"But I don't want to marry," Sherlock protested, flinging himself into his ornately-carved throne chair so violently it rocked backward off the floor. The heavy mahogany front legs slammed back down, punctuating the declaration with a sharp, emphatic crack.
Mycroft sighed and eased back into his more modest side chair. He crossed his legs and touched his fingertips together beneath his chin as he gathered long-practised patience with his younger brother's theatrics. "Prince Magnussen's party left the northern lands two days ago," Mycroft said. "He will cross the River Alfstern within a fortnight and his intention upon his arrival in our fair kingdom is, I am reliably informed, to solicit your hand in marriage without delay. You know what will happen if you refuse him. We must proceed according to plan."
Sherlock dropped his head back and slumped, the very picture of misery, arms hanging limp at his sides and one long leg wilting over the chair arm.
"Need I remind you, Sherlock, that you have already agreed to this arrangement? As heir to the throne of this realm, you have always known a marriage for the sake of diplomatic alliance—or in this case the prevention of such an alliance—may be required of you eventually. Eventually has simply come upon you earlier than anticipated."
Mycroft was grateful he and Sherlock had the small reception room to themselves this morning. The thick oak door and high stone walls offered privacy for what Mycroft feared might, knowing his brother's temperament, become a heated discussion. The interior of the castle seemed hushed in response to the heavy blanket of snow that had fallen during the night. The brilliantly reflected morning light filtered in through high stained glass windows, casting bright green, blue, and gold diamonds across the well-polished wooden floorboards.
Sherlock had pressed his mouth into a stubborn line, but Mycroft saw the worry in his pale eyes.
"It would be best to avoid a war that we cannot win. Magnussen must concede you gracefully if you are already married when he arrives. Without the affront to his pride of a direct rejection, he will have no excuse for aggression."
"Assassinate him," Sherlock demanded.
"I regret I cannot," Mycroft said, dryly but sincerely.
"Then assassinate me," Sherlock groaned.
"Tempting," Mycroft smirked, "but I would prefer we manage the situation without resorting to bloodshed."
"Easy enough for you to say. Mycroft, he is vile."
"For once we are in complete agreement. It is at least a small mercy then, is it not, that you shall avoid marrying him?"
"Mother is determined to parade every marriageable person in the kingdom before me at the Winter Ball, apparently," Sherlock sighed, kicking his booted heel against the side of the chair. "Three entire nights of agony. The beginning of a lifetime of agony."
"She wishes you to have a wide range of options so you may ask the hand of whomever you want according to your…tastes…in a partner," Mycroft said, keeping his tone carefully neutral.
"Mycroft, I don't want anyone."
There was a sudden, troubling rawness in Sherlock's voice that Mycroft could not ignore. It was not a topic they had ever broached between them, but his brother, though well into adulthood now, had never shown any interest in a romantic partner. His gaze occasionally lingered on a particularly clever or attractive man or woman but never for long and never with anything beyond what Mycroft judged to be mild curiosity.
Mycroft was by no means unsympathetic. Marriage, he conceded, and love, he supposed, were fine situations for some. Mycroft's own father, although a brusque and imposing man upon first impression, had clearly loved Mycroft's mother deeply, and she had doted on him in return. After her husband's death and an extended mourning period, she had eventually captured the attention and affection of the reigning King, a soft-spoken but sharp-eyed man who had proceeded to make Mycroft's mother his Queen. Together they soon celebrated the birth of Mycroft's younger brother Sherlock, and their partnership had deepened as time passed. But Mycroft and Sherlock were both cut from a different cloth, one that was worn quite contentedly without the accompanying raiment of a partner.
"Sherlock." Mycroft folded his hands in his lap and looked down at them, offering his brother the small privacy of removing his gaze as he pushed for once, however delicately, into uncharted territory. "As this marriage's primary purpose is what might be best termed a diplomatic intervention, there is no reason it could not remain a marriage…in name only…if that is a matter of concern to you."
There was no answering sound from within the room but a very soft shifting of fabric—Sherlock had turned slightly, but whether to look toward him more closely or away from him, Mycroft could not tell. For once he honestly could not hazard a guess at what his brother's thoughts might be.
"Or…" Mycroft blinked as a startling possibility occurred to him. "Had you hoped to marry for love?" He couldn't help but look up at Sherlock as he said the words and the expression he surprised on Sherlock's face was one of such hopelessness Mycroft's breath caught in his throat.
Sherlock shuttered his eyes immediately, snapping, "Don't be absurd." He turned his head away and spoke to the stone wall in a voice that sounded suddenly much smaller. "I had hoped for an alternative solution."
