Once upon a time, there were two neighboring kingdoms at the edge of a vast forest that spent many years at war with each other. For over a decade, the war waged, until many, especially among the soldiers, could not remember why it had begun in the first place. Still, they fought bravely as bid by their kings, spilling their blood across the fields where once had stood villages and fields of grains. Some dreamed of going home, while others could not even remember what home was.
And then, with almost no warning, the war was over.
A veteran soldier who'd fought among the lines since almost the first skirmish, Erik did not know where he was to go with no war to fight. His had been among the first villages destroyed by their enemy and he'd taken up arms in revenge before he'd barely seen fifteen years; he had no home to return to and knew no life other than that of the war.
"What are you going to do now?" asked Alexander, one of the young men who'd served under him. Erik knew many of the soldiers planned to depart the next morning, making this the last night they would gather around the campfires together.
"I don't know," he told him honestly. "My village is gone and no family remains. I will...find something, I suppose."
Alexander looked tentative but then he let words rush from his mouth. "You could come with me, Captain," he said. "I have a friend who lives within the walls of the castle city of our King, and he says that opportunities abound there. It is a few weeks' travel, but it is the center of everything in the kingdom. Surely, you'll find something there."
Erik thought about it, chewing slowly on his food as he regarded the young man across from him. Alexander was excitable and often unruly, but he was fierce and loyal, dependable in battle. Erik could do much worse for company. "I think I shall," he said. "But the travel should not take us nearly so long, if we take the route through the forest."
Alexander's eyes widened. "The forest is ruled by fae who would strip us of our faculties and yoke us as slaves to serve them in their fancy palaces. We should avoid the forest, not wander into it."
Erik grinned toothily, his blood already warmed by the thought of danger and battle, even against the trickster folk. "I am not afraid of fae. We take the forest road."
Alexander scowled but did not protest again, obedience too well engrained after years at war.
As Erik had expected, they set off the next morning, Alexander looking more and more fearful as they followed the dirt path that led toward the forest instead of the wide, smooth road that went around it. It was not, as Erik reminded Alexander, that people did not travel through the forest and arrive on the other side, unharmed; it was that very few people dared to even try.
"It's because they value their lives and those of their companions," Alexander groused. "Something I do not believe you do, Captain."
Erik did not bother to refute Alexander's claim because he knew the young soldier knew the truth of it. Just as Erik would've died to protect the men under his command on the field, he would do no less for Alexander now, against any enemy they crossed, real or imagined.
Their few first days passing through the ancient forest were so peaceful that even Alexander could not complain. The sun-dappled floor of the woods was a welcome respite from the shade-less plains of the battlefields and the gentle wind always smelled faintly of herbs, sharp and woodsy like rosemary. They saw no people, fae or otherwise, and few woodland creatures, thanks to the crunching sounds of their feet on the twigs and leaves that littered their way. In deference to Alexander's quaint superstitions, they ate nothing of the forest, no plant or game, sticking to the army hardtack they'd brought with them from camp.
On their fourth day of travel within the forest, Erik had left Alexander sleeping in the early light to gather wood for a morning fire when he heard the sounds of movement like none he had heard so far. Then, he heard a cry, then a shout, the latter of which he recognized as his young companion.
Erik abandoned the wood and rushed back to their camp only to be greeted by the fantastic sight of two creatures, undoubtedly fae, in the throes of combat, though it was no combat the likes of which Erik had seen before. One was red with dark hair and a demon's tail, and he moved through the air by disappearing into great puffs of smoke in pursuit of the other. The other fae had the shape of woman but glittered blue in the stripes of sunlight that touched her, long and lithe as she evaded capture. Alexander was no where to be seen but there was a great golden hound hunched at the base of one of the trees, barking wildly.
Erik reacted without thought and came to the aid of the blue woman, using the other fae's distraction to grab him by his tail and yank him away from her with all the force he could muster. It was enough, it seemed, because the blue fae was suddenly gone, as if she'd never been there. Both he and the other fae looked around but could find no trace of her. With an angry growl and the mutterings of a language that Erik did not know, the fae disappeared from Erik's grasp, leaving him to sputter as smoke flew in his face.
After it cleared and Erik could breathe again, he looked around, alone. "Alexander!" he called out. "Where are you?"
The dog, the great golden one still sitting at the trunk of an old tree, barked.
Erik glared down at the mongrel. "Where did you even come from?" he asked it, as if it could answer.
"I think that's your friend," a lilting voice answered and Erik spun, ready for another attack. But the speaker was a lovely golden-haired woman, dressed in deep blue finery ill-made for the forest, and Erik begun to suspect she was yet another fae. "You called him Alexander?"
Then he realized her words. "Alexander has become a dog?" he asked incredulously.
She shrugged. "It's one of Azazel's favorite tricks when he meets humans," she explained, adding, "He was the red-skinned fae you fought. Thank you for your help."
"And you are...?" he asked.
"You may call me Mystique," she told him. She glanced down at the dog -- Alexander. "I'm sorry about your friend. He was just trying to help me."
"You cannot help him?" he asked.
"I wish I could," she said. "I owe you both." She tilted her head and regarded him. "Where do you travel?"
"We were set for King Xavier's city," he admitted. "But now, I know not. I cannot let him live like this, especially when he warned me against the forest."
Alexander barked in response.
"Continue on to the king's city!" she told him. "There is a man there you can seek out for help. He is Sir Henry, the physician to the court. Tell the guards you have a delivery from Raven for him and your path will be clear."
"But I have nothing from this Raven," Erik told her.
Mystique smiled and produced a bundle from the folds of her skirt, a pouch that smelled strongly of the forest. "These are herbs that may help Henry with his current problem," she said. "They are from Raven, meant for him."
Erik took the pouch and tucked it among his belongings. "Any other advice you have?"
She nodded. "Do not stop again until you are out of the forest and take this, to keep you safe." Again, from some magic, she held a cloak that hadn't been there before. It was garish and red, but he took it from her hands. "If you wear this, it will make you invisible," she told him. "Use it well."
Erik wrapped the cloak around him. "Thank you."
Mystique waved away his gratitude as she knelt to pat Alexander on his furry blond head. "Sorry about this," she told the dog. "I hope Hank can help you."
Just when Erik wanted to ask about her own travels, the lovely blonde woman smiled at him and shimmered until she was the blue-skinned fae that he'd saved from Azazel, somehow more lovely than she'd been a moment before. "Goodbye, Erik," she said before she disappeared in a blur, nimbly dashing away until her form melted into the shadows of the forest.
Erik didn't know how long he watched after her but then Alexander nudged against his leg, barking. "I am sorry," he told the dog. Somehow, he could see Alexander's disapproval in the dog's sad eyes. "Come along, then, let's leave this cursed place behind."
As Mystique had advised, Erik did not stop to rest again until they had joined the main road on the other side of the forest, Alexander trotting as his side. Once they were out, he removed the cloak and folded it neatly to be stowed in his bag. The next morning, they continued on, now with many people joining them as they drew closer and closer to the castle city. Finally, Erik looked ahead and saw it in the distance, the great smooth stones of the castle's turrets rising high above the jagged line of the great wall that protected the city that sprawled in the shadow of the stone fortress.
"Majestic, isn't it?" asked a woman who walked beside him, traveling as part of a trading caravan.
Erik did not answer, but he agreed. It was the most imposing thing he'd ever seen, coming from the edges of the kingdom, from villages made of mud and stick. Alexander whined at his side and Erik patted his head, not knowing what caused his enchanted friend to make such a sound.
The crowds only swelled the closer they drew to the city, as more roads merged into an even larger one. Not soon enough for the weary travelers, they slowly shuffled into the city through its massive gate, under the watchful eyes of the King's sentries.
In many ways, the great city and its throng of people were as dismaying as the fae had been in the forest, one just as foreign to Erik as the other. People paid little heed to where they stepped and Alexander jumped and pranced to save his paws, barking at more than one person who came to close to stomping on him. Erik was a little lost himself, unsure of how to find and present himself to this Sir Henry he hoped would be able to lift the enchantment on Alexander.
He eventually decided on bluntness and so approached the first member of the King's guard he met, a dark-skinned man who stood at his post near a livery. "I have a delivery from Raven for Sir Henry the physician," he told the man. "How can I find him?"
The guard looked surprised but he told Erik to follow him. "I'll take you to him," he said, glancing down at Alexander who was wagging his tail most forcefully. "You and your dog."
"What's your name?" he asked the guard.
"Armando," he replied, and Erik thanked him for his help.
Armando led them to one of the towers that dotted the edges of the castle where there waited a heavy door, studded with iron. Armando knocked on it three times before a small window at eye-level slid open and freckled face appeared.
"Armando?" the face asked. "What do you want?"
"I have a man here who says he has a delivery from Raven from Sir Henry," he said. "A soldier and his dog."
The door creaked open and the entire boy appeared, revealing an unruly mop of red hair atop the freckled face. "This is Sean," Armando said. "He'll take you to Sir Henry."
Erik thanked Armando again for his help and dragged Alexander along with him, even though the enchanted boy-turned-dog seemed reluctant to leave Armando's side. Erik and Alexander followed Sean up a winding stair until they reached another great door. Sean didn't knock or otherwise announce their presence before he pushed the door opened. "Hank!" he called out. "There's a man to see you with something from Raven."
The room Erik found himself in was scattered with books and bottles and bowls, everything he'd expect to see in a chambers of a royal physician. From behind a screen, a man appeared, far younger than he'd expected, tall and gangly and uncomfortable-looking in his court robes.
"Yes?" Sir Henry said, rushing forward. "You have something from Raven?"
Erik went to reach into his bag but then remembered why he'd come in the first place. "I do," he said. "But I've carried it as a trade, not a gift. I'll need something in payment."
"I have coin," Sir Henry said. "It won't be a problem."
Erik shook his head. "I need an enchantment lifted."
"You've been enchanted?"
He pointed at Alexander. "Until a few days ago, he was a man," he explained. "But we passed through the fae's forest..."
Sir Henry sighed. "I will try my best in return for my delivery," he said. "But the delivery cannot wait and it will be tricky to free your friend. Give me the herbs."
Erik handed him the pouch Mystique had sent along and watched as the physician eyed each bundle he removed from it. "I hope these help," he said. "Excuse me, I must brew a tea immediately."
