Chapter 1: Kindred
"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.
Chapter 2: Forge
"Sir, I'm certain you've already perceived the fine craftsmanship of every item—"
"My good lady, your shop's inventory is incontrovertibly of exemplary quality, but for an order of such significance, I must satisfy myself as to the current condition of your smithy. And I should very much like to speak with your smith."
Surprised by the sound of approaching voices, Lestrade set aside the iron bar he had been about to place in the forge fire. His little smithy was rarely visited by either personal acquaintances or the shop's clientele—James and Irene liked to keep him secluded, ostensibly so he could focus on his craft, whilst they attended customers.
He recognised his stepsister's voice, of course, but the second voice was unfamiliar. Lestrade pulled off his heavy work gloves and dragged a rag across his brow, wiping away both the sweat and the long lock of damp, dark hair that were working their way towards his eyes. A few steps away from the fire in the direction of the open wall of the smithy brought him into refreshingly colder air as he looked to see who was crossing the yard from the shop.
Irene had bundled herself in a tasselled wool shawl in order to pursue the man in front of her, obviously the source of the softly authoritative voice intent on inspecting Lestrade's smithy. And Lestrade himself, apparently. Their breath made little clouds in the cold air and their footsteps crunched blue-grey trails through the pristine snow-covered ground, Irene's in quick steps and the client's in long, measured strides. Lestrade's first impression of the new client was that he looked like someone who had stepped freshly out of his own painted portrait. Elegant. Dark hair with one thick, wavy forelock struck russet by the bright winter sun, pale skin, a beaky profile, and a heavy green wool cloak lifted by the chill wind. Brown doublet, belt, breeches, gloves, and boots. Riding boots, Lestrade noted. He assumed there was a suitably colour-coordinated horse tethered at the front of the shop.
Irene swept one arm out graciously in presentation as the pair crossed the threshold into the forge. "As requested, sir, our smithy, complete with smith. Do say hello, Gregory, dear."
The client, catching sight of Lestrade, stopped in his tracks, looking oddly startled.
"Good morning, sir." Lestrade gave his blackened leather apron a quick glance as he nodded his greeting, wondering if something about his appearance had given the man offence. Perhaps the gentleman, who was nothing if not clean, wasn't prepared for the grubbiness of a working smithy. Or a working smith. Lestrade was well aware of the soot and sweat coating his forearms and face, even this early in the day. He had gotten an early start this morning, roused by the raucous dawn chorus of frost jays and inspired to action by the clear sky.
Irene glared at him from around the man's shoulder with a clear message in her eyes that he should be on his best behaviour. A completely unnecessary message, as Lestrade gave everyone his courtesy…unless someone took pains to persuade him it was unwelcome. It was obvious Irene wanted to impress her new client, though. The proud bearing and finely-tailored clothing Lestrade had noted on his first glance at the gentleman left him with little doubt as to the cause of his stepsister's eagerness to please: this was clearly a wealthy man. Now that he was stood closer, Lestrade could see even finer detail in the man's cloak—subtle but elaborate green-threaded embroidery—and that his softly-padded doublet was decorated with small gold studs. Lestrade's stepsister was possessed of a keenly practical mind, and she enjoyed collecting useful and wealthy clients. Lestrade's stepbrother, who was apparently not in the shop this morning or he likely would have been accompanying his sister, would no doubt approve of this gentleman as well—James simply enjoyed collecting attractive men.
The man recovered himself quickly enough from whatever had given him pause upon first sight of Lestrade and assumed a dignified expression. Lestrade would have called the expression disinterested were it not for his eyes, which had sharpened to focus. He pushed his cloak back over his shoulders, revealing the sleeves of a sage green knitted silk shirt, and offered Lestrade a short but gracious nod of greeting in return. "Good morning. Gregory, was it?"
Lestrade cocked an eyebrow. "Yes, sir. Gregory Lestrade."
"This gentleman is a merchant from Sherrinford, Gregory," Irene supplied, with only the slightest lift of one eyebrow at Lestrade to once again impress upon him that the gentleman was a wealthy merchant, in case Lestrade had not yet noticed. "Textiles, was it, sir?"
"Mm," the man gave the question a small, dismissive wave of one leather-gloved hand, "amongst other interests. One likes to maintain a varied inventory. I am always interested in exploring new possibilities. Perhaps you might better acquaint me with the tools of your own trade," he suggested to Lestrade.
"Er, it would be my pleasure, sir."
In spite of the circumstances under which he remained in service to his stepbrother and stepsister, Lestrade loved his little smithy with all his heart. Not the building itself, although he kept the stone and wooden structure in good repair, but the tools that had passed to him from Master Algar. His time with the master smith was the only part of his youth he could recall with true happiness. The bellows was his memory of laughter. The anvil and hammers and smell of hot metal turned anger to control. The casting moulds and the sound of wind chimes in the spring breeze were patience. The warmth of the forge fire was tales of adventure and honour and courage, read aloud huddled under blankets after the stars had come out.
Lestrade touched each item with reverence and gratitude as he conducted the client through the small space and spoke only of their utility.
The man followed along, silent but attentive, hands clasped behind his back, until they moved to one of Lestrade's work tables. "What are these?" he asked, tilting his head inquisitively as he pointed to a set a of small, iron sculptures in peculiar combinations of pedestals, bars, and knobs. "These are unfamiliar."
Lestrade chuckled, surprised. "Sir, you have an ulterior motive in this tour."
The client stilled. "And what is that?"
"You are testing my knowledge," Lestrade grinned up at the man, who inhaled a quick breath and blinked. "As you've just singled out the only truly unique tools in my forge, something tells me you are already well-enough acquainted with my trade."
Irene made a small sound of disapproval at Lestrade's less-than-subservient tone.
The corner of the man's mouth lifted. He gave Lestrade an assessing look and said, "An astute patron of the arts must understand the creation of his artefacts."
"I agree, sir," Lestrade replied with an approving nod. He was impressed and did not try to hide it. It was unusual enough for a client to visit the forge, even more unusual for a client to show any significant knowledge of the work that went into crafting their hinges or nails or cups. "Those are shaping anvils, my own designs. I made them for detailed, custom work."
"You work the white metals as well as the black."
"To work both is unusual, is it not?"
"I suppose so," Lestrade said with a shrug. He never flaunted or boasted of his abilities, although he was aware he was fortunate in his proficiency. Modesty was his first instinct, but he could not help rising to meet the challenge he felt the stranger had offered, so he met the man's gaze evenly and added, with assurance, "But I've always found finesse as important a skill as force."
The stranger's cool eyes lit with a hint of appreciative warmth. "I agree, sir," he said softly.
Irene breathed an impatient sigh, looking suspiciously between the two men. She stepped delicately but with a mildly distasteful expression over a patch of melting mud on the stone floor and laid a proprietary hand on her client's shoulder. "As you can see, then, all is in order here," she prompted. "We should let Gregory return to his work."
"Ah, yes, I fear my presence has been an interruption," the man said without any tone of significant remorse. He nodded towards the iron Greg had set aside upon their arrival. "What is your current project, if I may ask?"
"Well, I usually have a few things on at once. Axe blades and a set of candle sconces this morning. But the project that might interest you, sir, most is…" Lestrade glanced towards Irene, uncertain of whether or not she would want him to reveal the details of his current work.
Irene flowed smoothly into the opening Lestrade left her, eager for the opportunity to re-capture her target's focus. "Actually, Gregory is just finishing the most beautiful mask for my Winter Ball costume, aren't you, darling?" she said with a smugly anticipatory smile.
Lestrade gestured towards a blanket-covered shape on one of his work tables. "Yours only needs another gentle shaping and a polish, Irene. James' is ready now. I finished it last night."
"May I?" the client enquired, moving towards the table.
Irene stepped forward. "Of course, sir. I hope our work will never fail to impress." She gave him an engaging smile and pulled the blanket away, revealing a pair of silver masks.
Lestrade was proud of the work. Irene's fox mask was a distinctly feminine and delicately elaborate silver filigree, already lovely though it still needed some finishing touches, including its nose. Once polished it would shine almost white. Irene was a lovely woman, as stepsisters went, and the colouring would be perfect against her fair skin and in contrast to her dark hair. For James' mask, Lestrade had fashioned a set of small silver scales attached to the base plate with tiny rings. The mask had a reptilian quality, simple but shimmering in a way that would draw attention to James' already arresting dark eyes. Lestrade seldom had the opportunity to display any of his more creative work and he found himself anxiously watching for the client's reaction.
"Lovely," the man breathed, looking genuinely impressed. "Absolutely lovely."
"My costume will be a winter fox and my brother will be a white dragon. We have a bit of a competition between us to see who will turn the Prince's head first. But, sir, I trust you will not steal away our good ideas." Irene had lowered her voice so that her considerably taller client was drawn in to put his ear near her mouth to hear her. Her lightly flirtatious tone was a skill Lestrade had seen her perfect and use with great success over the years. "Whichever one of us the Prince favours, I should hate for either of us to lose our advantage."
"I fear without your smith's services to call upon, I would not have the resources to put such information to use."
"Ah," Irene smiled, "but information itself can hold power." She let her eyes move down the man's arm to the leather glove at the end of his sleeve. "In the right hands."
"You seem quite confident of your success in gaining the Prince's attention," he said mildly.
"I know how to discover easily enough what people like. Even princes," she said. "And I, too, know something of finesse, sir."
She had the client's attention now. He gave her a harder look.
"You think yourself a good match for the Prince, then?" the man asked.
Irene laughed. "The point is that I would make an excellent queen. One must be willing to make sacrifices."
"Surely you've heard the rumours!"
"I confess I have not."
"It is said," Irene lowered her voice conspiratorially, "Prince Sherlock has a fascination with death and dabbles in the black arts as well as alchemy. My dear companion Lady Katharine has heard it all from one of the palace ladies-in-waiting. The Prince is prone to fits of both temper and melancholy. He leaves the castle in strange disguises and returns at all hours. Then he shuts himself away in his rooms for days on end, speaking to no one, and only strange wailing sounds can be heard from his rooms."
Lestrade had heard no such rumours of the Prince, nor had he ever seen the man save from a great distance. He hadn't seemed particularly alarming. The client's expression, Lestrade noticed, had grown extremely…reserved.
"I had no idea the Prince was such a colourful character. The black arts, you say? I wonder you aren't frightened to meet such a dreadful creature."
"I don't frighten easily, sir," Irene smirked. "And mad as he may be, he is a handsome man. I think we would make a handsome couple."
"I do not doubt it." The man inclined his head graciously, although his forehead was now creased with a slight frown. He turned back to Lestrade. "And you, sir? Are you looking forward to the masquerade or do you have similar concerns in regard to the Prince?"
"Oh, Lestrade won't be going," Irene scoffed.
Lestrade blinked at Irene. "What?"
"No?" The man arched one eyebrow. "The decree, I believe, was for the attendance of all eligible persons. Are you, if you will pardon the personal query, sir, ineligible? Committed to another?"
Lestrade was, in fact, currently quite unattached to any romantic partner save his own hand and quite looking forward to attending the Winter Ball. He had been pondering for a fortnight what sort of costume to fashion for himself. He had only a few scrapings of silver left over from the material Irene and James had allocated him for a mask of his own, but it was enough to come up with something. Maybe some sort of…swashbuckler? It would be a simple enough costume and fun to put on a bit of swagger with it as well, once he was temporarily free of his obligations to James and Irene. "But I am going—"
"You will be far too busy with this gentleman's order, Gregory, dear, to attend the Winter Ball." Irene shot him a stern look, decorated with a sweet smile. She let her gaze drift pointedly over his mussed hair and dirty clothes. "And it's not as though the Prince is going to miss your company, is it?"
"Oh." Lestrade's brow furrowed. It was not that he held any particular interest in attention from the Prince, handsome or not. Mostly he was excited to see the palace. The chandeliers in the grand ballroom, he had heard, looked like showers of stars, and the domed ceilings were painted in gold. What craftsmanship must have gone into their creation! "Perhaps I could see the order…" Perhaps it was something he might still finish in time to attend the ball. The Winter Ball spanned three nights, after all, and people often underestimated the length of time their work would take him. Perhaps he might attend one night.
"Of course," the client said. He withdrew a short tube from an interior pocket of his cloak and uncapped it, moving to Lestrade's work table, where he extracted and unrolled a skilfully detailed sketch of an exquisite ornamental dagger.
Lestrade's eyebrows shot up and he whistled approvingly, moving to peer more closely at the design. Engraved. Inlaid jewels. "That's going to be a beauty, that is. Silver?" He rubbed a hand across the stubble on his chin, already planning out the steps to bring the elegant design to life. The double-sided etched blade, with its intricate floral engraving on the pommel and grip would all look very fine in silver. Perhaps gold along the hilt to set off the gems, depending on the colour of the stones. Or a gold wash for the blade. It would be careful work, at that. Lestrade found himself grinning at the prospect.
"Watered steel for the blade," the man said. "I do intend them as gifts for my most faithful clients, but I see no reason decorative items should not also be functional."
Lestrade's grin widened. "Once again, sir, I agree. Wait…them?"
"Twelve, wasn't it?" Irene interjected innocently.
"Is the quantity a problem?"
"Certainly not," Irene answered. "Your order will be our top priority, to be delivered as quickly as possible. Isn't that so, Gregory?"
Lestrade rubbed his jaw again. The food at a palace Winter Ball had to be good, didn't it? Would there be food, or just dancing? He thought there should be very good food. For dinner last night, Lestrade had eaten a bland winter vegetable pottage and the stale end of a loaf of brown bread.
Even with his apprentice Dimmock's assistance, crafting these blades would take…time. A lot of time. The client must be paying a small fortune, and knowing Irene, a surcharge for the expedited delivery she had blithely promised. A small fortune that, when his share was allotted, would put Lestrade even closer to payment of his debt to his stepfamily. Not such a small fortune, for him. The forge fire was tales of honour, and Lestrade had a debt of both honour and money to pay to the family his father had left all but destitute. In spite of it all, his stepmother had sheltered and fed him after his father had passed on, and for that he was grateful. When she died, James and Irene had reviewed their mother's accounts and the debt Lestrade's father had incurred was revealed to be staggering. He was honoured to have the skill to make amends. According to Irene and James' record-keeping and their average income from his smithing, he had perhaps another three years in their indenture. Three years wasn't so terribly long, but an order such as this one could reduce that time significantly.
Ah, but he would miss seeing the chandeliers.
Lestrade gave the client a decisive nod. "It will be my pleasure, sir."
"I am certain the pleasure will be mine," the man said, returning the nod graciously.
Irene brightened. "Then we are finally finished here."
The client turned to her. "My lady, I deeply regret keeping you here in the cold for so very long. Please allow me to escort you back to the warmth of your lovely shop, where I would be delighted to finalise the details of our arrangement. Sir," he turned back to Lestrade, "if you would be so kind as to keep the design for the dagger safely in your possession, I will have the gems and metals delivered to you tomorrow evening."
"Of course," Lestrade said. "Good day, sir."
"Good day." The man turned away, allowing Irene to take his arm as they stepped out of the smithy and onto the snow.
Lestrade sighed and turned back to the forge, picking up his work gloves once again. There was nothing for it but to get back to work. Master Algar would have slapped the back of his head with these very gloves had he caught Lestrade mooning over fancy dress and chandeliers and dancing. Lestrade didn't even know how to dance. He would do his work, like any other day, and when he was finished he would read one of his books until the forge fire died out, and he would sleep, and he would rise again to the song of the frost jays. Irene was right—no princes…or any other elegant men…would miss him. He had simply forgotten for a moment that his place was here in the forge.
"Oh, there is one more thing. If I may have a moment, my lady."
The man turned, leaving Irene in the snow, and strode back towards Lestrade, stopping directly in front of him. His proximity felt suddenly and strangely intimate, in spite of the fact that Irene was waiting mere yards away, standing in the snow watching them with folded arms. The man was slightly taller than Lestrade. His pale skin had not seen a great deal of sunlight, but Lestrade thought he could see a faint dusting of freckles just at the base of his throat. Lestrade shivered inexplicably, despite the heat from the forge.
No, not inexplicably. Cold wind stirred through the shed. Lestrade heard the soft ring of the wind chime he had hung in the far window. He smelled the threat of coming snow and hot coals and smoke on the air, and his own clean sweat. And from somewhere, a trace of spice.
"Might I trouble you for a cup of water before I go, sir?"
Lestrade blinked. "Water?" he repeated stupidly. "Oh. Of course. Yeah. Just…over here." Dropping his gloves again, he moved to the table where he kept a pitcher and tipped clear water into a simple wooden cup.
The tips of the man's leather-gloved fingers slid over the bare skin of Lestrade's when he accepted the cup. He did not drink. His blue-grey eyes began a questing sweep of Lestrade's face, his throat, his heavy leather apron, and Lestrade once again had the distinct impression of being measured. "You are not entirely what I expected," he finally said.
"It is not a bad thing." The client shook his head and frowned. "I am pleased to have met you, Master Lestrade." His frown deepened. He set his cup down and paused, staring at the wall, before finally pulling off one glove and offering Lestrade his outstretched hand.
Lestrade stepped forward uncertainly, his own hand half-raised. His hand looked rough and filthy in comparison with the stranger's soft white skin.
The man closed the distance between them and clasped his hand. His grip was strong and assured.
"I am…pleased to have met you as well…sir. I did not hear your name."
The man smiled. "And I cannot give it to you."
"Names have power."
"You know my name."
"Then it is well I am the one with the power."
"What sort of power is in a name?"
The man smiled calmly. They were still clasping hands. "You will attend the Winter Ball."
Lestrade shook his head and looked down. "But, sir, your order…"
"You will attend all three nights. Three nights," he released Lestrade's hand, lifted the wooden cup, and pressed it into the curve of Lestrade's palm, "for your good deeds."
"If you must have a name, you may call me…Enchanter." The man pronounced the word with thoughtful delectation, and his eyes twinkled as though he had amused himself.
Lestrade didn't know whether he was meant to laugh. He didn't feel like laughing. He was not a man who believed in otherworldly magic, but he was starting to feel a bit unsettled. This man certainly had…a beguiling quality. "Enchanter," he repeated dubiously.
"We will begin tomorrow."
"Until then," the man nodded and turned away.
As the Enchanter crossed the yard, allowing Irene to link her arm in his once again, Lestrade frowned down into his cup of water. Three copper coins glinted back at him.
The average person might not pay much attention to individual coins, but even through water Lestrade recognised them immediately. A short scratch on one coin. A nick in the edge of another. These coins had been in his pocket just yesterday. Given to a woman on the road who seemed to be in greater need than he.
He stared out into the snowy yard and took a drink of water, shivering again when it hit the back of his throat.
Tomorrow. The first night of the Winter Ball.
Chapter 3: Impression
At dusk Mycroft's minor procession of a four-horse gilt carved coach, sturdy loaded wooden wagon, and accompaniment of footmen left a castle blazing bright with light and activity in preparation for the first night of the Winter Ball. The sky was heavy with the promise of another fall of snow, and Prince Sherlock's mood when Mycroft had last seen him had been a perfect match for the grey gloaming. Sherlock had dressed for the ball with the dull drag of duty, as though he were donning his own funeral attire, a sharp contrast to the man who usually enjoyed both costume and showmanship a little more than was seemly.
Although, Mycroft thought with a wry fondness, there was still a familiar whiff of drama even in Sherlock's melancholy. Drama, as judged by the man who had dubbed himself the Enchanter.
Mycroft frowned, leaning his forehead against the interior glass window of his coach as he watched the dark lines of the winter trees slide past.
If he had behaved a bit more dramatically than usual at the smithy, Mycroft could only excuse himself on the basis that he had gone outside his normal element by personally performing the legwork of venturing out among the village folk. He was accustomed to conducting the majority of his business within the castle walls, where his personal authority was backed by the castle's imposing atmosphere. Mycroft was well-practised in maintaining a calm and unreadable demeanour in the course of his dealings at court, but his composure had…perhaps…slipped upon his first sight of Gregory Lestrade.
Handsome, Anthea had called him. Mycroft was going to have a strong word with her about accuracy in her future reports, for handsome was a poor, pale adjective to describe Gregory Lestrade. Handsome. Liquid, laughing eyes. Disarming smile. A fall of dark fringe. Strong hands. Thick fingers. And those forearms. Mycroft sniffed, rubbing the back of one leather glove against the cold tip of his nose.
