(harem!Q by perfectlydrawnlines on tumblr!)
She does not actually select the boy because he is attractive, for all his fine, birdlike bones and darting, lovely eyes. No, the Dowager Mother makes her mind up quickly after watching him try to incite a riot, right there in the middle of the lower town square.
“You must be joking.” It’s not even that he’s been waiting for this part to arrive in the shop for three weeks—okay, it is, Q admits to himself grudgingly—but Georges has a smirk on his face that lets Q know just exactly how little he think of Q’s years of custom here. Georges’s father never treated customers like this. Q grumbles as he turns his pocket out for the extra coins, some new surcharge being implemented by the king, at least according to Georges. He’s three short.
“Looks like you can’t afford it,” Georges says. He reaches for the bundle, but he doesn’t put it away—he slides it along the counter into the waiting hands of a man whose bleached hair and extravagantly foppish clothes mark him as much, much wealthier than Q, who’s been waiting for his invention to be finished—waiting for this part to come in—to sell it. It’ll be a payday unlike he’s had in a while, at least if he can bring himself to actually sell the machine.
“Such a pity,” the fop sneers down his nose at Q. He drops two thick gold pieces on the counter and Georges shoves Q’s tiny pile to the side so he can take the richer coin instead.
“And why does the king need my money?” Q demands. Georges ignores him, and Q watches helplessly as the part walks out the door after weeks of waiting. “Doesn’t he have enough?”
“It seems to me not to be a matter of him having enough as it is of you having too little,” Georges tells him, frowning. “I can order another one. You’ll have time to save for it.”
“That’s bullshit and you know it!”
Except before he realises, Q finds himself on the other side of the shop door, pounding at the wood with his fists. He stares at the door in consternation. He should go home, should drop it, but. But his tithe to the castle is due in a month, but his home is small and cold with autumn’s early winds sneaking in around the edges, but. He’s tired, frankly, of wondering what he’ll do next, and he’s angry, and it feels satisfying to beat at the door until the hush of the square behind him registers. He trails off mid-shout and turns.
The woman herself is smallish, almost unassuming. It’s her palanquin that draws attention, her clothes that pull the eye toward her. She’s almost tiny, with short, white hair and a no-nonsense smile, and at once Q is very sure she’s both heard and quietly agreed with his assertion that the king is “a bloody self-minded swot with no connection to the real world or its problems.” Her eyes are bright.
“I have a proposition for you, Mr—?”
Q’s had what passes for tea in the lower town before, a long while ago when it was more than just him in the little house by the field of yellow flowers. This isn’t that; it’s stronger, for one, sweetly floral in a way that makes some contented creature at the back of his mind hum with satisfaction. He tries not to slurp.
“And so tell me what was the matter,” the woman starts, voice cool as she lifts a pastry from the plate. She makes eyes at him until he follows suit, and he forgets entirely about answering at the first sweet spill of nutty cream across his tongue. The pastry itself is crisp and dense with honey, lighting the bright citrus of the tea behind itself; Q sighs into the pleasure of it and doesn’t speak until he’s licking sugar from his thumbs. He gazes regretfully at the rest of the pastries on the plate and starts to speak.
There’s something about this lady that encourages him to talk, to tell secrets, and Q finds himself telling her not only about his disappointment at the shop but the slow decline of his tinkering business, once his father’s, and even the chink under the window that lets cold air in to chill his toes in the morning. She’s quiet, making all the appropriate sounds when he tells her about his mum’s illness, his dad’s accident, then watches appreciatively as he explains the device he’s been working on these months, a battle device he’d tried to have sponsored by the king.
“He wouldn’t even see me,” Q complains around the rim of his cup of tea. And he’s not—he’s not bitter about it, not really, but he’s frustrated to find the king so removed from his people.
“When did you go to speak to him?” the woman asks.
“Eight months ago, perhaps nine. It’s taken me a long while to get together what I can, but I’ve nearly finished it without him or his help,” Q tells her, tipping his chin in triumph. She looks thoughtful.
“Ah,” she says quietly. “Eat another pastry while I think.”
It will be a tremendous hardship to eat—he’s still sighing around the sweet-crackling crust when she turns to him with sharp eyes, pinning him to his seat. “I know a way for you to meet the king, for him to bankroll all of your inventions from now on.”
He chokes. “What?”
“I’ve a plan for you, something that would solve your issues and would help with mine; I even think the king himself would grow to be pleased with the idea, given time. You do so remind me of her.”
She can’t possibly—Q laughs abruptly; this little old lady is wealthy, clearly has some power, but. “And the king will do whatever you tell him to just because you say?”
“He’d better. I’m his mum, after all.”
Her plot is ridiculous, and he opens his mouth to tell her so until he remembers that she can have him killed. Something of his consternation must show on his face.
“You must admit it would be an elegant solution,” she says—M says; she’s told him to call her M—with a smile.
“Marriage?” he repeats, just as he did that startled first breath after she’d first suggested it.
“Yes,” she says again. There’s vexation starting to show in the strain at the corners of her eyes, and any minute now she’s going to decide Q is simple, too rough and unpolished for this idea she has, for whatever image of a royal consort she must certainly have, having been one herself.
“A,” he coughs, clarifying, “a pleasure slave?”
“A consort,” she corrects. “Not a concubine.”
“And he’d want—” A flush burns on Q’s cheeks. He can’t even say what a man might want from another man, though he’s had a few clever ideas on the subject before. “—from me?”
“Would you want that from him?” M asks evenly.
“I….” He doesn’t know.
“The fact of the matter is that the council is crying for him to take a new common wife, and he’s been resisting. I,” M pauses, takes a breath. “You must know it’s not that I don’t understand. I empathise with him. His father was the same—he married again after me, for love this time. Oh, don’t make that face! I’m aware of what I brought to the table, but Monique was...she was something. Lovely and graceful, elegant. Andrew adored her, and. Well, I do have sympathy for the boy, obviously, but he’s passed the council’s deadline for finding a common wife, as though six months could ever be enough time to mourn.”
“And you think I could replace—?”
“Vesper. No, I don’t.”
“Because no one can replace Vesper, and what James doesn’t need now is another lover.”
The logic is simple, and M’s crisp voice makes the idea so clean, so tidy. He’ll marry the king, live in the castle with the other spouses, with the concubines and the courtiers. The king will pay for his experiments and keep him fed and clothed, not to mention granting him a large sum—a dowry, of sorts—for his own pocket, and in return his very presence will fulfill the letter of the law, if not the spirit.
There will be no wife for Q. No lovers, no children. In one fell swoop, he would bar himself from that life, leave behind the little house by the field of yellow flowers and the lower town and all of the things he knows. It is a cold business contract, but.
But one that ultimately makes sense. “Yes,” he tells her. “If. If the king should so wish it, I will marry him.”
M snorts. “As if the little shit has a bloody choice.”
It happens faster than he’d imagined it might, and before he quite knows what’s happening there are men bustling in and out of his small rooms carrying heaps of jewelry and fabrics and other, stranger things. Bond’s sent his attendant, a man with cold eyes and a well-placed family, to oversee Q’s transition to the pleasure quarters. Q picks up an arm bracelet thick as his little finger, turning it this way and that between his fingertips. Bond’s attendant snatches it from him when he spies Q holding it; Q wonders idly how many families it could feed for a month. There are rings and baubles sent to decorate him, combs to part his hair and leave it sleek and soft and shining, and. Well, it’s obscene, isn’t it? That fabric should be so thin, so sheer—the attendant laughs at him when he turns it toward the window and peers through to the bright day outside. He can see straight through the filmy blue, and there’s another just like it in pale indigo.
“You’ll wear it for him at your wedding,” the attendant says, and Q would sneer but for his suddenly dry lips and aching throat. Wearing this, everyone will be able to see…everything, he thinks, and his stomach flips nervously.
“It’s too thin,” he protests.
The attendant rolls his eyes. “You won’t have a chance to get cold. Your husband will warm you up!”
There’s only a moment for wandering the room, for peering into boxes of cosmetics and gifts. Q finds a queer little box of reddish-brown flakes not unlike dried blood, and he licks his finger to pull up a few, curious.
“Don’t you dare!” The attendant’s fingers are firm on his arms; startled, Q nearly drops the whole box, and for a single moment hot malevolence washes over the attendant’s placid gaze. “You little idiot!”
“What is it?” Q asks.
“You’ll find out soon enough,” the attendant snaps, taking a moment to graciously thank the last of the delivery men as he walks out. The difference is like a slap: he’s polite, deferential to the other man—the man who doesn’t belong to someone. The man who actually counts as a man, Q realises. He feels sick. “Take off those rags. You can’t go to your future husband wearing that filth.”
They’re his nicest clothes. Q bristles for a moment, but the attendant stares him down, mouth set in a hard, mean line. Reluctantly, Q obeys, shrugging out of the layers of cottons and linens until he’s bare, the long white line of him broken only by sparse black hair and the flat brown of his nipples drawn tight with chill and mortification. There’s a tidy line of hair beneath his navel, each wiry strand standing on end, that leads to the neat thatch of his pubic hair and uninterested cock; Q’s never had much to compare it to, but he’s fairly certain he’s attractive enough. The attendant doesn’t notice.
Instead, he tuts disapprovingly. Q’s belly jerks beneath the impersonal touch as he’s stroked along the line of hair. It takes everything he has not to jump, not to twist away, and then those clever, cruel fingers are tangled tight in the fine down of it. He can’t move, a surprised squeak coming out instead of the indignant sound he means to make. “We’ll have to get rid of all of this, won’t we?” The attendant’s tone is surly, annoyed as he takes Q’s shoulder in hand to turn him; he pushes at Q’s shoulders firmly and Q goes, tipping forward until his balance is precarious and he’s pink all over with the knowledge of what the man’s looking for. When the attendant moves away, Q curls his arms around his chest protectively.
Q watches him rifle through the boxes until he finds what he needs: a motley of powders and pastes and unguents that he lines neatly on the table, and. And a wickedly sharp blade that makes gooseflesh crawl up the backs of Q’s thighs when he looks at its blue reflection. He’s safe—they’re not going to kill him, not after Bond’s paid so much to own him—but the shining, keen edge of it calls up some animal part of his brain, leaving him still and trembling as a frightened rabbit. The attendant pays him no mind as he dishes the powders into small bowls and dips up water hot from the fire. The air fills with the sweet scent of soaps, the fragrance of flowers and mellow incense swirling heady in the room until Q’s dizzy with it.
He barely notices the other servants when they enter, not until he’s led by gentle hands to the bathing tub steaming with mallow root and the little yellow flowers that have grown in the yard all his life; homesickness for a place he hasn’t left yet touches his shoulders like a ghostly mantle, sinking into his skin nostalgia-sweet and thin. The water is just this side of too hot, and when he shifts it leaves stark lines between his overheated flesh and skin still chilled by the cool room. One of the servants pours a carafe of water down his back and Q winces, arching away until he adjusts, then sinking into the warmth. He’s never had this before—this is Bond’s tub, sent along to aid in the preparation of his common consort for marriage. He must be convinced Q smells.
But it’s hard to be bitter as he soaks luxuriantly into the water. There are hands sleek with soaps stroking over his arms, lifting his knees until his ankles are resting on the rim of the tub and they can rub at his feet with sturdy pressure that eases away his tension. He’s fragrant and soft, lolling against the rim easily, and then they’re turning him, coaxing him to his knees to slick his flank and back with froth. When they’re done, they settle him limp and pliant to rest against the rim again; eyes closed, he could almost pretend he is alone. The attendant lets him be for a short while, though whether it is out of mercy or because he’s tired of dealing with him, Q doesn’t know. He finds he doesn’t much care, either.
Long before the water has a chance to go cold, he’s ushered from the bath and onto a raised chair, surprisingly simple in design but no less elegant in material. Even this single piece of furniture probably costs more than his home, Q thinks resentfully, though the barb is dulled by the scent of his own skin wafting up at him, by the constant, petting caresses of the servants who are so obviously delighted to be preparing him. First they clip his nails while they are soft, trimming them carefully and buffing until they’ve got a polished shine. Then his leg is lifted and Q flushes, casually dropping his hands to his lap. The attendant raises an eyebrow as he begins to dip thick white foam over the upturned leg. Q can only watch as he is denuded, pale and smooth as a child again.
The process is repeated on his other leg, and then his arms are lifted, cutthroat razor taking away the thick tufts it finds there, then his chest and its thin, almost invisible fur spattered across the skin. And then the foamed brush descends, and Q goes still—deadly still—as it whuffles its way along that line of hair and into the tangled curls around his cock. He watches past his belly that barely dares to move with breath as he’s lathered, inching down to give the attendant more room to work. It’s slow, careful work—this is the bit that’s bought and paid for, after all—and the metal’s colder than any metal has the right to be as it shears away the hard-won signs of manhood. He’s bare and faintly stinging when the attendant is done, obedient when his leg is lifted away to reveal the tendrils that surround his bollocks until they, too, are tender and hairless. Q nearly forgets to blush when he’s bent over the back of the chair, thighs spread as far as the arms will let them, so that his arse can be cleaned up, too. Then there’s a warm, damp cloth to smooth away the rest of the foam, and there’s that almost painful prickling feeling, cold and alien when the press of wet fabric is pulled away. He’s clean, shaved like a young boy, shivering and shocked by the preparations intended to please his new husband.
The attendant reaches for the box of rust-colored flakes, grinding and mixing until they form a strange, greenish paste. There is a set of brass tools at his elbow; he gives Q a stern look before dipping the first one into the paste. “Don’t move.”
It takes hours. The attendant enlists the help of the servants to keep the paste fresh and liquid, and even with the fire stoked in the room by the end, Q is half frozen. He tries not to shiver and upset the delicate whorls and spirals that are painted on his skin, and he watches enviously as the servants disappear with warm drinks to other parts of the rooms, just beyond his sight. There’s even a bubble of laughter, but here traced out like a delicate sculpture, Q is alone. He may as well get used to it, he figures, but when the bright sound of amusement catches his ear again, he flinches.
