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The Price of Flesh and Bone

Chapter Text

King Henry sighed, rapping his fingers on the arm of his throne, the rings on his left hand clinking with each tap. He leaned on his other arm, using it to support his head as the shadows grew longer and the candles shorter. He thought against fiddling with the broach keeping his cloak on his shoulders, knowing that it would just wrinkle the brocade tunic underneath. Tiffania had always warned him against it, knowing he would do it anyway. He missed them. Especially at times like these. 

His wife had always taken her role as hostess head-on, relieving Hank of so much of the social duties he loathed, freeing him to lead without being weighed down by social niceties. Since her passing those duties had fallen back on his shoulders, leaving him feeling like he was treading water. And on days like these, he felt like he wasn’t even holding his head above the surface. 

With the sound of the great wooden doors to the throne room creaking open, Hank sat up straighter, stifling a yawn. The royal guards, dressed in the same midnight blue as his own cloak, stood to attention as Viscount Perkins and his envoy from Warren finally arrived, the man sauntering into the room as if the castle were his own. The viscount’s blood-red cloak swept the floor as he bowed before the throne, his unpleasant face twisted into what he passed as a smile. The three people accompanying him stood back at a respectful distance from the king, the two knights bowing, the woman curtseying, her rust-red dress sweeping the floor. 

“About time,” Hank said, standing. He’d been waiting all afternoon and most of the morning for the party to arrive. The king had planned for a hunt that morning, but the viscount had sent word ahead that he wouldn’t make the hunt just as Hank was mounting for the excursion. Hank had gone anyway, of course. He and his men never turned down a hunt, Sirs Fowler, Reed, Miller, and Collins accompanying him on the hunt that particular morning. Though Ravendale had its own list of nobility— most of his own knights being from prominent families— Hank much preferred the company of soldiers like himself. Not that he truly preferred anyone’s company these days. Most of the men only put up with him at this point because he was the king.

“Your Majesty,” Lord Perkins said, showing none of the respect that the throne called for. “Apologies for the wait, I’m sure you know how utterly unpredictable travel by carriage is,” he said with no attempt at hiding his disdain. For carriage travel, or for Ravendale, Hank couldn’t fathom to guess. 

“I’m sure,” Hank said with another sigh. “Shall we dine? I’d hoped to get all of this negotiating out of the way before we began with the pleasantries, but it seems that we will have to do both at once.” He nodded towards one of the maids, a young Northern girl, to signal that they would finally be taking dinner in the great hall. Hank stepped down from the throne, clasping Perkins’ offered arm.  

They walked side by side down the torch-lit hallway until they reached the great hall, Perkins gesturing for Hank to enter first as two servants opened the doors to the warmly lit room. The smaller table in the hall had been piled high enough for a feast of kings, though, by the look of Perkins’ envoy, the two of them would be dining alone. Hank’s suspicions were confirmed when only the viscount stood behind his chair, waiting for the king to be seated first.

Hank wasn’t an invalid or a child, so he had never bothered with servants to do simple things for himself, such as cut his meat or push his chair in, so the manservant in the corner only rushed to push Perkins’ chair in as Hank reached for the wine. But, he supposed, Perkins was a lifelong courtier, always inserting himself in the right crowd, rarely getting his own hands dirty in whatever pie he was sticking his fingers in. 

Though it was custom for Hank to be the first to help himself with dinner, he wasn’t about to start this particular conversation with Perkins again without a drink first, passing over the spit-roasted boar and vegetable potage— likely made by Rose, the head kitchen maid, who insisted he needed to eat more vegetables— pouring a twenty year old bottle from the cellars. When the goblet was nearly spilling over he began helping himself to the boar and sour loaf, cracking the bread between his hands. Ignoring the vegetables, he plated a few of the wine-poached pears that had been spiced with cinnamon from Cassia. 

With the goblet in hand, and Perkins finally helping himself to the heapings on the table, Hank sat back to examine the three companions that Perkins had come in with. Two were knights in Perkins’ own employ, his family crest emblazoned on their tunics. The third was a young, beautiful woman, certainly not Perkins’ wife. Her head tilted towards Perkins, showing a gold binding collar on her neck. With the goblet pressed to Hank’s lips, his eyes flicked to the woman’s temple where he saw the mark of an elf, a small ring-shaped birthmark. She was a slave. Hank was far from surprised. 

It wasn’t often that anyone from Warren did anything without a slave, they just usually didn’t bring them to dinner. By her meek demeanor and her deference to Perkins, Hank was sure she was a pleasure slave. The kingdom of Ravendale, despite sharing its western border with Warren, and its eastern border with the free elven kingdom of Jericho, had far fewer elven slaves among his people than either kingdoms, and even fewer freed elves, but Hank wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with the race. Though he had never personally owned a slave, he knew there were one or two slaves owned by his kingdom that were scullery slaves, so he supposed he technically owned one or two. 

Hank took another swig of his wine, humming noncommittally as Perkins spoke on about Warren’s high court, naming names of nobility Hank hadn’t seen or heard from in a decade by the least. His eyes fell back on the elf, her head bowed demurely, eyes averted from where she stood with her hands clasped in front of her at the door. He knew that Perkins’ entourage changed frequently, Hank having the misfortune of dealing with the man far too frequently for his liking. Queen Cristina of Warren rarely made the trip to his kingdom herself, and certainly not for something as trivial as establishing trade routes or bargaining for land usage rights— not that she was much better company than Perkins. The whole lot of them were as trustworthy as the boars on the queen’s crest. 

“Lord Perkins,” Hank said, cutting into the tough meat of the boar he’d killed that morning, on what had been the hunting trip he’d planned for himself and the Warren envoy. He’d told the kitchens to prepare the boar only partially out of spite. He would have a lovely smoked venison to clear the morning fog from his head at breakfast in the peace of his own chambers. “Shall we get down to business?”

“Very well,” Perkins said between bites of the pheasant he’d piled onto his own plate, Detroit Castle’s aviary specialized in them. Lord Perkins adjusted in his chair, then gestured to the slave behind him with two fingers, “Mary,” he said. She bowed her head to offer her ear to the lord, nodding when he spoke in whispers. Hank was unable to hear what Perkins said, but he watched them closely over the rim of his goblet. The slave stood straighter, leaving the room with one of the guards in tow. Perkins turned his attention back to the king, lacing his fingers over his stomach. “Where were we?" 

“I believe you were attempting to persuade me on the benefits of leasing my land to you?” Hank said, knowing he would not be persuaded, even after Perkins had traveled all this way. They’d written back and forth half a dozen times to discuss the particulars, with neither party pleased with the results before Perkins invited himself for discussions at Detroit Castle. There were others that had placed bids on the land, though Hank had little hope that any of them would have much better plans for the land.

The lord leaned back in his chair as if he owned the castle instead of Hank. “It’s not that I wish for you to lease the land to me— to Her Majesty, Queen Cristina, rather—” he waved his hand as if those two were interchangeable. The king watched him with a careful eye. Perkins had always had political ambitions far above his own position in court, as had Perkins’ father, the original Lord Perkins, who had been awarded the title from the queen’s father. Hank had often wondered if there was something more to Perkins’ relationship with the queen than was publicly admitted, with the leeway that he earned. “—but that we would be reaching a mutual agreement, with Warren lending two thousand agricultural slaves to work your land at Oakehaven for a period of ten years, with a share of the crops.” 

He waved his hands as if it was a mutually beneficial trade, but Hank knew otherwise. Warren was a rocky, barren kingdom, with little farmable land— unlike Ravendale’s vast grasslands. “Perkins,” Hank said, leaning forward in his own chair. “You know how many lives were lost in Oakehaven in the Great War. On both sides.” The village surrounding the farmland had been abandoned for nearly twenty years, much of it razed to the ground with Hank’s people inside.

“Yes, precisely!” Perkins said, with a renewed vigor in his eyes. He leaned forward, sloshing his goblet on the table, reminding Hank that his own goblet was not half as full as it should be. “With my men and the hundreds of empty beds in Oakehaven we can bring prosperity to both our lands.” 

Before Hank could speak again, to reject the offer once more on the basis of not wanting any men from Warren on his lands, slaves included, there was a knock on the door. Lord Perkins turned abruptly back to Hank. “Ah, Your Majesty, your gift has arrived,” Perkins said.

Hank groaned, “It’s not another Tadum, is it?” he said of the elvish hunting companions, the dog-like creatures that had far too much energy for a man of Hank’s age— much less his own hunting dogs. “That last one you gifted me with terrorized Sumo and the other hounds until it ran off into the night.” Hank wasn’t about to admit that he may have left the stable doors open in hopes that the blue-blooded beast would leave on its own. 

Perkins’ coy smile left Hank with an uneasy feeling. But he nodded towards the guards, allowing them to open the doors. “Mary,” Perkins said to his slave, summoning her from the doorway with two gestured fingers. Her movements were fluid, as if she were floating across the room, her rust-red dress hiding the movements of her feet until she delicately placed herself on Perkins’ lap, not meeting either of their eyes. The guard who had left with Mary stepped aside, pulling forward another individual lead by a gold chain linked to a gold binding on his neck. 

The young man in the doorway was clothed in a sheer, white silk tunic over a pair of tight trousers, cinched just below his knees. Hank swore to Raneighs. The textiles cost a pretty penny themselves, imported from Endek across the Northern sea. The slave was clearly marked as a virgin, a prize bed slave. He looked barely twenty, with doe eyes averting his gaze to the floor, only a quick glance up at Hank when he first entered the room. Hank had certainly seen younger for sale, but the last time he’d… looked at anyone that young, he too had been twenty. That was a lifetime ago. 

Perkins beckoned the slave over to himself, the young man following obediently. Hank’s eyes followed the thin gold chains linking the golden collar to the matching bands on the slave’s wrists and ankles. Though the chain looked like it could snap between the slave’s delicate fingers, Hank knew it was as enchanted as the rest of the bindings. Perkins’ arm slithered around the slave’s midsection, ruffling the sheer silk fabric. 

He was pale, Hank saw, ice blue veins training up the slave’s neck, and yet he seemed to have a warmth that the other elf didn’t. But of course he did, Hank thought with another sip of the wine in his hand, he was meant to warm someone’s bed. The slave’s short hair curled at the tips with each subtle movement of his head, and his chest and neck underneath the sheer shirt was flecked with moles. He seemed almost too perfect, flawless like a porcelain doll. There was no mistaking him as anything but an elf, even if Hank had not seen the ringed elf-mark on his temple. 

A chuckle came from Perkins across the table, startling both him and the slave, whose eyes caught Hank’s before diverting again. “I’m glad the boy is to your liking.” Hank tore his eyes away from the slave, turning his eyes to Perkins.

“Perkins,” Hank growled, his hand curling around the goblet. “I don’t need— I don’t want—” 

The lord waved his hand again, “Your bed has been empty for far too long, Your Majesty ,” Perkins said with a knowing smirk. Damn him, Hank thought. Sending him an elven bed slave after what happened to the queen and his son felt like a slap to the face. And by the look on Perkins’ face, he knew it. “He’s a gift, paid for by Queen Cristina, from my own personal collection.” Of course the slave was. Hank had never much liked Perkins, the man having made a name for himself as a slave trader, having earned his land and titles by being a pawn of the crown, just as his ancestors had been. Hank much preferred his men to be loyal to his character than his purse. Perkins would throw his own men in front of a carriage for a quick copper piece. 

Perkins leaned forward on the table, uncaring that his elbows knocked over silver plates of food. “I hope you’re not thinking of rejecting my gift,” Lord Perkins said. “Knowing your… strained... relationship with Her Majesty, I’m not sure that it could survive this... “ he waved his hand in the air, “insult.” 

“Of course not,” Hank said through gritted teeth. “Wouldn’t dream of it.” 

“Ah, good!” Perkins said, sitting back up with a sleazy smile. He placed his hand on the small of the slave’s back. “Slave, introduce yourself to your new master, King Henry.” 

The slave stepped forward, tilting his head up, almost proudly, “My name is Connor. I’m the bed slave sent by Her Majesty, Queen Cristina.” Perkins eyes were trained on Hank’s face as the slave introduced himself, beady eyes seeming to find what they were looking for. 

Hank cleared his throat, “Alright. Take a seat,” he said, and then immediately regretted his choice of words as Connor went to mirror Perkins’ slave, Mary, and take a seat on his lap. “Wait!” Hank said, before Connor had seated himself. “Not on me.”

“Then where?” Connor asked, puzzled. 

“I— don’t know,” Hank said, throwing up his hands. He’d never owned a slave before, he didn’t know the etiquette, the protocol. Connor nodded, seeing his uncertainty, and sat down at Hank’s feet, his own legs bent underneath him. The slave’s back was unnaturally straight, an unnerving effect of their race, Hank thought. 

Dinner continued with another course and more propositions from Perkins. Some were easier to swallow than others. Ravendale was strategically positioned between the other two kingdoms on Thirius, between the mountainous Warren and the lush Jericho. After the Great War, Jericho ceased all trading with Warren, leaving only Ravendale as a mediator. With slavery not a vital part of Ravendale’s economy, the elven kingdom continued to trade with Ravendale after the stalemate in the Great War. Hank had met with the elven queen and her human king on far fewer occasions than he had met with Queen Cristina, but so long as they did not interfere with each other’s affairs, the kingdoms left each other in peace. Though Jericho had frequently brought up ending slavery in Ravendale completely, the elven kingdom couldn’t afford to lose trading with Ravendale either, as much of Jericho was covered in forests and lacked the proper grounds to grow grains as Ravendale could. 

Perkins proposed another trade route between the port cities of Umbria and Huron, saving both port cities having to travel around the entire Thirius continent, outlining the details as Hank only half listened. He was preoccupied with the slave sitting at his feet. Hank had seen elves that were far more ethereal than this slave was, as enchanting as the slave by his side was. Though the slave was very clearly an elf… Hank wondered if Connor was possibly an Eldritch. Born of a human and an elf, not fully either. If that were true, he must have been from Jericho, the only place where Hank knew that to be possible, the only place in the twelve kingdoms that allowed love to flourish between the races— a necessary aspect of elven reproduction. 

“King Henry,” Perkins said, an exasperated tone to his voice as though he’d repeated his name several times. 

“What is it?” Hank said gruffly. 

Lord Perkins smirked, standing, with Mary behind him. “Let Connor be a taste of what we have to offer,” he winked at Hank. “I don’t want to intrude on the rest of your evening, eventful as I’m sure it will be. I’ll be staying at an inn down the road. I hope you enjoy my gift and… reconsider my other offers. I’ll be leaving this with you,” he said, handing a golden key to Hank, before bowing out. 

Hank waved his hand at Lord Perkins, leaving his guards to escort the Warren envoy from the castle. He swallowed the rest of his wine, summoning the kitchen maid, “Send for a chambermaid,” he told the young girl. “Have her escort Connor to my chambers.” The maid nodded, fleeing from the room. Shortly after, one of the chambermaids came for Connor, offering her hand to help him to his feet. Hank didn’t watch them go. Instead, he sat, watching the fire dwindle down to ash as he finished off the bottle of wine. He thought of the fire’s reflection in the slave’s glassy eyes, the languid swipe of a pink tongue across moist lips. Hank didn’t have enough presence of mind to know what he was going to do with the slave at this point, didn’t want to think about it. He had never really been one for unwilling partners. 

When he finally stood, he stumbled, catching himself on the carved wooden chair. He waved off an attempt by a guard, who moved to catch him. “I’m not an invalid,” he growled. “I can handle my damn cup.”

He had been far more into his cup before, not even that long ago. His head was reeling from the thoughts of the boy upstairs in his chamber. Having stumbled up the three staircases to the royal family’s corridors, Hank paused before the door to his own chambers. “Reed,” Hank said, frowning. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“My job, Your Majesty,” Sir Reed said, practically rolling his eyes at the king. “And its Sir Reed, even to you.”

“I didn’t ask for you,” he mumbled. “I thought I had made it clear that when you took over as captain of the guard from Fowler that I didn’t want a Raneighs-damn escort.” 

“I know, and I heard you,” Reed said. “But you let an elf into your bedchambers,” he scowled. Reed shifted, the chainmail under his tunic clinking against the sword in his belt. He’d lost as much as the rest of them in the Great War, and the plague that followed. “It’s bad enough they’re in the kitchens. If Perkins, the rat, sent him to stab you in your sleep—”

Hank snorted, reaching to steady himself on the stone wall. The rough-hewn stone was a cool, steadying force under his palm. “Think Perkins would send a slave in to do something like that? The bastard would sooner have stuck the carving knife in my back at dinner himself.” He shook his head. He understood Reed’s concern— staying at an inn in the lower towns would give Perkins time to escape, should Connor stab him in his sleep, or poison his goblet, or whatever else Reed was imagining the slave was preparing to do in his bedroom. Hank had other ideas of what the elf was planning on doing, he thought wearily. “Besides,” Hank said, running his other hand through his mid-length silver hair. He’d left his circlet somewhere else— the great hall? He’d have to have someone to look for it in the morning if they didn’t find it first, “he couldn’t hurt me anyway.”

This time, Reed snorted, crossing his arms across his chest. “Those collars they have to wear? I’ll trust the magic in those things as far as I can throw them. And I don’t mean the collars.”

The king paused. Reed, as much as Hank was loath to admit it, had a point. Hank had never bothered testing the slave collars that kept the elves in line, holding their latent magic in place, turning their own blue blood against them. The previous generation of collars, silver bands instead of gold, had begun losing their potency twenty years back. The elves that had been released from these silver bindings started the coup d'état that put an elf on the throne of Jericho. Of course, Queen Chloe had married the human prince who would have inherited the throne anyway. 

If the bindings worked as they should, the elf couldn’t hurt him or run away. He’d never seen it for himself, but he’d been told the elves would freeze in place if they so much as thought about going against the order of their masters. And if the collars didn’t work, well— “If they don’t work, I have you, now don’t I?” Hank said with a tired sigh. He patted Reed’s shoulder, “I’ll take my chances,” passing by the captain as he reached for the door. 

“I’m not coming in if I hear you scream!” Reed said behind him. “Curse Perkins!” Hank could practically hear the smirk on Reed’s face as he shut the door behind him.

Hank just wanted to stay pressed against the wooden door inside of his chambers, his eyes closed, as his head was spinning. But he barely allowed himself to blink before heading into the room. Through the sheer curtains hanging from the posters of the bed, Hank could see a glimpse of Connor on his bed. The curtains weren’t fully drawn. Hank couldn’t remember if he’d left them like that in the morning. It was a stupid, pointless thought. Hank had far too many of those lately.

The fire in the hearth had been lit by the chambermaid, the warm glow of the fire permeating the drafty room. He didn’t look at the bed as he passed by it. He briefly paused at the desk that he kept in his chambers, just before the wardrobe, to check for urgent letters redirected to his bedchambers. His solar next door had been taken over, many years ago, by the late queen’s possessions, and he hadn’t the heart to clear her things from the room. But tonight, his own desk was clear of any letters. Hank wasn’t sure if that meant there wasn’t anything urgent, or if they didn’t want to disturb him. He would have to remember to check his study on the opposite side of the castle in the morning. 

Though he usually slept in little more than his smallclothes, Hank hesitated before stripping, his hand staying as he reached for the broach affixing his cloak to his doublet. It had been a very long time since anyone had shared his bed. It wasn’t that his servants had never seen him in a state of undress, or that his own knights hadn’t pulled him from a drunken stupor on far too many a night as of the past few years, but the last person who had slept beside him in that bed… had shared sworn to be by his side till death should they part, and she kept that promise for over a decade. Since her passing, he hadn’t kept himself as fit as he had been at twenty, a handsome young knight when he’d married her. 

Unhooking the golden broach, his cloak falling from his shoulders, he reached for the billowy fabric of his seldom-worn nightshirt and trousers. With his back turned to the bed, Hank stripped to his smallclothes, pulling on the nightshirt on after the trousers, rolling up the sleeves to just under his elbow. As he turned up his right sleeve, he turned back to the bed, and thought it best to get this over with, rather than manufacture some reason to sit at his desk late into the evening. He still felt the effects of the wine, his hand shaking almost imperceptibly as he turned down the oil lamp closest to him until it was dark. He blew out the candles on the desk, and those on the table closest to the door. The only light in the room was the dim light from the crackling fireplace. 

Hank sighed, and headed for the bed. Pushing back the curtains on his side of the bed, Hank saw the slave— Connor— flinch back into the pillows he was sitting against. Hank’s eyes widened in surprise— Connor was nearly naked, though Hank thanked Raneighs that he wasn’t entirely unclothed. The slave had shed his sheer clothing, and was sitting there with only his smallclothes. The golden chains binding his limbs together were gone, leaving only the collar at his neck, though through which means they had been removed, Hank didn’t know. Perkins wasn’t a sorcerer, so he must have had a key like the one he’d given Hank. Hank sat down on the bed, several feet away from the elf that was curled nearly at the edge of the bed, as if the slave couldn’t get enough space between them.

In the dim light, Hank could see the fear in Connor’s eyes. 

“Your Majesty,” Connor said, dipping his head as a sign of obedience. “How— how would you like me?”

The elf cowered in the corner as if he were a maiden on their wedding night, and in a way, Hank supposed he was. Hank could see in his eyes that Connor had never been touched. Had been taught what to do and he was trying to be brave— holding his head up high— as he had been taught, but it was harder than he thought. Hank knew that he owned Connor. He could do anything he wanted to Connor, and even if they heard him cry out, the servants wouldn’t raise a finger. He was property of their king. Hank wanted to swear. Instead, he sighed. 

“Tomorrow we’ll…” Hank looked Connor over, trying not to linger too long on his long legs, or his pale, unmarked chest. He was beautiful, Hank had to admit, even to himself. He looked far too human, but even then, there was something otherworldly in him. Connor’s dark eyes had gone from avoiding Hank’s gaze entirely to flicking between Hank and the door. Hank could only imagine what Connor thought of him, the things he must have been told. “...get you something more appropriate to wear.” Hank lifted the blankets, pulling them over himself as he told the elf, “Go to sleep.”

Hank laid awake for Raneighs knows how long before falling into a dreamless sleep. When he blinked his eyes open, stirring awake, he could practically feel Connor’s eyes on him. He shifted in bed, turning over to see the elf’s face, his eyes closed. Connor was breathing shallowly, his face pressed to the pillow and his body nearly as still as a corpse, as though he were asleep. But Hank had far too much experience with feigning sleep to miss the uneven breaths and fluttering eyelids.

Throwing the blankets off of himself, Hank stood, his feet hitting the cold stone floor. The fire had gone out in the night. He reached for the satin robe that hung on the edge of the desk’s chair, slipping it over his shoulders. There was another robe, a blue satin one to his red, that hung in the back of his wardrobe. Feeling the chill in the air, before he could think better of it, Hank reached for it. Feeling the smooth materials in his hands, Hank tossed it to the bed. “You can wear this for now.” He stepped to the paned window, looking down through warped glass, at the courtyard below in the early light. He could see Reed and the other men training. “They’ll be bringing breakfast shortly. Don’t need to pretend to be asleep on my account.” When he looked back, the robe was in Connor’s hands, his head of curls peering from behind the curtains. 

Chapter Text

Sometimes Connor dreamt of a woman in a garden. She wasn’t his mother, he knew, even though he could never see her face. The woman in the garden had the dark skin of a human from Bellora, though he could never hear the sound of her voice to be sure. The woman always stood beneath the tree of Thirium in Jericho. Connor only knew the tree from stories, the tree that the magic in the veins of elves bled from in the Age of Dawn. 

Other times, he dreamt of the woman he imagined to be his mother. He isn’t sure. Like the human woman, he can never see her face clearly enough to know, but she stands tall, the blonde of her hair not concealing the mark of the elves on her brow. He barely remembers a time before this life, but he imagines he dreams of those he left behind. He dreams of places and times he could not have existed in. The magic flowing through his veins, from the very tree he dreams of most nights, passing images through a hazy veil. 

But not this night. 

Connor didn’t sleep at all. He clutched the down pillow as though it was keeping him afloat until the rosy fingers of dawn came through the arched windows and spread across the room, bathing them in a pink light. Beside him, the king slept, his face smushed into the pillow, a hint of drool seeping from his mouth onto the tasseled pillow. His chest rose and fell under Connor’s gaze, and Connor knew the king would wake soon. 

He felt a rising panic in his chest when he thought of the king waking, could smell the morning breath, the remnants of the stink of spirits on him from the previous night. So Connor took a thousand moments from a single one, stretching the time between seconds until it was as if time had stopped all together, his vision a veil of blue. 

He could no longer hear the king’s breathing. If Connor needed to breathe in this state of frozen time, he would have let out a sigh of relief. He contemplated staying in the moment forever, but he knew it would only prolong the inevitable. Connor, and the other elves at the slave house he’d been moved to when he was fifteen, had tried to escape into their own minds like this before. But it only ever made things worse. He could stay in this single moment forever, no human able to detect it as he stretched the time between seconds for longer and longer until it was as if time no longer existed. He once lost himself, in the early days of rebelling against what they expected of him, until he had nearly forgotten his own name. He never let himself stay too long like this ever again. 

Usually he thought about escaping, even though they all knew it was nothing more than a child’s fantasy. They couldn’t . It was as if there was a red wall before their eyes when they tried to do anything they had been forbidden to do. But sometimes they dreamed anyway. There was no wall in his mind in this place. When Connor imagined escaping in these moments between time he constructed all the ways he could think of daring to escape. He could flee, attempting to outrun the king and his guards— elves were faster than humans, but Connor hadn’t truly run in such a long time, he couldn’t remember the feel of grass beneath his feet. Shielded memories of grass and trees and the scent of something he couldn’t place. He determined that his plan would fail before he could even finish opening the door, if that guard was still behind it. 

He could take the letter opener that he could see on top of the king’s desk and stab it into the human’s heart. The king wouldn’t even wake before Connor could slip out of bed and grab it. But he knew his hand would still before he could even lift the letter opener. Connor knew he was foolish for even thinking of that scenario, a constant, angry reminder of his status, the infuriating collar at his neck. 

The binding was more than just an indication of his status, it kept him bound in more ways than simple chains ever could. The elves weren’t sorcerers— they couldn’t perform spells or cast magic or wish things into existence. What little magic they could do was bound against him. They were a primordial species, given life by the earth itself. He knew that his imagined plans— any plan— to harm the king would instantly fail. With the intent to use an object for harm he wouldn’t even be able to pick it up. His eyes wandered around the room, taking the time to inspect anything that he could use as a weapon. Having run hundreds— thousands— of these scenarios in his mind over the years in captivity, Connor knew nothing would actually work with the bindings on. But it didn’t stop him from contemplating all of the objects in the room that he could use to defend himself— though that too, would be impossible. 

He could strangle someone with the curtains. The letter opener. A fork dropped from a long forgotten meal brought to the room. The fire burning in the hearth. The pillows. An old suit of armor on a form by the window. And so on. And so on. 

Connor counted the hours he spent hiding away in his mind. It wasn’t really hours, the king hadn’t even finished taking the breath Connor paused on. Eventually, Connor decided to stop hiding. The king was asleep anyway. The blue veil over Connor’s eyes faded as the world came back into focus. The king was breathing shallowly, but he was breathing. He couldn’t hurt Connor now. 

But that didn’t mean that the king couldn’t wake up and roll over onto Connor, taking what he’d paid for— been given— as was his right, according to the laws of this land. Connor had— been given lessons. Never touched, besides the angry hand to his face, or gripping his arm until they turned black and blue. Lord Perkins' slavers had had no plans for Connor for a long time, so he saw hundreds of elves like himself pass through the slave house. Some learned the same lessons he was taught, over and over again. How to please their master in the only way that was really important. Knowing every inch of a human’s body, male or female. How to pleasure them. To be submissive, obey every command, default to them and wait. Wait patiently for orders. Lie naked on their master’s bed for hours until he returned to fuck them until he was done, pushing them aside as though they were a doll. 

Those lessons were the most common. With their extended lifespan, elves stayed as young and beautiful as they did in their twenties for a lifespan nearly twice as long as a human’s. Many that had been captured were fair enough to be sold as Connor was— they shared their stories in the dead of night, who they were before, what kingdom they had resided in before they were captured or resold. Most were taken from Warren, having hidden in the hills after the Great War, unable to risk cutting across the kingdom to get to Jericho. The three kingdoms shared a continent, with only a stretch of Warren’s border meeting Jericho’s. Some risked heading to Ravendale, Jericho’s closest neighbor, a mediating barrier between the two ever-warring kingdoms, but with slavery laws in Ravendale as murky as they were, few risked it without obtaining the proper paperwork. Some of the slaves were taken from Ravendale, both escaped slaves and captured freemen— as long as the knights or slavers of Ravendale didn’t see freedom declarations, they didn’t care who the elves had been before.

As the king’s breath started, Connor squeezed his eyes shut, pretending to sleep. It was only a moment before the king sat up with a groan, throwing the blankets off himself as he got out of bed. Connor opened his eyes, pulling the blankets closer to himself, tucked under his chin. The king reached for a red robe slung over the desk chair, which he put on before going to rummage in the wardrobe. After a moment, he pulled a blue robe of the same materials out, throwing it to Connor on the bed. “You can wear this for now,” the king said dismissively, as he stepped away from Connor in the bed. 

Connor didn’t hesitate in grabbing for the robe, the silky materials feeling foreign in his fingers. Connor pulled the robe around himself as the king continued to speak, not looking at Connor. “They’ll be bringing breakfast shortly. Don’t need to pretend to be asleep on my account.” 

He pushed the blankets from his legs, peering out from behind the sheer curtains to see the king at the window. Before either of them could break the silence, there was a short rap on the door followed by the door opening to reveal a man with a tray of food entering the room backwards to push the door open with his body. Connor watched the man as he turned towards the table to place the tray of food on it, Connor reeling in shock as he saw the man wasn’t a man at all— but an elven slave. Connor barely would have been able to discern that the man was an elf had he not been wearing the same golden collar as Connor was— the slave’s body was badly burned in blotches, and he had an empty socket where one eye should have been. Connor had never seen a slave as badly injured as this one was. 

“Your Majesty,” the slave said, his voice like gravel, as he bowed to the king. “I’ve brought three letters delivered by messenger before dawn,” and laid them on the table. King Henry nodded at the slave, dismissing him. The slave sent a quick look at Connor before leaving the room, shutting the door behind him.

“Come,” King Henry said, and without thinking, Connor followed. 

Connor looked curiously at the selection of foods on the tray, along with two hammered silver plates and a goblet of what looked like mead. Waiting for the king to sit, Connor sat across from him, eyeing the selection of meats, fruits, and bread. One of Connor’s lessons had been on the etiquette of dining with royalty— and one always waited for the king. 

King Henry, rather than beginning to eat, reached for the letters, sliding his fingers under the wax seal to break it. Connor sat with his hands folded in his lap, waiting. His stomach growled, and he realized at that moment he hadn’t eaten since the previous morning. The king’s eyes met his over the letter, and without breaking eye contact, he reached for a piece of the sliced loaf, taking it into his mouth without a word. His attention returned to the letter.

Connor let out a sigh he didn’t know he was holding, looking over the tray. There was a dark honeyed loaf slathered with butter, a few rolls next to smoked venison, and some dried beef sliced into pieces. The fruit intrigued Connor far more, having few chances to try them before— usually only when a slave was sold at far above market price and they were rewarded. Though out of season, there was a pile of dried apricots in a gilded bowl, three blue fruits in the shape of raindrops, and a small pot of dark blue jam. 

The king reached for the flagon of mead, offering the second to Connor, who shook his head in polite decline. He’d… never actually had any sort of spirits before, and wasn’t going to start by choking on it over breakfast with the king. The king shrugged, reaching for the carving knife in the venison, carving a hunk off for himself, and then dipping a roll in the jam. 

Connor eyed the jam, loathe to admit that he’d never had any before. Glancing up at the king, he snuck a dip of his finger into the jar, scooping the dark jam with his finger and popping it in his mouth. The jam was tart, sending a pleasantly fizzy feeling across Connor’s tongue.

King Henry swore, nearly dropping his letter onto the plate he’d been neglecting. “Raneighs,” the king swore. “Cut that out! Don’t stick your fingers in things like that.” 

“Sorry,” Connor said, still eyeing the jam. He paused, and then asked, “What is it? It tastes familiar, but I don’t recall ever having it before.” 

The letter lowered in the king’s hand, and he spoke, with a slight frown on his face, “Thirium crystal jam. The fruit,” he gestured to the raindrop-shaped fruit on the platter, “only grows in the mountains of Jericho, from the saplings of—”

“—the tree of Thirium,” Connor finished, and then winced, “sorry.” 

The king nodded, “Do you know it?”

“I do,” Connor said, but his face bent into a frown. He couldn’t recall how . The tree appeared in his dreams almost every night, but he could never say for certain if he’d been there. Seen the tree in person. Drank from the pool of Thirium at its roots. 

The food on the plates between them slowly dwindled, with Connor eyeing the last of the jam that had pooled at the bottom of the jar. Before him, the king was squinting at the second letter. “Fetch me my spectacles, will you?” he asked, and it took Connor a moment to realize the king was talking to him, even though they were alone in the room. Connor stood, almost too suddenly, the chair scraping loudly against the floor. 

He went to move, but paused, realizing he didn’t know where the spectacles were. Or what they looked like. The king looked up, gesturing over to his desk, “It’s in, uh, the drawer,” he waved. 

The first drawer was locked, not budging when Connor pulled at the handle. He looked around for a key, but not seeing one in plain view, he reached for the second and found it unlocked. There were a few items in the drawer, a quill, a bottle of ink, a few rolled parchment papers, a small mirror, and— under the papers, a pair of bone-bound spectacles. 

Connor handed the spectacles to the king across the table, at an arm’s length. Examining the spectacles, the king asked, “Are you from Jericho? Or were you… born into slavery?”

“I… don’t know,” Connor admitted, sitting back down at his plate. “My life before I was in Warren is… fuzzy,” he said with a frown. “I may have been from Jericho. It would explain the familiarity,” Connor said with half a smile.

The king hummed, reaching for his fork, seemingly finished with his questions for Connor. With a glance at the preoccupied king, Connor stuck another finger in the jar, licking the blue jam from his finger. He looked up, his finger in his mouth, to see King Henry staring again. The king’s mouth was partially open, his fork stilled above his plate. There was a dark, hungry look in his eyes that Connor recognised from the dozens of men he’d interacted with over the years. 

Connor stilled, watching the king almost nervously. He was somewhat grateful that the king didn’t take liberties with him the previous night, but he was still… nervous. Connor hated the anticipation. He hated feeling like he might jump out of his skin as soon as the king moved. The king had gone back to staring intently at the letter, and Connor… he almost wished they’d gotten it over with as soon as he’d arrived, so he’d know what to expect from him. How the king liked it— rough and gruff as his attitude?

Would the king call him by his dead wife’s name? He’d been told the king would be on him in an instant, rumors that the king hadn’t touched anyone since his family died, would be so pent up he’d fuck Connor all night until he bled. He’d heard stories of King Henry fighting Connor’s own kind on the battlefield, becoming a bitter drunk after the death of everyone who he loved. 

Connor had spent the entire night awake, staring at the man beside him as though he would pounce like a Nain Bleu beast from the stories the older children used to tell in Port Eden. Though the king had a belly from too much of his cup, his hair grayed and his beard flecked with white, Connor could still see the sinew of the muscles under the thick flesh. He knew the king had hidden strength, could pin him to the bed and— Connor stopped. He felt a rising panic coming from the pit of his belly. 

He took a deep breath, but he’d lost his appetite. He was careful not to stick his fingers in the jam again, not until the king had left. He watched the king take glances over the last letter until he was finished eating, standing to brush crumbs from his beard.

Connor sat at the table until the king was dressed, watching him struggle to pin the broach to his cloak. He briefly thought about offering to help, but instead sat back on his hands. The king looked over his shoulder at Connor, and said with a weary sigh, “Stay put. I’ll have a tailor come by later to get you something… better to wear.” Connor pulled the robe tighter around himself, and watched the king leave.

Only then did he scoop out the rest of the jam for himself. 

Connor waited around for nearly an hour before the kitchen slave came back— introducing himself with a bowed head as Phileas— to take the tray away. When he left, Connor rose from the bed to explore the room. Though he’d been at Detroit Castle for nearly a day, Connor hadn’t had much of a chance to look around the room. The bed, positioned against the north wall, was still unmade. Connor hesitated, unsure if a chambermaid would be coming by at all to make the bed, or if that was somehow Connor’s job now. 

He wasn’t quite sure what his duties were going to be, besides pleasing the king whenever the king finally got around to it. He wasn’t the queen— it would never be his place to advise the king, or sit in on council meetings, or host lavish social events— even if he slept in her bed, for now. But he probably wasn’t going to just be sitting around the room forever, he thought, as he reached for the rumpled blankets on the bed.

He’d heard stories of the different duties of a bed slave— some of the Woodward slave house elves told stories of the houses they belonged to before. Traci had been loaned to dozens of visiting nobility to gather intel on them, reporting back until she snapped, sold after she refused to share anything with her owner. Connor wondered if that was why King Henry hadn’t touched him— waiting to make sure Connor wasn’t sent as a spy himself. Another slave, Tommi, had been given household tasks, caring for the stables, when his knight owner had been out in the service of his queen. 

Connor wondered if his duties might be the same, joining Phileas in the kitchens, or if he’d be expected to take on household tasks like the chambermaid that had brought him to the room the previous night. He wasn’t exactly trained in the art of housekeeping— even in the slave house where they had largely taken care of things themselves— but he supposed with a little instruction, he would be as proficient with it as anything else. 

The room wasn’t exactly untidy, with only a few things seemingly out of place. King Henry’s desk was just past the bed on the king’s side, with two silver goblets and half a dozen corks on the leather-coated top. Connor collected the goblets, wine residue dried on the inside of both of them. He moved them to the hardwood table close to the door, regretting that he hadn’t done it earlier, before Phileas had taken away the tray. 

From the table he could see his white clothes, brushed under the bed, so he reached for those next. He collected them in his arms and then reached for the king’s discarded clothes from the previous night by the dressing screen that neither of them had bothered using. With the bundle of clothes in his arms, Connor looked around the room until he spotted a woven basket behind the screen and dropped the clothing into it. When he stood up, his eyes caught on the wardrobe on the other side of the dresser.

He’d seen little of the king’s wardrobe, just what he’d worn the previous night and that morning, as well as the matching robe to the one Connor wore. Connor played with the hem of the long sleeve, knowing that it had belonged to someone else. He wondered what else might be in the wardrobe. He glanced over his shoulder at the door, and then reached for the wardrobe. Inside, he saw that he had been right. One half of the wardrobe was full of dresses, smocks, and long undershirts in a variety of lovely, but muted, colors. The silk of the sleeves in Connor’s fingers were moth-bitten, and he could smell the musk of unworn clothes, the same smell that wafted from the robe he wore. 

Connor dropped the sleeve, feeling as though he had trespassed on something. The other half of the wardrobe was clearly the king’s. His collection of tunics and doublets were in a variety of hued colors and patterns, from delicate stitching of Ravendale’s crest across a yellow doublet, to woven patterns of several tunics. 

With a knock on the door, Connor shut the painted wardrobe doors with a little too much force, stepping back before the door was opened by a young girl. The human girl, who seemed maybe thirteen years old, stepped into the room with a woven basket on her hip. 

“Excuse me,” she said, brushing her short blonde hair behind her ear. She glanced up at Connor, and then at the floor, “I’m here in lieu of my mother, um, sir. Connor,” she said, nearly dropping her basket with a panicked look on her face. “My mother’s— she’s the tailor.” 

Connor nodded, “Are those for me?” he asked, gesturing towards the basket of fabrics. 

“I’m Zoe,” she said, nodding, busying herself with the fabrics. “My family had a slave to help with the sewing when I was young, but Grandmother didn’t like having her around because she didn’t feel useful anymore. Mother sold her to a tailor in Camden. We used to call her Savile.”

She glanced up at him again through the veil of her hair. Connor let out a small sigh of relief, feeling as out of place as she clearly did. “You can call me Connor,” he said, as that was his name, and he wasn’t sure it was his place to be called sir. 

Zoe bowed her head with a small smile, reaching into the pocket of her pale pink smock, pulling out a scrap of parchment and a metal pen. “Um, so, Mother gave me a list of measurements I need to get and take home for the rest of the garments.”

“The rest of them? What are they?” Connor asked, partially curious, but also because he hadn’t really talked to anyone in weeks, not since he was informed that he had been selected as a gift for a foreign king. He wondered how many clothes he really needed. He had never owned any before, all of the clothing he'd had was shared between the slaves, who had all pitched in to do the household tasks in the slave house. As he did not possess any domestic training himself, he had been one of the few who was shuffled around the apartments to do any odd tasks whenever they were low on any type of specifically trained slave.

She looked down at the list, and started reading, matter-of-factly, as though she hadn’t had the most practice. “A warm doublet and cloak, since it’s still rather cold,” she informed him with a childish sense of purpose, “A few traveling clothes of rough materials, and one outfit to…” she blushed, and whispered, “Show you off.”

Connor felt himself blush, cheeks filling with blue. “Did, um, King Henry ask for these?”

Zoe shook her head, her cheeks still a rosy pink. Connor found himself staring, a little intrigued at the color. The only children he’d ever been around had been elves like himself, back in Port Eden, all with blue blood flowing through their veins. “My mother had been delivered a request for clothes, and she gave me the usual list for a male concubine belonging to nobility.” She fished into her pockets, bringing out a cloth tape measure, marked in small increments. “I need a few measurements,” she told him, and looked as if there was something she was too embarrassed to say. Connor could guess what she was asking.

He unknotted the belt around his waist, slipping the satin robe off his chest, standing before her in his smallclothes. He had little modesty in being nude— or barely nude, since he was wearing his smallclothes— when around others he knew had no designs for him, like Zoe, or the other elves back in Woodward and Port Eden. Zoe seemed a little shyer, and Connor wondered if this was the first time she’d been sent alone in her mother’s place. It made him smile, and wonder if they’d sent a child on purpose to settle his own nerves.