Fortunately for Mycroft, Sherlock did not see him flinch in response as he felt the full force of what Sherlock had meant: I hoped you would fix it. The sense of bewilderment beneath the simple statement was palpable, made all the more potent by the fact that Sherlock was for once not dramatising. Sherlock was without doubt a brilliant young man, almost as intelligent as Mycroft himself. He was well accustomed to solving his own—and when the spirit moved him, many other people's—problems. But in the rare instance he faltered, whether he would ever admit it or not, he looked to his elder brother. Mycroft hadn't realised Sherlock had still been holding on to that hope. And this time…his brother had let him down.
There was a long silence between them.
"Sherlock," Mycroft cleared his throat uncomfortably and twisted the gold signet ring on his little finger. "I regret—"
"Despite my dissatisfaction, I am resigned to my situation, Mycroft," Sherlock cut him off with a dismissive wave of one hand. His features were perfectly composed once again. "Yes, I have agreed to the arrangement. Yes, I will play the good little prince."
"Nevertheless, as your brother—"
"Half-brother," Sherlock interjected, lifting an eyebrow. It was a familiar jab, truth meant as insult, and with it some of the tension between them dissipated. They had always been most comfortable either challenging or insulting one another.
"As your brother, I would wish to see you wed as happily as possible."
"Oh, god." Sherlock's eyes widened. "What dreadful creatures have you selected to parade before me?"
"I assure you I have no such intention," Mycroft lied. He had every such intention. As soon as the family had resolved themselves on the plan for Sherlock's marriage, Mycroft had devoted his immediate attention to the matter of finding his brother an appropriate partner. He had dispatched his most trusted people on the mission of collecting reports of the finest men and women in the land, as determined by a list of qualifications he had spent the course of a long, sleepless night drafting in fine detail. The results had been generally dissatisfying, but he had winnowed the list over and over until only the most suitable subjects remained as viable considerations.
Sherlock gave him a sideways, distrustful look.
"I simply wish to encourage you to make the best of your circumstances," Mycroft said. Their mother was aware of his activities. As a skilled and subtle strategist in her own right, she approved of a dual-front approach to the issue: she had made the arrangements for her own option of the Winter Ball, whilst Mycroft had undertaken a more scientific method of selection. "A marriage need change very little for you in daily practice, Sherlock. As I will continue managing the kingdom's day-to-day affairs under the King's and Mother's direction, you and your chosen partner need only put in the occasional appearance together at social or ceremonial functions. You will remain free to indulge yourself with your little experiments and your mysteries. But would you not at least prefer a partner whose companionship might be of some benefit to you? Some…ease?"
Sherlock snorted his opinion of Mycroft's advice and shot up a disparaging eyebrow, commenting only, "You're pleased enough with my experiments when their results support your little affairs of state."
Mycroft inclined his head in concession of the point. It was quite true that Sherlock's flair for investigative and scientific pursuits had offered more frequent benefit to some of his own operations than he would ever have supposed. His brother's talents might not lie in the standard duties of a prince, but useful talents he did have. Of course, it was best Mycroft not acknowledge those talents too enthusiastically lest Sherlock's sense of self-satisfaction with his own cleverness outgrow the breadth of the kingdom itself. There was already a more than significant danger of such an eventuality, he thought, in spite of Sherlock's current melancholy. He hid a surreptitiously affectionate glance at the dramatic sprawl of pale, tousle-haired despair that was his brother.
There was a firm knock at the door.
"Ah," Mycroft exclaimed. This was likely just the confirmation he needed to make his final selection for Sherlock's intended, although he would not reveal his specific expectations to Sherlock until he was certain of his choice. "Come," he called.
A dark-haired, dishevelled woman entered the room. She wore the shabby, dusty dress of a commoner, but walked with the long stride, confidence, and strength of a soldier. "Your Royal Highness," she bowed first to Sherlock and then again to Mycroft. "My Lord."
Mycroft offered a nod of acknowledgement. "Anthea."
The reddish road dust that streaked his agent's face made the blue of her eyes stand out in vivid contrast. Her expression was on the surface as calm and disinterested as ever, although Mycroft always suspected some secret, elusive mirth was concealed therein. She turned her cool gaze back to Sherlock. "Sir, Her Majesty the Queen desires your attendance in her sitting room at once."
"Does she, indeed?" Sherlock asked dryly, rolling his eyes at the obviousness of Anthea's ploy to secure a private audience with Mycroft.