The attendant takes advantage of his stillness to paint his face, something Q’s never bothered to do before. There’s a red creme for his lips; the same for his cheeks, and a line of dark smudges at his eyes. The attendant takes care to show him how these are mixed, how to burn the stick until it goes creamy when touched to water, and Q wonders if this will be expected of him every day now. He hopes not—it’s needlessly complicated and he hates the way his lips stick together. He’s swatted for letting his tongue dart out to wet them, and this is around the time he realises he’s itchy, tremendously itchy. Q brushes at a line of paste on his belly by accident and freezes when it flakes off. There is a dark stain left behind, but instead of being annoyed, the attendant looks pleased.
Eight hands itch away the paste with little picks, with sticks and gentle scraping tools that leave his skin tingling and decorated with lacy brown patterns. Q watches in fascination as swirls and loops are revealed and the paste cracks, falling away. For the first time since all of this began, he feels beautiful, valued at least as a canvas for this lovely art. He touches the stain reverently, and when he looks up, the attendant’s eyes are heavy, thoughtful. The last of the grit is brushed away from the valleys between his toes and the servants disappear like morning mist under the first rays of the sun.
He’s guided onto a padded mat on the floor, its texture oddly waxen. The sensation is strange against the places that have always had hair before; he twitches at the first touch of gently warmed oil on his skin as the attendant rubs it in, sealing his intricate work. The oil smells grassy, herbal, with the meaty, sweet scent of olives beneath, and Q can no more help sinking into what thin plushness there is on the mat than he can help breathing. The oil’s warmth leaves him languid and sleepy, though he’s careful not to muss his face. It’s as if the attendant’s hands are everywhere: moving briskly along his lower arms to ring his wrists, dipping between the toes to carefully stroke each curled digit, spreading a sleek sheen across the breadth of his chest before dipping clever fingers in to ease the strangely smooth pocket beneath his arms. The touch skims his sides, down the bones of his ribcage and the long, soft thinness of his waist, then loops abruptly around his sleepy cock. Q freezes.
“What are you—?” he asks, voice high and warbling. He’s never been touched—never gave it more than a passing thought in his bed late at night, but even in his strangest night thoughts he’s never imagined his first intimate caress would be this functional grasp that’s smearing oil around his cock and bollocks before returning to rub the slickness in. Q’s skin drinks the oil at first, thirsty after the drying foam used to shave him, but it takes only a few of the thinnest and lightest applications to leave him gleaming, half hard against his belly and shocked. The attendant ignores him, dips his fingers back and beneath—“Stop!”
It’s an invasion that will not be borne. The attendant looks on passively as Q pushes himself back up, tucks his ankles in tight like a violated maiden. If anything, he seems to find it tedious, though slightly humorous. “Do you know how a man takes another man?” he asks Q, and. No, of course not. What purpose would Q have to know that? But the thought forms, delicate and pinching at the edges of his singing nerves.
“In the—?” he breathes.
The attendant’s laugh is mocking. “You’re a pretty fool,” he says, tugging Q’s ankles with slick, firm hands until he’s back in position. “Yes. Your arsehole, where, by the grace of the gods, your husband will seat his prick in you tonight after you’re wed. Do you imagine it will fit?”
Q thinks. “It can’t possibly. He’ll tear me!” he gasps. He’s never thought about—never considered. “I can,” Q flails for a moment, fishing for an offer that will appeal more than his bottom, now locked with fear. “I can offer my mouth instead.” It’s a desperate offer, far below him or any free man to volunteer, but. But he’s not exactly free, is he? The attendant’s smug expression confirms it.
“Oh, if he wants that, he’ll take it too, I’d imagine.” The attendant shifts the bowl of oil closer to where Q sits, then shuffles back, already moving to pack up the supplies.
“But if I let you—it will fit? He won’t tear me?” Q asks reluctantly.
The attendant shrugs elegantly. “I don’t care to stick my fingers up your arse to prepare you, to be honest. There are other things I could be doing.” Already he’s packing, folding cartons and boxes into each other. Q’s fingers drift down to his oil-slicked hole.
“Maybe you’ll tell me how to do it and I can prepare myself?” he offers shyly. There’s little else he wants to do less than push his fingers into his body in front of this man, but he imagines a cock shoving in unprepared and shudders.
“I could,” the attendant says, and it’s obvious his attention is piqued. “You’ll want to oil your fingers.”
Q does. Then he points one at the tight furl of muscle and pushes. It doesn’t—it doesn’t hurt, per se, but it’s uncomfortable, tight and drier than he expects for the amount of oil he’s slicked his finger with. Pulling it out, he reaches for the oil again, casting a glance for reassurance that he’s doing it right.
“Yes,” the attendant says, voice breathy. “Just like that. You’ll need more oil.” Q obeys, drips more oil between his legs until his finger is sliding easily, and then—“Another. Put another one in.”
It fits, but it’s tight, every impulse in Q’s body trying to push them out again. When he’s got them both in past the second knuckle, his rim locks tight around them—he can’t move forward, but nor can he take them out. His thighs are trembling; he pushes in when he wants to pull out and his muscles release, loosening enough that he can get them out for more oil. He pushes them in again, draws them out, then pushes in again. It’s a dull aching sensation, not the mythic Sex the other boys had always whispered about when he was younger. There’s nothing magical about his fingers up his own arse; his nose itches.
“Now spread your fingers. Work yourself open until you think you can put another in and then do it.” The attendant isn’t even pretending not to watch anymore. His eyes are riveted to the fingers making thick, wet sounds between his legs, and Q doesn’t see the appeal at all as he pulls at the tight grip around them. A finger curls just a little, and there’s a heat building at the base of his spine despite the lack of a spark. He’s tired of this; he pushes in the next finger, and perhaps it’s a bit too much, just a touch too fast, as his arse stretches with a pinching feeling of strain. His fingers wriggle, trying to find a better seat for themselves, perhaps one that won’t sting—
It takes him a moment to recognize the yelp in the air as his own. The attendant’s grin is nearly a sneer, so self-satisfied and smug it almost negates the wondrous chill that’s twitching like crystals of ice along Q’s spine. There’s something—he repeats the wriggle until he nudges it again, and he doesn’t yelp this time, just tips his head back until he’s staring at the ceiling and swallowing hard around the knob of his adam’s apple. He looks for it, presses with a rocking, sliding motion that makes his legs tremble. A cough breaks him from the spell.
“As entertaining as it would be to watch you frig yourself stupid,” the attendant says, words acerbic and bitter tone belied by the uncomfortable heat in his eyes, by the flush on his cheeks; still, Q files the word for perusal later—“frig”—“we have to get you ready for the ceremony. Take them out now. Wash your hands.”
Q’s surprised to find his cock stiff and standing when he manages to pull himself up. His hand is greased and shining, trembling a little until he leans on the mat to stand on wobbly legs. The water of the bath has gone cold; the attendant takes advantage of the moment he’s bent to wash to brusquely wipe the excess oil from his arse and seal the designs on his back perfunctorily. His touch is almost rough now, quick, and Q has only a moment to pull his arms to cover his bare cock after the attendant throws open the door to welcome a man in. For one irrational moment, Q thinks it is his husband, until he recognizes the filmy pile of blue fabric the man is holding—he’s the tailor.
The clothes are the work of a master, clearly; the trousers are sheer, thin enough that Q can easily see why he was shaved—each hair would show clearly through the delicate crepe. With only a few thin layers, the heavy line of his cock is obscene, but the tailor only tuts disapprovingly and manhandles him into a twist of fabric that obscures his cock itself but leaves no question of its identity. It’s only the heavy line of embroidery on the collar of the robe he’s given to wear that preserves some semblance of modesty; it falls into his lap, held closed with jewelled clasps, and somehow manages, though only just, to keep him from looking like a boy from the pleasure houses. Instead, he looks like a rich man’s toy, and he supposes that’s what he is now. He’s shown his image in a glass: his eyes are dark and smudged with the stick of kohl, his lips red and wet-looking. The rest of him is pale—thin and pale—but for the dark curls drawn on him. They’re tempting, all the darker beneath the light fabric of his clothes while in contrast his flesh goes luminous. He looks—well.
The attendant has the cart packed up already, only the things he’s brought headed back. He and the servants will ride back separately from Q; there’s nothing Q owns that can’t be replaced with a better copy by his husband, so he will leave it all here. For a moment, he wishes for a token, some sentimental bauble he could fight for, but there’s nothing—for better or worse, Q is alone, with nothing worth taking. The palanquin is already pressed to the door. Q will remain shrouded until the wedding is officially over, weeks after tonight’s ceremony. No one will see his finery but the people at the castle.
Q takes a shuddering breath and the tailor smiles, misreading it as a bridegroom’s nervous joy. “You’ll do,” he tells Q kindly. Q’s smile is thin copper. He steps into the box.
Q forces himself to take deep breaths as the palanquin shifts and sways beneath him. He thinks perhaps he may be getting sick from it, but nerves are probably a more likely cause for the anxious fluttering in his belly. The smells and sounds from outside his curtained box aren’t helping: the mass of humanity lined up to witness the spectacle of the procession, the scent of food cooking from opportunistic street vendors, and the sweet tang of the marigolds being crushed under the feet of Q’s bearers.
It would help if he were allowed to look out, but tradition dictates that neither he nor the king can be seen during the ceremony or their union will be cursed with ill luck—not that Q feels lucky in the first place. Nevertheless, he can’t be seen in public until the marriage is consummated. In fact, he and Bond won’t even see each other before that deed is at hand.
He feels the litter slow and tilt, and Q knows he is being carefully carried up the steps of the temple he’s only ever seen from afar. It won’t be much longer now—the ceremony will conclude quickly and he can get out of this thrice-forsaken palanquin. Then again, getting out means getting in bed with his new husband; Q’s gut spasms and he curls further into the fur that lines his wooden prison, trying to find the warmth that his filmy clothes do not provide.
The palanquin thumps to the ground and Q tries not to hyperventilate as the two long wooden walls are opened, leaving him concealed by layers of draperies. He can see faint outlines and the flickering of candles as a shadow of a large man nears his curtains—the king. Q rests his forehead on the pile of furs as his head swims.
The choir lifts in song, and Q catches the heady scent of incense. A strong hand parts the curtains and is offered to him, palm up. He slides his own into it, as if he has another option, as if he is coming to this union voluntarily. Bond’s hand is rough with calluses from the sword and Q gulps. He doubts a man with such a hand will be tender with him.
He has little time to worry about that notion as the ceremony begins.
“Get out,” Q is ordered by the surly attendant as soon as the palanquin stops.
Q pushes aside the curtains and swings his slippered feet to the floor. His eyes go wide. He is inside the palace, in the pleasure rooms. Before his eyes can take in the wonders of his opulent surroundings, he’s startled to find himself in front of a small crowd, quietly measuring him. Most of them are beautiful women, elaborately dressed in sheer fabrics and jewels—the favored concubines and wives. Q can even see a shy tow-headed child hiding behind his mother's’ legs.
“Hello,” Q says and stands up. Some of the wives titter at him and others just glare at him.
“This is the royal consort, Q,” The attendant announces flatly. “The wedding banquet is about to begin.”
The women walk past, either ignoring him, or assessing him as if he is a choice animal in the stockyard. There are no friendly smiles. Q flushes and starts to follow the line of women from the room.
The attendant shoots out a hand, grabbing Q’s arm. “Not you. Food will be brought to you. You will await the king’s pleasure this evening.”
They wait for the women to file out, the attendant still roughly holding his arm, until it’s just Q, the servants, and a few slaves of the court. Q looks at them through his lashes, and some at least cast him sympathetic looks.
The attendant practically drags Q across the large and open room. There is a glass window set in the domed ceiling high above, filling the room with the pink light of sunset and casting shadows of colourful light through the atrium. All around him there are clusters of lush couches and cushions, in front of grand fireplaces set into the walls. There is an elaborate wooden door on the far side of the room and Q can only guess it goes to the individual quarters of the wives and the main part of the castle. Q assumes he will be led that way, but instead he’s towed toward a curious room in the center of the atrium.
The walls of the room are made of high, thick silk partitions. Lamplight glows golden through the silk, the whole structure is lit up like a beacon in the fading light. The entrance is draped by swags of roses and sweet jasmine. His feet brush rose petals as he comes closer.
“This is where you will stay until you are given your own chambers,” The attendant tells him. Slaves slide open a door and beckon him in. Q can clearly make out the shadows of other slaves moving inside of the room.
“Why here?” Q asks.
The attendant tuts. “You know nothing. It is for your safety. Kings past have had wives stolen away, murdered by rivals, or who took their own lives. Inside the Lantern room, you can be observed by the entire harem. It’s a honor for the new consorts to dwell here for several weeks. More, if they are frequently favoured by the king’s visits.”
Q looks up at the attendant, jaw dropping. “You mean...but. Everyone can see straight through the walls!”
The attendant laughs. “Are you a child? How else will it be known you are properly wed?”
The slaves pull a stunned Q into the room with gentler hands than the attendant’s. The room is beautiful inside—a few chairs and a small table of dark burnished wood—lounging cushions of silk scattered on layers of hand-knotted carpets. A lavish bed takes up the far side, piled in rose petals and soft furs.
“Oh…” Q mutters nervously.
The attendant sighs. “The king will come for you here, but he often sends his personal servant Tanner first to warn you to expect his arrival. If you need anything, tell the slaves or Tanner. My last duty tonight will be to bring your wedding gifts after the feasting, but you will likely be asleep with His Highness by then.”
Q shivers involuntarily and wraps his arms around himself.
“Don’t be a fool,” The attendant snaps, angry. “You have been plucked from filth and given an honored position at court with all the comforts you could ever desire. The previous common consort Vesper knew how to show her appreciation for the grace she was given—learn to do the same.” With that, he turns from the Lantern room.
One of the slaves bows to slide the slippers off Q’s feet, and they encourage him to sit at the table. They begin bringing platters of food for his meal. Dates soaked in honey, cured olives, slices of lamb, artichokes, warm breads and dishes he can’t even identify. His stomach is a traitor and growls. He drops his face in his hands. It’s enough food to last him days, and shouldn’t he be thankful? Isn’t it a small thing he’s giving up to serve his kingdom?