She stepped over to him, wrapping the tape around his arms and legs, then measuring his height and length of his limbs, stopping to mark down the measurements on the parchment with the pen in her mouth. “I have a few tunics that just need to be altered, I can have these back to you tomorrow, if you have something else to wear in the meantime—” Connor gestured to the robe on the floor. 

Zoe passed him one of the tunics from the pile, a light blue one that was almost the color of the king’s eyes. He pulled it on over his head, the tunic falling to his knees. His nimble fingers buttoned the long slit from his navel to the half collar, then he tied the matching blue and bronze belt around himself. Zoe stepped over to him, standing on her toes in order to start pinning the tunic to fit him. He held out his arms, the sleeves just a tad too long. While she was writing down the changes, he stepped over to the king’s desk, pulling the small mirror out of the unlocked drawer. 

He held it up to the light, catching a reflection of himself in it. His hair curled at his temple, his eyes making him seem almost younger than he was. The half-collar nearly hid the gold binding at his neck, but even the curl at his forehead could not hide the circular mark at his temple. He reached up and touched it gingerly. He rarely had access to a mirror, to see what exactly they all looked at him for. 

Connor put the mirror back in the drawer, shutting it without another look. He pulled the tunic over his head, trading it off for another, and then a third. They differed little, only in muted colors and collar length. Slipping the last one over his head, he hesitated as he handed it back to Zoe. 

None of the tunics were white. 

The king hadn’t touched him, but the servants didn’t know that. He wasn’t a maiden , he hadn’t married the king, no one had come by to check the sheets for blood to assure they had consummated their relationship. He was still a virgin, but for all appearances sake, he wasn’t. Zoe was a child, she wouldn’t be thinking about what that meant, she’d even blushed at the idea that she’d be making something to show him off. But the rest of the staff— the chambermaid from the previous night, the royal guard that had been stationed at the door, Phileas— must have an idea of what the king was supposed to have done to him. 

Zoe bundled up the tunics into her arms and dropped them in the basket, slipping the parchment into her pocket. She smiled and promised to return the next morning with the tailored clothing, as Connor slipped back into the robe. 

For the rest of the afternoon, Connor wandered around the room. He inspected the bookshelf behind the dining table, though the books seemed a random selection— the third volume in a history of Thirius, a poetry book in Hellbenian, a few enciclopedias of the world. There was a pipe and a set of dice on the top shelf, the entire bookshelf covered in a thin layer of dust. Another round of the room and Connor stopped at the window, leaning against the cold stone to look out into the bustling courtyard. Though he was several floors up, he could see a few knights slashing at a straw dummy. 

He sighed, pulling the chair from the king’s desk, grabbing a pillow from the bed, and positioning it in front of the window to stare out the window until the sun dwindled down over the horizon. 

Connor had just gotten up to light the candles around the room with the flint from the fireplace when there was a knock at the door, a kitchen maid letting herself in. She was a short human woman with dark skin, carrying a tray of blawnche perrye and pickled cabbage. “Oh honey, let me get that,” she said, putting the tray down on the table and taking the flint from his hand.

“Thank you,” he said, though he could have gotten it himself. He sat down at the table, feeling the hunger in his belly, wondering if he could ask for a midday meal for the next afternoon, but decided against it, unsure of protocol. 

“I’m Rose,” she said, as she went around the room lighting the candles and oil lamps on the wall. “Did no one come around and light these before? Not even the fire?”

Connor shook his head, “No. Only Zoe the tailor’s apprentice and Phileas came by this morning.”

Rose hummed, kneeling at the fireplace to get it started. When she stood, she brushed the ash from her dark apron. She pulled the chair across from Connor, the one the king had been sitting in that morning, and propped her head on her hands. “I’ll wait for you to finish. Gotta make sure you eat it all,” she said, and then mumbled, not quite to Connor, “Too skinny, never thought the king would like that.”

Connor nearly choked on the fish, but she just smiled knowingly at him. Though he wasn’t much in the mood to talk, the gnawing in his stomach growing as the shadows grew longer, Rose chatted about everything and nothing at all. Connor was barely listening as he finished his meal, catching a little about her son and the birds that were in season, but he thanked her and she smiled when she left with the tray, taking the silver goblets with her. 

When she left, he pulled the robe tighter around himself, like a shield, and wondered if tonight would be the night. He climbed into bed, shedding the robe at the foot of the bed, and slipping under the covers as the fire hadn’t warmed the room far enough. 

It was less than an hour later when the king arrived, and when he did, Connor could smell the mead on him from across the room. He’d brought a flagon in with him, taking it over to the fireplace. The king stared into the fire when he spoke. “Did the tailor come by?”

Connor nodded without thinking, and then said, “Yes. Her daughter will be bringing a few things tomorrow.”

King Henry nodded, taking a sip from the flagon. He looked back from the fireplace, over at Connor with unreadable eyes. “Did you stay here all day?”

Connor nodded, “I didn’t really have much to wear.”

The king swore, “You should— explore the castle or something,” he said, throwing up his empty hand as he turned back to the fire. “I don’t know. Ask one of the servants where the library is—” the king hesitated then, cleared his throat. “You can read, can’t you?”

He nodded again without thinking, and then cleared his own throat. “Yes. We— elves— can read and write all languages, even with— this thing,” he said, pulling at the collar on his neck. “I’d never had much reason for it before.”

The king nodded again, back still turned to the elf. “Well,” he ran his fingers through his hair, “you don’t have to just… sit here. You can go freely around the castle, pass where the servants pass,” he waved his hand, “and so on. There’s a library on the second floor, ask one of the servants where it is, if you’d like.” Connor nodded, not bothering to speak this time.

Connor had pulled his knees up to his chest, wrapping his arms around his legs. He thought about asking the king to come to bed, and everything that that entailed. But he didn’t. He stared at the king’s back until the king spoke, “Go to sleep.”

He obeyed without thinking, sinking into the soft mattress, falling asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.

Connor woke to the feeling of someone pressed against his back. King Henry. When Connor had fallen asleep the king hadn’t come to bed yet, but here, now, he had his body wrapped around Connor’s. The king shifted and Connor froze. King Henry’s hard cock was pressed against Connor’s backside, Connor’s heart beating swiftly as he took in a breath. This was it, wasn’t it?

But then the king shifted again, rolling off Connor with a snore. He was still asleep. Connor’s heart was still racing, and he tried to settle his breath, squeezing his eyes shut. He needed— he needed to get it over with. He didn’t know why the king was waiting. He knew the king found him attractive, he was clearly aroused, but… maybe there was something Connor wasn’t seeing. Maybe the king wanted him to initiate, as though Connor were coming to his bed willingly. 

He lay in bed for another few moments, staring at the canopy on the bed, when he heard a short knock on the door. He rose in bed, glancing at the door before it opened, the kitchen slave, Phileas, entering with a tray, followed by Zoe, who was carrying the same basket as the previous day. The king, now awake, groaned as he joined Connor in sitting up. Across the room, Phileas placed the tray on the dining table, not meeting either man’s eyes as he started setting the table. 

Zoe busied herself as well, laying out the altered tunics and trousers on the back of the settee in front of the dimming fireplace. She was careful to keep her back to the king and Connor as the king got out of bed, reaching for his robe and wrapping it around himself with a grunt. The king staggered, catching himself on the back of the chair before running his head, clearly suffering from morning fog. Connor’s eyes flicked to the king’s loins, seeing he was still aroused, but seemingly not caring at all. 

As the king staggered over to the table, Connor reached down to the floor, fishing for the satin robe he’d discarded the previous night. He pulled it around himself before exiting the bed, heading towards Zoe at the settee rather than the table. 

She smiled at him, “We finished the three tunics from yesterday, and Mother got these for you from the cordwainer,” she said, pulling out a pair of leather boots. 

“Thank you—” 

“What is this shit?” the king asked, the two slaves and Zoe jerking abruptly to see the disgruntled king holding a flagon away from his face.  

“Wine and blood boiled lamprey, Your Majesty,” Phileas said. “Rose is trying new recipes for gallon-distemper.”

The king grunted, but took a long swallow of the drink before dropping it on the table and pushing it away. 

“Thank you,” Connor said, reaching for the gray tunic and a pair of trousers, taking them behind the changing screen. 

He heard the sound of silverware against a plate as he hung the robe over the screen, and then the scrape of a chair against the floor. “Your Highness,” Zoe said, and through a crack in the screen, Connor could see her courtesy to the king. The king didn't correct her on her misnomer. “Mother says the rest will be ready by Wednesday, I can bring them by after temple, if you’d like.” The king hummed in agreement, and Connor wondered if he’d be expected to attend the service to Raneighs, but he doubted it. 

“How’s your mother?” the king asked, and Connor heard the click of a lock. It was followed by a drawer opening. Connor stepped out from behind the curtain to see the king toss a small pouch to Zoe, the pouch clinking as it landed in her hands. 

“She’s doing well,” Zoe said. “She’s gone to Port Mackinae to pick up a shipment of fabric from Endek.” The king nodded, reaching for the goblet of what Connor could only assume was mead. She smiled at Connor, now in his well-fitting clothes, and curtsied at the king, leaving with Phileas in tow. 

Before Connor could sit, the king stood again, not quite looking at Connor. “You should… see the castle, leave the room,” he waved his hand in a gesture, as if he wasn’t quite sure what Connor was supposed to be doing either. King Henry stepped over to the wardrobe to change, and Connor didn’t bother looking to see if the king’s erection had died down in the presence of others. When he left, Connor sat down to eat. There was no jam this morning, just fish and loaves of bread and cheese, which Connor picked at with his fingers, eventually deciding he wasn’t hungry. 

He was a little hesitant to leave the room, it felt as though he might be breaking some seal of protection around himself by doing it. But he steeled himself, wondering if there was going to be a guard outside the door. Connor stepped back, taking a napkin and filling it with the remainder of the loaf on the tray and a slice of the fish, feeling as though he might be hungry later.

Connor steeled himself, pushing open the door to find an empty hall, lit by torches on the wall and by the window at the end of the corridor. He passed through the corridor, stopping to inspect the tapestries along the walls that told the history of Ravendale. He knew he could ask someone— should he cross them— about the library or another room in the castle, but he supposed that if he was going to be here for awhile— forever?— he should know the place. 

He traveled down corridors, opening any door that didn’t sound as if someone was inside. There were a few rooms with nearly the same level of decadence as the king’s bedchamber, but seemingly empty, curtains closed. At the end of the hallway there was a spiral staircase into another tower, but halfway up he could hear voices, so he went back down and to the other end of the hallway, taking the left staircase, the opposite of the one he remembered traveling up to get to the king’s chambers. 

At the bottom of the staircase he heard two guards laughing and talking about something he couldn’t quite make out, but as soon as they heard his footsteps and saw who had entered the corridor, they straightened and stopped speaking altogether. A few more hallways of servants and guards silencing themselves as soon as he walked in, and Connor was growing tired of it. 

He finally found the library after he began to look for it specifically, rather than wandering aimlessly around the castle. The castle was lively, servants chattering as they brought dirty linens downstairs, royal guards patrolling the hallways, merchants delivering goods to the kitchens, hunting dogs racing free past the guards and yet— Connor felt quite alone. 

The library, he found, was a massive hall that spanned two floors of the castle, arching windows against the west wall filtering mid afternoon light across the expansive collections of books, the shelves nearly brushing the ceilings. He paused at the table by the door, almost overwhelmed by the collection of books. He didn’t recall ever having seen this many in his life. At the Woodward slave house there had been three or four books that had been left behind, books that they all read aloud a dozen times until they began trading stories of their own.

Connor didn’t know where to begin. The spines of the books were in an array of colors, gold, emerald, blue ink of the titles. He reached for a green-spined book with no title, but before he could touch it—

“What are you doing here?” a woman’s sharp voice asked. Connor turned abruptly, hand dropping from the bookshelf as he spun around. The woman was older, probably the king’s age, with white hair pinned up into two small cornettes draped with a net. She was holding a dust cloth in one hand, her other hand on her hip.

“Oh, um,” Connor said, “I’m—”

“I know who you are,” she said sharply, her eyes narrowing at his temple, and then down at his neck. Connor resisted the urge to bring his hand to his own neck, to protect it from her gaze. “I asked what you were doing here ,” she said, her voice sounding far too much like the tutors he’d had in Warren. 

“The king sent me,” Connor said with a swallow. Her eyes narrowed further, humming, and turning from him, but Connor got the feeling she hadn’t left it well enough alone, feeling her eyes following him as he wandered through the shelves. 

As he passed through the shelves he realized he couldn’t quite understand the order in which the books were placed. He paused after pulling the third book in a row that seemingly had nothing in common with the last two, beginning to wonder if he’d ever actually been in a library before. With the weight of the book in his hand, grounding him, Connor felt at a loss. He absently wandered the library until he found a couch by one of the windows, sitting there.

The green cover under his hands was rough and browned with age, but Connor wasn’t really looking at it. Like he had told the king, he remembered little of his life before this one. He couldn’t remember much before he was ten years old, waking up on a ship heading towards Port Eden. Flashes he saw in dreams, memories of another child’s laughter, the feel of grass under his palms. He couldn’t explain it, but he did think he was born in Jericho. He’d heard stories from the Woodward elves that were older, the ones who knew Jericho, of the human king and elven queen fighting for all their freedom in the Great War— not that it did enough good for the rest of them. He sighed. He knew that even the revolutionaries of twenty years past couldn’t save them all. 

Connor overturned the book in his hands, the silver ink of the cover in old elvish. He cracked the spine, choking as he opened it— the small cloud of dust rising from the pages not to blame. He shut the book just as quickly as he’d opened it, his face flooding blue, eyes darting around to see if the suspicious dusting woman was near. When she wasn’t, he pulled his legs up to his chest to hide the book behind it. 

With another quick look around, Connor opened the book to another random page, the illustration on the right half of the book deepening the blush on Connor’s face, but he couldn’t quite look away. It was an elven sex guide, Yérë yë alassë , pre-dating elven slavery, he thought, based on the text along with the illustrations. The page he had flipped to featured an elven woman and man, with the woman on her back and the man kneeling between her thighs. Connor traced the lines of the illustration with his finger, the blue ink shimmering just a little brighter than the rest.

He felt a heat pooling in his stomach as he flipped through more of the pages, images of men and women, women and women, men and men. He recognized some of the images, the positions, the advice, from his instruction. Five years back he had been moved from Port Eden to Lord Perkin’s Woodward slave house, where he and dozens of others had learned to be courtesans. Their tutors were usually humans, women who had retired from being mistresses of powerful men, while their demonstrations were… live. Connor wrapped his arms around his legs, his cheeks a warm blue. He recalled more than the actions— the shame and arousal he felt seeing others… doing that. Knowing that he would be one of them someday. 

He thought of the king, and… how he was tired of waiting for it to be over with. Connor wanted to know what was going to happen to him, what the king really expected of him.

Connor sat with the book in his lap until his own arousal died down, reaching for another randomly selected book from the shelf beside him, the second volume in a collection of encyclopedias. With the old elvish book tucked under his leg, he browsed the encyclopedia as he munched on the food from breakfast. 

He sat around the library for a few more hours until he couldn’t put it off any longer. The suspicious woman had long since gone, so Connor got up and put away his books. He felt as though he was dragging his feet as he retraced his steps back up to the king’s bedchamber, not letting himself hesitate as he opened the door. 

King Henry was already in the room, sitting on the settee in front of the fire, his back turned to Connor. When Connor shut the door, the king turned, his free arm going over the side of the settee as he watched Connor with dark eyes. In his other hand he was holding a goblet, a half-empty bottle of wine on the small table adjacent to the settee. Meeting the king’s piercing blue gaze, Connor began to undress with trembling fingers.

He dropped the belt from his waist, breathing in through his nose, trying to settle the growing sickness in the pit of his stomach. It helped little. His fingers slipped as he started unbuttoning the long front slit of his tunic, missing a button, but not letting his misstep show on his face. The king wasn’t looking at his hands anyway. With just enough buttons undone to pull the tunic over his head, Connor dropped the tunic to his feet, stepping over it and closer to the king. He toed out of his boots, and then loosened the ties of his trousers, but not undoing them completely. 

The king was still watching him with heavy eyes and parted lips, downing the goblet as Connor came closer, eyes raking over Connor’s chest. He blindly reached for the bottle, eyes not parting from Connor’s bare, toned chest, barely resting on Connor’s unlaced trousers before meeting Connor’s own eyes. King Henry’s cheeks were flushed red, his large hand on the back of the settee gripping the wooden frame. The king sucked in his own breath, glancing down at his own lap.

When the king looked up, Connor was standing over him. The king’s eyes were hungry, but his mouth was a thin line. Connor took the cup from the king, his fingers brushing the king’s, trying to steady his hand. He knew he failed, but at this point, he was in too deep. He was soft in his trousers, but he hoped the king wouldn’t notice— or care. And by the way the king was staring, he likely wouldn’t. Connor brought the cup to his lips, wincing as the sour liquid spread across his tongue, but drinking the entire thing before handing the cup back to the king’s hand, still frozen in the air. 

Connor took a breath, hooking his thumbs into the waistband of his loose trousers, pushing them down until all that was left was his smallclothes. He stepped out of them, striding over to the bed, the feeling of being watched following him as he went. He could already feel the wave of spirits hitting his blood as he crawled onto the bed, his increased heartbeat pulling it into his blood, spiriting it around him like the little magic he could feel in his veins. He sat back against the pillows, acutely aware of his body— the stretch of his long legs crossed at the ankles, falsely casual, the hairs rising to attention with the spread of goosebumps across his flesh. He felt the burn of blue blood across his cheeks, from the— wine or warmth of the fire or the chill from the draft and— the brush of his hair across his forehead. 

Connor swallowed, settling his breath, and smoothed his hand across the bed onto the king’s side. King Henry’s eyes followed Connor’s hand across the room.

“Are you going to come to bed?” Connor asked, patting the empty bed beside himself, swallowing.

King Henry stood, not releasing his gaze from Connor as he blindly tried to place the goblet on the short table beside the couch, knocking over the half-empty bottle of wine onto the floor. The dark bottle shattered, red wine and green glass spreading across the floor. Connor winced, fearing that the liquid or glass would spread so far across the floor he’d step in the mess in the morning. The king simply stepped over the slow-moving puddle, moving towards the bed with purpose. 

Connor sat up straighter as the king knelt onto Connor’s side of the bed. Connor’s , Connor realized he’d thought with a jolt. It had only been three days and Connor was already acquiescing his place here. That thought filled him with more dread than the king looming over him, the smell of unwashed clothes wafting to the slave. He swallowed, but it was as if his saliva was caught in his throat. He felt dizzy, wishing he had taken the time to drink more of the wine before deciding to do this. 

He reached for the king, who had one knee pressed to the bed, bracketed around Connor. He fumbled for the king’s tunic, the rough material of it unlike what he would have expected of a king. Connor had little experience undressing another, only assisting others too weak to peel the clothing from their aching flesh, so he fumbled with the king’s belt at his bulging waist. After further fumbling, the belt of the king’s tunic unknotted under his hands. The king’s jaw was slack as Connor worked his hands under the tunic, his knuckles brushing against the warm, thick flesh of the king’s chest.  

With the tunic shucked over the king’s head, Connor rose to his knees, reaching for King Henry’s face. He laced his fingers into the king’s beard, pulling his body flush against the king’s. The king’s eyes were dark with lust, and he could feel it in the tremor of the king’s body against him as the king’s hand left the headboard and wrapped it around Connor with a growl. Connor could feel the king’s erection pressing against him, hot breath on Connor’s face. Despite the unsettling in his stomach, he felt a surge of pride in undoing the king like that. His own cock, once soft, was now starting to take interest against his will. He looked into the king’s hazy blue eyes and said, “My king,” closing his eyes to kiss the king. 

With the first press of Connor’s lips on the king, the king growled, flipping Connor over onto his stomach, knocking the air from his lungs. “Hank,” the king growled, and Connor gasped, his eyes opening.

Hank ,” Connor said. He could feel the king’s heavy weight on top of him, a warm chest pressed against his own back. Connor felt the king’s erection against the cleft of his ass, even through two layers of clothing. The king pushed himself up and off Connor, bracing his legs around Connor’s. He felt large, warm hands on his hips, a bruising grip. Connor gasped when the king reached for Connor’s smallclothes, pushing them down in one smooth movement, and then coming back down on Connor, holding himself up on one elbow. His other hand reached around to grasp Connor’s stiffening cock, his mouth pressing to Connor’s neck. “ Hank ,” he gasped, the jolt of arousal traveling down to his cock with a shutter. 

The king’s rough, calloused hand was firm around Connor’s cock as he started to pump, sending the heat up Connor’s body. He’d never felt anything like it before, as the king breathed hot, sour breath into Connor’s ear. He squirmed under the king, trying to feel as least uncomfortable as he could— and either the king was too drunk to notice, or he just didn’t care, cock hard and straining against his pants, rutting against Connor’s bare ass.

King Henry’s beard scraped against Connor’s shoulder, sending a chill down Connor’s spine. The king wiggled over him, propping on his elbows as he shimmied out of his trousers, freeing his cock with a grunt. The king’s cock was warm and thick, Connor could feel it against his ass. Connor could feel his body involuntarily respond to the king, wetness between his thighs appearing against his will, a slick slide of his thighs as they brushed together. 

The king rutted against him, the head of the king’s cock brushing against his hole with each movement, precome tracing shapes on Connor’s back. The king grunted with each rut, Connor’s own cock forgotten for the king’s pleasure. King Henry shifted again, his cock moving from Connor’s ass as the king rocked back on his knees. The heavy hands were back on Connor’s hips, pulling him to his own knees, Connor feeling exposed, like a rag doll, at how easily the king lifted him. His knees bent underneath him, and he found himself holding himself up on his elbows, his ass bared to the world. 

The king’s hands followed the curve of his ass until his hands were firmly cupping his flesh, the king’s thumbs spreading his cheeks, exposing him to the air in the room. Suddenly as they came, two of the king’s thick fingers filled him, leaving one hand still holding him open, shoved into Connor’s hole with little warning. 

“Ah!” Connor cried out in pain. The king grunted again, his fingers curling inside Connor, hitting a spot inside him that made him cry out in pleasure, forgetting the burning sensation of the king’s fingers. He could tell the king was growing more impatient, pushing in a third finger, jolting Connor again, his cock growing harder as it rubbed against the sheets, the wetness seeping under him. He could hear the squelch of the king’s fingers in his ass, his body flushed blue.

Just as quickly as the king had shoved his fingers into Connor, he removed them, and Connor could hear the king slicking up his cock with Connor’s wetness from his fingers. Connor braced himself on his elbows, his damp forehead pressed into the pillows. The king’s hands grasped Connor’s hips, one releasing to grasp his cock, pressing the head against Connor’s hole. With a single thrust, the king seated himself inside Connor, groaning. 

Hank ,” Connor groaned out, feeling the brush of the king’s trousers against his thigh, not having bothered to finish undressing. With both hands back on Connor’s hips, the king nearly pulled out, savering the feeling of Connor’s hole squeezing against the king’s thick cock. He thrust back in, snapping Connor’s hips against his own with a relentless pace. With every thrust, the king groaned, his balls slapping against Connor’s ass. 

The king released one of his hands from the bruising grip on Connor’s hips, reaching around to Connor’s cock, taking it back in hand. Connor could feel the rising heat in his belly, his eyes squeezed shut as the king continued to pound relentlessly into him. Connor felt a gasp come forth involuntarily as the king hit a spot inside him, the hand around his cock rough, and Connor came with a blinding light, come spurting onto the king’s hand as he continued pumping.

“Fuck,” the king groaned, speaking for the first time since they’d started. Connor felt sweat dripping off of him as he felt a bonelessness sinking into him. The king’s arm around him was keeping him up as the king continued to pound into him, pulling him closer until the king’s chest was pressed to Connor’s back, speeding up as the thrusts became more erratic. With another groan into Connor’s shoulder, and the sputter of the king’s hips, Connor felt a gush of hot come as the king finished inside Connor. 

The king rolled off of him, reaching blindly for his tunic to wipe himself down before passing out beside Connor.

Connor rolled onto his back, feeling the warm come trickling out of his ass, and stared up at the ceiling. He tried not to think about what had just happened, but it was impossible. He wouldn’t ever love this man. He curled into a ball, holding his knees against himself, feeling the tears pricking against his eyes, trying not to feel the shame welling in his chest. 

Chapter Text

Hank awoke with a throbbing head. He groaned, reaching up to cover his eyes from the blinding, early morning light. He should have closed the curtains last night, he thought, as the sun bled through his eyelids like knives. Stuffing his face back into the down pillow with another groan, he groped around for a second pillow to cover his head, he instead brushed his knuckles against naked flesh. Hank froze.


He felt Connor’s back shift against his hand, stirring in his sleep as Hank pulled his hand away. Fuck. He rolled onto his side with as little movement as possible, rubbing his eyes before opening them. The slave— Connor — was curled on his side with his back to Hank, the blanket having fallen just below his hips. Or maybe he hadn’t pulled it around himself at all the previous night, when Hank had— fuck

The king had told himself he wasn’t going to take Connor like that, if he were even going to touch him at all. He’d had no idea what he was going to do with the slave, spending the past two days hiding away from the responsibility until he was forced to confront the inevitable. He could have done anything with the elf— hide him away in a far bedchamber, or put him to work in the kitchens like the others— but now that was no longer a possibility. He’d known what he wanted from the younger man, but he hadn’t planned on taking it. Except that he had

He knew he had the right, he owned Connor, but he also knew he shouldn’t have done it like that, even when Connor had been coming onto him so heavily. It was clear the elf was scared, wanting to get it over with, and Hank had— had known — that's what Connor was doing, and fucked him anyway. Even when the elf wasn’t responding to his touch. Hank hadn’t touched anyone in a very long time, and a warm body in his bed, under his hands— was too much for him to resist. Ah, Raneighs, he swore.

Hank was naked under the blankets, his clothing having been shoved down to the foot of the bed, or dropped over the side in his hurry the previous night. It was clear by the low dip of the blankets on Connor’s hips that he, too, was naked. There was a hint of purpling skin in the dip of Connor’s hip where Hank had gripped him the previous night, thrusting— he closed his eyes, breathing in through his nose, trying to calm the stiffening of his cock. When he opened them again, Connor had shifted further onto his stomach, his arms under the pillow, still facing away from Hank, dark hair tousled against the pale, unblemished skin of his face. He was laying the farthest from Hank he could possibly be while still on the bed. Hank could see dried spots of come on the sheets where Connor had been pressed into the bed the previous night, and he tried to ignore the rising bile in his throat, the self-hatred bubbling up in his chest. He hadn’t truly felt that emotion for months, not since the anniversary of the deaths of his family.

With as few movements as possible, Hank slid out of bed, Connor only stirring to bury his face further into the pillow beneath his head. Hank rubbed his hand against his own face, accepting the pounding headache as punishment for his sins. He turned his back to Connor’s sleeping form, padding over to the wardrobe to grab a few items of clothing. Instead of reaching for one of his more decorated pieces, he took an armored doublet, intending to work through the headache with a few rounds in the training yard.

He tried not to feel like a coward slipping out of the room the morning after, though that was exactly what he was. It wasn’t that he thought Connor would wake up and expect to be held close in his arms, but Hank didn’t want to face whatever Connor expected in the morning, or, more truthfully, what he expected from the elf. 

It wasn’t so early that the servants weren’t already bustling around the castle, Hank passing half a dozen servants on his way to the kitchen. When he had just stepped down from the staircase, he saw Phileas heading from the kitchens with a tray ladened with breakfast sweets— the elf’s favorites. 

“Sir?” Phileas asked, his eye widening as he stumbled to a stop. Hank tried not to wince at the slave’s disfigured face, the scars and burn marks covering most of his face. The king knew little of the slave’s place in the world before coming to Detroit Castle, only that he had been in the fires of Oakehaven. 

Hank sighed, shaking his head. “Bring that up to my bedchamber.” He eyed the tray of food as he dismissed the slave, a quick thought popping into his head. “Wait!” he called, and the slave stilled again.

“Yes, sir. What is it you need?” 

“Do we have any more of that Thirium crystal jam?” he asked. When the slave nodded, he said, “Alright. Good. Go back to the kitchens and bring a jar of that up with breakfast.” Phileas nodded again. “And find a chambermaid to draw a bath in my bedchambers.” Not for him. He didn’t plan to return to his chambers until well after Connor was asleep. He could only imagine the kind of grime that Connor would want to scrub from his skin.

The slave followed him back to the kitchens, where Hank pilfered a few rolls from the head scullery maid and exited out the back door into the gardens. He veered off to the left, not heading towards the gardens themselves, but towards the kennel that was nested alongside the castle. He could hear the dogs inside, already whining for their breakfast. He’d passed Ralph, the slave dog-boy, who would have been fetching their food for him. Not waiting for the elf to return, he opened the door to be greeted by half a dozen yapping hounds, and of course, his Saint Bernard, Sumo, who wasn’t as young as he used to be. 

“Sumo,” Hank knelt in front of the happy dog, burying his hands in the dog’s thick fur, and then pressing his face in as well. “Oh, Sumo.”

He wasn’t sure how long he knelt there while the other dogs begged his attention, but when Sumo started licking his face he stood. “Here, boy,” he said, handing one of the rolls to the dog. “Want to come spend the day with me?” he asked, and though he knew the dog couldn’t understand human speech— or anything really besides Druidic— Sumo seemed to understand him, following him out the door as he pushed the hounds back.

Sumo padded just a few feet behind Hank as he rounded the castle towards the armory, Hank nodding at the knights already sparring in the courtyard. He’d left his favorite sword in his bedchamber, but he took a communal one from the armory, along with chain mail, and headed back to the courtyard where Reed, Miller, and Collins were waiting with a dozen other knights.

The king took out his frustrations on the straw dummy in the courtyard until he felt his arms stiffen with use, then traded off to spar with Sir Collins though his arms felt as though they were made of jelly. Sumo lay in the shade, watching King Henry’s every move. Hank was undoubtedly distracted, missing simple passes the knight took at him, finally knocked to the ground by the blunt end of Sir Collins’ sword, landing on his back with a groan.

“Are you alright, Your Majesty?” Sir Collins asked, pulling the king to his feet with a braced arm. 

“Yeah, yeah,” Hank said, rubbing his head.

The knight raised an eyebrow, “Been awhile since you’ve been out here, sir. A little uneasy on your feet today.”

“Spit it out, Collins, what are trying to insinuate?” Hank ran a hand through his hair, soaked with sweat. He didn’t have a cord on him to tie his hair up, so he’d have to live with it until he could get the servants to draw up a bath for him. He knew he wasn’t the same knight he was twenty years ago, but he thought he could still keep up with the men, Collins in the least.  

“A little too much to drink last night, I’ll bet, Hank,” Sir Reed said, throwing his arm around the king’s shoulder from behind. “Or are you thinking of the elf in your room.” He nodded his head up towards the castle.

“That’s Your Majesty to you, Reed,” Hank reminded him, shrugging off the knight’s arm with a grunt. “I’ve just been distracted,” he said gruffly, willing himself not to look up at his bedchamber window that overlooked the courtyard. “Here, take this,” Hank said, shoving his sword at Reed, who took it out of surprise. He pulled the chainmail back over his head, throwing it to Miller. “Make yourself useful. Tell the kitchen I’ll be taking dinner in my study,” he told Reed as he turned towards the gate to the lower courtyard, heading down towards the temple. 

“I’m not a servant!” Reed yelled, but Hank knew he’d get word to the kitchens, even if he just pawned the order off to the first servant he saw. Hank waved his hand back at the knights. He heard the steady padding of Sumo following behind his master.

The lower courtyard leading out into the castle town and market was much livelier than the upper courtyard, carts of deliveries to the castle being led in, lower guards milling about, servants passing through entrances. The guards stood at attention as the king passed, and the townsfolk that recognized him bowed or curtsied, but the king was relatively left alone as he ducked through the second gate and into the lower town. 

When he passed a stall selling flowers he purchased a handful, tossing a few copper pieces to the woman. With the flowers in hand he turned to the temple that was just outside the courtyard gates, the temple of Raneighs. The large domed building loomed over the small thatched buildings and the market stalls of the lower castle town, the arched doors open even though it was not the usual day of worship.

Hank hesitated just below the steps of the temple, feeling the daunting anticipation. Sumo whined at his heels, looking between Hank and the marketplace, where Hank was sure Sumo would rather be. Hank hadn’t been to worship in the temple of Raneighs in five years, usually only entering by proximity, the burial vaults deep beneath the earth sharing a passage from the dungeons of the castle. Two cloaked women, both in shades of green, exited the temple before him, chattering lively until they saw the king, only stopping to curtsey before him. When they passed, he heard them giggle and whisper between themselves. 

He knew he was being a coward, just as he had been that morning, so he sighed and entered the temple, Sumo following just behind him. The temple was of the same stonework as the castle, but consisted of nine arched, domed walls, representing the nine that conquered the earth. The curved wooden pews descended into the earth, the slanting floor carved into the stone the castle and the temple had been built upon. At the altar there was an icon of Raneighs, the base covered in flowers, candles, and trinkets from the market. The flowers in Hank’s hand were not for the man who had conquered the five continents, the only man of the nine who had stayed to shape man in his favor, while the other eight stepped back into oblivion. 

The king shielded his gaze from the altar as he stepped down to the small, single door just to the right of the altar. The minister of Raneighs was nowhere to be seen, but Hank knew the man, knew he left the doors unlocked until dusk, and Hank had time left before the man returned. “Stay, Sumo,” Hank said wearily to the dog. Sumo halted at the top of the stairs, plopping down and laying his head on his paws, looking up at the king with gentle eyes. “Lazy dog,” Hank huffed, “I should have released you with the Tadum.” Sumo just kept looking at him.

He shook his head at the dog, taking the torch from the top of the stairs. Hank followed the curve of the steep steps into the earth, the temperature dropping rapidly and the musk of the dark corridor filling his nostrils. It was far too familiar a smell.

The torch’s light extended only a few feet in front of him, but Hank knew the passages well. The carved caves held all of Hank’s ancestors from the beginning of the kingdom, each encased in an individual tomb with a statue in their image laying atop. As a child he had escaped to the burial chamber after arguments with his father, coming to sit at the base of his grandfather’s tomb to complain about his father. He’d never been afraid of the dark of the tombs like his mother was, but now it was haunted in ways that he never could have imagined as a child. 

His trek through the tomb was backwards through history, Hank’s oldest ancestors, men and women, were closest to the steps of the temple, which had been built before the first stone of the castle had been lain. Hank paused to place the torch on the wall of the cave, the light stretching long shadows off the faces of his ancestors. Hank’s father, King Anders, was closest to the wall, his solemn, bearded face reflecting back at Hank’s own. He’d died in the Great War when Hank was barely twenty-three, leaving him to take the throne and fight the war in his father’s place. There was a time when he’d resented the man for leaving him alone on the throne, but now, he supposed, the late king’s untimely death prepared him for a life of serving the kingdom alone. 

Queen Tiffania lay just beyond her father-in-law, her beautiful face frozen forever at barely thirty-three. Hank approached her tomb, sighing as he looked over his deceased wife. “What would you think of me now?” he asked of her, knowing she would never answer. Before Hank had lost them, he was the king she had been married to for twelve years. After, he was a shadow of himself. But he supposed he was always meant to be alone. The kingdom had a dark many months with the loss of life as it was, even before their queen and crown prince had died. 

“My love,” he said with a sigh. Hank cupped the queen’s face, knowing that the stone was a poor likeness of her flesh, her lively blue eyes always teasing, her dark hair tickling his face every morning. After she’d passed he saved a lock of her hair to send to her oldest sister in Hellbenia, but he thought, now, he should have saved a lock for himself. He brushed the dried flowers from her folded hands, replacing them with the fresh ones he had purchased earlier. Beside his queen was the body of his only son. Prince Cole’s tomb was child-sized, one of far too many that had been built that winter, at just six years old when he died.

Hank dropped to his knees before his son’s tomb, feeling the hot prick of tears in his eyes. He wiped them away before they could gather in his eyes. Cole had been their miracle. They had tried for six years before the prince was born, and after they couldn’t seem to have another. He had been the light of their life from that day until he had died. And when they had both passed, they had taken a piece of Hank with them. 

Hank fell back, resting his back against Queen Tiffania’s tomb, his elbows resting on his raised knees. He held his head in his hands, now only a slight pain behind his eyes. He could guess the time, the torch on the wall couldn’t tell it as easily as a candle could, but Hank had a lifetime of experience. When the torch started dimming, he knew he had hidden long enough. He stood, pressing a kiss to the temple of his son’s statue, and then left his family behind in the dark. 

Sumo greeted him with a wagging tail at the top of the staircase. Hank patted the dog’s head, dragging his feet from the temple and up through the courtyards. The knights had cleared out, going back to their quarters to drink and have a merry time. Any other night Hank would have followed them there, but not tonight. He looked upwards at his chamber window from the upper courtyard, the room well-lit by candles and torches. Connor was still awake, then. 

Instead of heading to his bedchamber to sink into a bath to soothe his aching muscles, or to bed to sleep off the rest of his headache, he headed to his study on the opposite side of the castle. He sent Sumo off towards the kitchen, knowing that someone would steer him towards the kennel. The tray of dinner was already on his desk, next to the pile of letters and packages he had been avoiding. He sighed, lifting the paper and cloth wrapped packages— it looked as though there were six of them, he thought— and placed them next to the candle on the waist-high bookshelf to the right of the desk. 

Sitting down at his desk, Hank picked idly at the stack of letters by nobles, the usual complaints about their closest neighbors, squabbles over land, or properties, or unpaid bets. He sighed, marking down available dates for the nobles to come and plead their cases in front of him. He was too tired to write reply letters at the moment, and even the few letters he had to read seemed too much for him at the moment. He reread the same line three times before he realized it, and had created an ink blot the size of his thumb on the paper. He quickly dabbed it out, rubbing his temple. 

There was a stack under the letters of reports from the castle and the rest of the kingdom, reports of grain storage from the cities and larger towns across Ravendale after winter, but Hank had absolutely no desire to deal with any of that. The day couldn’t possibly get worse, he thought, reaching for the stack of packages with a sigh.

He peeled back the colorful paper and cloth from each of the small packages, sent from across the twelve kingdoms, revealing, as he expected, portrait miniatures of princesses and noble women. Though all of the miniatures were fairly small, the largest only spanning his two hands, each was an attempt at showing the beauty of the available woman and the wealth of her family. Hank sighed as he opened them, the letters from the women’s fathers and brothers singing their praises, and kindly reminding the king how lonely he must be, getting up there in age— he was only forty-three!— after five years without a woman’s companionship. How quiet it must be without the sound of heirs running about the castle. 

Hank drops any that mention either of those things directly into the fire. 

And Hank— Hank knows . He wasn’t getting any younger, but it seemed as the years passed, these women were . As the women in the portraits he had been sent over the past few years gave up on being the queen of Ravendale, and married someone with far more emotional availability than King Henry, their younger sisters and cousins and nieces came of age, taking their chance with the old widowed king. 

He snorted aloud, knowing how hypocritical he sounded, even in his own head, considering the age of the man he had had in his bed the previous night. But Connor, he thought, was different from these women. Although, in their own way, they were very much the same— these women and the slaves rarely sold themselves— instead, a relative tried to pass these women off to as many men as they could find, hoping one would stick.

None of these women would ever hold a candle to Queen Tiffania, who’s image he first saw on one of these very miniatures. He had it locked away in his solar’s desk, in the room he barely used, hidden behind the tapestry in his bedchamber. When he wanted to use a study, he used one as far away from his bedroom that he could find without leaving the castle. Staring down at the array of portraits, he knew it would be an inevitability that he would have to choose one, some day. He needed heirs, but… five years felt like nothing to the time he was promised when he married Tiffania. 

The last package in the pile, wrapped with heavy green paper that looked like it had been sprayed with water, contained a simple wooden frame of a woman with dark hair and eyes. He checked the letter, seeing she was from Kalium— but the frame held none of the usual gaudy array of jewels the ladies of Kalium usually attached to their portraits. She wasn’t a princess, but she was a noblewoman, and from the quality of the portrait, he thought she might be able to afford the normal sort of finery that the ladies of Kalium usually afforded. 

Her portrait looked as though it had been dipped in water, the edges blurred and rosy. She was pretty, and… reminded him a bit of Connor, who’s face he never could seem to push from his mind. She had dark hair piled on her head, and dark eyes accompanied by rosy cheeks, unlike Connor’s. Although they looked little alike, the resemblance between the noblewoman and Connor seemed only to increase Hank’s headache, not dispel it. 

Though Hank had barely touched his dinner, he found he wasn’t hungry. He looked out the window at the dark sky, and hoped that he had waited long enough for Connor to fall asleep. He swept the miniatures into the drawer, where he would decide what to do with them later— possibly even handing them off to Sir Fowler and the rest of his advisors who could argue over them until the end of days— and grabbed the stack of actually important papers. 

Connor was asleep when Hank came back to the room, not on the bed, but on the settee. From the door, Hank could see Connor’s dark hair peeking over the arm of the settee in front of the fireplace. He’d only taken a cushion from the settee, not one from the bed, but Hank didn’t want to disturb the sleeping elf by attempting to put one under his head. The slave was missing a blanket as well, and though Hank supposed being directly in front of the fire might make the settee considerably warmer than the rest of the room, Hank fetched the additional winter blanket from the wardrobe, and placed it gently over Connor’s curled frame. Moving the papers from the table where Hank had left them to the desk, Hank realized he’d taken that last portrait with him by accident. He dropped it into the unlocked drawer of his desk. 

Someday, he knew, he’d have to remarry. But not now. With a glance at Connor’s sleeping form, he snorted. At least he knew all of his parts still worked. 

Connor’s hair was ruffled, probably from falling asleep in an uncomfortable position, but Hank didn’t dare wake him. He wasn’t entirely sure if Connor had chosen to sleep on the couch— away from Hank— or if he’d fallen asleep there. He supposed he’d find out tomorrow evening. He sighed again, resisting the urge to brush the hair from Connor’s innocent face.