Obviously, a blacksmith would have well-defined arms. The fact simply hadn't been emphasised in Mycroft's reports. How could he have been prepared?
The main road was already filling with traffic—carriages, wagons, men and women on horseback and on foot—as the eligible and eager headed to the castle to meet their prince. The array of costumes presented in even this small segment of the population ranged from fascinating to appalling. There was a woman—he guessed it to be a woman—so festooned in feathers as to resemble an exploded chicken coop. There was a short, portly man who appeared to have caked himself from head to toe in some sort of reddish clay. A buxom young lady wearing rabbit ears. A pigeon-chested young man wearing nothing but short fur breeches and carrying a small harp. A raven-haired but gaunt man and woman—brother and sister?—bound together hip to hip in a long trail of red ribbon. All eligible persons, the proclamation had specified. Mycroft allowed himself a quiet snicker. No, he did not envy Sherlock the evening he was about to have, although he did wish he could be there to witness his reactions.
Certainly the reactions Mycroft himself had experienced to Lestrade were simply a…confirmation that he had chosen extremely well for Sherlock. In fact, if his brother had half the observational skill and intelligence he so prided himself on having, Sherlock should be bloody well ecstatic upon meeting Gregory Lestrade.
Mycroft's other surprise, in addition to the sight of Lestrade's so-called handsomeness, had been in the revelation of his superbly inventive and delicate work on his step-siblings' silver masks. The artistic nature of Lestrade's creations had spoken to Mycroft of an imaginative, perhaps even romantic, aspect to the man's nature. Yes, Lestrade possessed expertise and finesse in his craft, but he also clearly possessed an eye for beauty.
How fortunate it was for the involved parties, then, that Sherlock was considered by many to be a beautiful man. Mycroft frowned and smoothed out a fold in his cloak.
Now that he had the opportunity to reflect back on his actions, Mycroft realised that if he had over-dramatized his own role in this matchmaking endeavour, it was a decision made on the basis of sound reason. He desired to set the stage properly for Lestrade as well as for Sherlock. After all, it was not only the Prince who must be persuaded to enter this partnership. The royal family would not force an unwilling subject into marriage. In any case, it had been this unexpected insight into Lestrade's character—this possible tendency toward the romantic—that had encouraged Mycroft to cast himself as an enchanter rather than a more mundane sort of benefactor in the little drama he was stage managing. He fancied Gregory Lestrade held a spark of magic in his eye and would appreciate seeing it reflected in the backdrop of his approaching union. He fancied Gregory Lestrade—
One of the coach's wheels hit a rock in the road, jostling the coach's interior so hard Mycroft bumped his head against the cold window glass.
"Sorry, My Lord," called the coachman from his stand.
Rubbing at his temple, Mycroft scowled out the window just in time to see a single-horse carriage pass in the opposite direction. By the light of their torch lamps, Mycroft could discern two occupants, dark heads bent together in conversation, white costumes, and a pair of beautiful silver masks. He recognised the pair immediately as Lestrade's step-sister Irene and her brother James and his scowl turned into a smug smile as he congratulated himself on his correct anticipation of their timing in leaving their shop—and Lestrade—unattended.
As Mycroft's coach turned onto the small lane leading to the smithy, a few flakes of snow had begun to swirl lazily through the now slate grey of the clouded evening. He halted and hushed his entourage at the front of the shop and crept to the back to spy on Lestrade's forge. Beyond the copse of snow-tufted junipers and gnarl-branched blackthorns behind the shop, at the far side of the yard he saw the flicker of firelight as well as the shifting shadows that confirmed Lestrade's presence, and smiled.
He was looking forward to this.
Mycroft had returned from his reconnaissance of the forge the previous morning brimming with ideas for enhancements to Lestrade's costumes for the Winter Ball. He had conveyed his instructions, along with his memorised record of Lestrade's specific measurements, to his tailor and set him to work finalising the first costume. Mycroft trusted his tailor had been able to cut the trouser thighs a bit fuller than the norm per his observations. He sniffed and rubbed his nose again. His tailor's apprentices had been engaged to produce a new set of livery for several of his footmen, non-identifiable as being of palace origin, whilst Mycroft's footmen had been set the task of organising all the supplies Mycroft needed for Lestrade's transformation.
It had not escaped Mycroft's notice that the smith was aware, was perhaps even a bit self-conscious in comparison with Mycroft himself, of his smith-like appearance. Although it was far from being an appearance Mycroft found in any way objectionable—on Sherlock's behalf—he doubted Lestrade often, if ever, had the opportunity to experience attentive grooming or the donning of fine attire. The latter in particular was one of Mycroft's pleasures in life, fortunate as he was to be in a position to indulge himself. He hoped Lestrade might find similar enjoyment in the experience.
After issuing a quiet set of orders to his waiting footmen, Mycroft walked the short path through the trees and crossed the snowy yard, shifting his weight delicately as he neared the open wall to the smithy in an effort to keep his approach silent. An enchanter, after all, would not blunder across the ground; he would simply appear. A repetitive, echoing ting indicated Lestrade was working at his anvil, which meant he most likely would be facing away from the yard.
As Mycroft hoped, Lestrade did not hear him step inside the smithy, and Mycroft had a moment to observe without being observed in return. Although Lestrade was wearing his grimy leather work apron, he had clearly taken pains to tidy himself up. His hair had been washed and his hand were clean-nailed and free of soot. What Mycroft could see of his cream-coloured shirt was still pristine. A swathe of red cotton wrapped his waist, disappearing into the apron in front.
Mycroft frowned at the irregular, rather lumpy-looking cold steel plate Lestrade held on the anvil. Not exactly his finest work.
Lestrade's arm raised for another strike and then paused in the air. He glanced under his elbow toward the table where he kept his water pitcher.
Mycroft's eyes followed his gaze. Laid out on the table was a gorgeous swept hilt rapier in a black-dyed leather scabbard. A pair of highly polished black leather boots rested under the table on a slightly less dirty patch of the stone floor.
Lestrade's arm fell. Ting. A small half-moon crater appeared in the thin plate amidst scores of similar, seemingly random marks. Lestrade looked down at the plate and sighed. He set aside his hammer, tugged the cuff of his shirt down to the heel of his hand, and buffed the metal with his sleeve. Then he looked at the grey smudge that had appeared on the cuff and swore under his breath. He glanced over at the rapier again, then down at his dark brown trousers, which had also apparently been recently cleaned but were now marred by a streak of black coal dust on one leg. Lestrade swore again, brushing at the mark.
Mycroft swallowed down a most unfamiliar, mirthful sensation and arranged himself in what he hoped might be a suitably impressive stance, spreading the edges of his cloak so the inner lining would catch the firelight. The cloak had been another last-minute addition to his poor tailor's overnight orders, but Mycroft could not have been any more pleased with the results. The heavy fall of deep, inky-blue velvet was lined with matching silver-embroidered silk, the complex swirling patterns interspersed with tiny silver, pearl, and blue glass beads that winked and shimmered like stars in the winter night sky. It felt like an enchanter's cloak.
Lestrade, meanwhile, had picked up the piece of steel, buffed it once again, and was holding it up in front of his face trying to catch his reflection on the mostly dull surface.
Lestrade's head whipped around at the sound of Mycroft's voice. "Bloody h—Enchanter!" He flung the plate away from himself. It landed with a thunk against a wooden table leg and then clattered to the floor. Lestrade did not look at it. He drew in a quick breath and then his face settled into the very picture of composure, save for the rather delightful flush in his cheeks. "I mean…good evening, sir. I was not entirely certain when to expect you."
"When I arrived, of course," Mycroft said smoothly. He gave his cloak another fluff, pleased to see Lestrade's eyes widen a little at the glimmer from the lining, and moved across the floor to pick up the discarded plate. He turned it over in his gloved hand and held it up to the light. "And what are we crafting this evening?"
"Dents," Lestrade answered crisply, with a straight face and a smirk in his eyes. He untied his apron, pulled it off over his head, and draped it over his anvil. "Just keeping my hands busy, sir. To be honest, I wasn't sure whether I should expect you at all."
"No?" Mycroft acknowledged this expression of doubt with a small lift of one eyebrow. He waved a hand toward Lestrade. "So do I look now upon your usual smithing attire for evening?"
Lestrade glanced down at himself and nodded, adjusting the strip of fabric around his waist. "I find a rakish crimson sash adds a certain sense of adventure to many otherwise routine activities."
"In that case I shall consider adding one to my own wardrobe."
Lestrade's smile flashed as he gave Mycroft's enchanter's cloak another glance. "Yes. It does seem a bit drab."
Lestrade's smile widened to a grin. "Have you brought my crafting materials for those very pretty daggers, then, sir?"
"Not tonight. I am here for but one reason tonight: to prepare you for the ball."
"So…you were serious about that. What you said about…all three nights."
Mycroft lifted his chin. "In accordance with the royal decree."
"Then I suppose it is fortunate I am already wearing a rakish crimson sash," Lestrade said.
"Ah, yes, about that…" Mycroft moved towards the table where Lestrade's rapier lay. He touched the delicate arc of the handle as he looked at Lestrade's rather sad attempt at a costume. He did not fault the man's effort in and of itself—Lestrade simply did not have the resources of clothing or accessories for more impressive dress. Which, of course, was part of why Mycroft was here. "Your instincts were good, but I believe we can do better."
"Now I know the clothes are plain, sir, but that's a fine sword," Lestrade said with simple certainty. "You'll not see its better outside of the castle walls, nor I'll wager as part of any costume within."
"It is indeed a fine sword, but it is bringing it inside the castle walls that I question. Whilst the Prince may appreciate the craftsmanship of such a weapon, I have a suspicion his guardsmen might frown upon its proximity to their charge."
"Oh. Right. Of course. Well, perhaps they would allow me to just sort of…set it aside if I were to actually meet him. I can't imagine we would have a lengthy conversation, the Prince and I," Lestrade chuckled.
Mycroft narrowed his eyes, considering Lestrade's good-natured if self-deprecating tone. Lestrade was certainly a modest man, perhaps overly conscious of a certain well-earned roughness of appearance, but Mycroft recognised the enthusiasm and pride that showed in his face when he spoke of his work. Sherlock appreciated people who recognised their own ability. "Actually, I think a display of your skill in your chosen craft could be extremely beneficial."
Lestrade shifted his feet, looking a bit uncomfortable at Mycroft's suggestion. "I didn't mean to display anything, sir—I just wanted the costume to, you know, look nice. Fit in."
"Perhaps you might consider something slightly less lethal as your showpiece."
"I had hoped to fashion a mask for myself, like James and Irene's," Lestrade said a bit wistfully, "but there was only enough silver left over for a few embellishments, and it didn't seem worth melting down any of my other—" He cut himself off with a quick glance at Mycroft.
"Your other…?" Mycroft raised his eyebrows. "You have other work in silver? On hand?"
Lestrade caught his lower lip between his teeth, chewing thoughtfully as he gave Mycroft a long look. "Sir…those three coppers. How did you come by those?"
Mycroft was pleased the gesture had made an impression. That boded quite well for the effectiveness of the rest of the evening's conjurings. "Enchanter," he said, opening his hands as if the word must explain away any question.
"You do intend to provide the materials to fulfil your order?"
"Yes, of course," Mycroft said with a benign smile.
"It is important to me, sir."
"When the time is right." And in a manner of speaking. "I give you my word."
"And you…you did…enjoy…the masks I fashioned?"
Enjoy. It was an odd word choice, Mycroft thought, but accurate. He had enjoyed both the aesthetics and the feeling of surprised admiration he had experienced. Aesthetic pleasures were not uncommon in the palace, but the distinct combination of surprise and admiration certainly were—and so little surprised him anymore.
"Very much so," he said softly.
Lestrade inhaled and exhaled a heavy breath through his nose. "All right, then," he said with a decisive nod. There was a heavy curtain hung on the wall next to the table, and he drew the canvas fabric aside to reveal a doorway leading into a narrow, unlit space. "In here, sir. A moment, I'll fetch a candle."
As Lestrade moved away, Mycroft stepped forward and took over his position holding the curtain aside. He could make out rows of wooden shelving along one wall, holding an assortment of objects. When Lestrade returned to guide him, the soft glow of candlelight illuminated the short passageway.
"Oh," Mycroft breathed. He stepped into the small hallway, eyes darting along the shelves, taking in the items displayed there.
Chess pieces. Puzzle rings. Jewellery. Figurines in the shapes of animals—horses, an elephant, an antlered stag, herons and owls, even a tiny dragon. An intricately articulated metal fish skeleton. A sailing vessel, sheets aloft. A spy glass. A scaled-down model of a human skull. Charms and chimes. A flute. Bells.
"These are all of your making?"
Lestrade shrugged, a small, self-conscious movement. "It's…just a sort of storage area," he murmured.
"No," Mycroft said gravely. With a very few exceptions, none of the objects had been crafted from precious metals. There was iron and copper and pewter, and none of the items were large. But there was no mistaking what the true nature of this collection was, at least not to his eye. "This is a treasure room."
Lestrade gave him an uncertain look. "It's all made from scrap, sir. I would not wish you to believe I made off with any customer's materials for my own dabbling."
"Do not misunderstand me. You are exquisite." Mycroft's voice sounded almost harsh to his own ear, and Lestrade blinked at him. He inhaled a slow, soft breath and modified his tone. "These items are exquisite. Why are they hidden away? This work should have pride of place in your shop."
"James and Irene would call it a waste of time and material," Lestrade shook his head. "They do call it so. So I keep them…hidden away. They serve no purpose but my own amusement, sir, and the improvement of my technique."
Mycroft reached out and touched the tip of one gloved finger to an arc of marked brass. "This is an armillary sphere."
Lestrade chuckled. "Most of the townsfolk around here don't have much use for armillary spheres, sir. Or…or…" he gestured towards the shelves. "Tin flowers and leaves. Not to spend their hard-earned coin on. I sometimes gift some of the little baubles to the local children."
Another piece of information that had not been in Mycroft's reports. He pressed his palms together, considering Lestrade. "Your technique, as you say—from where did you devise these designs?" He nodded towards the shelves.
"The fundamentals of the work, from my old master, naturally. But as for the designs themselves…observation, for some. Mostly from books."
Mycroft raised his eyebrows. "Books?"
"They are my real treasure. A gift from my master," Lestrade said proudly. "It was he who taught me to read and write."
The request earned Mycroft a pleased smile. "Wait just here a moment, if you would, sir. They're just in my sleep chamber."
Lestrade turned towards a second curtained doorway set in the wall opposite the shelves—Mycroft had been too intent on the wall of crafted curios to give it much consideration.
"Sleep chamber?" Mycroft grimaced in displeasure. Sectioned off from the warmth of the forge fire, the little space they stood in was cold. Despite his padded doublet and winter cloak, Mycroft had felt the chill within seconds upon entering the space. The small decrease in light resulting from Lestrade's stepping away with the candle seemed to leave the room even colder. "You sleep out here?"
"Yes." Lestrade paused in drawing aside the curtain, looking puzzled by the question.
"Forgive me," Mycroft said, conscious of the judgement implied in his question. Yet another area in which his reports had failed him. "I assumed you had one of the rooms above the shop." He felt a stab of anger that Lestrade's step-sister and step-brother would mistreat him in this way. Their shop was a well-constructed, two-storey structure with what he judged ample space to house more than two people. Lestrade was no peasant, and even the peasants in the kingdom had warm places to sleep in winter. Sherlock's own grandmother Queen Amelia had seen to it the people's taxes provided public houses for those who might otherwise suffer the cold.
Lestrade gave a wry shrug. "It's not so bad, sir. Room enough for my mattress and trunk, that's all I need. And it shares the stone wall with the forge—it stays warm most of the night even after the fire's gone out."
As the Prince's husband, Lestrade would sleep in his own room with a roaring, crackling wood fire in winter. On a thick wool mattress and featherbed, with a heavy, finely-woven canopy and as many layers of blankets as he desired. Or, Mycroft supposed, if he and Sherlock ever came to such an arrangement, they would sleep together on that featherbed in front of that roaring fire, pressed together under silken sheets. He swallowed and cleared the frown lines from his forehead. "The books?" he prompted softly.
"Yes, the books," Lestrade echoed. He disappeared behind the curtain. Mycroft heard metal clasps and the soft creak of hinges, followed by the sounds of shifting fabric, wood, and paper, before Lestrade emerged with an armful of leather-bound books, candle holder balanced precariously on top. As Mycroft took the candle into safer hold, Lestrade gestured with his head towards the doorway to the forge proper, where the fire would offer more light.
Lestrade settled Mycroft on his iron work stool and hovered over him anxiously as he spread the books out for display in three short stacks. His dark eyes were wide and bright, and several locks of his long fringe were swaying over his eyes as he looked from stack to stack with a rather charming air of excitement, deciding which book to show Mycroft first. He ran an index finger gently down the edge of one worn binding. "Look here. You asked about the armillary. That one's in here." He picked up and offered Mycroft a book titled The Mariner and the Sea of the Moon.
Mycroft pulled off his gloves before accepting the book, then carefully flipped through several pages, confirming what the title had already suggested. "This is no scientific volume."
"No, but the device's description within was good enough for me to picture the thing. You recognised it for what it was," he said, lifting one eyebrow, "so I mustn't have got it too far wrong."
"On the contrary," Mycroft said, looking up from the books to study the play of firelight across Lestrade's features. Exquisite. "You are a man of rare vision."
"Oh, no, sir. I don't think any of it up. I just…copy things. But," his eyes sparked with pride, "if you can show me a thing or tell me how it works, and it's made of metal, I can make it for you."
"Hm," Mycroft hummed as his eyes drifted over some of the other books' titles. They ranged from folk tales to poetry, from atlases to scientific and medical tomes. Truly an impressive collection for an orphaned smith who lived in a shed and slept in charcoal dust, and more impressive still that Lestrade recognised the value of it. Mycroft picked up one particularly heavy volume, titled simply enough Animals. "The elephant?" he asked with a little smile.
Lestrade nodded, grinning. "Oh, I would love to see one. Or the moon on the sea, for that matter," he added, taking back the tale of the mariner. "I don't suppose you could conjure either of those up for me, could you, Sir Enchanter?"
Mycroft crossed his legs, settling his hands on one knee of his black breeches, and gave Lestrade a beatific smile. "I am pleased to hear you are beginning to show the proper faith in my abilities."
"Faith is exactly right," Lestrade said, folding his arms and shooting Mycroft a wicked little grin, "as I've yet to witness any actual enchanting beyond a few fine words." Then he started, blinked, and his smile slid away. "Forgive me, sir. For such a remark, for…all of this. I…have been too familiar."
"I have not offered any complaint," Mycroft said softly.
Lestrade gave him an odd look. "I mean no disrespect. It's just…well, strange as you are, sir, you have a way about you that makes me feel curiously…at ease."
"That is…not a comment I often hear."
"I don't know quite what to make of you, sir."
"Ah." Mycroft smiled. "Now that is a more familiar remark. So you find me strange, do you?"
The corner of Lestrade's mouth quirked up. "But then I haven't met many enchanters. Perhaps you are quite ordinary."
Mycroft smiled again and raised one hand to rest atop the book on animals. The leather felt rough to his fingertips and smooth to his palm. "Perhaps we might select one of your baubles to gift the Prince," he instructed, "and then we will proceed with your preparation for the ball, so you may see how I compare to any other enchanters of your acquaintance." His footmen should have had almost enough time now to complete their own preparations, but he would allow them a few more minutes. He had been impressed by the silence of their work outside, but then again it was only to be expected—Mycroft did not suffer the incompetent in his service.
Lestrade frowned thoughtfully. "One of the rings?"
"A touch overconfident," Mycroft smirked, "do you not think?"
"Oh, no, I didn't mean that sort of—" Lestrade hastened to amend, then huffed a laugh at Mycroft's expression. "Quite right, though. No ring. What would you choose, sir? What might impress you? An enchanter's mind must be closer to a prince's than my own."
The chess set.
But the gift was for his brother. Mycroft's eyes drifted shut for a moment as he sifted through images of every fascinating item visible on the shelves. What might Sherlock most appreciate? "Ah." He opened his eyes, pleased. "The quizzing glass."
"Indeed? The lens itself is not very good."
Lestrade flashed him a grin. Mycroft was almost getting used to the effect now. Almost. "The glass it is."