“Lord?” A soft voice interrupts him and a hand rests on his elbow. Q looks down and sees a slave woman kneeling next to his chair, looking at him sympathetically. “You’ll smudge your paint.”
Q drops his hands and the slave glances around before slipping him a tiny glass vial. She drops her voice and whispers, “Most of the consorts are overwhelmed and afraid the first night. This will help relax you a little, so you can find some joy in it. It’s a pleasure room secret.”
The vial is cool in his fingers. “Thank you.” The only real kindness he has been shown is from a slave. He wonders if they feel a kinship toward him? He slides the glass into a fold in his robe and allows himself to eat. Denying himself nourishment isn’t going to help.
Q blinks awake as he hears soft voices in the atrium, hushed laughter and the large door closing on its hinges. With a full belly and loose limbs from the contents of the vial, he had dozed off on the cushions. The lamps were turned down and he is alone. Hours must have passed while he was resting—the wedding feast must be over and the wives returning.
A shadow passes across the wall of the room and a hand slides open the door. Q sits up, heart tripping. Must it be the king? But no—the attendant walks in and frowns at Q.
“The king has retired to his own bedchamber. He won’t be coming for you tonight. Perhaps you have not pleased him,” the attendant shakes his head.
“What could I have done? He hasn’t even seen me yet!”
The attendant shrugs and drops two wooden cases on the cushions next to Q. “He has left you gifts, as he does all his brides. Tokens for your wedding day.”
Q takes a deep breath. He’s relieved that tonight he won’t be taken to bed, but fear coils around his spine—what will happen to him if he is found lacking? Will he be put aside in disgrace, with even more problems than he had before?
Q picks up the small box—it fits in his palm. He opens it, making a strangled sound. Inside is a pair of earrings set with deep green emeralds the size of his thumbnail. They will hug his earlobes, closely mounted on golden studs—masculine jewelry, not dangles for a woman. He’s surprised by how much that pleases him. He cups them in his palm and the lamplight sparkles on their facets.
“The Dowager Mother told him your eyes were green,” The attendant explains. “We’ll pierce your ears tomorrow.”
Q tucks them back in their case carefully and puts the larger box on his lap. He opens the latches and nestled inside on a bed of velvet are three smooth, clear glass eggs perched on stems with flared, flat bases. Each one is larger than the previous. Q picks one up and holds it up to the light to look at the swirls of colored glass inside.
“They’re beautiful, but what are they?” He asks.
The attendant laughs. “Pleasure toys. If the king does not plan to bed you, he apparently wants you to take care of your needs yourself.”
Q drops the plug into the satin, and notices a crystal bottle of oil has been thoughtfully included. “These are for… gods almighty!”
“He could of course change his mind at any time and come to you instead of getting drunk. It would be wise to use the gifts to practice.”
Q glances at the silk walls and imagines everyone knowing what he’s doing alone in the Lantern room because the king wouldn’t come to him. His face burns and he snaps the case closed.
The attendant chuckles cruelly again. “Suit yourself, Lord Q. Congratulations on your wedding.”
Q flops back on the cushions as the attendant leaves him, alone in the pleasure rooms.
Q wakes with a jolt in the morning, light pouring in from the windows high above. It takes him a moment to realize where he is, cradled in the most luxurious bed he’s ever slept in. Despite brushing the rose petals away last night, he can still smell their cloying scent on the linens and his skin.
He sits scratching his hair and wonders about breakfast. Is he to be served like last night? The smell of food and coffee decides it for him and he slides out of bed, but then he is presented with the next problem—what is he supposed to wear? He had draped his wedding finery carefully over a chair before sleep, but it’s missing, tidied by the slaves that had cleaned away his dinner plates. He looks around his odd little room until he sees a carved cedar wood trunk at the end of the bed.
Q lifts the top and is happy to find it full of clothing. He’s also relieved to find not the sheer things he wore yesterday but colourful tunics with just hints of embroidery, trousers of nubby raw silk and fine linen, soft cotton smallclothes, and a couple of pairs of light, beaded slippers. As he dresses, he supposes this is what passes for everyday wear for the rich, but it’s finer than anything he has ever imagined touching.
His eyes travel to the small box on the table that holds the emeralds. He feels like a fool to be impressed by such frippery, but all the same Q opens the box to admire the stones; there are no holes in his ears to wear them yet, but the attendant said that would happen today. He rubs his lobes and wonders how much it will hurt.
Q sets the earrings down and glares at the larger box holding the glass pleasure toys. He doesn’t want to think about the act he’s supposed to be training himself for, the nuptial visit that didn’t happen on schedule. He picks up the box and stows it in the bottom of the cedar chest.
After a quick examination, Q sees the door is just a silk covered wooden frame that slides open easily. walks out of the shelter of his little room. Slaves are serving breakfast to the other wives and concubines clustered in small groups on the cushions. Q isn’t sure what to do. He’s never been skilled at charming strangers and from his reception last night, he doesn’t know if he is welcome.
Hunger propels him, and he picks a cluster of the youngest wives, the ones closest to his own age, to join. A slave sees him coming and ushers him to a pillow on the floor. The wives smile at Q as the slave offers him tea in a thin, porcelain cup.
“Good morning,” Q says, shyly cradling his tea.
One of the women lifts her eyebrows. “Did you look in the mirror this morning?” The other girls giggle.
Q shakes his head. He hadn’t thought to look for one.
“Your cosmetics are smeared all over your face and your hair looks like a whirlwind was caught in it. What if Bond visits the harem and sees one of us presented this way?” She scolds, tutting.
“It doesn’t seem likely that the king will be looking for him anyway. He didn’t even spend his wedding night with him!” one of the other women chimes in.
Q stares wide-eyed into his cup. This strange, new environment he’s been pushed into seems to have dulled his usual rapier wit and left him unable to muster a defense. “Excuse me,” Q mumbles and rises to leave. Breakfast isn’t worth the ridicule; he’s been hungry before. Laughter follows him as slinks away.
An older slave woman trails him and calls quietly. “Your Highness? Have you been shown the grounds?”
Q stops to look at her. “No, I was put right in that room last night.”
“If I may, there is a garden out the door and to the right. I can bring you something to eat there, if you’d like some fresh air?”
“Am I allowed to go outside?” Q asks.
“You have free access to the pleasure quarters. The garden is walled, and the door to the palace proper is guarded, so you may go where you wish until someone tells you to stop. Once you move into your own rooms, the king allows his consorts to roam to the palace grounds and the city, if you arrange an escort,” she says.
“Oh,” Q says, surprised.
“You’re not a prisoner,” she smiles. “I’ll find you, dear, and bring you something to eat.” She drops her voice to a whisper, “Next time, dine with the older wives. The youngest are still competing for the king’s favor. The older wives are wiser and not as quick to make an enemy—they will be neutral towards you until your status is known.”
“Thank you!” Q whispers gratefully, relieved that someone is showing him kindness.
“I’m here to serve, Lord.”
Q spends most of his morning in the small garden. The slave woman brings him breakfast and along with it, a small bowl of warm soapy water with a flannel to rinse off the traces of cosmetic. She tells him where he can find the baths, which Q understands is a tactful hint.
It’s peaceful, sitting in the sunshine with the sound of tinkling water from a little fountain, but the experience wears thin with nothing to do. Besides eat, gossip and tend to one’s appearance, he doesn’t know what the wives do to entertain themselves. He misses his few books and the little room where he could fritter away hours tinkering with his experiments. He doesn’t know how long it will be until he is allowed more liberties and space of his own to set up a workbench. He knows he can ask the king if there is something useful to do. If he ever meets him.
In the meantime, he may as well explore the baths. He wanders the halls and gasps softly when he finds the room in the lower part of the building. A pool like a shallow indoor lake takes up the center of the room. He ignores the row of hot soaking tubs and walks a circuit, looking for the source of the water. They don’t haul it all in, do they? They must use some sort of device...
One of the slaves clears his throat and Q jumps. “Can I help Your Highness bathe?”
Q blinks, pauses before answering, still not grasping the new honorific. “Yes, I suppose so. How does the water feed the pool?”
The slave takes his elbow and tugs him towards one of the tubs. He points out a copper pipe. “It’s from a cistern that is kept full outside.” The slave turns a valve and water and starts to fill the tub.
Q is transfixed. “But how is the water heated in the..”
“There he is!”
Q tries not to scowl at the sound of the attendant’s voice as the nasty man strides toward him with another slave in tow. The bathing slave leaves the tap on to fill the tub and drifts away.
“This is as good a location as any to pierce your ears. Sit.” The attendant points to a stool and Q perches on it. The attendant’s slave hands the attendant a case, and he removes a kohl pencil before dragging another stool to sit in front of Q. “Stay still, or your holes will be crooked. Do you understand?”
“I’m not an idiot,” Q snaps back at him, aggravated. He doesn’t know what he has done to deserve this man’s ire, but it’s grating.
“You’re not? Hm.” The attendant presses his fingertips on Q’s cheek to turn his face this way and that and touches the tip of the stick to each earlobe. He sits back, checking to make sure the marks are even.
Satisfied, the attendant pulls a flask and a cloth from the case and pours the contents onto the rag. Q smells that it’s alcohol and to his surprise, two small gold rings fall out on the rag as well.
“You will need to wear these lighter earrings for two weeks before you can put in other baubles. Twist the rings every day and keep them clean,” the attendant tells him.
Q nods and watches as the attendant pulls out a sharp, short needle and wipes it with the cloth. It’s thicker than Q would have imagined and he shrinks back.
The slave roughly grabs at Q’s shoulders and tries to force him still. Q wriggles, more from the shock of being restrained. The attendant sighs impatiently and grabs a handful of Q’s hair. Q yelps, pulls and twists, ignoring the pain in his scalp. He kicks with his feet, striking out until the attendant lets him go with a curse.The stool tips and Q falls to the floor on his arse.
“You’re an idiot! I told you to sit still!”
“I will not be manhandled like a horse about to be branded!” Q spits. He’s had enough—enough of being teased and prodded by this man.
“Your ears will be pierced—I cannot let you be seen as ungrateful to the king, you little brat!”
Q pushes the slave away and gets up, setting the stool upright. “Give me the needle. Let me do it myself.”
The attendant rolls his eyes. “Suit yourself. Do it straight through and don’t swoon.”
Q sits and glowers at the attendant, who orders the slave to bring a mirror. The attendant swabs Q’s fingers with the alcohol damp cloth and hands him the needle. Q has a fleeting fantasy of driving it into the man’s eye, but focuses at pulling at his ear and turning his head towards the mirror so he can see the marking on his ear. He pauses a moment and remembers the glimmering stones back in his room. The forest-dark stones wrapped in gold—a gift for a prince. Before he can think about the pain much, he jabs the needle in and pulls it though.
It hurts, but not as badly as he had expected—a hot burn that radiates through his lobe. The attendant hands Q one of the gold rings, and with a wince he threads it through the new hole and snaps it closed. Q doesn’t hesitate and runs the needle through his other ear, sliding in the ring just as quickly again.
The attendant gives Q the cloth to wipe his ears off a final time before he inspects Q’s handiwork. “It will do,” is the only thing the man grumbles before his slave packs up the case and both of them leave Q to his bath.
Q forgets the prat attendant and the dull ache of his ears soon after the slave returns to tend to his tub. He peppers the perplexed slave with all sorts of questions about the water delivery and heating system and doesn’t slow his chatter until he is disrobed and sinks into the hot water.
This slave is gentler and more courteous than the ones who prepared him for his wedding, and Q is washed and left to soak for as long as he likes. Q thinks he could get used to this—sitting and drifting in the big warm tubs until his thoughts become thick and far away.
The slave prepares the foam and razor and shaves Q’s chin, but Q groans in complaint when the slave attempts to arrange him so he can run the razor over his body.
“If you don’t, the stubble will grow back and the prickles will itch, especially in places you don’t want to be scratching,” The slave warns him.
Q can imagine it well enough, and acquiesces. He thinks of the clothing- most of it opaque and wonders if he’ll always be expected to be look like a lad.
But Q really doesn’t mind for long—the slave guides him to a mat and rubs him down with warm oil. This isn’t at all like the businesslike swipe of hands from the attendant—the slave takes his time and kneads deep into tight muscles in Q’s shoulders and back. Q moans and curls his fingers around the edges of the mat and thinks he can probably doze off here. The slave’s oiled hands smooth gently down his hips and Q remembers what he did with oil dripping on his fingers the last time. It had started to feel...well. Not bad. Not life-changingly good, but certainly not bad. He shifts his hips on the mat as his cock underneath twitches.
The slave reads Q’s restlessness as time for him to finish and he eases Q up before helping him dress. It’s then that Q realizes a woman—a wife or a concubine; he doesn’t yet know which—is lounging in the pool, nude. He blushes and averts his eyes; he wasn’t dressed when she entered the room, either.
“You’ll get used to it, sir. His Majesty hasn’t added a boy to his household before, so it will take some adjustment all around,” the slave whispers to him as he helps Q pull on his tunic.
“Oh. Of course. I mean, thank you,” Q stammers.
The slave smiles shyly. “Certainly. If I may speak out of turn, the slaves are happy to have a common consort again, even if some think it’s too soon after Lady Vesper’s unfortunate passing.”
Q thinks on that as the slave finishes his task by running a balm through Q’s curls and offers a dab of scented oil on his wrists. It’s pleasantly woodsy and not at all feminine—Q realizes as the only man, they must have bought supplies and performed a lot of preparation just for him. Before leaving, Q thanks the slave again and the man flushes at the attention.
Q’s not sure what he’s going to do with the long expanse of empty time that stretches out before him. He doesn’t feel up to trying to detangle the social hierarchy of the wives—he supposes he must at some point, but he’s always been a bit of a recluse and isn’t sure where to start. He almost hopes Bond comes to him soon, so he can broach his concerns about the tedium.
With no place else to explore, he goes back to the Lantern room, intending to look around his quarters more closely. Perhaps he’s overlooked some books, some games or something else to amuse himself with. When he gets to the room however, the big bed calls to him. He’s feeling over-warm and relaxed from the bath, massage and the stress of the last few days has worn him down. Besides, it’s not like he has any work to do.