With his hand stilled on the back of the settee, Hank felt the same resounding guilt rise in his gut. Over the years, Hank had thought about ending it all. More than a dozen times, especially in the first few years after his family had been taken from him. It had been his knights— his friends and constant companions since his youth— who had kept him afloat in that dark time. But looking down at Connor’s face brought up all that guilt and suffering bubbling back up to the surface. His knights had been the only thing reminding Hank of who he had to be. Despite whatever Hank was feeling, his position in life was far greater than that of a simple man. He, and the other kings and queens of the world, had a Raneighs-given duty to serve as king, as their fathers before them. He owed it to his kingdom to produce an heir, to rule at full capacity, to not let his kingdom fall to either Warren or Jericho. Fowler had reminded him of that all too often, even when Fowler had retired as the captain of the guard, choosing to stay on as Hank’s constable, to keep him in place along with Ravendale’s armies.

When Hank awoke the next morning, Connor was absent from his quarters. Hank tried not to think about it too much, knowing that the slave couldn’t really go anywhere, couldn’t leave the castle without Hank’s explicit consent. 

After breakfast, Hank called for a bath. And then he continued with his duties as if he hadn’t been avoiding them entirely for the past few days. The next few days were long, two days of previously-arranged noble courts, an entire day of council meetings to discuss at what key points they would reinforce the border patrols, which was followed by a night of heavy drinking with the knights who were to be sent to reinforce the borders. 

All three nights Connor stayed on the couch, even as two knights had to help the stumbling king back to his bedchamber, as the two knights were the only two who could stand on their own long enough to help the king upstairs. Hank would recall in the morning that it felt an awful lot like they were a six-legged support tower that didn’t know how to walk. 

He had known staying out drinking with his men was a bad idea, but the king had never really been one for good ideas, he reminded himself as he sat in the throne room the next day with a pounding headache. He sat listening to the citizens of Ravendale— mainly from the surrounding lower castle town, but some came as far as Mackinae— were invited to voice their concerns and have the king rule on their own petty squabbles, not unlike the noblemen’s court on a much smaller scale. Hank couldn’t even remember the last time he’d held an open court, but he supposed that was why his advisors had arranged for one without actually bothering to tell their king about it. With only a short break for lunch, and no stopping for dinner as the court lasted well into the night, Hank stood when the throne room doors were closed, but he felt no better than he did that morning. 

Hank dragged his feet down the corridors, not bothering to stop by the kitchens for a late dinner, just heading back to his bedchamber. He was halfway there before he remembered that Connor would be in his bedchamber, but after four days of non-stop contact with his citizens, Hank supposed that one angry elf couldn’t be any worse, if he were even awake.

He expected the room to be as dark as it had been in the evenings the past few days when Hank returned at night, but when Hank opened the door, the room was brightly-lit, though most of the candles hadn’t had their wick trimmed in a few hours. Connor, who had been sitting on the couch, jumped in surprise, as though he’d forgotten Hank lived there too. 

Hank could see Connor’s cheeks flush blue as he placed the book he’d been holding in his lap. “Sorry,” Connor said. “You’ve been gone so late the past few days, and I got caught up in this book I…” He shook his head. “I’ll extinguish the candles right away—” Connor said, going to stand with a rushed movement.

“It’s fine,” Hank heard himself say as he reached for one of the apples on the table by the door. “Stay up as long as you want.” He took a bite from the apple, and them mumbled to himself, “I’ll be asleep in five minutes anyway.” Hank was too tired to deal with anyone else’s problems today, even his own. 

He felt Connor’s eyes on him as he undressed, trying not to feel self conscious about it, knowing that just four days ago he’d been unclothed with the elf, but he turned away from Connor as he stripped. As he told Connor, Hank was asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow, candles be damned. 

Though Hank was usually a heavy sleeper, he stirred as he felt the bed dip next to him in the dark. Connor was sliding into bed next to Hank. He was keeping his distance, staying on the far edge of the bed. As he began to fall asleep again, Hank realized he could have simply sent Connor away. Still could. Put him up in a room on the other side of the castle, send him down to live with the other servants and slaves, where Hank would never have to see or think about him again. He couldn’t completely get rid of Connor, not without risk of offending Warren and their fleet of warships, but he didn’t actually have to fuck his pleasure slave. He didn’t have to keep Connor in his room like a pet. 

But, he thought as he stirred awake the following morning, he liked sleeping next to someone. He liked having someone to warm his bed in winter, to brush their feet against his legs, to wake with his face in someone else’s hair… Hank allowed himself to breathe in Connor’s earthen scent for a moment longer before pulling away from Connor’s still-sleeping form, knowing the elf probably wouldn’t appreciate it, having just resumed sleeping in the bed with Hank. He didn’t need to wake up being groped by the king again.

If only Hank actually had any clue of what he was going to do with the elf. 

Chapter Text

Connor left early before the king awoke, before Phileas arrived with breakfast. He’d slipped into one of the tunics Zoe’s mother had tailored a few days ago, and wandered downstairs to the kitchens where the scullery maids were preparing breakfast for everyone in the castle. “Oh, hello honey,” Rose said when she saw him lingering in the doorway. She was laboring over the brick oven, a long wooden peel in her hand as she lofted several grain loaves into the oven. 

She put the peel down and wiped her brow, a dusting of flour sticking to her forehead. Connor liked Rose. She was nice, he thought, and was one of the few people in the castle who didn’t seem to treat him any differently than the rest of the staff. He supposed it was because she was the head kitchen maid, in charge of all the scullery staff, human or otherwise. 

“Here for breakfast?” she asked with a hand on her hip. The past few days, when he was trying to avoid the king, Connor had mostly holed up in the library. Not staying in the bedchamber to wait for breakfast had meant Connor had to stop by the kitchens frequently if he wanted anything to eat. She had made him feel comfortable coming down to the kitchens, as though he wasn’t horribly out of place there. 

Connor nodded, “Do you have any jam left?”

Rose sighed, shaking her head. “Sorry, Connor,” she said. “I can make some more but I’ll have to pick up more Thirium crystal fruits next time I’m at the market.” She looked pensive, and with a glance at the slate board on the wall behind Connor, she spoke again. “I have another trip to the market in lower Detroit on Thursday, I’ll see to it that I get some then.” She smiled at him.

Connor hesitated. He’d been cooped up in the castle since he’d arrived, but he’d been avoiding the king so he’d never requested permission to leave and go to the gardens, or even the upper courtyard to get some air. “Can I come with you?”

Rose crossed her arms over her chest, looking wary. “I’m not saying no,” she said, “but you’ll have to ask the king for permission.” Connor nodded, feeling hesitant. He took an offered bundle of food from the hand of a scullery maid, promising to return the cloth before he returned to his bedchamber that evening. He wasn’t quite sure why he felt so unsure of himself as he wandered around the castle. Even though he wasn’t entirely avoiding the king anymore, Connor was hesitant to seek the king out during the daytime. 

He found himself wandering some vaguely familiar hallways in his thoughts. When Connor looked up, he found himself near the great hall. He’d only been in this area once before when he’d first arrived at the castle, and was unsure of what was close by, or where he could stop to eat. Not quite sure to go from there, not wanting to ask anyone for directions, Connor looked around the corridors jutting off from the main hall. At the end of the hall was the throne room, two guards standing by, looking rather uninterested in the area around them. Ahead to the right was the great hall, surrounded by a series of doors leading to smaller rooms. 

Connor shifted from foot to foot, glancing towards the throne room. He knew the king was probably sitting on his throne and could answer Connor’s query if he simply walked in there and asked for permission. But the idea of asking in front of other people seemed even more frightening than asking later, privately. He glanced around to the nearest corridors, spotting a stone archway just ahead of him to his left. Stepping into the corridor, Connor came face to face with a row of lifelike portraits. He looked down the hall, the portraits hung on the wall for as far as he could see. 

He stepped forward, his curiosity piqued by the paintings. Only half of the candles were lit, and there was only one arched window at the end of the corridor, making the corridor dimly lit, but Connor could still see many of the portraits fairly easily. Connor clasped his hands behind his back, holding the knotted cloth of breakfast in his hands, as he inspected a thousand years of portraits. 

The earliest portrait was closest to the entrance of the main hall. A look down at the nameplate was the only indication that King Harke, the first king of Ravendale, and the King Henry that Connor knew, were even distantly related. The nameplate indicated that the portrait had been painted only a few hundred years ago, while the king’s lifespan indicated that he had lived shortly after the Age of Dawn, far earlier than the portrait’s origin. King Harke stood on what looked like the steps of Detroit Castle when it was first under construction, a clear artistic rendering as the artist could not have been around at the time. 

To the left of the first portrait was another painting, that of Harke’s daughter Queen Katja. Like Harke’s, Katja’s portrait seemed to be painted well after her death, but at a different time than the first king’s. Connor stepped to the left to inspect the portrait beside it, following the line of portraits until they began to resemble the man that Connor knew. 

Though the elf knew little of art, he could see that the portraits changed styles through the years, the frames changing shape from square to oval and then back to square, the background shifting to show off the wealth of the regency via the newly added additions to the castle. Some rulers posed with their spouses and children, while some portraits showed off the regents in separate portraits from their spouses. Standing in the long corridor, Connor wondered if the castle in Jericho had a similar wall of portraits. He thought it unlikely— the elves had only taken back their home twenty years ago, and though Connor recalled the human king was a descendant of those who ruled before him, he knew by the way the elves refused to speak King Elijah’s father’s name his portrait would be found nowhere in Jericho. 

Connor stopped at the second to last portrait, hands still clasped behind his back as he leaned forward. The painting was of a young man in his twenties, with golden hair and beard, ruby circlet on his brow. The king’s bright blue eyes were severe, brow furrowed and a frown upon his face. His hand was on his sword as he stood on the steps of the throne, his long midnight blue cape draped over his shoulders. The nameplate on the portrait confirmed what Connor already knew: the man was King Henry, twenty years ago. He stared up at the portrait for far too long.

He was incredibly handsome, Connor finally thought, and then shook the thought from his mind. With a glance at King Anders’ portrait before Henry’s, Connor saw that the king had been crowned at just twenty-three, a few years before the portrait was commissioned. With an uncomfortable feeling in his gut, Connor tore his eyes from the portrait of the young king, eyes settling on the portrait beside it. 

Connor froze when he settled on the portrait. Instead of seeing a portrait like all of the others, the round frame was concealed by a dark cloth. He knew he shouldn’t— it was concealed for a reason, but his curiosity was getting the better of him. He looked around for a moment before reaching to lift the cloth. The lit torch behind him reflected off the nameplate, showing the name Queen Tiffania. Connor dropped the cloth as though he’d been burned. 

He knew the king had been married, but it felt strange staring into the dead woman’s face. He hesitated a moment longer, and then, looking around, lifted the cloth to inspect the portrait. The portrait had been painted from her bosom upwards, a grey dress low over her shoulders, showing off a pale white neck draped with delicate silver jewelry. The beautiful woman’s face was smiling down at him, a silver crown over her long dark hair, and eyes so blue they seemed almost black. Gingerly placing the cloth back down, Connor spared a moment to wonder about the king’s son. 

Connor knew little about the boy. He had died some years ago, alongside his mother, leaving the king alone on the throne. There had been no portrait of the young prince in the hall, there wouldn’t have been, not until the prince came of age. Connor’s gaze fell back on the king. Had his son taken the king’s fair looks, or his mother’s? He knew better than to ask the king, it wasn’t his business anyway, though curiosity often gnawed at him like a wild animal.

With one last look at the portraits, he hurried from the hall before anyone could ask him any questions. 

When Connor finally returned to the bedchamber around dinner, he found King Henry already there. The king looked up at Connor as if he were surprised to see him. Connor tried not to look surprised as well, reminding himself that he was no longer avoiding the king— if only because he didn’t like the coldness of the couch alone. 

His eyes fell on the basket on the table, his heart beating faster in elation. His new clothing had arrived. Connor stepped forward, feeling the soft fabrics between his fingers. He looked up to see the king staring at him gently. He looked down, between the basket and the king, wondering if he should thank him. His hands stilled over one of the tunics, pressed just above where his heart would be when he wore it. 

He wasn’t sure why he felt so nervous asking about leaving the castle, except that... The clothing must have cost a small fortune, the fine materials and expert tailoring. He had no idea how much it had cost the king, and Connor found himself feeling… indebted to the king. Knew that besides that one night a few days ago, he hadn’t served his king at all. 

He didn’t want— need— to buy anything at the market with Rose. He’d never owned anything for himself, and even these clothes between his fingers… Should the king sell him— and Connor’s heart seized in his chest with fear, knowing that despite everything, there were far worse people out there that could possess him— Connor wouldn’t be taking any of these possessions with him, and therefore Connor could never really feel like he owned them.

But, he thought, so far the king hadn’t denied him anything, even when he’d been the one asking the king to come to his bed. So he swallowed his fear and asked, “I— I was in the kitchens this morning, and Rose— the head kitchen maid—” Connor felt himself ramble, “said she’d be going to the market on Thursday, and I was wondering if I could…. go with her?”

Connor looked up from his wringing hands to see the king’s raised eyebrows. King Henry choked, reaching for the goblet, and using it to swallow down his dinner. “Yes, alright, but—”

But before the king could even finish his sentence, Connor found himself smiling uncontrollably. The king leaned back in his chair, a look of almost— awe over his face, but Connor knew that couldn’t be right. The king cleared his throat again. “I’ll be sending Reed with you.”

Connor nodded eagerly, and the king turned his face from Connor’s as he stood and walked over to the desk. King Henry lifted a key from his belt and opened the locked drawer, Connor unable to see anything even when he craned his neck. He heard the lock click into place again, and then saw the king’s shadow looming over him. The king pressed a small, heavy bag in his hand, no bigger than his palm. Connor looked at it quizzically, and then up at the king. 

King Henry’s cheeks flushed a bit, and he said, rubbing the back of his head, “It’s money, Connor.”

“Oh,” Connor said, looking down at his hand. “What do you want me to do with it?”

The king groaned, “What do you think you do with money, Connor? You buy things with it.”

“Oh. I’ll give it to Ro—”

The king sighed, shaking his head, “No, Connor, it’s for you. To buy something with on Thursday. Something for yourself.”

Connor’s mouth was ajar, but without repeating oh for the third time, he was left with an absence of words. He looked down at the small coin purse in his hand in awe. The king turned, coughing, and mumbled something about going to sleep. With the heaviness in his hands, Connor looked to the king’s prone form, feeling something uncomfortable rising in chest. He felt like he owed the king, and he didn’t like that feeling. He didn’t want to owe the king— he didn’t know if he wanted to give the king his body again, but then again, when has Connor ever been allowed to want something before?

Thursday morning at dawn, Connor couldn’t contain his excitement as he nearly ran down the stairs to the surprised faces of Rose and that scowling guard— Connor supposed he must be Sir Reed. Sir Reed wasn’t wearing an entire suit of armor or helmet, only a pauldron and vambrace on his sword arm over his chain mail. “Connor!” Rose said, “I’m so happy you could make it.” She glanced up at the guard, and then said in a lower tone, looking worried, “The king didn’t give you too much trouble, did he?”

Connor couldn’t conceal the smile on his face or the way he seemed to bounce when he shook his head, “No.” He was far too excited about the chance to see the town he’d only been able to glance from the window, the small coin purse jingling in his hand. He heard a sigh from behind him, and he turned to see the displeased face of the guard. The knight looked rough and unshaven, as though he’d been up late drinking with the other knights, but so far he had only ever looked like this when Connor had seen him.  

“Listen up, sapblood,” Sir Reed said, a tired sneer on his face, pointing his finger up at Connor. Connor looked down at the knight, who was a few inches shorter than he, “I am here against my better judgment, because the king doesn’t trust you. And I trust you even less .” He jabbed Connor in the chest, which would have caused anyone else to stumble backward, but Connor was an elf and had been expecting the jab, so he simply stood his ground.

Connor nodded, “Of course, Captain.” Connor didn’t like Reed. The way he looked at Connor was not unlike many of the slavers he’d dealt with over the years, not even bothering to hide the disgust on his face— but without the lust hidden behind it. Connor’s jaw clenched, “And my name is Connor, Captain. I think that if the king can remember it so can you. Rose?”

Rose covered up her mouth but was barely able to stifle her laugh. “Connor, I brought this for you,” she said, fishing a small leather waist pouch from the basket on her hip, “in case you wanted to do a little shopping of your own. I suppose I have a couple extra coins if we cut back on a few things,” she muttered, looking down at her list at the bottom of the basket. 

Taking the pouch from her hand, he looked down at it. “Thank you. But I can’t accept your generosity,” he said, feeling his cheeks flush, wringing the pouch in his hands. He wasn’t used to humans actually… looking out for him. “The king, um,” he said, clearing his throat, “the king actually gave me a few coins, so please don’t inconvenience yourself on account of me.”

He heard Reed snort behind him, but Connor ignored it. Rose raised her eyebrows, but ushered the two of them out of the building. Even early in the morning, Connor could hear the bustle of the city below the courtyard. Carts of hay were being wheeled into the lower courtyard, dozens of knights milling around the stables as squires rushed by with saddles in their arms. A few nodded at Reed as they passed, and Connor could feel eyes on him as he walked beside Rose toward the market in the lower town.

“It’s open every day, but after noon on Wednesdays,” Rose explained, nodding towards the temple towering over the town. “But I find it most convenient to go the day after temple,” then she leaned in as if she was giving him a secret, “that’s when the best produce appears.” Connor nodded at her wisdom. “Don’t mind me, Connor,” she said, “I’ll be shopping for specialty items that don’t get delivered to the castle. Let me know if you see something you like.”

Connor nodded, but what did he like? He followed Rose through the array of stalls, being assaulted on all sides by the yelling shopkeepers, the colorful wares, and the bustle of the shoppers. He felt a bit lost in all of it, and began to wonder how much he had missed of the world the past ten years. And what he couldn’t remember from before. 

They passed a stall selling fruit, and as Rose leaned in to pick a Thirium crystal fruit, Connor looked over the other offered fruits. Like the flower cart they had seen upon entering the market, the fruit stand was overflowing with colors. His gaze fell on a bunch of berries on a vine, the red dots shining in the early morning dew. Connor had never seen them before, and it was clear the shopkeeper could tell. “Ah, the Lingonberry,” the willowy man said. “Only grows in the mountains of Warren! Only a few places in Ravendale that grow them! Very rare!” 

Connor picked up the fruit and paid the shopkeeper the requested price. He wasn’t entirely sure he wanted it, but he’d liked the other fruits he’d tried. If he found nothing else at the market, then at least he would have them. Before he could put the berries in his pouch, he realized that Rose was gone. He could hear Reed still shuffling his feet behind him, but Connor began to feel panicked— if Reed realized he couldn’t keep track of his other escort, he would surely drag Connor back to the castle, and then report back to the king that he couldn’t be trusted to leave the castle again.

So he froze time, drawing hours from seconds, his gaze going blue, his eyes searching the area with a fervor. But instead of Rose, he spotted a woman manning a stall well ahead of him. She was an elf, like him— but without a golden collar around her neck. She was smiling happily, her arms almost fully extended towards someone else, mid-movement. Connor had never seen an elf look that happy before, so he couldn’t bring himself to fight the fading of time as the world fell back into full movement. He wanted to see what made her so happy. 

The elven shopkeeper fell into the arms of a second woman, another elf, who had been rushing up to meet her. The second woman had short, bright hair that rustled in the wind as she embraced the first woman so strongly it was as if they never wished to be parted, only pulling apart to kiss. The shopkeeper pulled the other woman towards her tent, and though Connor felt his cheeks flush blue at watching a strong display of love, he couldn’t seem to pull his eyes away.

When the women disappeared into the tent, Connor was brought back to his present dilemma when he heard Reed snap his fingers in his ears. “Sorry, what?” Connor said.

“Haven’t you been listening, sapblood?” Reed said with an eye roll. “The scullery maid is looking for you.” He pointed to the distance, just beyond the elven woman’s stall, to see Rose calling out his name. Connor hurried after her, face blushing blue, embarrassed that he had gotten too caught up in the happiness of those two women. 

He wove his way through the crowd, Reed following just behind him, to find Rose at a stall selling honey by the jar. Behind the counter was a tall, thin young man, sharing the same dark skin that Rose had. The shopkeeper looked displeased with the addition to his counter, looking almost nervously between Connor and Reed.

“Connor!” Rose scalded to the elf beside her, “I told you to let me know if you wanted to run off on your own!” He apologized, bowing his head, but Rose brushed it away with a kind smile. “Connor, this is my son, Adam,” Rose said, gesturing behind the wooden counter. Connor could see the resemblance between them, even as Adam shifted from foot to foot, not quite meeting Connor’s eye. “He runs our honey farm now that his father is gone.” 

Connor could see the jars of honey stacked high on the counter, and in wooden crates at the man’s feet. A few bees seemed to have followed their master to the market, fat honeybees floating lazily through the stall. 

“Mother,” Adam said sharply, and then in a half-whisper, as if that would keep Connor from hearing him, “I thought we agreed that you wouldn’t be bringing any more of… them… with you?”

So Connor was not the first slave that Rose had taken under her wing, giving them some sort of a chance at a life there in the castle. Connor was unsurprised. She had a kind heart and a generous soul, even watching her scold her son mid-market.

Rose shook her head, “Adam, I’m your mother,” she said, hand on her hip, the woven basket balanced on the other side. Connor eyed the half-full basket, reminding himself that he should insist on carrying it for her when they resumed their excursion. “And he’s an elf— a person— who could use a friendly face.” 

Adam sighed and removed his red cap, already untied. He tucked it into the rope belt at his waist and crossed his arms. “You aren’t going to— invite him home with us, are you?” 

Rose’s son looked around nervously, especially towards Reed behind Connor. The knight was not paying any attention to the three of him. Reed had his arms crossed on his chest again, and was watching a woman across from them working a spinning wheel, turning a pile of yarn into wool. His eyes were glazed, and his face red from too many hours in the sun though it was still mid-morning. He swatted, irritated, at a bee buzzing around his face, but he made no attempt to pay attention to their conversation.

Rose pressed her lips together, shooting a glance back at Reed, and shook her head. “Connor works in the castle.”

Adam snorted, looking Connor over. Connor tried not to fidget under the human’s gaze, as the human made snap judgments about him. “Oh yes? Doing what?” he said incredulously.

“He works with me,” Rose said, brushing off her son’s comments. It wasn’t entirely true, but it was the closest to the truth that Connor was willing to admit to around humans that clearly didn’t like his kind. “The king might miss him,” she said, and Connor nodded. It had been difficult enough to gather the courage to ask the king to let him go to the market, he couldn’t imagine asking to go to the farmhouse of a scullery maid.

“The king ?” Adam hissed, leaning forward to say something else to his mother Connor politely didn’t listen to. There was clearly something else unsaid between the mother and son than they weren’t willing to say out in the market. Connor’s gaze wandered as he allowed his hearing to fade out, content on watching the bustling world around him. 

But, once again distracting him, his mind fell back on the two women in the neighboring stall. He had not seen them again, neither reappearing since they disappeared into the tent, but the image of the pure bliss on their faces as the lovers embraced was not something he could easily forget. Connor felt that strange surge of something in his chest that he’d felt when looking at the king the other night. 

As Connor was no longer ignoring the king, he began to realize how much the king had actually been avoiding him , too. It somehow made him feel slightly better knowing he wasn’t the only one who felt out of place with the whole situation. Rather than the two of them only seeing one another when the other came to bed, the king was appearing more frequently in their bedchamber in the early evenings, taking dinner with Connor before retiring to his desk.

“Connor, can you fetch me my spectacles?” the king asked, squinting down at the letter in his hand. It had been a slower evening, so the king hadn’t moved from the table to the desk yet, still sitting with his abandoned dinner plate before him. Connor nodded, rising to his feet to open the drawer the spectacles had previously been in. The drawer seemed to stick when Connor pulled at it, but with another tug, it came open. It was packed full of things that hadn’t been there last time, so Connor had to rifle through the trinkets in search of the king’s spectacles. 

His hand stilled over a miniature portrait of a dark-haired woman. She wasn’t the late queen, he knew from seeing Queen Tiffania’s portrait in the hall of portraits. She was a different woman entirely, and by the lack of aging on the frame, her portrait had been painted relatively recently. Was she the king’s sweetheart? A mistress? Connor hadn’t seen her around the castle anywhere, but the thought of it bothered him too much to ask. Or so he thought for a few moments, anyway.

Connor turned to the king, “Who is this?” he held the portrait angling the king. 

King Henry squinted at the portrait in the dim light, “Connor, you know I can’t see that!” he grumbled. “My spectacles .”

“Oh, yes, sorry,” Connor said, digging around in the drawer until he found them and handed them over to the king. “Who is she?”

Impatient ,” the king huffed, but with his spectacles now on, the king seemed almost annoyed at the portrait in Connor’s hands— but not at Connor. It made him feel mildly better. “I don’t know her name, it was just one of the miniatures people keep sending me.”

“What for?” Connor asked, perching himself on the edge of the table, looking down at the miniature cradled in his lap. His finger traced the carved frame, fingers passing over raised carvings.

The king sighed, “Because they want me to marry her— one of them—” he said, waving his hands. Connor stilled, his thumb pressed to the cheek of the smiling woman. King Henry seemed uncomfortable with the topic, running his hand through his silver hair. Connor wasn’t sure how he felt looking down at the portrait, only that it was a different kind of uncomfortable than when he’d been looking at the portrait of the late queen. 

“One of them? So there are others?” He didn’t know why he was asking. Why was he asking?

“Only a couple dozen,” the king snorted, but he wasn’t quite looking at Connor. “She just ended up in my desk.”

“So you like her?” Connor asked, leaning towards the king. The uncomfortable feeling was rising in his chest, but he didn’t know how to stop it. 

“What’s with all the questions all of a sudden?” the king groaned. Connor shrugged his shoulders. “No— I don’t know. She’s pretty, but at my age, that’s not all you want out of a partner.”

Connor hummed, “So you are thinking about getting married?” He told himself the uncomfortable feeling in his chest was about self-preservation. The king hadn’t touched him since Connor invited him to bed, besides brushing up against him in the night, but that was Connor’s only purpose here— as a bed warmer for the king. If the king remarried someone who actually pleased the king, someone who was more than pretty , where would Connor be?

“Raneighs, Connor!” the king said, throwing up his hands. “I’m not answering any more of your ridiculous questions.” 

“Fine,” Connor huffed, dropping down from the table. “See if I get your spectacles for you next time,” he mumbled to himself as he shoved the portrait back into the drawer, and then marched to bed, wrapping the blankets around himself, falling into a fitful sleep.

Connor had begun to settle into the castle, beginning to think that the tales of the drunken, violent king were figments spun to alarm him, when he awoke in the dark library. He sat up with a start, the book perched on his chest falling open onto his lap. The librarian hadn’t bothered to wake him, probably out of spite, so he stumbled back to the king’s bedchamber in the barely lit hallways. There wasn’t a guard at the door, hadn’t been one for days, but there was a light under the door. He hoped the king hadn’t waited up for him. 

Instead, he found the king hunched over his desk, alone in the room. There were several empty bottles scattered around him, and the room stank of spirits. The king’s chest moved in inconsistent shudders. With a step closer, Connor realized the king was crying. “King Henry?” Connor asked, hesitantly. “Hank?”

“Go away, Connor,” the king said, words slurred. It should have been an order. The collar around his neck should have warmed uncomfortably, should have held him from taking another step. Connor could feel the heat on his throat from the chain, but he stepped forward anyway, shaking his head. 

“What’s wrong?” Connor asked, collapsing to his knees in front of the king. He rocked back onto his heels, resting on them as to not touch the king, hands hovering over his thighs. His eyes raked over the man, who he had never seen in such a state of disarray before. The king’s hair was greasy and out of place, and his shirt was rumpled and stained. Connor didn’t know where the king had been the past few hours, but with pursed lips, Connor supposed the king must have been dining with his knights again. 

The king didn’t reply, instead turning his face from Connor’s to the small portrait in the king’s hand. Connor, unable to see the image, froze. He glanced to the side of the king, but instead of seeing the unlocked drawer open, the other drawer— usually locked with a key at the king’s waist— looked as though it had been practically torn from the desk, the key still in the lock. 

Leaning forward, still not daring to touch the king, Connor arched his head slightly to see the portrait in the king’s lap. It wasn’t of a woman, as Connor had first assumed, but of a little boy. Parts of the frame shone with spilled tears. Startled, Connor leaned too far forward, catching himself on the king’s knee. The king growled, pushing the elf’s hand off of himself. “Whadded did I say? Go away!” he pushed Connor back, causing him to fall onto the ground. “An’ don’t touch me!” 

The collar felt warmer on his neck, but Connor shook his head and rose back to his heels. He placed a hand on the king’s knee, deliberately this time, grounding the king. “Is this your son?” Connor asked gently, though he already knew the answer. 

“Wh’ the fuck do you care?” the king sneered at him, the hurt inside of the man boiling over as anger. But he didn’t shove Connor away again, and breathing steadily to calm himself, he knew that was a good thing. 

Rocking back onto his heels, Connor knew he didn’t have a good answer, even for himself. Maybe it was the loneliness that followed him for all these years, grasping onto the first real connection he’d had with anyone in years. He’d seen slaves lash out like this, reacting to the losses they faced when torn from their homes and their families. He wasn’t going to let King Henry push him away in his anguish, not when Connor was here and could help. Connor shook his head. “Because I care.” About you. “Won’t you tell me about him?”

Connor thought the king was going to push him away again, bracing himself to catch his fall, but instead, King Henry turned his head from Connor again, another shuddering sob shaking him down to Connor’s hand. The king was quiet for so long that the elf thought he wasn’t going to speak at all. 

But then he did, with a renewed venom in his voice. The king reached out, taking Connor’s chin to force him to look up at the king with a rough hand. “When the plague came to Thirius,” the king growled, a look of anger on his face, though his eyes looked past Connor, “your people were the only ones immune,” Hank spit. “Jericho was untouched, no weak humans near the border to carry the sickness.”

Connor pressed his lips together. What could he say to that? Connor knew his people had been spared. It was five years ago, when he had just been moved to the Woodward slave house from Port Eden. The plague had washed over the three kingdoms, and all winter bodies of humans piled up on the streets. His people had been untouched by the plague, but not by the angry hands of the humans who placed the blame on their shoulders. 

King Henry released a shuddering breath, as though the fight was leaving him. He sounded far more sober than Connor had seen him so far that night. Connor glanced around him, seeing there were no bottles within reach. “They had died within days of each other, and in the end, Cole had been too delirious from the fever to have even known his mother was gone.” This time, Connor was the one shuddering as he closed his eyes. He wasn’t sure he could stand to look at the raw emotion in the king’s watery blue eyes. He opened them again when the king snatched his hand back from Connor’s chin as if it burned him, burying his face into his hands. 

“Fuck off Connor,” the king finally said into his hands, but the fight had already left his voice. King Henry dragged his hands over his face, his eyes rimmed a dark red. “Think I’m pretty pathetic, huh, Connor?” The king let out a self-deprecating huff, mistaking Connor’s silence for judgment. “Not exactly living up to the standards you were expecting of a king, am I?” He sounded tired.

Connor hesitated, but he brought his free hand up to cup the king’s cheek. The king looked at him with such raw emotion that Connor felt he was staring into the sun. “Being vulnerable doesn’t make you weak, Your Majesty,” Connor told him truthfully. Connor should know, he’d cried enough over the years to fill the riverlands. “Thank you for telling me this,” he said softly. 

He stood abruptly, removing his hand from the king’s cheek with hesitance. He turned from the king, unable to look at him any longer. He tried not to think about the way the king had leaned into his hand before he pulled away, as he crossed the room to bring the king water from the pitcher. The king took the cold tankard without a word, but groaned when he pressed the tankard to his heated cheeks.

Connor busied himself by fetching the king’s sleeping clothes. He stood over the man, waiting for him to finish the water, before helping the stumbling man into the clothes he had gathered. Connor looked down at the portrait still in the king’s hand, and with a glance up at the king’s face, gently took it from the king’s hand. He placed it back into the drawer, locking it with the key, and then looping the key back onto the king’s keyring. “You should get to bed, Your Majesty,” Connor said gently.

The king grumbled in agreement, letting Connor help him to the bed, but he pushed Connor away when he tried to help the king into the bed. “‘M not an invalid.” Connor felt a small smile form in the corners of his mouth as he snuffed out the lights in the room. 

He stumbled back towards the bed, lifting the blankets to snuggle his back in closer to the king’s radiating warmth. Connor felt the bed shift as the king wrapped himself around Connor, his weight heavy on the elf. He was no longer wracked with emotion, but the king was breathing wet and heavily, as if he had caught one of the sobs in his throat. Connor held his breath, smelling the stink of spirits he had ignored earlier when tending to the king. It reminded him of when he had invited the king to bed him. The king’s hands came around him to press wide, warm hands against Connor’s cold ribcage.

This is it , he thought, with an uptake in breath. The king was surely going to touch him again, like last time. Because the king was lonely and missed those he cared about. Or because Connor’s body was better than nothing at all. He felt that uncomfortable strangeness rise in his chest as he realized that… maybe it was Connor who wanted this. He didn’t mind the press of the king on top of him, an uncomfortable heat growing in his smallclothes with every brush of the king’s large, hairy legs against Connor’s. 

But rather than turning Connor over, the king breathed in and out with a slow, steady pace of a man asleep. He hadn’t intended to touch Connor at all. He’d probably fallen asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow, reaching out to the closest warmth. And Connor was… disappointed in that thought. He closed his eyes, willing himself to sleep so he didn’t have to think of it anymore. 

“What is this?” Connor asked, looking up at the king from the book he’d been reading by the fire. The king had placed the small purse in his hands without saying a word. 

The king snorted, “It’s only been a week, Connor, how could you have forgotten what money is already?”

Connor opened his mouth, but couldn’t seem to find a good enough retort. “I know what money is,” he mumbled. “I mean— why?”

“Tomorrow is Thursday, isn’t it?” King Henry asked, rubbing the back of his head. “Didn’t want you to wake me up at dawn because you decided you needed something from the market.”

“So I can go again?” Connor asked brightly, book forgotten in his lap as his fingers curled around the small coin purse.

“Of… course,” the king said slowly. “I mustn't have made myself clear before.” He cleared his throat, “You’re welcome to accompany Rose on her trips to the market as long as you’re not bothering her.” Connor nodded, speechless. He fought the urge to get up and hug the king, who probably wouldn’t appreciate the gesture. His cheeks felt rosy and warm, even away from the fire, far into the evening. 

The next morning, at dawn, dressed with his leather pouch filled with coins at his hip, Connor hesitated above the king’s sleeping form. True to his word, the king hadn’t woken with Connor at dawn, still sleeping soundly with his mouth just ajar. Before he could think about it, Connor darted forward, pressing a kiss to the king’s forehead. With bright blue cheeks, he slipped from the room to go meet Rose, his face still glowing. Thankfully she didn’t say a word.

Connor followed Rose until they reached the stall Connor had seen the two women enter into, pausing when he realized it was a collection of used books. “Rose,” Connor said with a tap to her shoulder. “I want to look through these books if that’s alright. Please don’t wait on my account, I have Reed with me,” he thumbed behind himself to Reed, who scoffed, kicking the dirt. “I’ll catch up with you if I have time,” he told her. She nodded, leaving off with her own list.

The tent was wall-to-wall piled with books, sorted in the loosest of terms. Neither woman he had seen the previous week was there, but Connor wasn’t too surprised. What had he expected to come of it? That they would be his friends? No. People in Connor’s position rarely had friends. Instead of the woman manning the stall before, there was a skinny man with ruffled hair. 

He perused the books, hesitating whenever he found one he liked, unsure if it would be wasting the king’s money if he accidentally bought a book that the castle library already had. But selfishly, he thought, if he did buy a duplicate it would be his , he thought with a book clutched to his chest. 

“You are going to pay for that, yes?” the shopkeeper asked, startling Connor out of his little fantasy. He spoke with an accident that Connor couldn’t place, and was chewing on a sliver of wood.

“Oh,” Connor said, flustered. “I wasn’t going to— I wasn’t going to steal it!” He knew so many humans thought his kind were thieves and assassins, but Connor was not .

The shopkeeper just laughed, “I was just fooling with you,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. Connor felt his cheeks burn anyway. The man’s eyebrows shot up, “You are one of them!” he said, waving his hand to his own neck and temple, as though he couldn’t find the word. The man was human, but it was clear he meant elf or slave , the words nearly interchangeable in Connor’s experience. “We have many books in your language,” he gestured to a small stack near his feet. “Nearly as many as in my language,” he preened, pointing to a stack with only two or three more books on it.

“Thank you,” Connor said, finding his voice. “I like this book, though,” he said. The man nodded.

The flap of the tent rustled as a jolly pair passed, and the shopkeeper’s eyes went to the tent flap where light was flooding in. Sir Reed stood at his post by the entrance— whether to keep Connor safe, or to make sure he didn’t try and run away, Connor wasn’t entirely sure. The shopkeeper’s eyes widened even further. “You are the king’s—” he said excitedly, back again pointing at Connor’s neck. The word you’re looking for is slave. Pleasure slave

“Yes,” Connor said, hurriedly, suddenly feeling self-conscious. “I will pay for this book,” he said hurriedly, handing the man the coins before he could ask any more questions.

“Come back soon!” the man said to Connor’s back as he fled the tent. “I always have books for the king’s favorite!”

Favorite , Connor thought. That was certainly one thing to call him. With the fresh air from outside the tent, Connor clutched the book to his chest, closing his eyes to take a calming breath. Feeling better, he looked down at the book in his hands. It was a simple romance story, Connor found he liked those best. But more than the physical object, Connor found himself marveling at actually owning something. Something he’d picked out for himself. 

He tucked the book into the leather pouch, barely fitting it inside before continuing along the route towards the stalls selling trinkets, rather than food or textiles. With coins still jingling away in the pouch, Connor kept an eye on the stalls and carts around him, sharp eyes looking for anything that might catch his fancy. Passing a stall selling high-quality inks, Connor stopped under the shade of the cloth awning, the dark fabric creating an impenetrable shield for the inks.

As he looked over the inks, he began thinking something foolish, but something that would not dispel from his mind. Connor had no use for ink or quills— for who would he be writing?— but he knew the king answered and wrote quite a few letters every day. The king had most recently taken to reading them in their bedchambers in the evenings, rather than stay late in his study, which Connor found he liked. 

He had never seen the king with anything but black ink for his quill, but before him there was an entire rainbow of inks. He wondered if the king would perhaps like another color?

Connor felt his face flush again, one of far too many flushes he’d been experiencing lately. Was he being foolish for assuming that the king would actually want a gift from Connor? Would it even be a gift at all? The money in Connor’s possession was the king’s— King Henry could have anything he wanted, one little bottle of ink would mean nothing to everything the king possessed, but… Connor wanted to buy it for him. 

And Connor had never been allowed to want things before now.

Connor tried not to feel foolish as he looked over the ink collection, stopping to look at the array of blue inks. One almost perfectly matched the brilliance of the king’s eyes when he’d broken down and showed his vulnerability to Connor. The little shop sold quills, too, the blackness of the raven feather pens catching his eye and reminding Connor of his new home. 

The world around him seemed so much brighter than he’d imagined since coming here, both in color and expectations. So he pointed at the bottle of ink he’d been looking at, and then at the feather, “These two, please,” Connor said and handed the woman a few coins. When she handed them over, he gingerly placed the two items into his pouch alongside the book. Connor smiled to himself as he patted the pouch. If the king didn’t want it, well… Connor did. 

And that was worth the potential disappointment he might face from the king, he thought, placing the bottle of blue ink and a new quill on the king’s desk. He curled up on the settee by the fire, new book in hand, waiting for the king’s return that evening, glancing ever-so-often at the desk with a smile hidden in his book.

Chapter Text

Late from dinner with his advisors, Hank pushed against the door to his chambers, spotting an uneaten tray of supper on the table meant for Connor. He thought the elf might still be in the library— the market had closed late in the afternoon, well before dark, so he knew Connor wasn’t still there. But then he heard a little yawn from the couch, Connor’s ruffled hair appearing from behind it. Hank looked at him fondly, knowing he must have fallen asleep reading again. 

“Did you enjoy yourself at the market?” Hank asked, voice rough from speaking for hours with his men. Connor peered at him from over the back of the couch, eyes still hazy from sleep. 

“Yes,” Connor said, placing a ribbon in his book with a yawn. Hank looked away from the elf for a moment as to not catch the yawn, but looked back when he heard the heavy book being placed on the side table. Though Hank wasn’t familiar with every book in the library, he thought Connor must have purchased the one he was reading at the market. 

While it had been a few years since Hank had been to the market himself, the king knew there were a few booksellers among the vast array of stalls at the market. Wednesdays were when most of the surrounding villagers traveled the few miles to the temple of Raneighs, making camp outside the city walls after worship, selling their wares the following day before heading back towards their own homes. Though the market stood all week, Thursdays were the most populous. 

“Thank you,” the elf said with a yawn. Then, with something like hesitation, Connor said, “I left something for you on your desk. It’s not much, but I—” Connor looked down at his hands. “I wanted to get you something to say thank you.”

Hank paused, feeling an unusual weight in his stomach as he looked at the younger man. His eyebrows knitted together as he processed the statement, wondering what Connor could possibly have gotten him. Striding to the desk, Hank spotted the items that Connor had left for him among his own accounted-for belongings.

Connor’s coin purse was one of the items the elf had left on his desk, and Hank tried to hold back a sigh. He’d intended for Connor to keep the change, to use for later purchases as needed, but as usual the elf returned the leftover coins. But before the king could remind Connor of that, Hank’s words were caught in his throat as he saw the blue ink that Connor left him beside a new quill. He hadn’t thought that Connor would… even think of him, much less purchase something for him in his own personal time, with his own allowance. 

