, recalling their earlier discussion. “I take no offence, your Majesty. I was discussing this with Mister Clay actually. While unconventional, I will become accustomed to your erm…dynamics,” he says carefully. While not entirely placated, it at least smooths out the line in the king’s brow a little.

 

“See, already feels like Caleb’s been here forever, may I call you Caleb?” Mister Tealeaf asks almost as an after thought, joining Caleb by the door and leading him further in with Caduceus making his way towards the tea set by the fire.

 

“If you wish to,” he answers and the tiefling’s face falters a little.

 

“Such diplomatic answers. And selfless. In the truest sense.”

 

He does not say that as if it were a good thing.

 

Dinner proceeds with a strange, awkward air surrounding the group. Beau is in attendance, joined by a beast of a woman who introduces herself as Yasha and nods quietly in greeting. Also attending the dinner, entering the room just as the food is set, is a family of halflings, at least Caleb assumed they were all halflings until he spots a familiar piece of jewellery. One he made himself years earlier, a pendant of disguise, currently active from the shade of blue the gem is.

 

“Mister Widogast, allow me to introduce our resident alchemists; Nott, Yeza, and their boy, Luc,” Caduceus’ introduction has Caleb confused.

 

“They are not Yeza?”

 

“Oh,” Jester quickly swallows her milk and gestures in dawning understanding, “She is Nott, and he is Yeza.”

 

“Ah. A pleasure to make your acquaintance,” he leans forward in a seated bow, the best he can manage while the staff bustle around him. He can’t help but eye the pendant, not having have much of a chance to test it beyond two short uses. “Might I ask, and I do apologise if this is forward, but how frequently do you use your necklace?”

 

The halfling woman’s eyes narrow in suspicion and Caleb feels a small shock of nerves when he can see her hand tighten around her knife.

 

“It’s a necklace, I wear it when I wear it.”

 

“I do not mean to offend Lady Nott, but I erm, that particular piece was of my own making and I would like to offer my services in perhaps re-enchanting it. I recall its duration was only a few hours. If you’d like, I could extend that to ‘indefinite’. I have since progressed in my…skills since…then,” he realises the whole table seems to have gone silent, either listening in on the conversation or outright observing them both which has Caleb’s cheeks warming. “A…only a thought,” he adds weakly.

 

“Veth-“ Yeza whispers to her but the woman, (Nott, Veth?) waves it off.

 

“I appreciate the thought,” she does not sound as though she does. “But I’m fine with a few hours.” Whether that was true or not, the piercing glare she has fixed on Caleb does not inspire confidence in her opinion of him.

 

“Please, accept my apologies, my intent was not to-“ he stutters a little, placing his cutlery on the table and clearing his throat. “I know it can be improved so I thought to offer without considering any implications I have inadvertently made. My only intent was that you possess a piece made to the best of my capabilities. I am sorry for any offence I may have caused.”

 

She is silent for a moment, watching him; calculating. She resumes eating, her thinly veiled sneer shifting into a more neutral expression.

 

“I can appreciate pride in your work. I accept your apology. My necklace is fine as it is,” she says, deft fingers rotating one of the rings surrounding the gem, deactivating it and changing the blue into a soft grey. Instead of the mousy looking halfling woman, a goblin sits at the table, her demeanour and actions unchanged save for a brief glance towards Caleb, gauging his reaction.

 

“The mechanism has not degraded at all. Do you use it every day?”

 

“Most days, yes. Its good work.”

 

“You are too kind. If you decide you would like a different colour or perhaps a verbal activation instead, please do not hesitate to ask,” he offers and she gives him a small nod of acknowledgement.

 

The table seems to let out a collective breath and the conversation around them resumes, Nott reminding Luc to eat all of his vegetables lest he not get any dessert. The child seems bothered by the presence of the broccoli but eats it regardless, enjoying the little light show Jester puts on in the centre of the table for him.

 

“And how have your been faring, Mister Widogast?” Mister Tealeaf asks, dragging a vividly painted claw around the edge of his wine glass. “I haven’t seen you since yesterday evening. Have you gotten lost in this maze yet?”

 

“I have been thankfully accompanied by Mister Clay and his Majesty since I have been here so I have yet to get lost.”

 

“Ah, accompanied by His Majesty,” he drawls, throwing a sideways glance at the king that has Caleb tense in his seat. “Such a great honour-“

 

“Molly,” Yasha’s voice is soft but seems to have more command over Mollymauk than Urtusk does. “You’re not helping anyone by picking on them.” His feigned smile drops and he eyes Caleb with something gentler.

 

“I’m sorry, Mister Widogast. I’m a little rankled. Certain circumstances have left me a little bitter,” he explains, jabbing aggressively at his plate, catching the look of sympathy the king directs at the tiefling, which seems to ease the violence against the potatoes at least a little.

 

“No offence taken,” Caleb replies. “I spent…a lot of the day enjoying the library. It is very well supplied,” he says with a barely contained smile.

 

“I’m glad,” the king comments from the head of the table, his food finished, while he nurses a glass of amber liquid. “Let me know if there’s anything missing that you’d like and I can see about acquiring it for you.” Caleb nods.

 

“Thank you, your Majesty.”

 

There’s a strange silent conversation between his Majesty and Mister Tealeaf; incredulity and indignation, jumping between them at breakneck speeds but Caleb is pulled away from the display by a member of the staff offering him another glass of wine.

 

The dessert is an uneventful affair and Caleb excuses himself quickly after, making his way towards his chambers after declining the staff’s offer to accompany him. He’s memorised that much of the layout at least, now along with the route to the library.

 

He is just about to open the door to him rooms when Mister Tealeaf calls for him.

 

“Mister Widogast.”

 

“You can call me ‘Caleb’ if you wish.”

 

Once again, that searching gaze, unhappy with his response but not quite with him.

 

“That’s what I want to talk to you about. Do you want me to call you Caleb or do you just want me to call you what I like?”

 

“What you…what else would you call me?”

 

“Perhaps Little Red? Or maybe Handsome?” He says with half-hooded eyes. There’s something testing beneath the lascivious tone and Caleb feels his heart rate start to climb but he maintains his composure.

 

“If you would like.”

 

Mister Tealeaf drops the flirtatious demeanour with a quiet sigh of resignation.

 

“But its not what you would like…I will call you Mister Widogast, unless you show a preference for something else,” he insists, giving Caleb a low bow, flaring out his coat as he goes to leave.

 

“If…if it is all the same to you,” Caleb calls out, the voice in the back of his head giving a low warning thrum against the outburst. “I’d like you to call me Caleb. And if I may call you Mollymauk in return?” He asks and Mister Tealeaf’s fangs are slowly revealed in a wide grin, the playful air he’d displayed the night before and with king Urtusk earlier in the evening returning full force.

 

“Oh, ‘Mollymauk’ is only for when I’m in trouble. My friends call me Molly. And, between you and me,” he says, edging in a little with a conspiratorial smirk curling his lips. “I think if you called ‘His Majesty’ by his name, he would not mind in the slightest,” he urges, giving him a wink before bidding Caleb goodnight, leaving him with a small burst of anxiety induced adrenaline at the idea of calling Urtusk…Fjord, by his name, out loud or gods forbid to his face.

 

But perhaps in the privacy of his own head, it may be acceptable.

Chapter Text

Chapter Four

The beginning of Caleb’s time within the walls of the castle are tenuous as best, but he eventually becomes a little more comfortable around the rest of the court and their familial dynamics. They very rarely met with him more than one at a time barring meals, seeming to be giving him some space after the awkward dinner on his second night, but as he grows a little more familiar with their mannerisms, the way they joke and tease each other, he grows more comfortable with them.

Except for King Urtusk.

While in his braver moments he may call him Fjord just to himself, he’s still yet to have a conversation with him that wasn’t stilted and awkward, an undercurrent of fear constantly thrumming beneath the silence as he fears overstepping the blurring lines of welcome informality and punishable disrespect.

The meeting to complete his contract is taken over by Nila, over in a few minutes after he signs the pieces of paper, skimming over them more to retain the information than to make any changes. The idea of the contract confuses him but he supposes if that’s the way the court organises the residents, then he will need to accommodate that.

“Your position as Archmage to the crown hasn’t been filled in a long time, so while his Majesty organises the notes of the previous occupant, he has decided you can attend meetings as an arcane advisor when you are available. After we’re done here, he would like to meet you in his study if you have nothing else to attend to, Archmage,” Nila requests and Caleb nods, recalling the journals from the very same archmage he’d been reading on his second day here. The position was most effectively utilised during times of war, overseeing the organisation and dispensation of arcanists into war zones. But during times of peace, they often helped with time consuming tasks like establishment of teleportation circles between nations, international communications, curse breaking, and a laundry list of things that Caleb’s sure will take up most of of his time.

Its only when he leaves Nila’s office that he realises he does not actually know where the king’s study is. The hall is empty and rather than bother the chief of staff to be a chaperone, he casts a location spell, searching in his awareness for that small blip that would signify the king’s location within the castle.

Nothing. He frowns, walking further down the hall and turning left, then turning right.

After an hour, the spell fades and he looks around, trying to recognise some familiar piece of the hall he’d found himself in but there are none.

He’s gotten himself lost.

Scheiße,” he sighs, startled out of his frustration when he hears a throat clear from behind him. He turns, seeing the relatively familiar blue robes of the Captain of the Guard, Beau, eyeing him suspiciously with her arms crossed over her chest, staff slung over one shoulder and looking for all the world like she wanted to kick him out of a window.

“Captain, how may I assist you?” He asks, standing at attention before her. She looks at him strangely, scanning over the rest of the empty hallway before replying.

“I was gonna ask the same thing.”

“Oh,” he replies, hearing her amused snort but not much else. “I have been requested to meet with his Majesty in his study to discuss my duties. I attempted to find my own way but have…” he trails off, feeling warm embarrassment creeping up his neck.

“You're lost?” She finishes for him.

“I apologise for inconveniencing you. You must be busy-”

“You didn’t happen to, perchance, use a spell to try and find him, did you?” She asks with a sigh as if she already knows the answer.

“Yes, I did. It does not seem to have worked. I could not sense his presence.”

“Fj- His Majesty, has precautions against scrying and other divination magics specifically in his chambers and office that keep him from being watched, located, whatever. And the rest of the castle has an alert set up if magic of that kind is used within the walls. Which is why I’m here. I thought I was gonna get to beat up a spy,” she adds, watching for Caleb’s reaction. He manages to maintain only his embarrassed expression at having not realised this would likely be the case for a patriarch.

“That is…understandable.”