"Tea?" Erik asked Sean. "All this for tea?"
Sean frowned. "Have you not heard? The prince is very ill, has been for months. Raven went into the fae forest to see if herbs that grow in magic can help where the ordinary haven't. That's what they're for."
"I knew none of this," Erik admitted. "But I've just come from the border war."
Sean nodded as if he was satisfied with the answer. "You and your friend-dog both?"
Alexander growled, causing the boy to laugh.
Within a few minutes, the air was filled with the pungent herbal scent of the tea the physician had brewed. He appeared a moment later with a bowl of steaming liquid. Sir Henry held it out to Erik. "Can you take this to the prince, please? I usually spend this time of day at his bedside but I need to stay here and look into your friend's problem."
"I'm to play nursemaid to an ailing prince?" Erik asked, not happy with the idea.
"He just needs someone to talk to," Henry said. "Consider it an extension of your delivery duties."
Erik glanced down at Alexander and sighed. "Very well," he said, taking the bowl.
"Sean will show you the way," Henry told him. "But -- before you go, do you know anything of the fae that cursed your friend?"
"The other fae I met called him Azazel," he said. "He was red-skinned and could disappear into the air."
"Azazel," Henry groaned, as if he knew of him. "I should've guessed. I'll see what I can do for your friend."
They moved slowly in deference to the healing tea that Erik carried, but Sean led him and Alexander further up into the tower until they reached a room at the very top. At this door, Sean knocked and announced himself. "It's me, Sean, your highness," he called. "With a visitor."
A muffled voice bid them to enter and they did, Erik trying not to look as struck by the majesty of the room as he had been by the castle city itself, but the room was luxurious, hung with velvet and silks. A huge bed commanded much of the room and there amid its fine blankets and pillows rested who Erik presumed was the ailing prince. The young man, no older than Erik, looked ill, unnaturally pale and languid against his pillows, but the prince's blue eyes were bright and piercing, warning Erik that whatever physical infirmary ailed the prince, his mind was not touched.
"Who's this?" the prince asked, not commanding, just curious. "I was expecting Hank."
"Erik," Erik said, stepping forward, offering the bowl. "Your physician sends this."
The prince eyed the bowl but took it with no complaint, though he grimaced after the first drink of the pungent broth. "One of Hank's miracle brews, I take it?"
"Raven sent the herbs," Sean told him. "From the forest."
The prince managed a smile for them. "I thank you both." He took another sip. "Does this mean I will not be seeing Hank this afternoon?"
"The physician is working on something," Erik explained, unable to stop a glance to where Alexander loitered near the door. "I believe I've been sent in his place, your highness."
The prince's smile got a little wider. "Then, I beg you, please call me Charles," he told him. "And I hope you play chess."
Erik did play, something he'd picked up as a young man, and soon found himself in the middle of a game with the prince. After he'd set up the board, Sean had disappeared, leaving Erik alone with the other man. He'd been uncomfortable at first, but soon realized that the prince -- Charles -- acted nothing like he would expect a prince to act. Despite his illness, Charles was pleasant and charming, even though it was obvious that he tired easily. More than once during their game, he would drop his hand from his chess piece and lay his head against his pillows, eyes closed.
"Your highness?" Erik asked, unsure of what to do.
"I apologize," he said. "I've taxed myself more than I realized."
"I could leave you to rest."
"And rob me of your company and that of your handsome canine companion?" Charles managed to smile. "The game can always be finished later. But I would not mind some conversation, particularly if you do most of the talking."
"What would you like me to talk about?"
Charles settled more heavily against the mound of pillows. "Tell me about yourself. I want to know everything that you're willing to share."
Erik had no great secrets, so he did as the prince bid, speaking to him of his childhood in a village that no longer existed, of his younger years as a soldier, of the end of the war he passed as a Captain among the army. Charles nodded along and offered a murmured comment where he could, painfully sympathetic for Erik's misfortunes.
"It was a long time ago," Erik said at Charles's sadness over his village's destruction.
"I wish it had never happened," Charles said. "So many lives ruined for such a thing as war."
"You'll not have wars to defend your kingdom when you are king?"
Charles's smile was sad. "I think there is great doubt I will live to be king."
He had only known him a handful of hours, but Erik did not like the thought. "Surely your physician will find a way."
"Hank is brilliant," Charles agreed. "But there was some things that not even he can change."
It wasn't long after that that Sean came to clear away the half-finished chess game and bring the prince a meal that he was barely able to eat. Sean had brought something for Erik as well and he ate it in silence, watching as the prince gave up after a few sips of his broth.
"Hank told me to tell you that you can stay in his spare rooms if you'd like," Sean offered as the three of them -- Sean, Erik and Alexander -- shuffled out of the prince's chambers. Sean glanced back toward the prince as he held the door open. "He hoped you wouldn't mind sitting with the prince for a few more days. It's..." He shook his head, dropping his voice to add, "He doesn't think he has much longer and..."
Erik looked back to where the prince lay sleeping, dark hair falling over his pale forehead. "I don't mind," he said. "As long as he keeps his bargain about Alexander."
Sean nodded. "You can discuss it with him. I'll take you down to him."
It was in that way that Erik became the companion of an ailing prince, though spending his days with Charles was not a true hardship. Between searching for new medicines to help ease Charles's pain and heal him of his illness, Henry focused on trying to find the charm that would counteract the fae curse on Alexander.
"It's not as easy for me as it if for them, you know," Henry said when Erik expressed dismay that he'd made no progress. "Even with fae blood in me, I'd need a wand, made from one of the ancient trees of the fae kingdom to harness magic like they do. But since I'll never have one of those, I'm forced to go to extraordinary measures for a fraction of the same result."
So Erik tried to be patient and he hoped Alexander understood the need as well, trapped as he was in the body of a dog. He seemed more at ease than Erik did sometimes, happily curling up next to Charles on the bed some of the afternoons Erik spent with the prince, which Erik thought was rather shameless of him. But Charles seemed to enjoy petting him while they played chess, so Erik said nothing. More often than not, however, the dog whined to be released into the city where he would find his way to Armando's side. The guard didn't mind, so on this Erik was silent as well.
None of the time he spent with Charles changed his first opinion of the prince, that he was intelligent and polite with a wicked humor that peeked out now and then. Erik often found himself wishing he had known Charles the year before, before the mysterious illness had taken hold and stripped him of almost everything.
"I miss it," Charles said on the third or fourth day, when Erik asked him. "I cannot even walk, but before this, I could do anything. Walk, run, train with the guards. Now, I can't even go outside."
"Surely that could be arranged if you miss it so much," Erik said. "You have the kingdom at your disposal."
"I'm already a great burden on everyone, including you," Charles said. "There's no need to add to the work with frivolous requests."
Just as Erik had told Charles of his life before they met, Charles returned the favor, though it was a very different life. A childhood spent in a castle, with his sister and cousin as his only real companions. He'd studied a great many things Erik only dimly understood, even though his own mother had taught him his letters before the war. Charles was delighted by that fact and sometimes asked Erik to read to him when he was too fatigued for chess or conversation.
"What exactly is wrong with the prince?" he asked Henry one evening after they'd left Charles to rest.
"I don't know," Henry said unhappily. "One day he was hale and hearty and then he just...collapsed. He grew weaker and weaker until he was as he is now. After the first few months, Raven left to search for a cure, despite the Queen's protests. She still searches, but so far nothing has worked."
"It sounds like Alexander's curse," Erik pointed out. "Has Charles angered the fae?"
"If he has, his end is all but assured," Henry said, still unhappy. "Just as my progress is slow with Alexander, it would be even more to cure a malady like Charles's if it were caused by magic."
Of course, Erik was no physician and knew very little of fae and magic, so he did not know if Charles's illness really could be blamed on magic, but he knew that even after only a handful of days in his company, he did not want to see the prince continue to suffer as he did, let alone die from whatever pained him. As little regard as Erik had for those in control of the kingdom, he could almost believe that Charles would be the exception if he had the chance.
One evening, long after everyone else in their cloistered little tower had went to sleep, Erik wandered the winding staircase, trying to decide how easily he thought it would be for himself and Sean to carry the prince to tower's small courtyard garden where he might enjoy a few hours of sun. It seemed like such a simple thing for the prince to want that Erik did not see the harm in trying to give it to him.
As he stood near the prince's door, counting the steps and judging the strength he'd need, Erik paused because he thought he heard voices on the other side of it. Charles's, he recognized, but there was another that Erik had not heard before among the voices of those who visited the prince. Without thought, he leaned in and tried to listen but could make out nothing more than noise through the heavy wood. After a moment, it went silent and Erik waited for a few moments but when he heard nothing else, he headed back down the stair.
He might've thought he imagined it all, if it hadn't been accompanied by the strange and unmistakable sting of sulfur in the air.
The next morning Erik asked the prince about it but he feigned ignorance, both of the voices and of the sulfur smell.
"Perhaps I was talking in my sleep?" Charles suggested as he made his move on the chess board.
"You throw voices in your sleep as well?" Erik asked dryly.
"I do a great many things in my dreams that I cannot do in the light of day," Charles pointed out. "Perhaps voice throwing is just another of my many skills."
Erik couldn't ignore the pang he felt at Charles's words, knowing that so much was closed off from the prince. Other than Erik, Sean, and Henry, Charles's visitors were few -- Armando and a few other of the guards came by sometimes, as well as a maid to tend the room. And once, the Queen herself had come, but had left after only moments, overtaken with tears.
"I do not blame Moira," Charles had said of his cousin, who had ruled the kingdom since Charles's father death a few months into Charles's illness. She was only regent, as long as Charles lived, but no one expected him to recover to take the throne back from her. "Reigning is not easy and we were close. It's much easier to think of me as I once was than as what I am."
"Today, I have a surprise," Erik said once the game was finished and the board cleared away. "For you."
Charles raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"
"As soon as Sean appears," he promised. "Which should be soon."
Charles tried to tease the surprise out of him while they waited for the young apprentice, but Erik would not divulge it. Still, as soon as Sean opened the door to the prince's chambers and flashed a grin in Erik's direction to which Erik responded by wrapping as many blankets as he could around Charles's prone form, the prince was clever enough to discover their intent.
"Erik," he admonished, even as he instinctively slung an arm around Erik's neck as he lifted him in his arms. "I told you this was unnecessary."