Lestrade gathered up his books and disappeared through the curtained door to his storage space, re-appearing shortly with a small object cast in brass. A simple ring encircled a flat glass disk and affixed to a short engraved handle. On the end of the handle was another small ring, intended for hanging the device from a strap or chain. Sherlock was constantly investigating scientific tools and techniques. Although the glass itself was a simple tool, Sherlock would find the object useful in his research work once the lens was replaced. Even more, he might appreciate the idea of having a companion who could create useful items on demand and without the tediously detailed specifications other craftspersons may require.
"Very fine," Mycroft pronounced the glass when Lestrade offered it up to him for inspection by the light of the forge fire.
"Do you intend to enchant it?"
Lestrade's tone was playful, but Mycroft was pleased to note a glimmer of real curiosity in his eyes. The more educated persons in the kingdom did not believe in magic in these enlightened days, but simpler folk held fast to their stories of witches and faeries and fantastic beasts and, as even Irene had most annoyingly intimated in regards to his brother, the dark arts. Lestrade was clearly a learned man, judging by his impressive personal library, but Mycroft suspected just enough of the village remained in him to cast a shadow of doubt on his more rational beliefs. Mycroft worked well in the shadows.
He rose to his full height, raised his chin, and looked down his nose at Lestrade with as much magnificence as he could muster. Perhaps he was dramatizing, but should an enchanter not be a bit dramatic? A bit…romantic? "I intend to enchant you."
Lestrade's throat worked before he huffed a small, soft laugh. "I believe you might, sir."
Mycroft gave his cloak a snap so that the same firelight caught in Lestrade's dark eyes once again caught its silver lining and sparked off its jewels. He gestured toward the forge's exit in invitation. "Then follow me. The night awaits."
Chapter 4: Masquerade
Whilst the Enchanter pulled on his leather gloves, Lestrade hastened to exchange scuffed work shoes for his carefully polished black boots and throw his hemp-spun winter cloak around his shoulders. They stepped out from the smithy into the night side by side.
Through the grey fall of snow, pools of flame-gold light glowed at the far edge of the yard, illuminating the line of trees behind the shop as well as—far more unexpectedly—a large, colourfully-patterned pavilion tent.
Lestrade stilled mid-step. A brisk wind from the north brushed the skin just beneath the collar of his cloak with icy fingers and sent snowflakes dancing and dazzling in front of his eyes. "What is that?"
The Enchanter smiled, enigmatically silent, and gestured for Lestrade to proceed across the yard.
A ring of torches as well as a small stone-encircled wood fire sent flickering light and shadows dancing across the blanket of blue-grey snow and up the sloping walls of the pavilion. Four men stood waiting in front of the tent's entrance, standing in an even row on a rich blue-and-gold woven rug laid directly atop tamped down snow. They wore matching uniforms, smart blue coats with tails, white shirts, black trousers and blue caps.
Lestrade took in the scene for a long moment before he leaned towards the Enchanter, spreading his hands in question as he asked simply, "Friends of yours?"
"As I rode to meet you this evening, four winterjays marked my progress." The Enchanter ever-so-casually dusted a scatter of melting snowflakes from his sleeve. "I thought I might put them to good use."
"Winterjays, eh?" Lestrade looked again at the four attendants' blue and black attire and nodded slowly. "I see."
The Enchanter raised one eyebrow, giving Lestrade a smug, expectant look.
"There is one…odd thing about your tale, though."
Lestrade raised an eyebrow back. "The winterjay is a day bird."
The Enchanter's laugh puffed out in a silvery cloud. "That is odd, isn't it?"
Lestrade mirrored the laugh and shook his head in bemusement. "I suspect I may yet see stranger sights this night."
The Enchanter's hand swept out towards the tent in graceful invitation. "Step inside."
Whatever he had waiting for Lestrade inside, the Enchanter was clearly excited to reveal it. It was a fetching expression on what Lestrade had first thought a rather austere face. And his laugh…it transformed him completely. The lingering spark in the Enchanter's eyes excited Lestrade's own anticipation even further. The winterjays parted rank, bowing as they let Lestrade pass through.
The interior of the tent looked as luxurious to Lestrade as any room he had ever chanced to visit in wealthier homes about town. Rugs and furs lined the floor in thick layers. Carved, gilded lanterns hung from the interior wheel hub, swaying gently on their chains. A sturdy oak bench rested beside a wide, gold-framed mirror that stood the full height of a man. There was a heavy iron-barred trunk set in front of a long, velvet curtain hung near the back of the tent.
With a brief gesture, the Enchanter summoned one of the jays—footmen, Lestrade supposed—to his side and directed him towards Lestrade. "Attend him."
"Yes, sir. The bath is ready."
Lestrade blinked. "Bath?"
"This way, sir," the young footman said as he drew aside the curtain to reveal a wide, deep copper tub.
Tendrils of steam rose from the water. Not only had the water been heated, presumably over the fire behind the tent, but a small brass and copper brazier added an extra sigh of warmth across the small space. Lestrade hadn't had a real bath since early autumn, when the temperature of stream and air were still tolerable. Since then it had been a hasty dunk in the leaky wooden barrel and a hard, fast scrub with water warmed on the fire and the harsh lye soap made from the ashes from his forge. It wasn't luxurious, but it kept him clean.
This bath, this fur-floored tent, this was beyond luxurious. This was unfamiliar territory. What exactly was he getting into here? Was it really the Winter Ball he was being prepared for? Lestrade took a step back and turned a hesitant look on the Enchanter. "I've…had a wash. Already."
Puzzlement flickered beneath the Enchanter's self-satisfied expression at Lestrade's less-than-enthusiastic reaction. "The bath is optional and, of course, entirely your decision. But…I highly recommend it."
Lestrade eyed the copper tub. The scent from the water, clove and fennel and mint, stirred a memory of sleepy satiety. Its warmth beckoned.
"Trust me," encouraged the Enchanter softly.
And with no idea why, other than the facts that the snow was whispering outside and the Enchanter's eyes were warm and the light in the tent was the colour of honey, Lestrade did trust him. "All right then." He rubbed his tingling fingertips against his palms. "Apparently I'm going to have a bath."
"Very good, sir," the footman piped up cheerfully. He stood waiting for a moment, then flicked a look at the Enchanter and back to Lestrade. "I will be pleased to take your cloak and…" He glanced down at Lestrade's red sash. "Your other garments, sir."
"Oh, right." Lestrade allowed the young man to help him out of his cloak, then sat on the wooden bench to pull off his boots. He sneaked a guilty look at the traces of water where he had tracked snow across the lovely carpets. But the Enchanter still wore his boots as well, so Lestrade supposed he hadn't erred too badly in doing so.
The footman guided Lestrade behind the velvet curtain to continue undressing. Piece by piece, he collected Lestrade's clothing, draping each item neatly over one arm. When Lestrade was down to his underclothes and beginning to feel the chill in the air keenly in spite of the brazier, the footman slipped out again quietly, disappearing behind the curtain. Left alone with his bath, Lestrade stripped off his underclothes and eased himself into the still-steaming water of the copper tub.
And groaned in utter bliss.
There was a clattering sound from beyond the curtain.
Lestrade stilled. "…Enchanter?"
"Yes. It is…I shall await you outside." The Enchanter's usually silky voice sounded a bit strained.
"In the cold?" Lestrade called. "There's no need."
Lestrade remained silent for another few moments, but he received no reply. Relaxing again, he rested his head against the curved rim of the tub, closed his eyes, and sighed. And smiled. All right, then. This was good. This was nice. Sensual, even. What if he was being prepared for something other than the Winter Ball? Something…sensual. Would that be…displeasing? He was meant to believe the clever, auburn-haired, star-cloaked man who had raised this tent for him was truly an Enchanter. He turned winterjays to footmen and blacksmiths to gentry. Lestrade knew very well it was absurd, but there was no denying that he felt swept up in the fantasy. Was it only fantasy that this odd, fascinating…attractive man may have taken…an interest in him?
What if this was how seduction was done amongst the wealthy and Lestrade simply wasn't worldly or sophisticated enough to appreciate the technique? A merchant from Sherrinford, Irene had said. Textiles. Lestrade eyed the heavy curtains. The tent certainly contained enough textiles. The textile merchants were an affluent lot, and the wealthy could afford to indulge their whims. Was he himself the Enchanter's whim?
Lestrade considered that he was not bad-looking. It would not be the first time he had caught someone's eye, and he had eyed his share in return over the years. Caught more than eyes on occasion—a sweaty summer afternoon in the fresh green hay, an autumn night on a blanket of moss—sweet, fumbling exchanges or hasty, silent rutting, but nothing more. He had never pursued a relationship meant to last longer than the next day's dawn, nor had his partners desired more from him. He was not in a position to provide anything more, even had he wished it. He had certainly never caught the attention of a man like this, a man whose enigmatic smile and careful eyes and elegant hands called for far more than a single night's exploration. Lestrade rubbed his hands along his bare thighs, his skin warmed by the silky, scented water.
No. The opulent surroundings were giving him ideas he should not be entertaining. The Enchanter had given him no indication of interest beyond this…mysterious good deed repayment he touted as his purpose.
He dared not linger too long in his self-indulgence with the Enchanter and attendants waiting on him. Lestrade rose, steam curling off his skin into the brisk air, and towelled himself off before realising his attendant had taken away his shirt and trousers. His own underclothes apparently had been discreetly replaced whilst he bathed with a fresh set, and Lestrade blushed when he pulled them on at the thought of the Enchanter having a hand in their selection. When he was at least thus far dressed, Lestrade peeked cautiously around the curtain. The footman was waiting in the centre of the tent. He smiled and bowed, beckoning Lestrade forth. His dark, darting eyes—perhaps they were a bit birdlike—were lit with pride as he gestured towards a fall of dark fabric that had appeared next to the mirror whilst Lestrade bathed.
"Your costume, sir."
"So my own costume is not to be—"
"Oh, no, sir," the footman said, looking vaguely horrified. He clapped his hands twice and a second man ducked inside the tent, bringing a gust of cold air and a few snowflakes along with him. Lestrade shivered.
"Well, then, sir," the second footman's cheeks and voice were round and cheerful, "let's get you dressed for the Ball!"
Lestrade had never had anyone assist him into his own clothing. At least, not as an adult, and he couldn't remember being dressed as a child. It wasn't as strange as he would have expected, had he ever expected such a thing. His attendants were efficient and respectful and in just a few minutes they were exchanging satisfied nods as they gave his garments a final brush down.
They turned him to face the mirrored glass, and Lestrade swore under his breath. He hardly recognised himself. The bloke staring back at him was tall and sleek and confident and…bloody handsome. He turned this way and that, examining himself from different angles. He was clad all in black—trousers that fit him so closely he felt immodest, full-sleeved shirt, and snug waistcoat. Each item was cut from a different fabric, wool and silk and linen with subtle differences in pattern, but all black as shadow save for carmine laces at his wrists and neck. He felt like a red-tipped raven's wing. He felt like midnight and rubies.
Lestrade raised his eyes from the reflection of his soft leather boots and met the Enchanter's flushed stare in the mirror.
With a whisper of fabric, the footmen slipped through the door to the yard, and Lestrade and the Enchanter were alone in the tent. Faint, muffled sounds of movement outside murmured against the walls. The lantern light flickered, warm and teasing.
Lestrade could not take his eyes from the Enchanter's. If this was a seduction, it was working. Oh, yes, Lestrade could pass a night with this man. Undo the red laces the footmen had tied so carefully, a slow slide through the snug eyelets, open his collar, his silky black waistcoat draped over the wooden bench, the Enchanter's cloak a drift of stars amidst the rugs and furs and—he took a breath, preparing himself to make it clear he was…open. Slowly, now. Carefully. Pulling fine silver wire. His voice came out gruff. "Sir—"
"The garments fit you well." The Enchanter gave his head a sharp turn, breaking their mutual gaze and presenting Lestrade with a cool, aquiline profile. "As I expected. You will catch the Prince's eye," he asserted.
And Lestrade was an idiot. An over-imaginative, conceited, ridiculous idiot. For thinking…for one moment…he blew out a faint, quiet breath as he felt his cheeks heat with chagrin. This Enchanter's agenda was not the seduction of a simple, insignificant smith. Not even for a night. In fact, his agenda was apparently, bafflingly… "The Prince."
"Come, then." The Enchanter made a brusque gesture, turning his back on Lestrade entirely. "We must ensure you arrive in good time."
As they stepped outside, a waiting footman helped Lestrade into a sleek new ebony cloak. Another handed him a pair of black leather gloves and a fabric mask stitched with tiny red nicks of thread. A third handed him the quizzing glass, which had acquired a black satin cord since he had relinquished it. Lestrade tucked it safely into his waistcoat pocket.
"This evening, the Prince will conduct brief interviews of all eligible Winter Ball guests in order to narrow the selection of potential partners," said the Enchanter. "Favoured candidates will be invited back for subsequent interactions, separate from the other attendees, on the next two nights of the Ball. I have little doubt you will be included in that group."
Lestrade frowned. They walked out along the edge of the trees towards the path to the shop. Lestrade kept his eyes down, watching the Enchanter's boots as they sank into the the freshly-fallen snow. "Sir," he began carefully. "I thank you, most sincerely, for the effort you have taken to allow me to attend the Winter Ball. And for your…encouragement. But you must know that is the extent of my ambitions—to attend the Ball. I have no interest in setting my cap at the Prince. It sounds a bit…" Lestrade grimaced. "I don't know. A bit cold as a way to meet the person you'll spend your life with."
There was a studied silence beside him before the Enchanter spoke again. "You think so? It is a methodical approach, it is true, but a prince must make reasoned decisions, even in matters of personal alliances."
"It's…not the way I'd imagine myself falling in love," Lestrade glanced at the Enchanter, "one day. Although I do not know the man, I would wish a happy union for Prince Sherlock."
A strained expression passed over the Enchanter's face, there and gone between one footstep and the next. "You sound as though you do not share your step-sister's conjecture regarding the Prince's…eccentricities."
"I prefer to form my own opinions, sir," Lestrade said. He smiled to himself wryly as he stole another look at the Enchanter's profile. "And I'm rather fond of eccentricity, at that."
They reached the footpath through the small woods and Lestrade started to hear the whickers, stamps, and snorts that meant horses were nearby. The orange-yellow glow of lamplight glimmered through the trees.
"Nevertheless, whatever your ambitions…or lack thereof…for your evening, you will meet the Prince." Their footsteps crunched steadily through the thin, icy crust on top of the snow. "I beg you would consider, Master Lestrade, that a life with the Prince could be a good one. A rewarding one."
"And I wish the person that shares it well," Lestrade said. He smirked. "Even it if is Irene or James. Although for the Prince's sake I hope—cor, look at that."
As they broke the tree line, the Enchanter's coach came into view. A great, ornate, golden thing it was, gilded from its wheel spokes to its roof and hitched to four enormous horses with coats the colour of fresh cream. A coachman in winterjay livery sat ready, snow collecting on the brim of his blue cap.
"Enchanter, I should not be surprised you travel in such style." Lestrade huffed a soft laugh and turned to look at the Enchanter, who was watching him closely. The Enchanter's eyes had lit once again with the same mischievous self-satisfaction they had shown in the tent, and Lestrade could not help but smile in return. "Or is this another spell you have cast? If your footmen came to you as winterjays, were your horses once four white mice? Was this coach once a farmer's prize gourd?"
"Perhaps." The Enchanter's eyes crinkled. He moved forward towards Lestrade, close, and slipped his hand inside Lestrade's cloak. Lestrade's smile fell away and his breath caught as gloved fingers brushed the front of his body. The Enchanter stepped away with the quizzing glass dangling by its cord from his gloved hand. "But then, what was this object, once? Sand and lumps of metal? Did you cast a spell yourself?"
"The horses were once foals. And the coach was once trees and stone." The Enchanter smiled. "And it is not my coach. It is yours."
"At least for the evening," the Enchanter allowed with a brief nod.
"You will ride with me?" Lestrade asked a little breathlessly. A flurry of hope had arisen within him again at the Enchanter's brief touch. "To the Ball?"
"Ah. No." The Enchanter held the quizzing glass out for Lestrade to take back. "I will not be attending."
"But the decree. All eligible—" Lestrade stopped, his voice growing small. "Oh. You are…not eligible."
The Enchanter gave a disapproving sniff. "Certainly not."
"Of course not. I…should have known. A man like you."
Lestrade squared his shoulders and nodded. "I will bear your advice in mind, sir. I will at least meet the Prince with…an open mind."
"Good," the Enchanter said, frowning down at the ground. "I am pleased to hear it."
"I must once again offer you my gratitude, sir. Whatever you are doing. However you are doing it. I will not disregard the opportunity you have afforded me." Lestrade bowed his thanks.
"If I may offer some advice, whilst your mind is so open…" The Enchanter pursed his lips. "The Prince may, after entertaining such a great number of…enthusiastic citizens…be weary by the time you meet. In…temperamental spirits. Do not be disheartened, if such is the case. And you must not allow yourself to be intimidated."
Lestrade chuckled. "Sir, I wonder if you have observed my fine costume." He held his cloak open and tucked the quizzing glass back in his pocket as he struck a solid, artful pose. "Do I look like a man to be trifled with?"
"No." The corners of the Enchanter's mouth curled up. "You most certainly do not. I…" The Enchanter drew in a quick breath, but then seemed to swallow whatever he might have been preparing to say and instead offered Lestrade a shallow bow. "I wish you a good evening."
"And you, sir."
Lestrade stepped up into the coach.
"Lestrade" the Enchanter said.
Lestrade turned hopefully.
"A final piece of advice. If you do not wish complications to arise between you and your step-siblings, I strongly suggest you have the coach back before their return."
Lestrade closed the coach and settled himself on the red, velvet-covered bench within, drew the bear-skin rugs around himself to keep warm. The Enchanter snapped fingers at the coachman and they were off. As they neared the end of the lane, Lestrade turned to look out the back window. The Enchanter was still standing in the falling snow, watching the coach drive away.
Lestrade reminded himself as he crossed the castle courtyard that open goggling would not suit his fine, confident attire. Although, had he allowed himself to do so, he would not have been the only one gazing open-mouthed at his surroundings. He was almost as tempted to gape at the other Ball attendees as much as at the castle. Within the courtyard and as far as he could see through the arched brick entryway to the Reception Hall, there was a parade of dazzling colours and shapes and textures, from pearls and silks to feathers and papier-mâché. Most were bright and opulent, and Lestrade understood why the Enchanter had chosen to outfit him in understated, elegant black—the simplicity of his clothing would stand out in this crowd.
The snowfall had lessened, revealing a sky full of grey and lavender clouds. Torchlight flickered from the battlements and crenellated towers high above and vivid purple banners fluttered atop the castle turrets. Lestrade walked the lantern-lined bridge and climbed the wide stairs that led to an enormous arched doorway. The stone bricks in front of the castle entrance had been cleared of accumulated snow, but were dusted with a thin layer of the new fall.
The interior of the Reception Hall was thick with the movement of bodies and the rumble of voices, but a sharp-eyed porter in the purple and gold castle livery approached Lestrade almost immediately, taking his elbow to guide him through the chaotic maze. For a moment, Lestrade thought he might have already committed some breach of castle etiquette and was being escorted out the servants' door, but a glance over his shoulder confirmed that several others—new arrivals like himself, he guessed—were being similarly shepherded through the Hall.
Lestrade took advantage of the guiding hand to allow himself a good look around, his eyes rising to the soaring rib-vaulted ceiling. The music of sweet pipes and playful strings seemed to dance along the sky-blue painted plaster and in between the white wooden ribs. Gold medallions decorated the joints like little suns. They passed a long row of glass doors flung open to allow entrance to the Grand Ballroom. There were chandeliers twinkling with so many faceted crystals it looked like the stars had been poured through the ceiling. Along with the smells of bodies and torch oil and perfumes, the scents of wine and roasted meat made his mouth water. He strained for a better view, but it seemed their destination was past the Ballroom, a quiet corridor at the far end of the Reception Hall.
He found himself in a queue in front of a pair of heavy oak doors along with a set of similarly befuddled potential revellers. Between the doors two liveried, sword-bearing guardsmen stood watch, bland-faced and stoic. After a few moments, the second door opened and a round and comely blonde barrelled out into the corridor, two bright spots of colour staining her cheeks. The first door opened to admit the next in queue, a tall young man, broad-shouldered and bearded. He exited the second door shortly thereafter, looking deeply confused. So it went, with the men and women in front of Lestrade entering the first door and exiting the second with expressions ranging from unsettled to mortified to furious.