“Good for you though, I was just with him when I received the alert. You managed to get pretty close while getting yourself lost,” she says, gesturing for him to follow her. Two corners and through a set of double doors later, Caleb is in the entrance of a large office, with the king seated behind a sprawling, intricately carved desk, reading through documents until the noise startles him out of his focus.

“Mister Widogast. Perfect timing. I was just going through the list of current tasks that may fall under the purview of your new department,” he says with a smile, gesturing to the seat across from him. Caleb takes it, sitting ramrod straight in the armchair, with his hands clasped in his lap and his attention solely on F- His Majesty. No, not in the same room with him, the anxiety spiking in his chest, as though the king might have heard him even think it. Urtusk addresses Beau with a casual air that she mirrors and Caleb idly wonders, at what point would that be possible for him?

“I’ll be fine here, you can patrol around or take care of those training schedules if you’d like?” He suggests as opposed to just informing her and she thinks on it. It’s a strange interaction, at least from his perspective but to the Captain of the Guard and the King of Wildemount, it is apparently perfectly normal.

“Yasha's got the recruits so the others are feeling brave about relaxing. I might do some infiltration scenarios. I'll call the code if there's a real issue,” she agrees, reaching out to give him a light punch to the shoulder but glances at Caleb and hesitates, looking awkwardly at him before she just leaves without another word. His Majesty rubs at the back of his neck, thinking on something before turning to address Caleb, wariness obvious in his face.

“Can I be frank with you?”

The question catches him off guard and he stumbles over his answer.

“If-If you would like, your Majesty.”

It takes the king a moment to collect his thoughts together and translate them to words, all the while, Caleb sits there, watching the half-orc tapping the desk in contemplation.

“I know that the…informal interactions between my court and I are strange, especially for someone of my position. I’ve been at this long enough to understand the need to show strength and conviction as a king to the outside world but…I see these people as my family. So they treat me the same in kind. It can be a little daunting coming into a dynamic like that so I don’t expect you to completely drop the formalities, they seem pretty deeply ingrained. But, if you’d like, I would not be opposed to you calling me ‘Fjord’.”

For once, Caleb doesn’t feel the niggling sensation in the back of his mind, screaming at him to follow his training, that failure to obey the rules would result in consequences. Its blessedly quiet, but anxiety rears its ugly head in a reminder that just because his instincts are failing him at the moment doesn’t mean this couldn’t be some sort of test. And its hard to maintain that line of internal questioning when the king looks so sincere. Like he would actually prefer Caleb to call him by his given name.

“At least within the walls of the castle, of course. The rest of the court all know I have to at least pretend they only see me as ‘His Majesty’ when they leave the grounds, but…well, the offer is open to you, if you’d like,” he adds. Caleb’s jaw is tense and he finds it difficult to part his lips to speak, forcing his throat to work.

“I…may not always be capable of following this preference. As you said, your-…These rules of etiquette are deeply ingrained and it will take no small amount of effort to refuse their effects,” he explains, curious if the king intended for him to see that small deflation in his posture. “But I will make sincere attempts…Fjord,” it feels unwieldy, the silent j somehow managing to force itself into the spotlight but the smile from the ruler makes up for the frustration at his lack of ease in following the request.

“Only if you’d like to, of course. I will not force you to do something that makes you uncomfortable. You may call me what you like,” Fjord adds, sitting upright and seeming far more at ease in Caleb’s presence than he had before, that unspoken want no longer eating at his mind apparently.

What else would you call me?”

“Perhaps Little Red? Or maybe Handsome?”

Caleb schools his face into something placid, despite the conversation running through his mind that threatens to ruddy his cheeks and alert the king to his thoughts, to his and Mollymauk’s conversation and how that conversation could be applied to him. The king is a handsome man; sharp cheekbones, piercing eyes that crinkle in the corners when he smiles (the only real show of ageing he seems to have). Another reminder of how young the patriarch is, with . He internally shakes off that particular tangent and returns his focus to the matter at hand.

“I will take that under advisement. You have a list of potential duties for me, your majesty?” He regrets the slip almost immediately when the smile falters but the king regains it only a moment later, sliding a slim pile of parchment towards him.

“Where would be best to start?”

-

——

-

After a long day of making a plan of attack for the various tasks on the list, eliminating what would fall outside of his realm of capability (which is not many) and organising a schedule to which he can adhere to, but they manage it with relative ease. When they finish, its bordering on dinner, with just enough time spare for a short walk around the grounds, which the king offers, hoping to make up for the lack of a proper tour a few days earlier.

“If it is not a bother, your Majesty,” he replies, hands clasped behind him with his nails digging into his wrist at the return of that niggling feeling in the back of his mind, reminding him of his place out in public. A few of the staff smile at the king in greeting and he returns it, before returning his attention back to Caleb.

“Not at all. I enjoy your company, and it would be a privilege to show you the grounds myself,” he explains, gesturing for Caleb to follow him outside, a hand grazing gently against his lower back to lead him, and the contact leaves a near searing warmth beneath his shirt and he has to contain his jump. The first time it had happened, he’d been in such a state of shock over the king addressing him directly that he hadn’t had the capacity to breathe evenly, let alone react to anything physical; not when his entire body was screaming at him to kneel and stay there.

Now, the contact is fleeting, but the ghost of it that remains against his skin is branded to him, nowhere near fading even as they’ve lapped through the gardens, his majesty explaining the various plant life as he’s aware of it and what the intentions were with them. They eventually make their way around the side of the castle, his majesty explaining the extent of some of the reconstruction during both the previous king’s and his rules and how some of it is still underway and to watch his step on the grounds.

“He was fond of traps, so take care if you go for a walk outside. I’m familiar with the cleared locations so let me know and I’ll be happy to accompany you around the grounds,” he offers easily, and Caleb’s spine stiffens in response.

“I-I will take that under advisement. Thank you, your majesty,” he stammers, unsure of how quickly he can refuse what would be an obvious waste of the king’s precious time. As much as now, ambling over the grass with the archmage when he could be doing literally anything else more worthwhile. He’s drawn from his musings, pausing when something catches his eye. A small gap in the tall hedges just on the edge of the castle grounds, some small white structure peeking through. He’s already three or four steps towards it when he hears the king’s voice again.

“Mister Widogast? Is everything alright?”

Caleb remembers himself and stops, turning back to address the king with a look of self-reproach. His Majesty does not mirror it, instead taken with a look of concern and confusion.

“My apologies. I was…It is nothing,” he says, rejoining the king at his side once more. It doesn’t take them long to make their way back around to the entrance of the castle proper, his majesty covering the brunt of the conversation while Caleb listens, mostly filing the information away to look into during his next foray into the library. Before he knows it, they’re both entering the dining hall, the only other attendees present this early are Caduceus, nursing a cup of tea, and Jester, who seems thoroughly immersed in braiding the pink locks in some intricate thing with ribbons and flowers she plucks from a small basket beside her.

“Fjord! And Caleb, what a coincidence you walked in together,” Jester calls, a coy smile on her face as she sends a pointed look in the king’s direction. “Such a crazy random happenstance.”

“Not coincidence, Jester. I was just showing Mister Widogast the grounds,” Urtusk lets loose a sigh of resignation when the tiefling just grins wider, tying off the ends of Caduceus’ hair with a pale purple ribbon.

“All done, Caduceus,” she announces, reaching around his shoulders to hold a mirror out for him to look over the work. “Would you like one, Caleb?” She holds up the basket for his approval, a wide range of colours that she picks through, holding them up between him and her with one eye squinting, as if she were selecting a palette for him.

“You would like to braid my hair?”

“Of course! It won’t be very long, but I can get some little braids in the siiiide, or maybe, like, a really nice one from the top or something,” she explains, approaching with the basket and already eyeing his hair like she was mentally planning the braids. She pauses when she looks him in the eye. She must see the wariness or the mild panic in his face because she just smiles and holds the basket out. “Aaactually, it might be too short, so you can just have some flowers on their own, if you want?” She offers and Caleb, with only a brief moment of hesitation, reaches out and takes two marigolds, their warm yellow-gold petals vibrant and flawless. He gently places them into the front pocket of his jacket, on display for Jester to see, giving a small nod of satisfaction when it appears they won’t move.

“I love it, they go so well with your jacket,” she chirps, placing the basket on a small table in the corner so they’re out of the way as their companions start to filter into the room. Caleb flushes at the compliment, his hands fidgeting with uncertainty until he returns them to their at-rest position behind his back while Urtusk hovers a little ways away, watching the interaction with a tension Caleb can't assign to anything other than concern for Jester. Understandable; he being an outsider interacting with a woman the king considers family.

The king remains close by until the call for dinner, then they all take their seats together, Caleb hesitating when he realises the only open seat is beside Caduceus, also happening to be at Urtusk's right hand side.

Everyone else seems immersed in their conversations, the king with his captain sitting at his left so they don’t pay much mind to his caution. He thinks he catches a terribly conspicuous glance from Mollymauk but he can't be sure with the way he can seem to address everyone at the table all at once without intending on it. Caleb sits down, taking a sip of the wine in front of him to have at least something to do with his hands. The feeling in the back of his head seems pleased, a seat beside the king with no signs of complaint means he must have some trust in him. Or is keeping him under close watch. Either way, he has the benefit of proximity.

“Lovely that you’ve officially joined our ranks as an advisor,” Mollymauk grins, his long nimble claws curled around the stem of his glass. “I’m glad our lovely patriarch decided to fill that empty hole of his with someone with so much potential,” he purrs and receives what must be a very precise warning kick from beneath the table from Beau.

“I think, what Molly means,” Urtusk’s expression is that of fond exasperation, looking around the table as he raises his wine glass. “Is that a toast is in order. To new friends.”

Caleb raises his glass, tilting it just enough to clink against the king’s when offered.

“To new friends,” he repeats, a brief moment of Something passing between the two of them as the room erupts in echoing statements of joy and the tinkling of glasses. The noise is somewhat muted and Caleb finds it hard to break the eye contact between he and Fjord, at least until he’s pulled into a conversation with Caduceus about the gardens.

He can’t help but feel something prickling the back of his neck, but it fades as the dinner continues and he quietly permits himself a little more of a smile.

Chapter Text

Chapter Five

 

Caleb isn’t sure why it is that the court and its king are all so careful with their words around him. He’s seen the excitable Jester speak for twenty minutes without seeming to take a breath, let alone a pause. But she, among the rest of them, all choose their words so carefully with him. This clear gap in the way they interact with each other, and how they interact with him, has him mildly unsettled but it is understandable and he doesn’t see fit to comment or take note.