The prince was heavy, but lighter than Erik had expected, which was a sorrow of its own. "Henry says it's been half a year since you could walk on your own," he said. "I think a trip outside is long overdue."
Charles stopped his protests once Erik had him half-way down the tower, Sean hovering in case Erik had overestimated his own strength. However, Erik carried the prince to the courtyard unaided, where Sean had hauled a chair and ottoman for Charles to rest in. Once he was settled, it was obvious to Erik and Sean how much he'd missed being outside, both of them ignoring the slight tremble in the prince's hand as he used it to brush the hair out of his eyes as he tilted his face up, like a flower seeking sun.
Alexander bounded across the courtyard, chasing birds and butterflies, enjoying his canine form so much that Erik wondered again if his friend's mind was fading away after weeks trapped in the curse. Henry didn't seem to think it was a possibility, but Erik had learned that the physician's mind was not like his own, except on the question of their concern for Charles.
Erik did not realize that Charles was speaking to him, until he felt the prince's hand touch his to gain his attention. "What?"
"I just wanted to thank you for this," Charles said, face soft and smile bright. "This is wonderful, Erik. Truly."
Erik dismissed the prince's effusive gratitude but stayed close for the few hours they spent outdoors, glad to see a glimmer of what Charles must've been like before. His smile was a little brighter, his laughter a little louder, and Erik again found himself wishing with everything he was that he'd been there a year earlier when he might have found a way to spare the prince of his torment.
After their busy day, Erik had expected his sleep to be sound, but it wasn't; instead, he found himself on the stairs again, just outside of Charles's chambers. Again, just near midnight, he thought he heard voices and smelled sulfur on the air. This time he knocked on the door and called out for Charles but received no answer. He tried to open it, but remembered that Sean locked it each night when he settled Charles for bed. Erik was half-tempted to wake the boy to demand entrance that very minute but Erik held back. As a soldier, he'd learned to listen to his instincts and those instincts told him there was something amiss, but he'd also learned to bide his time. He would wait and see.
It wasn't until the sun was creeping up in the eastern sky that Erik heard noise again from within Charles's chambers, the same two voices, along with the sound of movement around the room. He strained to hear more but it quieted after a moment or two, leaving him with little new information. He was on his way back to his own chambers before anyone found him at the prince's door when he caught sight of something out of one of the small windows that lined the tower's walls, something that made his blood go cold. Just in the distance, he saw a dark figure that looked as if it had a tail. When Erik blinked, the figure was gone and he finally recalled where he'd smelled that distinctive sulfur smell before.
Erik was convinced that Charles was not telling him -- them -- something, something that had to do with his nightly visit by a fae that Erik suspected might be Azazel, the one he'd fought in the forest. So instead of asking the prince directly about it, Erik decided to try something else.
"Do you object to me staying with you all night?" Erik questioned over their daily chess game.
He startled Charles so badly that the prince almost upturned the board. When Erik glanced up, Charles's eyes were wide, confused, but maybe a little hopeful as well. "Erik," he said, voice lower and rougher than usual. "I...you must know that given my condition, that as much as I appreciate your company, I..."
The prince's stumbling answer made Erik replay the question in his mind and he realized what he'd said. "No, I meant --" he broke off, trying to ignore the thoughts it reminded him of, the ones he had late at night in his room, when his body ached for release and his heart desperately wished he did not notice the way Charles grew fainter and fainter with each passing day. "I only meant that I worry you are too lonely by yourself. There is more than enough room for my cot to be brought up here. I could remain and keep you company once everyone's gone to bed."
"I do appreciate your company, but it's not necessary," he said. "It's enough that you spend as much time with me as you do. I wouldn't ask for more."
"I don't mind," Erik insisted, but Charles was surprisingly firm on the topic, which meant Erik would have to try another tact if he wanted access to the prince's bedchambers to see if there were really a fae coming to visit him in the night. And, given what that fae had done to Alexander and had tried to do to Mystique, he doubted any design Azazel had on Charles was not nefarious in nature.
The thought of Mystique was what reminded him and Erik excused himself to run to his room, where he removed the garish red cloak from his bags. He carried it over to the small looking glass that Henry provided with the room and watched in amazement as he slipped it over himself and his reflection disappeared as if he'd never stood there.
Erik tugged it from his shoulders and held it in his hands, a plan forming in his mind.
Charles seemed distracted and more easily tired for the rest of the day, so it was simple for Erik to bid him an early goodnight, after which he retrieved the cloak from his room. He threw it over his shoulders and went to wait in the tower just outside of Charles's chambers for Sean to come up and help the prince settle for the evening. Sean didn't see him as he threw the door open, and he didn't notice that Erik slipped into the chambers behind him.
"You've been quiet day," Sean observed of Charles as he smoothed the covers over the prince and reached to dowse all the candles but one. "Are you feeling worse?"
"No worse than usual," Charles told him. "I've had...things on my mind. But thank you for asking."
With everything tidy, Sean turned to leave while Erik made sure he was as unobtrusive as possible, tucked into a corner under his cloak. "Is there anything else, your highness?"
"Sean, do me a favor, please?"
"When I'm gone," and Erik could see Sean's stricken expression at the matter-of-fact way Charles spoke of it. "Please, make sure that Erik is...all right. I've already made sure that he's to receive compensation for his time but please, make sure that he fares well."
"I'll do my best but it's a hard promise to keep," Sean said. "Erik, he's not one for coddling or even much talking, except to you."
Charles laughed a little. "I suppose he's not," he agreed. "But I feel better knowing you'll try. Thank you, Sean."
Erik tried not to think about why Charles's mind was so lately preoccupied with his imminent death, although it was something they all knew was coming much more quickly than they were prepared to accept. He had never imagined another loss could hurt as much as watching his family and his village ravaged by the flames of war, but watching Charles fade away was close, an ache that he knew would remain with him all his days. Erik would not recover from the wounds it would leave on his heart.
As Erik watched, Charles drifted off to sleep and Erik was in danger of following him into slumber, lulled there by the darkness of the room and the soothing sounds of the prince's deep breathing. Just as Erik could feel himself slipping into it, there was a crack of sound and that sulfur scent pervaded the room, thrusting Erik back into wide-eyed alertness under his cloak.
It had the same effect on Charles. "Azazel," he said, greeting the red-skinned fae where he stood by the prince's bedside. "Time again, yes?"
"Come along, my prince," Azazel said, holding out his hand.
Charles sighed and took it, struggling as he pulled himself to the edge of the bed, swinging his useless legs over the side. "You know I'll need a bit more help," he reminded Azazel who held out his other hand in response.
Erik used the others' distraction to creep out of his hiding place. He watched as Charles struggled to his feet, using his hold on Azazel's hands as balance.
"Ready?" Azazel asked, idly wrapping his tail around one of Charles's ankles.
Charles sighed again. "As I must be," he said. "Let us be off, then."
Erik realized almost a breath too late what they intended and almost missed his chance to join them as Azazel disappeared into air with Charles in tow. However, his reflexes were battle-honed enough that he reached out just in time and touched his fingers to Charles's arm so that he disappeared with them.
It left a strange sensation in the pit of his stomach, to travel as he had by magic, but Erik made sure to hold tight to his cloak as an entirely new world melted into existence around him. He dropped his hold on Charles's sleeve, watching as the prince shivered a little.
"Cold, my prince?" Azazel asked.
"Just...never mind," Charles said. "It is nothing."
Erik wasn't sure where to keep his attention because there were so many things around him. They stood in the courtyard of a glittering palace that looked like it was made of moonstone as it glowed in its iridescent light, as bright as the sun against the blue-black of the night. The flowers and shrubs of the courtyard shone similarly, some translucent and glittering, and the air was heavy with a perfume Erik could not name. Just outside of the ring of the courtyard, Erik could see three giant trees clustered together, each magnificent in its own right: one had branches that looked to be of gold and the next of silver; the last, looked to be made of diamond, with ruby-like leaves dripping from its curved branches.
But even more extraordinary was the sight that met Erik's eyes when he turned back to Charles and Azazel, because the man he saw there was his prince, and yet not. The Charles now standing at Azazel's side was far from the ill prince he conversed with, standing tall and strong without any aid, his skin still fair but flushed with health. His dark, wavy hair shone in the strange light of the palace and its magic garden, and his eyes were even more startlingly blue, a color echoed in the fine clothes he now wore, made of gleaming silks and satins. Azazel looked as he always had, red-skinned and dressed in dark robes, but he held a pair of shackles in his long-nailed hands.
Charles gave him a look but held out his arms when Azazel asked for them. Once the chains were clasped around Charles's wrists, Azazel led Charles toward the palace, Erik following at a safe distance in their wake.
The corridors of the palace were even more magnificent than its exterior, so much so that Erik lacked the words to describe the opulence, even to himself. The beings -- obviously fae -- that surrounded him were just as breath-taking and otherworldly, dressed in the same dazzling attire Charles had mysteriously acquired. Erik had to work hard to avoid a collision with one of the many bodies he passed, but he managed to follow Azazel and Charles into a grand hall commanded by a dais where set two great thrones, one in silver and one in gold.
Each throne was occupied, one by a woman dressed in a gown so blindingly white that it almost hurt to look at her, especially when it offered little contrast to her alabaster skiin, seafoam-white hair or her cool gaze. The man at her side wore a great gold crown upon his head and was dressed in claret trimmed in gilt, as darkly vibrant as his companion was lightly ethereal.
While Azazel led Charles toward the regal couple, Erik hid himself into a far corner so that he could listen and watch without detection.
A woman with wings like a dragonfly stood at the bottom of the dais and she announced in a clear voice, "And so he comes -- Prince Charles Xavier of the human realm."
"My lady," Charles said with a nod at the woman, then "My lord," and a nod at the man. "May I wish the White Queen and the Black King a good evening?"
"Good evening, human prince," the White Queen said with a slight smile. "We hope we might find you well."
"As well as I can be in your bondage," Charles said, lifting his hands to remind them of his shackles.
"Your bondage will end within a week's time," the Black King said. "Surely you'll be glad?"
"To begin my imprisonment here?" Charles laughed, sharp and unpleasant. "I would rather suffer the torment as I do now with my friends and family than to suffer none here. You know that."