He takes off his clothes so as not to rumple them, and his hands glide over his oiled skin pleasantly. The stained henna patterns seem even darker today and he traces one of the swirls down his hairless belly. He shivers. That feels different too—all the shaved, exposed places sensitised to every touch. His fingers travel lower to the base of his cock just to confirm that that feels novel, too.
Q guiltily remembers the translucent walls of his chambers. The lamps have been turned up inside to make up for the daylight and to try to encourage the casting of shadows. Yet, he supposes, the images showing through the screens can’t be as clear as they are in the darkness. If he is quiet and slides under the crisp sheets…
It’s been a long time since he’s indulged, when he thinks about it. Too much fear and too little sleep are not aphrodisiacs. He is a young man however, with all the urges of youth, even if he hasn’t had the compulsion to share them with another yet. He gets into his bed and covers himself before he lets his hands roam over his scented, tender skin, sating his curiosity. He traces a nipple until it pebbles, explores his hairless underarm, follows the trails of the beautiful henna that decorates him, the art that makes him feel lush and beautiful.
He sighs when his searching fingers find his half-hard cock and he reminds himself to be quiet. With his free hand he pushes a corner of the sheet between his lips to bite down on. He then puts that hand to better use and brushes over his balls as he slowly works himself. His eyes flutter closed as he luxuriates in everything bare that feels so new.
Again he thinks back to the day before, the fullness of his fingers dripping slick with oil. He spreads his thighs and lets a curious fingertip skim over the tight, secret ridge of him. If he forgets about the attendant and focuses on recalling the surprising jolts of feeling he had found brushing inside of himself...well. That would be something worth knowing more about. He is, after all, supposed to be practicing for his husband and getting his body ready to accept him. This could be just for him though, just this time.
He shuffles to the bottom of the bed and opens the cedar chest enough to reach for the box he had placed inside earlier. He peeks under the lid and pulls out the smallest glass plug. It’s a pretty thing, for what it’s designed to do. Would it feel as good as his fingers? Better? It’s just as wide as two of his digits side by side.
Feeling a burst of jitters, Q puts the plug back. He can’t quite work himself up to the idea of putting something hard and foreign inside himself. Not today. He reaches for the vial of oil instead before snapping the box closed on his bridal gifts.
He snuggles back under the covers, putting a knot of the fabric between his teeth again as he works the lid off the jar. It smells fruity and a little different than the oil used in the baths, but he can’t place the scent that mingles with the olives. He supposes he could ask a slave, but can’t imagine bringing it up.
The oil pours out faster than he expects, and it pools and drips from his fingers to dot the sheets. He grunts in annoyance as he fumbles at recapping the bottle and gets oil everywhere before he can set it aside. He rubs at the linen with his cleaner hand and only succeeds at making the stains bigger, but he pragmatically figures the slaves have seen worse staining the sheets in this room.
Giving up, he smears the oil between the crease of his arse to at least get some of what’s welled in his hand to where he needs it. He tries to focus, tries to breathe deep as he teases his hole with a fingertip. It feels impossibly tight and resisting when he eases it in up to the middle knuckle. More oil had made it feel better last time, but he can feel excess running down his crack. Another finger? He doesn’t think he can.
Q slides his other hand back to his cock and...oh. He grinds his teeth into the fabric as the oil he had spilled slicks the way for his hand. It’s not something he’s done before, always seeking quick release, but the wet slide of his fist is exquisite. He lets his legs fall open and rocks his hips. His finger, almost forgotten at his new discovery, seats home on the way down. In a few strokes he fucks himself on a second one, finding himself able to do so easily, eagerly.
He pulls slower on his cock as he curves the fingers inside himself, searching for where it had felt the best. He can’t quite get it right and almost pulls them out to add a third finger when he brushes the spot. He rubs it with intent and can’t help the soft moan that escapes through his teeth as a circuit is made deep in his insides between his cock and his hand.
His third finger never joins in, because his hands are now too busy trying to sync, trying to find the perfect rhythm and speed, until he sends himself arching and wiggling when he gets it just right. He muffles his gasps—the build has never felt so electric, so tense as his muscles strain and grip. He doesn’t even feel the edge of his climax and instead of the familiar falling, he hurdles into bliss, squeezing his eyes shut so hard he sees spots behind his eyelids.
While Q’s breathing slows down, he listens for any telltale movement outside or any indication that he had been seen or heard. There is just a soft background murmur of voices and nothing to alarm him. He gently slides his fingers out of himself and flexes them—they are bit sore and stiff—maybe that’s why the toys are better? He wipes them off on his already hopelessly soiled sheets. He’ll think on it more later, he promises to himself, when he isn’t about to fall asleep.
“What?” Q’s not sure he’s heard the attendant right; he can’t have heard him—
“The bulbs. Produce them so that I may inspect them.” The attendant’s imperious expression is striking, intimidating as he stands over Q, demanding to look at the glass gifts his husband sent him because he is uneducated in the ways of love. Q cringes, skitters over to his trunk to fetch the small box, and tries to duck that judgemental eye as he places it on the table for inspection. He can’t imagine why—“Open it,” the attendant tells him, “so that I may be certain you’re keeping them clean.”
Clean! Because, Q realises, if he were using them as commanded, they’d be—they’d be smeared, with oil and. And. His cheeks burn as he opens the clasp with fumbling hands to reveal the untouched bulbs. Not even a fingerprint to mar their sleek surfaces, the nap of the fine velvet holding them snugly not even crushed in the shape of fingerprints. He’s never used them at all, never done more than taken them in hand that first time, and there’s no hiding it. The attendant makes a disgusted sound.
“You can’t even be bothered to practice for His Majesty! What a lazy, useless boy he’s bought!” the attendant tuts, poking at the bulbs where they lie in the box. He rolls them this way and that, muttering under his breath, until Q is shrinking into the sleeves of his tunic, all but retreating. “You do know how they’re used, don’t you, you pretty fool? Surely you’re not so simple you can’t contemplate putting things up your arse?”
“Of course I do!” Q snaps. The attendant’s eyes flash fire and Q flinches, shrinking back..
“Perhaps I’d better put one in you today, then, to make sure you use them,” the attendant tells him. He hefts the medium one in hand, the bulb wider than the fingers Q had managed before by at least another half-finger. His face is rapt, and for a moment Q doubts he’d listen if told ‘no’. Then, “Aha,” the attendant says slyly, and Q’s cheeks turn pink when he turns up a half-empty vial of oil. “You’ve been using this, at least.” The attendant is confident, assured. Q can see why: even from his awkward crouch on the floor, he can see the oily residue on the vial, the film of dust that has stuck to the tacky surface. It looks well-used for certain, and the attendant laughs. It is a cold, cruel sound. “You’ve been using it on your cock, haven’t you? Selfish, like a little boy unable to keep his hands off himself, as if that’s the part that needs practice. As if your lord husband cared about that part at all.”
“I haven’t,” Q denies weakly, but the proof is everywhere: the dark, curling hair stuck to the glass and the stains on the linens and the guilty tremble of Q’s thighs.
“Perhaps he’ll cut it off to keep you from being distracted,” the attendant suggests, mouth curling with displeasure. “It’s his to do it if he chooses.”
“He wouldn’t.” Would he? Would the king—Q gulps, tucking his chin to his chest, unsure.
“You wouldn’t know, would you?” The attendant uncorks the bottle, dripping it onto his fingers. “Get up here and bend over the table.”
“No.” He’s still pleasantly sore from before, and the thought of the attendant ripping that pleasure away makes him forceful; to his surprise, the attendant merely blinks before grabbing his wrist in a slick grip and shoving the vial between his limp fingers.
“Do it yourself, then,” the attendant snaps back.
“Not with you here,” Q tries, and again the attendant’s shoulders mould with angry obedience.
“Suit yourself! I’ll be back to make sure you actually did.” He opens the door and storms out. Through the opening, Q spies faces watching him, giggling, and there’s open, mocking laughter through the door when he closes it. He’s alone, in public.
Not for long. As quietly as he can, Q rifles through the chest for clothes—not too many, not enough to make the pack heavy: an extra pair of trousers, a tunic or two, and he has enough to roll tightly, tying them up in a large square of fabric to make a neat parcel. He considers the jewels, but he knows better—no one would buy them from him, and they’d be more trouble than they’re worth. He leaves them behind.
His bare feet skid along the floorboards as Q walks down the hall. There’s no point in rushing; he has no idea where he’s going, only that there’s no exit in the pleasure rooms. His absence will be noticed quickly, as soon as the attendant realises there’s no movement inside the lantern room, but the thought of—of obediently bending over for the man—the thought of that glass bulb sinking into him to prepare him for the pleasure of a husband he’s never met, a man who may not even want…he has no idea what. Q’s steps quicken, and the dark hall deepens before him.
It isn’t long before he can smell food, and Q’s stomach growls. It’s been hours since he ate last, and he realises with a start that that is likely how his disappearance will be discovered—he barely manages to duck into a dark, shallow alcove when the door across the way suddenly bursts open in a cloud of fragrant steam and a familiar slave comes through, laden with a tray of delicacies that make Q’s mouth water. It’s temptation at its finest, the urge to follow his lunch meekly back to his rooms. He could claim his belly is what led him this far afield, that he was looking for a snack, but. But then he’d still have to—the slave is gone before he can let his weakness win, and Q can feel the cool wall against his spine as he slumps back. It would be easy to go back, easy to retreat and to give in. That’s why he won’t.
He’s startled from his thoughts by another servant, this one carrying a much lighter meal of bread and cheeses, a tureen of a spiced orange soup that makes Q’s stomach grumble, and a carafe of wine. It’s simple—a visitor’s meal, perhaps, or a favored servant—and Q can’t help following the tray from a few steps behind as it wends its way down corridors and up stairs, past rooms each grander than the last until the slave stops, finally, at a simple door tucked at the end of a beautiful hallway. He ducks to the side as the slave opens the door to leave the food and disappears back the way they came.
There’s no sound beyond the door, and it’s not locked when Q tries the handle. In fact, there’s nothing remarkable about the room—it’s a simple, small antechamber that must be connected to the grander rooms to the side by some hidden door; a servant’s room without much more than a bed and desk—which makes it the most wondrous room he’s been in since arriving at the compound. The furniture is lovely, well-wrought but not ostentatious, and the furnishings are tasteful, apt for a room this size. Q feels a hot pang of longing for his small home that nearly bowls him over. And there, on the desk, is the platter of food, still steaming. He reaches with trembling fingers for the spoon.
“I’ve seen thieves break into the castle for all sorts of reasons,” a voice says, and Q startles as a warm, callused hand wraps around his wrist in a punishing grip, “but never one to come so far just to steal my lunch.” The man is—beautiful, Q’s brain supplies, and he can’t wholly shake the assessment away. His eyes are sharp chips of blue ice set in a weathered face, and as Q watches, they thaw by increments to something disbelieving. “You’re the new consort.”
Damn, and double damn. Q knows there’s not much hiding in the castle—not much hiding in the whole kingdom, if he’s honest, after the broadsides with his likeness have gone out to announce the wedding—but he’d hoped for more space between him and his cage before he was spotted. He hasn’t even got through the door.
“I am,” Q confesses carefully. Then, perhaps a bluff—“So unhand the king’s property! He’d kill you if he knew you’d sullied his possession!”
The man’s face twists at that, caught somewhere between amusement and disbelief. It’s not the response he was hoping for. “And yet I caught you in his rooms thieving.”
“I wasn’t thieving!”
“Looked like it to me. Going to run off with the cutlery?” the man asks, his mouth tucked into a wry smile. “They’re solid silver, of course. They’d fetch a pretty penny, though how you would fence them, I’ve no idea. Although, you’ve managed to get all the way here; I’d imagine a pretty, clever thing such as yourself would have come up with something.”
Flustered rage wells up in Q’s ribcage, even as he shrinks in the man’s grip. “Do you think that because I’m common?” he demands. “Do you imagine all commoners should only be willing to marry the king because we want to burgle him?”
The man regards him carefully. “Why are you here then? Why would you marry the king?”
“I didn’t rightfully have a choice, now did I?” Q sniffs. He turns his wrist experimentally, wincing when the man’s grip tightens, but at his wince the man looks down where Q can see a ring of bruising forming along the fine bones of his wrist. The man’s grip loosens, only to be aided by the sound of a belt unclasping, of the fine leather being drawn from his trousers—“Hey there, I’m fairly certain that’s absolutely not allowed!” Q sputters. The man ignores him, pulling the belt snug around Q’s wrists and securing it before sinking him forcefully into the desk’s chair.
“You didn’t want to marry the king,” he prompts Q, but.
“I’m not an idiot.”
“Never said you were,” the man returns smoothly. “In fact, I’d heard you were exceedingly clever.”
Q can feel his skin pinking at the compliment. “Then I can see the writing on the wall, can’t I? When you’re told to marry the king, you do it and damn your druthers.”
The man pauses at that, thoughtful. “And your druthers?”
“Doesn’t matter, does it?” Q murmurs, ducking his face to the side and blinking back stinging tears. “But it doesn’t involve lifting the king’s tableware!”
“Then why look at my lunch as if you were a starving dog? I know for a fact that each member of the pleasure rooms eats finer than the king,” the man adds.
“Who are you to know such things?” Q retorts. The man’s grin widens.
“What if I told you my name was Tanner? Bill Tanner—I’m the king’s man.”
Well—and that leaves Q wrong footed; he throws his glance to the tapestry by the desk, a simple thing just the right size to cover—
“Yes. Those are the king’s rooms,” Tanner confirms. Q flushes.
“We do,” he admits, looking down at the fine grain of the leather wrapped around his wrists. It’s higher quality than any pair of shoes Q’s owned, sleek and black and glossy-cool on his skin. He suppresses a shiver. “I didn’t want to eat in my room.”
“The Lantern room not fine enough accommodations for you?” Tanner asks. Q’s head snaps up, an indignant snarl forming before Tanner’s laughing eyes soothe him. “I hate it, myself. I only go when I absolutely have to. Once, I—” Tanner pauses, reforming the words in his mouth, “When there was...someone. One of them I liked very much. It wasn’t always like it is now; I’d visit and we would while away the hours talking or playing games. But since she,” and again Tanner pauses, smiles wryly. “When she left that room, everything changed. There’s been no one since her that was worth spending more than the barest amount of time there.”