 

Some change up the format. Mollymauk in particular seems to be testing something, giving Caleb simple instructions with relative consistency. Pass the salt, follow me, open that window. Never in front of the rest of the court, and its always with a feigned casualness to it that does little to hide the intense focus on Caleb's responses.

 

He doesn't question it. He follows the simple tasks to the best of his ability, wondering what Molly's end game is. Perhaps its on behalf of the king? To see the extent of his loyalty to the crown, or at least what Caleb is showing them. He can't be sure at all.

 

Until Mollymauk knocks on his door one evening as he’s getting ready for bed.

 

“Molly. How may I assist you?” The phrase seems to ruffle the tiefling’s feathers a little bit.

 

“I wanted to have a discussion with you, nothing more painful than absolutely necessary. May I come in?” He asks. Caleb stands aside to allow the tiefling entrance with little to no hesitation. Hesitation that Molly does show, his eyes searching Caleb’s for Something, but its lack or presence or whatever it is seems to bother the man more.

 

“What would you like to know?”

 

Molly’s red eyes narrow a little in thought, and he twirls his finger in the air.

 

“Turn around.”

 

Caleb’s jaw clenches shut and he follows the instruction without a second thought.

 

“If I were to tell you to kneel and stay there until you were allowed to stop, what would you do?” Mollymauk asks, voice clipped but not cruel. He’s searching for an answer to a question he already has one for; this is a confirmation, an assessment of the accuracy of his information, and Caleb finds himself unable to ignore the direct instructions. What would he ask for after he kneels? The overwhelming mass of punishments available with that position come to mind and he can feel himself shaking as he starts to drop to one knee.

 

“Stop- gods a-fucking-bove please, stop.”

 

No, the question was ‘what would you do?’ It required a verbal response. He opens his mouth to apologise for his failing when Molly rushes over to him, hand hovering over his shoulder but not quite touching. No, he stands in front of Caleb with something pained in his expression. Pained and filled with rage.

 

“I am sorry-“

 

“Stop,” Caleb’s jaw shuts with a click and the expression deepens. “No that’s-…Fuck.”

 

The room is silent in reality but Caleb can almost hear the cogs turning in Molly's head, keeping his eyes firmly fixed to the empty space over his shoulder.

 

“Caleb, do you think I’m going to hurt you right now?”

 

He can’t bring himself to nod. Whether that’s because he thinks it’s the wrong answer or that he believes it will make that fear become a reality, he’s not sure. But that lack of response seems to be answer enough for the tiefling as his head falls forward and he rubs a clawed hand over his eyes.

 

“When anyone in the court asks you to do something, do you just do it? Even when you don’t want to?” He asks quietly, almost afraid of the answer.

 

Caleb doesn’t answer. But he doesn’t seem to need to.

 

“Fucking hell.”

 

Molly leaves only moments later, his parting words a confusing mix of an instruction and a recommendation to return to whatever he was doing before he’d been interrupted. Caleb doesn’t know what to make of the response; of course he would follow their orders, what else should he do? It’s what he’s there for.

 

No one comes knocking for the rest of the evening.

 

-

——

-

 

Caleb doesn’t know what he expected at breakfast the next morning after the conversation with Molly, but he definitely didn’t expect the tiefling to be present at the morning meal, in a quiet but heated conversation with the king. At least Molly is speaking, the patriarch just clenches his jaw and and listens, the thunderous expression dropping as Caleb catches his attention.

 

“Mister Widogast. Good morning,” his greeting has a forced pleasantness to it, as though he feels anything but, but was damned sure not going to willingly force that mood on Caleb. “Did you sleep well?”

 

Caleb looks to Molly, the other courtier doing his best to look non-chalant but the same seething rage is visible in his eyes as he tugs at a loose thread in his sleeve.

 

“I did…I apologise if I have interrupted something-“

 

“No, no,” Urtusk dismisses the apology, resting his hand on Molly’s shoulder and murmuring something to him until the tiefling gave a heaving sigh, most of the tension draining from his body. “Molly and I were discussing…he told me about your conversation last night,” he explains, watching Caleb for a reaction.

 

“I would have imagined…you appear upset, your Majesty. I am sorry if I have done something to offend,” Caleb says, gripping his wrist behind his back painfully tight.

 

Urtusk doesn’t reply, he stands there, lips parted as he regards Caleb with confusion and shock that makes way for dawning realisation, what that realisation is, the mage can’t fathom and Caleb feels his chest clench. He doesn’t recall what he had done to warrant that kind of response. Perhaps Molly told him of his failure last night and Urtusk realised he’d been left with a subpar servant-

 

“-ster Widog-“

 

Perhaps he would be thrown out of the castle immediately, he’s almost certain Ikithon would be ready to take him back to Rexxentrum and that fills him with a thick, cloying sense of dread that fills his lungs, making each lungful of oxygen an effort-

 

“Caleb.”

 

He doesn’t know when Urtusk moved from the other side of the room to stand right in front of him, one hand outstretched to touch his shoulderarmthroat and the proximity has Caleb flinching before he can stop himself. He manages to recover from the minor jerk and schools his expression into something blank, waiting for the next order or for a reprimand; whichever came first.

 

Urtusk draws his hand back, scanning over Caleb’s face. Caleb watches the wall over his shoulder, not able to bring himself to watch the axe fall when Urtusk makes his decision.

 

“Ca- Mister Widogast. I am not going to hurt you. You have my word,” he emphasises and Caleb can feel his brow draw together in confusion and no small amount of panic.

 

Liar he’s a liar they all are he is waiting for the right time do not fall for his lies trust and gullibility is weakness boy-

 

“Nila, I’m going to take breakfast in my office with Mister Widogast, would you mind having someone ready to send something along?” Urtusk requests requestnotorderwhy? He hesitates, addressing Caleb next. “Is it alright if we talk for a little bit? I promise you won’t have to talk about or answer anything you don’t want to,” he asks and Caleb can feel the voice in the back of his head screaming at the prospect of being alone with Urtusk in his office, what punishment or order is he going to execute that can’t be done in front of others?

 

He nods.

 

Urtusk leads him out of the dining room just as Jester and Caduceus round the corner, nodding in greeting, having another one of their silent conversations just before his Majesty directs him around a corner and suddenly they’re walking alone. Urtusk is careful not to touch Caleb, hand hovering over his lower back as though ready to corral him should he try to run. Caleb will not. He would be caught, by the king, his people, or Ikithon, but he would be caught regardless, and the punishment would be more severe.

 

They don’t speak on the way to the king’s study. They reach the double doors and the guard standing by opens them with a short nod and greeting to the king and Caleb, and, as the doors click shut behind Caleb and Urtusk, he feels his resolve start to falter, his hands shaking behind his back. His eyes start to water and he can feel his breath coming in shorter bursts as he waits for Urtusk to-

 

He can’t even fathom what it would be, Ikithon was always easier to judge, knowing his preferences and which transgressions warrant which punishments but this is an entirely new list of potential-

 

“I won't touch you-"

 

Since when does that matter in how severe the punishment is?

 

“But may I...Mister Widogast, I need you to answer truthfully. Do you think you've done something wrong?”

 

Caleb nods and he can hear a sharp intake of breath and some muttered curse.

 

“Do you know what it is?”

 

Why is he drawing it out, perhaps this is part of it? The anticipation ramping up his heartrate until it thunders in his ears loud enough for the king to hear.

 

“Why do you think you've done something wrong?”

 

Urtusk’s words are quiet, only just above a breath in the otherwise silent room. Caleb opens his mouth to speak and finds he has to force the words out through an anxiety choked throat.

 

“I performed poorly on an instruction,” he barely recognises his own voice, a strangled, forced thing.

 

“What instruction?”

 

“...Mister Tealeaf required a verbal answer and I incorrectly acted in a physical manner.” Urtusk is leaning against the wall, just at the edge of Caleb's periphery, a green and blue shape he can'twon't focus on.

 

“What did Molly ask?”

 

“What I would do if he told me to kneel.”

 

Urtusk is silent for the brief eternity he takes to circle the room into Caleb's direct line of sight, face stony, eyes almost glowing in their intensity. Its easy to see why Ikithon is afraid of this man. He'd heard the way King Fjord Urtusk ascended to the throne; over the bloody, decapitated corpse of his predecessor. He preaches peace but is capable of vicious and merciless wrath when provoked.

 

He wonders if his punishment would be enough to sate that wrath quickly and leaving him in a single piece.

 

“He told me you tried to,” he states, and he must catch the flicker of shame in Caleb’s face because he doesn’t ask for clarification. His tone is certain. “That was what you think you did wrong…and why you think I’m going to punish you.”

 

Caleb can feel blood welling from beneath his nails as he clutches painfully tight at his wrist. Why does what Caleb thinks matter? That is what’s going to happen, confirming it does nothing more than send adrenaline coursing through him, his fight-or-flight instinct howling at him to either throw whatever spells he has in his arsenal at the patriarch or to snap his fingers and vanish out of the room in an instant.

 

But he just stands at attention, the gentle pit-pat of blood on the carpet behind him the only sound he catches beneath the king’s even breaths and his own rabbiting pulse; waiting for the man to just hurry up and get this over with so he can have his baseline of the next few years.

 

“Can you-…I suppose if I ask you to do something, you’ll do it whether you want to or not, won’t you?” He asks, it must be rhetorical because he seems to neither expect nor wait for an answer as he  move out of Caleb’s line of sight and collects some papers from his desk, looking over them. “You signed your contract without changing anything. And you were always so…agreeable. I could not in good conscience allow this contract to stand, so,” he says, and Caleb flinches a little as he hears the tearing of parchment while the king approaches, holding the fragments of paper in front of him.

 

“Until you’re able to agree to this arrangement of your own volition, you are not under the employ of the crown. You are a guest in my home and will be treated as such,” his voice is firm, unyielding in a decision that Caleb has difficulty comprehending.

 

“…Y-your majesty-?”

 

“Mister Widogast. I would like you to listen very carefully to what I am about to say,” Urtusk moves just so, returning to Caleb’s line of sight so he can see the look of steady conviction on his face and the mage can’t help but focus only on him. “You are never going to be punished for not following an instruction. You are not obligated to. You are under my protection and even if you never work under the crown, you will be free to stay here as a guest and friend of the Urtusk family. Do you understand this?” Fjord asks but Caleb can’t bring himself to nod. The room blurs a little and he finds it hard to focus on anything but the screaming paradoxes in his head. He understands the words individually but the concept of ‘obedience is optional’ doesn’t seem to fit anywhere in the now scrambled architecture of his mind and its like his body is echoing the sentiment, struggling to maintain its attentive posture in the face of this complete upheaval.