Lestrade adjusted his mask nervously as his turn at the door came. When he entered and the door closed behind him, all the sounds of music and conversation and laughter were muffled. The room was silent but for the crackle of a wood fire and the scratch of quill on paper. A clerk, a small-framed older woman with straw-coloured hair, was sat just inside the door. She demanded his name. Lestrade gave it.
"Gregory Lestrade," the clerk repeated and recorded his name in a careful hand at the bottom of a long column in her open registry. "You will present yourself to His Royal Highness Prince Sherlock, bow, and wait until you are spoken to," she instructed in the perfunctory voice of someone who had spoken the same phrase far too many times for one evening.
Lestrade turned towards the interior of the room.
Prince Sherlock was a striking young man. Beautiful, even. His face was an arresting sweep of cheekbones and full lips, topped with a chaos of rich, dark curls. He was long and graceful in both features and the line of his body…or would have been graceful had he not been slumped in the middle of his throne chair, looking agonised with boredom.
Silvery eyes watched him impassively.
Open mind, then. Right. As instructed, Lestrade stepped in front of the Prince bowed.
With a great sigh, the Prince pushed himself up far enough to cross his legs and gave Lestrade a negligent wave. "Well, then?"
Lestrade frowned a little, uncertain. "…Sir?"
"Show me your trick, give me your little gift or your speech, whatever you've been rehearsing to demonstrate why you are the one I yearn to marry. Do please try not to be boring, although I hold out little hope of your success."
Lestrade lifted his chin and reached up to remove his mask. All of the others had left with their masks on, but the Prince did not wear one himself and this did not seem to Lestrade like a mask-appropriate conversation. So. Temperamental spirits, indeed. Lestrade was honestly grateful for the Prince's directness, for it bolstered his inclination to speak honestly in kind. He looked the Prince in the eye. "I don't know why you would want to marry me, sir. Nor why I would wish to marry you. We have only just met, and I don't consider that a strong foundation for a marriage. Sir."
"But I am a prince." The Prince leaned forward, widening his eyes. "Do you not wish to marry a prince?"
"Begging your pardon, sir, but not so far."
Prince Sherlock eased himself back, pressing his fingertips together under his chin. "You must know something of me. You have heard stories."
"What do they say about me?"
"I have heard, sir, you are volatile, unnaturally concerned with the methods by which death is achieved, and that you may in fact summon demons in your rooms by moonlight."
The Prince's eyebrows lifted slowly. "People usually say they have heard I am a shining star in the royal firmament, clearly the bravest, wisest, and most handsome prince to have ever graced the land."
"As you may well be, sir." Once again, Lestrade appreciated the Enchanter's sartorial choices for him. It was obvious this sharp, arrogant, wary young man was not to be dazzled by frill or feather or fancy words. "I will only judge by what I observe."
"And based on your observations," the Prince's mouth quirked, "which set of assertions do you suspect to be true so far? Good prince or bad prince?"
"Sir, in such situations, I find the truth usually lies somewhere in the middle."
The Prince surprised him with a grin, lopsided and boyish and completely unexpected given the air of weary judgement radiating off him in waves when Lestrade had first walked in. Although Lestrade knew the Prince to be slightly over ten years his junior, his face had not shown his youth until now.
"Interesting," the Prince announced, sounding pleased. He raked Lestrade with an assessing gaze. "Here is what I observe. Blacksmith, by trade. Educated. Poor, yet you arrived at the palace by carriage. Your clothes are not your own. They are newly made. They were made—" He narrowed his eyes at Lestrade's waistcoat. "Oh. Interesting," he breathed. He leaned forward with a predatory gleam in his eyes. "Tell me who sent you here."
Lestrade shifted his stance, caught off guard. "I…am here in response to the royal decree, sir. Like all the others."
"But you are not like all the others, are you? You have a sponsor."
Lestrade nodded. "It's true, sir. I do."
"I…I honestly don't know, sir."
The Prince leaned forward, eyes intent. He did not look angry, though, but rather wildly curious. "Who?"
"He…" Lestrade flushed as soon as he realised how ridiculous he was about to sound, but he took a deep breath and forged on. "He calls himself the Enchanter, sir."
For a moment the Prince's face registered pure astonishment, followed quickly by pure delight. "Does he? The Enchanter."
"Yes, sir. The…Enchanter."
"Excellent. Oh, this is going to be fun after all." The Prince fairly beamed at him and nodded at Lestrade's pocket. "Give me your gift, then."
Lestrade huffed a bemused little laugh and withdrew the quizzing glass from his pocket, offering it to the Prince with another bow.
Prince Sherlock took the glass, turned it over once in his hand, and looked back up at Lestrade. "You made this."
"I did, sir."
"Interesting," the Prince said again, softly. He looked past Lestrade and gave his clerk, whom Lestrade had all but forgotten was present, a firm nod. She made a mark in her register whilst the Prince tucked the quizzing glass into his own pocket. To Lestrade he said simply, "I will speak with you again tomorrow," and gestured towards the exit in clear dismissal.
Lestrade bowed himself out, re-tying his mask in the hallway and wondering if his expression was as addled as his predecessors'. The Prince was definitely…surprising. But then—he snorted a wry laugh—apparently it was that sort of evening.
He made his way to the Grand Ballroom to admire the chandeliers.
Mycroft sat straight-backed in his chair, picking at a bowl of dried figs. The cheerful hue of the Yellow Breakfast Room's wallpaper did little to brighten either Mycroft's spirits or the morning light filtering through the tall glazed windows. Both were smothered a dull grey with the still-falling snow. Prince Sherlock sat opposite him across the wide oak table, slouched in his own chair and steadfastly ignoring his tea. Mycroft and the Queen were of course dressed appropriately for the meal, Mycroft in conservative greys and the Queen in wintry powder blue with matching pearls woven into her plaited, silvering hair. Sherlock, on the other hand—no doubt as a sign of protest at being summoned to this atypical family breakfast—had appeared in his night-wrinkled bedclothes, hair uncombed, chin peppered with what might be considered the beginnings of beard growth.
The King, ever quick on his feet, had taken one look at the little domestic scene and excused himself from the table with a triumphant wink at Mycroft and a tale of meeting the royal accountant, leaving Mycroft and Sherlock alone with their mother.
Queen Maeve cocked a dark brow at Prince Sherlock. She placed her fingertips on the paper laid beside her breakfast plate.
"If you will not take breakfast, Sherlock, there is no reason for further delay. Take us through the list."
"I, too, am eager to hear the results of your search," Mycroft said. "Were there any candidates you did not terrorise?"
"I terrorised no one."
"Sherlock, you made the Duke of Ramfurline cry."
Sherlock shrugged. "Well, if that is what you call terrorised…" His lips twitched.
The Queen flicked a glance at Mycroft. "Do be quiet, dear. I doubt Sherlock requires your guidance to read out his names."
Mycroft raised his eyebrows and nipped at his fig.
"You have the list before you, Mother." Sherlock slumped a little further into his chair, screwing his face tight in a demonstration of agony. "I wrote the bloody thing. Surely you can read the names for yourself. What more do you want from me?"
"Darling, I want to know your thoughts."
"Do you?" Sherlock opened one baleful eye.
The Queen picked up her fork and tapped her plate with the tines, staring down her son with cool silver-blue eyes, mirrors of his own.
Sherlock scowled, shooting an incidental glare at Mycroft as he sat up and snatched the list from the table.
Mycroft returned a pleasant smile.
"The Lady Janine," Sherlock began, not bothering to read from the list now that he held it. "One of yours, I believe, Mother."
"Oh you did include her." The Queen drizzled a thin swirl of honey onto her breakfast bread and took a delicate but smug bite. "I had hoped you might admire her. So personable. And she enjoys dancing, Sherlock. I know how you love to dance."
Sherlock frowned. "I do not love to dance. And she was tolerable."
"That may well be the highest praise we hear from him today, Mother," Mycroft said dryly. "I would consider it a triumph if I were you." He anticipated he would be forced to witness quite a lot of frowning and sighing as this little meeting progressed, and before he gleaned the information from it that really interested him. He had naturally already previewed Sherlock's choices, confirming that Gregory Lestrade was on the list of his favoured prospects, but Sherlock's impression of him as well as of his competition would be key. Mycroft made his gaze serene and bit into another fig.
The Queen's nose wrinkled. "Isn't he rather…a prat?"
"An excellent match, then," Mycroft said.
"Yes, he is a prat. And yet I have listed him because we share an uncommon interest in alchemy, and because I am forced by circumstance to appallingly low standards," Sherlock snapped, leaning forward with a fierce glare.
"I thought he was a banker."
"I believe his main interest is in transmuting gold into more gold," Mycroft sniffed, rubbing sticky fingers on the corner of his linen serviette.
With a sigh, Sherlock subsided. "Molly the Barber."
"A Barber-Surgeon?" Mycroft arched an eyebrow. "Bloodthirsty profession."
The corners of Sherlock's mouth quirked up in appreciation. "Yes. I thought so."
The Queen took a sip of tea. "Oh, Sherlock, what about that handsome young Victor? Lord Trevor's boy?"
"Tolerable. And on the list."
"And handsome," the Queen repeated with a sidelong, significant look.
Sherlock rolled his eyes. "If you say so, Mother."
"Lady Donovan?" she asked.
"Ah, your other one, Mother. No. She hates me."
The Queen frowned displeasure at the very idea. "Philip Anderson, then."
"Also hates me. And is an idiot. And is sleeping with Lady Donovan."
"Indeed?" The Queen glanced at Mycroft. "Did we know this?"
"Yes, on all three counts," Mycroft verified.
"Do you wish me to continue reading or are we just going to shout out names now?"
"By all means, continue, darling," the Queen waved Sherlock on.
"The shopkeepers James and Irene Moreaux. Brother and sister. "
Mycroft managed to contain his reaction to a slight curl of his upper lip whilst the Queen looked at her younger son askance.
"Oh, no, Sherlock. I chanced to meet those two last night."
"Met by chance or contrivance?" Mycroft muttered, raising an eyebrow.
"Artful, perfidious creatures. Surely you perceived as much."
"They are interesting."
"It is not your interests those two have at heart."
"But, Mother," Sherlock batted his eyes, all innocence, "were they not handsome?"
"Sherlock, do not mistake me so deliberately," the Queen admonished gently. "The Trevor boy is also kind."
"Kind." Sherlock repeated with an exaggerated shudder. "Neither James nor Irene would bore me."
"Darling, it is actually possible for a person to be both kind and interesting." The Queen reached over and patted Sherlock's arm, her eyes twinkling. "Even to you."
"Do you favour one above the other?" Mycroft asked, dripping drollness like the breakfast honey. "Or would you plan to marry them both?"
"Does it matter? I believe the stipulation is that I marry, not that I marry a prescribed number of individuals. Why not marry both?"
"It is entirely your choice, of course, darling. Such would be an unprecedented royal union," the Queen allowed, giving her son's arm another indulgent squeeze, "but then you are an unprecedented young man."
Sherlock looked for a moment as though his scowl might soften, but then he pushed his lip out again stubbornly. "Moving along." Now he did glance down at the list in front of him. "Reginald Musgrave."
"Shares your fashion sense," Mycroft observed, then cast a disapproving look at Sherlock's rumpled bedclothes. "Usually."
The Queen frowned faintly at Sherlock. "Do I know this lady?"
Mycroft waved one hand in a vague circle around his head.
"Ah, yes," the Queen smiled. "The one with the hair. Charming."
"Tolerable." Sherlock sat back with an air of finality, pushing the list back towards their mother. "Thus ends the List of the Tolerable."
The Queen cocked her head sideways to scan the column of names. "Darling, I believe you missed one."
"Did I? Oh, yes, there was one more. Gavin Lestrade."
Mycroft's hand twitched.
"I did like him." Sherlock's gaze drifted out the window, his expression going soft and pensive. "He was…not entirely stupid."
"Well," Queen Maeve slid a pointed look in Mycroft's direction. "Now that is high praise."
"Handsome enough for you, I think, Mother. A blacksmith. Obvious by the musculature of his forearms, but confirmed by skill. He brought me a…surprisingly clever gift. In fact," Sherlock dipped a hand into his dressing gown pocket and brought it back up proudly bearing Lestrade's brass quizzing glass, "I have it here, if you would care to examine your tea or bread more closely."
As the Queen and Sherlock exclaimed over the quizzing glass, Mycroft plucked another fig from the dish, studying it as closely as one might without a quizzing glass of one's own. Excellent. Sherlock had noticed the forearms. Sherlock appreciated the glass. Sherlock was not at all blind to Lestrade's appeal. He had probably even noticed the velvet-brown eyes. Mycroft pinched the fig between his thumb and forefinger. Yes. This was excellent news.
"With such a partner, perhaps you are looking forward to indulging your love of dance tonight after all, darling?" the Queen asked with a mischievous smile.
Sherlock frowned severely. "I do not love to dance."
"Yes, you do."
"Yes, you do."
Sherlock sighed. "Then if we are finally finished here, I shall dance all the way to my rooms."
"Yes, darling." The Queen gave her son a fond look. "You are excused."
Sherlock snagged a buttered roll from the table and favoured them both with a final glare before he huffed out of the room.
The Queen turned her smile on Mycroft. "Your Lestrade seems to have made an impression," she said quietly. "Well done, Mycroft."
"His name is Gregory."
"Ah." Queen Maeve leaned back slowly and folded her hands in her lap. "I see."
Mycroft's star-lined Enchanter's Cloak was back in place and his little caravan loaded with fresh delights for Lestrade's second night of the Winter Ball. As his men began setup of the pavilion, Mycroft tromped through the grey drift of night towards the warm amber glow from the smithy. Lestrade was waiting just inside, wrapped in the new black cloak Mycroft had supplied for the first night of the Ball and peering out eagerly across the yard. When he spotted Mycroft, Lestrade's face broke into a wide, welcoming smile, and the inexplicably sour mood that had ridden Mycroft since the morning melted away like snow before fire.
Lestrade swept him an awkward but nevertheless endearing bow. "I bid you good evening, Enchanter."
"And a good evening to you, Master Lestrade." Mycroft stamped his boots clean and shook snowflakes from his cloak and hair. It was impossible not to return Lestrade's smile. "I confess myself surprised to find you standing so idle. Have you no dents to craft this evening?" He was pleased when Lestrade responded to his attempted jest with a good-natured grin.
"Here, sir, warm yourself by the forge."
Lestrade urged him towards the stone hearth with a solicitous hand at his elbow. Along with his cloak, Mycroft saw more clearly by the firelight that Lestrade was wearing his black trousers and boots from the previous night's costume as well—a sign that his first night's experiences had not been entirely objectionable. Mycroft's eyes slid up from the ground, seeking the hint of crimson laces at Lestrade's throat, beneath the shadows of the cloak. "Forgive me, Master Lestrade, if I bypass further pleasantries. Our time is limited and I confess myself keen to hear your impressions of the Winter Ball."
Lestrade nodded his understanding and, his expression going a bit dreamy, launched into an enthusiastic and detailed account of grilled meats, sugared pastries, confectionery costumes, and the artistry of the Grand Ballroom ceilings.
Mycroft at last held up a hand to stem the tide of wide-eyed recall. "And what of the Prince, sir?"
Mycroft tilted his head. "You met him."
"And was he the horror of your step-sister's description?"
Lestrade rubbed his chin, glancing at Mycroft's face and then circumspectly down at the floor. "If I am to be completely honest, sir…"
"The Prince," Lestrade's brow furrowed in careful consideration of his next words, "is rude. Challenging. Childish. A right arrogant young man, I'd say."
Mycroft sighed his sad lack of surprise through his nose. Well, that did…sound fairly accurate. And he had so hoped Sherlock, who he knew perfectly well was capable of being charming when it suited him, might have troubled himself to make a favourable impression—
"But I liked him."
Mycroft blinked. "I beg your pardon?"
"He was also…bright. Brilliant, really. Clever. Interesting. I think…there might well be a good man in there." Lestrade gave a definitive nod. "I liked him."
Also, Mycroft's fraternal fondness forced him to admit, accurate. "The Prince seems to have…made an impression," he murmured.
"I'll grant you, he was by no means ordinary. But perhaps that is the nature of royalty."
"I assure you, sir, many royals are not nearly so intriguing as you seem to have found the Prince." So Lestrade's and Sherlock's regard was mutual after all. Another piece of Mycroft's plan had fallen neatly into place. Had either man disliked the other upon initial acquaintance, he would have had more work to do but…the rest should flow like a spring brook now. Mycroft's triumph settled queasily into the pit of his stomach. "I am most pleased to hear it. I see now the cause of the anticipation you exhibited upon my arrival. You must be eager to return to the palace."
"Anticipation?" Lestrade chewed his lip for a moment, looking away. "That must be the reason, yes. But, sir," his smile returned, "if you found me idle upon your arrival as well as eager, there is good reason."
"Can you guess what it might be?"
"I have always preferred fact to conjecture."
Lestrade cocked a sceptical eyebrow. "I would have expected a more mystical approach from an enchanter. Nevertheless, here is the fact. You may recall I was recently commissioned to craft a set of twelve daggers."
"I have a vague recollection, yes."
"Upon my return from the Ball last night, I discovered…" Lestrade turned to his work table and swept off the small blanket covering it, revealing four beautiful steel daggers with jewel-inset, floral engraved pommels, "…these items had appeared. As if by magic, one might say."
Mycroft offered his most innocent smile. "How unexpected."
"I certainly did not expect it."
"And such lovely work. Your patron should be pleased."
"Well, there are only four," Lestrade pondered, giving Mycroft a sidelong look. "But as these are my first magically-appearing daggers, I think I did all right."
"Only four thus far," Mycroft said. "I congratulate you on a fine night's work."
"And so have I been a gentleman of leisure today," Lestrade said. "I turned my apprentice away just as he arrived this morning so he might spend the day with his wife and child. And have since awaited your arrival. Anticipated, one might even say."
Mycroft glanced up as Lestrade's voice shifted to a lower register. His dark eyes were warm on Mycroft's.
"I thank you, sir," Lestrade said earnestly. "Once again. I owe you—"
"You owe me nothing." Mycroft's cheeks felt flushed, no doubt due to his proximity to the forge. "I have already explained my motive."
"Yes, my good deeds." Lestrade shook his head with a rueful smirk. "I assure you they have not been abundant enough to merit my elevation to the Prince's sphere."
"Master Lestrade, I believe you underestimate your quality of character." Lestrade blinked at him and Mycroft cleared his throat in the suddenly oppressive quiet of the smithy. "The Prince clearly does not. You were invited back for a second audience, were you not?"
"I was, sir. Just as you predicted."
"Tonight there will be dancing. The Prince will favour each of his potential partners with a dance."
Lestrade blanched. "Dancing? Sir, I do not…dance. I've never learnt. Not the sort of dancing they do in palaces."
"If you will forgive my having made just that assumption," Mycroft's lips quirked at Lestrade's burst of anxiety. "I have come prepared to address it. But we must first address your new attire for this second night of the Ball."
"But…more?" Lestrade gave his cloak an almost loving stroke. "What I already have is so beautiful."
"You cannot imagine I would allow you to appear at Winter Ball twice in the same costume." Mycroft looked at Lestrade aghast. "What sort of poor enchanter do you think me?"
Lestrade blinked at him for a moment before his eyes crinkled with suppressed laughter. "Sir, please forgive me such grave insult." He swept Mycroft a deep bow, peering up from beneath long, dark lashes. "I would not wish to be the cause of any slight to your reputation in the Enchanter's Guild. I should be loathe to find myself burdened with a replacement enchanter."
"Oh, do stand up," Mycroft scowled.
Lestrade straightened, grinning. "I assure you, sir, I find my current enchanter more than satisfactory."
"Very well, then." Mycroft sniffed. His cheeks had warmed again. He gestured towards the yard. "This way."
Mycroft's dancing master walked Lestrade along the intertwining pattern marked on the improvised wooden dance floor. She and two musicians, violist and piper, had joined Mycroft's footmen in what Lestrade now called their winterjay livery, sworn to secrecy at the palace regarding their evening's activities as the others had been. Lestrade, once he had got over his initial self-consciousness, seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself as well as managing to charm his instructor, judging by her laughter and approving glances. Whilst not what one might call a natural dancer—and Mycroft could not fault another on that score—Lestrade's athleticism and attention to nuance compensated for any grace he might lack. He had picked up the Hawk and Hare with relative ease and had now moved on to the more complicated form of the Seven Circles. The dancing master, her slim fingers curled around the back of Lestrade's much broader hand, led him patiently through the steps, murmuring corrections and adjustments, and Lestrade began to spend less and less time staring down at his own feet and counting as the lesson progressed.