It was a transparent contrivance, but no doubt also the truth, Mycroft reflected, as the Queen had been in almost constant pursuit of her younger son for discussions of his Winter Ball costume for close to a fortnight now. Indeed, no member of the court was safe from the Queen's costuming emissaries as the night of the first Ball drew closer. The castle tailors and seamstresses lay in wait around every corner, eager to leap out and take measurements or offer fabric samples to the unsuspecting wanderer of corridors.
"I believe she wishes to discuss your costume for the Ball, sir." Anthea smiled innocently and waited, and Mycroft smirked.
"Very well," Sherlock sighed and rolled from slouch to standing, transforming himself from sulking child to a fair impression of a self-possessed prince in one graceful motion. He barely stomped his feet at all as he crossed the room, pausing in the doorway to cast one final, cynical look over his shoulder at Mycroft. "Let it not be said I am neglecting my duties. I shall endeavour to appreciate the absurdity of the imminent fiasco, if nothing else. Do carry on with your espionage."
He exited with a flounce of his dark curls, slamming the door closed behind him.
Mycroft allowed himself a brief smile at the encouragingly characteristic theatricality of Sherlock's exit before he quirked an eyebrow in inquiry at his agent.
Anthea pushed her shoulders back, bracing to attention as she delivered her summary, although her expression retained her customary hint of amusement, just subtle enough to escape insubordination. "Exactly as you'd hoped, My Lord. The very model of gallantry. Your ruffians set upon me as instructed within Master Lestrade's presence. He rushed to my rescue without hesitation."
"I do hope no injuries were sustained."
"I would never have let your men come to serious harm, My Lord," Anthea's eyes sparkled briefly, "for it was they who were in the most danger, but my intervention was not required. Whilst Lestrade displayed the skill to best my so-called attackers easily, he restrained himself from rendering any significant injury. Although I dare say, your prize guardsmen may be feeling the encounter keenly for the next several days. Lestrade clearly is well-practised in handling the weapons he forges."
"A truly skilled craftsman must understand the use of his creations," Mycroft murmured, stroking his jaw thoughtfully.
He had collected sheets upon sheets of paper devoted to personal histories, records, and confidential accounts of his candidates for Sherlock's betrothed, but he did not need them in front of him for recall. His information on Gregory Lestrade had quickly distinguished him from amongst the list of the kingdom's most suitable men and women as, by even Mycroft's exacting standards, an ideal candidate for his brother's intended. The reports his people had transcribed from qualified observers had practically glowed on the pages. Lestrade was by all accounts a kind, brave, and gentle-natured man, although by no means lacking in the strength, intelligence, or humour that would be necessary in a prince's companion and, more importantly, in a match for Sherlock.
Pragmatically suspicious of second-hand information, Mycroft had sent his own people out to enact a series of tests of the remaining subjects' characters. Without exception, Gregory Lestrade had reacted to each test Mycroft had devised most nobly.
Technically, Lestrade was in fact the son of a lesser nobleman, but after his mother's death in childbirth his father had fallen into disgrace, drinking and gambling to abate his grief. Eventually, in dire financial straits, he had entered into what must have seemed by comparison a relatively lucrative marriage to the daughter of a middle-class merchant. He had been unable to change his wretched ways, though, and the burdens of ill health and ever-increasing debt had led the man to an early grave, leaving his only son with a stepfamily who had immediately put the lad to work to compensate for his father's debts. Young Gregory had learnt the smithing trade and from all accounts excelled in it, crafting some of the finest armour, weaponry, tools, and even decorative ornaments created outside the castle walls. Lestrade remained to this day in the employ of his stepsiblings, who apparently were happy to take both credit and coin for the smith's much sought-after work.
In any case, Lestrade's circumstances were of lesser account to Mycroft than his essential nature. First and foremost, Mycroft desired for his brother a good man, or as close to such a thing as was possible.
"There's more, My Lord," Anthea said.
Mycroft signalled his interest with raised eyebrows and gestured for her to continue.
"After seeing to it your men were suitably chastised, Lestrade delayed his own plans in order to escort me to the constable in town, and furthermore offered me all the coin in his possession to ease my journey." She opened her hand, revealing three coppers.
Mycroft tilted his head, his gaze arrested by the three battered coins. "Did you suspect him of any ulterior motive in regard to attaining your good opinion?"
"Nothing in his look or behaviour gave me that impression. Although I must express some personal regret in that assessment," Anthea volunteered cheekily, "as he is quite a handsome man."
"Indeed?" Mycroft huffed in mild amusement. "If even you have taken note of this man's charms, one can hope they might ease the burden of companionship Sherlock must suffer to some small degree."
