Leo looked at himself in the mirror, and he knew.
He wasn’t a girl. Despite everything he’d been told, everything he was raised to be, he looked in the mirror and knew it was wrong . Thinking of himself as a boy just made so much sense in comparison.
But knowing was one thing, and doing something about it was another. There were plenty of things he couldn’t do, as a child of King Garon in what could only be described as a...combative court environment.
He had to take a strategic, logical approach to this knowledge about himself. There were plenty of things he could do, of course, but if he did the wrong things then his life could be forfeit, and that was the last thing he wanted or needed.
“Mother,” he asked that morning, making sure to carefully and precisely cut into the meat on his plate. He had to look like this wasn’t important to him. “May I have an allowance to control my self image?”
She looked at him with an expression akin to warmth. He’d got her. She always wanted to present him to everyone else as smart and capable - he was young compared to many of his half siblings, but she wanted him to be second in line to the throne. At the very least, she wanted him to become a capable advisor.
Leo didn’t know if that was going to be a part of his future, but it had plenty of benefits now. His mother approved his request, and he could do what he wanted with the way he dressed himself.
He was still a child, so his options were fairly limited, but there was a little room to experiment. He didn’t go straight for an appearance that he could describe as particularly manly, but it wasn’t like he could wear battle armour at his age anyway.
The important part was that while his appearance wasn’t manly, it also wasn’t girly. He could ditch the skirts and dresses of his earlier life and replace them with breeches and shirts - just so long as there was flowery embroidery and a bit of roundness to the garments. Nothing too sharp and nothing too darkly coloured - that was the way to go.
Leo was almost surprised at how comfortable it was. He felt more confident, less constrained. It was like he could breathe better, think easier. The way he appeared to others felt so much more in tune with how he saw himself, and it...made a difference. It really did.
People didn’t forget who he was, of course. They called him by the name he was given when he was born, and definitely viewed him more as a woman than he did himself. But he felt more- authentic when speaking to people, he supposed. Maybe he was imagining it, but he felt more able to be assertive, and people questioned him less for his knowledge and confidence.
The only problem with that was that it meant he got noticed more. His words carried more weight, posed more of a threat, and actively challenged people who’d probably barely registered the presence of the little eight year old child of the King’s tenth concubine.
That made things more dangerous. Leo was vaguely aware that people were beginning to talk about him, the way he presented himself. He also knew that whatever they were saying couldn’t be anything good.
It came to a head with an invitation to speak to Prince Xander in his study. Leo had barely interacted with him more than a handful of times, given his relative low importance in the royal family, so it was a big deal. Something that signified that he was no longer small enough to be ignored.
He was absolutely positive that it couldn’t mean anything good. He’d never received any attention from anyone actually important before (bar a few moments as a much younger child when his father had pulled him up onto his knee and called him intelligent, which had made his mother preen even more).
In all honesty, Leo wanted to avoid the meeting if he could. But his mother couldn’t take no for an answer, sure that this meant all kinds of wonderful things for him in the future. So there he sat, across the desk from Xander in his study, trying not to kick his legs in the too-tall chair.
There was next to no preamble before Xander got down to what he wanted to say. “What would you like me to call you?” he asked. There was a searching look in his eyes that filled Leo’s heart with- something. Something he couldn’t quite decipher.
Maybe it was hope, or trust, because for a moment he almost considered giving the answer he still held close to his chest. But then he remembered; there were no friends in the halls of the Dusk Dragon. So he lied, and gave Xander the answer he needed to hear.
“I see,” Xander said, something entering his tone that told Leo he was disappointed. He stood and made his way back to the door. “You can go; my apologies for taking up your time here. Remember that my door is open to you should you need it.”
From there, Leo felt Xander’s eyes on him almost every day. But he couldn’t for the life of him fathom out what it meant.
A few weeks later, Leo’s mother died in a freak accident.
He knew it wasn’t an accident. There was no accident which could involve large amounts of burning oil tipping out of a very large lamp (larger than any his mother ever kept in her room) in the middle of the night when there was no one awake.