Viol and flute combined in a lively melody. Mycroft leaned against a small wardrobe at the side of the tent nearest the brazier and nodded along in time with the familiar music as he watched Lestrade dance. He had insisted Lestrade practice in his new costume to get accustomed to the feel. He had kept his tailor to the foundation of simple black, undecorated trousers and boots, but added the instruction for a certain extra sharpness to this second night's costume. Ebony, slash-sleeved doublet, woven through with satin ribbon the colour of wine. Each sleeve ended in a black leather wrist-wrap with straps crossing each of Lestrade's palms. Mycroft had thought the design handsome, eye-catching when he had first seen it, but now…on Lestrade's body, the way he moved in it, the twists and flashes of burgundy and plum…the effect was positively rakish. Mycroft couldn't take his eyes away, could barely contain the absurd pride he felt at his hand in it.
His hand. On Lestrade.
As though he had dressed Lestrade himself. Wrapped the leather laces around his wrists.
And Lestrade would have watched him with those warm eyes, that teasing half-smile.
At a nod from the dancing master, the musicians upped their tempo. The violist stamped his foot in time with the music, in time with Mycroft's pounding heart.
Lestrade laughed as the dancing master spun him in a wild, erratic version of the seventh circle, their hands now clasped, wrists crossed. Their booted feet pounded the floor. Lestrade's heart would be beating hard now as well, his breath coming quicker, his skin flushed with exertion.
Mycroft took an involuntary step forward.
Lestrade threw a joyful, boyish grin over his shoulder at Mycroft, and Mycroft's breath caught. The flute trilled a high, pure note.
The note sang in Mycroft's ears even as the dance ended, hovering above the other, mundane sounds in the tent. The footmen by the door applauded, and the dancing master smiled. He waved her aside with a brush of his hand, and held out the other to Lestrade.
Lestrade blinked, raised his arm slowly, and curled his fingers into Mycroft's hand.
Mycroft swallowed hard. He was in the middle of the tent, holding Lestrade's hand, with six pairs of expectant eyes on him. "The Reed Dance," he said softly, with a nod to the musicians. He released Lestrade and took a small step back, settling himself.
The music fell only to the flute player, a light, lilting tune, soft and sweet.
Mycroft held his left hand open, low by his hip, fingers spread. "Hold out your hand, like so," he instructed Lestrade. After a quick glance to confirm, Lestrade held out his corresponding hand in the same manner, and Mycroft reached for it, lacing their fingers together. He tightened his hold, fingertips pressing into the soft leather of Lestrade's wraps. "The roots of the reed," Mycroft explained. "They hold strong."
Lestrade's grip tightened in return.
"The dance is simple. The reeds sway in the wind."
Mycroft held his free arm up and slid one foot to his right. "Where one leads, the other must follow."
Lestrade slid to the side, mirroring Mycroft's movement, a question in his eyes.
Mycroft nodded reassurance, then took a slow step backwards, maintaining his hold on Lestrade's hand as he put a small distance between them. "The reeds part."
A gentle tug at Lestrade's hand urged him to follow, and Lestrade stepped forward, again mirroring Mycroft's movement.
"The reeds come together." Mycroft smiled his approval. He bent his head close to Lestrade's ear. "And when they do, they whisper."
Lestrade shivered visibly. His eyes met Mycroft's. "I think, sir, this dance is not simple at all."
Mycroft lowered his eyes to match his voice and slid to the side again. "The reeds part."
He should not be doing this, should not allow himself even this one indulgence of a dance. He had no business dancing with the man he intended to become his brother's husband. Lestrade's and Sherlock's interest was mutual. Both men had confirmed their regard for the other. Mycroft's plan had succeeded, setting his brother and his blacksmith on the path to matrimony.
The firelight from the brazier danced with the flute's melody.
"The reeds come together."
"And whisper." Lestrade matched his movement to Mycroft's. He slid a hand across his doublet pocket and pressed it to Mycroft's chest. "Please, sir. For you."
Mycroft reached up and turned the small silver object into his own palm. It was the white knight from Lestrade's chess set, an armour-clad soldier seated atop a proud steed, rampant.
"In appreciation. For all you've done."
Mycroft's next step back was short, almost mechanical. "I admired the set," he murmured.
"I know," Lestrade smiled as he stepped forward. Warm eyes. "I was watching."
A token. A memento for later. Afterwards. When Lestrade and his brother belonged to one another. Mycroft curled his hand gently around the little horse, like he might break it.
A white knight. Had there been anything more between them than the business at hand, it might have seemed a romantic gesture.
Before Mycroft's adopted family's reign, the kingdom had stumbled along, run not on order but on romance and dramatic gestures and even thoughts of magic as if they were in some sort of fairy tale rather than a proper, functional society. And amongst his family, it was Mycroft who knew best what sacrifices were often required for the sake of that stabilising order. One must never give in to passing fancy. One must never give in to one's heart. He was here for one reason only, and it was not to indulge his own aberrant desire for his brother's intended partner. He should not be doing this…this dance. He must not do this.
Mycroft slid away. "It is lovely," Mycroft murmured. His voice was tight. "Exquisite. But I cannot."
"A gift, sir. Of thanks." Lestrade frowned at Mycroft's frown. When he moved forward, it was not close, and his gaze fell to the ground. His voice fell as well. "Nothing more."
Mycroft raised their clasped hands and released his grip, pressing the little knight back into Lestrade's palm. "The reeds part. The dance is over."
The musician had come to the end of his tune.
Lestrade bit his lip as he curled his gift safely back into his closed hand.
Mycroft turned away. "Footman," he called sharply. "See Master Lestrade to the coach. It is time for him to go to the Prince."
Chapter 6: Noble
The great tower clock was striking ten bells as Lestrade entered the Reception Hall. A castle page conducted Lestrade directly into the Grand Ballroom, into what he could only characterise as a choreographed maelstrom, a far more energetic scene than he had witnessed on the first night of the ball. Paired dancers skipped and twirled in time with the pipers' lively tune, sparkling like the rays scattered by prisms between the starfall chandeliers and candlelight. The polished blue-white marble floor gave their steps the appearance of skating across a frozen pond—ice dancers taken by an enchanted moon.
Swells of laughter broke now and then over the low tide of voices as they crossed the floor. Each wave washed Lestrade with a wistful longing that he might turn and smile into a pair of intent blue-grey eyes or lean in to allow the brush of a velvety voice against his ear. He knew he was mad, taken by the false, enchanted stars himself, but he wished anyway. He smiled wryly at his own madness and drank in the sights as if at any coming moment he might share them after all.
Atop a high platform, in a pair of matching throne chairs, the King and Queen sat surveying the ballroom. As his escort led him past, Lestrade did his best to get a good look without blatantly gawking. As with his experiences seeing the Prince only from afar, this was the first time Lestrade had seen his regents from so close a distance. Their majesties looked cheerful and flushed, as if they may have just finished a dance or two of their own. Prince Sherlock's eyes, Lestrade saw immediately, were his mother's, wintry and sharp. He had her dark hair as well, but the Prince's profile was clearly his father's. The Queen's features were less angular, but with a stronger nose and jaw, a handsome combination. Lestrade frowned as something…familiar…teased the back of his mind, but when the Queen's gaze moved in his direction, he hastily looked away and let the wisp of thought go.
The page guided him to a wide alcove and sat him on a long wooden bench with a row of other waiting men and women, widely varied in costume and appearance. Most were watching the dancers and bouncing their knees in time to the music. An ivory-skinned lady with thick plait of rich chestnut hair, dressed in a sleek, vivid blue gown. Next to her, a rangy, softly beautiful blond man in a gold mask and matching golden-thread coat. A long-legged and broad-shouldered man with dark, slicked hair and a slick smirk to match it. And at the far end of the row, Irene in her white furs, making flirtatious eyes over the top of her fox mask at a lush, raven-haired woman in the colourful veils of a tent dancer.
As Lestrade leaned back out of his step-sister's line of sight, situating himself on the bench, the lady sat next to him gave him a pleasant smile. What he could see of her face beneath her iridescent purple mask was young and pretty. Her long brown hair was coiffed and woven with small, fluffy purple feathers, matching a flattering plum-and-periwinkle gown. Brown eyes twinkled at him for a moment before she returned her gaze to the main floor with a dreamy little sigh.
"Beautiful, aren't they all?"
"You do the assembly credit yourself, milady," Lestrade offered gallantly.
"You have yet to see me dance, sir," she smiled ruefully. "I take it you are here for dance and conversation with the Prince as well? One of the lucky few?"
"Er, yes, lucky. That's me. Although…I've only just learnt to dance, myself, so there is a high likelihood of a quick and possibly injurious end to my brief acquaintance with His Royal Highness once I am tested."
The lady laughed. "I am certain you are too hard on yourself, sir. He does move so beautifully, though, does he not?" She nodded towards a pair of men swaying across the floor in graceful, fluid arcs and circles. Prince Sherlock looked light and lithe, comfortably-attired for dancing in black breeches, white shirt, and a long, silk coat the colour of mulberries. A colour, Lestrade noted with interest, that perfectly matched the ribbons in his own doublet. The Prince turned his partner, a slightly shorter man dressed all in white, and Lestrade drew in a quick breath of recognition at the sight of his own silver-scaled dragon mask and his step-brother James.
The Enchanter had made a point of warning Lestrade his step-siblings would be in the Prince's close party tonight—however he had acquired that information—and so Lestrade was prepared for seeing them both. Even so, his hands drifted several times up to his own mask, checking and re-checking it was secure, though he knew perfectly well he did not look at all himself in his costume. Whilst James and Irene held no legal power over him, Lestrade had learnt not to invite their displeasure. They had ways of making his days unpleasant, even if they dealt in needles rather than knives of bedevilment. Far better if they continued to believe Lestrade was in his forge, hard at work on a set of daggers for a wealthy client.
They did move well together, Lestrade had to admit, although he wouldn't say either man looked exactly happy with the other. Absorbed, yes. There was a watchful intensity in their mutual gaze. If the Prince found himself wary of James, Lestrade could only congratulate him on his powers of perception.
"Is everything all right?" Lestrade's companion interrupted his observation with a concerned look. "I beg you, sir, do not be nervous about your dance. I cannot claim to know the Prince at all, but he did not strike me as a cruel man. In spite of what some of the others might say." She slid a dark look down the bench, although Lestrade could not tell specifically at whom her displeasure might be aimed.
"I think you're probably right about that," Lestrade smiled. He offered his hand. "I'm called Gregory."
The woman gave him a startled look. "I…I don't think we're meant to exchange names." She tapped her mask with one finger.
The dark eyes twinkled again. "But I'm Molly," she said in a low, conspiratorial voice.
The exchanged another set of smiles and a brief, furtive handshake as the music ended.
Prince Sherlock escorted James from the floor in close, unsmiling conversation, but then shed any lingering sign of tension from the encounter as soon as his partner left his side, the way water rippled across a clear pond in the wind. He crossed to the bench, bowed graciously to his next partner, Irene, and led her to the floor.
Lestrade engaged in idle talk with Molly as Prince Sherlock and Irene danced, trying not to seem too obvious in his scrutiny of the pair. Irene was dancing as close to the Prince as decency might allow, her eyes locked on his and her lips curved in an enticing little smile as she spoke. The Prince, judging by his arrested gaze, was definitely intrigued. Lestrade frowned and wondered briefly if he might be jealous, if he might be interested in the Prince after all. He tried picturing the two of them together in an intimate moment and his inner eye shivered away from the sight immediately, blinking rapidly. No, it was definitely not attraction he felt. The protectiveness of a subject for his prince, perhaps, from a known predator.
By the time it was Molly's turn to dance she was fidgeting madly, her nerves clearly getting the better of her. Lestrade touched her arm with a whispered word of encouragement just before Prince Sherlock reached their bench and she flashed him a grateful little smile in return. The Prince did not miss the exchange, and flicked a look of appraisal in Lestrade's direction as he took Molly's hand.
Lestrade watched long enough to confirm with a small, sympathetic cringe that Molly was indeed not the most elegant of dancers. The Prince's skill was compensating admirably, though, and Lestrade could only hope for the same when his turn came. It had been one thing to dance lessons in the privacy of the Enchanter's tent, but it was another thing entirely to dance in the Grand Ballroom of the palace with the critical gazes of court and kingdom on him. Lestrade closed his eyes and pulled the silver knight from his pocket, idly running the tip of his finger over the horse's armoured head as he dutifully reviewed the Seven Circles. There was no guarantee he would be fortunate enough for the musicians to play that particular song when it came his turn to dance, but the Prince had already danced the Hawk and Hare with the beautiful blond man and after the painfully dismissive conclusion of his Reed Dance with the Enchanter, Lestrade had no desire to dance it with another. Perhaps if he requested the Seven Circles the Prince would accede.
Two more suitors had joined him on the bench whilst he had been speaking with Molly. The man to Lestrade's immediate right, a pale, silk-bedecked and aristocratic gentleman with large, languid eyes, seemed highly amused by the way Lestrade was counting under his breath. Lestrade scowled and slid to his left. Distracted as he was, he had only made it as far as the Fourth Circle in his review when he noticed the break in the music and Prince Sherlock crossing the room towards him. Lestrade lurched to his feet in time to bow before the Prince.
"Master Lestrade." The Prince returned the bow and, upon straightening, politely offered his arm.
As they took the floor together, Lestrade felt as though a thousand pairs of eyes swivelled towards him. Which was absurd, of course. It could only be…hundreds. Just the King and Queen and Irene and James and a few hundred lords, ladies, and townsfolk. He fixed his eyes forward, froze a completely natural smile on his face, and tried not to trip over his own boots.
The Prince led him to centre of the ballroom floor.
The Prince led him past the centre of the ballroom.
Lestrade blinked away his glazed stare and frowned over his shoulder as they left the crowd of dancers behind. "Sir, what…?"
"Walk with me."
They were aimed in the direction of a guarded archway near a corner of the ballroom. The Prince remained silent until they had entered the quiet corridor, where he immediately released Lestrade's arm. He continued walking ahead at a faster clip and without a backward glance, obviously expecting Lestrade to follow. "I assume you will be more comfortable conducting this interview in a private location."
Prince Sherlock gave him an exasperated look. "You wish to avoid the attention of your employers, do you not?"
"My—James and Irene?" Lestrade stopped abruptly. "They've spotted me?"
The Prince turned and stepped towards him, recovering the distance between them. He flicked a fingertip at one of the ribbons woven through the slashed fabric of Lestrade's doublet. "An interesting choice of colour, don't you think? Eye-catching. Like blood. Or wine, depending on the light." He gestured to his own coat. "I'm quite fond of it myself, as you see. Your Enchanter has clearly outfitted you to be noticed. Particularly by me, one assumes, but I dare say everyone in the Grand Ballroom saw you."
"Well…bugger," Lestrade breathed.
"They saw you. I did not say they observed you."
"Oh." Lestrade crinkled his face at the Prince's now-smug expression. "So they didn't recognise me?"
"Then how did you know…?"
The smug look intensified. "You could hardly take your eyes from them in the ballroom, Lestrade. You are not exactly a master of concealment. Your look was clearly one of concern. You are a skilled smith. They run a profitable business selling smithed items. Partners? No. You have no money yourself. That's obvious. You created their masks—your distinctive artistry is evident—but not one for yourself. Inequitable relationship. Employers. It wasn't a difficult leap."
"Well." Lestrade raised his eyebrows. "That was…accurate. And I must thank you for it."
The Prince looked at Lestrade as though he might have just brayed like a mule or recited an ode to the pomegranate in High Speech. "Thank me?"
"For taking notice, sir. For maintaining my disguise." Lestrade looked around the empty corridor. "I take it, then, you are…excusing me from the dance."
"To excuse you from dancing would be a shame, don't you think, after you took such trouble to learn the steps only this evening."
"How did you know—" Lestrade shut his mouth and shrugged. Trouble was exactly what that last dance had felt like. Trouble was exactly what he was courting every time he saw the Enchanter. The unavailable, uninterested Enchanter. "It was no trouble."
Prince Sherlock gave him a close look. "No?"
"It was…a pleasure."
"Hm." The Prince glanced down towards Lestrade's clenched fist. "Is that for me? Another gift?"
Surprised, Lestrade opened his hand to reveal the knight. The silver gleamed brightly against the black strip across his palm. He had forgotten he was holding it all this time, but he had apparently been squeezing so tightly he had made a knight-shaped indentation the leather. He touched his thumb once more to the little silver horse's nose in farewell before holding it out in his open hand. "It is yours if it pleases you, sir."
"But it was not intended for me."
"No, sir, it was not."
The Prince clasped his hands behind his back and walked a slow semi-circle around Lestrade, inspecting him with a sleepy look Lestrade knew by now was veiling a dynamic mind. "And would it vex you terribly," the Prince finally drawled, "to find yourself excused altogether from my consideration for marriage?"
"No, sir. Not terribly," Lestrade admitted as graciously as he could. "But it is not a matter of any…it is not that I don't like you. It's just that…I have recently been forced to acknowledge my…interests lie…elsewhere. It would be neither honest nor fair of me to pretend my heart is free."
The Prince, in turn, did not seem terribly vexed by Lestrade's rejection. In fact, he seemed almost amused. He plucked the chess piece from Lestrade's palm and turned it over in his own pale, long-fingered hand, examining it. "I do play now and then," he remarked, glancing up at Lestrade. "With Mycroft."
"Your brother, sir?"
"Half brother," the Prince corrected with a little smirk. "So you have heard of him."
"The Chancellor? Of course. The townsfolk speak of him now and then."
"And what do they say of my brother the Chancellor?"
"Not nearly as much…or as much of interest…as they say about you, sir." The Prince's chin twitched up in evident satisfaction, and Lestrade suppressed a grin. "Most people have never seen him, even from a distance, as we have the rest of the royal family. It's said he keeps to himself. Or at least keeps to the council chambers of the palace. Popular opinion varies on whether such habits betray him as a bit sinister or simply a bit boring."
"I assure you he is both. Often simultaneously."
Lestrade chuckled and nodded at the knight in the Prince's hand. "I would be happy to make you a gift of the full set, sir. A wedding gift, if you will. Perhaps your chosen partner will enjoy games."
"Mm," the Prince hummed. "Perhaps. This Enchanter of yours does not, then?"
"I think he may enjoy it very well," Lestrade's smile turned sad. He did not bother asking how the Prince knew it was the Enchanter for whom the gift had been intended. "But it's of no matter. He is not my Enchanter. My interest is not…proper."
"Impropriety is a concern?"
"Not that sort of improper, sir. He is not available."
The Prince pursed his lips. "Are you quite certain? You have declared yourself?"
"Not…exactly." Lestrade huffed a humourless laugh. "But then, there was little need. I am not a master of concealment, am I? No, he must know. But even if my feelings were appropriate, they are not returned. The gift, however, was. I'd rather someone enjoyed it, sir. "
"How noble." The Prince sighed down at the silver piece. "How very noble we all are. Master Lestrade, as I am to marry, I would ask your opinion on the institution. You say your heart is not free. Is it your belief, then, that one should marry for love?"
Lestrade hesitated before answering, cautious of offering offence regarding the Prince's method of selecting a partner. "When it is possible, sir. I realise not everyone has that chance or choice."
"No, they do not," the Prince mused. He grimaced at the little silver horse-and-soldier in his hand, then looked up and gave Lestrade an absurdly bright smile. "Very well, then, Lestrade. I shall return to the Ball now. After all, if I linger much longer in your private company people might talk. It would, however, as I have said, be a shame if you were to miss your dance after such careful tutelage in the art. You will wait here."
"Oh." Lestrade blinked at the hallway, completely empty except for a single stone bench. "Er, as you wish, sir."
"Excellent. I believe you left off at the Fourth Circle, if you wish to continue your rehearsal." Prince Sherlock grinned again, quite sunnily, and turned on his heel, striding off without another word.
Lestrade had not been waiting on the cold bench for too long before a page materialised soundlessly from around the corner of the corridor. She padded softly towards him and held out an arm in the opposite direction from which she had come. "This way, sir."
They left the hallway and turned down another, a long, torch-lit stone corridor, passing a series of identical imposing oak doors until the page halted in front of one that Lestrade could not distinguish from the others. "The library, sir," she announced.
"The library," Lestrade repeated, giving her a questioning look. Was it a tour? Was he meant to read whilst he awaited the Prince?