"You alone chose to sacrifice yourself to spare the suffering on your kingdom," the Black King told him. "Your year is almost up and you'll be ours entirely."
"I know," Charles said. "But again I stand here and ask for mercy for all humans in the adjacent kingdoms, not just the ones of my own."
"Do you not believe in justice?" the White Queen asked. "Do you not believe that the humans who ravaged our lands and hunt our kind need to be punished?"
"I do believe in justice," Charles said. "But I don't believe in annihilation. Not every human is guilty."
"For almost two decades of human time, your kingdom and your enemy's waged a war on the edge of our land, tainting our forest and our magic with human violence and blood," said the Black King. "Humans are a brutish race, hardly fit to share this land with us."
"We ended the war," Charles said. "Myself and my cousin, we made sure it ended, as part of our agreement. I have upheld mine, now I ask you to do the same."
"We will do as we promised," the White Queen said. "We will spare any among the mortals with fae ancestry out of deference to our own, and for another decade will your kingdom remain untouched. But that is all we promised and all we shall do."
"How can you condemn an entire race on the actions of a few?" Charles demanded. "I can equally love and hate both humans and fae because everyone is their own person and should not be valued or devalued by what others do."
The Black King sighed. "I hope you will learn to speak of other things when you come to live among us, my prince. Azazel? Take our guest to one of the antechambers."
Erik was alarmed by the Black King's dismissive tone and he almost stumbled in his haste to keep up with wherever Azazel was leading Charles, barely able to slide inside the room behind the prince before Azazel pulled the door shut.
He stood near the door and watched as Charles paced around the sumptuous room, unfazed by the feast laid out before him. Erik was more enamored of the sight of Charles in his fine clothes, elegant and energetic where he was usually so listless. Here, Charles's body reflected the robustness of his mind, unfettered by his physical infirmary.
Erik wasn't certain if he should reveal himself to Charles or not but after several minutes of silence, he could not bear it any longer.
"Charles," he whispered, pulling the cloak from around him as he watched Charles turn his way in surprise.
"Erik?" Charles asked incredulously. "What are you...?" When he saw the red cloak in Erik's hands, the question changed. "Where did you get that?"
"I saved a blue-skinned fae from Azazel in the forest on my way to your city," he said. "She gave it to me in reward and asked me to bring herbs to your physician."
"Blue...?" Charles shook her head. "Did she give you her name?"
"She called herself Mystique," Erik supplied and Charles snorted.
"Raven," he said. "She's my sister."
"Your sister is a fae?" Erik asked. He gestured to the room around them. "What is this, Charles? Why are you here? Why are you well when you are?" Before he could stop himself, he reached for Charles's wrists and wrapped his hands around them, just below the shackles. "And why do you wear these?"
Charles glanced uneasily at the door. "I don't know when they'll be back. Please, put the cloak on. I'll answer your questions but I won't risk you."
Erik didn't like the idea but he saw the practicality of it. He kept one hand around Charles's wrist, though, so that he would know he was there, even when he couldn't see him. "Well?" he demanded.
"Almost a year ago to the day, I encountered the White Queen and the Black King," he explained. "They had come to me, demanding that we end our human war that caught their people in the crossfire and said that we would be punished for it. I agreed to the end the war but I offered myself in trade if they would spare my people. They agreed and gave me one year to end the war and prepare myself for my imprisonment."
"So you are cursed," Erik realized. "Not ill."
"As my time grows closer, I become more and more tied to this land and not my own," he admitted. "But I do not want to leave, so I've lingered longer than they expected. Ever since I've begun my last month of my freedom, they have started to call me to court every night, for what reason I know not. Sometimes it's like tonight; on others, I'm not allowed to speak, only allowed to sit and watch the procession. It amuses them, I suppose."
"So these shackles are because you are a prisoner here?" Erik asked, letting his thumb brush over the skin at the edge of the shackles.
"Exactly," Charles said. "But even with my agreement, you heard them -- they want to kill all the humans in the kingdom and in the other ones that border their forest. For years, they've worked to convince the others of their kind to agree to this and the war -- that useless, useless war my father started -- did it. And there's nothing I can do to stop them, it seems."
"Why haven't you told anyone?" Erik demanded. "If Henry had had a year, perhaps he could've broken the curse." The real question was why Charles hadn't told him, but he could not voice it that way.
"I couldn't," Charles told him. "I was sworn to silence as part of our bargain. I've only been able to tell you because you're here, where the terms of my silence were not set as part of the agreement. I knew it would be difficult but I hoped...I had hoped that they would be persuaded to spare the humans but they have not."
"So you sacrificed yourself for nothing," Erik said.
"I've bought my kingdom another ten years," he argued. "Now that you know, you can tell Henry and maybe..."
"You cannot let yourself fulfill this bargain, Charles!" Erik countered, still gripping his wrist. "You cannot give yourself up like this."
Charles's eyes were unbearably blue as he smiled at Erik. He reached up with one hand, still fettered by the shackles, and pushed away the cloak so that he could see Erik's face and look into his eyes. "I will miss you, too, my friend," he said softly. "Knowing you these last weeks...it has made me regret my end more than anything."
It was a strange sensation, the warmth of Charles's fingers against his face and then the chilly touch of the metal shackles, but Erik felt as if his whole world was aflame because he could finally see an answering desire to his own in Charles's gaze, in the way the prince leaned in, eyes tracing every line of Erik's face. Erik's hand found its way to Charles's hair and he moved, too, closer, until....
The sweep of the door opening made them jerk apart as Charles jumped to his feet and moved toward it, giving Erik time to wrap himself more fully in the cloak. But when Charles gasped, "Raven?" and made a muffled noise that sounded like he'd been hit with something, Erik didn't even think about his cloak before he turned to see what had happened.
It was the blue woman he'd saved from Azazel and she had her arms around the prince like she never wanted to let go. "What are you doing here?" Charles asked.
"I wanted to see you," she sniffed, and Erik realized she was crying. "I'm trying to fix this, I swear but I'm..." She trailed off when she noticed Erik, still seated on the bench, looking at her. "It's you!"
Charles turned to look at Erik as well. "I've learned I have you to thank for our acquaintance."
"Azazel turned his friend into a dog!" she exclaimed. "I knew Hank would help if he could and I owed him something for his trouble."
"Why was he chasing you in the first place?" Erik asked. And to Charles, "You never explained how your sister is a fae."
Raven, or Mystique, looked sour as she answered. "Everyone knows I'm trying to help Charles. While I can't be punished for helping him, I can be thwarted."
"And your sister is a fae, how?" he asked Charles again.
"Many of the humans in the kingdoms that neighbor this fae forest have some fae ancestry, but not usually enough to cause one to have magic," Charles explained. "But there are ways to awaken that magic. One is to eat fae food, which is what happened to Raven."
"It was an apple," she said. "I was scared and lost and I found it. I didn't know that I shouldn't have. Then I woke up and I looked like this."
"Raven can look like anyone," Charles supplied. "But this is now her natural form." Charles embraced her again. "Speaking of which, you need to leave before someone catches you. You're not supposed to be here with me and the White Queen now only allows you because she has to."
If anything, she clung more tightly. "I'll keep trying."
"I know you will," he said. "But I'd be happier if you worked on trying to save the kingdom, love."
"My favorite human first," she vowed. Then with a quick wave at Erik, she hurried out of the door.
Erik glanced at the repast laid out before them. "Have you ever been tempted?"
"To eat the food," Erik said. "See if you have fae magic."
Charles shook his head. "If you're completely human and you eat it? You'll be enslaved to the fae for all eternity. I've been trying to avoid that fate."
"More like you haven't," Erik told him.
Charles looked as if he were willing to argue the point more, but then they heard the door begin to open once again, so they lapsed into silence. It was Azazel, coming to fetch Charles -- and Erik -- back to the mortal realm for the evening. Now that Charles knew of his presence, it was easier for Erik to hold tight to his arm to be carried away by Azazel's magic, though it was difficult to remain hidden when he watched Charles collapse into the ill, wrecked man he was used to seeing. As soon as Azazel disappeared once again, Erik threw off the cloak and hurried to help him back into bed.
"It's always difficult, coming back," Charles said with a grimace.
"This shouldn't be happening," Erik told him. "You must fight this."
"If I break the bargain, every human in this kingdom will die," Charles panted, looking even more frail to Erik's eyes now that he'd seen him in his element.
"They'll just die next week instead of ten years from now," Erik said. "Hardly much difference, really."
Charles tried to scowl at him but it was obvious he was much too weak to do so. "We'll have to argue about this in the morning," he murmured, already slipping into sleep.
As soon as he was certain that Charles was well and truly asleep, Erik headed down to Henry's chambers and roused both the physician and Sean. "The prince has been cursed by the fae," he announced without preamble. "And we've less than a week to save him from it."
"I told you that combating fae magic is not so easy," Henry reminded him after the tale had been shared. "It takes time, the thing we do not have."
Erik remembered that conversation with the physician, but he also remembered something else of it. "You said if you have a branch from the trees from which fae make their wands, it would quicken the process?"
"Yes, it may," he agreed.
"Wouldn't you need a bit of fae blood as well?" Sean asked.
Henry glanced down at his toes, barely visible beneath his voluminous robes. "That is the least of my concerns," he finally said. "The wood is what I cannot obtain."
"These ancient trees, they grow in a grove near the fae palace?" Erik asked.
Henry looked at him with suspicion. "That is what the lore tells me, but I've never seen for myself."
"And if I can get you a branch from one of these trees?"
"I should be able to return Alexander to his true form," Henry said. "Charles is another matter. If he's made a bargain with them, as you say, that can only be broken by breaking the contract."
"I will get you this branch tomorrow night," Erik vowed. "Until then, think of ways we may save the prince."
Erik had very little sleep that night, as it was near light before he made it to his own bed. He rose later than usual and endured Alexander's compellingly human gaze until he sent him off with Armando for the day. He, on the other hand, went straight to Charles's chambers once he was dressed. The prince was still sleeping, deeply but uneasily, and Erik wondered what the prince's dreams were really like, counting down every day to the end of his life as he knew it.
Erik also thought of the moment they'd almost shared before Charles's sister had come upon them, the moment during which he'd been sure that Charles had wanted to be kissed as much as Erik had wanted to kiss him. It was heady feeling, tempered only by the fear he'd had since he first accepted that his friend was slipping away.