Whilst the Queen believed giving her younger son a choice of partner would best guarantee his satisfaction, Mycroft did not agree. He feared Sherlock, whether through pure obstinacy or lack of self-knowledge, could not be entirely trusted to make a wise decision, especially under the pressure of both time and situation in which he was being placed. It was not that he doubted his brother's intelligence. He knew his brother, for all his eccentricities, to be a great man in his own way. But an understanding of human social interaction was not among his brother's greatest strengths, and in this matter Mycroft fancied he could deduce what was in Sherlock's best interest far better than Sherlock himself. However, providing Sherlock a selection of already investigated and approved candidates, albeit without his knowledge, might make his selection feel as if it were a true choice.
And there was no doubt that Gregory Lestrade was a good man.
So, then, a good man for a great man? Would it be enough?
The far wall of the reception room was lined with hanging tapestries commissioned to represent the last nine reigning monarchs. Mycroft's gaze drifted to the start of the row, to King Dougal the Bearded. He was depicted seated upon his throne, surrounded by a passel of sons, dogs, and—for some reason—monkeys, none of whom he had elected to name as his heir, favouring instead a young knight called Helena who had distinguished herself in battle against the Dark Riders of Mavrosse. Queen Helena's tapestry was woven with vivid blues in the pattern of flowing river currents amidst which stood atop a rock a proud grey courser. Helena had named her daughter Margaux to the throne, whose tapestry showed the pale, young queen seated sombrely upon a unicorn, of all fanciful things, in the centre of a shaded orange grove. Margaux had passed the throne to her brash and charming cousin Alastair, who had commissioned for his tapestry a portrait woven so heavily with gold thread Mycroft wondered that it did not bow the iron rod it hung upon. Queen Serah and her sister Wynne, arm in arm. It was rumoured Queen Serah had planted certain bits of her predecessor's remains in the chapel rose garden, which thrived to this day. Armand the Bard King, lute clutched to his heart. James of the Seven Mountains and his prize goat. Sherlock's grandmother Queen Amelia of Vernet, her silvery hair woven with jewels. And finally, King Siger and their mother, Queen Maeve, seated together in their favourite summer solarium and surrounded by vines heavy with flowers. Sherlock's tapestry would one day hang next to theirs. And when it was time for the next tapestry to be woven, how…and with whom…would Sherlock have passed his life?
Mycroft looked at Anthea, who was waiting patiently for further questions or instructions, and gave her a firm nod. "It appears we have found a husband for the Prince."
"Excellent news, sir."
"Speak nothing, of course, of this decision. I will take care of the final preparations personally."
"Very good, My Lord."
"Thank you, Anthea, and well done. You are dismissed for now. Oh, one last thing…"
"I'll have those coins," Mycroft said, holding out his hand.
"Of course, sir." Anthea stepped forward and tipped the coppers into Mycroft's palm, then bowed herself out, leaving Mycroft alone with his plans.
There were a great many matters of castle and kingdom that required his oversight. Monitoring Prince Magnussen's journey, ongoing diplomacies with their neighbouring kingdoms, border skirmishes, disputes between rival villages, a company of soldiers gone missing in the western mountains, an abbey reportedly infested by malevolent spirits, wild animal attacks on the southern moors…the list was endless. Yet no matter seemed so pressing at the moment as the upcoming Winter Ball.
Three nights of costumed festivity, food, music, and matchmaking lay ahead. On the first night the introductions would take place. The second night would be given over the dancing. And on the third, Sherlock would be asked to make his choice.
The Queen had insisted on a masquerade ball in deference to Sherlock's love of a mystery, thinking his interest in potential suitors might be heightened if he were required to put a bit of deduction into each meeting. Mycroft doubted this to be the case, but was pleased enough to go along with the plan. Sherlock, he suspected, would be inclined to reject Mycroft's selection for his partner out of hand simply because he was Mycroft's selection, so a certain amount of subterfuge would work in his favour. He would need to ensure Gregory Lestrade stood out amongst the other contenders for Sherlock's hand without making Mycroft's endorsement obvious. If Sherlock were allowed the illusion of coming to his own decision, the opportunity for any lingering resentments would be minimised.
In far simpler terms, Mycroft thought wryly, he wanted his brother to be happy. In this matter, Mycroft would not fail him. His chin lifted resolutely. Good was not enough. If Sherlock must marry, and marry he must, Mycroft would make sure his partner was perfect.
Mycroft squeezed the three coppers, now warmed now by contact with his skin, tightly into his fist.
There was much to be done.