“You mean the Lady Vesper.” It’s hard to keep the jealousy from his voice; Q’s known the slaves and servants all preferred her, has had it proven often enough that he is the usurper, the tart trying to replace the beloved consort. Tanner looks sad, and something in Q’s stomach twists. “I’ve heard she was lovely.”
“She was so much more than that.”
The room is silent. On the table, the food sits untouched, and Q looks mournfully at the fragrant orange soup so close and yet unreachable. If he inches forward, he could plant his face in the bowl like a dog, Tanner be damned—his stomach growls, and Tanner blinks at him as if surprised to find he’s still there, trussed like a goose. “My lunch,” Tanner continues as if they hadn’t digressed. “Why?”
“I was passing by and it drew me,” Q confesses.
“And passing by on your way to—?” Tanner prompts.
Except he can’t admit he was running away, can he? And especially not to the king’s man, no matter how kind his eyes are, no matter how gentle his hand is on Q’s own. He stays silent. Tanner watches him and Q watches him back, sees expressions flit across Tanner’s face almost faster than he can register: annoyance, a tight narrowing of the eyes; disbelief, the curl of a lip; distaste, a furrowed brow; and then curiosity, Tanner’s face relaxing into a quizzical look. Q meets his eyes steadily—I’m not going to say. Tanner tears away a small bit of bread and chews it slowly; the desperate sound Q makes is torn away from him unwilling, leaving him blushing. Those thick fingers pull out another morsel, dipping it into the soup.
“You must be hungry,” Tanner comments idly. The soup leaves a greasy stain on his lips, which he pats away with a white cloth. Q tries not to whine. “One would think the king starves you.”
“I’ve been told not to eat too much because the king didn’t buy me to be a fat sow.”
The face Tanner pulls at that is gratifying. “There’s not much to you already. Did the king buy you to be a bag of bones?”
It hits just a bit too close: “I’ve no idea why the king bought me,” Q tells him shortly, the matter dropped. Tanner nods agreeably. He tears another piece of bread away, and this time he holds it to Q’s lips.
It’s no different from the other rolls he’s had delivered to the Lantern room, but Q still moans in relish as he takes the bite, nipping at Tanner’s fingers when they draw too close to his mouth. Tanner laughs, the sound pleasing. As Q chews, Tanner takes another for himself, dipped again. Q’s next piece is dry, and Q lifts a brow at that. Tanner obliges, chuckling.
“Spoiled thing,” Tanner teases, but Q doesn’t care at all as the soup hits his tongue, spicy and sweet and creamy. He’s still licking his lips when Tanner brings him another, and then again for another, and he realises Tanner is no longer feeding himself, watching Q with a rapt expression. Q blushes again and suspects it will be common with this man. “You look as though you are—” Tanner’s words cut off. Q flushes deeper.
“I’ll try to be less obscene when I eat,” Q offers.
“Don’t,” Tanner says with a smile. “You’re charming. I didn’t expect that.”
Q doesn’t know what to say, so he lets Tanner feed him another bite. Bite after bite until the bread is gone and they’ve dredged everything on the platter between them, and still there are traces of soup left; Q eyes the spoon hopefully, but. Tanner dips his fingertip into the bowl, and Q watches him stir before lifting his hand to Q’s lips. He could—could what? Could tell Tanner no, certainly, and be turned over to the king as a thief for spurning him, but Q somehow suspects that that’s not a path Tanner would take. He’s surprised to discover he trusts this man, and so he opens his mouth, tongue darting out to taste.
On Tanner’s fingers, the soup’s changed—saltier, less creamy, with a faint flavour of the smells of the castle, the tang of metal and whiff of ink from the desk. There’s leather, too, almost blotted out by the spice of the broth. Q closes his lips around the digit and sucks. Tanner lets out a low groan, and Q can feel the first sparks igniting in his belly. He wants Tanner to dip his finger again, wants him to put his fingers in his mouth without the need for coy pretense, but Tanner wipes his hand clean on the white cloth and pushes aside the plate. His eyes are dark as he regards Q.
“Why were you running away?” Tanner asks him, and Q can’t not tell the truth:
“I am utterly alone here, without friend or peer. My husband has no regard for me, and the wives mock me to my face. Would you want to stay?”
Tanner pauses at that, clearly surprised. “No.”
“Then why should I?”
“Because I’m asking you to,” Tanner tells him. His fingers are warm as he wraps them around Q’s hand; he bumps the belt still binding Q’s wrists together and blinks, then reaches to pull the leather loop free. “Stay. Please.”
“For you?” Q barely dares to breathe the words, but. But it would be lovely to have someone want him around, to have someone who would miss him. To have someone want him, at all.
Tanner hesitates. “Your lord husband isn’t so bad,” he hedges, and something of Q’s fallen heart must show on his face, because he pulls Q’s fingers to his mouth, kissing the knuckles. “But yes. For me.”
It is surprisingly easy to tell the attendant no when Q gets back to the Lantern room to find him standing in the center, and easier still to tell him to leave the next day when he comes back. When his breakfast comes, Q requests the orange soup for his lunch and savours each spoonful; for the first time since arriving, he feels some modicum of control over his life, though he’s careful to thank the smiling slave who serves the simple meal on dishes that probably cost more than he can imagine. The slave asks if he has any requests for his supper, and Q is tempted to request the soup again, until he realises he’s acting like a lovestruck girl. He shakes his head ruefully, and the slave disappears.
But while he may have some control over his life, there’s still not much to do besides lying around looking pretty. He misses his workshop, the place where he used to while away his hours tinkering, and the other wives are still cold with him, distant and receding. They’re not the company he’s looking for, anyway—he wants to be with Tan—with Bill—with Tanner and those eyes that somehow make Q feel cared for. He could call him, request—but no, Tanner is his husband’s body servant. His summons would not be missed, and how could he explain how he’d met him in the first place? How he’d stumbled across Tanner mid-escape and decided not to flee his marriage only because the servant intrigued him, made him feel desirable?
Except that if he’s learned anything from his little trip, from his recent spate of rebellion, from the encouraging smiles as he begins to assert himself, even slightly, on the household, it’s that he’s allowed to go wherever he pleases, for the most part, or at least that no one is allowed to stop him when he does. He’s supposed to await the king’s pleasure, to sit with a practice bulb up his arse and twiddle his thumbs until his husband deigns to fuck him, but as his trips outside the Lantern room widen their courses in an ever-growing spiral, he has yet to come back to the signs that anyone has been in the room except for himself and that awful attendant. It’s obvious he can go for as long as he likes without missing a visit from his husband, and if he lets himself dwell on it, he’s torn between relief and embarrassment—for all of Tanner’s praise, the king has clearly measured Q and found him wanting.
After lunch, Q places the empty tray just beyond the door of the Lantern room and sets off on another adventure, this time down the dark hallway and through a curious door he saw on a previous exploration. It had only opened briefly—the servant who’d opened it had been a shorter, solid man with a kind face and curious eyes, but he’d said nothing as he disappeared into what appeared to be—well, it had appeared to be the world outside. There’d been trees beyond the door, at least, and soil, and a green smell of growing things that had left Q conflicted: if this door opens to him, will he run? He still doesn’t know. This time the door opens for the same servant, who raises an eyebrow but holds the door for him; Q slips through.
He’s not outside, a fact that becomes immediately clear, but rather in a small, enclosed garden. There is a gravel walking path, but Q looks down at his thin slippers ruefully and stays on the polished wooden walkway that surrounds the garden like a perimeter. There are doors that lead off into different parts of the castle; he must have come through the kitchen door, but there are doors that look as though they may lead to the king’s rooms and, to his surprise, to one of the rooms in the pleasure quarters—perhaps the first wife’s room, he thinks, then hopes fervently that she’s somewhere else and not watching him.
There’s not much to explore from the wooden path, but Q works his way around the garden peering at the plants he can reach and gazing wistfully at the sky’s perfect, crisp blue before a familiar voice breaks into his thoughts. “Running away again, Highness?” Tanner’s smile is infectious, and Q grins back.
“Maybe after dinner,” Q answers, and Tanner’s smile goes wider.
“You are a growing boy, after all. But it’s hours until then—what were your plans to fill them?”
Q looks at Tanner; he’s crouched in the loose soil of the garden, fingers smudged and streaked with damp dirt. There’s a bulb by his knee, something green and sharp-smelling, a bundle of trailing green vines and little yellow flowers. They’re pretty.
“What are you doing?” Q asks, curious. Tanner gives him a cheeky grin, and Q scoffs. “Aside from planting something, obviously. What are you planting? Why?”
“King wants this planted in time to bloom before the season’s over. He’s got plans for the flowers,” Tanner tells him. He grunts quietly as he pushes aside another spade of dirt.
“Are they for someone?” Q asks, surprised. “I can’t imagine why—they’re common as dirt. If he wants a few without putting you to all this trouble, I know a field where they grow wild.”
“Oh, yeah?” Tanner asks, sitting back on his heels. He looks interested, the bulb resting against his leg.
“Yes, the field behind my hou—” Q stops, frowning. “—behind the house where I used to live. My mum liked them, and so my father planted one for her. It took over, spread all up the hill and along the path into the woods. The neighbours were furious.”
“You like them,” Tanner asks, turning back to nudge at the hole in the ground before fitting the bulbs in carefully.
“I do. But why would the King want to give them to someone?”
“Why does any man give someone flowers? Why did your father give your mother flowers?” Tanner is tucking the soil loosely around the green stems again; they limp to the left, drooping slightly. “Damn. It’s been a while since I’ve planted anything. I forgot I was this bad at—” His voice trails off as he pauses, taking in the expression Q can feel on his face.
“He’s courting again.” It’s shame rushing hot and sickly through his veins—his husband wants another lover. He hasn’t even visited Q, but he’s ready to move on to the next. Q’s stomach lurches.
Tanner’s fingertips catch him gently by the jaw. “What’s wrong? I’d have thought…?”
And. “Yes,” Q murmurs, because he did want—but how can he explain this muddied mix of emotions to Tanner? How can he express the bone-deep disappointment of getting exactly what he’s secretly half hoped for? The king is unlikely to want to touch him—he can go the rest of his life and never have to look at those glass bulbs again—but how can he put the ache of his own worthlessness into words? He’s wanted—feared—and yet. His mouth twists around the bitter words that sit on his tongue unspoken. “Yes,” he repeats. “I did. I—”
“I’ve said something out of line,” Tanner guesses, his voice soft and full of self-recrimination as he slides his thumb along the line of Q’s lip, poking to gently lift the corner into a weak half-smile. Q can taste the bitter soil on them. “Something to upset you.”
“You know my lord husband very well, don’t you?” Q asks quietly. Tanner nods.
“As well as anyone could; as well as I know myself.”
“Would he find me,” Q wonders aloud, “attractive? Would he want me?”
Tanner goes still, sucking his lip in contemplation. “Yes. I think he would. You’re unusual, something bright and new here, the first in a long time. I do think he would want you, very much.”
A plot is swirling in Q’s mind, an idea. “Would you help me, then?”
“Be more attractive to the king,” Q clarifies. His cheeks bloom with roses; he’s tried for casual, but Tanner’s eyes show he’s missed it by a mile.
“May not be best to make you more attractive. The poor man’s heart may not bear it,” Tanner says wryly, and Q’s flush deepens.
“I want,” Q starts, but he’s got nowhere to go with this, so he just loops his hands around Tanner’s, fingers pressed to the secret heat of his palm. Tanner looks down at their twined hands, and Q can see him considering. “Please,” he asks.
He can see Tanner fighting with himself, can see the precise moment he decides to help. His hand clenches in Q’s, but his grip is gentle on Q’s fingers. “You want—?”
“I want to be enough to entice my husband. Just once, at least, and then he can move on to as many beautiful women as he can stand, but don’t I deserve his attention even once? Just once and he can return to imagining that I don’t exist.”
Tanner is quiet a moment. “You think he wouldn’t adore you as you are?”
Q is proud his laugh is only a little sour. “Because he has adored me so far—enough to leave me chaste and friendless, alone while he ignores me.”
“No.” And Tanner’s eyes are dark, sad. He squeezes Q’s hand again. “Not friendless.”
No, Q figures, not friendless at all.
Q’s fingers shake as he puts out the full array of cosmetics. His husband must prefer them, to have dressed Q in them for the wedding, but all he can think of as he touches each box of powder or cream is the mocking laughter of the other wives. His breakfast sits untouched in the corner where it was left this morning; his stomach is too knotted with nerves to eat. Tanner will be visiting him in the Lantern room today. Q only hopes that no one will know he’s requested remedial lessons in pleasing his husband.
He’s sent the attendant away, claiming a desire for privacy that had noticeably riled the man into nearly speaking. He’d gone without a word, but the dark glint in his eye bothers Q even now, and not for the first time since inviting Tanner to his room he worries what might happen if they’re caught alone together. It can’t be the worst thing in the world—Tanner had said he’d visited the other wives, that he’d spent a lot of time here with Vesper—but part of him wonders if it would be different when it’s Q, if the attendant would be so malicious as to make a big deal of it. He would, Q suspects. Might still, if he sees Tanner slipping into the room.
There is a quiet rustle of fabric at the door and Q parts it just far enough to see Tanner waiting, then ducks aside to usher him into the space, hurrying him to the bed where the unmade pile of clothes will hopefully disguise his shape. Tanner gives a soft, surprised huff to find himself shoved into the silks as Q hurries back to close the door. He arches one eloquent brow and Q flushes, ducking.
“I didn’t want the attendant to see you,” Q admits, sinking to a seat next to the table to fiddle with the pots.