“I— I saw that you write a lot,” Connor said, his words jumbling together with something like nerves. Hank’s hand closed around the bottle as he turned back to Connor. Connor searched his eyes, seemingly worried, as if anything he did could possibly displease the king. “I— do you not like it?”

“Thank you,” Hank said, his voice fracturing. No one had thought of him simply as a person in a very long time. 

Hank made a point to leave coins out for Connor the next time he went to the market, and the next, reminding Connor that the allowance was for him, he didn’t need to purchase the king anything, he wasn’t his errand boy. Both of their faces had flushed at that, at the reminder of what Connor was , but Connor returned the unused coins dutifully after each trip. The endearing way he had his own code of honor and obligations, when Hank knew half the castle staff would have pocketed the extra coins regardless, only made Hank more fond of him each day. That, and the gifts Connor insisted on purchasing for him anyway, just barely hidden on his desk after both trips so Hank would relax and think the elf hadn’t gotten him anything until he found it a short while later, made Hank grow ever fonder of the elf. Connor’s only response was a sly smirk. 

A few Thursday evenings later, he found not a gift for himself— at least not a material one— waiting for him when he returned to his bedchamber in the early evening. Hank could hear them from the hallway, Connor’s encouraging voice and infectious laugh followed by friendly growling. He had been leaning in the doorway, watching Connor and Sumo playing tug-of-war with a braided rope, for several minutes before they seemed to notice. 

Connor had laughed as the dog tried pulling the rope from his hands, but they appeared to be evenly matched, “Good boy!” he said. “Strong boy. I bet you’re a really good hunting dog, aren’t you?” He spoke with such affection, though Hank hadn’t known Connor had seen the dog at all until that evening. 

Sumo pulled the rope back with a sudden, unexpected tug, pulling Connor forward. Now in eyeline with the door, Connor dropped the rope in surprise, “Your Majesty!” he said, straightening up, patting himself down with a sheepish look on his face. Cute. 

Sumo didn’t have an ounce of shame in his body. He settled on the floor happily chewing on the rope he thought he had won. In a way, Hank supposed he had. “Well, well,” Hank said, his hands on his hips, “What have we here?”

“Sorry, Your Majesty,” Connor said, and then glared down at the traitorous dog. “He started following me from the courtyard, and Sir Reed said he was your favorite hunting dog. I can take him back downstairs now if you want me to.”

Hank snorted, and then squatted down next to the slobbering dog, whom he petted through his thick coat. “It’s alright,” he said. “He’s not much of a hunting dog, or a guard dog, are you, boy?”

Sumo seemed to understand the comment was intended for him, as he dropped the slobbery rope to let out a short, “Boof,” and place his head on his paws. 

“Wasn’t sure if you liked bigger animals,” Hank said, “you elves always have those little waifish creatures with you.” 

“I… like dogs,” Connor said with a nod, as if he’d just decided. 

Hank scrubbed at his beard with his free hand, “The kennels are just outside of the kitchen, at the entrance to the garden. Sumo’s not a puppy anymore, can’t always keep up with Ralph and the other dogs. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind someone to keep him company out in the gardens.”

Connor’s eyes lit up at the idea, and he nodded eagerly. “I haven’t seen the gardens yet. I’d really like to do that.”

“Just stick the gardens and courtyards outside of the castle,” Hank warned, “there are dangerous creatures and people outside of these walls.” Connor didn’t seem particularly perturbed at the thought, still nodding eagerly. 

“I will, I promise.”

The third-floor windows overlooking the garden were the king’s favorite spot the days following Connor and Sumo’s liberation to the garden. Most days he didn’t quite have an excuse to be on the third floor, but he took the long way around anyway, watching his two favorite boys enjoy the outdoors, rain or shine. 

With a gap in his schedule for the day, the king leaned against the arched windowpane, watching as Connor tossed Sumo a stick towards the edge of in the garden. They were barely more than dots across the expansive lawn, avoiding some of the larger puddles of mud that had yet to dry from the previous day’s rain. The sky was spotted with clouds, the sun shining over the muddy gardens whenever it broke through the clouds.

When Sumo returned to Connor with the stick, instead of throwing it again, Connor knelt and patted the dog’s head. He stood, turning to the spotty hedges behind him, looking at them with a tilted head. The elf disappeared, with Sumo padding in behind him, into the unkempt maze. Hank hadn’t been that far into the gardens in years, and hadn’t bothered to keep up maintenance on a part of the garden no one ever really used. 

It was muscle memory that Hank followed downstairs and out into the garden after Connor and Sumo. He heard Ralph and the other dogs in the kennel by the kitchen, but he didn’t stop in to see them, instead heading directly towards the maze. 

Though the hedges near the entrance had been worn away by time, spotty holes and missing sections revealing further sections of the maze, it was a familiar sight to Hank, who had spent hours and hours as a child in their depths. Farther into the maze, however, tree branches had fallen, partially obscuring pathways, and the inner hedges no longer resembled neatly-trimmed corners. But even with the lack of resemblance to the maze he once knew, Hank could easily find his way through the maze, relying on the muscle memory of his childhood romps through the maze.

It only took him twenty minutes to work his way to the center of the maze, traversing around obstacles in his path, until he found the once-square center of the maze. Connor had already found his way there, sitting on the single stone bench with Sumo laying at his feet. Connor was bathed in sunlight, almost glowing as he stared up at the sky. His hair was being ruffled by the light spring breeze whooshing through the maze. He didn’t acknowledge the king’s presence for a few moments, and by the time he did, Hank was already sitting beside him.

“Hello, King Henry,” Connor said with a hum, staring back up towards the passing clouds. 

Hank continued to sit next to Connor, enjoying the silence of the garden. It had taken him longer than it should have, he thought, with the beautiful elf beside him, to realize that he didn’t feel the same pervasive loneliness he’d felt for the past few years whenever he was with Connor. He didn’t want to break the silence between them, but couldn’t fault Connor for finally speaking.

“I was just thinking about how I should have brought a book with me,” he turned to Hank, with a small curve to his lips. Hank didn’t want to spoil the moment, but he’d frequently teased Connor for his insatiable devouring of the castle’s books. “This place reminds me of a passage from my most recent purchase. ‘ Yet if thy heart turns aroint and thou never hark, led astray to bow down to other men and serve 'em, I declare thee today that I shall perish…’ ” A blue blush passed across his face, glancing up at Hank, wetting his parted lips. “It’s a love story.”

“Yes,” Hank said, his mouth dry. His eyes were locked on Connor’s pink lips. Hank fought the urge to lean forward and take the elf’s face into his hands, to brush his thumbs against those lips and claim them for his own. 

He hadn’t kissed Connor before — had just taken him for his own pleasure. He knew he could lean forward and press his lips against Connor’s, Connor probably wouldn’t stop him— he might even lean into it, leading to a repetition of that night several weeks back. Hank forced his gaze from Connor’s, knowing he was projecting his own feelings on the slave— slave , he reminded himself— when he saw disappointment in his eyes. Connor was so very human, and Hank wasn’t going to make that mistake again. No matter what he felt for the elf. 

Forcing himself to think of anything else other than the elf radiating warmth beside him, he looked to the maze around him. “This garden was my mother’s project,” Hank said with a hint of nostalgia. “She’d had a maze like this one at her father’s palace near Umbria, so when she married my father she was delighted by the maze here in the garden.” He chuckled, “My father used to say that she had married the garden, not him.”


“I used to spend hours in here, when I was young,” Hank said with another chuckle. “She hadn’t commissioned this maze, of course— this maze has stood in this garden for generations— but she liked to take care of it herself. After, well, all of them passed, I didn’t see much of a reason to keep up the maintenance on it.”

“She sounds very hands-on, like you are,” Connor hummed, bumping his shoulder into Hank’s.

Hank snorted, “Think you know what I’m like, huh?” Connor just smiled at him, as if he knew a secret Hank didn’t. He cleared his throat, turning his face back from the elf. “Used to pretend I was out here hunting with my father before I was old enough to go with him. Had a wooden sword and everything.” He chuckled again, “‘Course, before that I had a regular metal sword until my mother found out.”

Connor laughed as the shadows from the clouds passed, once again bathing him in golden light. Hank was sure he’d never looked more beautiful than he has in that moment. Hank had more to say on the subject, but for a moment he forgot how to speak. “I’m just imagining you as a child,” Connor said. Then, leaning forward, he tugged at the king’s facial hair teasingly, “Did you always have a scowl on your face?”

“Usually,” Hank admitted, not wanting to tell Connor that as a child he looked much like Cole, opening up a barrel of worms that he had been trying to avoid since Connor had seen him breaking down in a rare moment of weakness. 

“It’s too bad,” Connor said lightly, “because you have a nice smile when you actually let go.” Hank snorted, feeling Connor’s heat leave his side as the younger man leaned down to pet Sumo. “Did you come looking for me for a reason?”

Hank paused because the answer to that question, truthfully, was no. He didn’t have a reason except that he wanted to seek out Connor’s company. Not wanting to encroach on Connor’s personal time away from the king, Hank scrambled to find a good enough reason, settling on a piece of information that he would have to tell Connor about at some point, though it wasn’t all that pressing in itself. 

He cleared his throat before speaking. “Yes, I’ll be leaving on a hunting trip in a few days. A short-faced bear was spotted in the southern woods a few days ago.” The bear was a hulking monstrosity that had destroyed a few caravans a couple of years back, but had disappeared back into the complex maze of caves before the king’s men could find and kill it. They’d hoped it had succumbed to the wounds sustained destroying the passing caravans, but it seemed to have been lying in wait, licking its wounds. It had returned, destroying more carts and carriages passing through the woods.

Instead of a nod of acknowledgment like Hank expected, Connor’s eyes lit up. “Can I come with you?” he asked excitedly. Hank paused. He hadn’t expected that Connor would want to go. Though, he supposed, he should have expected it— Connor was insatiably curious at times. Before he could say anything else, Connor dropped his head. “It’s alright if you don’t want me to come, if you would prefer the company of others.”

“I know what you’re doing,” Hank groaned. “It’s not working.” But of course it was working. He shook his head. Hunting trips were dangerous. More than a few good men had been lost on them. He didn’t want to think about how he was starting to reflect his mother, never mind the fact Connor was a grown man, and Hank had been on a hunting trip at half the man’s age. “Why do you even want to go?”

Connor shrugged, “I don’t... really know,” he said, and Hank could tell he was being honest. “I’ve already seen nearly every inch of the castle, the grounds, and I’ve been to the market nearly half a dozen times.” He folded his hands in his lap. “Though I know I’m fortunate, it sometimes feels like my world is so…. small.” He spread out one of his hands on the bench between them. Hank felt a pang of guilt. Hank was the one limiting Connor’s world like this, no matter how much it seemed like Connor was content, how much he seemed like he had accepted his life here. It was never really his choice to begin with. Hank shielded his eyes from the shine of the golden collar at Connor’s neck. 

“It’s dangerous,” Hank said, though he knew his arguments would be weak at best. At times like these, with Connor looking up at him with warm brown eyes, Connor could ask for the moon and Hank would bend over backward to try and get it for him. He didn’t want to think about what that meant, but in truth, he already knew. “You’d miss the market.”

Even Connor seemed to know that his argument was weak. “There will be another one next week,” he pointed out, almost smugly.

“You are allowed to leave the castle without me, you know.”

“Yes, I know,” Connor said with a sigh, leaning back on his hands, “which is another reason I could go to the market at literally any other time. Give me a better reason.” Hank was silent, trying to formulate literally anything better, and he hated that he seemed to lose all intelligence around the man. “I want to go outside the castle grounds, Hank,” Connor pleaded.

“Do you have any hunting experience?” Without even a glance at Connor, he already knew the answer. “No, of course not,” he sighed, knowing he’d already lost. Connor was so much brighter outdoors, connected with nature. Detroit Castle was built for humans, to keep them safe inside, not for elves who needed to be with the earth. The king had only been to Ferndale, the capital of Jericho, once that he could remember, but he recalled that their palace had been far different than his own. The whole kingdom was a balmy, warm place, air humid and the foliage green almost all year. Ferndale’s palace was nearly half outside, flowing pools and gardens around every turn, roofs made of greenhouse glass, built into the cliff sides over the river by generations of elven architects and slaves. 

“Fine, alright,” he relented.

“I can come then?” Connor lit up again, flashing him the bright smile that made Hank forget why he even protested at all. 

Hank made the young elf meet his eyes, “Yes. But you must listen to me and my men implicitly. If we actually do see the bear, I want you to go in the opposite direction.”

Connor nodded, “Of course, Your Majesty. But isn’t the point of a hunting trip to hunt?”

Hank snorted, thought he was so smart, didn’t he? “You’re partially right, Connor. Hunting trips are more than just communal ways to get food or furs. Like this trip— despite the fact we’ll be using the bear meat and fur after we kill it— hunting expeditions are also about protecting people and livestock from wild animals. This bear is one that killed quite a few people when it was last seen.” Connor nodded solemnly. “And sometimes it’s an excuse for men at the top to get away from the castle for a little friendly sport.” Like Perkins was supposed to when the king was gifted Connor. Though Hank had been more than a little unsure of the elf’s presence in his life at first, Hank could no longer deny that he wouldn’t trade the elf for a thousand hunting trips.

With that, Connor stood, looking around with his hands on his hips. “Do you know how to get out of here?”

Hank groaned, taking Connor’s offered hand to help him off the bench. “Not sure. Hadn’t been thinking about it too hard when I came in.”

Connor didn’t seem too perturbed by the fact, looking pensively at the two openings in the hedges. “I suppose we’ll just have to figure it out, the two—” with a glance at Sumo, “three— of us. That alright?”

“Don’t have anywhere else to be,” Hank said, looking down at their still joined hands, Connor not seeming to notice that he hadn’t let go. 

Connor nodded, calling the dog. “Sumo!” Sumo perked up, taking his lazy body from the ground. With a glance back at Hank, a look of mischief in his eye, he pulled Hank into the maze after him. 

Chapter Text

Connor watched as the knights climbed on their horses, one by one. The men the king had chosen for the hunt had already gathered in the courtyard by the livery stables, having saddled the horses meant for Connor and King Henry by the time the two men had traversed down the castle steps. 

A few of the knights dawdled on the ground, still holding the reins to their horses loosely in their hands. It was just after dawn, the sun hadn’t broken over the tops of the lower castle town and pierced their eyes yet, but it gave off enough light for Connor to see the men clearly. Each man wore their sword on their hip and a bow on their back, with packs strapped to the saddlebags of their horses. A few men carried spears, far more practical than attempting to hunt game with a sword, which Connor knew was far more for the king’s protection than anything else. 

Watching the last of the men, besides the king himself, mount their horses, Connor felt a chill in the air. But it wasn’t why Connor pulled his arms around himself as he looked up at the horse. Horses, he knew, were large beasts. Standing before one with the intent to ride was far more daunting than he had anticipated. 

“Connor?” the king spoke, and Connor turned to face him, almost nervous. The king seemed to pick up on it, but not the reason why. “Your turn.” King Henry held out his hand to steady Connor as he climbed onto the large beast. With one foot in the stirrup, he swung the other leg over the saddle. Beneath him he felt a strange resonance from the mount, the hum of breathing, the rumble of a heartbeat from the animal reminding Connor that it was alive. 

King Henry eyed the large draft horse, stroking her black nose. Connor knew the king chose the horse for her gentle nature and steady gait, knowing she would be far less spooked by his inexperience than some of the horses that the king owned. Nevertheless, the king still looked unsure about letting Connor go off on his own horse without any practical lessons first. “I—” the king started. “Are you sure you’re comfortable riding alone?” He glanced back to his own horse, off near the other knights, all pointed away from the king and his companion. “I know I have already offered for you to ride with me, but it is still an option, Connor.” 

Connor shook his head. He had already shown the king and his men too much weakness. He wasn’t— he wasn’t a child , and he wasn’t too delicate to ride a horse, something that even the most pompous of nobility knew how to do. He wouldn’t back down, not to secede to a horse

“It’s not too late to decide to stay behind,” the king reminded him again, earning a sharp glare from Connor.

No ,” Connor said. He knew the king was just worried about the harm that could befall Connor, but the elf was determined to come along. King Henry sighed, defeated, but despite that, he still looked at Connor fondly, as if his stubborn determination was something to be proud of. 

With a nod, the king rehashed the short lesson Connor had been given on horsemanship, then pressing the reins into Connor’s hands. Connor’s fingers closed around the leather cords, testing them as the king hesitated, his hand pressed to the horse’s shoulder beside Connor’s leg. 

“I’ll be right here if you need me,” the king said with a final nod, going to mount his own horse. King Henry approached his own horse, nearly as steady as Connor’s, from the left side. He brushed his cloak aside as he stepped into the stirrup, and with a hold on the saddle, swung his right leg over the horse. Connor watched, his mouth feeling dry, as he observed the king. King Henry straightened on his horse, patting the sword at his left side, his dark cloak falling back against the horse’s hind. He began barking orders at his men, and by extension, Connor, reminding them of the dangers of the bear and the importance to the community. 

With his head held high, colorful tunic against his dark cloak, the king radiated the authority of all the kings in Connor’s storybooks. The king seemed unaware of the effect he was having on Connor, how… kingly he looked at that moment. Connor had seen the king in half a dozen states of dress and undress, but this was the first time Connor had seen the man truly resemble his portrait in the hall of kings, even without a crown or circlet at his brow. Connor was suddenly very glad his horse had experience because, without her, he would have been left behind at the castle. 

After a few moments of staring after the king, and realizing his horse was doing most of the work, Connor flushed and took control of the reins. Before long, the sun was rising steadily over the horizon, and they had left Detroit far behind them. The knights had spread out around the king, some ahead, a few behind, but not so closely clustered that it appeared they truly expected any sort of attack to be made.

“Are you sure you’ve never ridden before?” King Henry asked. It took a moment for Connor to realize the king was speaking to him, as a few of the knights had lulled in and out of conversation around them. 

He blinked, and shook his head. “I don’t… recall ever riding.” Most people, he knew, had some experience riding, if not their own horses. In land of plains and riverlands, full of farms and land needing attending, the ability to ride a pack animal was as common as the ability to swim. But horses, Connor knew, were far more expensive and less common than donkeys or mules, and couldn’t fathom why— or how— he could ever have had the chance. In Warren, slaves were forbidden from riding alone, if it all. 

“You’re a bit of a natural,” King Henry said, observing Connor with a flick over his form. “I suppose it could be an elven skill,” he mused, grasping his own chin as he rode with ease, paying little attention to the dirt path before them. The horses seemed to have an instinctive idea of where they should be heading, allowing Connor and the king to pay less attention to the road as they might have done should they have been walking. 

“Oh,” Connor said. He wasn’t sure that was true, it didn’t feel like it did when he was able to read in multiple languages, or stretch time, but then again he’d had such little opportunity to ride before this he couldn’t say for certain that riding didn’t come naturally to elves. “I don’t know. I feel as though she’s doing all the work,” he admitted, patting the neck of his horse.

The king looked contemplative, “Even if she were, usually an inexperienced rider can spook a well-trained horse with their nerves, or by giving a command that defies what the horse knows best.” The man looked at Connor with a little bit of a furrowed brow. “Were you aware you were speaking in elvish earlier?”

“When?” Connor squeaked, looking around. He hadn’t— he hadn’t accidentally been speaking to the king in elvish at any point, had he? He’d been reprimanded for speaking it before, as a child in the slave houses, and few older elves ever dared to speak in their native tongue in the company of humans.

“Before I spoke to you,” the king said. “Just a few words.” He shrugged, “I don’t speak elvish. But you were saying something like… tooluca? Tolunca ? I know, I have terrible elvish, it wasn’t something my father wanted me to learn,” he said with a snort.

Connor frowned. The king was right, his elvish was appalling, leaving Connor to sift through all the elvish words he could recall, wondering which could be applied to a horse, if he was even actually talking to the horse in his absentmindedness. Tulcus was a name, but… “ Tulunca ?” Connor said. 

“Sounds about right. What does it mean?” the king asked, giving Connor his undivided attention as he spoke. 

“Steady,” Connor said, reaching out to stroke the horse’s mane. The black hair was long and glossy, clearly looked after with great care.

“You might have some training after all,” the king said with a pensive look. His gaze fell back on Connor, his undivided attention making Connor squirm. “Maybe you were a page before this.”

He opened his mouth to dispute the idea, but then he shut it without a word. He didn’t know what — or who— he was before this, so he could not say for certain the king’s speculation was incorrect, only that it felt wrong . He supposed, logically, that it was plausible he had been a lord or knight’s page. Though he had always suspected he had been born in Jericho, that too was only a feeling . He could have easily been a Warren knight’s page, sold after a traumatic injury that made him lose all the training he’d been given, deemed not worthy of being retaught. 

“I— I don’t think I was,” he said, unsteady at first, but gaining confidence as he spoke. “I can’t explain it, but I don’t— I don’t think I was.”

He wasn’t sure why he felt like he had to offer an explanation to the king, as the man simply shrugged. Then, unexpectedly, he reached for Connor’s hand, turning it over in his own calloused palm. Connor could only stare as the king pressed his thumb into the ball of Connor’s thumb, the king’s fingers brushing against his skin. King Henry chuckled, “No, of course you weren’t. Your hands are too soft.”

Lips parted, but unable to speak, Connor only nodded. After taking a moment to regain his composure, he glanced around at the knights, hoping that they weren’t listening in. The moment felt far too intimate to be having in the middle of the morning on the way to a hunting excursion, surrounded by knights. The king seemed to have noticed Connor’s flush, or his slight discomfort at being surrounded by the knights, King Henry released Connor’s hand gently.

The hunting party fell into a steady silence shortly after, the only sounds coming from the horses and the sounds of the forest around them. The sun rose higher and higher, warming the chill in the air till it was nonexistent, the air breezy and pleasant. 

“Whoa!” one of the knights— Sir Reese, Connor thought— said, holding up his fist to alert the group he was stopping at the forefront of the cluster. 

The rest of the men slowed their horses to a stop, their attention falling onto Reese, an experienced woodsman hand-picked for the hunting trip. Reese pulled his horse back around to face the knights. “I know this area,” Reese said, “once we trespass into these woods we’ll be in thick cover, and this path will disappear entirely.

“There might be a few clearings we can make camp at closer to the caves, but we don’t want to set camp so close to the caves that the bear attacks us before we can get to him. We’re about a two hours’ ride from the caves.” The knight looked up towards the sun, gauging the time to be early-mid afternoon. “We’ll certainly make it to a place where we can camp before dark, so we have time to water and rest the horses without having to overwork them. I know there’s a pond around here somewhere. We’ll stop to rest and refill our canteens so we don’t have to loop back if we can’t find a clearing near a river. Agreed?” he said, looking over the men. No one had any opposition, so they followed the man off the beaten path. 

The hunting party traversed through the trees, the low brush slapping the legs of the horses as they navigated through the least dense part of the train Reese had devised for them. Occasionally the path was clearer ahead of them, but with high bushes tugging at the loose cloaks of the knights. They had been traveling for some time, the sun often hidden by the canopy above them, when they began to see a clearing ahead of them. When they finally all entered the clearing it was with a clear sigh of relief from all of the men, Connor included.

The grove was a large, grassy clearing with enough room for the horses to break away from the party to graze but still close enough to hear should they be called. Reese was the first to drop from his horse, removing her bit so that she could begin grazing. The other knights didn’t take long in following suit. Looking at the ground far below him, Connor was fairly certain he could make it off the horse on his own in the least, he selfishly waited until the king came to offer his hand in help. He reveled in the way the king’s thumb brushed across his hand before gripping tight enough for Connor to gain purchase.

One on the ground, he was reluctant to let the king’s hand go, but he had to release the man in order to give the horse’s reins to one of the knights. When Connor turned back, the king had stepped away. Pushing down the little disappointment in his chest, Connor stretched his limber body, surprisingly less bothered than he thought he would have been from the horse. Perhaps he would feel the soreness tomorrow, he thought, reaching into one of the pouches strapped to his horse before it could get too far away from him. 

Dropping to sit by the clear, ripple-less water, Connor unwrapped a honeyed oat loaf, a pair of hard-boiled eggs, and a few slices of dried apples. He consumed the unprotected food quickly, and then took his time picking apart the shell of the eggs, crushing the tiny pieces of the shell before dropping them on the bank of the pond. He dipped the eggs into the water, rinsing them of any tiny flecks of the shell before consuming them, and then brushing the pieces of the shell into the water, watching as they quickly sank to the bottom. 

He ran his hand through the water, the clear water rippling and distorting his reflection. He didn’t see what the others saw when they looked at him. He looked young. His face was soft, even with his sharp jaw, and he had a… goofy little strand of hair that always fell upon his forehead. As he dipped his hand back into the water he saw the approaching reflection of the king. In their watery reflections on the surface of the water, Connor could see as King Henry’s hand reached out to brush his fingers through Connor’s hair, so light that Connor wasn’t sure if he would have felt it at all unless he had seen the king do it in their reflections. 

As Connor turned his head up and over his shoulder to look at the king, the king’s hand retreated, Connor’s gaze along with it. “The campsite is an hour away,” King Henry said, his voice low. “It’s still light outside, if we leave now, Reese thinks we’ll have time to set up camp and get some hunting in before dinner. Maybe deer,” the king said, with narrowed eyes on the treeline. 

Connor nodded, pushing himself off the ground, feeling regret that he hadn’t taken the chance to get some swimming in. He could swim, he was sure of it, like he knew that he had not been a page in some earlier life. Though the day had heated up considerably since that morning, it wasn’t so hot that the water would feel like ice on his skin if he took a dip. He followed reluctantly behind his king, who had taken hold of Connor’s horse’s reins from the first knight who had taken them. King Henry was looking at him expectantly, waiting for him to mount the horse as several of the knights already had. 

Connor bit his lip, and then stepped closer to the king, feeling far more nervous than he should have at the simple request. Connor reached out to take hold of the king’s tunic, taking his belt between two of his fingers. “Do you mind if we stay a little longer? I wanted to go swimming.” 

He glanced over the king’s shoulder to the knights and wondered if it was too much to ask for the men to go ahead of them, should the king approve his request. He would prefer not to be in a state of undress around them. He wasn’t on as familiar terms with the knights as the king was, and he didn’t know them like Connor knew the king. 

He supposed that if the king refused to send the knights away he’d be able to go swimming anyway, he just wouldn’t get to do all of the things he’d been thinking about for a few weeks. He’d been distracted by the king all morning, and he wanted— he wanted an outlet. He opened his mouth to ask about the knights, but closed it again, fresh waves of nerves. It was one thing to be alone with the king with a guard only a shout away, but he didn’t know if the king trusted him enough to be an hour away from his men. Connor almost didn’t want to ask so he wouldn’t be disappointed. 

“I thought you wanted to hunt,” the king said, and Connor opened his mouth to say that he did, but then he saw the curve of the king’s lip, realizing the king was teasing. 

“I do,” Connor said, “I just… wanted to swim for a little while first.”

The king searched his eyes and then nodded. He turned back towards the men, “Actually, Reese, we’ll be staying a little bit longer.” The knights quieted down, nodding. Sir Miller was already on his horse, and began to swing his leg down when Connor grasped the king’s arm. 

King Henry looked down at Connor’s hand on his arm, and Connor said, almost embarrassed, “Do you mind if it’s just… the two of us?” He tried to force out the words he wanted to say, that he understood if the king didn’t trust him enough to be left alone with him, even with the restrictions placed on him with the collar, but it seemed he didn’t have to.

The king’s mouth was ajar, slightly, his eyes flicking to Connor just a few inches from him, and then nodded. Connor felt a sigh of relief, releasing a breath he hadn’t been entirely aware he was holding in. “Reese!” the king grunted out, “Change of plans. Take Miller, Waters, Wilson, and the others to set up camp at that spot we were talking about, we’ll be staying a little longer, just the two of us. If we’re not back before you’re finished setting up camp, head out to do some hunting without us.”

Connor expected the men to argue, to insist that one or more of them stay for the king’s protection— either from Connor or anyone that might come along the road— but they didn’t, all followed his orders and rode off through the trees with little hesitation. Connor wasn’t sure if it was their loyalty and obedience to the king, or their faith in his ability to protect himself, that gave them the confidence to ride away without putting up a fight. Connor knew that if Sir Reed had been with them he would have argued his way into staying, putting up some kind of argument until the king agreed to let him stay. Connor was very glad, suddenly, that Reed had been unexpectedly recalled to his family’s residence outside of Detroit. 

When the men had disappeared into the woods, Connor removed his boots to stick his feet in the shallow water closest to the shore. He sat, reaching down to take ahold of the soft grass in his grip. The king sank down beside him, mirroring Connor’s position with his feet in the sandy bank. “I thought you wanted to swim,” the king teased, knocking his shoulder with Connor’s. 

He hummed. “I’m enjoying the moment,” he told the king. Then, as unexpectedly as the urge came to him, he stood, stripping down to his smallclothes, the barest fabric between him and the cold water. He could feel the king’s eyes rake over his body, but when Connor looked back to the king sitting next to the pile of dry clothes, the king had turned his face away.

Trying not to feel disappointed at not being able to see the king’s face, Connor dipped into the crystal-clear water. Connor dunked his head under the water, swimming towards the center of the pond. Standing in the middle of the pond, Connor’s chin just barely brushed the surface of the water. Lifting himself off the bottom of the pond, he began to float a little, swimming back and forth to the shallower edges of the water. 

When he paused to float on his back, he turned his face towards the king, still on the bank. The king’s face was red, though Connor didn’t feel as though it was warm enough to warrant that level of redness. But what did Connor know? He was in the cool water. 

His eyes trailed over the king, over his hair pulled up behind him in a leather cord, a few shorter strands falling to messily frame the king’s handsome face. He knew the king wouldn’t bother retying the cord in his hair just for a few strands, but Connor didn’t want to risk it should he mention it to the man. He was very strange about compliments, about as strange as Connor was, he supposed. 

Whether the king’s flushed face was from the heat, or something else Connor wasn’t sure he could bear to name at the moment, he almost suggested that the king divest himself of the intricate tunic and simple trousers he wore. His cloak had been discarded when they had originally stopped for water, thrown over the saddle of the king’s horse. He let himself sink back into the water, hiding the creep of blue on his own face.

Connor knew that he himself fit the depiction of conventionally attractive far more closely than the king did— he was older than Connor, more than twice his age— with a pudgy stomach and a bad habit of drinking too much. But under the layers of padding there was still a wall of muscle that Connor could feel every time he had the chance to grasp the king’s arms. And besides— Connor liked that the king was larger. He liked the feel of the king blanketed around him, the softness of his embrace. He’d been dreaming of the king’s touch, what it might be like if the king touched him again, sober this time. To pull Connor into his arms and kiss him with, well, love , like he’d seen on the faces of the girls at the market. Like he read about in every book he seemed to pull off the shelves these days, imagining himself as the one being saved by the handsome knight. 

He knew that some of these ideas were ridiculous, and it was those thoughts that had him sinking into the water to cover his blushing cheeks. Holding his breath far longer than a human could, Connor rose above the water, standing with the water to his waist, the water dripping off his body. 

“Are you coming in the water with me?” Connor called, hoping the king would say yes and make this easier. 

The king shifted in his spot, drawing his legs closer to himself and out of the water. He gave Connor a sharp look that Connor didn’t recognize, and said, “No. I’m fine on land.”

Connor looked down at the water, dipping his hand back in to swirl it around. He felt his face heating again, and asked, before the nerve could leave him, looked up at the king and spoke. “Why haven’t you touched me since that night a few weeks ago?” His heart rattled in his chest, but he couldn’t pull his eyes away from the surprised look on the king’s face.

Rather than shying away from the question like Connor half expected, the king snorted. “You know why, Connor.” Connor shook his head. “You really gonna make me say it? Fine. You can’t possibly actually want it. Want this .” The king shook his head, and Connor didn’t know if the king had a low opinion of himself, or if he had one of Connor. “You don’t really have a choice in the matter anyway.” The king groaned, standing up, turning his back to Connor. “I’m not having this conversation.”

Connor watched as the king stretched, then settled with his back against a shady tree that dropped leaves in the edge of the pond. Connor swam over to the edge of the water, where the slope was steeper, laying his chin on his crossed arms in the grass. “Why not?” he asked, ignoring his blue cheeks. “I’ve never been touched by anyone else before, only you.” 

He pulled himself out of the water, the crystal water dripping off him in fat drops, his body gleaming in the sunlight. The king shivered as Connor strode closer. “The only time I’ve ever been with anyone is the one night I was with you,” Connor said, lowering his voice as he stood over the king.

Then, without waiting for the king to respond, Connor straddled the king’s lap. The king bucked up under him subconsciously, already half hard in his trousers. Connor felt a sense of satisfaction with that. He’d done that to the king. Connor’s own cock taken interest some time ago, even in the cool water, and he found himself rubbing against the friction of Hank’s through their pants. The king groaned, reaching to place his hands on Connor’s hips— either to pull him closer or push him away, the king looked as though he hadn’t quite decided yet. “What are you getting at, Connor?”

Though he knew the question, or something like it, was coming, Connor hesitated. He knew he wanted the king to touch him again, but what was his goal, really? To make his time in Ravendale— potentially his whole life— bearable with human pleasures? Or to seduce the king into loving him, and then ask for his freedom? To leave for Jericho to be free? But the thought of any of that filled Connor with unpleasantness. Oh how little he knew himself. 

“I want you to fuck me,” Connor said truthfully. The king’s eyes closed, head hitting the tree as his dick twitched between them. Connor felt the rivulets of water drip down him and onto the king, making him shiver with overheated skin.

Connor reached for the king, cold fingers on either side of the king’s burning face, tilting him back towards Connor. The king’s eyes opened briefly before Connor leaned in, closing his own eyes to kiss King Henry. He devoured the king’s burning mouth with a hunger he had never felt before, gasping as the king pressed into the kiss. He felt the king’s arms rise up his back, fingers threading down the bumps of Connor’s ribs under his skin until he reached Connor’s hips again, to the wetness of Connor’s smallclothes.

Unexpectedly, Connor felt the king using the leverage to push him away. Their erections brushed, causing Connor to be the one to gasp this time, as he leaned back against Hank’s raised knees. He wondered if he looked as wrecked as he felt, and by the state of the king, he probably did. On the king’s lap Connor appeared taller than the other man, who looked up at Connor as though he was searching for something.

“The knights could come back at any time,” King Henry said, looking towards the woods. 

Connor reached for the man’s face, turning him back to face Connor. “They won’t be, and you know it.” Their eyes met, but neither man moved. Connor had been so sure that the king wanted this too, by the way his hands and eyes always lingered on Connor. But now, with the potential for rejection, Connor wasn’t so sure, and he felt that sting of disappointment again. 

He had taken the chance, and now it was the king’s turn to take that same leap. But it was as if the king was now looking at the chasm between them and deciding whether or not it was worth it to jump. Connor’s hands began to tremble, if only just, as he pulled them away from the king’s face. The bravado he’d felt just moments before was draining out of him, and he was wondering if he had made a colossal mistake, irreparably damaging the tenuous connection that had been formed between them over the past few weeks. 

“I’m sorry, I—” Connor said, blinking as he pulled away, his head overrun with erroneous thoughts, mind racing to all the places he had tried to keep it from going. All of his mistakes. 

But then, the king grasped Connor’s hand before he had a chance to fully pull it back to himself. “Connor,” the king said, looking up at him with steady, unreadable eyes. Connor’s mind went blank as the king pulled his hand towards him, kissing the open palm with tenderness. “You do want this, don’t you?” But before Connor could draw a breath to agree vehemently, the king’s eyes met his intensely, his warm breath hitting Connor’s palm. “Not like last time.” Connor knew what the king was asking, but he didn’t even have to pause to think about it. 

"Yes,” Connor said breathlessly. Yes, of course, please

The king brought Connor’s warm palm back to his cheek, Connor feeling the king’s rough beard scratch against his hand. His eyes still locked with the king’s, Connor felt just a hint of that bravado returning. He leaned forward, pressing his lips gently against the king’s, the king’s lips soft and warm, contrasting against his coarse beard. Connor’s tongue darted out, swiping against the king’s lips, parting them. Connor brushed his thumb against the king’s cheek as they deepened the kiss, gasping short breaths as his hips brushed against the king’s, reigniting that lust he felt before. 

He felt the sun drying the water on his back as the king’s hands traveled over him, calloused hands across unblemished skin. He felt an itch to remove the king’s clothes, to be closer to him, to press their skin together. He reached his free hand down to the king’s knotted belt at his waist, trying unsuccessfully to untie it, but he couldn’t quite seem to unknot it with only one hand. He slid his other hand from the king’s face down his chest, the king groaning into the kiss. 

Connor leaned back, pulling at the offending tunic with a low whine in his throat, “King Henry…”

“Hank,” the king said, looking up at Connor with red lips, pupils blown wide and black. “Call me Hank, Connor.” 

“Hank,” Connor whined, fumbling with Hank’s tunic but unable to tear his eyes from the other man, “please help me with this.”

Hank reached up, threading his fingers through Connor’s hair to pull him down into another kiss before pressing his hand against Connor’s chest, pushing him back. Connor sat back, feeling his chest heave under Hank’s hand, until the king pulled it back to remove his tunic. For a moment, Connor sat back to admire the king. Though he was soft and round, with a spattering of silver hair across his chest, Hank had a wall of muscle underneath that Connor could feel every time he pressed against him. Connor’s eyes flicked back up to the king, who’s hair was falling from the cord to frame his face. 

Connor reached forward to touch the soft silver hair on the king’s chest, causing the king to huff. “I know it’s not much to look at—”

“Yes,” Connor said immediately, shaking his head reverently, “you are. You’re quite a lot to look at,” his hand traveled up the king’s chest. He could feel the human’s heart beating quite wildly under his palm. “I’ve seen your portrait in the hall. You’ve aged quite handsomely.”

The king barked out a laugh, large, rough hands curling around Connor’s hip. His face was flushed, and he didn’t quite meet Connor’s eye as he spoke, “You sure know how to flatter a man.”

Connor leaned in closely, making sure to brush the wetness of his thighs against the king, his mouth hovering just over Hank’s as he said, “I know how to flatter a king.”

He surged forward, pressing his open mouth against Hank’s, his hands steadying himself on the king’s shoulders. Hank’s hand moved lower, fingers brushing Connor’s ass as he moved lower. Connor gasped, his body’s slick dampening the now-dry smallclothes as he felt a jolt of arousal. The king’s hand dipped below the waist of Connor’s smallclothes, cupping his ass, edging the slick with calloused fingers. 

Connor moaned, his mouth separating from Hank’s, the king’s breath heavy and warm on his throat. The elf’s eyes flashed open when he felt Hank’s mouth on his neck, but they fluttered closed as pleasure washed over him. In that moment, Connor decided to give into the human pleasures, now and— for as long as he could have them. It mattered not whether he would be in the king’s company for only one more day or the rest of his lifetime, this— this he would trade nothing for. 

The king’s rough, thick fingers brushed against Connor’s slick hole, and with a nip to Connor’s neck, he pressed one finger inside of him. Connor sucked in a breath as Hank’s finger passed the second knuckle. He tilted his hips upwards, knees pressing into the soft grass on either side of the king, losing the friction of his hips against Hank’s. Hank worked his finger in and out of Connor’s hole, stretching him, as he traced kisses down his neck. 

He felt a second finger teasing at his hole, joining the first in stretching him open, working Connor open until his thighs were dripping slick and his knees were trembling underneath him, barely able to keep him lofted. His skin was burning bright blue, his cock straining against his smallclothes as the king’s fingers pumped in and out of him. Connor’s legs trembled, struggling to hold him up, knees buckling as he brushed against the tented erection in Hank’s pants. 

Hank ,” Connor whined, curling his fingers around the back of the king’s neck, the king drawing back with hooded eyes. 

“Too much?” Hank asked, his face and chest spattered with red blotches. Oh, how humans were strange. Connor urged to touch it. It took him a moment to realize, lips parted, that he could . He pulled his hand back from the king’s neck, his left hand sliding up to cup the king’s face, the other sliding down to press over the king’s heart. His thumb brushed across Hank’s warm cheek, his lips parting, his fingers stilling. “Connor.”

No ,” Connor said, realizing he hadn’t answered the king. “Hank,” he whined, “please.”

Hank smirked, knowing the effect he had on the elf, and pulled his fingers back, Connor whining at the absence. The king tucked his fingers into the waistband of Connor’s smallclothes, pushing them down over Connor’s hips. 

Connor reached down with nimble fingers towards the king’s trousers, struggling to pull them over the king’s risen cock. He groaned, but the king managed to shimmy out of them. Connor reached for the king’s cock with a sudden curiosity and an unsure shyness. He’d only ever touched his own— thinner and shorter than the king’s— but when he wrapped his hand around the king’s it was the same velvety softness. Hank groaned, throwing his head back with a thunk against the tree as Connor’s thumb traced over the tip that was leaking precome. 

“Connor, you’re gonna kill me,” the king groaned, looking at Connor through thinly veiled eyes. His hand reached up to push Connor’s away, Connor only having a millisecond to feel disappointment before the king was taking himself in hand to line his cock up with Connor’s entrance. 

He felt it as the head brushed up against his slick rim, leaning into it before Hank rose on his hips to breach Connor’s entrance. He thrust up, shallowly, to test the waters, Connor’s legs trembling as he tried to hold himself steady. “Connor,” the king murmured, pulling Connor into kiss him briefly, and then whisper into his hair. “Relax, sweetheart. Give into it.”

Connor nodded, trying to relax against the foreign intrusion. But he did want this, he reminded himself, collapsing into the arms of the king, sinking down until he was sheathed on the king’s cock, gasping at the fullness. Hank continued to murmur encouragements, but Connor couldn’t seem to catch any of them, especially as the king began to thrust upwards experimentally, stretching Connor’s hole wider with each thrust. Unable to catch his breath, Connor gasped each time he was seated fully on the king’s cock, a jolt of pleasure traveling through him to cut through the bite of pain. 