"If you please, sir. Prince Sherlock's orders." She opened the door.
The groan of the iron hinges echoed across the spacious chamber within. Tall bookshelves, laden with more books than a man might read in three lifetimes, reached for the vaulted wooden ceiling. The flickering flames of an enormous fire were reflected in the night-black glass of three arched windows, easily twice Lestrade's height and framed by long cascades of rich, red velvet. Posed in one corner on a wooden pedestal was a full suit of gleaming plate armour. If anyone had asked Lestrade, in his younger years when he still dreamt of such delights, what his dream of a proper library might be, he might have described this room. And now he barely glanced at it, because standing before the centre window, wearing shirtsleeves and an astonished expression, was the Enchanter.
Chapter 7: Crackle
When Prince Sherlock was a boy and Mycroft just a young man, the library had been a favourite spot to spend in each other's company. Sherlock would pass the evenings sprawled on the rug in front of the fire with a row of books spread out before him. Mycroft would take the chair next to him and stare into the flames, his fingers tented under his chin as he planned entire imaginary campaigns—diplomatic feints, the movements of foot soldiers and knights, social and economic costs and objectives. Sherlock's occasional questions or quotes from his reading provided excellent practice for Mycroft in staying focused in spite of distractions. Those had been quiet, relaxing evenings, before the responsibilities of being Prince and Chancellor had come fully upon them.
Tonight, however, Mycroft had not come the library to relax. Tonight, Mycroft had come to the library to torment himself.
He was succeeding admirably.
Mycroft could no longer deny his profound desire for Gregory Lestrade. The dance they had shared, however briefly, had been a grave mistake. Mycroft's hand had itched with the need to slide up Lestrade's arm and back down his body. His jaw had ached with the need to speak soft words and taste them in return. He had wanted nothing more than to pull Lestrade down onto a bed of silk and furs and warmth, to use his body to confess and praise and beg even after his words were spent. But he had walked away. He was proud of himself for that restraint. And he was miserable.
And so when he returned to the castle, Mycroft had made his way to the library where he could lurk in dark solitude and listen to the bright and lilting music coming from the Grand Ballroom. He had procured a bottle of wine from the cellars, an early summer plum. The bitter notes of tannins tasted particularly appropriate for the occasion.
The bottle was now almost empty. Outside, a blur of sullen snow was falling. The air was cold here, next to the the tall windows. It soothed the hot ache in his chest. The sounds of the ball were muted by distance and stone, but still clear enough to stir Mycroft's imagination towards an agonisingly detailed picture of Lestrade dancing and laughing in Sherlock's arms.
Except Lestrade was not in the ballroom in Sherlock's arms.
Lestrade was standing in the doorway of his library. Staring.
Mycroft stared back.
The fire popped and crackled in the silence.
"Enchanter." It was Lestrade who finally spoke, his voice soft and wary. "What are you doing here?"
Mycroft slowly exhaled the almost overwhelming sense of sudden hope that had seized him. Lestrade had not sought him out. Lestrade had not come to rush into his arms. Of course he hadn't. Absurd, pathetic, baseless thoughts. Lestrade was clearly as surprised to see Mycroft as Mycroft was to see Lestrade. Enchanter. Mycroft was still the Enchanter, and his little ruse was still in effect. Surely Lestrade could suspect nothing else.
"Master Lestrade." Mycroft arranged his features in what he hoped resembled a benign smile. "Are you enjoying the ball?"
Lestrade took a few slow steps towards him, scanning the room as he walked as though it might be concealing a hidden trap, then scanning Mycroft himself. His gaze lingered briefly on the half-full wine glass in Mycroft's hand. "What are you doing here?" he asked again, undeterred by Mycroft's opening gambit.
"Perhaps…I have come to reinforce my guidance in your courtship. You do seem to have strayed from the ballroom," Mycroft pointed out. He made an airy gesture in the direction of the Grand Ballroom with his glass before raising it to his mouth for a delicate sip of wine.
Though Lestrade still wore his mask, Mycroft could see his eyes narrow and brows draw down. "So you're telling me you're here to…what, check up on me? And you just knew I'd be here?"
Mycroft replied with an enigmatic shrug. "Enchanter."
Mycroft's haughty expression slid away. He tried another tack, although his voice now seemed to lack conviction. "Perhaps I simply changed my mind about attending the ball."
Lestrade advanced towards him slowly. "Then you seem to have strayed from the ballroom yourself." He stopped in front of Mycroft, looked down, and said quietly, "Without your boots."
Mycroft frowned down at his feet, which were indeed clad in nothing but his socks. He curled his toes experimentally, just to be absolutely certain the feet were his own. It was not normally a matter of confusion for him, but Lestrade was standing so very close now and the room felt precariously out of balance. "That…is because an enchanter must tread softly—"
"I said stop it." Lestrade reached up, yanked off his mask, and balled it in his fist. His arm was corded with tension that Mycroft could see clearly even beneath its leather bracer. "Please. Enough."
There was a long, wide-eyed silence between them before Mycroft dropped his gaze. His shoulders drooped and he huffed a humourless laugh. "I know you have never believed it."
"I have trusted you, though, sir," Lestrade said. "From the beginning. God knows why, but I have."
"Your trust is not misplaced." Mycroft looked up again and set his jaw defiantly. If nothing else, he took pride in his effort to do right by both Lestrade and Sherlock. In how he had tried to make this…fun…for Lestrade. And, yes, perhaps that had been a ridiculous notion. Mycroft was not a fun man. Of course he didn't want Lestrade to know of his attraction, his internal struggle. Of course not. But he nevertheless felt an illogical stab of resentment that Lestrade did not at least recognise his sacrifices for the sake of familial love and duty. In fact, Mycroft was feeling altogether too emotional. He shot a glare at his wine glass and then a glare at Lestrade. He had been alone, where he could finally let his defences down, and he was not meant to be interrupted. "I have given you nothing but the truth of my intentions."
"Was the truthful bit where you're a textile merchant, or the part where you're some sort of magician?" Lestrade challenged smartly. "Or the part where you've decided to attend the Winter Ball in the Prince's library in your socks?"
Mycroft sniffed. "Well, I don't really dance—"
"I know better, sir." The corners of Lestrade's mouth tightened. "Or have you forgotten already?"
Mycroft's head snapped back. The memory alone of the feel of Lestrade's hand in his sent a hot rush of need through his body, and something at the back of his mind responded with a soft, possessive hiss. His. "The Prince's library, you say? Where you have apparently obtained the honour of a private audience. Or am I incorrect in assuming the Prince himself sent you here for purposes of a discreet rendezvous?" Apparently his brother was not so very opposed to such entertainment as Mycroft had surmised.
Lestrade blinked as though the implication Mycroft was making had not crossed his mind. "There was mention of a dance."
Mycroft snorted and raised his glass in toast to Lestrade. "You are a much sought-after partner this evening. I must congratulate you. Well done, sir."
"What does that mean?" Lestrade's forehead creased in confusion. "I haven't done anything."
"Not yet, perhaps, but who knows where a dance might lead," Mycroft said silkily, suggestively. He swallowed the last of his wine with what felt like an ugly expression on his face. The wine was very sour, indeed. "And in answer to your question regarding our dance…no, I have not forgotten."
A flush crept up Lestrade's neck. "And you would mock me for it? When if I am to have a private audience with Prince Sherlock, sir, it is your own doing?"
"Mock you? Indeed not. I am happy for you."
"You don't sound very happy."
"Do I not? My apologies." Mycroft swept Lestrade an entirely ironic bow. "If that is the case, it is only because it is such a rare thing for a plan of mine to reach an outcome that is not in accordance with my original goal."
"What the fuck does that mean?" Lestrade's cheeks were flushed now as well.
"The Prince must marry."
Lestrade groaned and dragged his hands through his hair. "So you keep saying. You think I'm a suitable candidate. I understand."
"No, you don't understand at all," Mycroft snapped, and his hand was reaching towards Lestrade, because Lestrade's hair was mussed and Mycroft had to fix it. It was what Mycroft did, after all. He arranged things. He slid his fingers tenderly into Lestrade's hair. "I think you are perfect."
Lestrade's face changed immediately.
Mycroft's hand fell away. "For the Prince," he breathed. His throat felt constricted. "Perfect…for the Prince."
The fire crackled and popped in the silence.
"I should go," Mycroft choked out. He locked his gaze on the sliver of light underneath the door to the hallway, his destination, and forced himself to move towards it.
"Do you know what I thought, that first night?" Lestrade said. His voice was low and strange, or perhaps it was only the pounding of blood in Mycroft's ears that made it seem so. "I thought you were trying to seduce me."
Mycroft stopped, his back to Lestrade. He heard the soft slide of a boot across the wooden floor. He felt a brush of warm air across the back of his neck.
"The tent, the clothes, the bath." Lestrade said from behind him. Close behind him. "I thought you were seducing me."
Mycroft didn't turn. He pinched the stem of his wine glass between two white-tipped fingers. "I—"
"But I didn't think it for long. Because…" Lestrade's hand brushed the outside of Mycroft's shoulder.
Mycroft shivered violently.
"…you didn't touch me. You made it clear. You're not available. You're married. You're not interested."
"Not—" Mycroft looked around then in surprise. "Married?"
"You said you weren't eligible to marry the Prince."
Lestrade's face was a study in doubt. Mycroft almost reached out again on impulse to soothe away the tiny lines at the bridge of his nose, to reassure him. He frowned, trying to work through exactly of what he thought he should be assuring Lestrade. His interest? Or…a lie? "I am not. I…I serve the Court."
"You serve the Court."
"In a…minor capacity."
"What sort of minor capacity?"
"An advisory capacity."
"And on what, sir," Lestrade said with clear impatience, "do you advise?"
"I might advise on…what to serve a visiting dignitary for dinner. Or the appropriate phrasing for an official announcement. Or," Mycroft licked his lips, "I might locate and encourage a suitable candidate to marry the Prince."
Lestrade tilted his head. "You're the Prince's…matchmaker. That's your job."
"Duty," murmured Mycroft. "It is my duty."
"So…none of this was about me, was it? That utter shite about a reward for my good deeds. You wanted someone for the Prince. Someone…suitable."
Mycroft's gaze wandered across Lestrade's face, down to his mouth. Normally Mycroft could read emotions so easily, but tonight everything was…unclear. He could not tell whether it was frustration or anger or something else—dared he hope for something else?—that played across Lestrade's features right now. "Someone perfect," Mycroft corrected, and saw Lestrade swallow thickly.
"And the outcome?" Lestrade almost whispered. "The outcome not in accordance with your original goal?"
"I found someone perfect." They were standing close together, but still Mycroft stepped closer, and found he could not speak above a whisper either. "And the outcome is that I want you only for myself."
Lestrade made a sound like he'd been hit in the chest, and it echoed in the hollow, hopeless space in Mycroft's own chest, twisting and wringing the ragged, growling truth from him.
"I want you. Gregory. I have never wanted anything more."
Mycroft heard something shatter. His heart, his will, it didn't matter. It faded away into the roar of blood in his veins and then his arms were around Lestrade's body, one hand gripping the back of his neck and the other in his hair, and he was surging, pressing forward until Lestrade's back hit the wall and Mycroft's body hit Lestrade's and he drove a hungry kiss into Lestrade's gasp of surprise.
And Lestrade kissed him back. The shock when Lestrade's tongue touched his almost buckled Mycroft's knees. Almost. Without Mycroft's boots on, their small height difference was reversed, and Mycroft pushed himself up against Lestrade, tightened his hand in Lestrade's hair and hung on as they bit and licked into each other's mouths. Lestrade was kissing him back, Lestrade's hands were twisted into the fabric of Mycroft's shirt, Lestrade's thigh hitched up around his. Lestrade was the one who groaned, sweet and hard and hot against Mycroft's body. His.
Nothing else mattered, because there was nothing but Lestrade's touch. Mycroft had no kingdom, no family. His world was Lestrade's mouth and hands and the way they made his blood sing hot in his veins.
When they parted, panting, Mycroft had one of Lestrade's leather-wrapped wrists pinned against the wall above his head. Lestrade's other hand was underneath Mycroft's shirt, palm flat against his chest. Lestrade's eyes were as black as coal and his mouth looked roughly-used.
"Gregory," Mycroft breathed as he dragged his thumb across Lestrade's swollen lower lip.
"Enchanter," Lestrade gasped back.
Mycroft took another kiss, then smiled into it. "You have never believed it," he whispered around the smile.
"Then tell me your name."
Mycroft lowered their clasped hands, drawing them down next to his hip into the starting position for the Reed Dance. He gave Lestrade's hand a squeeze and dropped his voice. "We have a dance to finish, you and I."
Mycroft started again slowly this time, planning his campaign. He pressed a line of light, teasing kisses along the line of Lestrade's neck, and won a rumble of pleasure from Lestrade's throat. He slid a hand down Lestrade's back, following the trail of his doublet's slippery satin ribbons to their end, until Mycroft's fingertips insinuated themselves into the top of Lestrade's trousers. When Mycroft nipped gently at the juncture of Lestrade's neck and shoulder, Lestrade's hips bucked forward, and Mycroft used the strategic placement of his hand to pull them closer together. They rubbed against each other through layers of fabric, and they gasped into each other's mouths.
"Tell me your name," Lestrade murmured again with a deliberate, delicious roll of his hips against Mycroft's, another slide of heat against heat. "Please."
Mycroft groaned, almost dizzy with desire. It was fortunate he was so well practised in staying focused in spite of distractions. It was fortunate his mouth was very shortly going to be occupied. He sank to his knees and looked up at Lestrade.
Lestrade's voice was entirely different when he repeated the word. "Please."
Mycroft's mouth watered with the need to taste him. He nosed against the hot length of Lestrade's erection through the soft fabric of his trousers as his fingers made short work of their laces, hastening to expose his prize.
Lestrade's hand closed tightly on Mycroft's shoulder just as the sound of pounding footsteps from the hallway registered in Mycroft's ears.
A gasp. "Mycroft!"
Mycroft shot to his feet, instinctively shielding Lestrade with his own body even as he twisted to look over his shoulder. He heard Lestrade's panicked inhale, felt him fumbling at the ties of his breeches.
Behind the Queen, through the now-open doorway, faces were appearing against the light from the corridor, one after the other with expressions of interest, dismay, and confusion. But the only face Mycroft really saw was Sherlock's, which was pale and stricken.
Mycroft's entire body was suffused with shame.
From the courtyard, the tower clock began to chime midnight, but for Mycroft time slowed. Each of his heartbeats took an age as he turned slowly back towards Lestrade, his eyes tracking past the sordid little tableau of Lestrade's mask on the floor next to his own shattered wine glass.
Lestrade's eyes were wide. "Mycroft?"
The bells chimed midnight, and Mycroft's world spun and rang in his ears.
"Forgive me," he whispered to Lestrade. He had betrayed Lestrade, his own Lestrade, taken away with his greedy, selfish hands everything he had tried to give him.
There was a sharp bark of laughter from someone in the room, and Mycroft spun. The room spun.
"Forgive me," he whispered to his brother, for he had surely betrayed Sherlock. "I never…I did not mean…"
Sherlock started to speak, sharply. "Mycroft—"
"Forgive me." Mycroft pushed past him, past his mother and past the gawking faces. He had betrayed his brother. He had betrayed his kingdom. He had betrayed himself.
As he staggered into the corridor, the clock chimed its final toll.
Confused, ashamed, and heartbroken, Mycroft fled.
The Queen raised her eyebrows at the empty doorway, then turned her head and raised them even higher at Lestrade.
Lestrade's eyes shifted from face to face of each visitor who had accompanied the Queen into the library, wishing with all his might for sudden invisibility.
Alas, he did not appear to be at all invisible.
Molly had a hand over her mouth.
James stepped from behind Molly, his face shifting to fury as he recognised Lestrade.
Irene also looked furious.
The blond man in the gold mask looked sympathetically embarrassed.
The pale, aristocratic man—the one who had laughed—was smirking now.
The raven-haired tent dancer looked intrigued.
The fire popped and crackled in the silence.
"Well!" Prince Sherlock took a deep breath and stepped into the centre of the circle of onlookers. He clapped his hands together and turned on a bright, expectant smile. "You all have questions."
"Sherlock!" the Queen said sharply.
The Prince spread his hands, adopting an offended expression at his mother's tone of reproof.
"I thank you all for joining me," the Queen said politely as she made quick work of herding her entourage out through the library door. "I do hope you enjoyed the tour. Goodnight. Farewell. Hurry along, now. The guard will show you back to the ballroom."
James cast a dark look over his shoulder at Lestrade as the door closed behind him.
The Queen smoothed down her full satin brocade skirt with a heavy sigh. "Well done, Sherlock."
"I hardly expected you to show your guests to our private library, Mother," Prince Sherlock scowled. "I did try to stop you."
"Yes, dear, I suppose you did, if that's what you call that rather undignified dash you made down the corridor. Although perhaps an earlier indication to me of your machinations regarding this little affaire de coeur might have been a more sensible precaution?"
"Perhaps," Prince Sherlock acknowledged grudgingly. "The timing was…unfortunate."
"I'm pleased at least to see you took no enjoyment in your poor brother's discomfiture."
Prince Sherlock grimaced. "Not in this particular instance."
"Er," Lestrade said.
The Queen and the Prince frowned at him in unison as if they'd forgotten he was standing there.
Prince Sherlock's bright, contrived smile returned. "But if I am not mistaken, there is still something to be salvaged from this wreckage. Mother, please allow me to present," he swept a hand towards Lestrade with a flourish, "your future son-in-law."
"Mm," the Queen murmured as her gaze turned appraising.
Lestrade hastily bobbed the world's most awkward bow. "Your Majesty."
"Master Gregory Lestrade, I presume," the Queen said, and favoured Lestrade with a wry look. "Don't worry, dear, my son isn't always such a complete idiot."
"Er," he said again, and then after a quick glance at Prince Sherlock, "which one, your Majesty?"
"Oh," the Queen turned a delighted smile to Sherlock. "I do like him."
Chapter 8: Enchanted
It's the third and final night of the Winter Ball. It's time to make choices. The clock's about to strike midnight…
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Under different circumstances, Mycroft might have thought the night romantic. The winter storm clouds had rolled on towards the eastern mountains, leaving behind a sky of shimmering stars. Snow that had begun to melt during the day and then frozen again as the sun sank below the horizon crunched beneath Mycroft's boots. Across the yard from James and Irene Moreaux's darkened shop, the warm glow from Lestrade's smithy was familiar and beckoning.
Mycroft's gut churned with apprehension.
He had prepared a speech to deliver to Lestrade, a succinctly-phrased discourse conveying his most sincere contrition and hope for accord. There had been ample time to rehearse several variations during what felt like the longest and loneliest day of his life. Before dawn he had hastily and in stealth gathered the items he would require that evening and then cast himself out from the castle. He did not wish his presence to cause his family, Sherlock in particular, any further pain or distraction. He would return only when he had set things right.
Setting out on an all-day rambling carriage tour of the winter-white kingdom, Mycroft had told his coachman he was inspecting the roads. The coachman, of course, must have known it to be a lie. Gossip flowed quickly at court. Normally, Mycroft appreciated the efficiency of that particular system of information transfer. He had made frequent use of the mechanism himself to ensure the right words found the right ears with no clear path back to their point of origin. It would have been a kindness for that same system to return to his own ears some hint of the reception he might expect from Lestrade after the spectacle Mycroft had made of himself. But his coachman said nothing and Mycroft would not ask. It was a curious, unpleasant feeling, lacking information. Almost terrifying.
As he neared the forge, Mycroft's resolute tread faltered only a little. His heartbeat, however, faltered significantly when he saw Lestrade inside, sat still and silent by the fire. Lestrade's arms were folded and he rested one black booted ankle across his knee. He was watching the yard. Waiting. His face was half in shadow and half in flickering orange light. That achingly beautiful face that only a night ago Mycroft had touched and kissed and adored.
Lestrade did not move or acknowledge Mycroft in any way as he entered the forge.
In the uncertain quiet, Mycroft's movements—his too-heavy breathing, the scuff of his boots across the stone floor—sounded to his own ear clumsy and intrusive. He felt too big. He felt too small. When he lowered the satchel he was carrying, the steel inside made a clattering racket. As he straightened, his grey wool cloak whispered sibilant scorn. He had to clear his throat—another loud, coarse sound—before he could speak.