“Have you not figured out the trick to the room yet?” Tanner asks, and Q shakes his head mutely. Trick? Tanner grins, slipping from the bed to the chest with ease that displays his familiarity with the room. His fingers pause on the wooden case—on Q’s bridal gift—but Q’s mortified silence is answer enough for his unspoken question and he sets it aside, digging until he finds—“There they are,” Tanner says triumphantly, drawing four thick candles from the chest and placing them on the ground. They’re as wide as Q’s thigh, each set with three wicks and made of a hard, pale wax. Tanner lights the first with a flint from his waist; the light is nearly blinding. When he snugs it as close as he dares to the delicate wall of the Lantern room, Q is stunned to see it go almost as opaque as the walls of his bedroom at home, the light too bright for even the darkest shadow to push its way through the thin skin. On the other side of the room, Q’s shadowy frame is distorted, stretched and picked out in inky dark. Tanner places the next candle there, and the double shadows cast are pale and wan, disappearing easily after the last two candles are placed. The room is brighter than the noonday sun, but they are invisible behind the light.
“That’s astounding,” Q whispers, delighted. Tanner grins.
“And you have a sanctuary to yourself again. Or, rather, once I leave you do.”
“Don’t leave.” The words come out quickly, unexpected, and Tanner’s eyes go soft, their bright blue washed pale by the light of the candles.
“I’m not going anywhere.”
Tanner’s body is very close, and the candles’ brilliance is slowly filling the room with a comfortable heat. Q thinks of the sensation of shoving Tanner at the bed, of the hard muscle he could feel under his palms as he did so, and knows he only went because he wanted to—he wanted to be pushed into the thick and heavy blankets, wanted to be on the bed. Q’s bed. Q’s cheeks flush and he turns to putter with the cosmetics to hide his sudden bout of nerves.
“What do you have there?” Tanner asks, and Q knows if he were to turn he’d see Tanner’s brow knit in intrigue.
“My face,” Q answers simply.
“The face the king wants to see on me. Only it’s such a strange, delicate process—I’ve only tried it once since it was put on me for the ceremony. I can’t get it right,” he confesses.
“So that’s where those carmine lips come from, then? Never took you for vain,” Tanner says thoughtfully, just the hint of a tease at the corner of his voice.
“Hardly!” Q corrects him, laughing. “That one’s one of the worst; it stains horribly! No, I’ve practiced and practiced, but it’s easier to draw straight lines on the back of my hand than it is not to blind myself with a stick of kohl in the eye. I’m awful at the stuff, but the king must like it—doesn’t he?”
“I don’t think he’s ever thought of it before, really, the trouble that you lot go through to look pretty for him. He doesn’t hate it, but it would be a sin to cover those pretty red lips of yours with something fake,” Tanner tells him, and he laughs again as Q’s blush comes back. “Or those scarlet cheeks, either!”
“You’re awful,” Q accuses, but he does pack away everything but the stick of kohl, weighing it in his hand. “And this? Would the king see this as artifice too?”
“I can say the king has no idea what that is or what it does, to be honest.”
Q blinks. “Kohl? It makes dark marks around the eyes.”
“I presume it would make the same dark marks anywhere?” At Q’s nod, Tanner continues, “And you choose to draw lines around your eyes with it?”
“Well, a witch’s runes might be frowned upon,” Q tells him dryly.
“Enough prettifying. It all rubs off on the pillow, anyway,” Tanner says, which. It’s true enough, Q figures, though he thinks back to that humiliating first breakfast with a frown. “Oh, I’ve made you unhappy again,” Tanner says, frowning himself. “I wish I would stop doing that.”
“It’s not your fault I’ve embarrassed myself in the past,” Q tells him. Tanner’s smile is wry as he watches Q put the cosmetics back in the trunk—his hand skims the decorated case and he pulls back as if burned. He’s grateful Tanner doesn’t ask the questions that are writ on his face, and instead Q smiles brightly, only partially forced. “And so what is today’s lesson—how do I make myself more appealing for the king?”
“Well, you’re honest with him, for one thing,” Tanner begins. He pauses a moment, seemingly lost in a bittersweet memory, then continues. “Tell him if you are concerned, if you are frightened, if you are unhappy. Are you unhappy?”
“Sometimes,” Q says simply, shrugging. There’s not much he can do about that, he knows, and even less for Tanner to do. He smiles, and it’s crooked. “Only sometimes,” he amends. He’s not unhappy right now.
Tanner’s smile is soft in return. “Not now?” When Q shakes his head, Tanner’s smile grows. “Good. I’ll teach you the first and most important part of courting—do you know it?”
Q laughs. “If I did, would I be asking your help?”
“Perhaps you wanted me to court you,” Tanner teases, but even before the words are between them, the air grows tight.
“I—” He could confess at this moment. Yes, he could say. Yes, I want you to—but he can’t. The words are a dagger between them. Tanner looks so sweet, mouth soft and lovely, and it’s so unfair that he wants to say it anyway, to blurt it out and damn the consequences. “You’re cruel to taunt me,” he says instead, voice hard and hurt. Tanner winces. “Is it so laughable to want someone to want me?”
“No.” And Tanner’s face has melted with sorrow, collapsed into a sad, remorseful thing. “Not at all. I wish,” he takes a breath that’s more sigh than anything else, “I wish you could know how much I regret that you feel that way. I don’t mean to hurt you, but I do it anyway, in fresher and more careless ways each time.”
Q could stay angry; he has the power to hold his resentment and nurture it, foster it into something hard and sharp, but. But Tanner is his only true friend in this place, and in the end it’s not so difficult to touch the back of his hand and find it trembling. Q smiles. “You can make it up to me by being my friend. And so what is the most important part of courting?”
Tanner’s smile is small but sincere at that. “Your eyes. The most important part of courting is your eyes—if your love is not sincere, it would be obvious. You’ve got nothing to worry about—your eyes say nothing but love.”
“Do they?” A feeling like warm honey burbles in Q’s chest at this, and when Tanner reaches out to trace his cheekbone with the tips of his fingers, he leans into the caress. His eyes flutter closed. “And after the eyes?”
“After the eyes,” Tanner continues, and there is the slightest pressure at Q’s lips: Tanner’s thumb, tracing the curve of his mouth carefully. He presses it into the center, a kiss. “Your mouth. Sweet words, yes, but more than that.”
“More.” The word is tangled in a breath, equal parts dutiful student repeating his master and wistful sigh. Tanner obeys.
He hasn’t—he’s imagined—Q’s never felt this press of warmth at his mouth before, Tanner breathing heat into the center of his chest like a dragon filling him with fire. He’s had kisses before, of course, little pecks of childhood’s affection and fumbling attempts at romance when he was old enough for dry mouths pressed together to lose appeal, but he’s never felt this sliding, thawing sensation before, as though he were being melted from within and without, Tanner’s tongue—his tongue!—darting little tasting licks just inside the wet of Q’s upper lip, his hand huge and hot and steadying on his waist. Q sighs into the kiss and feels those thick fingers curling, the blunt nails scratching through his delicate clothes, the shudder that rocks Tanner’s frame as he gives in and releases the breath he’s been holding—as he lets their bodies sink into each other the way they so obviously want to. He touches Q’s sides and Q moves as he’s bid, parts his lips more, feels Tanner bite at his mouth with a kind of tender hunger that stirs his cock between them. For the first time he imagines romance and sex tied together, linked as though they should never be separated. He shakes in Tanner’s grasp.
For his part, Tanner wraps him with firm hands; he takes from Q’s mouth as though it were his to plunder, biting and suckling until Q feels tender and swollen all over, too full for his skin. Tanner nuzzles his face to the side, sucks lingering kisses at his jaw and throat until Q’s fingers are snarled, hooked over his shoulders, his toes curling and thighs shaking. They’ve climbed together, Q’s legs spread wide where he has somewhen pulled himself as close to Tanner as he can go. He’s unashamed, unshy, un—a deep groan claws its way from inside Tanner’s belly and Q answers, as aroused as he can recall ever being in his life.
It takes him a moment to realise he’s being moved, being shifted to the ground as carefully as Tanner can; he tugs, tries to pull Tanner with him, but Tanner sits back on his heels, eyes wide with lust and mouth bitten red. He looks like a spring thunderstorm, powerful and electric, as he carefully peels Q’s grasping limbs away and slumps against the chair, panting. It could be humiliation at the rejection that overtakes Q, but for Tanner’s hand and the way it drops into his lap to press the rise of his cock flat. Tanner moans. He sounds frustrated.
“Would you say I’m any good at that?” Q asks, then, and Tanner’s eyes slit open. His laugh is gruff and strained.
“Better than a devil,” Tanner says. His voice still sounds like it has been poured over small stones. “I need to go.”
“Surely the lesson’s not over? There’s more you could teach me today,” Q offers, but—
“No,” Tanner tells him, just as Q knew he would. Just as the king’s man should when the king’s boy makes an offer like that. Q could deflate, but he can see Tanner’s pulse in the throb of his throat, can see his cock outlined so prettily against his trousers. It goes a long way toward soothing hurt feelings, he finds. “I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to restrain myself. In the interests of honesty.”
“Then in the interests of honesty, I think I’ll have a wank when you go,” Q tells him, cheeky grin growing at Tanner’s muffled swearing at the declaration.
“And I’ll have a frigid bath,” Tanner grouses, but it’s affectionate. He pulls Q close again and Q angles his mouth up, but it’s his head Tanner kisses this time, right in the middle of his curls. “Leave the candles burning until you’re done. I don’t want anyone watching you.”
He doesn’t have time to put his fingers in his arse when Tanner is gone, doesn’t even bother with the oil; he just fists his cock in eager, hungry pulls, mind playing the feel of Tanner’s lips on his neck, the taste of his mouth, until he comes quick and messy under the blankets. He wakes briefly when the attendant comes in, scolding—something about using the candles when his husband isn’t in the room with him—but he’s so sated and warm and pleased, happy to watch the attendant blow out the candles and leave before drifting off again.
Q is staring into space in the consort’s garden when a girl of about twelve approaches him. She’s wearing a page’s uniform and her brown hair is trimmed close, like a boy’s.
“Are you Lord Q?” she asks.
“I am.” Q stands and a momentary tingle of excitement mixed with trepidation passes through him. Is this his summons from the king at last? “Who are you?”
“Emily Bond,” She says with an air of pride.
One of the king’s children! “It’s nice to meet you, Your Highness.”
She does a little bow. “Likewise, Your Highness. I’m supposed to ask you if you’d like to visit the library. I don’t know why anyone would want to see that musty old place, but my father says I’m to take you there if you wish to go.”
“The royal library?” Q can barely contain his excitement. “Am I allowed?”
“It’s in the castle, isn’t it?” Emily says, looking at Q like he might be simple.
“Um, of course. Lead the way, please!” Q tries very hard to not to chivvy the child to jog down the corridors. Books! A whole room for books! He had only owned a few of his own and had to sell the ones he had read to afford to buy new volumes. With study, his isolation in the harem may be more tolerable.
A thought occurs to him as he is lead through the palace. The king hadn’t shown any interest in him, so far. “Did the king really ask you to bring me?”
The little girl’s head bobs. “It’s his orders.”
A suspicion grows: Tanner. He’s the king’s man, so it shouldn’t be so surprising that he reported Q’s discontent to his master. Tanner encouraged him to be honest if he was unhappy, but Q assumed Tanner meant to tell his lord husband himself when they finally met.
“Did you see the king today, then?” Q asks, curious.
Emily shoots Q a confused look. “No, of course not. Pages don’t usually see his majesty; we just take messages. He’s afield today, anyway.”
“Page or not, he is your father,” Q says, shrugging.
“So? I saw him for a moment at your wedding feast. I’ll see him again on my birthing day, perhaps,” she says.
Q stops in the hall, confused. “The king doesn’t spend time with his own children?”
Emily looks at Q like he is daft again. “Why would he? He’s either off to war, trying to prevent them or running the kingdom. The raising of children is the duty of his wives, concubines, nursemaids, tutors and the like.”
He thinks of his parents and can’t imagine a system like that. “Don’t you...I don’t know. Miss having a father?”
“My mother’s husband does a fine job. I’ll see his Majesty more often when I’m done with my education if I get accepted into the royal guard. I’m going to be an archer some day. I’m really good!”
“Your mother’s husband?” Q shakes his head to try to jolt the confusion out.
“Oh yeah, you’re a commoner!” Emily grins as she figures out why they are miscommunicating. “Mum used to be a concubine, not a wife. Concubines serve the crown for seven years. Then they can retire from the pleasure rooms with a dowry if they want to get married and start their own families. I live outside the walls with Mum, but I’m provided for by the king and someday he’s responsible for finding me a spouse. I’m not in the line of succession unless he finds all the wives’ children lacking, but I’m still marriageable to seal alliances. But that’s far away. Right now I want to go into the army! It’s better than being stuck inside with the tutors.”
Q nods. He knows some of this, of course, but he hasn’t paid much attention to things like royal offspring before. Bond himself must had grown up like this, in the hands of tutors and wives of the court. “How many of you are there? Bond’s children?”
“Eight right now—not very many. Some say they won’t be any more babies because Lady Vesper died and you’re a boy, and something else they think I’m too young to hear.” She stops in front of a grand wooden door and brandishes a key on a ribbon around her neck. “Here we are.”
All thoughts of Q’s strange new family fly out of his head when Emily unlocks the door and pushes it open. Books line the walls from floor to ceiling inside shelves with glass doors. An iron stair curves upward to a mezzanine that promises even more books on the upper floor. A window is cut into the ceiling, filling the room with natural light and reducing the need for dangerous oil lamps. Leather covered chairs, dark wooden book stands, and tables occupy the center of the room. The comforting scents of old leather, paper and dust fills the air.
There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of tomes. “Bless all the little gods!” Q exclaims reverently.
“You can take anything back to your room if you sign it out in the ledger. You can’t take the books out of the room on the red shelf in the back—those are old and fragile, and you need to wear cotton gloves when touching them,” Emily explains.
“I can...I really can read all of these?” Q gapes, peering in the cabinets at the leather spines. They’re arranged in some sort of subject order; one shelf contains poetry and a few feet down the row he sees a row of religious texts. He is itching to find the engineering and maths shelves.
Emily sighs and Q turns to look at her.
“If you can find your way back, I’ll just leave you to it. It looks like you are going to take forever.” She holds out the key to him. Q takes it with a shaking hand—it’s better than a key to a chest of treasure.
“Thank you Emily. By the way, do you know if Bill Tanner is in the castle?” Q risks asking. He really would like to see him again soon, even if it is just to share the wonders of the library with someone.