When Charles finally awoke, Erik was already there, sitting on the edge of his bed. He blinked his eyes a few times as if he wasn't prepared to find Erik watching him emerge from slumber.
"I assume this means that I did not dream your inclusion in my evening with their majesties," Charles said, voice rough with sleep.
"You dream of me?" Erik asked, a jest.
Charles touched his hand where it lay near his knee. "Often, my friend."
Sean brought them both breakfast and they ate in companionable silence. There was so much Erik wanted to express, to say to his friend, but he had little idea of where to start. Finally he set away his bowl and said, "I plan to return with you tonight if Azazel comes for you."
"It's dangerous," Charles told him. "There's no reason to risk yourself again."
"I have every reason, but only two are important," Erik told him. "Your physician tells me that a branch from one of the trees in the courtyard may allow him to return Alexander to his true form."
"I would like to meet him when he can actually speak," Charles said. He looked at Erik. "And your second?"
"I will do everything in my power to save you, Charles, even if you will not save yourself." With no sister to burst in, Erik took advantage of their solitude to lean in and capture Charles's lips with his own. He kept the caress soft and undemanding, as gentle as he could manage when he wanted nothing more than to coax Charles into his arms with hard, fervent kisses.
"Your manner of persuasion is very effective," Charles smiled, looking as regretful as Erik felt that they broke apart. More seriously, he said, "You must be careful, Erik. If the Queen and the King were to catch you..."
"I am used to danger and taking care of myself," Erik told him. "You do not have to worry about me."
They tried to play a game of chess but their minds were elsewhere, both still fatigued from their time spent at the fae palace. After the midday deal, Charles fell asleep and Erik joined him, stretched on the other side of the massive bed. He thought that Sean or even Henry would say something about it when they came up later to see Charles, but Erik saw only understanding in their eyes. It reminded him that he would not be the only one who would suffer if Charles were lost forever to the White Queen's whims.
When night fell, Erik collected his cloak and wrapped himself in it, then dragged his chair into the corner he'd used the evening before. From there, he watched Charles sleep and waited for Azazel's arrival.
Again, near midnight, the fae appeared in a flash of smoke. And, like the night before, Charles came awake with the sound.
"You would think that your rulers could wait a few days for my company," Charles murmured as he worked himself up to stand with Azazel for the journey. It was painful to watch him struggle but Erik did not help him, as much as he wanted to. He simply gripped Charles's elbow as he had the night before and disappeared in the same flash that transported the fae and the prince.
Not distracted by the great trees or the glittering palace, Erik was able to watch intently as Charles regained himself once he was in the fae lands. His finery appeared with a wave of Azazel's hands and then Erik watched as Azazel clamped on the silver shackles. It was strange but exhilarating for Erik to follow at a safe distance, watching this strong, stately version of the sickly man he'd come to care for so desperately.
The evening was much like the one before, though Charles was not allowed to speak as much. Instead, the Black King had him stood to one side of the court, obviously placed on display liked a prized pet. Charles did not bend under the frank and mocking gazes of the fae court; he remained tall and proud, his blue eyes -- still more striking than even the fae around him -- steady and calm. It made Erik angry to watch but he held his temper tightly, wanting to do nothing to jeopardize himself, Charles or his chance to save Alexander.
After what felt like days spent in the fae court, Azazel was dismissed to return Charles home to his kingdom and Erik followed closely. They had discussed this beforehand and Erik knew he only had a few moments to steal a branch from the ancient grove while Charles distracted Azazel. There were three massive trees, all there for his taking and Erik studied each in turn. One was like gold, one like silver, but it was the last one, the diamond-like branches with the ruby leaves that caught his attention. With one eye trained on where Charles struggled against Azazel as he tried to remove the shackles, Erik broke off a diamond branch, still heavy with red foliage, and tucked it carefully under his cloak.
"I'm sorry but they were very ill-fitting tonight," Charles was saying as Azazel growled at him. "Honestly, I've been very accommodating when I'm not being so roughly handled."
Erik touched his hand, still hidden under the robe, against Charles's back, a signal that he was there. The fight went out of him with that reassurance and it only took a few more minutes more before they were back in Charles's tower room.
The robe and the branch were forgotten in Erik's haste to help Charles settle back into bed as his strength faded again.
"They are cruel to do this to you," Erik said as he held him in his arms, watching as Charles suffered through the sudden return of his ailments. "Crueler than they need to be when they've already claimed your life."
"They believe that all humans should bear the punishment for the worst of our kind," Charles said. "I'm sure they find the sport they have of me light, considering."
Once Charles was as comfortable as he could be, Erik fetched Sean and Henry to his side so they could look at his spoils from the fae lands. Sean lit candles while Alexander, shameless in his canine form, curled up across Charles's legs on the bed.
Erik held it up to the candlelight and they all looked on in wonder as the crystal branch and ruby leaves sparkled in the light.
"Amazing," Henry breathed, still looking. "But I don't understand."
"What?" Erik asked, still turning the branch slowly in his hand.
"There are three great trees in the ancient grove," Henry began. "Or so says the lore. One of gold, one of silver..."
"...and this one," Erik finished.
"But that one is special," Henry explained. "Its magic is tied to the royal house of the forest. It is said that only they can use them for wands and that its magic fades in another's hands."
"Clearly a fable," Erik scoffed, holding the branch high.
"So it would seem," Henry said, reaching out to take the branch from Erik. "I hope..." Whatever the physician hoped, they did not hear because his words faded away as they all watched the branch's diamond clarity turn cloudy in Henry's grip, until it looked like the muddy quartz stones found in the river beds near Erik's old home.
"Holy..." Sean muttered while Charles just said, "Hank, hand it back to Erik," which the physician did as if it were on fire. As soon as the branch returned to Erik's hand, it took on its original shimmer.
"Is there something you're not telling us about your past, my friend?" Charles asked.
He laid the branch down beside Charles on the bed. "Nothing," he said honestly. "What does it mean?"
"If Hank is right, it seems to indicate that you have fae blood -- royal fae blood," Charles surmised. "Even if he's not, it does not seem he will be able to use this branch to aid Alexander."
"I'm sorry," he told the man-in-dog-form, receiving a lick to his hand for his trouble.
"Erik, take your branch," Charles said. "It looks like you will have to try again tomorrow to help Alexander."
On the whole, Erik was glad to have another reason to accompany Charles to the fae palace because he could not bear to think about what it would be like to know that Charles was swept away from him while he remained in the tower. Still, he wished he had been able to help Alexander, and he dreaded another evening spent watching the fae court have sport at Charles's expense.
The night opened the same as it had on the first two visits, with the winged fae announcing Charles and his title before he greeted the White Queen and the Black King. The White Queen was as lovely and cold as ever, her king all pleasantness over cruelty. Erik could see it in his eyes, behind the easy smile, and he shuddered to think what the King might do to Charles once he belonged to them entirely.
"May I ask a question of your majesties?" Charles addressed the monarchs.
"Of course," the Black King with the wave of his hand. "But please, nothing about sparing the mortals again."
"Why this last war?" Charles asked, though he seemed to be focused more on the Queen than her consort. "Why was this the war made the fae decide that they could no longer suffer the brutishness of the humans? We've fought many years over the last century, on the edge of your forest."
"Does it matter?" the Black King asked but his Queen raised a hand to halt his flippant response.
"I will answer the prince's question," she said. She turned her icy eyes onto Charles and Erik did not know how he did not shudder under their weight. "Before I came to the throne, it was in the hands of my sister and her king," she explained. Erik noticed a hush had fallen over the court. "Just over thirty winters ago, she bore her heir, a male, the first in generations born to our family. As we have done for thousands of years, the child was hidden among the mortals for its protection, a changeling left in place of a stillborn of a family who lived on the edge of our lands. There we could watch him from afar, until it was safe to bring him back to us."
"Except that that village burned to the ground under the command of mortals before we could save him," she continued, rare emotion in her voice. "And with his death, so ended the eons-long rule of my family over the fae of this forest. The grief of his loss killed my sister and, when I die, I will die childless and so will my line die with me." Her eyes flashed. "All because of humans."
"There's no chance, then, that your nephew, the last of your family, somehow survived the war?" Charles asked. "That he might live among them as a mortal, condemned by your decision to slaughter entire kingdoms?"
"Those with enough fae blood will be spared," the Black King reminded him. "They will be offered the fruit of this land and a chance to accept their magic. If they do not..."
"You'll slaughter them as well?" Charles asked. "How...brutish, your highness."
For a second, something ugly passed the King's face but then he laughed instead. "I think we've amused our guest long enough this evening," he said. "Azazel, take him to his chamber."
Erik missed his chance to enter with Azazel, so he had to wait by the door until he was sure the small corridor was empty of fae before he could risk opening it to step inside.
"Erik," Charles exclaimed when he pulled the red cloak from his shoulders. "Did you hear?"
"The Queen's story?" Erik asked, laying the cloak across the bench so that he could run his hands over Charles's shoulders, reveling in the touch they could not enjoy in mortal world.
"Yes, don't you see?" Despite his focus on his words, Charles was not unaffected by Erik's touch, melting against him even as he spoke. "The male heir of the royal family, hidden away in a human home on the edge of the forest? An heir born thirty years ago?" When Erik did not seem to respond as he wanted, Charles pulled away a little. "All of that with you, who plucked a branch from the royal tree and it stilled glowed with magic. You do not see?"
Erik dropped his hands from Charles in shock of what the prince implied. "Surely, Charles, you do not believe that I am some changeling prince of the fae?"
"The stories fit together, Erik," he told him. "I've seen you hold that branch in your hand with no ill effect while it darkens at Hank's touch. Yes, given what the Queen said, I believe you are."
"I have no magic," he reminded the prince. "I am but a solider, a tired one at that."
"Just because you've been unaware of it does not mean that you are without it," Charles argued. "I believe that sometimes changeling children are so ignorant of their magic they can live years without touching it, unless it's awakened in them."
"You think your sister was a changeling and not your blood relation?" Erik realized.
"I would never tell her so," Charles said. "It would break her heart, but... that is what I believe. And I believe that the kidnappers who lost her in the fae forest were her kin come to find her again."
"That is why you've never tried to eat the fruit when it would be a simple answer to your problem," Erik told him.