"Master Lestrade," Mycroft nodded carefully. "Good evening."
"Lord Chancellor," Lestrade returned in a mild, measured voice. "You've forsaken your cloak of stars this evening."
"I fear it is outshone tonight by the true canopy of wintertide," Mycroft declared, then cringed inwardly at his ridiculous grandiloquence. Pompous speech was another cloak he should try to shed tonight. "My poor tribute is…wholly inadequate."
Lestrade unfolded and refolded his arms, shifted minutely in his chair. The wood creaked. "Prince Sherlock said you would come to me tonight," he said eventually. "I wasn't sure I believed him."
"So…you discussed…me. The two of you."
"At some length."
"I don't think you do."
Lestrade's tone of voice was…strange. Mycroft should be able to read it, should be able to read his body language, but his mind was muddled. All day planning his words and now he felt tongue-tied. If only he could see into the shadows to read Lestrade's eyes. But he could not and there was nothing for it but to proceed as best he could. Mycroft's stomach gave a cold roll. He took a deep breath. "I have come to finish what I began. I must—"
"Sorry, what you began when you advanced me to your brother as a marriage partner? Or what you began on your knees in front of me in the library?"
"I…" A flush of warring emotions crept up Mycroft's neck. There was shame at his loss of control, but far more strongly he felt the punch of desire at the memory of Lestrade's body pressed against his own. "I must…I cannot discount the probability that after my…behaviour…particularly after my behaviour…it is still Prince Sherlock who holds your favour. Indeed it sounds as though your…connection…is intact. This is as it should be. You will make the perfect—" He stopped, and frowned down at his hands before he started again. "You will make the Prince a fine partner."
Mycroft gestured towards the satchel he had brought, as though Lestrade might guess what it contained: the three remaining daggers to fulfil his false order—a point of honour even though the illusion of his patronage was no longer required—and a stunningly-crafted costume, a beautiful thread-of-silver coat for Lestrade's final night of the Winter Ball. A coat fit for a betrothal. A coat fit for a prince.
Lestrade rose from his seat and took a slow step towards Mycroft. "You still wish me to marry your brother."
"I would not stand between you."
"I asked what you wished."
"What I wish is irrelevant," Mycroft's voice snapped out with a sharpness he did not expect. He took a slow breath to steady himself. "I desire your mutual happiness. Above all else."
Lestrade took another step forward. His face was no longer shadowed, but still Mycroft could not read his dark eyes. "You have not yet spoken to Prince Sherlock."
"I thought it best, under the circumstances."
"He predicted as much. Said you prefer to 'engage conflict from a safe distance.'"
Wrong-footed as he may have been, Mycroft bristled at the mockery he suspected beneath his brother's words. "On the contrary, Master Lestrade, I am here to offer you the most direct and deepest of apologies."
"Apologies for what, exactly?" Lestrade stepped closer.
"I…should have thought that obvious."
Lestrade tilted his head quizzically. "I find it surprising, Lord Chancellor, I must continue to ask a practised diplomat such as yourself for more specific language." It looked almost as though he was struggling to suppress a smile. A smirk at the very least. "Or perhaps, as you are such a diplomat, I should not find it surprising at all." He stepped forward again, so close now Mycroft caught a breath of the clean, softly spicy scent of his hair. "And whilst I agree you do owe me an apology, I would like to clarify for which particular discourtesy you feel you must offer it. I suspect we may not have the same one in mind."
"I…" Mycroft made his hideous throat-clearing noise again. "I took…liberties, for which you could not have been prepared—"
"I most certainly was not prepared. That, I will grant you."
"Nevertheless, liberties were taken and I—"
"My lovemaking might otherwise have been much improved."
"—regret any—" Mycroft blinked. "I beg your pardon?"
"Perhaps I might have convinced you to stay."
Mycroft blinked again. And again. "It seemed expedient to remove myself from the situation as quickly as—"
Lestrade reached out and touched a fingertip to the iron semicircle of Mycroft's cloak pin and there was a smile. "Your brother did also say you are a fool."
"That," Mycroft exhaled around the hope that rose into the hollow of his throat, just underneath Lestrade's touch, and fluttered wildly, "I will grant you.
"Your brother also asked me to deliver you a message."
Lestrade turned to his work table and then back with a folded parchment in his hand—a folded parchment with a distinctive crested wax seal.
Mycroft eyed the thing warily. "That is not a message. Thatis a Royal Decree."
"Is it?" Lestrade evinced surprise. "That sounds serious."
"What does it say?"
"I don't know." Lestrade held out the parchment. "It's addressed to you, isn't it?"
Mycroft took a deep breath, took the document, and broke the seal. Sherlock's elegant writing scrolled across the page. Elegant and…brief. There were but three short lines of text, but Mycroft stared at the note for a long time before silently handing it back to Lestrade.
Lestrade took it and, after a glance at Mycroft for permission, read aloud. "I hereby decree: Mycroft, you are a fool. He is yours. With my compliments," Lestrade's eyes met Mycroft's, "and affection. Your brother, Sherlock."
"Brother." Mycroft swallowed hard. "My brother—"
"Is a grown man, capable of making his own choices," Lestrade said steadily, "as am I. In spite, I might mention, of these royally high-handed attempts to pass me around like some sort of prize goat."
"Last night you said you wanted me."
"You aren't…a goat."
"You said you have never wanted anything more."
"I have not," Mycroft whispered.
"This parchment would have you believe I am yours."
Mycroft forced himself to meet Lestrade's eyes. He could hardly breathe. "And what would you have me believe?"
Lestrade pressed the parchment back into Mycroft's hand, letting his touch linger. "That it is true."
Carefully, so carefully, trying to hide how badly his fingers were trembling, Mycroft folded the parchment and slid it into the safety of a small pocket in the inner lining of his doublet. On the left side, over his heart. He pressed his hand against it for a long moment to make certain it was secure.
"I think you still have an apology to make," Lestrade said gently, with an unfathomably soft expression.
Mycroft nodded. The absurd speech he'd practised all day was complete rubbish. He saw that now. It should never have been about his noble ideals for his brother or for the kingdom. Mycroft had hurt this man, this man he loved so desperately. He had all but trampled him under the carriage of his good intentions, and yet Lestrade still rose and held out his hand. Mycroft would do everything in his power to make amends. "Gregory, I—"
Lestrade opened his arms. "I forgive you."
With a strangled sound, Mycroft stepped into his embrace.
They clung to one another, not kissing, not moving, just breathing. Chest to chest, faces buried in the crooks of each other's shoulders. The forge no longer seemed so quiet. The fire crackled and a soft wind blew and all the winter's snow Mycroft had packed around his heart melted into a river. He could hear its rush.
"You have a coach waiting?" Lestrade murmured, drawing back slightly.
"Send it away." Lestrade's thumb traced the edge of Mycroft's jaw. His dark eyes were full of promises. "You will not need it again tonight."
Even in the early hours of the evening, the Grand Ballroom was practically vibrating with expectation. The kingdom awaited Prince Sherlock's choice of a partner, and its assembled representatives in the ballroom were eager to be the first to hear the news. In an effort to introduce a calming air to the great room, Queen Maeve had instructed the musicians to keep to soft, soothing melodies, the pages to speak in gentle tones, and the wine stewards to make themselves only so available. Nevertheless, the milling, murmuring crowd was full of anticipatory energy. Queen Maeve, although she maintained an outwardly placid appearance, counted herself amongst the restless.
Prince Sherlock, on the other hand, was subdued. Pale. Resigned. So unlike himself it twisted the Queen's heart. She had questioned herself many times since their quest began as to whether she, Mycroft, and the King had truly chosen the right course of action in arranging for the Prince to marry.
Each time she had begun to lose faith, it had been her husband who reassured her, often with no more than a gentle, wordless touch. When she had married the King, Maeve had not been in love—at least not the kind of love she believed a still-young woman should feel. But she had held her doubts close and quiet and agreed to wed, because the King had seemed a good man, a kind and wise and admirable man who would make both a good husband and father. Still she wondered whether she could ever love another as she had loved her first husband. The answer was, of course, no—she had grown to love the King in an entirely different way. No less deeply. No less richly. Love could grow.
Her boys had made themselves such sceptics towards the ideas of love and romance, but the Queen's own experiences had persuaded her such reluctance might be overcome by the right person, the right situation. If love could grow in her heart, and now it seemed in her elder son's heart, perhaps it could grow in her younger son's as well. Not only would a marriage keep the Prince safe from the machinations of that conniving, wet-lipped toad Prince Magnussen, it might bring him happiness. This was her most fervent wish for her Sherlock, who had so very much love to give, whether he realised it or not.
Her beautiful, bright-eyed, sharp-hearted boy.
"Sherlock." Queen Maeve laid a gentle hand on her son's silver-embroidered coat sleeve. "We must make the announcement at midnight."
"You have made your choice?"
Prince Sherlock nodded and said quietly, gravely, "I have."
Mycroft followed, eagerly biddable, as Lestrade took him by the hand and led him through the curtained doorway that led to his private quarters. Intent though he was on Lestrade, Mycroft could not help noticing that the storage shelves along the small corridor were all but bare, no longer stacked with Lestrade's intricate, shiny, hand-crafted treasures.
"Never mind that now," Lestrade murmured preemptively, noting the direction of Mycroft's gaze. "I've something to show you."
"I…was hoping as much." Mycroft's heart sped up at the thought of a number of things he would very much like Lestrade to show him.
Lestrade chuckled and squeezed his hand. "Something else, first. Something for you." And he pulled aside the second curtain on the interior wall, the one that led to his bed chamber.
Mycroft's eyes widened.
The last time he'd stood in this spot he had beheld a small, dismally utilitarian space with a bare stone floor, a straw-stuffed mattress, and a set of simple wooden trunks for Lestrade's belongings.
The little room had been transformed.
The ceiling glowed with flickering candles, cradled in clear glass globes suspended from delicate silver chains. Garlands of beads woven cleverly in between reflected the shimmering light, casting a spray of golden stars across the room. In place of the flat, straw sleeping mat, there was a high mattress draped in ivory linen sheets and layered with blankets in luscious, fur-lined chocolate-coloured satin and quilted crimson silk. The stone floor had been covered by a thick gold-and-vermilion patterned rug, and the single, small window draped with a fall of ivory that had been pulled aside to offer a view of the night sky.
"Gregory," Mycroft breathed. "How…?"
Lestrade's eyes flared with pride. "You aren't the only one who can work magic."
Mycroft swallowed thickly, too overcome with emotion to speak. It was too much. It was simply…too much. He had tried to give, he had tried to serve, he had tried to settle happiness upon the people for whom he cared. Such happiness was not meant to come back to him. That was not how the world worked.
"I know it's nothing to the palace," Lestrade was watching Mycroft's face earnestly, "but…it's what I could do."
Lestrade nodded. "Bartered. My apprentice Dimmock and I spent the day."
"But…your beautiful things. For…me?"
"Pride of place. It's what you said, I remembered," Lestrade said. He shrugged, as if he hadn't just done the most wonderful thing anyone had ever done for Mycroft in his life. "And now they have it, out in the world where people might enjoy them. What greater pride is there?" He looked away, almost shyly, at the beautiful space he'd made. "Do you like it?"
Mycroft pulled him in and kissed him. He kissed gratitude into Lestrade's mouth, wonder onto his cheekbone, and praise across his closed eyes, and said, "No."
Lestrade's delighted smile faltered. "No?"
"You expressed a desire for clarity in my language, did you not?"
"Yes, I…suppose I did…"
"Then, no. I do not like it. The correct word," Mycroft slid a hand around Lestrade's neck and held his gaze, "is love."
The tips of Lestrade's ears turned pink. "Mycroft—"
"Gregory," Mycroft husked, stepping into Lestrade's body, pressing his hips close. His heartbeat was not the only thing that had begun to quicken.
Lestrade exhaled a shaky breath and said, "You are already very close to deterring me from my course. And I'll not have it. I have plans for you tonight."
"Mm? Plans?" Mycroft nuzzled into Lestrade's hair.
"Yes. Stop that. Plans. Tonight I intend to enchant you."
"That…will not prove difficult, I suspect."
Lestrade gave him a smiling little shove away. He was beaming so bright with anticipation that Mycroft could not help but join in. "It begins with…a bath."
"A bath." Mycroft followed Lestrade's nod towards the small brazier heating the room, atop which rested a covered copper pot.
"All right, it's not a full bath. And it is optional and, of course, entirely your decision," Lestrade shrugged with a self-satisfied twinkle in his eyes. "But I highly recommend it."
"I find myself…most willing to accept your recommendation."
Lestrade guided Mycroft to the corner of the little room, where he gave him a long, lush kiss before he wrapped cloth around his hands and poured steaming water from the copper pot into a small wooden tub. The scent of cloves, the same scent in Lestrade's hair, filled Mycroft's nose and a fresh wave of desire curled in his groin.
"Now, you do understand I have no footmen," Lestrade said gravely, "so I'll have to take care of you myself."
"That is…quite acceptable," Mycroft managed.
Lestrade looked him up and down. "You'll need those clothes off."
"Oh, but I—" Mycroft's hand rose to press against the pocket in his doublet. The parchment inside crinkled softly.
Lestrade understood him immediately. "It will keep safe." He put his hand over Mycroft's. "Trust me."
Mycroft lowered his arm and let Lestrade reach for the top button of his doublet. The light from the candles was soft. The room was warm. Lestrade made appreciative little sounds as the row of buttons parted their fastenings, and to Mycroft's surprise the more of his body that was exposed, the more secure he felt. He watched Lestrade's fingers do their nimble work in wonder.
Lestrade folded the blue linen doublet with great care and stowed it safely inside a small trunk near the bed, then propped Mycroft up against the stone wall and divested him of his boots, trousers, and underwear. When Mycroft finally stood completely naked and completely hard in front of Lestrade, Lestrade's face was flushed, and his eyes liquid with desire.
As Mycroft reached for him, Lestrade came willingly into his arms. Mycroft's groan when his prick felt the weight of Lestrade's body was swallowed up by Lestrade's hungry kiss.
"Do you feel how full I am for you," Lestrade said thickly. He pulled Mycroft's palm to the front of his trousers.
"Yes," Mycroft exhaled.
"Good. I want you to know." Lestrade's eyes were lidded heavily with desire when he stepped back and away. He pulled his own shirt over his head in a smooth motion and tossed it aside, then knelt down to dip a clean, rough-toothed rag into the wooden bucket. "I want you to know how much I already want you before I begin."
He stood, stepped in front of Mycroft again, and lifted the dripping cloth. Water splashed down Mycroft's chest, warm and then instantly cool, and then Lestrade reached behind him and wrung the cloth out over the back of Mycroft's neck and shoulders. Mycroft gasped at the flood of sensation, his melting heart made manifest in the rivulets. Tiny fingers of water tickled his back and teased and trickled down into more intimate places. His chest hair caught against Lestrade's. Lestrade's trousers and the hard heat inside brushed and pressed against his own straining cock again and again as Lestrade dragged the warm cloth down Mycroft's back.
Lestrade groaned along with him at every such contact, but he was relentless and thorough. He performed his ministrations over and over, his motions growing rougher and faster, laving Mycroft's shoulders and chest and thighs until Mycroft was trembling with sensitivity and in serious danger of disgracing himself against Lestrade's still-clothed hip.
By the time the wooden bucket was almost empty, Mycroft was so thick with need he was shaking, and when Lestrade finally flung the rag aside, Mycroft moaned his name.
Lestrade kissed him, three times, hard, and then dropped to his knees and swallowed Mycroft down.
Mycroft's head hit the wall. He had never realised, never imagined there could be such joy in surrender. Still, he struggled briefly against his own body. He wanted this to last forever, these wet sounds, Lestrade's thumbs pressed into his hips. But he couldn't last. He just couldn't. He succumbed with a grateful sob to the pull of Lestrade's mouth and spent himself inside it, legs trembling, arms flattened against the wall, and a lingering line of water trickling down the crack of his arse.
"Gregory," he shuddered when he was finally able to speak again.
Still on his knees, Lestrade dragged the back of his hand across his open mouth and gave Mycroft a silent, pleading, desperate look.
"Yes," Mycroft growled, hauling Lestrade to his feet and pushing him backward towards the lush bank of snowy blankets. "On the bed. Now." His fingers were already at Lestrade's trouser fastenings, jerking roughly at the uncooperative ties.
"Move," Lestrade swatted Mycroft's fingers away, so Mycroft pulled off one of Lestrade's boots whilst Lestrade, swearing violently, got his trousers open.
Mycroft gave Lestrade's trousers a rough tug, down past his hips, and then pushed him again. There was a soft whump when Lestrade's arse hit the pile of blankets. Mycroft scrambled onto the mattress after him. Lestrade's prick was flushed the same glorious, swollen pink as his mouth, and Mycroft desperately wanted his own hands and tongue on both places at once, and every place in between. Spent as he was, his cock still tingled with the euphoric echo of blood and pleasure, but the longing that swept him had nothing to do with physical need. "I will do for you," he promised urgently, his gaze fixed on Lestrade's eyes, "anything you want."
"God, Mycroft, just—" Lestrade rolled half on top of Mycroft, reaching over his head and across the bed.
Mycroft's nose brushed the tufted hair underneath Lestrade's arm, and he inhaled his scent shamelessly. He dragged blunt fingertips down Lestrade's skin, over the ridges of his ribs and into the soft flesh at his waist, and made a noise that meant you are beautiful. He hoped Lestrade understood, as he was having difficulty finding the words.
"Please," Lestrade caught Mycroft's hand and tipped a flask into it. Warm oil puddled in Mycroft's palm.
"Yes," Mycroft said.
Mycroft reached down and slid his hand around Lestrade.
Lestrade groaned and bucked his hips. "I need—"
"Yes, yes." Mycroft pulled Lestrade all the way on top of him. He did not loosen his grip even as he hooked a leg around Lestrade's to hold him in place, pumping his oil-slick fist steadily up and down in the sloppy, soft space between their bellies.
Lestrade wrapped his arms around Mycroft's shoulder and his head, fastening their bodies together. He panted hot-breathed, humid, needy little grunts into the hollow where Mycroft's jaw met his neck, and Mycroft hummed yes and come on and give me and mine. Give me. Mycroft tightened his fist and pulled a long, rough stroke.
With a single bark of pleasure, Lestrade arched his back and came in Mycroft's hand. Three more thrusts of his hips, fucking out the last of his release into Mycroft's fist, and Lestrade collapsed on top of him in a trembling heap.
"God," Lestrade sighed against Mycroft's shoulder as another shudder shook his thighs. "Yes." And then he started to giggle.
Mycroft wrapped both arms around his Lestrade, possessive and protective in the same gesture. He tried for a moment not to feel too smug about the urgency of Lestrade's climax, failed miserably, and let himself grin his own giddy delight and pride up at the candlelit ceiling.
Eventually Lestrade pushed himself up on his arms and peered down at the mess on Mycroft's abdomen. "Nnnh," he said approvingly.
"I would have to agree," Mycroft smirked.
Lestrade caught his own lower lip between his teeth and rolled his hips slowly against Mycroft's, sliding their bellies together and smearing his release between them. Mycroft, in his admittedly limited experience, had never seen anything so lewd or so lovely. He felt quite delightfully filthy.
"Perfect," he murmured.
"Stop that," Lestrade chided fondly, collapsing his weight atop Mycroft once again with a wonderful little wriggle. "You know I'm not."
"It is perhaps an implausible claim, but I've yet to see any evidence to contradict it."
"Oh, really? I'll have you know I bollocksed up my evening's plan the first time you moaned under my touch. I meant to tease you…torment you a bit longer. Mycroft, you have befuddled your poor enchanter."
Mycroft nodded solemnly. "I might have warned you of that danger. But as the enchanted, I must most forcefully deny any cause for complaint."
"Mm. Say forcefully again."
"Forcefully," Mycroft repeated obediently. He tried to make the word sound sensual, but he was smiling too hard.
Lestrade snickered at him and wriggled into another kiss, then his nose wrinkled. "Cloth?" he suggested.
"I'll get it," Mycroft volunteered, and rolled Lestrade off onto his side. He had to stop once he had turned back to the bed, cloth in hand, and the ridiculous grin that kept reasserting itself grew even wider. Lestrade was propped up on one elbow, still with his trousers shoved down to the tops of his thighs, and wearing only one boot. He was also wearing a blatant leer. "Look at you," Mycroft smiled.
Lestrade eyed Mycroft's body up and down in turn. "Look at you. I think you should just stand there for a while."