“I guess he left this morning with His Majesty,” she shrugs indifferently. “Why? Do you need me to bring him a message?”
“Oh! Oh no, but...could you please send my word to my lo—to the King thanking him for granting me access to the library? And that I hope to...um, see him soon?” Emily titters and Q feels his face flush.
“I will. Goodbye, Q!”
Emily skips out of the room and Q turns his attention to the stacks, ecstatic.
“You’re going to love this,” Tanner smiles. “I’ve heard you’ll soak in the tubs until your skin prunes.”
“Am I neglecting my duties during my very busy days?” Q follows Tanner down a long, stone hallway.
“Sassy. Bond will like that,” Tanner grins. A slave opens a heavy door for them and they pass through.
The room is small, windowless, and the walls are covered in cedar boards with empty wood pegs. A pile of towels and a bucket are the only other things in the room.
“Looks like we have it to ourselves today. It’s pretty popular. The king had this installed after one of his travels. It does amazing things for my old injuries.” Tanner pulls his tunic over his head and hangs it on a peg.
“Um, what exactly are we doing?” Q asks, wondering with a flutter of excitement if this is going to be another one of Tanner’s courting lessons.
“You’ll see in a moment.” Tanner drops his trousers and trews, and Q is presented with his well-formed bare backside. His mouth goes dry.
Tanner’s body is strong and toned and covered in marks and scars from following the king into battle. He turns after hanging up his trousers and Q can only gawk at his chest. There is a knotted mass of scar tissue on a shoulder, a scattering of soft-looking blond chest chair that trails down a firm, hard belly to…. Tanner is grinning at him. Q blinks, realizes he’s been caught standing there staring. He looks down shyly at his feet.
Tanner chuckles. “I always forget you town boys are shy about getting your kits off. New military recruits get used to it soon enough. You will, too.”
Q scrambles to tug off his tunic, giving himself something to do to hide his embarrassment. “I think the military is a different set of circumstances. They obviously don’t make you get shaved bare, for one.”
Tanner chuckles and looks down at his chest. “Is that what caught your attention? No, they don’t make me do anything, really.”
Q turns his back to slip out of his shoes and slide off his trousers. He hangs everything up just like Tanner did and tries not to make a fuss about presenting himself naked as the day he was born. Tanner is right—his life is different now, and he’d best adapt.
Tanner doesn’t try to hide his open regard when Q turns back to face him. “My, you are nicely wrought. I can see why the Dowager Mother picked you.”
Q feels a hot flush begin to color his cheeks. He resists the urge to try to cover himself. “Well, I hope something about me appeals, since it’s my duty to look pretty.” He doesn’t mean to sound bitter, but he knows he does.
Tanner grabs a towel and tosses it over to Q before taking one for himself and wrapping it around his waist. “I didn’t mean to make you feel uneasy, Q. I tend to be frank. I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine.” Q is grateful for the little bit of cover as he ties his own towel around his waist.
“You should have been welcomed differently, things explained to you better. You’re not a shiny bauble—you’re a spouse-consort of the king. The fashion of the court is to be shaved bare for men and women, but if you don’t wish it, you don’t have to be. You have more freedom here than you think.”
Q shrugs. “I don’t feel like I do. I’m supposed to please a man I married that I haven’t even seen yet. I’m not sure how he’d like me to look or if he even wants me at all.”
Tanner’s face softens. “I promise you, he’ll like you fine. The king wishes you to be happy and comfortable, and that includes how you like to look. Your sacred role is to remind the court of their duty and connection to the common people of the kingdom. You’re not a toy. When Bond gets his head out of his arse, you’ll understand.”
“You must be close friends to know what he likes,” Q finally says.
Q’s jaw drops as his brain performs some basic logic. “You’re lovers!”
Tanner looks like he’ll deny it, but he flashes a quick smile, as if the notion has caught him funny. “I guess so, on occasion. The king likes variety.”
“Gods! I’m the only man in the pleasure rooms. I was starting to wonder if he even…”
“No, that’s not why,” Tanner says almost sadly. He opens a smaller door on the opposite side of the room and Q doesn’t have to possess finely honed social skills to know it’s to change the topic. “Come on, before the stove goes out.”
Q is surprised when he steps into a very hot room. Every surface is lined with cedar, making it feel like a warm, wooden box. There are two tiers of wood benches and a stove in the corner with a few tools and a bucket nearby.
“The heat is supposed to loosen your muscles and the sweat is good for your skin,” Tanner says. He takes a ladle from the bucket and dumps a scoop of water right on top of the stove. It turns immediately into steam and a sharp, medicinal scent fills the air. Tanner breathes in deeply. “Sit, relax.”
Q takes a seat on the bench, making sure his towel is protecting his bum and thighs from the hot wood. He can feel the pinpricks of perspiration starting to bead on his forehead but the warmth is luxurious as it sinks into him.
“You haven’t run away again. Are things a little more tolerable?”
“The library is fantastic! Have you ever been there? I knew there were whole collections of books, but I never dreamed I would be able to see one of them, forget being able to use one!” Tanner grins at him, and Q bites his lips shut so he stops carrying on like an excited boy.
“No, your enthusiasm is charming. Don’t try to be someone you’re not,” Tanner tells him gently.
“Is that more courting advice?” Q asks. He brushes his hand through his hair that’s starting to grow damp with sweat.
“Well, thank you. I know you must have told the king I was bored to tears. The library helps. It’s not really making up for his absence, though,” Q admits.
“I have a feeling he’ll be meeting with you sooner than you think,” Tanner says.
Q looks over at Tanner, his muscular body slumped in relaxation against the wood. He’s watching Q with half-lidded eyes and quirks a smile at him. Q’s fingers itch to touch.
“Soon? I mean, we haven’t finished our lessons yet,” Q tells him, nerves hitting again. “I won’t know what to do, and...”
Tanner sighs. “You’re really fretting for no reason.”
“The longer he makes me wait, the more worried it makes me, and the longer I have to think about...well. All sorts of things. If I had some more confidence I…” Q buries his face in his hands. “I sound like a mooning schoolchild.”
“Come closer,” Tanner says softly.
“Hmm?” Q looks up and Tanner crooks a finger at him.
Q swallows. He obeys, sliding over close enough to touch thighs. “Are you going to teach me something new?”
Tanner shrugs. “What worries you so much?”
Q drops his eyes. “What if I don’t like it? If it hurts. If I can’t…you know.” He bobs his head in the direction of his towel covered lap.
Tanner chuckles and brushes his fingers over Q’s back, trailing over until his arm is around him. “Don’t you think everyone has those fears the first time? It works out, I promise.” Tanner tightens his arm, pulling Q closer.
Q watches his mouth in fascination, Tanner wets his lips and leans up. Offering, waiting.
“Very well. Next lesson—your partner likes to feel desired. Why don’t you try taking what you’d like?” Tanner whispers.
Q moves in as soon as the last word is uttered. His presses his mouth against Tanner’s too quickly, too hard. There is a click of teeth and a bruising, unpleasant mashing of lips, and Q pulls back again. “Shit. Sorry.”
Tanner tries not to smirk, but he fails. He runs the tip of his nose along Q’s, not closing the last bit of distance, and waits. Q sees the invitation and tries again. This time he approaches gently, a soft taste at the corner at Tanner’s mouth. He glides over to the center plushness of Tanner’s lips, tilts his head a little more, feels a hint of stubble against his face. Tanner returns with faint pressure, and he lets Q take his time to explore with angles and little nibbles. Q finds that he wants to anchor the kiss, needs something to hold on to, so he lets his hand drift up to cup Tanner’s cheek.
When he finally tries to use the tip of his tongue hesitantly, Tanner hums, parts his lips, and starts to kiss Q back. He chases Q’s tongue with his own, shows him how to lick inside. Q tries to mimic him, then sighs and forgets the lesson entirely when Tanner pulls him onto his lap. Tanner is sucking on his lower lip and Q is dizzy with it. His head swims and he can feel his pulse thumping in his ears.
Tanner pulls away and Q tries to reclaim his kiss. Tanner stills him with a firm arm. “We need to leave.”
Q shakes his head. “I don’t want to stop.”
“Just to the outer room. You can’t be in the hot room for more than several minutes until you get accustomed to it. Do you feel faint?”
Q checks himself. He doesn’t feel sick, but his head is starting to swim. “I thought that was you.”
Tanner laughs. “Flatterer.” He picks Q up as he stands and Q squeaks in protest, but he’s being carried through the door and back into the changing room before he can wriggle free.
Tanner lets him down but crowds him against the wood paneling. Q moans as he’s pressed to the wall by Tanner’s body, nothing but towels keeping them apart. Tanner kisses him again, deeper, wilder, and Q moans into his mouth. Tanner’s hand is picking with the edge of Q’s towel and Q wants.
Tanner leaves a line of kisses across Q’s cheek and tenderly over one of his closed eyelids before he pulls back a little. Q whines in complaint.
Tanner’s voice is rough when he asks, “Have you tried your toys yet?”
Q shakes his head. His heart pounds and it has nothing to do with the heat of the room they just left.
“Is there a reason you haven’t?” Tanner asks. He kisses Q’s brow, licks to taste the clean sweat sticking to him.
“They are a little intimidating. I’m not sure...well, I know what to do. The idea of shoving a glass bulb up my backside as some sort of um, method to make way for my husband is…” Q is sure his skin is flushing from more than heat.
“It’s a little impersonal, when you think about it that way. It seems like a medical procedure. It’s supposed to feel good. It does feel good.” Tanner has worked the knot of the towel open, and the fabric starts to slip lower on Q’s waist.
“I’ve tried my fingers,” Q admits. Tanner groans into his hair. “It wasn’t bad. The bulbs are bigger.”
“Not that big,” Tanner murmurs, nibbling at Q’s lips again, teasing. “Would it help if I walked you through it?”
Q makes a soft squeak. “I shouldn’t, we shouldn’t…” He kisses Tanner anyway, deep and lingering. The towel drops, pools around his feet. His bare hard cock is rubbing against Tanner’s towel, which is still secured around his waist. Q jerks his hips and can’t help it, can’t help but rut against the nubby fabric.
“Shh, I won’t dishonour you,” Tanner promises. There is a gleam of something in his eyes under the desire. Determination, perhaps? The king’s man trying to stay true.
“The box is back in my room in the trunk,” Q tells him. “I’m not exactly taking it wherever I go for a chance to use them.”
Tanner gives him a guilty look. “I have it here, under the stack of towels. I thought I’d bring them, just in case.”
Q pushes him away and smirks. “Oh! Sneaky!”
Tanner shrugs. “Another courting lesson: be prepared.”
Q laughs. “Some cheek.”
Tanner sits on the bench and pulls out the familiar box. He takes out the vial of oil, opens it and sets it on top of the lid. “Come here, Q.”
Tanner’s eyes sweep over Q’s nudity as he approaches, desire clearly written on his face. It makes Q feel good, confident. Wanted. Tanner holds out his hands, pulling Q down to straddle his thighs. Q falls against him, steals a kiss, and Tanner hums his encouragement. They are lost again, panting into each other’ mouths, Tanner’s hands skimming over Q’s long back, still slick from the heat. Tanner’s hands cup the globes of Q’s arse, nudge him in tight. Q ruts again, his cock against both the towel and Tanner’s firm belly. He whines, desperate for something, more of anything.
Q ‘s hardly aware of the fingers that have drifted between his arse to tease, slick with oil. Q rocks back against them. He whimpers as they stroke his sensitive furl.
“You're going to be the death of me, aren’t you? So eager and you don’t even know what you want yet. Yes,” Tanner sighs, tilting his hips so Q can feel the hard ridge of his cock through the towel. Tanner uses the distraction to slip the tip of his finger inside. Q tingles to his toes and he arches back to impale himself.
“Fuck, easy, easy,” Tanner grips Q’s hipbone and tries to steady him.
“I...I...please,” Q almost sobs. He feels the twist of orgasm starting to build, but he doesn’t quite have enough to tip him.
“Shhh. Deep breaths. Not yet; trust me,” Tanner instructs, holding Q pinned. Q glares at him but inhales, holds it, then lets it go. He repeats it several times and feels his blood cool, the curl of arousal relaxing into something a little less urgent.
Tanner eases in a second finger and Q’s eyes flutter shut. It doesn’t burn or hurt—it’s much like his own explorations. Tanner keeps him still a little longer and then lets go of Q’s hip. It’s the most natural thing in the word for Q to undulate his body, to rock himself experimentally on Tanner’s fingers.
“Ah, Q, Q. You gorgeous thing. Good, yes,” Tanner encourages him with the reverent nonsense words of lovers. He twists his fingers inside and Q’s thighs start to shake.
Q closes his eyes and tilts his head back, lips parted. Tanner takes advantage, kissing a trail down to Q’s clavicle to nip under the sensitive skin over the bone. Q flinches and tries to look down at him curiously.
Tanner gently pulls out his fingers and looks up at Q. “Don’t like that?”
“I don’t know?” Q thinks it’s a little weird to bite his…“Oh!” Tanner’s teeth catch the skin on his neck and Q shudders. It doesn’t really hurt but…
Tanner chuckles. “Say if you don’t like something I do,” Tanner tells him. He nips a little higher, sucks and worries the skin until it stings. Q’s trying to catalog the sensation, trying to decide if the tingling is nice or not, when—when he feels something firmer than a finger nudge his arse. Tanner kisses his adam’s apple and the sensation of lips following the bob of it when he swallows is distracting, splitting his attention between the surprisingly intimate mouth and the firmer press of the bulb playing at his bottom. “Don’t tense up, it’s all right.”
Q can’t ignore it now he knows the bulb is slickly teasing him. He tenses up anyway and Tanner bites him sharply under his ear; Q lets out a gasp of surprise at the intense pinch and then feels a tender stretch as Tanner seats the bulb home.
“Ah!” Q huffs. It feels invasive and over full. He wriggles a little.
Tanner is kissing the love bite gently to soothe it. He rubs a comforting hand down Q’s flank. “Give yourself some time to adjust.”
“It feels funny,” Q complains.