"Even if I were fae, it would not save the mortals," Charles said. "But yes, I have not risked it for that reason."
He could see it in Charles's eyes and Erik hated it -- the belief, the peace the prince had made with his fate, with his enslavement to the White Queen and Black King. He reached for Charles once again, pressing a hard, demanding kiss to his mouth before letting his lips trail down to his jaw, his throat. Charles groaned and pressed against him, strong and sure, his shackled hands fisting in the fabric of Erik's simple tunic. "Stop trying to martyr yourself, damn you," Erik said against his skin. "Let me save you."
"If there were a way to have it all," Charles said, "I would do it. But my life cannot come before everyone else's, Erik, it can't."
Reluctantly Erik released him and stepped way. He meant to retrieve his cloak but instead his eyes fell on the repast laid out as before, the table heavy with fruit and nuts and sweet twisted breads, goblets of wine perched on each end of the spread. "Do you truly believe that I am the missing fae prince?" he asked Charles.
The prince nodded. "I do."
"Enough that you would let me eat this?" he said, plucking a peach from its artful placement. "Enough to let me risk a life condemned to the same slavery you've wished upon yourself?"
Charles looked at the peach in Erik's outstretched hand. "I do believe, Erik," he said. "But I..." He did not have the chance to finish because they both heard the noise outside the door that warned of approach and Erik threw his cloak over him, growing still and breathless when Azazel appeared to collect Charles. Erik followed quietly behind and wondered if any of the fae would notice the glazed sheen to Charles's eyes or the flush to his cheek that came from their stolen embrace.
Once again Charles bickered with Azazel about his shackles while Erik broke a branch from one of the ancient trees, this one made of gold. With his spoils tucked under his cloak, he held fast to Charles's sleeve once more, breathing out a sigh of relief when they were back in their tower and Azazel gone in his sulfuric cloud. Charles had not even asked Azazel for help into the bed before he'd dismissed him and Erik was the only thing that kept the prince from tumbling to the stone floor.
"It is worse every time," Erik noted as he too-easily cradled Charles in his arms and lowered him to the bed.
"It will only happen twice more," Charles reminded him faintly. "Then I will never come back." His eyes were closed as he rested against the pillows that Sean kept fluffed behind his head, sweat dotting his forehead from whatever stresses his body endured upon his return to the mortal realm.
Erik tenderly wiped the sweat away, brushing back the hair that fell across the clammy skin. "That will not happen," he told him. "I will save you."
"I believe you will try," Charles said quietly. "And that means everything to me."
Erik used his cloak to carry his fae items down to Henry's rooms where he knew the physician waited, along with Sean and Alexander. The latter two were asleep, Sean in a chair and Alexander on the rug in front of the fire.
"Well?" the physician asked.
Erik held out the golden branch, breathing a sigh of relief when it did not change in Henry's hands. "Will it work?" he asked.
"I hope so," Henry said. "Still, it will take me a few hours to prepare." Then, without another word, he disappeared into his laboratory where whatever preparations he would need to do would be completed.
Erik couldn't stop himself from kneeling to pet Alexander on his furry, golden head. "Soon, hopefully you will be doing a different kind of barking," he told the enchanted young man. "And then we'll set about finding that friend of yours."
Along with his cloak, Erik carried one other thing to his rooms: one beautiful, perfect peach from the fae lands.
The next morning, everyone but the prince gathered in the courtyard to see if Henry would do as he said and wield the magic of the fae wood to reverse Alexander's enchantment. Even Armando, though he did not know that Alexander was anything other than a friendly golden hound, had been invited to watch.
Alexander sat patiently and waited while Henry revealed what his work had created, a wand as long as his forearm shaped out of the fae wood, covered in carvings of runes and sigils that meant nothing to Erik. With the wand in one hand, he used the other to spread crushed herbs in a circle around Alexander before he stepped back, pointed the wand at him and spoke a tumbling mass of sounds that Erik supposed was a language known only by scholars and fae.
At first, it looked as if nothing were to happen and Armando opened his mouth to demand an explanation for the theatrics he'd been asked to witness, but then a wind -- not a natural one -- whipped up around Alexander, a column that blurred him from view for several seconds. When it died down, there stood the young soldier that had served so bravely at Erik's side.
"Alexander!" Armando exclaimed, as Alexander stared wonderingly at his hands.
"I'm me!" he half-shouted, half-laughed. "I can talk!" Then he looked up from beneath his unruly golden hair, grinning. "Armando."
"You were the dog!" Armando said, stepping forward. "I was beginning to worry."
"As was I, for different reasons," Alexander said.
Armando pulled the cloak from his shoulders and wrapped it around Alexander's bare form. "I thought it strange that another man's dog abandoned him so easily."
"Why do I feel like you two know each other?" Sean asked.
Alexander still grinned. "Armando was my friend who told me to come to the city after the war," he explained. "I was happy to see him when we arrived, but I couldn't explain it when I was a dog."
Henry was too busy staring in wonder at the wand he'd made to pay much attention to the others, but Erik stepped forward to clasp Alexander on the shoulder. "I am sorry that this happened to you because of me," he said. "But I'm happy that you have been restored."
"All is forgiven, Captain," Alexander assured him, as he slung an arm around Armando. "Though I have no desire to do it again!"
Erik left the young folk in the courtyard with their antics while he slipped up the stairs to see the prince. Charles was resting, with a book laid across his lap as if he'd been trying to read before he'd grown too weak to continue. It had always been painful for Erik to watch the kind prince suffer as he did but now, knowing the reason and the truth of what Charles was like without the curse's debilitation, it was that much more difficult for him to face. Still, there was nowhere else he wanted to be than at the prince's side, for however long they had together.
He gently removed the book from Charles's lax fingers and settled on the edge of the bed, one foot still against the stone floor. He quietly began to read from the page Charles had left marked, his voice soft enough that he hoped not to rouse the prince from his rest. The act was soothing to Erik, to let his mind drift away from the problems they had to face, and focus on the strange contentment he'd found in this cloistered tower in the castle city, here at the side of a man too noble and foolish to save himself.
"I am glad you learned your letters," Charles said softly, interrupting Erik's recitation. "I enjoy listening to you read."
Erik set aside the book. "I would gladly read to you every day for the next decade or two," he told him. "If you weren't so adamant on accepting your mortal death."
Charles frowned. "It is not as simple as that. My life will save so many others. Surely you, as a soldier, understand this?"
"I understand that the fae folk are cunning and cruel and that they rarely make bargains they have to keep," Erik said. "You think you've won a decade of peace with your sacrifice but mark me, it will not happen."
"You should not speak of your kin like that," Charles told him. "Like humans, fae must be judged on their own merits, not the actions of their race."
"They are not my kin," Erik argued. "No matter what you think."
"Why do you refuse to believe when the evidence is so plain?" asked Charles.
"My mother died to save me when the raids came," Erik told him, although Charles already knew. "I will not tarnish her memory by entertaining that she was not my mother."
"Accepting the truth will not diminish the love you felt for your mortal mother, any more than I love Raven less if we do not share blood," Charles said. "The Queen said your mother died of grief for the loss of you. She, too, loved you very much."
"If fae love their children so deeply then why are they left in cradles for mortals to raise?" Erik asked.
"As the White Queen said, it is for their protection," Charles said. "I have read almost as much lore on the fae as Hank has, trying to understand, to help Raven accept her fae ancestry. They are a strange people, but no more cruel by nature than humans. They love and hate and grieve, just as we do."
It was obvious that they had reached an impasse for the moment and Charles looked fatigued again, already, after so little of the customary passionate discourse. Instead Erik told him of Alexander's restoration and how he had been reunited with his friend, Armando. It made Charles smile, though there was an echo of sadness in it that gave Erik hope that Charles was not as ready to die as he seemed.
Upon Charles's instigation when the prince needed rest, Erik reluctantly sought out the young physician to tell him of Charles's ridiculous claim that Erik was the lost fae prince. Henry listened carefully to Erik as he shared the tale that the Queen had told Charles the evening before, nodding along as he opened great, heavy tomes in response to things Erik said.
"Charles's judgment is sound," Henry said, much to Erik's consternation. "The most compelling evidence is the branch -- every piece of lore I can find says that only a member of the royal family, the White Queen's family, can use the magic of the diamond branches. Your age and your home only give that fact more significance."
"I don't feel magic," Erik told him because it felt important.
"I have fae blood," Henry revealed. "Not like Raven, but some. I see it in my feet and in my prowess with herbs and medicine and science, even in my manipulation of human magic to combat the curses of the fae. But I do not feel it, Erik, because I do not embrace it. You have spent thirty years being mortal, it does not surprise me you do not feel it."
More even than Charles's words, Henry's made Erik think. He went to his room and looked at the fae peach he'd brought back with him the night before, noticing how it still felt plump in his hands, summer-ripe, even as the mortal lands were nearer winter than spring. He weighed the risk of a bite versus the loss of his prince, the prospect of living with the knowledge that Charles was a prisoner in a glittering palace for the rest of their lives, unable to save him.
When Charles next roused from slumber, Erik was again at his side, the peach held in his hand between them.
"I see you've brought a treat from the fae palace," Charles said when he noticed the peach. "Do you intend to eat it?"
"If I am fae, like you believe, then I will have something in common with my kin," Erik said, ignoring the question. "For I will die of grief if I lose you in this way."
"You must know that I would give anything to stay with you," Charles told him. "Even if I could only do so in this state I am now, it would be worth it every day, if it were with you."
Erik let his fingers trail through Charles's hair. "On your command, I will eat this," Erik revealed. "If you are that certain of my birth."
Charles looked at him for a long time, his blue eyes piercing against the sallow tinge of his skin. Finally, he spoke, lifting a hand toward the tray on the table. "Bring me the knife?"
Erik did so, frowning in concern as he watched the prince struggle to right himself against his pillows. Once he was satisfied, Charles beckoned for the knife -- and for the peach. With reservation, he relinquished both.
"I am certain you are the prince," Charles said softly as he put the knife to the peach, splitting it open. Its flesh was white and unmarred, blushed rose around the pit, and its juices ran down Charles's hand where he cradled it in his palm. He set aside the half still bearing the pit but held the other out between himself and Erik. His eyes met Erik's. "Certain enough that I will taste the fruit of the fae with no fear."