After a moment of shallow thrusting, Connor adjusted to the fullness inside of him, moving to meet the king’s upward thrusts with downward ones of his own, pulling Hank into him further than Connor could have imagined. He leaned forward, capturing Hank’s mouth with his own, feeling the king’s moans through vibrations on his lips. Hank reached for Connor’s neglected cock bobbing between them, the other arm snaking around to pull Connor close to him, pressing their chests together as close as he could manage with his hand on Connor’s cock.

Hank’s hand pulled and tugged at Connor’s cock, thumb gliding over his head, smearing the precome like Connor had done. Connor tried to gasp out the king’s name, but could barely get out the first letter when the king adjusted his grip, “H—” 

With his free hand on Connor’s hip, pulling him downwards to be impaled on Hank’s cock, Hank hit a spot within him that made his vision go black for a moment, gasp cut off by an inhuman sound from his throat. When he came back to himself, he could see that Hank was grinning smugly, having seemed to like that, setting a relentless pace to urge that sound from Connor’s throat again. He knew his face was plastered blue, feeling a strange embarrassment despite knowing what they were doing at that very moment. 

As the king’s thrusts grew rougher, Connor could feel his own orgasm growing. Hank’s hand no longer synched with the stuttering of his hips, creating a dangerous friction. “Hank—” Connor called a warning just a moment before he came into the man’s hand and across their chests, white ropes of hot come splattering them. The king’s eyes flicked down to it just briefly before meeting Connor’s eyes once again with a renewed determination. 

With each additional thrust, Connor became more aware of the stimulation, not quite to a point of discomfort, but a slightly unpleasant feeling arising from overstimulation. Connor felt weak, no longer quite in control of himself until the king called his name and came in him with a shout, pulling Connor close. 

For a brief moment, all Connor could hear besides the rushing of his blood in his ears was the sound of Hank’s heartbeat where he was pressed to the man’s chest. He tilted his head upwards to nuzzle into the man’s hair, breathing it in, when he heard a bubble of laughter arise from the king. Hank leaned into Connor, and kissed his hair, Connor smiling as he pulled back onto Hank’s lap, where he was able to fully look at the older man, feeling a warm rush of affection for him suddenly. 

Connor’s eyes shot down to the mess they had made between them, his own come splattered across the king’s chest, and the king’s sliding down Connor’s thigh from where it was no longer held in him by Hank’s softening cock. Connor impulsively dipped his finger in the come, swirling it in the king’s chest hair. Despite knowing it would be unpleasant if it dried there, the king did nothing to stop him. 

“Do you want to go swimming with me now?” Connor asked with no sense of shyness, still riding the high of what they had just done. 

Hank laughed, hands settling on Connor’s waist, “So this was just a ploy to get me to go swimming, was it?” Connor’s cheeks flashed blue, though that was not actually his intention. It seemed the king was teasing, by the curve of his mouth, and the way he said, “Yes, alright, get up.”

There was a wet pop as the king’s cock pulled from Connor, who wasn’t sure if the sensation of come running down his thigh was unpleasant or not, standing and offering a hand to the king. 

The water was cooler than Connor remembered it being, but perhaps it was just cool to his overheated flesh. Hank swore as he stepped into the water, but he didn’t stop until he was face to face with Connor in the waist-high water. Connor reached for the king, a sudden shyness returning, but he held the king’s face in his hands as he observed the man’s handsome face in the sunlight, leaning forward to kiss him sweetly. 

The two men rinsed off their sweat and grime, sharing passing kisses as they swam for a little while longer before admitting that they shouldn’t stay too long away from their hunting party, getting dressed with reluctance. 

Connor wasn’t sure what it was, exactly, it wasn’t something he could quite pinpoint but— it was as if something had changed in the air between them, the way he noticed the casual touches with greater awareness— the friendly bump of shoulders as they walked to their horses, Hank’s offered hand for support as Connor mounted his horse, the way Hank sat beside him by the fire that evening when they reached the group’s campsite. 

He placed his own bedroll beside the king’s, his eyes tracing the lines of the man’s face as he fell asleep, as though he hadn’t seen him every day for over a month. Connor fell asleep curled towards the man, and didn’t move once in the night. 

Early the next morning, Connor watched the knights rounding a small pack of wild boar from where he was sitting on horseback, away from the hunting. Sir Reese had followed the trail of the bear into the narrow trees, but it seemed the men couldn’t pass up any opportunity to kill anything over two hundred pounds that crossed their path. Connor felt the heavy weight of the wooden spear one of them had passed to him, and though they had spent a few minutes that morning giving him instructions on how to use the weapon, Connor had little faith he would be able to properly use it against a several-hundred-pound boar charging at him. So back he stayed, holding tight to the reigns of his horse with his free hand, watching as the hunting dogs herded the boar into the path of the knights. 

Sir Wilson threw his spear, narrowly missing the biggest boar, which screamed in surprise, running off into a bush. “After him!” the knight yelled, the dogs darting off into the bushes in a blur of brown and white fur. They hadn’t brought Sumo with them, but Connor supposed he wouldn’t have gotten to see much of the dog anyway, as he would have been fighting with the other dogs over the scraps of meat they had torn from the flesh of a rabbit the pack had caught. 

“This way!” Sir Miller called to the men behind him, pulling his trotting horse around the mass of bushes to an easier path through the woods. Connor pulled at the reins, following the men closer. 

As they rounded the bushes, Connor saw only the dogs, lined up, pointing at a mass of bushes covering the mouth of a cave. They were baring their teeth, each after the other, following the lead of the alpha of the pack. Connor could see the men look at each other, Reese looking back at the king. He held up one of his hands, a closed fist, warning them to stop. Even Connor knew that boar didn’t live in caves.

“Your Majesty,” Reese said, tone low and warning. 

“I came all this way to hunt a bear, I’m not stopping now,” Hank said, shaking his head. “Miller,” he said, the man sitting straighter on his horse. “Take Connor back to the campsite. He’s not equipped to take on a bear of this size.” Miller nodded, pulling his horse back around to Connor. Connor wanted to protest, didn’t want to leave the king’s side, but he knew it wasn’t a good idea— and besides, the king was a stubborn man. 

Connor watched as the men pulled the crossbows from their backs, hesitating only a moment too long to turn around as he watched the king load his bow with a bolt from the quiver attached to his horse’s saddle, the bold locking into place with a resounding click. Suddenly they all heard a loud roar echo from the cave, the horses startling as a twelve-foot bear rose from the mouth of the cave, wide arms swinging in all directions. 

Though the king was farther than Reese to the cave, the bear lumbered forward, arm length wider than its body, slashing towards the king’s horse. The horse cried out, rising up on two legs, Hank yelling out as the crossbow was knocked from his hand by the swipe of a large paw. Connor heard a thwip , and the bear cry out as Hank fell back, losing his hold on the horse, landing on the ground with a sickening thud. 

“Hank!” Connor yelled, dropping his spear to take ahold of his own horse’s reins as the horses neighed loudly, their feet longing to sprint away from the danger. The king managed to roll out of the way of his horse’s wild footing before he was trampled, but that filled Connor with little relief. 

Two of the knights rushed the bear, one throwing a spear and missing, the other grazing the bear’s leg. The bear cried out again, roaring as it ran off on absurdly long legs. 

“Your Majesty!” Miller called out, dropping from his horse at Connor’s side to run towards the king. Reese joined him as Wilson looped around, still on his horse, to collect Hank’s fleeing horse.

By the time they reached Hank, the man was already pulling himself off the ground. He pushed away their reaching hands, wincing as he rubbed the shoulder he’d fallen onto. With gritted teeth the king spoke, “I’m fine! I’m fine,” Hank said, grumbling. “I’m not so damn old that I can’t survive falling from a horse.” With another turn of his shoulder, followed by another wince, he admitted, “My shoulder is a little sore, probably can’t throw a spear for a damn, and the bear broke my bow when I shot it.” He shook his head. “Go after the bear before the trail goes cold, and before the bear eats all my damn dogs.” Connor hadn’t noticed the dogs had also disappeared, eyes still following the king, lips pressed to a firm line. 

“Your Majesty—” Reese said, his arms not haven fallen fully to his side, hands clenching and unclenching as if he were trying to read for something.

“Go after the bear,” Hank said. “Remember we’re not here for sport. That thing’s been terrorizing the area for years. I’ll head back to camp with Connor, he’ll be there if I need anything. If you don’t kill it by dusk, come back, we don’t want any more surprises.” The look the king gave his men, as well as the tone, left no room for arguing. Wilson handed off the reins to the king, following the knights as they all remounted their steeds. 

Hank trotted to Connor’s side, shaking his head as he saw Connor’s open mouth. “Don’t you start too.”

Connor pressed his lips together, and asked, “Are you alright?”

The king gave him a stern look, but he nodded. He pulled his horse’s reins, heading back towards the direction of their campsite. After nearly half an hour, he murmured, “Didn’t realize how far we’d gotten from camp.” Connor hummed in agreement, though he wasn’t really listening. He found he enjoyed the slower pace of riding, able to enjoy nature from the back of a great beast. Being in a saddle didn’t bother him as much as he thought it would after the previous day’s… riding. “Suppose we’re about halfway back,” he said, looking through the trees.

Connor pulled himself back into focus as he heard the thunder of hoofbeats in the distance. He cocked his head, knowing his hearing was better than the king’s. “Do you hear that?” 

“Hear what?” the king asked, looking in the direction that Connor had nodded in, and after a moment he seemed to hear the approaching hoofbeats as well, the faster pace beginning to thunder through the trees. “You better not have killed the bear without me!” Hank called out, but Connor froze when the knights didn’t reply.

“Hank I don’t think—”

“I know,” Hank said, reaching for his sword as the thundering hoofbeats slowed. The knights would have announced themselves by then. Besides, they’d only been gone a little while. It was unlikely they had already killed the bear. Connor felt his heart beat faster in his chest.

“Who do we have here?” they heard a gravelly voice call, both men’s heads snapping to see three men riding up on spotted ponies, saddles laden down with burlap sacks. 

The man who spoke was tall and wiry, with a scar down over one eye, a spotty black beard. He had a scrap of cloth loose around his neck, falling over his torn green tunic. The other two had their matching cloth scraps around their noses and mouths, but when they pulled to a stop in front of Hank and Connor both men pulled them down, revealing a line of dust and grime on their upper faces. 

Connor heard Hank swear under his breath, “Bandits.” Connor flicked his eyes to the man, but returned them to the bandits, knuckles white where he held the reins held tightly in his hands. 

“Couple a’ bear hunters, I see,” one of the other men said, trotting his pony around behind them. “What’re we gonna do when we don’t have a bear to blame half our scores on?”

“Normally,” the first bandit said, his short sword extended in their direction, wavering between pointing at each of them, “this is where we would ask you to hand over your valuables.” He smirked, looking down at Hank’s clothing. It wasn’t his usual castle finery, or even the armor his knights wore— Hank had told him when they had packed that it was often better to dress like they were just passing through the kingdom, not as the man who sat at its head. Less chance for bandits. Fat lot of good that did them. “It doesn’t look like you have much worth taking.” Hank’s hand was still on the grip of his sword, held by his injured arm. 

The lead bandit’s eyes slid over to Connor, languidly looking him over, sword still pointed at Hank. “Except for him .” Though they had not recognized the king, Connor releasing tension in his shoulders he didn’t know he had, it was much harder to hide Connor’s race or status. “You’re a pleasure slave, aren't you? Pretty little thing,” he said, swinging the sword to point at Connor. He could see the king’s hand grip tighter on his sword, hand going white. The other bandits seemed to leer at Connor, their horses pacing in a short distance. “Unlike the hoity-toity nobles, we don’t mind sloppy seconds.”

With that, Hank pulled his sword from its hilt, knocking the sword from the bandit’s hand with a circular motion, yelling for Connor to get behind him. There wasn’t much room in the clearing for that, but Connor still pulled his reins back, as Hank charged in against the now-disarmed lead bandit. 

The bandit took a hit to his solar plexus, knocking him back off his horse. He was wearing chain mail, so it didn’t break the skin, but he still cried out as he fell back. With a glance downwards, the king charged, trampling the lead bandit under his horse. The second bandit raced forwards, and as if in a bizarre joust with swords, both men swiped at their opponent’s horse, causing the horses to stumble and fall, taking the men with them. 

Connor watched, mouth agape, as Hank pulled himself, covered in what Connor hoped as horse blood, from the pile of bodies to step on the sword of the second bandit pinned under his horse. With a flash of his other arm, the bandit buried a dagger into the king’s leg. “Shit,” Hank swore, gritting his teeth as he took the hilt of his sword in both hands, sheathing it in the body of the second bandit. 

Bloody hand running through his silver hair, the king pulled his sword from the body below him, “Connor, where’s—” The king’s eyes darkened in surprise just a second before Connor felt a hand wrap around his neck from behind, a rough and grimy hand pressing against the vein, cutting off his air.

“Drop your sword,” the bandit said, foul breath skating Connor’s ear. He shuddered, trying to lean away from the man, which only caused him to tighten his grip on Connor’s neck. 

Hank eyed the man, brows knitted together. Hank’s piercing blue eyes met Connor’s, and without another moment to waste, dropped his sword. 

As it fell, Connor slowed time. He wasn’t sure why, exactly, he stopped it, his heart beating wildly in his chest. The sword seemed to hover in the blue-tinted air, falling at a pace not discernable to his eyes at that moment. He hadn’t involuntarily stopped time like this since he was a child. Not since— since he had felt true fear at the hands of his captors. 

He was afraid, Connor realized. Not for himself, but for Hank. The man stood before him, injured twice, and still defending Connor, possibly at the expense of his own life. His silver hair was streaked with blood from where he had slicked it back from his face. There was a splatter of blood across the side of his face, another spatter smeared across his now-ruined tunic. 

He could feel the slow heartbeat in his chest as his mind worked overtime. He couldn’t allow this to end here. Couldn’t allow Hank’s life to end here. He tried to think of what he could possibly do in his position, as untrained as he was. His eyes fell on the waist of the leader bandit, where it still lay after his trampling, a knife strapped to his belt, unused. Two out of the three bandits had daggers strapped to their belts. What was the chance the third had one too?

In this state, Connor could not move, only think, so he had to hope that his guess was correct as he allowed his heart to slow and time to resume. Moving quicker than a human could, Connor reached behind himself to pull the last bandit’s dagger from where he had tucked it into his belt, and then, without being able to see what he was doing, jabbed it into the side of the man, just under his ribcage. 

The man howled in pain, dropping hand from Connor’s neck, allowing Connor to thrust his head back into the man’s, breaking his nose by the sound of the crack. The bandit, now flailing on his horse, the reins only loose in his hands, was unsteady. With a quick thought to his riding lessons the previous day, he slapped the back of the bandit’s horse, sending it and the rider into the trees with wild abandon. 

Connor couldn’t hardly breathe for a moment, staring off after the man. He’d never— 

He sucked in a breath, spinning back to Hank. The man was looking up at him with something like awe across his face, but Connor didn’t have time to think about it, because the king was also swaying where he stood. Connor dropped down off his horse, rushing to steady Hank in his arms. He didn’t realize he was trembling until he heard Hank whisper into Connor’s hair, “I’m alright, I’m fine.” Hank pressed a kiss into his hair, pulling back. 

Connor had to breathe for a moment, steadying himself as well as Hank, before he could even speak. “You’re not .” He pointedly looked down at the dagger still in the king’s leg. 

The king looked down and laughed, mumbling, “I suppose not. Get the bandages from the pack on your horse, will you?” Connor nodded, though he was loath to take his eyes from the man, he hurried back to help the king down onto the ground, flinching as the king pulled the dagger from his own leg with a wince. Connor pressed the clean bandages to the wound with trembling hands, wrapping it around the injured leg. He kept his hands pressed to the wound, even after he had tied it tight enough to stop the bleeding. Hank pressed his hand over Connor’s, the only thing stopping his still-trembling hands.

Why was he so upset about this? Why was he so upset about potentially losing the king? Why was he—

Oh, Connor thought. Oh

He blinked, realizing the king was staring at him. “What?”

“I said we’ll have to take your horse back, mine is a little under the weather,” Hank said. “You might have to help me a little, I’m not so steady on my leg right now.” 

Connor nodded, going to his horse in a daze, pulling himself up on the horse with no assistance. He offered his hand to the king, helping pull the man up on the horse, though Connor could feel him wince when he had to use his bruised arm. Nevertheless, Hank still seemed in control in an unfathomable way. He wrapped his arms around Connor, taking the reins from his hands, leading them back to camp. 

Back at camp, Connor fretted over Hank, who despite his protests, let him. He found a very, very small stream near the camp, only large enough for him to wash the blood out of their clothes, and for him to bring a small pail to the king to wash them both down. After removing the king’s pants, which Connor was too tired to be shy about, he cleaned the wound again and wrapped fresh bandages around it. 

At the sound of the actual knights returning, Hank sat up from his bedroll in front of the fire, he said, tone light, “Might have to cut this hunting trip a little short.”

The men looked at the drying, blood-stained clothing and Hank’s fresh leg wound. Miller spoke, eyebrows raised, “And here we thought you missed all the fun.” Hank snorted, laying back to cover his eyes with his arm. 

Despite his bone-deep exhaustion, Connor stayed up all night listening to Hank’s breathing, hardly daring to close his eyes lest he slipped into unconsciousness. He didn’t rest until they returned to the castle the following day. Miller left the party to report to Reed on the bandit activity as soon as they passed through the gates, Connor and Hank leaving the care of the horses to the rest of the men while Connor helped the king to their bedchambers.

The castle doctor visited shortly, treating the king’s wound properly, and reporting that it shouldn’t cause any serious damage before leaving them alone once again. It wasn’t even dusk, but Connor was exhausted. Yet, with the king passing in and out of sleep beside him, Connor was too alert to fall asleep. With his hands underneath his pillow, he stared off into the corner of the bedchamber. 

He had only just closed his eyes when he felt the king’s arm wrap around his middle section, face nuzzling into the nape of Connor’s neck, beard tickling him. “Didn’t want to lose you too,” the king murmured, holding him close. Connor felt a warmth settling over him as he closed his eyes once again. 

Chapter Text

By the time Hank had healed from the somewhat disastrous hunting trip, summer was encroaching on the kingdom. Humidity hung heavy in the air most nights, stagnant breezes filtering in through the open windows in his study. The study was dimmer than he would have liked, but he couldn’t stand to feel the heat of the fire on his back just to have another source of light as the sun set outside the windows. The candles, radiating just a little heat, would have to do for now. 

Rubbing the new, pink scar on his thigh through his light trousers, Hank couldn’t quite say he regretted going on the hunt, especially with the developments between the king and Connor. He was still uncertain what had prompted the change in attitude towards him, or what had made Connor come to him by the lake, but he supposed he wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth.

His vision swam as he tried to read over the reports on the impending summer crop yield, knowing he wouldn’t be getting much work done in the sudden heat. Ravendale didn’t usually have such sudden and intense heat waves, but when they hit, hot winds traveling from Belle Isle, it drowned everything out. He put the papers down with a sigh, pinching the bridge of his nose. He was rubbing his eyes with the ball of his palm when he heard a knock on the closed door. He’d almost left it open in hopes that a cooler breeze from the castle hallways would flow in, but he’d decided against it when he’d already sat down at his desk. 

His head jerked up, wondering who the hell was knocking. It wasn’t quite dinner time, and since he’d instructed the staff to serve only light, cold foods, it wouldn’t matter when he decided to come to dinner, and the staff knew that. Besides, the castle staff announced themselves at the door without hesitation, and at this point, Connor never bothered to knock at all. 

“Who is it?” he called, putting his spectacles down on the desk. Instead of answering, the man at the door opened it, stepping into the room. Hank scowled when he saw the man standing in the doorway. “How the hell did you get in here, Perkins?”

Viscount Perkins shrugged his shoulders. He was wearing a black tunic, sleeves long and cinched at his wrists. Though he was missing his usual blood-red cloak, the man had to be sweltering. Even Hank, who rarely wore his summer tunics, had been convinced to wear one of his lighter, three-quarter sleeved linen tunics. 

“Why, Sir Reed— or is it Captain Reed now?— let me in. Pointed me right in this direction,” the man had a self-satisfied smirk on his face. 

“I sincerely doubt that,” Hank said. Reed liked Perkins just about as much as Hank did, which was to say, not at all. He knew Reed disliked anyone who couldn’t remember his rank even less. The man was petulant at best, but he had earned his place and wouldn’t let others forget it. After the death of both of his parents, both knights in Hank’s father’s army, twenty years back in the Great War, Reed had single-mindedly applied himself to climbing the ranks as a knight, and wouldn’t have let Perkins in just to piss off the king.

And if he did, Hank would have some serious reprimanding to give the man. Hank pinched the bridge of his nose, asking, “What are you here for now, Perkins? I already told you we would not be considering your bid for the land anymore. We decided on using the land to deal with the overcrowding of Detroit.” 

The lower castle town had been expanding outwards for years, spilling over the walls of the city and into the surrounding grasslands. Though they had nearby forests, their lands were fairly flat and open surrounding the city, and the citizens outside of the walls didn’t have the same protection that the city walls offered. Oakehaven, while it was true much of the city had been razed to the ground, had stone walls that only needed mild repairs. Hank would only need to appoint a governor of the colony who would oversee the preparations and recruitment of new townsfolk with appropriate incentives. 

Perkins waved his hand, “While I do hope that you change your mind,” he said, “I actually was just stopping through on my way back from Camden.”

“Camden is southwest of here,” Hank said of the port city, crossing his arms. There were much faster routes to get back to Warren from Camden that did not involve backtracking farther into Ravendale. Despite becoming much more patient since cutting back on his drinking, his tolerance for this man only seemed to lower. Perkins only shrugged again.

“Ah, well, I had missed this great city. Much less temperamental than Woodward, far fewer snow flurries this time of year.” 

Hank sighed, knowing he would be stuck with the man for the rest of the evening in the least. The viscount was Queen Cristina’s favorite emissary, and as little as he liked Warren, he wasn’t prepared to go to war over one man. He rose from his chair, and said, “I suppose you’ll be wanting to join me for dinner, then?”

“Yes, thank you,” Perkins said, clasping his hands behind his midnight-black brocade tunic, walking side by side with the king. Hank made sure to stay far enough away from the man so they wouldn’t brush shoulders, even on accident, having to keep a slightly increased pace to stay ahead of the man. It was his place as king to stand before others, though he rarely stuck to protocol except with those he disliked, Perkins being the top of the list. Sometimes he wondered if Queen Cristina sent him just to piss Hank off.

“Didn’t bring an entourage today?” Hank asked, subtly glancing around as if he could miss a troupe of ridiculously-dressed courtiers, or a party of guards wearing the man’s crest. He was only slightly worried that he had brought more ‘gifts’ for Hank, but to his relief, it didn’t seem to be the case.

“Gave my men the evening off,” he said, waving it off as if his personal security were just a formality. He sure had a low opinion of Hank. “Speaking of— I heard you had quite the adventure a few weeks ago. I heard terrible things, bears and bandits wreaking havoc on villagers.” Perkins spoke with a glint in his eye, hands still clasped behind his back in a picture of innocence. 

“You make the situation sound much more dire than it was,” Hank said as they reached the great hall. The guards opened the doors for the men, Perkins padding in behind Hank. 

“Not from what I hear,” Perkins said, curious tone to his voice. “I heard you took on quite a troupe of bandits single-handedly, defending your slave with your life.” The man had a glint in his eye only matched by the glint of candlelight reflecting off the sharp silverware. “You know, when you never responded to my queries about how he was suiting you, I had thought perhaps you hadn’t liked my little gift. Now I see you must have simply been too… busy to answer my letters.”

Hank frowned, didn’t like what he was implying. “Yes, he’s fine.” He crossed his arms across his lap, sitting down across from the viscount. Perkins had sat first, but Hank was too tired to argue protocol with a man who knew it better than anyone, ignoring it to make a point. 

A self-satisfied smirk crossed Lord Perkins’ face, leaning forward where he sat in his carved wooden chair. He looked over the custards, salmon pie, and sourdough bread piled high between them— light, cold foods for a warm evening. 

Hank had not touched the food that had been waiting for him, letting the other man stew until he was ready to give in. Perkins’ eyes flicked up from the food, a hungry look in his eyes as he spoke. “Do you mind if I borrow him for the evening, then?” Hank was so startled he nearly dropped the goblet he’d been reading for, his eyes, cold and hard, meeting Perkins’. “Of course I prefer them untouched, but he’s rather… delectable, isn’t he?”

“Absolutely not,” Hank said, his free hand curling into a fist above his knee. 

For a moment, he thought he was going to have to put up some sort of fight with this, but Perkins simply shrugged, reaching for a goblet of his own. When his eyes flicked up over the top of the goblet once again, the taunting look was still in his eyes, as if he held something over Hank. 

“Oh well. I suppose I’ll have to find the use of someone else this particular evening,” Perkins shrugged. Hank would have to tell Reed to clear the grounds of any slaves or serving women around the castle that evening, keeping them out of Perkins’ grasp. Hank was just reaching for the cold venison sausage when Perkins spoke again. “You should at least invite your slave to dinner with us. I want to make sure he’s being treated… fairly.”

Hank snorted, unable to hold himself back, knowing very well that Perkins didn’t care how well any of the slaves were being treated. But, he supposed, it wouldn’t hurt to bring Connor in to show Perkins just how very off-limits Connor was. He waved over a maid, telling her to summon Connor to the great hall, a place the elf rarely visited. 

Perkins had just finished filling his plate when Connor appeared in the doorway, a curious look on his face that died the moment he saw Perkins. The elf’s body stilled, and he stood straighter, his features schooled in a way that Hank rarely saw anymore. It was clearly a bad idea for him to have brought Connor in for this dinner— Connor had been fairly open about the sorts of things he and the other slaves were subjected to in Warren, but he never actually talked about Perkins— but it was too late, Perkins had seen Connor, and Connor had seen Perkins. 

“Connor,” Hank said, summoning Connor to his side. Connor obediently followed, and when he reached Hank, Hank pulled the elf into his lap, feeling Connor’s surprise in his movements. He kept a protective arm around Connor’s waist, holding him steady. He could feel the tense lines of Connor’s body as he sat stiffly, and for a few moments, Hank allowed the guilt to wash over him. They had made such progress, and Hank had potentially destroyed it all because he had wanted to show Connor off to Perkins. The man eyed the elf, eyes tracing over his body, and it suddenly felt a lot less like Hank was showing that Connor was spoken for, and a lot more like he had offered Connor up on a serving dish to the man. 

Throughout dinner Connor stayed tense on Hank’s lap, barely picking at what Hank gave him, staring blankly ahead. As usual, Warren was Perkins’ favorite subject to discuss. Perkins spoke of the kingdom with far more pride and reverence than some kings Hank knew spoke of their own kingdoms. Occasionally the viscount did dip into other topics, though they all seemed to venture closer to gossip than anything else. 

“—of course,” Perkins said, “despite Warren’s less-than-ideal soil conditions, we still have quite a thriving economy, even without trading with Jericho.”

Hank snorted, bringing his goblet to his lips, leaning back in his seat. His arm pulled Connor back along with him, the young elf leaning just slightly back onto Hank. “You trade with Jericho alright, you just use us as middlemen.”

“And they need it,” Perkins said, leaning forward on the table to reach for something Hank couldn’t quite see. “It seems their economy is just recovering from that disaster of freeing their slaves. But what can one expect from a kingdom that can’t even keep track of their youngest prince!” Perkins sat back with a satisfied bite into an apple. Hank’s hand curled on Connor’s thigh. “The Eldritch halfling was just a child when they misplaced him,” he said with such nonchalance, as if he wasn’t discussing the life of a person . Perkins’ eyes flicked back up to meet Hank’s, knowing what he was doing, deliberately, when he said, “Why, he was just a few years older than Prince Col—”

Hank slammed a fist down on the table, rattling the dishes, startling all three of them. “That is enough .” He stood, barely allowing a second for Connor to slide off his lap. “Ambassador or not, if you speak another word, I personally toss you out into the dirt, leaving you to track down your men by yourself.”

Perkins waved his hand, lips dripping with falsehoods as he spoke, “I sincerely apologize, Your Majesty. I should have been more careful with my words, I know how stories of children must surely affect you.”

Hank sighed, “Did you really come this far out of your way to gossip with me?”

“Yes,” Perkins admitted, much to Hank’s surprise.

His eyebrows furrowing, Hank sighed again, feeling the fight drain from him. What the hell did he expect from a man like Perkins? He lived to unsettle. “It is getting late,” Hank said, though he had no idea what time it was. The servants had mostly left them alone, not one stepping in to trim the candlewick. 

“Yes, yes,” Perkins said, standing. “Care to join me for an after-dinner drink?”

“I have business to attend to. You did stop in uninvited and unannounced. I have duties here that I mustn't neglect.” It wasn’t quite a lie, but there wasn’t anything more pressing than being not in the same place as Perkins for any longer than he had to. 

“Very well. Are you sure you won’t be loaning me Connor for the evening to keep me busy while you work?” Perkins said with a wink, and once again, even with the scant amount of surface area between them, Hank could feel Connor stiffen against him once again. In fact, he couldn’t see Connor move at all, standing at his side like a porcelain doll. 

Hank growled as he curled his fingers over Connor’s shoulder, “He’ll be busy tonight.” And every other night as long as Perkins was staying at the castle. 

Perkins seemed to be satisfied with the outcome of the conversation, regardless, leaving Hank more than a little on edge at why he’d even bothered to stop by the castle. It would add at least another two days on his journey back to Woodward. As they left the great hall, Connor still as immovable as a statue, Hank told the maid to find Reed and have him send all of the servants home early, and personally show Perkins to a suite on the other side of the castle. The girl nodded, taking off in a sprint down towards the armory and guards’ quarters below the kitchen. 

Hank almost forgot Connor had been following when they reached their bedchamber, Connor perching quietly on the edge of the settee. Hank was exhausted, even just a few hours with Perkins was more than enough time with the man. He’d already had a long day before the man arrived, but now he was just relieved to be alone with Connor. 

He ran his hand through his hair as he poured himself another goblet of wine. He’d been cutting back, no longer needing to spend every night drowning himself in his cup, but there were still days where he needed a little extra help to deal with everything. He was the king— he was allowed to be selfish on occasion. 

Glancing back at Connor, still sitting on the arm of the chaise lounge, he thought about offering a goblet to the elf. Though the elf had free reign of the castle, and though there was an abundance of open bottles collected in their bedchamber, Connor rarely indulged. He was a happy and affectionate drunk, but tonight, with a steely expression on his face, Hank worried what that might turn into. 

The fire wasn’t lit, but the room was still almost stifling from the warmth of the evening, and Hank considered opening a window. He had just turned to look at Connor when he heard the elf speak, looking down at his hands. “Am I being sent away?”

Hank sputtered, nearly choking on his wine. With a good cough, he placed the goblet on the table, and turned to look at Connor. “Raneighs, why on Thirius would you think that?”

Gone was the marble statue, instead replaced by the effigy of a scared young man, not meeting Hank’s eyes. “Lord Perkins was the one who gifted me to you.” He twisted his hands in his lap. “I wasn’t sure why you summoned me to dinner with Lord Perkins,” he took in a deep breath. “I thought, maybe, he returned with someone else for you. And he wanted me to see it.” 

Hank sucked in a breath, feeling a chill fall over him. Before he could find the right words to reassure Connor, Connor continued speaking, in a rush this time, as if though he had to say it all at once or the words would never fall from his lips. 

“I thought I was— I thought if I was good enough, if I—” he stuttered, hands trembling in his lap. “If I had earned my place here, with you—”

And though Hank wasn’t sure if Connor was done speaking, he could suddenly no longer hear it, a flash of ice hitting his veins at the thought of the recent attention Connor had been paying him. Connor had seemed genuine when he approached Hank by the lake, but perhaps he had meant it to be a one-time thing, and Hank had somehow pushed too far afterward. Had Connor been lavishing him in attention because he was worried that Hank might send him away if he didn’t?

Hank knew that any expectation of true, permanent affection from Connor was unrealistic, he had thought— at least it had seemed— like the elf had enjoyed their time together. Connor had been the one to reach for Hank, desperate kisses, coming under Hank without hardly a touch on his part. It seemed like each time Hank touched him it only took a few minutes for the elf to turn blue and writhing under his hands. 

The king cleared his throat, trying to pull himself together. In matters like these, Hank had never been very good with words. Connor’s gaze was frozen on the ashen fireplace, his voice so small as if he was afraid Hank would swallow him whole. Placing the goblet of wine down, Hank strode to kneel before Connor, who only looked to Hank when after his trembling hands were taken by the king’s. 

Warm brown eyes met his own. “As much as I enjoy our time together—” The instant the words leave Hank’s mouth, he regretted them. Connor has gone stiff again under his hands, like a deer in the line of a crossbow. Hank swore, “That’s— that’s not what I meant. At all. What I mean is—” he made sure to look Connor in the eye, for him to know the sincerity of Hank’s words as he said them. “You don’t have to do any of this, if you don’t want to. I would never just give you back to Perkins, or sell you to him, or anyone else for that matter.” 

With unsure eyes staring back at his own, Hank knew the right thing to do would be to prove his devotion to Connor. To free the elf from his chains, to show his importance to the king. To ask Connor for the chance to have him reciprocate how Hank feels. But Hank was selfish, and on some level, afraid. He couldn’t take the risk that Connor would see his feelings and would leave anyway. He knew he was being unequivocally cruel and selfish, but he was the king. He could tell himself that a thousand times over, and maybe, for once he would believe the justification.

“Look at me,” Hank said, squeezing the elf’s hands in his own. “I want to know that you know I would never send you back to Lord Perkins. Not to Warren, and certainly not to his bed. Understand?”

He waited until Connor met his eyes, nodding in confirmation, until he let go of Connor’s hands. When Hank released the elf’s hands, Connor reached for Hank’s tunic, deft hands falling on his low collar. Before Hank realized what he was doing, Connor had already begun to unbutton the small pearl buttons at the king’s collar with shaky hands. 

“What are you doing?” Hank asked wearily, frowning down at the elf. Connor’s hands stopped just one button from the bottom of the line, just above the middle of his sternum. 

Connor looked up at him, a look of confusion and worry passing across his face. “You said that you would be busy with me tonight.”

Hank placed his hands over Connor’s on his tunic, stilling them. Though he had just released the elf’s hands, they felt ice cold. “I didn’t— I didn’t actually mean that,” he said with an exhale. He wanted to run his hands through his hair at the mess of the situation this had become, but he didn’t want to let Connor’s hands go back to unbuttoning Hank’s tunic out of obligation. “I just said that to Perkins so he would leave you alone.”

“Oh,” Connor said, embarrassed, cheeks flushed blue.

“I didn’t mean to imply that you had to do this,” he said with a cough, clearing his throat. He felt his own cheeks flush, and hoped that Connor didn’t notice in the warm evening. “That you had to come to my bed just because I told someone else that’s what you would be doing. Or that you had to do this just because I did.”

Connor stared at him for a moment with unreadable eyes, his face still dusted blue. His lips pressed together in determination, his brows furrowing slightly as he stood abruptly. He pulled the king with him, their hands locked together as Connor flipped them. Letting Hank’s hands go, he reached back for the king’s tunic, nimble fingers unbuttoning the last pearl button with steady hands. 

He had finished with the button before Hank had the presence of mind to stop him, Connor lacing his hands in the hair of his chest through the opening in Hank’s shirt, right above the king’s heart. Hank’s voice cracked as he said, “Didn’t you hear me?”

Connor looked him in the eye, a focused look as he spoke. “Yes. And what if I want to do this?”

Hank’s lips parted, for a moment forgetting how to speak. His throat felt dry, but after he swallowed, he said, “I— that’s all I wanted.” You’re all I wanted.  

The worried looks completely gone from Connor’s face, now reassured that his place was here, with Hank, Connor rose on his toes to press his lips to Hank’s. They were cold, like his hands, but Hank didn’t mind. 

The carriage rocked as they rode over a pothole created by the early summer rains. Hank cursed, hating to have to ride in a carriage instead of with his men on horses out in the open air, but protocol was something that he was unfortunately advised to keep up with outside of Detroit. Despite that, he’d brought his pleasure slave along with him, as if Connor was anything but. 

As always on the eaves of summer, Hank received a letter asking for an audience with Camden’s Governor Allen at the governor’s palace in the port city. Though the letter specified discussing city improvements, especially repairs to the old sea wall Hank hadn’t gotten around to allocating funds for, the invitation was little more than a pretense. Visiting the summery port city on the southern coast was a tradition between the two families for as long as Hank could remember, a chance for the royal family to escape for a few weeks to the seaside town in early summer. 

The past few years Hank had declined the invitation, instead sending one of his men in his place to sort out the few things that actually did need to be dealt with by the royal seal, the yearly business hoarded into a single week or so. But now, with… someone in his life to actually enjoy that sort of vacation once again, Hank felt that he once again needed to accept this invitation from the governor. 

Maybe he was a fool for developing feelings for his slave— because, of course, they couldn’t love you back— but watching Connor look out the windows with excitement plastered on his face, even after a day and a half of travel by carriage, was something that Hank would not pass up for anything on their earthly plane.

Not having grown up with the uncomfortable rocking and poor seat padding of a carriage, Connor greeted any kind of travel with unbridled surprise and excitement. He had yet to develop a preference for any one kind of travel, as Hank had with horseback riding, so, at least for the moment, Hank was willing to indulge him and ride inside the carriage rather than swapping places with one of the knights on horseback. 

“Sit down, you’re gonna make me sick just lookin’ at you,” Hank said, watching as Connor pulled his head back inside the carriage, only a hint of sheepishness on his features. Hank shook his head fondly. 

“Sorry, Hank,” Connor said, but his bright smile had not dimmed so far on their two-day journey. He hadn’t even seemed to have minded sleeping in an inn the previous night, the experience new and compelling for him, not minding the rough straw mattresses even in the best room offered. “I just want to be able to take it all in, I don’t know when I’ll have the chance again.”

“Did you not get to see much of Thirius before?” Hank asked. “I mean, I know you were primarily— you lived in—”

“It’s okay,” Connor said. “I know what you mean.” He shook his head in answer, “I know I don’t really talk about it much,” he said, supporting his head with one hand as he looked out the window. “But it’s partially because so little actually happened. I saw a little of your kingdom when traveling with Lord Perkins from Woodward to Detroit, but Mary and I were told to keep our heads inside of the carriage, the curtains drawn.” He played with the lace curtains that had been pinned back since they’d gotten in the carriage, light flooding into the small, four-person compartment. “And when our masters were present, we weren’t allowed to speak with each other, much less touch and share some of our own memories.”

“That’s—” Hank started, but he wasn’t sure what he could possibly say to Connor that would make up for any of that. 

Connor shrugged. “That’s how it was. How it is.” He sighed, still staring out the window at the passing riverlands. “Thank you for bringing me,” Connor said quietly. 

“Can’t go one night without you,” Hank said, though both of them knew it was little but a pretense, an excuse for the fact he just liked Connor. He saw Connor turn up the corner of his mouth.

Connor stared out the window a few moments longer, likely looking up at the clearing sky from the previous evening’s rain. Hank had seen most of this countryside before, though it was not the usual route to Camden. Usually the trip was one night at most, skirting past the forest and passing over a few small bridges through the riverlands. But with unusually heavy rains the past few days, the rivers had swelled and washed out many of the roads, forcing them up and around Detroit to higher— and dryer— grounds. 

He had thought Connor was surely done speaking when he heard the young elf say, “I was in a few slave warehouses over the years.” Connor was still looking out the window, not looking at Hank, but not quite looking at the surrounding landscape either. His eyes were fuzzy and distant, recalling a memory. “The earliest I can recall was in Port Eden.”

Hank nodded, but didn’t dare speak. Connor rarely spoke about his past unprompted, and Hank had yet to hear this. Hank knew of Port Eden, but had never been there himself. It was less than a day’s passage from Mackinae by ship, but even in his youth, Port Eden was not somewhere that Hank had ever desired to go. The port city was Warren’s greatest port, where most of their slaves imported from other kingdoms were processed. If Connor’s first experiences in Warren were at Port Eden, then Connor probably had been right— he wasn’t from Warren in the first place. 

“I recall waking up on the ship as it docked in Port Eden, the massive ship’s deck filled with hundreds of other elves like myself. Some were held in iron chains, but I already had this on my neck,” Connor said, his hand reaching for the golden collar on his neck. Hank’s eyes followed his fingers as they brushed the thin chain. “When I grew older they sent me into the city.” His eyes didn’t leave the riverlands outside the windows. Blue and green reflected off his dark, glassy eyes. “I don’t remember much from the trip except that it was stifling. It took us days to get there. We were all crowded together, and though they didn’t want to damage us,” Connor said impassively, as though he were speaking of cattle, “they treated us little better than bales of hay.”

“Damn,” Hank said, eyes not leaving Connor.

“My final destination was Woodward,” Connor said of the capital of Warren. “I’m not… I’m not entirely sure how old I am.” He looked conflicted, colors flashing across his eyes like pools of water. “I think I’m around twenty years old. I was told I was ten when I was bustled from the first ship in Port Eden, but after that it was harder to keep track of the years. When I was around… fifteen I was moved to Woodward, with the other slaves that were aging up. Port Eden was a trading city, from what I remember, but Woodward was lively.” He spoke of it with a small smile on his face, but his eyes were far off and distant. Hank wasn’t sure if he was even aware he was doing it. “I remember a few slave warehouses. Not all of them were auction houses, but a few were. They kept me where they had space. We could always hear the streets above us, the sound of hoofbeats and humans talking, cobbled streets and rain. A few of us could get a glimpse of the world around us when we stood on each other’s shoulders.”

Connor sighed, and then looked to Hank with a sad smile on his face, present once again. 

Hank wanted to say something, but he wasn’t sure he had the words. They had lived in two different worlds, only meeting by the luck of their circumstances. Or the luck of Hank’s circumstances, in the least. He reached forward, taking Connor’s hand in his own. Connor looked up in surprise when he felt Hank squeeze it in reassurance, meeting the king’s eyes. Connor’s smile became brighter at that, as if he understood that as long as Hank was around, he wouldn’t ever have to experience that again.