"I fear at some point the temperature might not prove to my advantage."
"Then by all means, let me warm you."
Lestrade shed the rest of his clothes, Mycroft cleaned them up, and they wriggled under the pile of blankets, propping their shoulders up on the plush feather bolster at the head of the bed. Beneath the covers, their hands found each other and interlaced fingers. Mycroft rested his head on Lestrade's shoulder. "What else did you have planned?"
"There was meant to be a costume. Although, sod that. You should never wear clothes again. Dancing lessons. And, look here, I have wine, water, sweets…"
Indeed, a small platform beside the bed held platters of dainty sweets, a glass decanter of some clear golden beverage, and several other small flasks that Mycroft guessed—with a little shiver—held oils.
"And…chess?" Mycroft asked as his gaze fell on the board at the far end of the platform. Then he sat up straighter. "That's my—I mean…I admired the set."
"I kept it for you. You'll have to play at a disadvantage, of course. You did forfeit a piece."
Sure enough, the white knight Mycroft had declined had not been returned to the board. "And I regret that forfeiture. Very much. I would like to see it restored."
"Sorry, it's too late. Your little knight is off on his own adventure now. Doing his own good deeds. Oh, which reminds me…" Lestrade grinned at him, then rolled over to retrieve something from the bedside shelf. He proudly deposited three copper coins onto the blanket over Mycroft's chest. "For your good deeds."
Mycroft blinked down at the three coins, scooping them into his palm. "I would say you have done me a good deed tonight. A very good deed."
"Whilst I could easily say the same of you, my most enchanting sir, I accept your tribute." He plucked one of the coins from Mycroft's hand. "Oh, dear. Only two left," he said regretfully.
"Only two." Mycroft closed his fingers around the cool discs, frowning. "I see. I shall…ration them carefully."
Lestrade gave him an odd look, then snorted a laugh and shook his head. "Mycroft, my love," he reached under the covers and slid an arm across Mycroft's chest, "Two more tonight."
"Oh." Mycroft felt a warm rush of anticipation run through his body.
"But first, I think it's time for your dancing lesson."
"I'm…not entirely certain my legs will support that plan quite yet."
"They don't need to. Turn over."
Mycroft blinked, then raised his eyebrows questioningly. "What sort of dance is this, exactly?"
"Turn over," Lestrade grinned, "and find out."
Puzzled, but definitely growing curious, Mycroft rolled over onto his stomach.
"You'll dance for me, Mycroft," Lestrade licked his lips lasciviously and slid down under the covers towards Mycroft's open thighs. "I promise you."
As the midnight hour approached, Sherlock had still given the Queen no hint as to whom he had chosen to marry. He had simply remained seated stiffly on the throne platform at the end of the Grand Ballroom, arms folded across his chest, staring dispassionately into the sea of gaily-attired guests. Several of his remaining candidates had attempted to draw him out for a dance, but Sherlock had waved them all away, showing no one any particular favour the Queen could discern.
The Queen's stomach fluttered with nerves. Sherlock's choice was everything now. In these final hours, she may have been prepared to entertain the belief it was Mycroft who had the right idea in hand-picking a partner for Sherlock…even if Mycroft had miscalculated slightly in his own selection. A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth for a moment.
In his own list of potential partners, Sherlock had included the snide Musgrave and the odious Wilkes for the sole purpose of unsettling both Mycroft and herself with his abominable taste—of that the Queen was certain. Neither man could hold her son's interest for more than a second. For obvious reasons, Mycroft's smith Lestrade was not in attendance, but his step-siblings James and Irene were skulking near the front of the crowd with watchful, foxy faces. There was a danger there, abominable taste or no. Sherlock was fascinated by a certain type of darkness, but the Queen was hopeful he recognised that interest as something for his mind alone and not for his heart. Between the remaining candidates—the composed and fiery-haired Lady Violet, the vivacious Lady Janine, the winsome barber-surgeon Molly, and the golden and elegant Lord Victor—the Queen honestly had no idea which might have won Sherlock's favour.
She sent the King to Sherlock in one final attempt to draw out information or intimation of his choice with the suggestion Sherlock might wish to seek a private audience with his intended partner before the official proposal and announcement, but Sherlock waved him away as well.
As her husband returned to her with a wry, resigned smile and gave her hand a gentle squeeze, Sherlock sighed and straightened his posture. He looked over at the two of them and quirked a rather sad-eyed smile. "I'm fine, Mother."
"Mother," Sherlock said firmly. "I'm fine. I'm ready."
"Are you certain—"
"Mother, midnight will pass us by if you will not allow me to proceed."
The Queen glanced once at her husband and then nodded. She signalled her seneschal, who in turn signalled his pages to begin assembling the candidates. A distinct hush spread throughout the ballroom as the pages wove through the crowd. As the Prince's chosen few took their places in front of the dais, the hush became absolute.
The corners of Sherlock's mouth were pinched as he surveyed the crowd. He rose smoothly to his feet.
The Queen's fingers had gone icy cold. She folded them in her lap as she sent up a silent prayer for her son. Choose well. Be happy.
Sherlock took a deep breath, and—
At the far end of the ballroom, the tall entry doors burst open with a bang, a flurry of motion, and a shouted curse.
"Get off me, you sodding ox."
The crowd parted with a collective scandalised whisper as a rather bedraggled-looking man marched…well, limped…proudly up the centre of the room, leaving a trail of snow and mud on the gleaming blue marble floor in his wake. At first the Queen though in injured, but then she saw his uneven gait was the result of his wearing only one boot. His clothes were the road-worn garb of a soldier, but the set of his shoulders and jaw, the determined angle of his blond head would have marked him out as such no matter his attire. He was not a tall man, but he was easily out-pacing two longer-legged, highly flustered castle guards—one of whom was indeed rather ox-like—who were trying to give the impression of being in dignified control as they scurried after him.
"As I am apparently required by law to present myself at this ball," the soldier growled as he neared the royal dais, "as a person eligible for marriage. I will take the opportunity of your attention to inform you your knights and foot soldiers have held the Eastern Mountains for you, my Prince." His eyes were scanning the platform, and when they locked on Prince Sherlock's, the soldier stopped in his tracks and said, "Oh."
The Queen looked to Sherlock, who was…staring…with the most curious expression on his face.
"Stop," the Prince barked to his guards, who were poised to rush the still-armed soldier, without altering his gaze.
The Grand Ballroom had gone utterly silent.
The soldier settled his weight into a sort of parade rest. His nose gave a twitch that ended in a sniff. "Am I about to be beheaded, then, for that…thing I've just done?" he asked mildly.
A tiny, confused line formed between Sherlock's eyebrows. He continued to stare.
"We haven't actually beheaded anyone," the Queen offered into the silence, "since King Armand's—"
"You've just returned this night from the Eastern Mountains," Sherlock lurched forward and blurted out, "by way of the Seven Saints' Pass. The snow turned to sleet on the day you left. You were injured in battle. Left shoulder. Your dominant hand. Mostly healed now but you're trying to retrain your sword arm. It isn't going well. You were on your way to your sister's house in town. Looking forward to seeing your young nephew. The gift you brought for him, the outline is clear in your pocket, ruined in the weather. You had hoped to acquire a new gift from the shops, but you arrived too late. In a temper. You insulted the gate guard—rightly so, he's an idiot—when he delayed your journey even further. In revenge, the guards dragged you here. Manhandled you. Your boot, lost in the struggle along the way. Unfortunate. It is your only pair."
The soldier's mouth had fallen slightly open. He blinked.
"Have I missed anything?" Sherlock demanded in the smug tone that said quite clearly, of course I haven't. He settled into an imperious pose, a peacock's pose, chin raised, one eyebrow cocked expectantly, and waited.
The Queen was certain she was the only one who could have noticed her son's nervous swallow and the minute, anxious twitch of his hand.
She held her breath.
"That was…amazing." The soldier huffed out a soft, awed laugh. "Extraordinary."
Sherlock's chest puffed out and he drew himself up just a bit taller.
"Gorgeous," the soldier murmured with a dazed little smile.
The soldier's eyes, the Queen noted, were quite a lovely shade of blue, with long blond lashes. Eyes that had not left her son's since they first locked gazes.
Nor had Sherlock's eyes left the soldier's. Not once.
The Queen cleared her throat delicately. "Perhaps you might favour us with your name, sir."
"Your Highness, forgive me!" the soldier started, then bowed awkwardly. He dragged his gaze to the Queen, but it snapped back immediately to Sherlock. "John Watson. I'm called John Watson."
"We're so pleased to meet you," the Queen said lightly. She glanced at her husband, who had one hand pressed over his mouth. The corner of his eyes were crinkled.
When she looked back at Sherlock, he was standing rather awkwardly with one arm stretched out, palm up, towards the soldier. Something silver glinted in his hand.
John Watson, with a puzzled look, slowly reached out and accepted the offering. "It's…a white knight."
Sherlock's eyelids fluttered, as though blinking himself from a daze.
"For your nephew," he said, stringing the words together quickly. "Yes, for your nephew. The gift."
"Niece," the soldier murmured.
Sherlock frowned at the correction. "Excuse me?"
"It's…for my niece. Not nephew. I have a niece."
Sherlock's lips compressed in frustration. His brows drew down in concentration.
"No. She'll love it," John said hastily. "It's…thank you. I—"
Sherlock's face cleared. "I know where your boot is," he proclaimed grandly.
"What?" John blinked. "How could you possibly…?"
"I can show you."
The Queen frowned. "Sherlock."
"What…now?" John said. His eyes shifted to one side, as if he had only just remembered the presence of everyone else in the ballroom. "Aren't you…otherwise…engaged at the moment?"
Sherlock grinned slowly. "Not yet."
"Sherlock!" said the Queen, rising from her seat.
The soldier grinned back.
Sherlock's eyes had gone fever bright. "Come on!" he called, jumping down from the dais. He started forward and then, with the most terrified, hope-sick look the Queen had ever seen on his face, turned and held out his hand to the soldier.
The Queen's heart caught in her throat.
John Watson, looking just as stunned as her poor son, took Sherlock's hand.
And then they were off, Sherlock and John, parting the astonished crowd again on their way into the bright winter night and the sharp breath of adventure. The doors to the Grand Ballroom slammed shut behind them just as the tower clock began to chime midnight, and the crowd erupted into a frenzied roar of chatter.
Lestrade shifted beneath the warmth of his bed covers and hummed happily as soft fabric slid over his bare skin. He rolled to his side and curled himself around the even warmer body tucked in next to him, which return a contented rumble followed by a gentle snore. His night sky of candles had burnt down to wax puddles, but the day was sunny, the sky through the half-curtained window azure blue. He and Mycroft had obviously slept far later than Lestrade's usual dawn waking time, but then they had perhaps not actually gone to sleep until dawn.
Lestrade grinned against Mycroft's shoulder and gave it a gentle kiss.
He was in no hurry to get out of bed. The room was morning-bright and the air that touched his skin above the covers was cold. Winterjays gossipped merrily in the nearby treetops. Lestrade grinned and ducked his head back under the covers, letting their weight muffle the sounds from outside his own little nest. Here there was nothing but the whisper of fabric, the steady sighs of sleepy breathing, and the soft brush of Lestrade's fingers through the hair on Mycroft's chest. Lestrade wriggled his hips closer to Mycroft's warm, solid thigh and let his eyes drift shut.
"Lestrade! Out here at once!"
Lestrade groaned at the sharp and not-at-all soporific sound of Irene's voice.
Mycroft stirred and mumbled, "Grgry?"
"Good morning." Lestrade smiled and pressed a kiss into Mycroft's hair.
"Lestraaaade…" James's voice joined his sister's, singing Lestrade's name in the soft, insistent way that always meant he was seething.
Mycroft frowned, blinking blearily, and tried to reach for Lestrade as he climbed out of bed with a deep, resigned sigh.
"Shh. It's fine, love." Lestrade pushed him back down into the mattress with a reassuring hand. "I'll see to it."
"You can't hide forever," James sang. The sounds of wood sliding across stone and the clatter of metal on metal came from the space outside Lestrade's room.
It was as well to get this inevitable confrontation over with. He had been fortunate enough his errands of the previous day had delayed it until now. Lestrade quickly pulled on his trousers and shirt and padded barefoot out onto the cold workshop floor, where he was greeted by a pair of icy glares. James had found and bundled the complete set of Mycroft's daggers into his arms. Irene was in the process of sifting through Lestrade's tools.
James spread a toothy smile across his face. "He graces us at last!"
"He must think so, mustn't he?" Irene sneered briefly at the shaping hammer in her elegant, white hand as if it disgusted her, then tossed it aside. It landed on the stone floor with a sharp clang. "When in fact what you have done, Gregory dear, is disgrace us all."
"After all these years we've cared for you," James mourned, eyes glittering.
Lestrade eyed the bundle of daggers in James's arms. Though he had meant to turn them over to James and Irene as part of his debt repayment, seeing James clutching them so possessively set his teeth on edge, as though James had, uninvited, laid his hands on Mycroft himself. "Those aren't yours," he warned.
Irene snorted, an uncharacteristically ugly sound for her. "Of course they are. Everything of yours is ours, by our hand and by our charity. Did you think you weren't going to pay for what you did?"
"And what exactly do you think I did to you?"
"You ruined our chance with the Prince with your blundering," Irene hissed through small, pearly teeth. "You ignorant peasant. It's over now. It's too late. And you owe us."
James laughed, a dark, ugly sound. "Did you think getting your hands on a royal cock was all this game was about?"
"As the royal cock in question," Mycroft said quietly from the doorway, in a voice as soft as the slide of a snake across stone floor. "I believe that is my cue to enter." He smiled then, and a shiver ran down Lestrade's spine.
Irene's eyes went wide, and the ire contorting her lovely face shifted instantly into an obsequious smile. "My Lord Chancellor!"
James said nothing, but his eyes glittered with hatred.
Lestrade looked between James and Mycroft and cleared his throat, trying to defuse the rising tension in the room. He turned to his step-sister. "What did you mean…too late?"
"The Prince's engagement, of course." Irene darted a curious look at Mycroft. "Prince Sherlock announced his engagement at dawn. The news has just reached us."
Lestrade saw Mycroft's chin twitch up, just the slightest of movements. He would be almost desperate to know whom Sherlock had chosen, but Lestrade knew he would not display his ignorance to James and Irene. "Was it Molly?" he asked, helpfully for Mycroft and hopefully for his new friend.
"Oh, that's the funniest part," James tittered. "It's nobody. Some scruffy, pathetic, little soldier who wandered in off the street."
"They made quite a scene at the ball," Irene murmured, sounding a bit envious.
"No accounting for taste, is there?" James's sneering stare crawled down Lestrade's body. "But don't worry, Gregory, darling. We'll still be here when this one has used you up, if he hasn't already. Nothing left for you to pound away at then but making our horse shoes."
Lestrade's hands curled into fists on Mycroft's behalf, at the suggestion his intentions were so base. He was not a violent man, but there was family, there were debts, and then there were limits.
Mycroft stepped smoothly in front of him. "I fear Master Lestrade will be far too busy with his new post as Royal Armourer to make your…" he glanced coolly down at James's feet, "shoes."
"Oh, I was wrong, wasn't I?" James snickered gleefully. "The grubby soldier wasn't the funniest part of all this. Because you must be joking."
Mycroft gave a soft sigh. "Would you be so kind, Gregory, as to fetch me the satchel I carried here last night?"
Mycroft smiled at him. "I believe it is in your room."
"Mycroft…" Lestrade's eyes narrowed in suspicion.
Lestrade nodded warily. "All right."
He stepped through the curtained doorway and snatched up the satchel from the storage hallway, then froze behind the curtain at the sound of Mycroft's voice, lower and more menacing than he had ever heard him speak.
"—debt is settled and if you broach the topic again or seek any manner of reparation from Master Lestrade, I will happily lay you both out in the palace courtyard for the crows totake your eyes. Do not test me. You know who I am. It would take but a wave of my hand to make it so."
There was a sharp inhale, and then a long silence.
"As it is," Mycroft's voice continued, "I will simply require you to remove yourselves from my kingdom. You are banished. You will have whatever ill-gotten goods you can carry out by sundown."
Lestrade stepped out into the forge, staring at Mycroft, the satchel dangling from his hand. James and Irene seemed frozen in place.
"Thank you," Mycroft said politely as he took the satchel from Lestrade's nerveless fingers. He turned to James and held the bag open, nodding at the bundle of daggers James still clutched in his arms. "I believe Master Lestrade said those do not belong to you."
James's lip curled into a silent snarl, but he dropped the daggers.
The rattle of metal rattled a cry from Irene. "But, my Lord, you can't—"
"Sundown," Mycroft hissed at her as he closed the satchel. "And if you are ever seen in our kingdom again, I will have you made into the shoes you are so eager to extract from your smith. We are finished here. You are finished here. Now scurry."
As James and Irene were scurrying away across the yard, Mycroft placed the satchel on the floor and then straightened to look at Lestrade. His eyes were still cold and steely, the eyes of the Lord Chancellor.
"You're a bit scary," Lestrade breathed, thrilled to his core. After all, he could work steel.
The imperious expression melted away. Mycroft twitched an eyebrow at him. "Too villainous?"
"That is…exactly the opposite of what I think of you."
A blush of pink bloomed across the scary Lord Chancellor's cheeks. "I find myself quite protective of my Royal Armourer."
"Did you even notice you're only wearing a sheet?"
Mycroft blinked down at himself and frowned. "As a matter of fact…no." He ran a exploratory hand through his wildly-mussed hair. "Hm."
"Royal Armourer…Mycroft, are you…serious?"
Mycroft looked up from his linen sheet. "Of course I am. I can think of no man more worthy of the post. No one more qualified to help me protect this kingdom. Although…now that I consider it, we may need to modify the title to better suit you. I think…Royal Armourer and Artificer. You cannot neglect your great artistry."
"That sounds…" Unimaginable. Beyond the wildest dreams of a boy who had grown up in charcoal dust and slept next to cinders and thought one day, if he was very lucky, he might have a little shop of his own. "Thank you."
"It will be my pleasure to behold every beautiful thing you will create." Mycroft reached out to curl his fingers gently behind the back of Lestrade's neck, stroking his skin once with his thumb. "I do appreciate beautiful things."
"As I would appreciate being so near the man I love. If he will visit his humble Royal Artificer from time to time."
"He will visit his husband."
Lestrade blinked. "Husband."
Mycroft caught his hand. His eyes were earnest. "If you will have me."
All the stars in the sky sparkled in Lestrade's eyes. All the candles that lit a winter's ball flamed inside his heart.
"Mycroft, I will have you in every way I am able. Happily. Ever after." Lestrade pulled Mycroft into his arms. "And if you will kindly drop this sheet, my love, we can begin right now."
Queen Maeve visited the Grand Ballroom again in the early afternoon. She took a seat in a quiet, sunny alcove where she had a pleasant view of the side courtyard as well as the ballroom floor. In the yard, Mycroft's agent Anthea was leading a group of earnest young trainees in weapons drills. As the two women in the centre of the training circle crossed swords, their boots kicked up little showers of snow that sparkled in the sunlight. In the ballroom, the servants knelt polishing the marble floor or stood upon ladders extracting dwindled candles from the chandeliers and chatting amiably as they worked.
"Happy, my dear?"
The Queen looked up as her husband joined her in the little alcove, sweeping his cloak to one side to sit beside her. He had clearly just come in from the day, as his cheeks were pink with cold. The Queen brushed a strand of greying hair from his forehead and smiled. "Very."
"And where have our two errant young swains got off to today?"
"Sherlock and his soldier made their escape shortly after breakfast. I believe they were headed in the direction of Sherlock's chambers. I've seen no sign of them since."
"Hm," the King chuckled.
"And if I'm not mistaken, here is our Mycroft now."
And indeed at the far end of the ballroom, Mycroft had appeared at last, flushed and beaming, with his handsome smith in tow. Mycroft, her quiet, sombre son, was chattering away with great animation, pointing at features of the ballroom as they crossed the floor. His smith Lestrade, also flushed and beaming, had eyes for nothing but Mycroft.
"Look at them," she said softly, feeling suddenly uncharacteristically misty-eyed. Now both her sons had found their hearts.
The Queen took her husband's hand and held it tightly, and felt it held tightly in return.
Her two foolish sons who had not believed in such things as magic. Such things as love. Let Prince Magnussen come. He was nothing. Her kingdom was fortified by the strongest power there was.