But the fact remained that it was an ‘accident’, and he was alone.
He was...no, he wasn’t really free. He couldn’t ever truly be free of the chaos that whirled around him. Just because the person who wished to use him for her own advancement was no longer there did not mean that he didn’t exist as a threat to so many people anymore.
So Leo was alone. He’d always built his security on the fact that he had no allies - no allies meant no enemies attached to those allies. It also meant that he had no protection, and once he was completely isolated he was very, very vulnerable.
He didn’t really sleep for a week. He managed, in fits and starts. He went to the kitchens and watched the servants prepare his food, his back to a wall and his mind never far from an escape route. Just in case. There were lots of knives in the kitchen.
Eventually, it had to come to an end. Leo knew that. He just also knew that it would probably end unhappily for him (sometimes, he wondered why he even tried).
He didn’t know it would end like this, at a tea party with three of his half siblings staring him down.
“Do you want anything to drink?” Princess Camilla asked, her voice sickly sweet. She always scared him; always had. There was something off about the way she spoke to people. The way she claimed to care when he knew she surely couldn’t.
“I’m okay,” he said. A pause. “Thank you.”
At that, Princess Elise started fussing over something or other - probably his refusal to drink any of the tea and play the part in her game. She was another one that Leo had never quite been able to understand. She was so young, so…
Elise was six years old. When Leo was six, he’d stabbed another child with a fork in self defence and fled the dining hall. That night, a maid and a child had died. Somehow, Elise hadn’t experienced anything like that, and he didn’t understand how she could-
She shot Leo a sunshine-bright smile and waved the teapot at him. “You should definitely have some tea!” she said. “Xander planned this aaaaaall for you.”
The words sent a slither of ice running down Leo’s spine. This would be the end, wouldn’t it? Xander knew he was hiding something. Maybe he even knew the truth. The whole truth, the one he couldn’t speak to anyone because it was dangerous and so, so wrong.
Xander folded his arms on top of the table, watching for Leo’s reply. There was something Leo could have sworn was a warning in his expression. “I’ll have some tea,” he relented. He’d try to avoid drinking it.
“Good,” Xander replied with a smile. “I’m glad to hear it. And I’m glad you’re here. I know I spoke to you on the morning after the accident, but...I was sorry to hear about your mother. She was an admirable woman.”
Leo nodded stiffly. He’d heard it all: admirable, strong, intelligent, loving, dedicated, you were so lucky to have her, I’m sure you’ll miss her so much, I hope you’ll be okay without her. “She was.” His grip tightened around the teacup handle, and when he looked up, Camilla’s eyes were fixed on him with a terrifying intensity.
“You must be a tad lonely without her,” Xander continued. He nodded again. “But there are also- I will speak plainly with you, for I know you understand these sensitive issues intimately. There are certain freedoms you can gain, now you are no longer tied to her.”
Leo licked his lips, nervous. He didn’t know what Xander was implying, but he didn’t know if he liked it. Whatever it was, it couldn’t be good. Surely. “I’m not sure what you’re getting at,” he said. “Please, speak plainly.”
Xander’s gaze took on a new intensity. “If you wish to be yourself,” he said, “now is the time. I will protect you, regardless of who you really are.”
Leo’s grasp on the teacup faltered. “I’m-” His voice was shaking. He put the cup down, just in case.
“Take all the time you need,” Camilla said, her voice gentle. This time, he could almost believe that she cared.
Leo nodded, swallowed, and threw his fear to the winds. “I’m a boy,” he said, his finger tracing the rim of the cup. He couldn’t look at them anymore. “I’m- a boy.” There were so many things trapped inside him that he still wanted to say, had wanted to say for weeks or months now, but for some reason they couldn’t surface.
When he looked up, the three of them were all there, smiling at him. “Thank you for telling us,” Xander said. There was a tenderness to his voice that Leo hadn’t heard before. “I’ll stand by what I said before about protecting you...little brother.”
Leo smiled. Little brother...he could get used to that.