Chapter Text

By the end of the second day of traveling towards the port city of Camden, not even Connor’s presence was enough to entice the king to stay inside the carriage. Though the king was getting older, Connor had seen time and time again that Hank would never stop being a soldier, a true knight like the rest of his men. If Connor stuck his head far enough out the window he could spot the king riding alongside the knights, only truly differentiated by the golden circlet upon his head, Sir Reed at his side leading them along the road. 

It was strange, Connor thought of the camaraderie of the two men. They were separated in age by nearly twenty years, and even Connor knew of Reed’s apparent dislike of most things, but then again, Connor had never shared any sort of true camaraderie with anyone but fellow slaves who were bought and sold with alarming frequency. The other knights that had accompanied the party to Camden were evenly split into the more experienced, trusted guard of the king and a few newer men that had just been knighted a few weeks back. 

Outside the window, the last of the dying light disappeared beyond the heavy wall of trees lining the road. With each bump of the carriage, he could see the light filtering through the thinner parts of the forest, the sky a purple-red. The previous night they had stayed at an inn in a small town west of Detroit, having to take a detour around the castle to avoid the flooded riverlands. The king had said that usually it was a one-night trip at most, but it seemed that the rainy season had extended late this year. Connor had no point of reference.

He watched the sun through the filter of trees, knowing there were only a few minutes left of light before the sun completely disappeared over the horizon. Ahead he could see some of the knights holding lit torches, leading the way for the carriage and the following knights. After a few minutes of darkening sky, Connor felt the carriage take a slight turn onto a rockier path from the worn and beaten dirt road, and then slow to a stop with one last sway of the carriage. Connor could see a heavy tree line outside the window and could hear the half dozen knights accompanying them demount from their horses. Connor pried the door open, letting himself out of the carriage to stretch his stiff body before one of the knights could fetch him. He always felt odd having others wait on him. 

Connor knew in a different life, under different circumstances, he would have been in their place. Had he been older, visibly scarred, or not a virgin, he would have had a far different life. He could have been like Ralph in the stables, or one of the kitchen slaves, or even one of the elves that were sent to the Warren mountains to harvest the fir trees that grew in snow too heavy for humans. He could have been the slave that waited on the king’s personal bed slave. On one hand, Connor felt lucky for the position he was in. He could see the king far ahead of himself, having dismounted already, speaking with Sir Miller. Of all the nobility Connor could have been sold to, King Hank was by far the best Connor had encountered. 

But at the same time… golden chains were still chains. Connor longed to be free. To make his own choices, wholly, to show the king that if they had met under different circumstances… that Connor might choose to stay with him anyway. To show the king that perhaps, in time, the king might grow to love Connor too. He reached his hands out to stroke one of the horses that had led the carriage, watching the king speak with his knights ahead of him. 

Connor closed his eyes as he stretched his body again, feeling the soreness and tension leave him with each movement. When he opened his eyes he could see the king looking at him with a knowing twinkle in his eye as if Connor should have joined him on the horses— but what would have been the point of the carriage, then? Well, he supposed, courtiers and their rules and protocols.

Courtiers, Connor had noticed, were so strange about the things they chose to uphold, from arriving in carriages to having a variety of different-looking outfits for every occasion. While the king favorited the travel methods of his knights, Connor appreciated the knights’ nonsensical approach to clothing— all of their armor and cloaks looked the same. He supposed he liked owning his own clothes, but he would have been just as happy to have just one pair wholly his own.

“Do you need help with your luggage?” Connor heard a voice behind him ask. He turned to find himself nearly face to face with one of the young knights. The knight looked about Connor’s age, maybe a few years older, but Connor wasn’t the greatest with guessing human ages. The knight’s armor still held a freshly-polished look, and the midnight-blue cloak pinned over his shoulder was without a permanent layer of road dust yet. Though Connor hadn’t attended the knighting ceremony, he thought this man must have been one of the knights that had just been granted the honor of joining the king’s guard. 

“No,” Connor shook his head at the young knight. “I don’t need anything besides my bedroll.” Connor could reach that himself, they’d made sure to pack it on the rear of the carriage for easy accessibility that night. “Thank you, Sir…” He looked at the knight with a questioning gaze.

“Antony Deckart,” the young knight said, bowing chivalrously to Connor. Connor nodded his head stiffly at the knight, but turned back to stroking the horse, slightly uncomfortable. He was never quite sure what to do with the knights and servants who treated him with some sort of… respect. As if his position afforded him some sort of reverence. But Connor was not the queen, he knew his place, and it certainly wasn’t that of even a king’s mistress

The knights made quick work of clearing the campsite of what little brush remained in the grassy, secluded grove they had selected for the night. Connor could already see that it was turning into a beautiful night, the sky clear and cloudless, and he was suddenly glad to be back in nature for the night, at least. He always found himself drifting off more easily when he could see the stars. 

After placing his bedroll beside the king’s, Connor was pulled from the center of the encampment by Hank, just out of hearing range of most of the men. With both hands on Connor’s shoulder, Hank asked the smaller man, “Are you sure you don’t want to come with us?”

Without a glance back at the knights preparing their spears and crossbows, Connor shook his head. “It’s fine,” Connor said, having already had this conversation in the carriage earlier that afternoon. “You know how terrible I am at hunting,” he said with a lopsided smile. 

Hank chuckled, “You’re decent with a dagger if I remember correctly.” Connor flushed as the king laughed again, before leaning down to kiss Connor.

Connor leaned up into the kiss, taking the moment to revel in it. Though Hank had pulled them out of the direct light of the fire, just at the edge of the treeline of the grove, they were still fairly out in the open. The king rarely indulged in public displays of affection, so for the moment, Connor allowed himself to have this. When the king pulled back, he lifted the circlet off the top of his head and pressed it into Connor’s hands. “Hold onto this for me, will you?” Connor nodded, closing his fingers around the circlet. The king leaned forward for another quick kiss and then rejoined his men preparing for their short hunting excursion. 

As Connor watched the king’s back retreat into the forest with most of his men, he glanced down at the warm metal of the gold circlet in his hand. His other hand involuntarily rose to touch the gold binding at his own neck. One was the symbol of great power, the other of Connor’s complete lack of any. He sighed. He knew his place.

When his eyes rose again, he saw the young knight from earlier, Sir Deckart, watching him. He suddenly felt very self-conscious, shielding his eyes as he headed towards the fire, taking a seat on one of the knights’ bedrolls by the fire. Two other knights had stayed behind, both standing far off from the fire, talking amongst themselves off by the carriage.

Across the fire from Connor, Sir Deckart was squatting and using a stick to poke the burning brush, sending embers up into the sky. Connor’s eyes flicked upwards, drawn towards the constellations he had been mapping for the last few weeks in the evenings outside of Detroit Castle. This time of year he could see many of the elven constellations he knew of from an earlier time— the sign of the eight, the warrior women of Loss , the potions-bottle— and a few human ones that Hank had pointed out to him one late night in the garden, overlapping the elven constellations like the humans had done to the elves themselves.

With little regard to Connor or the young new knight, the two experienced knights headed towards the forest to take a piss, disappearing into the treeline. They had already been too far from Connor for him to hear what they were saying, but when they entered the forest their voices joined the cadence of the night. Connor’s attention was drawn back to Sir Deckart when he heard the scrape of the knight’s boots against the gravel by the fire. When Connor looked to the knight, rising from his crouch, he was already looking at Connor. 

Connor sucked in a breath but didn’t move as the knight rounded the fire, dropping to sit in the gravel beside the elf, still poking the fire with his blackened stick. Connor’s hands behind him curled into the canvas bedroll. His own bedroll, made of sheepskin like the king’s beside it, was a few feet away. He hadn’t wanted to sit on it and risk sullying it, and he knew the knights didn’t care if the rough canvas of their own bedroll was exposed to the elements. They had packed a canvas tent, stitched with the king’s colors, but on such a clear night no one had even bothered to unpack it. Unlike the other royals Connor knew of, Hank rarely bothered with the things that his men didn’t have, and his knights loved him for it. He’d asked Connor, of course, what he preferred, but in truth, Connor didn’t mind sleeping out in the open. His people did it for hundreds of years before humans invaded their lands.

In that moment, with Sir Deckart just a foot or so away, stealing glances at Connor, Connor was rather regretting not going hunting with the king. After a few more moments of the glances, and Connor trying to think of a way to politely excuse himself to his own bedroll, Sir Deckart leaned forward, just a few inches from Connor. “I’ve been watching you.” Oh. Oh. Of course. 

He had been mistaken earlier, when he thought the knight was looking at him with respect. He had grown too soft, too trusting in the presence of the king, cocooned in the bubble of the men’s respect for their king. He had forgotten the cruelty of man. 

Connor sucked in a breath, suddenly paralyzed by fear, heart seizing in his chest. His eyes quickly flicked around the encampment, knowing that they were the only ones in sight. He still couldn’t hear the other two knights that had gone into the forest, wondering if they could hear him if he yelled. His hands shifted, feeling the cold grass at the edge of the bedroll. He settled his hand into the blades of grass as a grounding presence as he prepared for what the knight would say next. 

Sir Deckart leaned in closer, with a sudden, wild look in his eye as he looked around the encampment. His eyes flicked to the circlet in Connor’s lap, the gold reflecting the light of the fire. “I can help you escape.”

“What?” Connor asked, startled into speaking. 

The knight sucked in a breath, speaking rapidly with that unnerving look in his eye. “You wouldn’t have to do anything. I know the other knights, I know how to avoid them— and the king won’t be back for another hour if I have it timed correctly, we can be an hour away if we leave now. If you trust me.”

Connor simply stared at the man. It was not what he was expecting, at all. But things rarely were. He searched the knight’s eyes, trying to see if he were serious, or if this were some kind of… test, or blackmail. Or if, somehow, miraculously the knight was being genuine. But Connor was not always the best at reading humans, he hadn’t spent much time around them before the last few months. 

Rather than waiting for an answer, Sir Deckart leaned forward, wrapping one hand around Connor’s wrist. Connor felt the rising panic in his chest again, looking around for an exit, praying to rA9 that the knights would return soon. 

“Why? What do you want from me?” Connor managed to force out, his voice far steadier than he could have predicted.

“I want to help you escape,” Sir Deckart said, but his hand was still wrapped tightly around Connor’s wrist. He hadn’t answered Connor’s most important question: why.  

What did Deckart want from Connor, really? Connor was no fool to believe the human was doing this out of the goodness of his heart. He had heard too many stories of elves who had been hurt at the hands of cruel masters and people they thought they could trust. Humans who had promised them the world and then snatched it away. If the knight… if he forced himself on Connor, using their potential escape as leverage, who would the knights believe if they came back early? Who would the townsfolk believe, seeing a runaway slave in the presence of a knight bearing the king’s arms? The knight, who could claim the king’s whore came onto him, asking for freedom in exchange for a fuck? Or the elf who had been left in the possession of a golden circlet worth more than his own life?

He didn’t… he didn’t think that Hank would believe that Connor would betray him, that Hank would believe this man over Connor, but… Connor was an elf. His people had been accused of being assassins and thieves and whores for a thousand years. And in desperation, many of them had become those very things they were accused of. 

But Connor didn’t want that. He didn’t want his freedom this way— not at the cost of trust between him and Hank, not at the hands of someone else. He didn’t trust Sir Deckart’s intentions anyway, even if he really did intend to help Connor escape. 

He opened his mouth to refuse, but with his words still frozen in his throat, he couldn’t quite speak. But it seemed he didn’t have to— though it had been less than half an hour since the king’s party departed, Connor heard the rumbling shamble of a dozen men’s footsteps returning to the encampment in good spirits. His eyes snapped to the treeline where the king had departed, able to catch the first glimpse of the king with a deer slung over his shoulders, Collins just beside him with another. Connor snatched his wrist back from the knight in their moment of surprise, Deckart as startled by the returning party as Connor was.

The king’s men all looked in good spirits, able to capture two large stags this late in the season. “Make your own dinner,” Connor heard the king say, hoisting the deer off to Reed, who stumbled under the sudden weight of the deer. Hank’s eyes scanned the campsite, spotting Connor close to the fire. Connor was still sitting only a foot from Sir Deckart, but the king didn’t seem to see any tension between them, only the absence of the other knights. “Where in Raneighs’ name are Cornwell and Waters?”

Connor opened his mouth to speak, but Sir Deckart spoke up first. “Went to take a piss, Your Majesty.” Connor glanced at the knight, who caught his gaze with an intense look in his eye— a warning not to speak? 

The elf rose from the borrowed bedroll, the king’s gaze following him as he walked to Hank with a steadier pace than he felt. He placed the circlet over the king’s head, and with his fingers ghosting over the king’s hair, he stood on his toes to press his lips to the king’s. 

Behind the king he heard Sir Miller snort, “I’m sure that’s all they’re doing. Deckart, go see if you can find them.” The king chuckled, whiskers tickling Connor’s mouth. Connor pulled back, straightening the circlet on the king’s head. Satisfied, he sat on his own bedroll, far away from where he knew Sir Deckart had positioned his own. When the king joined him on his own, Connor stood only briefly to pull his bedroll closer to the king’s so that he could press his head into his shoulder, pulling his brown traveling cloak around himself more tightly. He purposely turned his back to the fire later that evening when Sir Deckart volunteered to take the first watch that night, close enough to the king where Deckart couldn’t wake Connor without the risk of waking the king. 

Connor could see the bustling port city of Camden before they had even made it over the last bridge. They crossed the no-longer-swollen Camden river sometime in the early morning, spotting where the white cliffside stone met blue-shingled roofs on the horizon. Traffic around the city had heightened as they closed the distance between their party and the ocean, and by mid-afternoon, they were in the midst of a caravan of farmers with loaded carts heading into the city. King Hank had reluctantly rejoined Connor in the carriage that morning, grumbling about court rules, but seemed to otherwise be enjoying the smell of the ocean and the salty breeze in the warm summer air. 

He was unable to contain his excitement as he practically leaned out the window, trying to catch any glimpse of the city they were approaching. This morning, the king didn’t bother trying to reel him in by the seat of his trousers, letting him enjoy the views as they passed. 

They passed through the outer city first, which Connor knew would someday be a central part of the port city as the town expanded outwards, consuming the poorly-constructed outskirts. The buildings there were much more temporary, like many of the shanties in the castle town outside Detroit, built of hardened mud and river stones from Camden river that ran through the east side of the outer town. 

The part of the town they were passing through was more spread out, with small family gardens attached to each house, and though there were a few roadside stalls selling jams and vegetables, there was no large market outside of town like Detroit Castle’s lower town market. He could see gaggles of children gathered by the road, waving tattered pieces of cloth at the passing caravans. When word of the gilded carriage passed through the worn dirt roads, even some of the children’s parents joined them outside in the sun to catch a glimpse of the king’s carriage. Connor waved at the children as they passed— children, he found, often hadn’t yet learned of the prejudices of their parents and looked at him more with wonder than mistrust. 

Passing through the outer town took less than half an hour, but Connor was growing restless to see the beautiful city they were heading towards. The main entrance to the city was a large white archway, flanked on either side by the white cliff-stone buildings. 

The terrain instantly changed when they entered the city. The worn dirt road was met by previously-white cobblestone streets that had become blackened over time, wheel treads worn into the stone. The main winding street was wide enough for two carriages to pass side by side as they followed the gentle slope of the city that had been carved from the cliffside. 

“Do you see the archway ahead of us?” the king suddenly said, causing Connor to arch his head back around to look at the king. He sat back in his seat, facing the king, able to see the archway through the window as they passed through the second arch a few hundred yards deeper into the city than the first. Connor nodded. “That used to be the city limits of Camden, back when I was a boy.”

Connor’s eyes widened, looking towards the section of twenty or so layers of shops and residential buildings crammed into that stretch of road. “But it looks so much like the rest of the city. Detroit looks so…” he struggled to find the right words that might not offend the king. “Hobbled together.”

The king laughed, “That is certainly one way to say it.” Hank leaned just slightly out the window. Facing forward, he was able to see ahead of them without much effort. “A few hundred years ago, back in my great-great-or-so grandfather's reign, there was a big fire just around the time that Camden had become a proper port city, destroying much of the wooden lodgings. Several wealthy merchants decided to invest their gold into rebuilding the city, properly this time.” Connor nodded in fascination. “Ah, there’s another one.” The king pointed to another passing arch. “They built much of the lower city at once, including the governor’s palace.” Hank sat back, snorting, “Governor Allen’s family, as you might assume, was one of those wealthy merchant families. The first gate built into the city is, oh, five generations of Allens back. They keep their place in power by keeping the city growing.”

“Aren’t you in charge of the governor’s position?” Connor asked, watching as the third arch passed overhead. 

Hank waved his hand, “I suppose, but governing is as much telling people what to do as it is allowing others to decide what would make things work the best. If the Allens weren’t as damn good at keeping the city in line as they are, they would have been thrown out of the palace decades ago.” 

The king looked pensively down a narrow alleyway mostly visited by foot traffic, cutting through to a different section of this layer of the city. Connor could see the uniformity in the architecture. All of the buildings were built tall, up instead of outwards, to fit as many people as possible. Almost all of the buildings’ fronts contained shops at the street level, built with nary an alleyway between them. If this is what the city had looked like, but constructed of wood, Connor could understand how a simple blaze had destroyed the old city. 

Overall, Connor thought, while the city was certainly impressively built, it was smaller than Detroit’s castle town, but with nearly as many people crammed into upward space as the capital had houses on the ground. The port city was full of rolling hills, all pointing downward with gentle slopes towards the ocean. 

Just after the arch noting the second to last expansion to the city, the carriage was lead down a smaller one-way road, winding through the city until they reached a rounded, wide section of the city overlooking the docks below the cliffs. It appeared to be a small market, mostly selling beautiful trinkets, such as flowers and jewelry, to the wealthy citizens fortunate enough to live just beside the governor’s palace, which sat up high on a cliff, overlooking much of the city. It was an impressive building, not nearly as large as Detroit Castle, but nevertheless, a beautiful piece of architecture. Most of the turrets were flying the crest of Ravendale, but two at the front of the four-floored palace were flying what Connor could only assume was the crest of the Allens, a midnight blue flag with a yellow merchant ship. 

The carriage could only move so fast on slippery, mist-soaked cobblestones as they headed back uphill towards the palace. Luckily, the path had been built to wind so carriages would not face too much difficulty, so while the pace was slow, it was steady. As they began rising back over the city, Connor turned his attention to the docks he was slowly starting to be able to see over the cobbled railing. The port was expansive, five weather-beaten wooden docks with enough room for twenty ships to be in port at once. 

Despite having that many hitches available at once, there were only half a dozen merchant ships moored that afternoon. Closer to the water the mist from the morning hadn’t yet cleared, and Connor could smell the ocean, even from where they were on the cliffside. It was a familiar scent. Though the mist settled low on the water, it hadn’t obscured much of the merchant ships’ identification beyond the names of the individual ships carved on their sides. Five of the six ships were flying colors of individual Ravendale merchant companies, the midnight blue sails unmistakable. But the sixth ship was a larger, grey-wood merchant ship that flew the colors of Warren. Connor sat back in the carriage with sudden rolling waves of sickness, memories flashing through his mind with alarming frequency. 

He must have looked as pale as he felt, because the king leaned forward, pressing a grounding hand over Connor’s. With a worried look on his face, Hank asked, “Are you alright? Connor?”

Connor swallowed and tried to nod, but he knew he wasn’t. Finally, he shook his head, closing his eyes to take a steadying breath, pushing out all the memories of Port Eden that had inundated his mind. He’d been fine yesterday, speaking about it with the king. What had fallen over him now? When he opened his eyes, the king was looking at him with concerned eyes. “What’s wrong? Are you feeling seasick?”

Connor wanted to remind the king that they weren’t actually on the water, and that Connor had never been seasick before — but in a way, he was seasick. Instead, he squeezed the king’s hand, and then with a gentle tug, pulled the king to his side of the carriage without even opening his eyes. The king wobbled as he crossed to Connor’s side of the carriage, but he made it without stumbling and rocking the carriage, pulling Connor’s head to his shoulder, allowing him to take in the king’s musky, comforting scent. He felt the king’s arm lay over his shoulders.

He didn’t open his eyes again until the carriage stopped, forcing him to open his eyes groggily. Hank’s expression had shifted, Connor noticed as he extracted himself from the king’s arms, from concerned to the blank, authoritative look of a king that Connor still wasn’t quite sure if he liked yet. “Connor—” the king said, his voice tired, but there was a hint of warning in it too.

“I know,” Connor said, quickly. This was their first public appearance together outside of Detroit Castle. He knew Hank was rather lax about his protocols on slaves— he’d brought Connor with him because he thought Connor would like it, for rA9’s sake— but Connor knew his place. Quite literally, in this case. He had been tutored for the past ten years on his place in court. He was always to follow the king, speak only when spoken to, and never meet the eyes of a human— especially a member of royalty or the court— all rules he had broken in his first week at Detroit Castle with the king. There were hundreds of rules just like the ones he recalled for this moment, many of which Connor did follow, but were not as obvious. “I know what I’m doing, Your Majesty.”

“Good,” the king said, waiting until one of the governor’s footmen opened the carriage door, stepping out to greet the gathered crowd. 

Connor could peer out the unglazed window just slightly without being seen by the surrounding crowd. A small crowd had gathered to greet the king outside the governor’s palace, mostly upper-class folk in elaborate clothing, but quite a few peasants had gathered in higher sections of the city, waving down at the king with handkerchiefs and flowers. A band of trumpeters blasted their instruments as the king stepped from the carriage into the open arms of the man Connor assumed was Governor Allen. The man’s hair was almost as dark as his black velvet tunic, embroidered with gold of the man’s house colors, and when he pulled back from his embrace with the king, Connor could see the man looked just a few years younger than Hank himself.

“King Henry,” Governor Allen said, clapping the king on the shoulder. “Glad to see you and your men made it into our fair city.”

The king groaned, but his mask of kingly indifference barely budged. “The trumpets weren’t necessary, Allen.” 

Allen threw his hands in the air, but his spirit remained high, “You won’t let me announce your presence at the gate with trumpets, won’t let me suspend traffic and have the people sing your praises in the streets! Won’t even let me greet you with a full precession in Camden Circle with my authorities,” he gestured behind himself to a spattering of civic authorities, a minister of Raneighs , and three orange and gold dressed men that Connor recognized as scholars from Bellora. 

“Because you know I believe royal entries are only for celebrations, Governor.”

“It had been such a very long time since you personally arrived at my doorstep I consider this a celebration,” Allen was smiling, but Connor could see there was no warmth behind his eyes. “And I had hoped you might have forgotten.”

Hank snorted, but allowed the governor to proceed, introducing the king to Allen’s authorities and advisors, the king shaking hands with the men and women who Allen personally decided were in his favor to meet the king. Many of the knights, who had dismounted, had begun to scatter in favor of seeing to their own quarters and the arrangements for the horses, and by the time the king found himself back in front of the carriage they had all departed.

“I imagine you shall want to see your bedchamber to freshen up before the feast this evening,” Allen said, with a glance towards the carriage. In that moment, he caught Connor’s eye, spotting him looking out the window. Connor shot backwards, but it was too late, he saw the smirk growing on the man’s face. “So the rumors are true,” Allen cooed, sharp eyes turned back on the king. “Word had spread as far as our little port city that King Henry had acquired himself an elven slave— and a bed slave by the looks of it!” The king had frowned at Allen’s line of inquiry, but it didn’t deter Allen. “Come out now,” Allen called to Connor, “I want to have a look at you.”

Normally, Connor would have obeyed. The governor had a very high-ranking, noble position. But Connor didn’t belong to the governor. He belonged to the one man in the kingdom who had any higher authority over the governor. After a heartbeat, the king sighed, and then barked out gruffly, “Connor, come out.”

“Not one to listen to commands is he?” Allen said as Connor exited through the narrow carriage doorway, taking the gloved hand of the footman, pulling it back the moment he stood in front of the carriage, just to the right of the king. 

“Only from me,” the king said, folding his arms across his chest. 

“I’ve been trying to gift you a slave for years,” Allen said, and even from Connor’s deferred gaze he could tell the man was looking him over, inspecting him for visible imperfections, “my slaves would have responded much more quickly than your Connor.” As if to prove a point, he snapped his fingers, “Matthew!” And then, like the nine stepping from oblivion, an auburn-haired slave about Connor’s age appeared in servant’s clothes. With a smug look on his face, Allen turned back to Hank. “Whatever possessed you to acquire a slave?”

“Didn’t really have a choice,” Hank said gruffly. “Lord Perkins can be persistent. You know how Christina is.”

Allen smirked, “Aren’t you glad you didn’t accept her hand in marriage?”

Hank laughed, “I thought her father would never stop sending letters, pretty well didn’t until my wedding to Tiffania.”

The governor turned to the crowd, none daring to be the first to leave the company of the king, though most would be back in a few hours time for the feast. Under Allen’s gaze, the party split, allowing Allen and the king, followed by the pair of slaves, to pass through the great wooden doors of the palace. With a nod over his own shoulder as they entered the foyer of the palace, Allen asked, “The ice queen or her husband the race traitor hassling you over your choice of… playmate?”

The king didn’t hesitate to elbow Allen now that they were out of sight of the crowd, “I’m certain that Queen Chloe and King Elijah have long since given up on Ravendale— and more importantly, me.”

Allen waved his hands, “Less stationery to waste.” Another glance back at Connor, and he spoke again. “I can see why you broke your promises of never bringing one into your bed for that one.”

“Allen—” the king growled, but the governor waved off the man’s concern. 

“Don’t worry, I don’t hold my sister’s prejudices about elves, Henry. I myself have dallied a time or two.”

Beside Connor, imperceptibly to humans, Matthew froze for less than a fraction of a second. Connor glanced in his direction, but was able to offer nothing but a nearly imperceptible brush of his hand to Matthew’s, sending what he hoped was a feeling of reassurance, but Connor was fairly out of practice with nonverbal elvish communication. 

Seemingly grateful for a change in topic, Hank cleared his throat, “Caroline, yes, where is she and her lord husband this evening? I remember her being pleased with the littlest of pomp and circumstance.”

“Ah, you must not have heard—” Allen bowed his head for just a moment in a sign of respect, “—my dear brother-in-law, Lord Phillips, passed many a year back with the plague. My dear sister Caroline has since found herself lacking a husband.” 

“Sorry to hear it,” the king said, but even Connor could tell the man didn’t mean it, and Allen didn’t seem to care.

After that, Connor stopped paying much attention to the conversation as it veered from the topic of Connor to the two nobles exchanging exploits of the past five years. Instead, he focused his attention on the palace itself as they leisurely traveled the halls. Like much of the city itself, the palace held a different style than Detroit Castle, smoother, brighter walls decorated with decorative tapestries every few dozen feet. The midnight blue carpets were spread across the stone floor, keeping it as pristine as the day the stone was laid, carpets even bound to the winding staircases that the governor led them up, past the servants— no, the slaves, he realized with a shock— and towards the best of the guest suites.

Connor nearly ran into the king— and would have, had Matthew not reached out his arm to stop Connor before he misstepped, before Allen could notice— when they stopped at the bottom of another stairwell. He glanced to shoot a grateful look to Matthew but the elf’s gaze was impassive once again. Connor had allowed himself to be distracted by the sheer number of slaves that worked in the palace. He had seen a few young girls in long skirts dusting the mahogany tables in the foyer, but the rest of the servants had been wearing their hair down, or wore high collars, and it wasn’t until the group of servants at the stairs stopped in a line, gold collars aligning, that Connor realized all of the servants he’d seen were slaves. 

“I’ve seen my quarters before, Allen,” Hank said. “You’ll remember I’d been here a dozen times before you were even governor.”

Allen waved his hand, “No, no, Henry,” he said. “I thought, in light of the company you held in your last chambers… you might like a change of scenery.” Hank looked at the governor wearily, but followed him until they reached a doorway at the end of some corridor Connor had not been paying attention to. “Ah, here it is,” Allen said, turning a heavy key into the lock. He turned back to the king. “I’ll send Matthew to fetch you and your companion for dinner. Should you need…. additional companionship this evening, inform Matthew.”

The king’s gaze grew hard for a few moments, but he nodded, pushing the door open and dismissing the governor. As soon as the door was shut, Connor was immediately drawn to the rounded windows of the tower room. He’d always liked the views from the high windows, able to see the city below from a bird’s eye. From this window, like their own chambers in Detroit, Connor could just see the edge of the market in the late afternoon sun. 

After a few minutes of gazing out the window, and hearing Hank inspect the room behind them, agreeable grunts coming from the man as he opened each drawer to find their belongings already packed away, Connor heard the king step up behind him. He didn’t reach for Connor, but Connor could feel the warmth of the man radiating off of him. 

“Is the view to your liking?”

Connor turned around to face the king, taking a moment too long to stare at the man before him, before responding, “Always.”

Hank leaned down, wrapping his arms around Connor to pull him into a kiss. They stood before the window, the balmy breeze caressing them as they kissed, until they heard Matthew’s knock at the door. Instead of immediately answering the door, Hank only pulled back from Connor a few inches, to pass his thumb across Connor’s kiss-swollen lips. 

But as suddenly as the kiss began, Hank pulled back from Connor, gaze clouding over with something Connor couldn’t recognize. The king cleared his throat, straightening his tunic, “We’ll be right out.”

“Governor Allen requests your presence at dinner in the Raven Room in approximately seventeen minutes, Your Majesty,” Matthew said through the door, as though he were a living invitation. 

The king adjusted his tunic again, unnecessarily, before pulling open the heavy wooden door. Just outside the archway, Matthew stood before the king with his hands clasped behind his back, as still as a statue, eyes averted. Connor had never found his own race’s ability to appear still an alarming ability, but now, on an elf Connor had felt emotions from, one who’s blank expression was carefully crafted, Connor felt his blood run cold. He had always known they were objects to humans, but he had rarely seen the effects of that on another soul. He wished he could help him.

“Thank you, we can find our own way,” the king told Matthew, who took it as a dismissal, bowing his head and departing. “Come on, Connor, let's get this over with,” Hank said with a sigh. 

Connor tried not to appear as if he were dragging his feet towards the Raven Room as he followed the king towards the feast, but in truth, he didn’t look forward to more glassy-eyed elves serving them. But eventually the two men arrived at the downstairs feasting room. The Raven Room was aptly named, Connor saw when they arrived at the great polished wooden doors carved with raven inlays. 

Two human footmen stood by the doors, gloved hands on the iron latches, pulling them open as soon as they spotted the king. With the doors open, all fifty or so guests in attendance fell silent, scrambling to stand in their king’s presence. With just a brief glimpse at the guests, Connor could see the king’s guards sitting at the far end of the long table, and on this end, the minister of Raneighs, along with Allen and the Belloran scholars. Bridging the distance between the two groups were the rest of the party that had greeted the king upon his arrival to Camden, lesser nobles and wealthy merchants that Connor would not have been surprised to hear had purchased their way into the governor’s circle. 

Before the king could be seated at the head of the table, the trumpeters blew on their instruments, announcing his arrival. This time, the king didn’t grimace at Allen, just sent a disapproving look in the man’s direction, as he spread his arms to the room. “His Royal Majesty, King Henry,” Allen announced to the clapping crowd. 

Hank bowed his head, raising his hand to quiet the clapping, and sat in the elaborately carved chair at the head of the table, lifelike wooden ravens matching the door. One of the slaves waiting in the corner stood and pushed the king’s chair in with apparent ease. Connor sank to the king’s feet, his place for the evening. 

Following Hank, the guests all made themselves busy sitting down as well, and Connor was able to make brief eye contact with a few of the other slaves sitting at their masters’ feet before he turned his attention to the king and Governor Allen. He resumed his position of doting slave to the king, pretending the governor’s crass comments, spoken about him as though he weren’t there, didn’t bother him. Pretending as though there weren’t half a dozen beautiful slaves waiting every few groupings of guests, blank looks on their faces, golden chains weighing down their necks.

After a few minutes of the men chatting, side doors opened, more servants piling into the room, arms ladened with the first course of the evening. At the head of the table, even from the beautifully tiled floor, Connor could see the servants deliver piles of decorates fish dishes— turbot steak, chilled oysters, steaming crab, fish pies— in front of the king, and then to the guests. 

Glancing around the legs of the men around him, Connor saw one of the Belloran scholars shuffle his feet, an unusual urgency overtaking him as he leaned closer to the other scholars.  He was a few seats down from the minister of Raneighs, who sat to the left of the king, just opposite of the governor. The Belloran scholar had dark, wrinkled skin, and black curling hair that was spotted with silver. In his lap sat a large tome, too far from Connor to read the name or language of. His two companions sat by his side, and he seemed to be in deep conversation with them in their native tongue, something Connor was sure none of the others at the table could speak. Connor couldn’t quite hear what the men were saying, but the elder scholar kept glancing in Connor’s direction with a scant wave of his hand. The other two men in the argument were shaking their heads, not at all in agreement with the man. The only word he could make out from them was Amanda

His gaze fell to others around the table, watching them all entertain themselves in groups. He and the other slaves were not generally permitted to eat at functions like this, simply to be used as a status statement, a living ornament. There were five other slaves he could see, three women and two men, dressed and undressed in various states. One woman was practically naked, draped in a sheer, flowing dress, enchanted golden chains draping from her neck to her wrists to her ankles, another chain traveling to the center point of her collar leashing her to her mistress. One of the other women, and one of the men, were dressed much more conservatively, like Connor was, in a tunic embellished for such occasions. The elves didn’t all appear to be from the riverlands, but from various elven tribes that once settled all across Thirius. He’d been reading up on the ancient composure of Thirius before they had left Detroit, a piece of his own history he worried might be forgotten through time.  

Connor stifled a yawn, he was more tired than he thought, resting his head on Hank’s leg. He hoped the dinner would be over soon. The third course had just been served, sweets with a new round of honeyed wines and mead, and knowing the king and the men he liked to keep as friends, that could very well mean they would be here all evening. 

“You know you aren’t getting any younger, Henry,” Connor heard Allen say. Connor couldn’t quite see either of their faces from where he was sitting, legs splayed under him, but the king choked, alerting Connor.

“Never one for pulling your punches were you, Allen?”

“You know what I mean, Henry,” Allen said, the smirk on his face melting into a honeyed voice. Connor could hear the scrape of their utensils against the hammered plates, the clink of goblets hitting the table, the low hum of dying conversations down the table. 

“All of you are so Raneighs-damn obsessed with me remarrying.” Connor stiffened at the words, feeling the king shift to a more comfortable position, almost lounging in his seat. Connor hated this feeling whenever someone brought up the subject, like an icy dagger in his heart. 

“How long have I known you, Henry?”

“Too damn long to be suggesting this over dinner.” Connor heard the king’s goblet hit the table with a thud, but no slosh of liquid.

“You’d be doing me a favor by meeting with her, Henry.” Connor felt the king relax, if only slightly, as he lifted his goblet from the table. “Caroline’s a widow, like yourself. You don’t have to agree to marry the woman, just meet with her tomorrow when she and Emma return from the Phillips estate in the mountains.”

The king was silent for another few moments before he let out another sigh. “Fine. Alright. I will meet with your sister. But that’s all I am agreeing too. And that’s only because you’ve done a fine job of governing this city since your father passed.”

“Splendid,” Allen said, and Connor saw the man’s legs pull under him as he leaned across the table to shake the king’s hand. Connor felt a rising bitterness in his throat as he regarded the man. But he pushed the thoughts down in his chest, adopting the blank look that the other elves had developed surely to survive. 

He wasn’t aware he was still wearing it when he began to undress later that evening, movements stiff, and back straight, even well after a plate of dinner had been delivered for him at the behest of the king. “Connor, what’s wrong?” the king asked, pausing in his own movements, grey nightshirt just thrown over his own head. 

“Hmm?” Connor asked, realizing he had been lost in thought for quite a few moments, probably standing frozen long enough to make the king uncomfortable, having forgotten to even pull his sleeping clothes on. “I—” he said with a brief pause, “I don’t know if I should say.” He felt silly voicing his concerns, even though he had the ear of the king. But Hank was looking at him expectantly, so he spoke. “I don’t like the look of the slaves here. They’re so… blank,” Connor shook his head. “I’m not… used to it. Even in Detroit, the elves I know of look… alive .”

The king sighed, dropping the tunic he’d been wearing earlier onto the ground. “I’m surprised, to say the least.” The king sounded tired. “You know I don’t like… keeping slaves around.” Connor nodded. There were so few elven slaves in Detroit Castle that Connor could name them all with little effort. “This is one of the reasons why. You all have that uncanny ability to become like statues. I don’t like it. And this is how most slaves around Thirius are instructed to behave. Especially in Warren. I thought you would have been used to it. Hell, you acted a hell of a lot like them when you first arrived.”

Connor nodded, mechanically reaching for his own nightshirt and pulling it on over his head. That was a dismissal if Connor ever heard one. He wouldn’t bring it up again. 

With his nightshirt on, having been given warnings that the temperature dropped in the evenings but with no fire in the fireplace, Connor climbed into the bed, sinking into the beaten feather mattress. He’d just pressed his head to the pillow when he felt the bed dip, Hank climbing into bed with him. The man’s arms wrapped around him, his face nestling into the crook of Connor’s nearly-bare neck. “Why don’t we walk the city tomorrow?”

Connor had his face buried in the feather pillow, half by embarrassment of admitting his weakness to the king, but he reminded the king of his obligations anyway. “Have you been given word of when Lady Phillips and Lady Emma are expected to arrive tomorrow?”

The king’s breath was warm on his neck, his beard tickling. “No.” His hands traveled up Connor’s nightshirt, to press against bare skin, but made no further movement south. “But I am the king. What can Allen do but be displeased with me? We will be here for several more days until word of the flooding in the riverlands has subsided, he’ll have time to play matchmaker later.”

“Then yes, of course,” Connor said, unable to stop the satisfaction bleed into his voice as he snuggled back towards the king.

The next morning they didn’t so much sneak out of the palace, Hank said, so much as strategically leave before Matthew was sent to fetch them for breakfast that morning, wearing the simplest clothes that had been packed for them. The king still wore a circlet, but not his ruby-and-gold piece, or even the simple gold one he’d brought, but the understated hammered bronze circlet he rarely wore but brought anyway. 

Hank purchased them a handful of sweet marzipan cakes with a few coins at a stall just outside the back gate of the palace, before they had even really entered the section of the city dedicated to the market. Connor happily munched on his share of the cakes as they wandered into the market in the mid-morning sea air. Though it was still three hours till midday, the market was far less crowded than Connor was used to. The castle town market Connor, Rose, and Sir Reed shopped at busy and crowded, bustling with busy shoppers purchasing goods vital to their daily lives. 

The Detroit market primarily consisted of earthy materials— farmers selling vegetables still in the dirt they grew from, handwoven garments, farming horses and golden jewelry hammered by hand. Here, he saw, the shoppers carried wide woven baskets on their hips and browsed in no particular hurry. Connor supposed they needed the time to browse by the sheer number of exotic goods carried in by the merchant ships coming from as far as Dagan, the northern continent, on the other side of Thirius from Camden. 

Though Connor was excited about the chance to see the market, to see the beautiful seaside town from the streets, Connor felt hesitant to show his excitement in front of the king. It was foolish, the king had seen him, well, every other way— but he was so young and inexperienced that he was afraid to come off as naive in front of the man. But after half an hour of wandering through the streets, weaving in and out of the market, it seemed the king found Connor’s excitement rather endearing rather than foolish, happy to let Connor ask the most foolish of questions. 

His excitement was only dampened by the peddlers yelling to the two of them, pushing elven wares on Connor. The third time a man yelled to Connor, hawking an elven-blood glass wine goblet, Connor didn’t need the king to steer him away, he personally pulled them out of range of the shrill voices that saw Connor as nothing but a coin purse. On one hand, it was a welcome change from a piece of property himself, but in truth it was little better. Though the carved elven relics, pieces of armor taken from fallen elven warriors, and the books printed in Connor’s native tongue were enticing, most of the sellers— all human— pushed the items on him with the promise of home , a place Connor couldn’t even name

Other stalls, even when Connor wasn’t trying to buy something from them, snubbed him simply for being a slave. Their eyes would fall on the golden binding at his neck, and then, as to be sure— for why on Thirium would anyone willingly wear something so reminiscent of a slave collar?— would glance at his brow with an exaggerated look of surprise, and then pointedly look anywhere but at Connor. 

“King Henry,” Connor said quietly, using the formal address in public, stopping suddenly. They had been through nearly three-fourths of the market, and Connor hadn’t bought anything more than the marzipan cakes, too enamored with the whole atmosphere to purchase anything in particular. Hank nearly ran into his back, but before Connor could apologize, Hank sighed. 

“Connor, I’m sure there will be other shops that will—”

“Oh, no,” Connor said shaking his head. “This isn’t about— those—” he waved his hand absently behind himself to refer to the shops that had ignored him. Instead, he was looking at the new array of shops that had appeared towards the end of the market. Shops advertising magic . “Do they actually sell magic?”

Hank looked at the carts and stalls with mild wariness. “Some of them.” 

The king seemed to hover behind Connor as he stepped closer to inspect the wares in the nearby stalls. One was filled to the brim with books advertising spellcasting, scrolls that could perform magic for the caster, piled so high Connor couldn’t see a shopkeeper behind the tomes. But even if he were a thief, he wouldn’t have dared to steal from the shop, there was a posted sign saying thieves would be cursed. 

“Some of them?” Connor asked, languidly passing to browse the next stall. “What about the others?”

Hank narrowed his eyes at the next stall, proclaiming to sell cursed objects— and the ability to break said curses. 

“Swindlers.” He shook his head, but the untrusting look never left his face. “Nobody with magic can be trusted.”

“I didn’t think sorcerers were outlawed in Ravendale,” Connor said, pausing only briefly, not wanting to remind Hank that he— like all the other elves— possessed a very basic form of magic in their blood. 