 

The king’s expression shifts suddenly and he approaches, hand outstretched and just shy of making contact with Caleb’s cheek when the human flinches back and brings his hands in front of him, inadvertently showing their bloodied state. Fjord’s eyes flicker between his face and his hands, as though struggling with which to deal with first and its only then that Caleb realises that the blurring of his vision is through tears, running scalding hot down his cheeks. He doesn’t sob or make a sound, an entirely automatic reaction to the situation that his body understands but his mind has trouble grasping, stalling still on ‘never going to be punished’.

 

“Mister Widogast. Are you alright with me touching you? I’d like to check on your hands,” he asks so goddamn kindly and Caleb doesn’t know how to react so he just holds his hands out in front of him, seeing the deep crescent marks in the pale skin that peeks out from beneath his sleeves, his blood mostly coagulated in thin red trails down his hands to his fingertips. Fjord keeps eye contact with him as he gently takes his hands, only breaking it as he turns them over and examines them carefully.

 

“I’m going to ask Caduceus to come by and fix you up if that is alright? I’m afraid healing is out of my capabilities beyond wrapping something in bandages and calling it a day,” he explains and Caleb just nods dumbly blinking the tears out of his eyes. He wants to wipe them away but he doesn’t want to break the contact between he and Fjord, the warm touch of his hands against Caleb’s soothing the panic at least a little.

 

“Thank you, your Majesty,” he whispers hoarsely, clearing his throat a little but not continuing. Fjord just smiles and nods before ducking his head out of the study door, speaking quietly with the guard outside before ducking back in, closing the door behind him and gesturing towards one of the armchairs.

 

“Would you like to sit?”

 

Caleb does so, but there is at least a little bit of hesitation before he does, some thought that seems to relax the king a little bit as he collects a water jug from the desk and takes the other seat, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket. He projects his intentions clearly, a silent requests for permission that Caleb grants with a nod. The handkerchief is perfectly folded and pristine looking, so Caleb has to keep himself from pulling away when Fjord uses the cloth to wipe away at least a little bit of the blood, careful around the marks themselves. Caleb feels a little bit of shame at being the one to sully something of the king’s due to his own lack of restraint.

 

“I have a request I’d like to ask of you. Please don’t consider this an order, just an advisement,” he explains, not looking up from his work. “If at any time we ask you something, you are perfectly within your right to tell us ‘no’; me, my court, anyone really. If its information we’re requesting, for you to go with us somewhere you might not want to go, to do something you’re not comfortable with- if its not going to pose a danger to you or someone else, we will not be forcing you to do or not do something you don’t wish to. So please, feel free to say ‘no’.”

 

Caleb doesn’t reply, he barely even reacts when Caduceus enters the room, speaking in his even, gravelly tones with Fjord. The conversation is muffled in his ears and the adrenaline finally wearing off so when the cleric touches the tender cuts on his hands, he has the presence enough to feel the small sting, but it registers low on his threshold so he doesn’t react beyond a surprised blink, more surprised at the immediate ‘sorry about that’ from Caduceus at, Caleb has to assume, causing him pain.

 

All the while, Fjord watches, the soft expression nudged aside in favour of the thinly veiled anger that hovers just beneath the surface as he stares at the remains of the torn contract. Even if Caleb could attempt to peek into his thoughts, he’s not exactly comforted by the idea of what he might find going on in the patriarch’s head if that just-shy-of-vicious expression is anything to go off of.

 

--

Hope you enjoyed the chapter, here's some art of the boys I've done, just for visual reference. <3

Fjord: https://twitter.com/oakythecritter/status/1161201777061928961?s=19

Caleb: https://twitter.com/oakythecritter/status/1160549406036283392?s=19

Chapter Text

Chapter Six

 

While within Urtusk’s office, Caleb finds it difficult to think beyond the immediate things placed in front of him; the plate of food Olive brings in, the red-blotted handkerchief the king offers to Caleb to clean up the remaining blood, the already faint, healed marks in the skin of his hands and wrists.

 

Fjord is, for the most part, quiet, just working through the documents on his desk with a steady focus and ease Caleb can only attribute to his decade and a half on the throne.

 

“Fjord-“ his own voice startles him (more-so that the name slipped out unintentionally), and apparently the king as well, enough that there is a short, tense silence (at least on his part) as he sorts through his thoughts. But the patriarch waits patiently, watching him with an encouraging smile and Caleb feels something in his chest clench at the kind look before he forces himself to continue. “I am…I do not understand what you would like me to do?” He murmurs quietly.

 

Fjord looks genuinely confused but the bemusement shifts into sad realisation.

 

“Well, you may stay here today, if you’d like?” He suggests. “Or you could spend more time in the library? Perhaps walk the grounds, explore the castle. Your time is yours to spend, C-…Mister Widogast,” his quick correction catches Caleb off guard and he filters through his memory, finding no recollection of a conversation with the king about using his own given name.

 

“If it pleases, you could call me ‘Caleb’. And-…I do not know if I will cope well with being of no practical use. I know you have reservations about my…condition, but I would like to be as much use to you as possible,” he insists but Fjord seems hesitant, picking at a dark whorl in the desk with his claw absent-mindedly.

 

“Caleb,” he rolls the name in his mouth as though testing the feel of it, the first time he’s used it in a more relaxed setting than attempting to quell a panic attack. He seems satisfied with it because he doesn’t correct himself, “I understand you don’t want to be…Your conversation, your company are all more than enough in terms of being…’useful’,” its obvious he doesn’t take any pleasure in using that word but apparently lacks a better one.

 

Caleb doesn’t reply, the discomfort obvious in his features if the tense silence from Fjord is anything to go by.

 

“Please understand, this is not a reflection on you. Not at all,” Fjord leans his elbows against the desk, meeting Caleb’s gaze with a sincerity that the mage find’s comforting and confronting at the same time. “I would be immensely more at ease with utilising your skills if I didn’t feel…If requesting things of you didn’t feel as though we were taking advantage. Yes, an arcane advisor would be an irreplaceable asset but not at the expense of your well being.”

 

“It does not harm me to follow orders-“

 

Fjord glances at Caleb’s hands then back to his eyes and Caleb can feel a flush of shame at speaking so brazenly out of turn, refuting the king that nausea rises in his gut and his pulse immediately rockets. It apparently isn’t a transgression that the king chooses to make any note of, only looking guilty himself.

 

“Caleb…I’d feel far more comfortable knowing you can exist within the castle without some looming fear of punishment for some imagined failure…Did…Caleb was that how Ikithon treated you?” Fjord asks and Caleb can feel a prickle of something at the back of his neck and the memory of his orders from Ikithon seep into his mind.

 

Eliminate any threats to Rexxentrum. No Exceptions.

 

The king knowing of Ikithon’s…methods would enrage him. He wouldn’t understand. He’d attack Rexxentrum.

 

Then Caleb would be forced to kill him.

 

“This…I have been like this since I was a child,” he murmurs. Technically not a lie. But enough of a implication that the king seems…not satisfied, no, there is still the distinct feeling of tension and upset at the idea of Caleb being mistreated and the mage can’t, for the life of him, understand what he has done for the king to warrant such dedicated concern. No, but the king does sit back in his chair, the tense downwards twist of his lips releasing at least a little bit.

 

“Regardless. Caleb you don’t owe me ‘uses’. And I wouldn’t be the king I try to be if I treated my subjects in such a way,” his tone is one of finality; an end to the discussion of Caleb working, at least for the time being, and the mage feels…He doesn’t really know. It’s a maelstrom of emotions that rampage through his chest and gut until he’s left feeling tense and twitchy. But he acquiesces.

 

“I may…With your leave, might I spend some time in the library? I have some research I would like to complete,” he says and Fjord nods with a small smile.

 

“Of course, do you need a guide?”

 

“No thank you, your majesty. I should be alright making my way there,” he stands from his seat, bowing before he exits the office. The guard standing outside doesn’t bat an eye to his exit, watching the surrounding corridor carefully.

 

It takes Caleb a good twenty minutes to make his way from the king’s study to the library, having to backtrack towards his own quarters before he can finally trace the route. Along the way, some of the staff see him and nod cordially at him, uncertain how informal they can be with him based on the moment of indecision some of them show before their greetings.

 

Honestly, he’s not used to be acknowledged at all so even the formal greetings would be uncomfortable for him, but he does his best to hide that discomfort as he manages to make it to the library doors without getting lost again. A small blessing, but he hesitates before placing his hand on the wooden panel as the king had done a few days prior, unsure if he would still have access now-

 

Click

 

The door releases, swinging open just enough for him to see inside.

 

As soon as he steps into the stillness of the library, there is an immense feeling of relief; the quiet, the familiar and welcoming smell of leather and parchment. Caleb enters, collecting the tomes he'd been studying before, finding his place almost immediately.

 

Barring the few, heavily redacted journals he could find, there isn’t much on the Urtusk family. The Malta were heavily documented; revolutionaries in their combined uses of magics and technology, but after the (questionable) death of Queen Vell’ith Malta and her heavily debated final act to have an Orcish chieftain named her successor, Chief (and eventual King) Krag’ka Urtusk rose to power.

 

For the next four generations, there are no first hand sources from within the castle available for reference. Only biographies from those close enough to the city of Zadash to watch the vicious and bloody path the Urtusk family carved through the nation, decimating all those who opposed their rules until, suddenly, the death of Adrok Urtusk ended it, leading to the rise of his only son, Fjord Urtusk, to the throne and with the final blood spilled, the kingdom ceased its war on everything.

 

There are no accounts of the night of Adrok’s death, nothing more than a single sentence in any book stating that it happened, nothing more on the cause of it; was Fjord tired of seeing his people suffering? A murder for the sake of mercy? Or perhaps it was more selfish, an assassination to aid his quick and sudden rise to power.

 

Caleb’s mind shifts back to Fjord’s soft and concerned expression as he’d gently examined the mage’s hands in his study. His soft tones and softer words refuse to reconcile with the visage of a patricidal power-hungry tyrant.

 

He sifts through the materials at his disposal until the space behind his eyes start to ache and his stomach give a mutinous growl at its lack of attention. He supposes he should attempt to find something to eat, not having much of anything while he’d been sat in Fjord’s study. He tugs at his sleeve absent-mindedly, finding unfamiliar fabric there that he realises quickly is the handkerchief, still stained red, that he must have tucked into his sleeve without noticing.