"What?" Before Erik could think, he wrapped his hand around Charles's wrist to stop him from lifting the peach to his lips. "You don't know if you have fae blood," he reminded him. "If you eat this and you do not, you will be enslaved to the fae lands for the rest of eternity."
"And you are its prince," Charles countered. "It will make little difference if it is my heart and my soul that are yours, Erik."
Erik could think of nothing to say, so he only watched with wide, pale eyes as Charles gently broke the hold on his arm and brought the peach to his mouth, his teeth sinking into its tender flesh. As Charles chewed and swallowed his bite of fruit, Erik grasped his wrist once more and brought Charles's hand and the peach to his own mouth, taking a bite even as Charles's sticky sweet fingers brushed against his lips. It tasted of sunlight and summer, sweet and yielding and bright.
Charles set aside the bitten peach-half and threaded his free fingers through Erik's. "You will see," he promised.
Erik wanted to ask how long it would take before they would know the consequences of their shared act, but he couldn't because there was a sharpness in his gut that stole his breath, made him pull away from Charles. But it was quickly replaced with a feeling of light like something warmed flowed through him, filling him with something he'd never known before but was still familiar, like something he should've known his entire life and yet hadn't.
It was, he realized dimly, still in its throes, magic.
When the first rush of it had faded enough that Erik could open his eyes, he did so, gaze seeking out Charles. The prince lay against the pillows of his bed, eyes closed and his form as still as death. Erik felt his heart squeeze painfully in his chest, a dreadful feeling that dimmed the exhilaration of the magic in his blood. But then Charles's eyes flew open and he made a wheezing gasp as he shot up into sitting position, doubling over as he continued to pant for breath.
"Charles?" Erik asked, reaching out, almost afraid to touch him.
The prince glanced his way and a smile slowly spread across his face, more brilliant than any Erik had seen before. "I am well," he said aloud, then more carefully, savoring the words. "I am well."
Erik was certain that a matching smile graced his own features as he watched Charles swing his legs over the side of the bed and stand up, as hale as he'd only seen him in the fae palace. But now he was doing so there, in his own chambers without the glittering finery of the fae around him.
It was the most beautiful sight Erik had ever seen.
"Do you feel the magic, Erik?" Charles said. "Your magic?"
"I do," he admitted, reaching for that feeling inside him. "I can..." He gathered that feeling close and then released it out of his skin like a gust of breath expelled from the body. Everything in the room rattled with the force, even the door on its hinges.
"Yes, I believe you can," Charles laughed, another sound more precious than Erik could've imagined. "And I believe I was right. You are the fae prince."
Next, Erik urged Charles to test his own magic. Though nothing rattled or shook as it had when Erik had used his, the door to the chamber burst open to reveal Henry, trying to hurry inside.
"Charles, I heard your voice in my head," Henry began. "What manner...?" He stopped when he noticed Charles on his feet, the flush of health in his cheek. "You broke the curse?"
Charles sent Erik a warm glance. "It seems I've negated the bargain," he told them. "As I no longer have a mortal life to offer the White Queen."
Henry's eyes wandered over to the peach. "You ate fae fruit," he stated, gaze turning to Erik. "So you are the prince."
"So it would seem," Erik said, letting his magic free to shake the room once more. He could feel everything around him in a way he never had before, each small bit of metal singing in his blood. He could even sense the earth, so far beneath the stone of the tower, reaching out in all directions.
"This is wonderful," the young physician said. But his expression sobered, turned pensive. "But now you must prepare."
"For what?" Erik asked.
Charles and Henry looked at each other in understanding. "Tonight, we must usurp the fae throne for its rightful heir." He reached for Erik's hand. "Come, there is much to do."
For the first time since he'd carried the prince down to the courtyard, Erik watched Charles leave his room, pulling Erik along as the three of them headed for Henry's chambers. The prince and his physician continued their discussion of what they would need to learn from Henry's books -- many, Erik now learned, were actually Charles's -- but the academic discourse was cut short when they met Sean about his duties, and the boy all but leapt to clasp Charles in happiness at seeing the prince on his feet.
"I knew you could not die," he said, voice trembling, and Erik was reminded again that he was not the only one who would've missed Charles. These young men, he realized, served Charles because he was Charles, not because he was their prince.
"I am glad of your faith," Charles told him with a smile. "I did not have much of my own until recently." He made sure his eyes caught Erik's.
"Should we inform the Queen?" Sean asked. Erik was confused until it was clear that Sean meant Charles's cousin, Queen Moira.
"Not as yet," Charles said. "There is always the chance I will still have to honor my promise to the fae."
"It will not happen," Erik promised. "I will make sure of that."
Charles's smile was teasing. "Spoken like a true prince."
There was one more conversation before they settled to prepare for their audience with the fae court that evening and it was between Charles, now well, and Alexander, now a man again. It was amusing to see that Alexander had lost none of his puppyish appreciation of Charles's attention, even in his human form, and Charles remained just as fond, even though Alexander no longer begged and whined at his feet.
Soon, however, they were all sat around the ocean of texts about the fae that Charles had lovingly amassed over the last decade of his life.
"For all your surety, how will I prove myself to the court, if I am the fae prince?" asked Erik. "Beside my magic, which many fae have and are not of royal blood."
"You could carry the diamond branch," Henry suggested.
"That does not even convince me," he told him.
"There is something," Charles said, searching the cluttered piles of opened books. "Something about the coronation of the White Queen's family." He looked at Erik over the edge of the book. "Your family."
"The scepter," Henry said, reaching for a book from a high shelf that Charles could not hope to reach even if he'd known where to look. "Made of the diamond branches and used for over 5000 years to test the veracity of fae who claim the throne." He turned the pages until he found the one he wanted and showed Erik a painted image of a crystal scepter much like the ones that mortal kings often carried, encrusted with gems.
"Yes, the scepter is the final test for one claiming the throne," Charles said. "But the fact is, I believe that the White Queen will know you as her kin with no help from magical objects. Her magic is prophetic, though it has dimmed over the last century. It's why she blames herself for your apparent death."
"How do you know this?" Erik asked.
Charles stilled, as if it had just occurred to him to wonder at his knowledge. "I'm not sure," he said at last. "I just do."
Henry studied the prince for a moment. "Perhaps your magic is prophetic as well."
It was the best answer they had for the moment, not that it mattered to Erik. He would trust Charles's word, no matter the source of his secret knowledge. Henry continued to throw bits of fae lore at him until Erik's head was spinning with things he didn't even know would serve him that evening.
He was much more comfortable with the things Charles spoke to him of, of the strategy they would use to surprise the fae court and make their claim against the throne. It reminded Erik of war, preparing for battle, and as much as he thought he'd tired of it, the thought of battle -- even one of wits and magic -- gave him a purpose he'd missed since he'd left the battlefield. Especially since he knew what he was fighting for this time.
Before they realized it, the sun was setting and Sean brought their meals to share in common in Henry's chambers, another first for the group. Everyone was buoyed by Charles's recovery, even knowing that he and Erik still faced great danger. Erik could not be as joyous as the young men, not with the fae's summons on the horizon, but he could enjoy the sight of Charles so full of life, laughing and talking with his devoted servants as he hadn't seen him before.
Even sooner than he wanted, it was time to hide in anticipations of Azazel's arrival and the pair headed to Charles's chambers alone. The prince cleared away the uneaten bits of peach, still perfect and pristine, while Erik shook out his cloak, looking at its long red folds, thinking of how grateful he was to have met Raven, Lady Mystique, in the fae forest. Even if he died that night or remained a slave to the fae, the price was not too much to pay to have met Charles, and even Hank and Sean, to have found a place he could call home after so long without one.
Erik was startled to feel Charles's arms come around him from behind, looking over his shoulder at the cloak that Erik held aloft. "Perhaps you can crown yourself the Red King," he observed, allowing his lips to brush against Erik's throat. "It is a majestic shade, to be sure."
"I believe it's too early to plan my coronation," Erik said, dropping the cloak to the chair and turning around to take Charles in his arms. "First we must prove ourselves to the court."
"We will do so and all will be well," Charles said with maddening optimism.
Erik knew debate was fruitless and wasteful, so he kissed his prince before ordering him to bed for his part of the charade. Charles reluctantly settled back in the bed that had been his entire life for almost a year, making himself go languid and weak as to fool Azazel upon his arrival. Erik wrapped his cloak around him and disappeared from sight, taking a seat in the chair he'd left in the far corner for just this deception.
As always, Azazel appeared at midnight to fetch the prince. Charles kept his movement slow and heavy on purpose and Erik watched to see if the fae noticed any difference; he did not seem to, and Erik breathed a sigh of relief as the three of them disappeared from the tower and reappeared at the fae palace with no fuss.
Azazel magicked Charles's plain clothes into fae finery and bound his wrists with the shackles, all as had happened before. Erik followed behind them toward the great hall of the fae palace, hidden by his cloak, as he had before. But it was as they reached the hall and Charles was again announced to the court, that Erik knew soon things would diverge from the course of evenings past.
He watched as Charles stood before the majestic White Queen and her Black King, even more confident in his bearing than he had been in the nights previous. For the first time, Erik saw the prince in Charles that had been weighed down by the responsibilities on his shoulders but now it shone through, left him easy and certain even as he prepared to challenge two of the strongest beings in the land.
This was the Charles that Erik had come to love, finally free from those bonds.
"Your majesties," Charles said in greeting. "A pleasure to see you again."
"After tomorrow, you will see none but us and our kin," the Black King told him. "Your year will be up and the human lands will taste our wrath at last."
"So we agreed," Charles said. "But I must tell you that our bargain is no longer valid."
The White Queen raised an eyebrow at his declaration while the Black King scoffed. "We've held our end of the bargain, so must you," she reminded him. "Do not try to plead for more time or for your freedom."
"I do not need to do either, my lady," Charles said. "For I offered you my mortal existence in exchange for my kingdom's safety. However, I have no mortal life to offer you to make such a bargain."
The Queen's eyes narrowed. "What are you saying, human prince?"
Charles raised his wrists and, with Erik's magic, the shackles fell away. "That I am not so much a human prince, your highness."
A murmur swept over the crowd as the Black King's face darkened. "You've awakened fae blood in you? How clever," he said, though he sounded as if he thought anything but. "So we will not have you as our servant but that also means that we will not have to spare your kingdom of our plans."
