“It continues to astound me,” Prince Derek said, eyes on the slumped form of his first guard, “that one such as you can wield a sword with such grace and precision and yet lose your footing on the flattest terrain in the kingdom.”
Stiles found his feet again and put them back in their proper place upon the ground. Despite his undignified tumble, he was grinning as he brushed the dust from his trousers and said, “A carefully cultivated skill, I assure you.”
“Oh, is that what it is?”
Stiles’ grin widened, turning into a sly thing that brought heat to Derek’s cheeks in spite of his stoic facade. “For your entertainment only, your highness.”
Derek bit his tongue to ward off the answering smile that wanted to bloom on his own face; it wouldn’t be seemly here. Instead he said, “I despair of you, do you know that? I could have chosen any of my knights to be my right hand, and yet I had the misfortune to select the one with the balance of a drunken stoat.”
Stiles ducked his head to hide a grimace. “That much is true,” he said with a measure of good-natured chagrin. Then his eyes flicked upward, peering through the dark fan of his lashes to meet Derek’s more directly than most of a lower station dared. “But I haven’t failed you yet. Have I?”
Mouth suddenly dry, Derek cleared his throat. His hand, nervous-damp, flexed around the pommel of his own sword. It was decorative, heavily bejeweled and more for ceremonial purposes than anything else, but the sword that rested on Stiles’ hip was plain and worn from many a battle. Some were entered on behalf of Derek’s mother the queen, others for no one but Derek himself, but none had ever been lost.
Three years by Derek’s side, and Stiles had walked away from every conflict with his head held high and an ease in his step that was never to be seen in any other arena. Perhaps it was the thrill of the fight that lent him such grace, but as of late, Derek had begun to suspect that it had more to do with the cause for which he fought, with that sly smile and those twinkling eyes as they held Derek’s with something akin to a challenge in them.
“No,” Derek admitted, voice almost too soft in the loud bustle of the marketplace. “No, I suppose you haven’t.”
Stiles’ gaze softened as well, dark eyes warm in the late afternoon light. Heedless of their public placement as only a man truly sure of his actions could be, his callus-rough hand found Derek’s smooth one and lifted it up until he could place a kiss to its palm.
“And swear to you,” Stiles said, “upon all that I am and will ever be, that I never shall.”