Hank sighed, stopping at the next booth with Connor. His hands fell to his hips as he shook his head. “They’re not. There aren’t any laws against them here, but— humans were never meant to do magic, Connor. Our ancestor, Raneighs,” Connor suppressed the urge to correct the king, to tell him he spoke of rA9, the only one of the nine who was certainly not the ancestor of the humans, “gave up his magic here to conquer the world.”

“I see,” Connor said, but he really didn’t. He knew Dwimor as the birthplace of human sorcery, but in truth, Connor knew little of the subject. Before he could ask any more questions on how to tell real magic from what Hank called ‘swindlers,’ a loud voice came from behind the two men, louder than the hum from the crowd at the end of this passage of the market. 

“Potions! Potions here!” the man called out. Connor turned, putting down the blackened ox bone, to see a man with a strange contraption on his chest. “True, genuine potions,” the man sang, winking at a wizened old woman in an opposite stall. The man had tall, lanky legs, and on his chest he had strapped a wooden box with shelves, doors open like a portable stall. On four shelves were dozens of oddly-shaped vials and bottles, filled with colorful sloshing liquids. Connor was immediately mesmerized. 

His eyes were drawn across the potions which, while labeled, were too far and scratchily written for Connor to read despite his superior eyesight. A few had the opacity of colored water, but there were others that moved like syrup in a bottle, or contained a dazzling, almost impossible array of colors like a rainbow had been captured in liquid form. One, a dark blue, moved just a tad slower than water, and when the man jolted the case at his chest, the liquid would coat the top of the clear bottle, never quite clearing the blue film inside the bottle. It felt oddly familiar to Connor.

“Ah, the discerning customer!” the potions hawker said, hand coming up to stroke his pointed black beard. His long legs shortening the distance between him and Connor in the blink of an eye. Connor was of average height for a man, especially a human man, but this particular human seemed impossibly tall, leaning over Connor so that he might have a better glimpse at the potions he offered. A strange smell came off of him, almost wet dog-like, but it was overcome by the sickly-sweet smell of something else. Without even a glance down at Connor’s neck, or any change in expression as he met Connor’s eye, he said, “We have many potions for the discerning customer. The discerning elven customer.” 

He had a hint of a strange accent, one Connor could only assume was Dwimorian in origin, that only came out when he said certain words, like elven . “I don’t—”

“What you need—” he said, his accent growing stronger with every word he spoke, “is a love potion.” With a flourish, he gestured to a color-coded shelf, where half the bottles were some shade of pink, ranging from transparent to opaque. “Your master, this is him, yes?” he asked, and without even looking, Connor knew he meant Hank.


“You want your freedom? You want him to leave his wife for you?” the man said, his sharp grin growing wider, his teeth almost pointed in his mouth, “You want him to love you and only you?”

Connor felt almost trapped, unable to breathe. “No—” yes

The man leaned in closer, impossibly close, and said, “My love potions are made with only the finest Silphium from Cassia— you pour into his drink, next morning, he loves you, and only you.”

There was a dark glint in the man’s eyes, and a sharp edge to his teeth, but Connor stood frozen in place. He couldn’t stop imagining it. A life with the king. One without chains and protocols, and yet….

Sensing Connor’s lack of sureness, the man spoke again. “Only ten gold pieces.” After a moment of what was surely feigned pensiveness, the man said, “Ah, but you are suffering from lovesickness. This is the only cure. For my elven friend, eight gold pieces.”

“Alright, alright!” the king said loudly from behind Connor, stepping in between Connor and the peddler. Even at his full height, the king wasn’t as tall as the peddler, but the king had an air of authority that no one else could fully possess, as if he suddenly and surely embodied thousands of years of reigning monarchs all at once. Even with the simple bronze circlet upon his head, there was no mistaking who was in charge. “Get out of here, swindler, before I call the city guards on you.”

“Of course,” the peddler said with an unfounded grace, the accent absent once again, no traces left behind. He glanced up at the circlet on the king’s brow, from where the potions-seller had bowed his head, “my liege.”

Hank turned from the peddler, taking ahold of Connor’s shoulders and leading him in the opposite direction of where the peddler was heading. The king’s cheeks were pink, and he was breathing heavily, as if he had just overexerted himself by extracting Connor. “Damn swindlers.”

Connor felt his cheeks flush blue as the king released him, feeling foolish that he even considered the potion. Any real love could never come from a bottle. To distract himself from the embarrassment broiling in his chest, Connor turned his attention to the stand towards the edge of the market. There were only a few stalls after this one, but two were completely empty, as if the seller had packed his stall and then forgotten to unload his wares. Beyond the empty stalls was a crowd of people at the base of the small incline Hank and Connor had been slowly traveling down for quite some time. Beyond the wall of people, someone— or several someones— were selling an item that Connor couldn’t make out, but they seemed to be very passionate about it. 

Connor, instead, absentmindedly glanced over the wares at this stall, eyes glazed. He had picked up a gold necklace, feeling the weight in his hands, before he realized why it looked so familiar. He cried out when he dropped the binding collar, identical to the one he wore on his own neck. The shopkeeper seemed not to notice, or at least not care, that Connor himself was an elven slave. All of the items in this stall were enchanted collars and chains modeled on carved, wood necks. The collars were nearly all identical to the one Connor wore— the no-nonsense golden binding collar that was little more than an enchanted necklace that required a key to open, but on a high shelf there was a silver chain, a different design that Connor had never seen, bulkier than the one he currently wore. 

The shopkeeper was a strange-looking young woman, her skin too pale, hair too dark. She stood under an awning, long arms and legs wrapped in cloth wrappings. Something seemed to itch under her sleeves, as she never seemed to stop scratching her arms. “Lots of collars, lots of collars. Guaranteed to bind a slave’s magic for a hundred years.”

She didn’t seem to notice or care that Connor had dropped one of her collars, but he was not going to touch it again to put it in its right place, glad, at least, that it had fallen back down on the table. But Hank noticed Connor’s rising discomfort, his startled cry, and Connor felt his reassuring presence behind him. “Are you alright?” the king asked, sounding tired.

“Yes,” Connor said, “Just startled.” Hank’s eyes narrowed as he saw what was being sold in the stall. 

“I think that we mayhaps took a wrong turn back at that fork earlier in the market,” the king said with a shielded glance backward. “We should turn around.”

Connor felt a moment of hysterical laughter bubble up at the sheer bizarreness of it all, at his wits end. “Yes, I think that would be best.”

“Lots of keys, all kinds of keys,” the shopkeeper said, as though she could only say a few written lines. Her gaze never seemed to fall on either of them, always looking at a point off in the distance, scratching her arms. Behind her was a wooden box, where Connor presumed she kept her keys. How she could tell which key belonged to which collar, he would never know. 

Hank’s eyes narrowed again at the woman, his mask of authority settling back on his face as he stood taller. “Hold on one moment, Connor.” He turned his attention to the woman, forcing her to meet his eyes. “Do you have any King’s Keys?”

At this, the woman balked. “King’s Keys? No!” Her scratching increased, a sign of nervousness. “King Keys are illegal.”

The king was the voice of authority, “Illegal to be possessed by anyone but a king or his agent.” His eyes never left her own beady ones. “And they’re illegal because they can open the lock of any enchanted slave collar. Just like the key around your neck.”

The woman squawked, eyes bugging. Connor’s eyes fell to the woman’s neck. He hadn’t even noticed her necklace, much less the glint of gold and the unmistakable shape. Connor had only seen a key like it once, back in Hank’s bedchamber. 

“Oh, I suppose this must be a King’s Key,” she said, feigning nonchalance, taking the necklace off the leather cord. “For the customer with the steller eye—”

The king grunted, disapproving look clear on his face. “For your king , you’ll find my key is free .”

“Of course, Your Majesty,” the woman said, voice an octave higher, curtseying lowly. She placed the King’s Key in Hank’s hand, and by the time the king had tucked the key away in his coin purse, the woman had shut the stall’s wooden doors and disappeared out the back. 

Hank sighed, patting the coin purse at his side. He put his hand on Connor’s shoulder, surveying the few stalls at the bottom of the incline before the crowd. “Come on, Connor. We can go back to the palace if you’d like, or we can loop back around to see the part of the market you missed.”

Connor shook his head, “I want to see what’s down there,” he said, looking towards the circular courtyard filled with people. Some had cleared out after the last round of whatever was happening, but there was still a large group there. 

“Connor—” the king said, but Connor’s curiosity always got the better of him. He felt the king’s hand fall from his shoulder, maneuvering around the mass of people till he was able to see what exactly they were selling.

And then he wished he hadn’t. 

They were selling elves

It seemed they had taken a wrong turn after all. In front of Connor was the Camden slave auction, three small platforms set up for the viewing of bound slaves, overlooking the back port and the miles of staircases directly down to it. 

Connor felt Hank’s hand on his back, trying to steer him from the scene. “Connor, let’s go.”

Connor instead pushed Hank’s hands off of him, unable to tear his eyes from the scene. “ No , I want to stay and watch.”

Even standing there as the humans waited for another round of auctions to start, Connor felt sick. Everyone in the crowd was human. Not one shopper in the market had been an elf, the few he had seen were assisting their masters in stalls. Connor knew that in Ravendale, slaves could be freed by their masters, and they could live out the rest of their lives as freedmen. He’d seen more than a few in the market around Detroit Castle. But here, he had seen not one freed slave. The sea air provided no relief to him. 

In front of him, the next series of auctions were beginning to start. There were two or three auctioneers, one for each stage, but there were half a dozen elven slaves standing behind each platform. The first platform, in the center, was for the pricey slaves like Connor knew he had been. Each of those slaves stood elegantly, all in white, and were as unblemished as they were beautiful. 

To either side of that platform were the slaves to be sold for lesser amounts. Slaves who had been badly hurt, slaves who were very old, even for an elf, slaves who could never do as much as a young healthy elf. But they had been trained, had prized skills that made them useful to someone. The other platform Connor didn’t even want to look at. None of them had gold binding collars. They were shackled in heavy iron chains, weighing their hands down, their mouths gagged with cloth to prevent them from crying out. But Connor could read it in their eyes— they were terrified. These elves had been newly captured, either from Jericho, or were runaways, or were worse— freed elves who couldn’t provide sufficient paperwork showing their master had freed them— or their captors simply hadn’t cared. 

The auction started with the sale of an elderly slave woman who had the talent to weave meticulous patterns in her work. She was the subject of a small bidding war between two merchants who had both recently expanded their businesses in Endek. A few terrified slaves were sold off before the main platform had a chance to offer its slaves like chattel. 

The main auctioneer stood on the platform, voice booming, trying to drum up attention for the sales. “We have many fine specimens here today!” he said, waving his hands behind himself towards the half-dozen white-clad slaves. With a cocked eyebrow, he said, “One of my suppliers has informed me that we have a very special prize with us today.” Meeting the eye of the audience as he looked around, only half the audience paying attention to him, “One of these elves right here is the lost elf prince!”

Before the auctioneer could say another word, one of the audience members let out a barking laugh, “One of them? Ha! I’m about as much a lost prince as that slave is.” The auctioneer sent him a dirty look. Connor couldn’t take his eyes from the slaves as they took a step up onto the platform, facing the audience with a blank look on their faces. 

Connor turned around to Hank, eyes low to his chest, and said quietly, “I’ve seen enough. I would like to return to the palace, please.”

Hank simply nodded, pulling one arm around Connor that he didn’t release until they arrived at the back door of the palace. Instead of offering his arm again to Connor once they arrived back in the room, Connor quiet as a mouse, Hank pushed Connor down onto the bed by his shoulders until he was seated, staring down at his hands. Hank sat down opposite from him, on a chair he pulled from the small table. 

“What was that Connor?”

“That was a slave auction, Hank.”

“Don’t be a smartass, Connor. You know what I mean. Why did you want to see that if it was going to make you sick?”

Connor was silent for quite a few minutes, but the king made it quite clear that he wasn’t going anywhere until Connor told him something. So he told him everything.

“I wanted to see it.”


“The auction.” He shook his head, but he could still smell the salty sea air from Port Eden. “I’ve never seen one before. I was— you are— you’re the only person I’ve ever belonged to. I was meant for you. Or someone like you.”

The king was silent, his eyes unreadable. But he let Connor talk. 

“I remember the first slave house I was ever at. I woke up on a boat, the first thing I could remember, as we pulled into Port Eden.” He hadn’t known, then, at ten years old, that Port Eden was the slave-trading capital of the world, just that he was a scared child all alone in the world. “The other children and I were taken to a slave house for children. It was by the sea. We could smell nothing but seawater as we passed the time between lessons. I could hear the waves crashing against rocks. I could hear the sailors call out to port. And once— I heard the sirens screaming.”

He shuddered at the memory. He had never told anyone this. Even now he couldn’t bring himself to say the words aloud. Everyone who had been there was gone or dead. He would never be able to remove the images of hundreds of elf children trying to claw their way out of their stone prison, their fingers bleeding blue, older children slamming their own heads into walls with desperation until they heard the firing of canons and then a cut-off dying wail. 

Connor had worn the collar even then. As long as he could remember. A few of the other children did too, the ones able to take hold of their senses enough not to die trying to throw themselves into the sea. Taking children, then leaving them to grow up under their supervision, was the only way to ensure their slaves were virgins. Connor had heard far too many children crying in the night to ever be able to sleep properly again. 

“I was moved after that, to Woodward, I think,” he said of the capital city of Warren. “Sometimes we could hear the bustle of the city, if it were a quiet day. I stayed with the other children, most younger than myself, until I was fifteen. Then I was moved somewhere else, I know that was in Woodward, someone told me once. I started my— education, then.” His voice cracked, and from where he was staring at his lap, he could see Hank’s hand grip the clothed armrest. 

“Did they— Perkins said you were a—” Hank said, but through gritted teeth. He seemed to be struggling to force the words out. Connor didn’t know why it was so hard for him. He hadn’t had to live it. It wasn’t the first time this bitterness had washed over him. In a way, he wanted the king to feel just a fraction of what he had gone through.

“Touch me? No.” That was all the king. But Connor wasn’t really angry about that anymore, hadn’t been in a long time. “It had all been information, a few demonstrations from more experienced bed slaves. This place had been full of all sorts of elves. But they were all kind.” That, he could remember fondly. “So many were protective of us children, even at the cost of themselves. Something bound us all together through time.

“What I know about my people I know from them, hushed stories the human slave traders tried to flush from our collective memories. But so many of them, some who looked no older than fifty human years, had lived lives as long as three men outside of the barred doors. Through six wars, including the last and most devastating. I wasn’t even born at the time.” He knew the king had been a young man, had fought on the side of the humans. 

Jericho had passed hands half a dozen times since the age before Dawn, the last time the elves had truly owned their kingdom. Borders shifted, kingdoms rose and fell, kings and queens with them. Thirius had been the birthplace of the elves. Humans had spread like rats across the earth, taking and taking and taking everything in their path. Other species were not as equipped, or as angry. 

The elves had once been gentle. That had been bred out of them a thousand generations back. Oracles, druids, and forest dwellers walked out of the woods as if they had bled from the very trees themselves, no other explanation ever given by those who could speak with them. The more dangerous species traveled slower, creeping into kingdoms like an infection.

He’d heard stories of packs of werewolves killing entire towns and then wearing their skin as masks. Vampires shipped across continents in boxes of earth, cold, dead fingers prying open coffin lids in the dead of night. Sirens screaming day and night on the shores until lords threw themselves from the castle turrets.

Connor had seen few and far between of these creatures, never once as a slave. But he heard stories. The slavers traded news about the kingdom in front of their slaves, who repeated the stories back at every warehouse they were stored at— a pack of werewolves in the mountains turning a whole scouting party of royal guards, coming home to slaughter their families. He noticed the guards carrying silver daggers for weeks after that. Rumors of a traveling oracle coming into town looking for news of the lost prince. Black market goods— dangerous items. Connor didn’t know how dangerous the items had to be that they were illegal when selling people wasn’t. But never news from Jericho. 

The few that were captured along the border— the slave traders were getting bolder in the twenty years since the Great War— shared what little they knew about back home. Warren stayed firm in their policy of non-invasion, it had taken too great a toll on the kingdom last time, but it didn’t mean they respected Jericho in any way.

The news the slaves shared was of little comfort to the elves in captivity, but it brought some relief nonetheless. The tree of Thirium was doing well, still bleeding blue into the lake below it. The human king was still alive and well, earning mixed reactions from those who lived under the tyranny of his father. 

Connor looked up when he heard the king swear, realizing he must have said most of that aloud. “Do you really remember nothing of your life before this?” the king asked.

“No,” Connor said, shaking his head. “I don’t know why, either. Did I have a head injury? Had I been cursed?”

“Was that why you were so interested in the magic at the market?”

Connor shrugged. In truth, it wasn’t. But what good was saying the truth when it would help no one? “I have made peace with it. Sometimes I have dreams, but I never know what they mean.”

This time, the king was quiet. He looked solemnly down at Connor for so long that he was sure he had broken the man. But when Matthew knocked on the door, sounding almost unsure as he spoke an invitation for dinner that evening, the king requested dinner in their room, returning to silence. 

Connor felt his eyes grow heavy waiting for the king, so he laid back, closing them just for a moment.

Chapter Text

“How long have I known you, Henry?” Governor Allen asked, lounging back in the upholstered chair in his solar. The fire was crackling in the fireplace between them, despite it not being a particularly chilly night. “What, twenty years now?”

Hank held his own goblet in his hand, the liquid sloshing with every movement, but he made no movement to bring the wine to his lips. He needed to be on his guard with Allen, the man having spent the past twenty years constantly trying to get Hank to do things he never actually wanted to do. Allen was even worse than his advisors back in Detroit. 

“I suppose, we must have met when your father was governor, but I was newly the king and had more important things to worry about.”

Allen knocked his boot against Hank’s, “Tiffania, no?” Hank sighed. That was all anyone seemed to want to talk about these days. “You know,” Allen continued, contemplative, “if I hadn’t left her portrait out in my solar, I might have married her.”

Hank snorted, knowing very well that wasn’t true. “I know that she was in the pile headed for the fire. If I hadn’t rescued her miniature she wouldn’t have married you.” He’d been hiding from Allen’s sister— known as Lady Caroline Allen at the time— who had been but seventeen to Hank’s twenty-seven. She had been, as Hank remembered, quite persistent. After skipping out on breakfast that morning, and being absent for her arrival that afternoon, Hank hadn’t seen the woman in nearly ten years, not since her wedding to Lord Phillips. Allen was surely going to give him hell for it when he finally got around to it.

“Well,” Allen said, “you might have taken my father’s suggestion and married Caroline in the first place.”

Hank’s expression hardened, “Allen,” he said in a warning tone. He didn’t want to hear it. He wouldn’t trade the twelve years he had with Tiffania for the world, nor the time he had had with his son. Tiffania’s son. 

But Allen sat up wit the manic rush of a man who had just enough to drink, a wild, intense look in his eye. “Henry, I know— I know it’s been five years since you lost your wife— Henry listen, don’t give me that look— but isn’t five years enough time to think about the future?”

Hank wanted to protest, but Allen’s words had some merit, and they both knew it. So the king stayed silent. 

“And rather than all those portraits of young women that I know the masses have been sending you, why don’t you consider a woman who has nearly lost as much as yourself?” Hank wasn’t sure if the look in Allen’s eye was ingenious or of a madman. “Those young women know nothing of your shared loss. My sister is a widow, she has the experience of raising children, a lady who has spent the last ten years running a household on her own. You should at least meet with her.”

Mayhaps it was Allen’s argument, or the nagging voice that had been in the back of Hank’s head since Connor arrived in the early spring, but he found himself agreeing. “I will, fine, fine. Tomorrow after dinner, I will.”

“Why not at dinner?”

Hank growled, “Don’t push it, Allen.”

Allen raised his free hand in surrender, and after a moment of silence, rounded the conversation back to business. “As for the sea wall—”

Hank sighed, but this time it wasn’t a truly wary sigh. He preferred work to conversation these days, something he wouldn’t have said even ten years ago. “Are we expecting any sea battles or attacks on Camden anytime soon?”

“Potentially,” Allen said diplomatically, leaning forward to pour more spirits into his own glass. “Some city guards have been seeing unusual activity in the ruins of the fort at the southern tip of Jericho to the east.” Allen leaned back in the chair. “I have been wondering if I should send some of the seafarers to inspect from afar.”

Hank snorted before taking a sip of his own goblet, “They’ve been ‘seeing activity’ there for the past ten years.” The sea wall, Hank did have to admit, was somewhat of a necessity for the city, lest the palace and surrounding masonry fall into the sea. The wall had been built a few years after the city was founded, after part of the cliffside collapsed into the sea. It had been reinforced a few generations back, but not to the extent that was truly needed. “It’s probably just some manner of creature making nests there.” After a moment, he smiled with a bit of mirth in his eyes, “So when will your tenure as captain of the guard end, Captain Allen— or is it Governor yet?”

Allen laughed, stretching out his legs beneath himself. “Some things never change, do they?”

“No, they don’t,” Hank said softly. 

Departing from an intimate dinner with Allen and his family, Hank stood by the door with Connor, who had been sitting stiffly at his feet throughout dinner. “Connor, see yourself to my bedchamber. I have a meeting with Lady Caroline. I’m not sure how long I will be gone.”

Connor, head bowed, nodded jerkily, and turned on his heels, departing much more quickly than Hank would have thought. Hank watched him depart swiftly, wondering why the elf’s attitude had shifted so suddenly. Though he had been quiet the rest of the previous evening, and had fallen asleep shortly after their conversation, he had seemed his usual self that morning. 

When the king turned back towards the smaller dining room, he saw Lady Caroline speaking with her daughter. This dinner had been the first time he’d met the governor’s niece, a quiet little girl who kept to herself. She was now the age of his son, six years old when the prince had passed, but there was little other resemblance between the young children. Cole had been highly energetic, resembling Hank at that age, but this little girl was far reserved, only speaking to her mother. 

Hank found it less painful to think of his son in the company of others as of late. He could never replace or forget his son, but someday, he thought, Cole must have younger siblings that may carry on his memory when Hank himself was gone. 

“Emma,” Lady Caroline said, tucking a loose strand of dark hair behind her daughter’s ear. “King Henry and I have a few matters to discuss this evening. One of the servants will escort you to your room, and prepare you for bed.”

The little girl nodded, not quite meeting her mother’s eye, as a young human chambermaid scurried over to the young lady, not much smaller than the teenage maid, escorting her out of the room. Lady Emma stole a few glances over her shoulder towards the king.

Lady Caroline straightened up, subtly smoothing down her dark blue overgown, matching not with the Allens’ or Phillips’ coat of arms, but that of Ravendale’s. Her own dark hair was nearly hidden under templers covering thick coils of hair upon her head, golden needlework stating her ranking as a highborn lady. 

Not waiting for Hank, Lady Caroline offered her own arm, the white cloth of her sleeved kirtle exposed through her long, slitted sleeves that brushed the floor. Hank looped his own arm through hers, until her hand rested softly on his clothed bicep. 

“King Henry,” Lady Caroline said, her voice soft and solemn, as they started walking, the slow pace of two people more intent on the conversation than the destination. “My brother has informed me of your interest in a conversation with me on the subject of remarriage.”

“I have agreed to discuss the topic with you on his request.” He would make no promises to this woman or any other, not at this moment. 

She nodded her head, seeming to take his words in stride. “My solar is free for us to speak,” she said, and with an unhurried glance around the corridor, “the palace is always full of listening ears.”

As they walked, arm in arm, towards Lady Caroline’s solar, neither of them spoke. Hank took the time to observe the woman. She was ten years younger than Hank, but it seemed despite her luxurious upbringing, the years had not been particularly kind to her. She had a thin frame, and the shadows under her eyes were nearly as pronounced as the king’s. She had an air of sadness about her, but for that, Hank could place no blame on her shoulders. 

When they reached the solar, wooden doors much brighter than those affixed to most of the rooms the king had seen, the servants and slaves were notably absent. Hank, however, was not too high in his own opinion to need a servant to open his own doors, so he extracted himself from the lady’s arm, pushing it open for her. She curtsied at him, taking the lead into her own private solar. 

The room was not unlike Allen’s, a fireplace warming the room, but was much neater, the mark of an unused room. As Hank shut the solid door behind them, Lady Caroline crossed the room to the beautiful desk, bracing herself on it. Without looking at the king, she said, “My brother tells me we are of similar situations. My husband was taken from me when the plague crossed the continent, but I was fortunate that my daughter, only a year old at the time, escaped the worst of it.”

Hank felt a pang in his heart, thinking of his own son, but placed no blame on her. She seemed to realize she misspoke, pulling back from the desk with a surprised look, covering her mouth with one hand. “I apologize, Your Majesty, for speaking out of term. I know that the prince was one of the victims, along with your wife, Her Majesty the queen. It was a terrible tragedy that startled our kingdom.”

“Yes, it was a tragedy,” he said, trying not to hold it against her. 

Standing straighter, and appearing not to want to speak out of term again, the woman’s face transformed into a mask of determination. “How fares your own health, Your Majesty?”

“Quite well,” Hank said, with a small clearing of his throat. He was told it was impolite conversation to mention recent battle wounds with the faint of heart. 

“And Detroit? Is it still a city as…” she struggled to find the right, most diplomatic words, “rustic as I remember? And the temple of Raneighs? Is it as beautiful as I have heard?” she smiled at the name of the building. “I have not been to Detroit Castle in many years, I must admit.”

“It is quite a well-structured building,” Hank told her without admitting he had not been to the temple in many years for worship. “I have been told that my ancestors spent as much gold building the temple as they did on the entirety of Detroit Castle itself.”

“Ah,” she said, turning to the fire. She pulled her hands in front of her, wringing them as she spoke. “And your… slave?”

Hank frowned, unsure of her question. He couldn’t imagine she was asking about Connor’s health. “Connor?” he said instead. 

Lady Caroline turned back to Hank so abruptly that he might have been startled if he had not been leaning on one of the chairs by the door. There was a sudden fire in her eyes that had been absent before, transforming her face from a sad widow into someone who looked far too much like a jealous wife. 

“How can you keep— one of them — in your bed knowing that his kind started this plague?”

“What the hell do you mean started the plague?

She scoffed, lifting her chin higher as if he had insulted her intelligence. “Isn’t it obvious? His kind were the only immune to the plague. Surely someone from that magic kingdom of theirs concocted that plague to rid us from our homes .” 

“I don’t know about that,” Hank said, growing ever wary of this woman. He eyed her from across the room, from where she seemed to be working herself into a fit over the thought of what the king might be doing in his private bedchambers. But he was here on a favor for an old acquaintance, he was not here to argue with the woman. 

“Am I expected to turn a blind eye to your visits to the elf’s room when we’re married?” Hank was almost too preoccupied by the way the woman spat the word elf, thinking of how he had not once seen her in the company of elven servants, that he almost missed the way she had said when . When they were married. “Shall I have to tolerate your Eldritch bastards after we’re married, playing alongside our own legitimate children?”

In that moment— and if he was being perfectly honest with himself, far before that— Hank knew that when he remarried, it would not be with her. 

He spoke, almost a tone of mirth in his voice, “You won’t have to ever worry about bastards.” She looked up, and for a moment, she looked relieved. “Since elves only have children if they’re in love, and I know that Connor will never love me .” It felt far too revealing to say those words, but with the look of shock on her face, it was very nearly worth it. “You shall not have to worry about playing second fiddle to anyone.” 

The look on her face was plain. But when he was finished, he felt little of the satisfaction he felt when saying it. She looked like she wanted to say something to him, but knowing who she would be speaking to, swallowed her tongue. 

Then, softly, the king said, “I will speak with the governor later about declining his most generous offer. This would not be a fair match to either of us.”

Lady Caroline looked as if she were swallowing an entire lemon, but she merely nodded, once again steadying herself on the desk. As the king turned to leave the room, hand on the heavy iron handles, he paused. 

Much more gently than before, he suggested, “One of my most trusted knights, Sir Chris Miller, has quite recently lost his wife. His newborn son is looking for a mother. He has a sizable townhome above his father’s blacksmith shop, and the remains of a sizable dowry from his late wife’s estate. He might be… more tolerant towards your personal views.”

The woman’s voice was like ice as she said, “Please don’t bother telling my brother, I shall inform him myself.”

Hank bowed his head in agreement, exiting the room quickly— only to come nearly face to face with Connor, who was standing outside Lady Caroline’s door. 

“Connor?” the king questioned, wondering why the hell Connor was outside the solar, disobeying his orders to head back to their own bedchambers. 

The elf blinked at him, looking equally startled, and— ashamed? His cheeks filled in a familiar blue, and his movements were stiff as he opened his mouth to speak. But instead of offering an explanation on his— eavesdropping?— he turned on his heel and departed before Hank could even begin to process what had happened.

“Connor!” he called out, but the man had already rounded the corner. Hank swore.

Sighing, he headed back towards where he thought surely his bedchamber was, but he found himself somewhat lost in his own head as he began towards the main staircase, head heavy with the woman’s words. He hadn’t been lying when he suggested Sir Miller would be more tolerant of her, he was by far one of Hank’s best knights, and it was partially because of his gentle nature. Not every battle can be won with a sword alone. Perhaps, through time, the man might mellow Lady Caroline’s idea of elves, or at least dissuade her from the notion that the elves had anything to do with the death of her husband. 

But there was another element to the conversation that had started to bother him, one that had been progressing in his own head for some time now, but especially after Connor’s story at the market, and sudden appearance outside Lady Caroline’s door. His own tolerances of slavery were a holdover from the great wars, of the generations before him, and he had thought that at least he was treating the castle slaves with a similar respect to the servants in the castle. With, of course, the stipulation that they could never leave of their own volition. 

He found his hand reaching unconsciously to his belt, where his coin purse lay, still heavy with the King’s Key from the market. But as he rounded a corner just near his own bedchamber, he came across a sight that made him promptly forget about the key. 

Before him, one of his knights— one of his knights, not a foolish city guard who didn’t know what he was dealing with— had Connor pressed against the wall outside a back staircase leading from the palace. Sir Deckart, Hank could just barely recall through the rise in anger and jealousy compounding in his chest, had his hand pressed over Connor’s mouth, and was leaning in to whisper something in his ear. 

Hank hadn’t felt emotions like these rise in himself in years, not even when he himself was insulted to his face. He could hear the blood rushing in his ears as he grabbed the back of Deckart’s tunic, pulling him off of Connor and throwing him to the floor. Deckart gasped, looking up at the king, frozen in place. 

The king took the knight’s momentary shock to hoist him upwards by the front of his tunic, and press him to the wall with a strength he hadn’t even been sure he still possessed. He turned to Connor, who looked almost as frightened as the knight looked shocked, and barked out, “Are you alright?”

Connor nodded his head, but he didn’t take his eyes off the king, didn’t speak. Hank turned back to the knight, steely gaze unmoved. “If you ever touch my property again you’ll be demoted to squire and will be shoveling out the livery stables until the next Great War. If you even still have hands.”

He released the knight, throwing him onto the floor once again, standing over him with his full height. With cold, unfeeling eyes he told the knight, “Report back to Reed in the bunks. I don’t want to see your face for the rest of this visit. Inform him I’ll be seeing him out tomorrow for your punishment.” Deckart nodded, scrambling up to bow to the king. Deckart dared spare a glance at Connor, so the king snapped, “Now!”

When the knight was gone, Hank turned back to Connor, still seething. “Connor,” Hank said as his only direction, ordering the elf to follow him back to their bedchamber. Connor followed without prodding, walking stiffly, not looking at Hank.

Connor stood by the window when they entered the bedchamber, still staring at his feet, offering no explanation. Hank felt his teeth grind as he ran through all of the possibilities of what Deckart was saying to Connor. Connor wasn’t defending himself, wasn’t blaming the knight, so Hank thought, bitterly, that he must have been complacent in whatever it was. Whatever it was. Raneighs. The young knight had Connor pressed to the wall. 

“What,” Hank drew out through gritted teeth, “was that?” 

Connor looked up at that, suddenly. His eyes were hard when they met Hank’s. “He said he could free me.”

Hank stared back. Connor wasn’t begging for forgiveness, or apologizing shyly. He was clipped, angry. 

“He asked me to run away with him,” Connor said.

Hank wanted to slam his fists on the table, but he had much better control over himself than that. Instead, he thought of the compromising position that he’d found the men in. “Anything else?”

For a moment, Connor was silent. He stared forward over Hank’s shoulder, eyes purposefully blank. Hank hated the feelings inside of himself. The way his stomach turned over at the idea of anyone else touching Connor, at the idea of Connor… liking it. Because that’s what this was, wasn’t it? This was why Connor was so angry— Hank was holding him here. He had the power to free the elf in his coin purse, right there, and Hank couldn’t do it. Wouldn’t do it. 

And he knew Connor knew what Hank meant when he asked, the way Connor stared back with equally cold eyes. “No,” Connor finally said, but it brought Hank no relief. Hank had begun to turn away when Connor spoke again. 

“That wasn’t the first time,” Connor said, almost an afterthought. He looked Hank in the eye, boldly, as if he were trying to challenge the king to something. He was trying to rile Hank up. 

“Connor,” Hank growled. “I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing…”

There was another beat before Connor spoke again, voice still clipped, hands in fists at his side. “On the way here. When you went hunting. Sir Deckart told me the same thing before.”

Hank narrowed his eyes. He made a mental note to send Deckart to some far part of the kingdom, or even to Warren with Hank’s own ambassadors. See how far that sort of talk got him under Christina’s rule. 

The king turned to the bottle on the small table to the left of the door. He poured himself another drink, very aware of the thick circlet still on his head, the authority radiating off of him, and the indignance coming from Connor. Meeting his eye, he told the elf, “Take off your clothes and get on the bed.”

Though Connor was still angrily staring at him, he did it anyway, with no protest. Connor pulled his tunic over his head, throwing it to the ground, and in one swift movement, pulled his trousers down, kicking them off. He leaned back on the bed, propping himself up, staring at Hank with a look of defiance. 

Hank blindly placed the goblet down, taking two quick strides to Connor, pulling him into a hard, hungry kiss. Connor returned it enthusiastically, scrambling to reach for Hank’s clothes, but he pushed the elf’s hands away. Instead, he pushed Connor down onto the bed, pulling away. Connor looked at him with wide eyes as he leaned forward once again to kiss down the elf’s neck, in a way he’d never really taken the time to do before. 

He kissed down Connor’s chest, taking a moment to draw a gasp from the man as he took the man’s nipple between his teeth. He spent a few moments sucking on Connor’s nipples, his chest flushing blue, as he felt Connor get hard, his cock pressed against the heavy weight that was Hank on top of him. Hank kissed lower until he reached Connor’s flushed cock, taking it into hand, making Connor gasp. The silken cock jumped at the first swipe of his tongue against it. 

But Hank pulled back, the cock firmly in his grasp. “You’re mine , Connor.”

Connor looked at him with wide, dark eyes, gasping, “Yes, I am.”

Hank plunged down, taking Connor fully into his mouth, Connor unable to contain himself as he threw his neck back. Hank wasted no time slipping two fingers into the man, without waiting to prepare him with just one. He knew he was being rough with the elf, but in that moment, neither of them cared. 

Later, when both men had come, and they were lying quietly in bed, not speaking to another, Connor rolled over to face Hank. He still wasn’t fully looking at the king, but he moved closer to put his head on the king’s chest. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about what happened, I didn’t want him to get in trouble with you.”

Hank felt a bitter satisfaction in his chest. He knew he should apologize too, but he just grunted in acknowledgment. Connor didn’t demand anything further. 

In the morning, neither of them acknowledged that anything happened, but Connor asked permission to stay in the bedchamber for the remainder of the trip. With a stab of guilt, Hank agreed to it, kissing the top of his head before leaving the room. 

When they returned to Detroit Castle just a few short days later, he could see Connor release a breath of relief, grateful to be home. 

Looking down at the letter in his hands— one of many that had been delivered along with the replies to his invitations— Hank couldn’t understand why this was so hard. When he had seen Tiffania’s portrait— in the same style as her eventual official portrait as queen consort— he had known instantly that he’d wanted to marry her. He’d written to her asking for her hand, without even meeting her, and she’d accepted. She’d been the fifth daughter of the king of Hellbenia, would never see the crown herself, but within a month he’d traveled across the Eastern sea and made her his wife. He had been a younger man, then.

But now, he struggled to even think of the nameless, faceless women he might someday marry. He wasn’t getting any younger, as everyone seemed to like reminding him— he had no siblings, his closest relatives were noblemen who hadn’t come close to the crown for hundreds of years, and eventually, he knew, he would need heirs. Finally meeting with someone vying for his hand had forced the issue, making him not only think of himself, but of Connor. 

Hank knew that very few of these women had any interest in him apart from his crown. Had he been a simple countryman, few and far between would have had any interest in him at all. Once, he knew, he’d been considered very handsome, and more than a few lovers had captured his attention for short periods of time. Hank wasn’t foolish— he knew even Connor wouldn’t have been pursuing his attention unless he had to. Had Connor been a nobleman in his own right, he would have had his own fair selection of young men and women to choose from before even considering an aging king. 

Now that the issue had been pressed upon him with urgency, Hank knew that he couldn’t keep ignoring the matters at hand— especially in relation to the elven slave that Hank found himself in the care of. Lady Caroline’s treatment of Connor hadn’t been unusual. There were still many of his countrymen who feared and resented the elves for the last Great War, fearing another uprising like the last one, this time taking over Ravendale instead of Jericho. The matter of what to do with Connor when he remarried weighed heavily on his mind. 

He knew many women, for the sake of the crown, would ignore a mistress or concubine, but Hank knew that he would never really be happy with any woman who would sit silently for a piece of gold upon her brow. 

He found himself still staring down at the letter in hand when the door to the bedchamber creaked open, and he heard the familiar cadence of Connor’s footsteps. At his feet, Sumo made no move to greet the elf. Hank only looked up when he felt Connor drape himself across the king’s shoulders, resting his chin on Hank’s shoulder. 

“Are those the replies for the tournament?” Connor asked.

Hank hesitated in replying. He didn’t want to lie to Connor, but he hated bringing it up— Connor had become increasingly agitated whenever Hank had mentioned remarrying. Hank couldn’t blame him. Connor was worried about his own future, had repeatedly made allusions to it since he had arrived, and Hank had done little to alleviate those worries. 

“Yes,” Hank said, and then gestured to the pile to the left. “King Zlatko of Dwimor and his family will be attending, as will Queen Elizabeth of Bellora and her daughter.” He hadn’t heard word from Queen Christina, for which he was thankful, and the letters he had sent to Jericho had, as always, been ignored. Letters from other kingdoms were still awaiting answer, but Hank knew that it wasn’t unusual for the heads of state to not be able to personally attend every tourney thrown by every king. Often, the younger generations of nobility would come to represent their families, and also to establish connections that would serve them in their own turn as regent. 

“Are those the knights who have chosen to participate?” Connor asked, looking to the pile to the right. Some of the foreign nobility who had responded to the invitations had chosen to sponsor their own knights, other knights had written replies themselves, eager to show off their prowess before another kingdom. 

Hank cleared his throat, reaching up to remove his spectacles, placing them on the pile of letters. “I have decided to join them.”

“As a contestant in the tourney?” Connor asked, and Hank could feel the man’s eyebrows raise in surprise against his neck.

“Don’t act so surprised,” Hank growled, but there was no heat in it. 

Connor turned to press his lips to Hank’s neck, and spoke, “I’m not— well, I am,” he admitted. “I simply thought that kings who put on tourneys usually watched them.” 

“I forget, sometimes, that you haven’t been to a tourney before,” Hank said, and Connor remained quiet. “Kings and queens don’t often participate, Raneighs knows I haven’t in years, but—” He shook his head. “I’ve always felt that participating was half the fun.”

“Then I shall cheer on my king,” Connor said, and Hank could feel the low rumble of his words against his shoulder. Then, a little more hesitant, “Provided I am allowed to watch in some capacity.”

Of course he was , Hank wanted to say. Instead, he said, “I’m sure something can be arranged.”

Connor hummed happily at that, and then his attention went back to the letter the king was holding. “And that third pile?” he asked. 

“More letters requesting my presence in meetings with noblewomen.” He sighed, placing that particular letter down on the table.

“Oh,” Connor said, stiffly. But he made no move to unloop his arms from around the king’s neck. 

“I don’t know what to do with half of these letters,” the king admitted. “This year’s tourney is going to be padded with more women than the tourneys were when I was twenty.”

“What do you want to do?” Connor asked, his voice far too even. Hank knew what he should do. The things he wanted were things he could never ask for. 

“I can deal with these later.” Hank leaned back in his chair, turning to get a better look at Connor. “How was your day?”

Connor beamed at him, and then began telling him about his jaunt into the library and then helping Ralph with the hunting dogs who had escaped into the pheasant hatchery. After a few minutes of craning his neck to stare at the younger man, Hank complained and they moved to the settee, Sumo following obediently for once. Tucked under Hank’s arm, with Sumo in his lap, Connor ended up falling asleep before Hank even needed to trim the candles. 

Hank couldn’t bear to move him for quite a long time. Staring down at Connor, his heart ached. He couldn’t imagine ever being as happy, or as satisfied, with one of those princesses as he was, just like this, with Connor in his arms. Eventually, the candles struggling to burn as Hank had not trimmed them, he extracted himself from Connor, lifting the elf and carrying him to bed. 

With a solemn glance at Connor, Hank returned to the desk. 

The following weeks were filled with little other agendas than preparing for the tourney. The field to the north of Detroit was cleared of any brush that had grown in the past year since the last tourney was held there, and the wooden seating structures were assembled and repaired around the large area where the jousting and melee events would be taking place. 

The surrounding areas had also been cleared for the knights’ tents, to be provided by Ravendale, and the individual tents of nobility who were either not a high enough rank to be able to politely request accommodations in the castle, or the nobility who preferred to be in their own personal accommodations if they had extended family traveling with them. Hank had been told to expect envoys from ten of the other kingdoms, Jericho being the only kingdom to withhold their presence, as Hank expected. 