 

He casts prestidigitation and the white fabric is suddenly pristine again, no trace of his blood marring it and leaving the only splash of colour on the square of white cloth as the blue monogram in the corner; the Urtusk family crest. Caleb stares at it for a moment, recalling the careful way Fjord had cleaned his hands. But he only allowed those thoughts for a moment before he folds the cloth and tucks it into his coat pocket, rising to his feet and straightening his coat. He spends a few minutes returning the books to their rightful homes; he could use his mage hand to complete the task but feels like expending more of the time he’d been allowed to himself.

 

It is a strange sort of headspace. Nowhere to be, no direct instructions to follow beyond the ones from Ikithon. A task which would require conversing with the staff and courtiers if the complete lack of information within the library seems to provide on the king’s history is any indication. His thoughts run on, compiling a list of potential sources as he closes up the library and makes his way through the halls.

 

First and foremost, he’d need to stop risking getting lost as soon as he turns a wrong corner. So perhaps crafting an internal map of the castle is in order. But after he silences the irritated growling of his stomach.

 

-

——

-

 

A short trip to the kitchens and one apple later, Caleb wanders through the corridors, cataloguing all the small markers left at nearly every corner, and he learns no discernible pattern to their placement. Possibly only things specific to members of the staff- their own sort of trail of breadcrumbs to lead them to regular locations. He manages to end up finding the infirmary, the stairs leading down into the basement; apparently kept as storage with two solitary nooks they keep as holding cells in the, apparently rare, event that someone within the castle needs to be kept under lock and key.

 

The living quarters are split, the second floor east wing where his own is located utilised for short term guests, visiting dignitaries and the like, while the rest of the court have their rooms situated on the other side of the castle and the king’s entirely on its own somewhere on the third floor as far as he could learn from one of the maids. She was reasonably wary of disclosing which room belonged to who and where, beyond ‘the third floor’, the king slept.

 

More information than she should have divulged to a relative stranger, but still enough to not accidentally offend someone given permission to reside within the castle by implying they’re untrustworthy.

 

He spends the rest of the day and a fair portion into the evening before dinner mapping out the castle, committing it to his memory as best he can. Normally he’s much better with his memory of language than he is with his surroundings but he manages, just in time to head down to the dining room, pausing when someone calls his name. Jester, a smile on her lips and a skip in her step as she rushes to join him.

 

“Hey, its been all day since I saw you. You and F- His Majesty weren’t at breakfast, is everything okay?” She asks quietly, the smile drifting into something concerned.

 

“Yes, I am fine. His Majesty requested to speak with me in private in regards to my position here,” he edges around the truth of the discussion, but she seems to pay not much mind to it, satisfied with his answer.

 

“Ah okay. You know, I’m really happy you get to stay with us. I know ‘His Majesty’ is really happy about it as well,” she murmurs with a sly grin, wiggling her eyebrows conspiratorially. Sarcasm? No. Sincere, but there’s more to it.

 

“I’m not sure I understand.”

 

“You knooow,” she teases, not providing any more information. There’s a curiosity that niggles in the back of his head but he lets the topic drop and listens as Jester talks about everything and nothing, asking about his stay so far, wondering if he’ll get transferred over to the other wing with the rest of the permanent residents and if they might end up being neighbours.

 

He answers where he can and agrees where he can’t and before long, they’re approaching the dining room but they pause just outside. The doors are closed and a young lady is standing outside, smiling as they approach.

 

“Mister Widogast, Jester. Fjord thought it would be nice to dine outside for the evening. You’ll be in the garden tonight, by the peonies,” Jester seems to be fully aware of where they're going because she’s quick to thank the girl and gesture for Caleb to follow her towards the front doors.

 

The sun has already begun its descent, painting the sky with broad strokes of gold and purple that backlit the city of Zadash, its darkened silhouette randomly spotted with the subtle glow of torches as the city tried to drag out the day as much as they can. Its definitely a lovely sight, looking out over the gardens as it, the walls surrounding the castle and the city beyond bathed in the warm tones of sunset. He manages to not get too distracted looking at the view, keeping pace with Jester as she leads them around the front towards the west facing wall and, tucked into a corner and shielded for the most part by a twisting willow tree is a small table, just enough room for the regular diners, most of whom are already seated, talking amongst themselves.

 

Fjord seems thoroughly engaged in a discussion with Caduceus and Molly, his attention pulled away when he seems to notice Jester and Caleb’s arrival. The flickers of sunlight bleed through the thin branches of the tree, patterning his clothes and blocking his vision a little with every step, but he manages to make it to the table with no incident, the spots in his vision clearing enough for him to notice the look of slack-jawed awe on Fjord’s face.

 

“Is everything alright, your Majesty?”

 

Fjord snaps out of his shock with a slow smile, that Something from before drifting into his features. The hidden memory of the expression still pricks at Caleb’s mind but he lets it go. It’ll come to him.

 

“Yes, I’m fine, thank you Mister Widogast. Just um, admiring the sunset.”

 

Caleb doesn’t point out that the sunset is to his left.

 

Instead he goes to take a seat beside Jester, who’s already claimed a spot across the table from Fjord, but as soon as he touches the chair, the tiefling flings herself over the tabletop, blocking his way.

 

“Wait! You uh. You can’t sit here. Um…Nott and Yeza and Luc are gonna sit here, yes!” She stumbles through her excuse, sending a very pointed look towards Molly, who quickly vacates his seat at Fjord’s left, sending Caleb a toothy smile.

 

“Yes, Jester needs to be by Luc, he gets so bored and she’s the only one that can keep him entertained. Come, you could sit with Fjord and I,” he purrs and Caleb can’t help the way his eyes dart towards the king, the man apparently distracted by Caduceus explaining something about the garden. Caleb nods and takes his seat, his glass being quickly filled with some wine by a roaming member of the staff.

 

Fjord’s attention returns from Caduceus to find Caleb seated beside him and he lights up.

 

“How was your time in the library?”

 

“I completed my research as well as I could. I decided to wander the halls for a while and I think I have a much firmer grasp on the layout now. With any luck, I should not get lost again,” he explains.

 

“Hear that Fjord? A firm grasp,” Molly says from behind his wine glass, the same wry smile peeking out from the drink. Fjord shoots a warning look at the tiefling who just chuckles.

 

“Yes, well as firm a grasp as I can achieve at the moment. I am still learning,” Caleb says, startling when he hears choking from beside him. Molly is hunched over the table, beating on his own chest with wine dripping onto the tablecloth from a failed sip. “Are you alright?”

 

“Yep,” he rasps, eyes wide with shock and delight, pausing between his words with wracking coughs to clear his throat. “Perhaps Fjord- ahem- Fjord could help you with grasping it.”

 

"As he seems to be the most knowledgeable in the subject, I would imagine so,” the mage adds, watching the tiefling curiously. He seems overly excited at the prospect of him learning his way around the castle.

 

"You imagine Fjord helping you grasp things often?"

 

"Well...I suppose when I'm feeling particularly overwhelmed. It is very large,” Caleb confirms, and out of his periphery, he can see the king lean forward, his cheek ruddy and his glass of amber held over his lips.

 

"…We’re talking about the castle right?" he asks and Caleb’s expression turns into one of confusion.

 

"Of course. What else would we be discussing?"

 

“Oh, just if you wanted to grasp the king’s- AUGH” Molly lets out a pained shout as the table thuds and he gives Fjord a look Caleb can’t really pin down, just before he gives his attention back to Caleb. “Ah. Banged my knee on the table. Ah well. Back to Fjord helping you-“

 

Molly is cut off by Nila arriving with the food and an energetic little Luc bounding into Jester’s arms, animatedly talking about something he’d done today involving…crossbows? No. Couldn’t possibly be.

 

“I do apologise for the layout of the castle. I would have maps drawn but, well, the previous king had the right idea about its security benefits.”

 

“It is alright. I have enjoyed…wandering. But if you have any need of me, please do not hesitate. My research is secondary,” Fjord considers it and nods but there’s something more to the look he gives Caleb. Its cautious.

 

“I will keep that in mind.”

 

The rest of the conversation during dinner is light, listening to a story from Molly about his travels to Whitestone, meeting the leading family there and seeing their many strange and amazing devices. Nott and Caleb especially are intrigued, the story cut a little short when Molly stops to heckle Beau who arrives late with Yasha, to which the Captain replies with a middle finger.

 

After dinner has concluded, Caleb looks around the garden, the greens of the foliage bathed in the blue-white tones of the moonlight that encroaches on the warm torchlight they’re dining by.

 

“Caleb,” Fjord leans in eyeing the rest of their dining party as though ensuring they don’t listen in. Caleb feels a prickle in the back of his head as he echoes the action, unsure when Fjord looks him up and down, seemingly startled by their proximity. “Um, would you like to accompany me on a walk through the garden? I’d hate to sequester you away within the castle just yet and the garden is quite lovely in the moonlight.”

 

It is beautiful…

 

“Of course, your majesty,” Caleb replies and he can’t help the little fluttery feeling in his stomach at the shy, delighted smile on Fjord’s face.

 

“Shall we?” He asks, standing and gesturing towards the southern wall of the castle, where the flowers are particularly concentrated. Caleb nods, standing as well and straightening his jacket. Fjord’s hand hovers around his lower back again as he leads the way and even just the memory of that brush from days ago gives Caleb shivers and he’s tempted to falter in his steps to encourage its repeat.

 

“Leaving already?” Molly calls, followed by shushing and looks from the others at the table. “OH, oh yes, carry on! Enjoy your walk, Caleb and Fjord!”

 

Fjord sighs and rubs at his face, waving off the rambunctious courtier as they continue on their way until the torchlight fades and their path is lit only with the pale glow of the moonlight on the grass. There’s something Fjord seems to be working up to saying if the way his posture shifts every couple of steps, perking up to speak but then deflating as he reconsiders.

 

“If there is something you wish to say, your Majesty, please do not hesitate,” Caleb encourages. Fjord smiles sheepishly and Caleb feels a flutter in his stomach at the sight.

 

“I was going to ask how your day was, how your research went. Did you manage to to find anything useful in the collection?”

 

Caleb thinks on the entirely lacking information on the crown, on Fjord’s history beyond the extensive list of philanthropic work he’s done for the nation of Wildemount. Nothing about his family, his history before his bloody ascent to the throne or anything more than the violent rules of his predecessors from the eyes of an outsider.

 

Nothing useful to Ikithon.