Erik tensed, waiting for Charles to issue the challenge that would bring him into the scene.
"I do not believe that your plans will have a chance to happen," Charles said. "So my people will be safe regardless."
The Black King laughed. "Do you plan to stop me?"
"Not as such," Charles told him. "But you will be stopped." Charles glanced around at the gathered fae nobles, then to the White Queen. "I am here today, your majesty, to make a challenge for the throne."
The crowd's earlier murmur became a gasp, voices rising and falling in surprise. The Black King's face twisted into something ugly, showing the cruelty that Erik had sensed from the first, while the White Queen's face remained impassive.
"You have no claim to the throne," she told him. "Even if you are fae, you are not of my family and have no place to offer myself or my consort challenge. Dare again and you will be punished."
Charles smiled, unafraid of a threat that made the fae around him shrink back in fear. "If I made the claim for myself, I would heed your warning but I do not. I make it in the name of another, the rightful ruler of these fae lands."
"And who do you dare believe is more fit than I?" the White Queen demanded.
Charles held his head high. "The son of your sister, the last White Queen, and the true heir to the throne." While the crowds continued to ripple with surprise, Charles turned away from the dais, searching for Erik among those gathered. He stripped himself of the cloak so that he could be seen. When Charles finally found him, his smile softened and he beckoned with an outstretched hand. "Erik."
Erik tried to ignore the disbelieving looks from the fae nobles as he strode through the hall to join Charles before the White Queen and Black King, tried to remember that Charles was sure he should be here, doing this, that the magic he had awakened in his blood told him the same. When he stood at Charles's side, Erik finally looked up at the Queen and the King, who were staring at him as he might've been a ghost come to haunt them. For the first time, he could see the White Queen's coldly beautiful features clearly and he saw that her pale, cool gaze was one he'd seen many times before that night -- one he saw every time he caught a glance of himself in a looking glass.
"Behold your nephew, White Queen," Charles declared, his voice strong and commanding, perhaps touched with his magic. "Called Erik by the mortals who raised him, he survived the destruction of his village and became a soldier on the line. Now he has found his way here, to his family, to his true destiny."
"I..." the White Queen said. "It can't..."
"This is nonsense," the Black King said, glaring at Charles. "My Queen warned you would be punished for this." The King raised his hand, fire at his fingertips, but Erik did the same, channeling his magic to grab hold of the bits of gold around the King's ringed fingers, forcing his arm immobile. The King looked surprised and the fire faded from his hand even as he tried to break Erik's hold.
"You'll not harm him," he said. "Try again, Black King, and I'll remind you again."
Charles gave Erik one of those warm looks before he focused once more on the Queen. "My lady," he began gently, with sympathy. "I know the pain you felt for your sister's death, for your nephew's. He has come home and it is your duty to recognize him, welcome him and return to him his birthright."
For the first time in all their audiences, Erik saw the White Queen rise from her throne.
"Emma," the Black King said, almost a warning, but she dismissed him with a wave of her hand.
"Angel," she said, and the winged fae snapped to attention. "Fetch me the scepter." As the fae hurried to do her queen's bidding, the Queen herself descended the dais in a floating cloud of blinding white silk. She approached Erik steadily, her eyes never leaving his. "Do you know why I call for my scepter?"
"It is a test," Erik said. "Of my claim."
"And will you pass?"
"I am not sure," he admitted, refusing to flinch under her gaze. "The only family I knew was the one who raised me and died for me in a village just on the northern edge of your forest."
"Yet you have magic," she said.
" I never knew magic until yesterday when I tasted the fruit of your lands and felt it sweep over me for the first time," he told her. "But it was more right than almost anything I've felt before in my entire life."
"Almost?" There was something in the word that, on someone else, Erik might've called humor.
"Almost," he repeated, aware of Charles still at his side.
"We have heard of the scepter in our lands," Charles finally spoke again. "But I believed that your magic was great enough that you would know regardless."
She nodded at Charles, then turned back to Erik. "With your permission?"
Erik was surprised that she asked beforehanrd but he agreed, watching as she narrowed her eyes and locked her gaze with his. At first, he sensed nothing, but then there was an itch in his mind, then flashes and sparks as his memories were seized, examined and discarded at a speed like lightning. It made him wince with pain but she was ruthless, even when he heard Charles protest loudly.
Finally the connection was broken and only Charles's arm around him kept him on his feet. "You went too far," he heard Charles tell the Queen.
"I had to be sure," she said. Erik looked up in time to see her exchange a look with the Black King. "I am sure."
The White Queen took a step away from them. "Angel will hand you the scepter when she returns," she said. "But I do not need the final test to know that you are Cordelia's son."
"Emma!" The Black King was on his feet. "You cannot be serious, that you would hand over our lands to these whom have only known magic for a day? Nephew or not, he is not fit to rule us."
"It is his place to rule us," she disagreed. "My regency is over."
"I will not allow this," the Black King told her. "Not when we are so very close to all that we have dreamed."
"Perhaps you should," Charles said, looking hard at the Black King. Erik had not given much thought to the strength of the magic they would wield themselves but the King looked uneasy under Charles's gaze. "Or else I may have to explore the thoughts I've gleaned from you tonight about why that border skirmish started where it did in the first place."
Suddenly the Black King raised his hands, fire whirling, and Charles raised his fingers to his forehead and, before Erik exactly knew what had happened, everything, everyone including the King and all the fae, Angel who'd just come back bearing the scepter on a velvet cushion, froze where they stood, like glittering statutes to line a king's gallery. The only ones who had not fallen under the strange spell were Charles, Erik himself, and the White Queen who now looked to be made of the same crystal of the ancient tree and the scepter she'd sent for.
"You did this?" Erik asked Charles.
"I'm doing it still," he explained. "It's...not easy."
"I don't really know," he admitted. "Could you...do something to contain the King before I can no longer restrain him?"
Erik used his magic to control the shackles that once bound Charles and then they were around the King's wrists, digging painfully tight until they drew blood from the skin underneath It was a warning, the second one from him to the Black King, and the King glowered at him for it when Charles finally released the court from their enforced stillness.
But the King had no chance to fear Erik's wrath because his Queen was approaching him, fury evident in every line of her crystalline expression. "You would lift a hand against my family?" she asked.
"I would do that and more to see the mortals punished," he said, no regret in him. "I would do more to save our lands from the hands of those not fit to rule it."
"We are of like minds in many ways, Sebastian," the White Queen said. "It is why I asked you to rule with me when the crown became mine. But your arrogance has been your downfall."
The White Queen shimmered and again she was made of flesh, not crystal. "Azazel," she called and the red-skinned fae appeared. "We have a new prisoner for the tower."
Azazel glanced toward Charles. "The prince?"
The White Queen shook her head, reaching up to remove the great, gold crown from the Black King's head. "No. Sebastian."
Azazel did not hesitate before he took the -- former -- King's arm and spirited him away.
The Queen turned back to Erik and Charles, the crown still in her pale fingers. "I believe the scepter is just a formality now," she said. "But one I believe we could benefit from. Angel?"
The winged fae offered the scepter on its cushion and Erik eyed it warily until he felt Charles's hand on his back. Then he reached for the crystal scepter, took it in his hand as he had the diamond branch that had revealed his parentage to Charles. When the scepter glowed under his touch, the din of the court echoed loudly in his ears as everyone seemed to shout at once.
Erik focused on returning the scepter to its cushion, only to look up and see that the White Queen now held out the crown. "This is yours," she said. "As it was always meant to be."
"If I accept this, the kingdoms will be safe? Charles will be safe?" he asked her.
"When you accept this, these lands will be yours to command, Erik," the Queen told him. "You are its rightful king."
The crown weighed heavy under his power but Erik lifted it with his magic to set upon his head. It weighed even heavier there, a disbelieving turn of events for a poor man left lost when he no longer had a war to wage. His life had turned on the offer of a friend to visit the castle city, and his foolish decision to risk the shortcut through an enchanted forest.
And now he was king.
"I'm sure there are details to be worked out," Erik said, and he heard Charles laugh at his side.
"There are a great many details to work out when it comes to a throne," Charles told him. "More than most would think."
"You are free to go home now, Charles," Erik told him. "There will be no moves against the mortal kingdoms."
"I never thought you would," he said.
"And you no longer belong to the fae lands by your bargain with the Queen," Erik said.
Charles looked concerned. "I do not," he agreed. "But I am still bound to its king." In front of the entire far court, he leaned up and pressed his mouth to Erik's. "And it is a bargain I have no desire to forsake."
"What about your mortal kingdom? Do you have no wish to return?" he asked.
"Moira is well-versed in ruling," Charles observed. "But you, my king, I believe will need help. I am willing to stay," he added when Erik said nothing. "If you'll have me."
Erik took Charles's hands and lifted them to his lips. "I believe we discussed an eternity?"
No one could really promise another an eternity, but Erik and Charles tried from that day forward, never to be parted again. And there were details to be worked out -- the Black King tried again to usurp the throne before he was crushed most thoroughly and slowly Charles learned he could sense among the mortals those who had fae blood. That seemed to include their most trusted confidantes and soon the great fae palace was home to more than just the Gray King, as Erik came to be known, and Charles, once of the mortal realm. Sir Henry came, along with Sean, then Alexander with Armando; Raven claimed her brother's abode as her own as well, though Erik did not mind. In many ways, he still felt he owed her a debt of gratitude for the bargain that sent him to Charles at all.
The White Queen, called Lady Frost without her crown, also remained within the palace, as beautiful and regal as always, quietly content to watch her nephew take up the mantle of their family, continuing their line as it had always been destined.
And while the mortal kingdom, including the great Queen Moira, mourned the death of their beloved prince, Charles never looked back to the life he'd pledged to lose to the White Queen, knowing that his place was with Erik, wherever that would be.
For centuries they would rule over the fae lands, protecting their people, both fae and mortal, but it would always be that moment, when Charles vowed to stay by his side, that the Gray King would remember as the most important of his reign, the one in which he truly came to believe in magic. It was also the moment he came to understand much, including peace and love and happiness, all the things that the old soldier he'd once been had doubted he would ever find.
And it surprised none who knew them -- Erik, the changeling prince, and Charles, the mortal one -- that they lived, as so many try, happily ever after.