Ravendale countrymen were permitted to attend the tourney, though they were seated last and in the highest seats, away from nobility, with limited seating available. Many chose, instead, to set up their carts and sell prepared food to those who had traveled to Detroit for the occasion. 

Noblemen and their families, usually accompanied by their knights who would be participating, had been arriving all week. Hank had, instead of meeting with their daughters and sisters and nieces, ignored all of their requests for a private audience. Every night had held larger and larger feasts that Hank couldn’t ignore, where young women held onto his every word, attention dripping like water from rosy lips. Connor, who could usually make any evening better, was purposely absent from every dinner. 

The night before the tourney, Hank had snuck away from the castle to observe the last-minute tourney preparations. Dozens of tents were camped out around the fashioned stadium, some clearly marked with the crests of their kingdoms, others crudely made by countrymen who had traveled from as far as Mackinae at the edge of Ravendale’s borders. He smelled the freshly-beaten grass, the horses, and heard the jolly laughter of the visiting knights in their tents, and for a moment, it was easy to forget Hank’s own troubles. He had always loved tourneys. 

Their tourney was, of course, a lesser tourney. Many held around the kingdoms took place over multiple days, and held many competitions, but over the years the Ravendale tournament had been whittled down to just a day and night. Hank had never been a king much for pageantry and heraldry, and it was reflected in the tournaments held in his name. No one seemed to mind in the least, for often the nobility traveling from across the sea would be moving on as soon as the tournament was over. 

After breakfast the next morning— delivered quite early so that Hank would have time to be dressed for the tourney— the set of squires that had been sent to help him arrived, the small parade of adolescents carrying Hank’s polished armor and placing them on a form before the king. By the time all of the pieces had been delivered, Hank realized that Connor had slipped from the room, and Hank felt only a modicum of disappointment. 

Connor had likely gone down to the tourney seating already, curiosity taking over him as Hank found it often did. Nevertheless, Hank had to dress quickly in order to make the first joust. He had been able to strip and dress himself in the padded doublet that the armor would be fastened to, but the pair of squires needed to help him with the rest.

The squires had dressed the king to his waist, and were finishing with attaching the mail skirt to the arming doublet, when there was a hesitant knock at the door. Unsure who the hell it could be, knowing most servants would simply announce themselves through the door, and knowing Sir Reed should have already been off dressing for his own place in the tournament, Hank called out for them to enter. 

Surprisingly, it was Connor at the door. He wasn’t sure why Connor had bothered knocking, but perhaps it had something to do with the reason he’d left earlier. “Leave us,” Hank told the squires, who hurried from the room with the grace of two adolescent boys. 

Connor eyed the remaining armor on the form, stepping over to Hank. “Can I help?”

Hank raised his eyebrows, but nodded. Connor hadn’t trained to be a squire, had never had any training with armor, but as Hank knew, he had a sharp eye and was a quick learner. The next few minutes were spent in near silence, with only Hank’s instructions for the pieces and the clank of the armor filling the room. Hank groaned as Connor finished attaching the tassets to the plackart, leaving little more than the silver-polished vambraces and pauldrons to complete his suit. 

“I haven’t worn this in years,” Hank said. “Haven’t needed to wear the full suit, hadn’t participated in one of these since Tiffania passed.”

Connor looked up, intense concentration broken. The look in his eye melted into something softer. “She liked tourneys, then?”

“Yes.” Hank chuckled softly to himself. Tiffania had loved the tourneys, her homeland famous for its horsemanship, and had always encouraged Hank to compete in them. She loved to see her husband in action, and he won more than a few in her name. “Haven’t much felt like participating the past few years since she passed.” The tournament held the year after she passed had supposedly been held in her honor, but Hank wouldn’t know— he hadn’t gone. Reed had told him it was a Raneighs-damned somber affair. 

Connor stood from where he was kneeling to attach the tassets, placing his palm on the breastplate on Hank’s chest, over his heart. His cheeks flushed a pale shade of blue. “Hank, do you mind if I…” he said, voice trailing off.

“If you don’t want to continue, you can send the squires back in, I’m sure they haven't left,” Hank said, regarding Connor’s hesitant look. But it appeared he had guessed wrong, since Connor bit his lip and shook his head. 

“I— I have something for you,” Connor said, reaching into the leather pouch at his waist. 

Hank regarded the man curiously as he pulled a blue ribbon from the depths of the pouch. Hank recognized it as the blue ribbon that Connor liked to use as a bookmark. The elf stood, rocking on his heels, cheeks blue and clearly nervous as he looked at the ribbon between his fingers. 

“Sir Reed had been telling me about tournament traditions,” Connor said. “He said that one usually offered a favor to their knight of choice for luck.”

Hank laughed, reaching to take Connor’s hand. “Are you asking me to fight in your honor?” 

Connor only flushed bluer, his hand curling into a fist around the ribbon under Hank’s hand. “No! I just—”

Hank laughed again, but he smiled fondly down at Connor, speaking gently, “It’s been a very long time since I’ve fought for someone’s honor.”

He pointed to his left shoulder, over his heart, where the pauldrons had yet to be tied. “Here?” Connor asked. Hank nodded, so Connor stood on his toes, tying the blue ribbon into a small bow.

Hank smiled at the man fondly, as his cheeks remained blue, and leaned down to kiss him, taking the elf’s cheeks in his unarmored hands. When he pulled away, it was only just, their foreheads pressed together. “Are you coming to the tournament, then?”

“Can I?” Connor asked, breathless. 

Hank nodded, “I want you there.” They remained in the room for a few more minutes until Connor finished dressing the king, and then he instructed the elf to locate Sir Miller, who would take him to the king’s box. Governor Allen and his family would be there, including Lady Caroline, but Hank was certain she wouldn’t say anything untoward in public. With one last kiss for luck, Hank sent Connor off and then headed down to the livery stables to be given his horse. 

Hank was the last to arrive on horseback, but it mattered little, as all of the other knights were waiting on him. The knights primarily had grouped themselves in with their countrymen. A few were wearing their helmets, but most, like Hank, had them tucked under their arms, at least for the parade. It wasn’t a true parade, which usually took most of a single day, but a smaller one through the gates of the constructed stadium, where the herald would announce all of the knights and other contestants. 

He knew many of the knights, even those with their helmets on, before they had even begun the announcements. Hank knew all of his men by armor alone, but he could see Sir Reed, sans helmet, speaking with Dame Tina Chen of Bimora. Hank knew she was personally sponsored by Lord Kim Yo-Han, who thought himself a knight. The Bimoran knights, like Dame Chen herself, all wore pitch-black armor that had proved resilient and nearly impossible to spot in the darkness. Despite Bimora’s legendary prowess with its knights, their neighbors, the Hellbenians, were far superior horsemen, which Hank knew as usual would be difficult to beat in both jousting and melee. Had they had time for swordsmanship contests, the Hellbenians would have been at a disadvantage. He was more than a little disappointed, however, to see how few knights Hellbenia had sent once again, now that Queen Tiffania was no longer with them. 

The Kalium knights, too, were not difficult to spot. Their kingdom’s abundance of precious metals made each suit of armor more lively even than the king’s, strings of gemstones pinning bight cloaks behind themselves. Despite their vanity, Kalium’s warriors proved decent in battle, Hank knew, or they wouldn’t have been able to keep hold of their land for so long.

Each of the eleven kingdoms attending had provided some number of knights, all of which Hank led onto the tourney grounds to be greeted by a cheering crowd as they were announced. For a moment, seeing the hundreds of people cheering down at him, Hank stilled his horse. The eleven boxes were equidistant from Hank’s kingdom’s, where he could see Allen holding up Lady Emma. 

He took a breath and began his tour around the stadium. The royal boxes were closest to the ground, so that their occupants could have the best views, close enough to the grounds where if Hank rode around with his arms raised, and the occupants extended their arms, Hank could brush hands with them. 

His horse cantered around the stadium, only slowing when young women reached down from the boxes to offer a token— a piece of her sleeve, a veil, a ribbon— and her favor to the king. The first woman to reach down had been Princess Sarah, the youngest of Tiffania’s nieces, now a bright young woman, offering a piece of her sleeve. Her father, Prince Yakob, was sitting back with an approving look in his eye. 

Hank shook his head, waving his hand to her, just barely within audible distance. “I’m sorry, I already have another’s favor.”

Princess Sarah retreated back into her box, a look of slight disappointment on her face, but it didn’t linger too long. Once, Hank might have been offended by it, but now he didn’t mind. He had another’s favor. He could only wish the princess a similar fate.

He pulled his horse on another round of the stadium, steering clear of the boxes of the lords he was not looking forward to speaking to, including Lord Perkins’ box, held on account of Queen Cristina. He’d brought more than one companion— the slave girl, Mary, on his lap, but also High Minister Gordon Penwick, a man Hank personally held little regard for. He’d so far avoided both men on their visit, not wanting to hear another impromptu sermon from Minister Penwick, who’s favorite lecture included the humans’ divine right to own slaves. Hank shuddered as he rode away. 

On the third and final round, the king was offered a few more favors, and the only one he was truly saddened to decline was Lady Emma’s, the small child offering a hand-stitched handkerchief. When Hank repeated his apologies, he heard Reed snicker behind him, but when he looked back to the man, he was looking anywhere but as Hank. 

He reluctantly stopped at the box of King Zlatko of Dwimor, his box filled with a whole harem of slaves dangling off his arms and his lap and holding tarps to keep the sun off the delicate complexions of his three daughters. Princesses Hybenna, Andreanna, and Mylenna, pale as death, faces hidden behind veils. Even through their gloves, Hank could see their extremely long nails as they reached forward to offer him pressed flowers as tokens, cooing in identical voices. After expressing his disappointment at having to reject their tokens, Hank rode away, shuddering as he recalled the rumors that the entire family had been cursed with vampirism. 

Rejoining the other knights, who took turns riding around the field with their compatriots, Hank viewed the other boxes. Lord Yo-Han and Lady Jenny sat in Bimora’s box, the man already drinking by the time his knights rode around. Kalium didn’t disappoint with its nobility any more than their knights— Crown Princess Rosanna sat in attendance, plucking a broach from her colorful clothing and leaning down to offer it to a Bimoran rider, the center of attention at any event she attended since she came of age. The rest of the box was filled with the many younger siblings of the princess, the children of her father’s three wives. 

Though they had only provided two knights for the tourney, and were known for their music and universities on Bellora, Queen Elizabeth and her young daughter Princess Emily were in attendance, with Lord Joseph Sheldon and his own daughter, Lady Tiana, who, thankfully, had better sense than to offer the king a token. 

With the last round of knights in the parade, the games finally started. First up was Dame Persons of Castile against one of his own men, Sir Waters. By the second round she managed to knock him out cold, her javelin splintered, the man flat on his back. Even the king had to whistle at her savagery. With her helmet removed he could see a sharp row of teeth matching Dame Chen’s, and could see the wall of muscle under her chainmail as she stopped to bash helmets with her fellow knights. 

The fifth bracket belonged to the king, which even he wasn’t too proud to admit that he probably won because the young Belloran knight was too afraid to strike a regent than he was to lose the contest. Still, he supposed, it probably wouldn’t have looked good for the reigning king to be knocked from his horse in round one. 

By Hank’s third opponent he was beginning to remember why he had stopped participating so frequently in tournaments. His chest was aching from repeated blows, and his arm was growing stiff from holding the javelin high. He didn’t mind, then, when on his fourth round he was eliminated from the jousting part of the tourney, and he voluntarily chose to sit out from the melee games. He much preferred to watch a game like that on higher ground.

He was in good spirits as he removed his armet to meet his conqueror face to face, shaking the man’s hand. Pulling back, he wiped the sweat from his brow where his hair was plastered to his forehead. He looked upwards to his own box, looking past Governor Allen to Connor, who was gripping the wooden sides of the box, his face only dropping his concern when he saw the king grinning up at him. The concern morphed into relief. 

It struck him, then, standing in the middle of the field, surrounded by dozens of young women who wanted nothing more than to marry him, that the reason he could never picture one of them as his wife was that he didn’t want to marry any of them . Looking up into Connor’s bright eyes, he realized that he’ll never want to marry any of them as long as he lived, because he couldn’t ever imagine letting Connor go. 

Hank exited the field, dropping off of his horse and handing the reins to a squire as to join the others in his box, taking the back stairwell up to be greeted by the faces of Governor Allen and his family. “Well done,” Allen said, clapping him on the back, his armor clanging.

Lady Caroline nodded curtly at him, but made no comments as he sat in his chair, the largest and most ornate in the box. Connor, who was seated in a chair just off to his side, leaned in to whisper, “I’m glad you’re alright.”

Hank chuckled lowly, “We’ll see about that tomorrow.” Connor pulled a face, but sat back in the chair to watch the rest of the tourney, silently at Hank’s side.

On the third to last round, Reed was knocked from his own horse by Dame Chen, who hopped down from her horse to offer him a hand up before the match had even been called. Her grin was sharp and menacing as she smiled down at him, her unnatural strength pulling Reed from the ground with little effort. When she pulled him up she pulled him close to say something in his ear that caused him to grin, but push her away and head up towards the king’s booth.

Behind the king, he heard Miller snicker, and the familiar sound of a chainmail-armored elbow hitting smooth armor plate. “Thought you would still be down with Tina in the tent.”

“I’ll fight them, but I don’t fuck dogs,” he heard Gavin snicker.

“So she’s really a…” 

The king stopped listening to his knights gossip as soon as the second to last round started, where another Bimoran knight defeated the last Hellbenian in the very first round. The knight proceeded to struggle against his countryman, Dame Chen, up until the last moment, getting the upper hand and knocking her from her horse, winning the tournament. 

He rode around the field for a moment to an adoring crowd, before stopping in front of the king to be presented the crown of love and beauty. Hank stood, turning to take the gold-dipped rose crown that was custom since his wife’s reign from the knight in charge of escorting it from the castle. He pronounced the knight the winner, handing down the rose crown. 

The knight took the crown into his free hand and promptly rode to the woman who had offered him her favor, Princess Rosanna. The princess looked pleased but unsurprised, unlike her young siblings who looked positively delighted at their sister’s new crown. It was enough to make Hank smile through the remaining events for the day. 

That evening, after the countrymen and noblemen had departed to their individual tents or homes, Hank dined with the knights on the field, the scullery maids having spent the day cooking for the dozens of men and women. Though more than a few lords and ladies invited the king to dine with them in the castle, or in their tents littering the surrounding area, Hank wanted to dine with the other knights. 

Afterwards, Hank found his way back to his own chambers, where he was surprised to find Connor waiting up for him. When the door opened, Connor looked up from his book, pressing something between the pages that wasn’t his usual bookmark— that belonged to Hank, now, pressed over his heart. Connor stood to get to his side, helping him out of his remaining armor. 

“You haven’t been drinking,” Connor said, nimble fingers reaching for the straps attaching the silver pieces. 

“You sound surprised,” Hank said with a huff of laughter.

“You usually only come back from dining with the knights after you’ve been drinking for a few hours. And your armor is half gone,” he looked quizzically at Hank, who was missing not only his armet but both vambraces, gauntlets, and one pauldron. 

“Not quite sure what happened with those,” he said, though he was pretty sure it involved   Lord Yo-Han, who had been deep in his cups at that point. He may or may not have lost those pieces to the man in a friendly wager. He had been drinking with the knights earlier, but he stopped a while back. Instead of being lost in his cup, he was feeling a pleasant, warmth throughout his body. 

At the ribbon attached to Hank’s doublet, Connor paused. “I can get it,” Hank said, reaching to untie the ribbon, and then placing it aside. Connor glanced at the ribbon, his cheeks going just a pale blue, as he tried to hide the hint of a smile on his face as he finished undressing the king, settling him into the bath. Connor reached for the soap, brushing the bar of local ashen soap through the king’s hair. Hank leaned into it, letting Connor’s long fingers work the soap through the gray strands. He allowed himself to enjoy it for a few minutes before the water started losing its heat, having sat for a few minutes before Hank had gotten back. 

After toweling down, Hank redressed in clean clothing, but not for bed like Connor expected. He felt Connor’s eyes on him as he took the ribbon from where he’d left it on the table, placing it in the locked drawer with the rest of his valuables. After shutting the drawer, Hank turned to Connor. “Do you want to go for a walk?”

Connor raised his eyebrows, but nodded.

Chapter Text

Half the torches lining the dim castle corridor had gone out, and the nightly steward hadn’t taken the time to relight them considering the time of evening, so the remaining torches draped the corridors in long shadows. Connor rarely walked the castle late at night, only taking brief jaunts back to their bedchamber when he’d fallen asleep in the library on a few occasions. 

The halls were empty, the usual bustle of the castle falling silent in the dead of night. Connor knew most of Ravendale’s knights were occupied that evening, either still celebrating with the foreign knights out on the tournament field, or asleep in their own beds in the guard barracks on the ground floor of the castle. 

They passed a single guard in the narrow stairwell, Sir Waters standing aside with a nod to the king, allowing them to pass through the archway at the bottom. Connor knew Sir Reed, being the captain of the king’s guards, would never allow the king to be completely undefended in a time of visiting foreign knights, so he was certain there were more than a few of the king’s men around. 

After passing Sir Waters, Connor rejoined the king in walking side by side in an easy silence, just barely brushing shoulders though there was plenty of space for them to walk comfortably apart. It seemed the king didn’t have any particular location in mind when he’d suggested they take a walk around the empty castle. Connor didn’t mind. He’d been dropping off to sleep earlier after dinner, but after a short nap he’d woken up with renewed energy. 

A few minutes of walking down the barren halls led them towards the main hall of the castle, Connor looking up to find them in a familiar place. It seemed that the king was aware of the hall they had turned down, his face pensive but not quite solemn. The king barely glanced at the portraits lining the hall, only stopping at the last few portraits that Connor was so familiar with. 

The king stood before his youthful portrait, and by the look on his face, Connor was certain he hadn’t intended to steer them in this direction. But the king was never one to run from his demons. If anything, Connor thought with a laugh, he ignored them. 

Hank stood silently in front of his portrait, the dashing young king in red who had little business having such a solemn look on his face for being all of twenty-three. 

“Here’s proof I was handsome, once,” Hank said finally, a hint of mirth in his eyes. 

Connor snorted, “You’re handsome now . You should have seen yourself today.” He slipped his arm around the king. He’d liked seeing Hank in full armor. Though Hank had protested that he was a little too round to fit into his old suit of armor, Connor disagreed. He understood why the late queen had so enjoyed watching tourneys, and he saw the reflection of the young man that had been frozen in time. “This portrait showed the king that was . I lo—” Connor stopped himself before he could say the wrong thing. “I like the king that’s before me now,” he said softly, staring ahead at the king’s portrait. 

Surely the king knew that even though this portrait showed him young and fit and handsome, that wasn’t the man that Connor loved. This portrait showed a young man that had his whole life ahead of him, but the king standing beside him now had experienced the world. He had loved and lost, ruled his kingdom for twenty years, and while he might not consider himself better for it, Connor wouldn’t have traded him for the young man pictured. 

Hank put his own arm around Connor, pulling him close. The king leaned down to kiss Connor, who stood on his toes to meet the man. They only pulled away when they heard the giggling of drunken guests wander past the hallway. But the king didn’t pull his arm away when the knight and the scullery maid ducked into the hallway, clearly looking for an empty place to duck away. Spotting Connor and the king further down the hallway, the couple giggled and backed away into the main corridor. 

The king stared at his own portrait a moment longer, and then, pulling his arm away from Connor, turned to the covered portrait beside his own. Hank stepped forward, reaching for the draped black cloth, pulling it upwards and tucking the bottom of the cloth behind the top curve of the gilded frame. Perhaps it was because Connor had grown closer to the king, and had heard stories of the queen from a person who had known and loved her, but he didn’t feel like an interloper any longer, and allowed himself to stare openly at the late queen.

The late queen had long dark hair, tucked behind her ear and falling straight back over her shoulders, unencumbered by the hairstyles that many Ravendale country folk liked to wear. He knew the queen was from Hellbenia, and other than the few knights and noblemen and women that had been at the tourney that day, Connor had never before seen anyone from outside of Thirius, much less met them. Queen Tiffania’s dark eyes were a blue so dark they almost looked black, a great contrast from Hank’s own bright blues, which he had passed to their son. 

Hank was staring up at the woman, but unlike the expression on his face when he had been looking at his own portrait, or the absolutely distraught look when Connor had walked in on him looking at the miniature of his son, he had a small, fond smile on his face, matching almost the confident, playful smile on the queen’s face. He cleared his throat, looking away from the portrait, “This is Tiffania. She was my wife. And Cole’s mother.”

Connor nodded. “She’s very beautiful.”

The corner of Hank’s mouth rose slightly, “Isn’t she?”

Connor hummed in agreement. Connor felt no jealousy for a dead woman— instead, he felt an almost kindred spirit in their love for Hank. The two men continued to look at her portrait, Connor thinking it was a shame it remained covered even to this day when Hank voiced the same thought.

“It’s been five years since her passing,” Hank said, “I think that it’s high time for her to face the world again.” Connor nodded in agreement behind him as Hank reached forward to pull down the black cloth. Connor reached forward to take the king’s free hand into his own, pressing his other hand on top of the king’s. 

Another few minutes in the hallway and the two men peeled away, taking a rather long detour around the castle back to their bedchamber. The king dropped the black cloth on the table as though it weighed a ton, collapsing on the bed with a groan. The candles in their chambers had dimmed, but with the intention to fall asleep momentarily, Connor made no move to trim the wicks. Instead, he crossed the room to the window, looking out the arched window, face pressed close and hands cupped so the candlelight wouldn’t reflect onto the warped glass. 

Outside the window he could see that it was still very early in the morning, the sun hadn’t even dared to peek over the horizon to stain the sky pink. Two of the king’s guards were standing outside in the courtyard, speaking with each other, torches lit and held high. From this part of the castle Connor couldn’t see the tourney grounds, but he thought surely even the rambunctious knights must be asleep at that point, their candles and torches all extinguished. 

When he turned back to the king, he found the man had already undressed and pulled the blankets over himself. Connor looked at him fondly. He began to shed his own clothing until he was left with nothing but his smallclothes, and pinched out the candles before joining the king in bed. He could hear the king’s soft breathing, as though he were asleep, but when Connor climbed into bed beside him, Hank wrapped his arms around Connor, pulling him close, Connor’s face pressed into the man’s chest. 

“I thought you were asleep,” Connor said, pulling away, face just a few inches away from the king’s.

“Can’t sleep,” the king said, but Connor was sure he hadn’t tried. 

“Hmm,” Connor said, unbelieving. Hank didn’t seem to mind, moving his hand into Connor’s hair to cup the back of his head. 

“You’re beautiful,” Hank said, openly. Connor smiled, and leaned in to kiss the king. He knew the king had a fondness for him. Maybe not the same love or affection he held for his wife, but he still preferred Connor’s company to that of others, at least for now, and Connor would take what he could get from the man. 

Hank pulled Connor closer, wrapping his arms around Connor’s body, large, rough hands pressing into the flesh of his back. Connor opened his mouth pliantly under the king’s, his own hands cupping the king’s bearded cheeks. He sighed into the kiss, content just to kiss the man as Hank seemed to be with him.

Within a few days of the tourney’s end the castle had cleared of visitors, the castle and its inhabitants back to their usual selves. Connor had heard no more from Hank on princesses or noblewomen or anyone else requesting his presence following the tourney, but Connor knew that it hadn’t truly ended. It had only been momentarily paused while the foreign nobility tried to piece together who the king’s sweetheart might have been that had given him the favor at the tournament. Connor felt a warmth rising in his chest as he thought about it. 

He wasn’t really the king’s sweetheart or lover, not in a traditional sense, but it was so much more than many of the princesses would ever get. He’d spent an hour in the portrait hall again that afternoon, and then hours in the garden under the threat of rain, staring at the same paragraphs in his book, not able to focus long enough to really read them. The sky was greying, the air misty. 

Connor couldn’t understand any of those women at the tourney, or any of the ones who had written letter after letter, only asking for the king’s hand. He didn’t know how any of them could look at his king and see only his crown, when the king was so much more than that. The past few days it had been driving Connor insane, feeling so trapped and stifled like a candle under a douter. He’d left for the gardens that afternoon hoping that it would drive off his restless spirit, but dangling his feet from the stone bench in the center of the maze, he felt only like he might burst if he didn’t say something to the king immediately. 

With a sudden determination, Connor dropped from the stone bench, forgetting his book in his haste as he hurried back to the castle, feeling as though he could shatter from the energy under his skin. He wanted— he needed — to ask Hank if they could be something other than master and slave. 

He would never dream of being prince consort, of marrying the king like a princess in the storybooks he liked to read so much, he knew that of all things would never happen, but… he would take what he could get. He would be Hank’s concubine when he took another wife, hopefully a woman who could love the king like Connor has. Connor knew he would look young for a long time, and maybe, when Hank had married another, produced heirs that would join the long line of royal portraits, it would be enough for Hank to keep him around.

But instead of feeling that fierce determination he had outside the castle, Connor hesitated outside their door. For a brief moment he considered knocking, and then realizing that was a ridiculous idea, began to laugh, the moment of hysteria bubbling over in his chest. Instead, he pushed the door open to see Hank sitting at his desk, working. 

The bravado he’d been feeling earlier had left him as swiftly as it had come, but he took in a deep breath anyway. He could see that Hank was aware that he’d entered the room, not too lost in his work to notice, but they had been living together for too many months for the man to be startled simply by Connor’s presence in their chambers. 

He draped his arms around the king’s shoulders, leaning forward to kiss the man’s neck, a surefire way to get his attention. “Connor,” the king said, tone almost warning, but there was no seriousness in it. 

“Should I stop?” Connor asked between kissing trails down the man’s neck. Hank groaned but said nothing else. He removed his spectacles, placing them on the desk with his paperwork. 

“Is this what you came back early from the gardens for? Finish your book and get bored?”

Connor paused, remembering that he’d left his book in the garden. “Yes.” No . But somehow the idea of simply asking for… something greater terrified him far more than anything else Connor could imagine saying to the man.

Hank pushed back his chair, apparently satisfied with Connor’s answer. He pulled Connor around gently, pulling the elf into his lap. Connor perched on the king’s lap, leaning forward to kiss him with an open mouth, the king groaning under him. He could feel the king’s member taking interest underneath him. He smiled into the king’s mouth as he rotated his hips to heighten that attention, Hank groaning into his mouth. 

Without removing his mouth from the king’s, he slipped from the man’s lap, climbing back on to straddle him. It was easier to kiss him like that. His face tilted to deepen the kiss, liking the way the king’s scruff scratched at his face, the curling white hairs rough against his own smooth face. Connor, like other elves, couldn’t grow any, so he’d always liked the feel of the king’s against his face. His fingers laced into the king’s beard, tugging at it gently. 

Hank’s hands slid down from Connor’s waist to his upper thighs, squeezing them through the thin fabric. The king pulled Connor’s lower lip between his teeth, and then pulled away, but only just. Connor tried to chase his mouth with his own, his own erection hard in his pants, using what little room left on the seat of the chair to gain leverage and grind down on the king, but Hank pressed their foreheads together mouths apart only enough for him to speak.

“Came all the way up here just to distract me, huh?” 

No. But now that he was here… “Yes.”

The king took it as an invitation, and in a swift move, stood up, holding Connor braced against him, much to Connor’s delight. As the king carried him to the bed, Connor made quick work of divesting them of their tunics, throwing them over the king’s shoulder. It was only a few steps to the bed, but Connor was quick, and by the time the king deposited him on the bed, pressing him there with Connor’s legs wrapped around him, they were both wearing only their trousers. 

It was gentle and desperate on both of their parts. When Hank pulled out of him they were both covered in a sheen of sweat, stuck to each other as Connor flipped them over so he could press his face into Hank’s chest, holding him there as long as Hank would allow it before he inevitably say he needed to return to work. 

Sometime in the middle of it, it had begun to rain, heavy raindrops hitting the stone and running down the window. His book was surely lost to the elements. He hoped it wasn’t one of the king’s library books, they were so much harder to replace than his own personal collection. But in the moment, listening to the soft drizzle of the rain, with his head pressed to the king’s chest, Hank’s hand playing with the slight curl of his hair, he couldn’t find it in himself to care.

He knew it was now or never. And at least if he said something now, he would know either way. 

Connor felt his own heart beating wildly. “Can I ask something of you?”

He tilted his head up to look into the king’s eyes. Hank’s eyes were serious, far too serious for someone who had just been inside the man asking something of him, and his lips were pressed together. Connor could feel his heart beating irregularly in his chest, but he said nothing.

With a strange look in his eyes, the king finally took a shallow breath, and spoke softly. “Anything.”

Connor breathed through his nose, his heart jumping in his chest. Surely the king didn’t mean anything . He was glad that the king had not been pressing his own head to Connor’s chest, but even then, he was sure the man could feel the heavy thumping of his chest against his own. 

With anything , he could ask what he wanted to. He wanted, more than anything, to ask for Hank’s love. The chance to have it. But even with anything , that was too much to ask. 

So instead, he asked for the closest thing. 

“Can you remove my collar?” 

He thought, surely, his heart was going to burst from his chest. He wanted to look away from the king’s bright blue eyes, the way something flashed in them, but he couldn’t tear his eyes away. He was certain that he looked terrified, sure that the man was going to shake his head and tell him no. Promises of anything meant little between a king and his slave. 

Hank stared at him intensely for a few moments, an unmistakable sorrow in his eyes, and in those brief moments Connor was sure that Hank was thinking of the gentlest way to let him down. What was it they said about falling in love with your master? To love your master is to ask for heartbreak?

“... alright.” Connor barely heard the man speak, lost in his own head, but he blinked owlishly at the man for a moment, surely having misheard him. 

“Really?” Connor asked, his voice cracking. 

“I promised you anything,” Hank said softly, the look of sorrow not leaving his eyes. He pushed himself up off the pillows, separating himself from Connor, breaking their eye contact as he stood. Hank didn’t bother dressing before he reached for the keyring at the waist of his discarded trousers, Connor watching with trembling hands. 

The king unlocked the side drawer of the desk, pulling out the King’s Key. In a few small steps, but during which felt like a lifetime, the king rejoined him on the bed. His hands were gentle and steady as he turned Connor’s shoulders away from him with the lightest touch. He felt Hank’s hands brush through his hair, slowly, to move the curling at the end of his hair away from the small, almost imperceptible lock at the base of his golden binding collar. With a click, the collar unlocked. 

He hadn’t realized how absolutely terrified he was that it wasn’t real until the chain fell, useless, into his lap, and he breathed for the first time in what must have been minutes. His fingers curled around the golden collar, now little more than a pretty necklace, the spell broken by the King’s Key. Connor wasn’t sure if the king was aware of what he’d done with that particular key, but Connor wasn’t going to remind him. 

Connor couldn’t place it, but… he felt different. He felt freer, like all of the tension that had been building up inside him for days had been released all at once, like a breath of fresh air. He couldn’t quite feel the magic in his veins, not like a sorcerer could, but he felt lighter

Dropping the chain onto the ground, Connor turned to Hank, catching a brief glimpse of something in his eye before the man schooled it back into a neutral look once again. Connor didn’t dwell on it too long, the sudden elation in his heart feeling the need to leave his body at once. He swelled forward to kiss the king, who kissed back without hesitation. Connor heard the man placing the King’s Key blindly behind him on the side table, and then return Connor’s kiss with gusto. With each kiss Connor said with his mouth what he couldn’t say with his words. I love you, I love you, I love you

They kissed languidly for a few minutes afterward, until they sank back down onto the bed, Connor placing his head back on the king’s chest. The king’s heartbeat was slow and steady to Connor’s rapid, uncontrollably wild beat. “Thank you,” Connor finally whispered, eyes squeezed shut, curled against the man. He was afraid to speak, to ask for more, for fear of breaking the spell between them. But when his gesture of thanks didn’t shatter anything at all, he allowed himself to ask one more thing. “Do you have more work to do?”

He risked a glimpse up at the king, whose lips were pressed together firmly. His eyes were staring not at Connor, but an undetermined point in the distance. “No,” he said, finally. “I’ll be here with you all night.”

Feeling slightly better about the rapid heartbeat in his chest, he pressed closer to the king. 

Of all the things that change in the brief moment it took to unlock the chain at his neck, Connor’s feelings for the man were not one of them. 

Traipsing through the castle without the binding on his neck felt strange, as though a layer of protection had been removed from his armor. By his second day without the collar, Connor knew he had to stop hiding in the depths of their bedchamber and venture from the room. Phileas had seen his bare neck when delivering breakfast the previous morning, but even though he hadn’t said a word about it, Connor felt the elf’s sole eye staring at his neck, and by dinner word seemed to have spread through the castle, because instead of Phileas delivering dinner, Rose had come to see it for herself. Of course, she hadn’t said a thing, but like Phileas, the woman wasn’t exactly subtle. 

Rose seemed to be pleased with the development though, leaving the room with a smug smile on her face. The following morning, Connor stood before the ancient silver mirror in their bedchamber, examining his neck. Besides the remnants of a small love bite from the previous evening’s activities, there was absolutely no trace of the collar on his neck. There was no red line, like there sometimes was on the king’s face from sleeping on his pillow, no scarring, no evidence left behind. No proof that he’d worn that collar for all of his waking memory. 

The king had given him the collar, saying he could do what he pleased with it. But Connor didn’t want to do anything with it. So he placed it in the usually-locked drawer, under Cole’s miniature. And then he left the room. 

He resisted the urge to wear a high-collared tunic, instead wearing one of the tunics that Zoe’s mother had delivered on his first morning at the castle. He held his head high when he heard some of the scullery maids he passed in the hallway whispering. He ducked into the gardens to find whatever remained of his book from two nights past, but when he found the center of the maze, the book was nowhere to be seen. Certain that the mass of paper hadn’t dissolved completely in that short bout of rain, he ducked under the bench to look for it, but it wasn’t there either. 

Confused, he headed back to the castle, thinking perhaps he had left it somewhere else? But he was stopped by a shadow of a figure in the doorway to the kitchens that he’d cut through on his way out into the gardens. He looked up, shielding his eyes, but he couldn’t quite make the figure in the doorway. 

“Looking for something?” Sir Reed said. Stepping into the shadows to better see the man, Connor could see the knight was holding his book, not in watery pieces, but whole and readable. “Ralph, the slave in charge of the dogs, found it. Knew it belonged to you. Didn’t know why he couldn’t just give it to you himself, you elves all know how to talk to each other without saying anything.”

“Ah, yes,” Connor said, feeling slightly flustered. “Thank you.”

“Not so fast,” Reed said, holding the book back, higher than Connor could reach from where he was standing at the bottom of the steps. He eyed Connor’s neck, and then said, “Missing something else?”

Connor’s hand instinctively rose to touch his bare neck, flushing what he was certain was a dark blue. “I’m sure you’ve heard all about it at this point.”

Reed smirked, and Connor was sure he was going to say something else, but he simply stepped out of the way, tossing the book to Connor. At the top of the stairs, Connor heard him say, “You’re alright. For an elf.”

But there was no heat in it, and Connor found himself smiling as he headed towards the temple of Raneighs, where someone had told him that Hank would be. 

The temple was outside the city walls, where Connor had no business being before. He’d passed it every Thursday when heading to the market, but had never been inside before. The building was beautiful human craftsmanship, more remarkable than the castle even, but Connor had never needed— nor wanted— to enter a temple of Raneighs before.

But even with misguided ideas of who rA9 was, he did have to admire the building as he paused in the doorway. It wasn’t near Wednesday, so the temple was relatively empty, absent of even the minister. The building was rounded and arched, divided into nine arches for each of the nine, the ninth centering on the altar at the end of the sloped pathway. Connor’s eyes searched the building quickly until he spotted the king, sitting back in one of the raised, curved pews, staring up at the stained glass on the ceiling. 

Sitting down beside the man, Connor stared up at the glass ceiling, depicting the humans’ misguided ideas of rA9’s journey across the world. “I was surprised to hear that you were here,” Connor finally said, “I know that you never come here, not even to worship.”

Hank hummed, but didn’t take his eyes off the ceiling for another few minutes, when he looked down on the altar, and the door beside it. “I’ve been thinking about things lately,” Hank said, but he didn’t elaborate. “My family are in the catacombs below. My parents. My grandparents.” He sighed, “My wife and son. Someday I’ll be there too.”

It didn’t sound to Connor like that was what Hank had been thinking about, but he didn’t want to push the issue too far, to call him out on it. “Is that what you’ve been thinking about?”

Hank sighed again. “No. But it doesn’t matter. The dead can’t speak, and if Raneighs is out there, he isn’t listening.”

Connor reached out and took the king’s hand in his own. 

Hank gave him a sideways look. “Do the elves even worship Raneighs? You’ve never come here either as far as I know.”

He shook his head. “No. We worship rA9.”

“Isn’t that the same man with another name?”

Again, he shook his head. “No. What the humans think they know about rA9— your Raneighs— is wrong.”

Hank leaned back in the pew, but made no move to release Connor’s hand. He looked at him with amusement as he said, “So tell me about him, then.”

Connor nodded, prefacing his tales with the disclaimer that he had no memory of hearing this firsthand, all of his knowledge came from the elves he spent time in captivity with, and the dreams he used to have every night. The dreams he’d had the past two nights had changed to indecipherable but intense moments of running through lush green forests. 

“rA9 didn’t conquer the world,” Connor started by dispelling the humans’ ideas of the being. “He didn’t create humans in his image and then step back into oblivion to rejoin the eight.” Hank was watching attentively, but Connor was half sure he was paying more attention to Connor’s lips than the words leaving them. “We— the elves— believe he was of the first elves, the nine. Back then, they were immortal. And his spirit is the last to remain here on earth, inhabiting the tree of Thirium.”

“Is that so?” Hank hummed, his fingers playing with Connor’s.

“A long time ago, in the Age of Dawn,” Connor said, the words flowing easily, as if, for a moment, he was possessed with the spirit of a storyteller, “the nine stepped out of the tree of Thirium.”

“Like the druids, who step from trees?” Hank asked, now seemingly paying attention, unable to look away from Connor.

“Something like that,” he agreed. “The first eight paired off, creating the elven race. They died as they had children and grew old with them. But as the elves who had children aged and died, so did the tree of Thirium. As the tree began to die, so did the elves, the descendants of the eight. The tree stopped bleeding our lifeblood, having given away too much of itself to create all of us. rA9 was still immortal, and he held part of the tree still inside of him. He offered himself to the tree to revive it, and after he was accepted, and the tree started bleeding once again, his spirit began residing in the tree.”

Hank leaned back, whistling. “That’s an interesting take on it. Sounds an awful lot like something that happened a few years back.” Connor had heard some of the stories of the last Great War, of the way the tree had been poisoned and the elves along with it. But Connor was too young to have lived through that. Hank shook his head, dismissing it. 

Connor nodded, leaning in close to the king. “What did you come here for, then?”

The man was silent for a few beats. “I came to ask for advice. And for forgiveness. And the guidance that comes from all of—” he raised his hand in the air, making a gesturing motion, “that.” 

It was Connor’s turn to hum, “Did you get it?”

“Never got the courage to ask.” Hank looked forward towards the flower-covered altar. His mind was far away, a place Connor could never reach. 

The two remained in the temple for a few minutes longer, long enough for Connor to finish admiring the architecture. When they stood, Hank pulled him to his feet, and they left the pews hand in hand. At the door, Connor slipped his hand from the king’s as they left, missing the strange, saddened look on the man’s face. 

On the fourth day of his freedom— and Connor knew he shouldn’t have been counting , but he was almost afraid to stop, to disturb the peace that had settled between him and the king the last few days— Connor spent most of the morning in the garden, taking in the post-rain air. He’d had time to finish his book, thankful that he hadn’t needed to scrape it from the bench, while lying in the grass in the middle of the maze. He’d been lying on his back in the soft, overgrown grass, watching the sky when he heard heavy footsteps.

Half expecting the king, he began to sit up, the open book forgotten on his chest falling to his lap. But it wasn’t Hank coming to find him, but Sir Reed, a grim look on the man’s face, unlike anything he’d ever seen from the man before. Connor shut the book quickly in his lap. “Reed?”

“Connor,” Sir Reed said, the odd look still on his face as he looked down at Connor, not correcting Connor and demanding the elf call him by his proper title. “You have to come back to the castle with me.” He held out his hand to Connor, his calloused grip firm as the knight pulled Connor from the ground. As the knight dropped his hand, Connor thought how the man had never willingly touched him before. He was clearly shaken by something that he wasn’t telling Connor. 

“Why?” Connor asked, feeling like the bottom had dropped from his stomach. Something had happened, but Connor couldn’t fathom what. Instead of answering him, Reed turned from the elf, heading back out of the maze, his hand on his sword. “Sir Reed. Gavin,” Connor said, following after the knight. He reached for the man’s cloak, stopping him. Reed stopped, sighing as he looked back at the elf. He was looking at Connor strangely again, his eyes searching Connor’s face for something he wasn’t finding.

“Why are you here?” Reed asked suddenly.

“In… the gardens?” Connor asked, puzzled. He looked down at the book in his hand, and then back up at Reed. 

“No, in… the kingdom,” Reed said, his voice faltering. He suddenly looked as unsure about the question as Connor was confused. 

“I don’t… know how to answer that,” Connor said, searching the man’s grey eyes. What was the knight looking for? Reed knew how he came to be in the kingdom in the first place, had been there when Lord Perkins had arrived with him those many months ago. Just two days ago, Reed had spoken to Connor as though they had sort of understood each other, as though he understood that now that Connor was free, he had chosen to stay here of his own volition. And now, Reed was looking at him as though he’d seen a ghost. 

Instead of clarifying, Reed turned from Connor, and spoke through gritted teeth. “The king is summoning you.”

Why? ” Connor asked, a bad feeling forming in the pit of his stomach. He’d never been summoned by the king before like this. But Reed simply looked back over his shoulder, grim look never flinching, not answering.