 

“Its proving difficult to find. The library is quite well stocked, but I’m afraid what I’m researching has yet to be written. I will learn what I need to, eventually,” he looks up to look at Fjord and sees a familiar flash of white through the hedges over his shoulder. Fjord follows his gaze to whatever it is Caleb is looking at. He seems to know what it is, enough that his shoulders stiffen a little when Caleb turns and starts making his way towards the gap.

 

The structure that he’d caught a glimpse of before reveals itself as he steps around the verdant green hedges; a gazebo, its white, intricately carved wooden supports reaching upwards towards a curved, grey-tiled roof, one long bench overlooking what seems to be almost a private garden, complete with a small fish pond, rippling with movement.

 

Its lovely, the way the moonlight glances off the water and makes the white of the structure glow ethereally. Caleb hears a branch snap behind him and looks back to see the king, his jaw tight and shoulders stiff as he looks around at the hidden garden.

 

“I apologise, I should have asked-“

 

“No, no. It’s fine. I…I haven’t been in here since I was young,” Fjord explains. Caleb can almost see a physical barrier keeping Fjord from moving any further in, his left hand clenched in a fist to keep it from shaking like the rest of his arm. “It was my mother’s favourite spot.”

 

Its almost as though he’s afraid of it, the way he looks around, as if he’s waiting for her spirit to assail him. Caleb feels the information file itself away in the back of his head as he approaches, reaching out before he can stop himself so his fingers graze the soft cloth of Fjord’s sleeve. Just a simple brush, not even skin to skin contact, but Fjord seems to release most, if not all, of his tension, offering Caleb a small smile in thanks, which Caleb returns.

 

“We do not have to be here,” Caleb murmurs but Fjord waves it off.

 

“Don’t worry. I have missed it, its just a little painful for the moment,” he explains, walking a little further into the clearing until he and Caleb are shadowed by the roof of the gazebo, overlooking the small pond and the flowers and plants that flourish around it. “When I was little, my mother used to bring me out here and she’d read to me. Poetry, mostly. I never had the patience for anything longer,” he explains with a gentle smile at the memory, glancing towards the bench, before returning his attention back to the water.

 

“…Your mother. She is…no longer with us?” Caleb skirts around the word that hovers between them, watching Fjord nod.

 

“No. She- um…she is not,” he says, offering nothing more and Caleb doesn’t ask for more. Fjord leans against the railing, which Caleb mirrors, eyeing a particularly bright patch of lilies peeking out of the water. “I wonder sometimes, if she’s somewhere, watching over me. If she’s…”

 

“…I’m certain she’s proud of you,” Caleb tries to refute the unspoken fear he can feel pouring off of the king, trying not to focus on how the sides of their pinkies are brushing where they rest on the barrier.

 

“I hope so,” Fjord doesn’t continue the topic, looking up towards the moon. The touch against Caleb’s finger grows firmer, an active pressure as Fjord’s finger overlaps his, questing. Cautious. “Beautiful night,” his voice holds a tone of feigned casualness that Caleb can’t help but mimic, even though his heart is rabbiting in his chest and his blood screams in his ears.

 

“It is.”

 

Fjord’s finger brushes over his once, twice. Then he pulls away and Caleb can almost feel his heart shrink in his chest. He can move now, walk away and cite this morning’s emotional upheaval as a reason he needs to return to his room right now. Only to sleep, and not to try to calm the racing of his heart and the ashamed misinterpretation of Fjord’s contact-

 

Suddenly warm fingers lace between his and Fjord’s callused palm is pressed against the back of his hand, thumb stroking the skin just at the base of his thumb before it disappears under his sleeve. Caleb keeps his gaze resolutely focused on the pond, afraid that drawing more attention to the contact would make Fjord stop, and he doesn’t want it to. Its warm, and Fjord’s hand holds his so gently…

 

“Are you cold?” Fjord asks, watching Caleb out of his periphery, elaborating when he sees Caleb’s confusion. “You’re shivering.”

 

He is, whether its from the mild chill that’s seeping through his shirt and coat or from the tremor in his chest that’s spreading through the rest of his body, is entirely up for debate.

 

“A little.”

 

“We should go inside, I imagine, where its warmer.”

 

“I suppose so.”

 

Neither of them move.

 

It’s a long time before Fjord gives Caleb’s hand one last squeeze before releasing him, nodding towards the exit into the main garden. As they make their slow path back to the main doors, Caleb can feel Fjord’s hand brush against his, but never quite take it. It leaves Caleb feeling the cold a little more harshly than before but he is grateful for the restrain as they turn the corner to see the guards standing just outside the doors, giving the king and Caleb an acknowledging nod as they pass.

 

No staff wander the halls, and there is only silence between them until they reach Caleb’s door. Caleb hesitates to place his hand on the handle, his indecision being cut short when Fjord’s hand brushes against his own, golden eyes fixed on his; a silent request for permission that Caleb grants with a nod.

 

“Thank you for your company, Caleb,” he says, bowing low at the waist and looking up at Caleb as he presses his lips to Caleb’s knuckles in a gentle kiss. “Good night, and sleep well.”

 

Caleb feels his entire face heat up at the contact, the audacity of the King of Wildemount bowing to him and kissing his hand.

 

“A-and yours- I-I mean, you as well, your Majesty,” Caleb stammers, Fjord’s hand slipping out of his and he almost allows himself to chase the contact. He clears his throat, his gaze fixed on the ground as Fjord stands back upright once more.

 

“I’ll see you in the morning then,” and with that, he steps away, moving down the hall until he vanishes around the corner and Caleb is left, standing alone, trying to move past the white noise playing in his brain as he tries to process the evening until he finally regains enough composure and awareness to open his door and disappear into his room, the memory of Fjord’s lips on his skin clinging to him as he goes.

Chapter Text

Caleb wakes with the dawn, the covers still folded at the foot of the bed where he’d left them, the room a little warm despite the chill in the air the evening before. He can almost feel the spring making its slow crawl toward summer, leaving the castle and its grounds warm and a little on the humid side. It takes his mind a moment to work through the fog of sleep, recalling the events of the evening as he rubs at the knuckles in question with his thumb.

Thank you for your company, Caleb.’

The king’s baritone echoes through his head and Caleb can’t help but smile a little, the hand in question reflexively covering his mouth, not that anyone could see. The smile fades when he feels a familiar sensation in the back of his neck

This is an interesting development,” a familiar voice drifts into his mind and Caleb’s entire body stiffens, wracked with panic. “You may have more sway with the king than I’d thought you would. Do not waste it, boy.

He’s been watching. He knows, even if he can only see through Caleb’s eyes, there was still enough to see to warrant a message from across the nation.

“I will do my best, My Lord,” he replies simply, his voice hoarse but not from sleep. There is silence for a moment, then the voice returns, chilling the warm air around him.

”I expect better. Do not disappoint me.”

“…Yes, My Lord.”

Caleb doesn’t hear the voice again, but its aura still lingers in the back of his mind, creeping into his spine and leaving him frozen in the bed, curled on his side as he tries to will himself to move again. He eventually manages, a good hour after he woke, to get himself off the plush mattress and start changing into his day clothes, casting a quick prestidigitation to ensure he is clean, just as a knock sounds on the door. He gestures at the door, turning just as it swings open to address the caller, his heart skipping at the sight of the king.

“Your Majesty. How may I assist you?” Caleb asks, approaching the doorway, his hand tingling even after he shakes it a little at his side, the action catching Fjord’s attention.

“Did something happen to your hand?” He’s concerned and Caleb can only imagine his reaction if he’d told the king ‘My skin still tingles after you kissed my hand more than eight hours ago’.

“Ah, I shut it in my trunk earlier. It will be fine,” he lies, convincingly enough that the king doesn’t seem suspicious at all, just wincing sympathetically.

“Well, regarding my calling on you, I was wondering if I might escort you to breakfast,” Fjord asks, gesturing out into the hall in the direction of the dining room. Caleb chooses to say nothing on the fact that he’s managed to memorise a fair portion of the first floor enough to make it on his own, or that breakfast is normally not set to start for another hour or so and, instead, nods as he collects his spell book as part of his morning ritual, securing it to his thigh in its holster before he exits the room, shutting the door behind him.

“Thank you, You Majesty, for your consideration,” Caleb says and Fjord worries at his lower lip, ducking his head almost conspiratorially, despite there being no one in the hall to overhear them.

“I do have an ulterior motive for calling on you so early,” Caleb feels his stomach drop, clutching his hands behind his back as they walk. Does he know? Does the anti-divination alert extend to messages? Have they always know Ikithon is watching him, even before he did? Caleb reveals as little on his face as he can and listens as the king continues. “I’ve given it some thought and, if you’d be amenable, I’d like to move you to some more permanent lodgings across the castle, closer to the others of the court.”

Permanent.’

“You really do not need to, Your Majesty-“

“I know I don’t need to but…” Fjord gathers his words a moment as he pauses in the hall, turning to face Caleb directly. “Molly is right. It does feel like you’ve started making a place with us here, even if its just little steps. And I believe that, perhaps, if you had a room that you were able to make more your own that…perhaps you’d feel the same.”

“…thank you, Fjord,” Caleb says quietly, returning the king’s own uncertain smile. “Please let me know when and where you would like me to reside and I will accomodate,” he adds, and Fjord’s cheeks ruddy a little and Caleb feels a spike of anxiety. Did he say something wrong? It seems short lived though because Fjord turns back to head towards the dining room, gesturing for Caleb to join him.

“I’ll be discussing that with Nila later today so we should hopefully have a room ready for you as early as this evening-“

“Oh is our lovely Caleb joining us in the west wing?” Molly’s boisterous voice calls from behind them, startling Caleb a little.

“I thought it might help him feel a little more like one of us instead of just a visitor,” Fjord replies with the casualness of speaking with a close friend but the wariness of knowing exactly what that friend is like when left to their own devices with certain information.

“Delightful, I’m all for it,” he purrs and then his red eyes almost glow with delight as he addresses Caleb directly. “And how was your walk last night?” Caleb feels his cheeks warm and but he keeps an otherwise straight face.

“It was nice. The gardens are quite a sight.”

“Yes, ‘the gardens’,” Molly repeats, shooting a toothy smile towards Fjord, “Fjord does love looking at the ‘gardens’.”

“Oh, the time, we should get to the dining room before breakfast goes cold,” Fjord clears his throat and picks up his pace, a few feet in front of Caleb as Molly hovers a hand over his arm, a contactless encouragement to fall a little behind before following, the sly smile falling.

“I hope my teasing doesn’t upset you. Its been while since Fjord-…regardless, let me know if you want me to stop and I will,” Molly offers and Caleb finds himself nodding without exactly understanding. What does he have to do with this? And what is there to tease about admiring the gardens?

Caleb doesn’t comment and just follows Fjord and Molly, the king stopping in his tracks in the hall, slightly cocking his head to the side as if listening to something Caleb certainly can’t hear. And just as quickly, he turns and addresses Caleb and Molly.

“Apologies, something requires my immediate attention. Molly, let me know before you leave and I’ll organise that package for you,” he focuses on Caleb and his lips quirk up a little in a smile. “And I’ll find time to discuss the room arrangements with Nila and yourself before the day is out. Enjoy breakfast, Caleb,” he adds, bowing a little at the waist with his hand loosely clasped over his heart before he turns and vanishes around a corner.

“Caleb,” Molly sounds thoroughly impressed, hand over his chest in a shock-response to which Caleb only looks confused. “A bow, ‘enjoy breakfast’…come to think of it, you’re both very early out…was Fjord, perchance, escorting you, all gentleman-like…” he gives Caleb a sly look.

“Well yes, His Majesty wished to discuss the room arrangements,” Caleb replies, if a little uncertainly because that is apparently the incorrect answer as Molly throws his hands up, looking at the ceiling as though praying to some deity for patience before making a motion in the air not dissimilar to closing a box, looking back at Caleb with a smile.

“Pay no mind to me, just dramatic,” he says with a flourish of his hand, “I’m sure Fjord knows what he’s doing.” Caleb nods but doesn’t press further about the strangeness that is Molly’s interpretation of Fjord’s actions, instead wanting to inquire about something else the king had said.

“His Majesty said you are leaving?”

“Ah,” Molly waves it off, continuing their walk to the dining hall, turning into the room and finding his seat straight away to lounge across it, as well as you can in a single highback chair but he manages. “There is an event in Vasselheim that Fjord can’t attend so I’m going on his behalf. No rest for the wicked,” Molly sighs theatrically, the back of his hand resting against his forehead as he feigns an exhausted faint, keeping his eyes closed even as he thanks the young man that places a cup with coffee inside onto the table in front of him. Caleb politely declines the young man off when he offers, watching Molly take a sip of the- no doubt- scalding coffee.

“Surely his majesty leaves the city on occasion?”

There’s an oddly pregnant silence as Molly seems to drift in his own mind for a brief moment before returning with a smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes.

“No, not anymore. Not for more than a day or two anyway, and never outside of Wildemount itself,” his elaboration is little more than a tease that feeds Caleb’s curiosity but the bright and chipper voice of Jester cuts through the quiet of the room, followed by Luc’s equally enthusiastic response, the halfling boy perched on her shoulders, Nott and Yeza not far behind.

“Morning! How was your walk last night, Cay-leb?” Jester’s conspiratorial whisper seems to almost be louder than her normal speaking voice, perching on her seat as she lifts Luc from her shoulders with ease and sits him in her lap. The boy spills a small pile of paper and coloured wax crayons from his pockets that he and Jester almost immediately begin drawing with, the tiefling’s eyes fixed on him with a mischievous gleam.

“Its was nice.”

“Fjord escorted him to breakfast this morning as well,” Molly chimes in, to which Jester’s smile grows into something absolutely delighted, and for no reason other than Caleb and Fjord walking together.

“Oh, what a gentleman,” she swoons, fanning herself dramatically and leaning back, almost dislodging Luc in the process.

“His Majesty wished to discuss lodging matters,” Caleb wishes he’d accepted a coffee earlier so he could hide his face at least a little behind the cup as Molly glances towards him, an expression so knowing its almost as though he’d seen what had happened and Caleb’s cheeks warm even further at the prospect of anyone having seen what had occurred in the gardens or, gods forbid, outside his room.

“Lodging- are you changing rooms?” Jester asks, the same mischievous grin on her face as she shares a look with Molly.

“A more permanent installation,” Molly adds, popping a strawberry into his mouth and chewing thoughtfully. “Not a lot of rooms to choose from, and fewer still that’ll be suitable for our new friend.”

“Suitable?” Caleb asks and Jester gives him an incredulous look.

“Well yeah, we’ve gotta give you the perfect room. I can paint your walls if you want, I’m very good at painting,” she preens when Molly gives her some quiet applause.

“Yes, a very accomplished artist, our Jester. As for room assignments, well that will be entirely up to Nila and our lovely patriarch,” he murmurs, meeting Jester’s gaze with a smile he hides partially behind his coffee cup as he drains it, standing from the table. “Well, on that note, I should see him before I get going for Vasselheim. So many holy people to corrupt, so little time,” he gives Caleb a salacious wink as he leaves, waving goodbye to the rest of their party.

“What about you, Caleb, what are you going to do today?” Jester asks, biting into a sickeningly sweet looking donut, taking care to keep the crumbs away from Luc’s hair and their joint drawing.

“Nothing specific as of yet. And yourself, Jester?”

“Nothing so far. I’m more, like, the away team cleric for Fjord, you know? I go on missions and cleanse eeeviiil,” she wiggles her fingers, lowering her voice in a ‘haunting’ timbre that makes Luc giggle.

“Cleansing what now?” Nott and Yeza look away from what appears to be a pile of parchment with equations and chemicals scrawled on them, the goblin already finished with her food and nudging her husband’s still-full plate closer to him as a silent reminder that he seems to follow almost automatically.

“Just telling Caleb about my super-duper-awesome job here with the castle,” she chirps.

“You are more for combative purposes, yes?” She seems thoroughly pleased by this explanation, holding her donut even while she makes fighting gestures.

“Yeah, I summon tiny-hamster unicorns to fight with me, and I destroy eeeviiiiil. Caduceus can too but he’s, like, really good with the plants too. He, Nott, and Yeza are doing their super cool stuff with making-“

“Jester!” Nott hisses and the tiefling shuts her mouth immediately, the pair exchanging significant looks.

“Um, making super cool alchemy stuff. Like they always do~” Jester takes a massive bite of her donut, her cheeks puffing out like a chipmunk while Nott glances at Caleb.

“It’s a secret. Rather not get anyone’s hopes up before we’ve gotten past the theory work,” she explains almost defensively.

“I look forward to learning about your work regardless,” Caleb offers, which Nott seems to accept with a hum of acknowledgement and an awkward nod.

“You’ll do great, both of you,” Jester’s words are muffled through pastry but no less insistent. Yeza beams before he and Nott redirect their attentions to their work and Luc tugs on Jester’s sleeve, showing him a mess of colours and patterns on the parchment in front of him which she coos over, making small additions to her own drawing while she encourages him to finish his breakfast, not-so-sneakily giving him pieces of her pastries when Nott and Yeza ‘aren’t looking’.

“Ah, sorry I’m late,” Caduceus’ mellow voice appears as he arrives, taking Molly’s recently vacated seat. “The willow was bullying the tulips, had to make sure my talking-to got through to it.”

“You tell ‘em, Duecy,” Jester raises a fist in encouragement, echoed by the little boy in her lap, his little fist clutching a crayon. “Oh! I’m going into the city later, did you guys need anything?”

“I’ll make a list,” Nott and Yeza scribble out some items and hand it to Jester, along with a thank you.

“Nothing comes to mind,” Caduceus sets about brewing himself a pot of tea, the sharp and floral scent surrounding him. “What’re you collecting?”

“I’m getting some new clothes,” she pulls out a sketch book, showing detailed and beautifully drawn sketches of airy summer clothing, all in varying shades of blue, purple, and pink. “Traveller says its gonna get really hot soon, plus I need to get something for the ball. I promised Mama that she and I would match,” her attention snaps straight to Caleb, startling him out of his quiet observation. “You are going to love my mama. She’s so pretty and smart and such a good dancer.”

Ball. Caleb goes through his mental catalogue of important events. There were only two events held in the castle proper within Zadash; The King’s Birthday (unlikely to be the case as that is in the early fall) and the anniversary of his ascension to the throne, colloquially known as the Crown Ball. He’d never attended any event as more than Ikithon’s valet, if he attended at all and definitely had yet to attend anything south of Pride’s Call. He’d had the necessary etiquette training; customary greetings (domestic and foreign), dance, lessons on important figures within the kingdom, especially those within spitting distance of Rexxentrum.

“I look forward to meeting her,” her smile lights up the room and Caleb feels a pleasant thrum in the back of his mind at knowing he’d made her smile like that which quickly twists into uncertainty. Is that his own feelings on the matter? Or Ikithon projecting his pleasure at another foothold within the court Caleb is slowly managing to secure. He hides his grimace with a bite of fruit, so in his own head he almost doesn’t catch Jester’s next comment.

“Do you want to come with me? We should definitely get you some new clothes, its cold up in Rexxentrum right?” She sees his nod and continues, exaggeratedly fanning herself despite the pleasant temperature in the room itself. “It gets really hot down here and you might not get used to it for a while.”

“Isn’t it warm in Nicodranas as well?” Yeza asks, the couple no longer fixated on their work enough that he actually pokes at his plate while Nott inhales another cup of tea.

“Yeah but there’s at least the sea breeze back home. It just stays hot and then it doesn’t know if it wants to be humid or dry, ugh!” She throws her hands in the air, leaning down when Luc tugs on her sleeve before shifting back in her chair. The boy hops off of her lap to go sit by his mother and show her his drawings and murmur to her quietly.

“Plus I can show you around Zadash, there’s some really cool shops I think you’d really like,” she says like a temptation and Caleb finds himself nodding reflexively.

“If you’d like me to accompany you, Jester, let me know when you would like to leave.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Eight

 

 

Jester is an effervescent personality with a mischievous streak a mile wide. That is what Caleb learns as they walk the streets of Zadash together, two of the guard from the castle following behind at a respectable distance while the courtiers make their way to the next shop on the cleric’s itinerary. They’d already visited an art store and collected some paints and sketchbooks, a teashop for some exotic brews, and

 

“We need to get you some summer clothes, you’re gonna get heat stroke in all those layers,” Jester gestures vaguely over Caleb’s thin frame casually while she walks them briskly towards their destination. Apparently a small shop front with a festively decorated sign declaring it to be ‘Gardenia’s Garbs’.

 

“Deenie!” Jester crows when she steps into the building, arms raised and smile wide. Caleb peers around her, seeing a middle aged orcish woman, a pair of thin rimmed glasses perched on barely on the tip of her nose that slip off when she looks up at the pair of them. They tap against her tusks on the way down, clattering onto the fabric in front of her, only minded for a moment before she’s turning and smiling just as broadly as her well-muscled frame.

 

“Jester, good to see ya. I was wonderin’ when you’d come next,” her focus shifts to Caleb and he feels himself stiffen a little at the attention. “And with a handsome companion. Not straying from your lady friend, are ya?” Deenie teases, the Gardenia boasted by the sign outside is what Caleb surmises while Jester’s skin flushes a vivid purple.

 

“She’s not my lady friend,” she deflects, the telling bloom of blood in her cheeks telling otherwise. “She’s a lady who’s my friend-“

 

“Then I’m not doing mah job right,” Deenie declares, gesturing to Jester’s clothing. “Your attire should be makin’ ya beat suitors off with a stick. ‘Specially when worn by a beauty like yourself. I’ll have to try harder then, and maybe next when you visit, you’ll have your beautiful lady friend with you. And you?” She returns to Caleb as she smiles wide around her tusks. “Looking to be as sought after as the good Lady Lavorre?”

 

The words themselves seem like they should be dripping with insincerity, with the boastfulness of an untalented huckster but Caleb finds nothing more than just a naturally over-the-top personality and legitimate interest in Jester and his own...suitors.

 

“I would like to place an order for some summer clothes. And for Caleb too,” Jester adds, leaning in and giving Gardenia a Significant Look. “He’s from the north.”

 

Gardenia narrows her eyes a little, as though a little afraid to ask her next question.

 

“How far north?”

 

“Rexxentrum.”

 

Oy. You, my friend, are in for a rough summer. Cold air and snow’s the punishment for unsuitable clothing that far north. We have heat and thick air. Humid and hot are bad combinations. But-“ she claps her hands together and gives him an encouraging smile after that less than comforting explanation. “I’ll happily outfit you with the proper armour to keep you safe from the discomfort of the fearsome Zadash Summer. Now, what did you have in mind?”

 

They spend a good few hours in the shop, Jester flitting about and selecting fabrics for herself and talking designs and palettes, producing a sketchbook of beautiful clothing concepts that Gardenia only improves upon with some minor notes.

 

She ends up with commissioning three dresses and a collection of outfits that Gardenia insists will take no time at all (“I’m quick myself, and I have apprentices, very talented people. Eager for challenges.”) all in a bold variety of colours and cuts, finishing up with a snap of her sketchbook and the rattle of coin as its passed on to the seamstress.

 

When it comes to Caleb’s turn, he’s cautious; eyeing the multitudes of fabrics, of designs that Gardenia has in a catalogue for him to look over. Its all very…different. The sight of the mostly blue swatches Gardenia and Jester put in front of him make the back of his head tingle in a way he doesn’t want to begin to dissect. But the lack of a sharp reprimand from the voice of his Lord when he selects a pale blue, lightweight fabric that is almost sheer upon further inspection.

 

Gardenia cocks an eyebrow at him, and her lip curls into a grin.

 

“Would you be adventurous enough to have this be the only layer of your shirt? Much cooler. Or should I add something for modesty?” she adds. Based on her designs working with Jester, it seems like she’s likely also created some of Mollymauk’s more audacious clothing, with their plunging necklines and sheer fabrics covering very little if anything at all, even in the cooler weather of the fall.

 

“Some more coverage would be appreciated,” Caleb murmurs, warmth in his cheeks only serving to widen Gardenia’s smile.

 

“Certainly,” she nods and goes over the designs Caleb selects from the catalogue, noting some changes she can make to give them that slightly more conservative appeal to him.

 

He walks out of the store front with Jester, with a promise to have his and Jester’s new clothing ready in two days time (the eager look on the face of the young woman who collected the sketches and notes seemed to support that) and the pair begin to make their way back to the palace, a slow ambling pace while Jester points out different stores and talks about the ones she misses from her home city of Nicodranas.

 

“Like no one uses cinnamon here, its criminal. There’s this one place, they started in Tal’dorei but they make the best cinnamon doughnuts this side of Cyrios Mountains. Not as good as the bakery my mama used to have brought to us but they’re so good,,” she chirps, clutching her hands over her heart as she basically swoons in the street.

 

“I have not had cinnamon in…quite a while,” he muses, a small furrow to his brow as he tries to recall the last time he’d tasted it. Mixed into tea, sat at a small kitchen table while a soothing voice hummed in the background and the chill of winter was chased away by a warm fireplace…

 

“We could go get some, the bakery’s around the corner!” Jester’s practically brightened up the street around them with the energy she’s emanating, just to pause and look over to Caleb with a cautious expression clouding the excitement. “If you want to,” she adds, like a child finally using a script they’d rehearsed alone in their room a hundred times.

 

“If you would like-“ Caleb begins but a pinched sort of expression makes its way onto Jester’s features. “You would like to get doughnuts, correct?”

 

“Yes but-“ she gnaws on the inside of her cheek, the gears ticking away in her head before she seems to give up with a huffed sigh. “We did my thing. I want to do something you want to do. We hang out, we do each other’s things? Or else it’s all-“ she waves her hands around, an attempt at conveying some apparently universal idea everyone else should get that Caleb just…doesn’t. She seems to gather that from his blank expression because she deflates a little and something in Caleb’s chest twists a little at seeing her disappointedfrustratedupset? She senses his change in demeanour and is quick to give him a sympathetic smile, reaching out and grazing her hand over his forearm in an attempt at comfort.

 

“I just want you to have fun too. I know what its like in a new city and I know its pretty scary not having friends there and-…well I’d really like us to be friends,” she says, fiddling with her sleeves as she pulls away. “What do you like to do? Like, for fun?”

 

Caleb’s jaw clenches as he thinks back to when he did something purely for enjoyment. He likes to read. The occasional indulgence in fiction when he thought he could get away with it, before the fear of Trent frightened it out of him.

 

‘Say something. She’s getting tired of waiting,’ Ikithon’s voice echoes in his head, sending a chill up his spine.

 

“Reading,” he blurts out, startling her with the suddenness of the reply. “Reading is an…interest. Of Mine,” he says. She does not looked convinced. If anything, she looks a little more concerned by the way he fidgets on the spot and clenches his hands behind his back.

 

“We could…get you some books? What kind of books do you like?”

 

Caleb opens his mouth to reply but finds himself unable to, any words that may come to mind held in the back of his throat. There’s a few moments of silence before Jester seems to come to some conclusion with a smile, holding out both her hands.

 

“Do you…prefer fiction, or non-fiction?” She holds raises each of her hands in turn, as if the options are there, presented for him to choose between. A choice. He can do that.

 

“Fiction.”

 

“Me too! Okay, okay,” she seems disproportionately ecstatic about his response but he’s not going to fault her. Not when the anxious twist in his chest starts to loosen and the reminder of his failure to answer is starting to quiet in his head. “Do you like…mysteries? Adventure? Oooor romance? Or none of the above?” She asks, holding up four fingers, adding the little finger almost as an afterthought.

 

‘She looks the romantic type.’

 

“…Romance.”

 

“Okay, okay, um. Oh oh oh, I know just the place!” She gestures almost frantically, leading the pair of them down the street as the guard follow behind them.

 

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The store they end up in is a quiet little bookshop, one that Caleb finds out very quickly, frequently deals in literature of the more adult variety and once he’s forced down the heat in his face, he starts to peruse the stacks, finding a wide range of genres, most focusing on romance as their leading genre.

 

Timeless Hearts, Feathered Leather, How Beautiful That Final Fall.

 

Caleb hadn’t really read anything in the romance genre in his life, let alone in the few moments he got to himself to read fiction at all. The few books he’d managed to get his hands on that weren’t the required study material could better be categorised as adventure or fairytales. Fanciful stories about self-discovery, saving the helpless and ridding the world of evil. Of magic used to better the lives of the less fortunate and to punish the cruel entities that thrived off their suffering.

 

Fanciful is definitely right.

 

As he skims through the first few chapters of a good dozen books while Jester shares some illustrations with the shop keeper (apparently drawn for a few of her favourite purchases from this very shop), Caleb manages to find one that keeps his attention. Forevermore, We’ll Sail the Astral Sea. A story of a soldier who finds a forgotten temple, with a book through which he communicates with a lower tier god. A lot of poetic language and, if the summary on the back is any indication, some flowery romance further in. There’s something about the protagonist that pulls him in and he finds himself handing over the appropriate coins while he places his new purchase in one of his larger coat pockets, Jester not far behind with her own small pile of books.

 

They do end up hunting down some doughnuts, returning to the palace with a few boxes Jester insists on toting back herself, smelling heavily of cinnamon and sugar which Jester sprinkles down the front of her dress as she munches on an over-powdered owlbear claw while they walk. A similar treat is in Caleb’s hand, far less sugar-coated but filled with a sweet fruit jam that, no matter how he tries, seems to cling to his fingers and stain them pink.

 

“You know, we should have, like, a book club or something.”

 

“A book…club?”

 

Jester glances at him, nodding exuberantly.

 

“Yeah, its like-“ she taps her doughnut against her lips, murmuring something in what Caleb can only vaguely recall is Infernal, before she figures out what she wants to say, “you all read a book, then, like once a week or something, you all get together and talk about it.”

 

“So you write a study on the book?”

 

“Kinda? Like I guess you can talk about the theeemes or the metaphors and stuff but like, so my Mama’s bodyguard was in one, and he says it was more like a reason to get together, drink wine and gossip. But sometimes they’d talk about the book; what they liked about it and stuff. We should do that.”

 

“The book discussion or the…gossiping?”

 

“Whichever. I think Yasha would like it. She reads a bit, and Beau sometimes, but she likes, like the actiony kinda stuff.”

 

“Does…Does His Majesty…read?”

 

Jester’s steps falter and she stares at Caleb who resolutely stares at the pink filling of his doughnut, hoping the ground would swallow him whole and hopefully distract from the abysmal sounding question about whether or not the King of Wildemount is literate.

 

“He does…Do you wanna know what he reads?” Jester asks and Caleb doesn’t need to look at her to know that she’s smiling, bright and something like intrigue in her voice. “If he reads romantic stories by candlelight in nothing but a robe,” her voice lowers to a throaty drawl, leaning in close and conspiratorial. Caleb takes a large bite of his doughnut and hopes the filling staining his lips eclipses the red on his face.

 

“I’m just teasing,” she says like a promise, voice returning to its normal bird-like cadence. “He used to. Used to be in the library a lot but…he’s pretty busy,” it sounds more like a regret than an observation to Caleb, but she hides the down turn of her lips again and the bounce returns to her step as the walls surrounding the palace come into view. “But I think things are gonna start to get better for him. I have a good feeling. And the traveller thinks so too.”

 

“The traveller?”

 

Jester’s expression takes on an almost manic quality.