“I’ll take it out if you want, but it won’t be so peculiar soon,” Tanner tips Q’s chin, encouraging him to try to nibble on his neck.
Q kisses along the tendon, licks his own lips and tastes salt and a subtle something else that seems to just be Tanner. Q laps delicately at his skin to sample the flavor more directly. Tanner makes a soft, pleased sound. Inspired by it, Q sucks a kiss into the curve between his neck and Tanner’s shoulder.
Tanner pulls Q’s hips in closer, so his cock is riding on the edge of the towel again. Q nuzzles his neck, tries a gentle bite and Tanner groans. The sound of it goes straight to Q’s groin and he tilts his hips to rut again. When he does, the bulb shifts inside him, sending sparks of sensation ricocheting through him. He's left gasping, clenching his muscles, which moves the plug once more and a little cry slips from Q.
“That’s right, that’s right. Now you feel it. Come on, pretty boy, just like that,” Tanner murmurs with a voice gone raw. He holds Q by the upper arms so his hips can buck, to alternate rubbing his cock against Tanner and moving so the bulb rocks in him just right.
It doesn’t take any time at all for the sweet insistent ache to build again. Q doesn’t care that’s he rubbing himself off against his husband’s man, doesn’t care about the implication of the toy that bumps against his prostate. He’s lost in a flood of feeling, shaking and moaning right to the very verge of completion.
“Yes, yes,” Tanner is panting with him. “Show me, show me.”
“Can’t!” Q grits out. He churns his hips faster, but his pleasure is just out of reach, just…
Tanner slips a hand between them and strokes Q’s cock. After just a few pulls of his slick, work roughened hand, Q shouts, coming in pulses that seem to tear out of him. He’s gasping for breath, entire body shaking, as he all but melts against Tanner’s chest.
Tanner’s strong heart is hammering in his ear and Q sits up unsteadily. He goes to pick away at the towel, to touch, to reciprocate.
Tanner catches Q by the wrist to stop him and pulls him back in close. “No, Q.”
“But I want to,” Q says, nuzzling in.
Tanner hums. “I want you, too. You have no idea how much I want you to. That wouldn’t be right, though. That was for you, so you’d feel more confident. You touching someone that way should be a pleasure reserved for your lord husband.”
Q shrugs. He’s starting to care less and less about what’s appropriate, especially when the rules seem a lot less clear than he thought and his husband almost nonexistent.
“We’d both regret it later, I think,” Tanner says mournfully. “Are you in any discomfort, by the way?”
Q shakes his head. He’s aware of the bulb, but his body seems to have accommodated it.
“You can wear it for awhile, or I can take it out,” Tanner tells him.
Q shrugs lazily against his chest. “In a little while?” His eyes drift over the bench, to the carved wooden box. The bottle of oil lies empty and tipped over, the unused glass plugs sitting in their places. Q blinks the sweat out of his eyes. “Oh my goodness!”
“Hmm?” Tanner asks.
“The biggest one is…” Q swallows. Inside.
Tanner chuckles. “I told you it wasn’t so bad.”
The days drag by like sludge, and time flows slowly like too-cold gear oil. The idle hours are the worst part of Q’s new life, he thinks for what has to be the hundredth time that day. He’s never had the luxury to waste lounging around like a courtesan. He’s accustomed to working from sunrise until well into the night, or for as long as his afforded supply of candles would allow him.
The library is a significant distraction and a constant wonder. He’s quite sure that without it, he would be completely ‘round the bend by now. He reads for hours, takes notes on stacks of fine, creamy sheets of paper he can’t help but rub the pads of his fingers over before he writes with a smooth nibbed ink pen. He’s thankful to Bond for giving him access to this font of knowledge. At the same time, he feels twitchy and ill at ease. His fingers itch to do something, to create.
He’s lonely, too. Not that he had been much of a social creature before, but the lower city was teeming with people and activity. He could, if he wished, walk from his ramshackle house to gossip with vegetable sellers and wave passing at his neighbors if he felt the urge to see other faces. Here, he is surrounded by servants and slaves too busy to chat with him. Tanner is afield with the King again and it will be some time before he will return.
He decides to try to integrate himself with the harem again. Q knows it’s isolation that drives him, but he sees the wisdom of trying to settle into his new role as much as he can. He heeds the advice of the servant and takes tea with the oldest of the wives and concubines instead of the young women closer to his age. When he approaches, it’s Lady Tracy, Bond’s first wife, who invites him to sit.
Q does his best to drink his tea and keep quiet. He listens and learns. The king has been married six times, including Q and Vesper. So there are five consorts and from what Q can surmise, and about ten concubines in the pleasure rooms. Five of his eight children were borne by his wives and were in the direct line to inherit, two of them the children of Tracy.
Lady Sylvia, Bond’s third wife, sighs theatrically when the talk turns to children. “At least Lord Q doesn’t have to worry himself with such things.”
“No, I suppose I don’t,” Q agrees.
“It’s for the the best. James hasn’t-” Sylvia drops her voice. “-given the house many more babies after his accident a few years ago.”
“Not that he hasn’t tried,” Nancy, one of the more senior concubines giggles.
“Accident?” Q asks, unable to stop himself.
“He was taken captive for a short time and tortured. We don’t speak of it,” Tracy says tersely. “You all know it’s possible. We may see more births yet.”
“I suppose that’s why James picked a boy, though,” Nancy broke in. Q is getting the impression that she isn’t very clever. “I didn’t even know he fancied boys.”
“I’m not surprised,” Sylvia looks Q over. “Bond likes pretty things. But yes, at least this time we don’t have to watch another new woman grow round while some of us don’t.”
Q feels his cheeks pink and drinks his tea. Tracy turns the topic of conversation and they chatter on without him, making no real effort to include him. He isn’t snubbed, exactly, but he doesn’t feel particularly welcome left at the periphery. When he excuses himself, they spare him hardly a glance.
Q returns to the Lantern room, having no other place to go. He sits at the small table and shifts through his notes. He can’t go on like this much longer, he thinks to himself. Sitting alone in his little room is intolerable; he has to find something to do. He ponders his marriage price and the small locked chest of coin he has hidden under his bed.
Q pulls out a sheet of paper, dips his pen, and starts a materials list.
“What are you doing?” Emily asks curiously, peeping over Q’s shoulder.
“Making a channel inside this ring,” Q tells her, squinting at the plain silver band. He holds the ring as close to the end of his nose as he can to focus on the tiny rasp he is using to carve. He had always known his vision isn’t perfect, but he had blamed it on poor lighting in his father’s workshop. With the sun streaming through the dome above, lighting his room like a beacon, Q is forced to re-evaluate his old assumptions.
“Why?” she asks. Q can feel her breathing on the back of his neck. He sits back and smiles, remembering doing the same to his father while he was bent at his bench.
“Did you bring the sheet metal from the clockmaker that I asked for?” Q asks her. She reaches inside her satchel and pulls out a paper envelope. Q takes it from her and draws out a thin slice of metal. He flexes it and smiles. It will do nicely.
“This is a special metal that is used for making the springs inside clocks. It’s very strong, and can bend without cracking or snapping. I’m going to cut a tool out of it that can be hidden inside a ring,” he tells her.
She scrunches her face up. “A tool inside a ring? What for?”
Q pushes some papers out the way until he finds a lock on his cluttered desk. “To open one of these if you don’t have a key.”
“Burglary!” Emily gasps, eyes wide.
Q laughs. “Even you assume I have a criminal heart! No, no. In case someone is taken prisoner by one of our enemies. An unassuming ring might be overlooked long enough for someone to palm the pick and free themselves.”
“Like the king!” Emily beams in understanding.
“Yes, just so,” Q sets the lock and metal sheet aside. “You really call him king and not father?”
Emily shrugs. “Sure, because I call Mum’s husband Father. It keeps things straight.”
Q nibbles his bottom lip. He knows he’s new to the way families work in the castle, but he still finds it hard to think well of a man who not only ignores his new spouse but cares so little for his own children to the point they call another man their father.
“Is he kind to you? Bond?”
Emily nods almost at once. “Yes. You should see the bow he had made for me. My arms are not as long yet, so he made sure I had one that fit. On my birthing day he invited my whole family to the castle for a feast. He was nice to Mum, too. Bought her a house in the upper city and everything.”
Q nods in encouragement. “But you still think of him as just the king. How about your other brothers and sisters- Bond’s other kids?”
She rolls her eyes. “Oh, Edmond calls him Father, I think. But he’s the littlest and only eight. Alexandra is the oldest and she calls him Majesty, but she’s now at court so that’s what’s proper. I was born right before Mum left the harem and she was married when I was a babe, so her husband is more like a father to me in all ways you’re used to.”
Q hums. It makes sense.
“But like I said before, Bond is busy! He doesn’t have time to be tripping over babies or looking for wives. That’s what the harem is for, you know. We all have our duties so the king can go about being a leader for the people. I’m not going to be worrying about domestics until my army career is underway, I can tell you that!”
Q grins at her. “That sounds like a wise plan.”
Emily points at the ring in Q’s hand. “I bet he’ll like your courting gift, though. It’s very romantic,” she sighs.
“That’s not what...I mean…” Q stutters. “It’s an invention! I thought it would be be helpful!”
Emily giggles. “Oooh! I’m not a baby you know! You like him!”
Q can’t believe he’s been reduced to stammering in front of a child- well, a small wisp of a young woman. He feels his face start to burn red. “This is just what I do- I make things. It’s not a love token- it could protect him from getting hurt.”
Emily smile becomes bigger. “Oh, but Bond will think that’s the best type of love token of all.” She hums a few bars of a folk song children taunt each other with- it’s about sneaking kisses.
“Are you going to be a pest all day?” Q grumbles as she keeps on singing. He picks up a pair of snips and starts to work on the metal sheet, trying his level best to ignore the little girl.
Q knows when Tanner is back, because the castle becomes a flurry of activity. Wounded soldiers will need to be tended to at the barracks, food cooked, horses stabled, and there is some sort of official Welcoming ritual for the king. One of the servants tells him a consort is required to participate. Q is excused from formal events and other public duties for now, but will be expected to take a turn when his newlywed term is up.
So his isolation lasts a little longer and Q can only wait as the household spins through the routine of soldiers coming home again. Tanner doesn’t show the first day and he tries not to sulk. It’s ridiculous to expect that the King’s man would have time in all the bustle to idle with someone else’s spouse. It only then occurs to him that the king could come to him, seeking the comforts of his new boy after an arduous battle. He doesn’t.
Three more days pass before Tanner visits and when he does, his face is covered in bruises and half-healed cuts. Q drops the device he’s working on and rushes to him, hands going to his face. Tanner flinches back, his hands pressing down Q’s wrists. “It’s nothing. I’m fine.”
“I was starting to worry.” Q feels like an idiot as soon as he says it, especially because Tanner’s face is set into something hard, shielded from him. “Was it bad? Do you want to talk…”
“No.” Tanner brings one of Q’s hands up, brushes a kiss into his palm. Q shivers. Tanner stops, peering over Q’s shoulder. “What do you have here?”
Q turns around to the little table piled high with books, tools and half finished small projects. “I thought with nothing to do I could work on a few things. I didn’t think the king would mind. I used the money from my dowry.”
Tanner goes to the table and picks up a leather cuff banded with metal.
“Put that down!” Q scrambles over and takes it out of Tanner’s hand. Tanner smirks at him.
Q turns the cuff over and presses a button and a long sharp needle ejects out of the cuff. Tanner flinches as it imbeds into Q’s bedframe. “It could be tipped with poison but I don’t have any now. Seems like that’s frowned upon in the pleasure rooms.”
“I wonder why,” Tanner says dryly. Q squeaks in protest as Tanner pokes around on his desk and pulls out a sheet of paper, one of Q’s sketched out plans.
“I wish you wouldn’t—that’s not finished yet,” Q complains. He really doesn’t want Tanner rummaging around in his things, jabbing himself with something dangerous or fragile, or worse yet, criticizing his work.
“This is a trebuchet,” Tanner says turning the paper over to see a row of calculations.
“I was thinking they could be lighter, more efficient…. Why are you looking at me like that?” Tanner shakes his head, grinning at Q.
“M said you were smart, but she didn’t mention you built weapons.” Tanner is looking at him not in ridicule, but in wonder. “Q, you are an absolute gift. It seems the king got more than a pretty face when he wed you.”
Q snatches his paper out of Tanner’s hand. He tidies his things to avoid looking at him. He can’t accept that sort of praise. “I build other things too. Of course we haven’t even spoken yet, so how would he know?”
Tanner’s smile fades. “There is that. Tell me, then. Tell me about what you used to do and the creations you haven’t made yet. What do you imagine?”
“That’s probably boring.” Oh but it’s tempting, so hard to stop the flow of words that are crowding behind his lips. People never want to talk shop with him, it goes above their heads or simply isn’t interesting to them. He doesn’t want to see Tanner’s eyes glaze over if Q starts talking and gets carried away.
Tanner pulls up one of the chairs and sits. He picks up the poison dart cuff again. “Let’s try. How did you do this?”
To Q’s surprise, Tanner sits with him for two whole hours, listening. He asks insightful questions and a couple of them result in Q jotting down more ideas and improvements. He’s lost himself in pleasant company until a servant comes in quietly with Q’s afternoon tea.
“I should go, I’m sure I’m needed by now,” Tanner frowns and stands up stiffly.
“Are you going to tell the king about this?” Q asks, nervously. Tanner may think his creations are a fine thing, but will the king want a boy with work-rough hands?
“He will be just as happy as I am, I promise. His Majesty wouldn’t want talent wasted, especially if it can serve the kingdom.” Tanner presses a quick kiss into Q’s hair before he leaves him.
There’s a tight knot of scar tissue on Tanner’s shoulder, a small, raised welt that branches silver and healed at the front, but the back is a snarl of messily-healed flesh. Q touches it with delicate fingertips and Tanner sighs.
“Infection. When I was a young man, when I entertained thoughts of dying in a blaze of glory on the battlefield, an enemy speared me through and left me for dead on the battlefield. He used a barbed weapon, one that spread the wound like a flower as it passed through. I nearly died.”
It must have been terrifying, Q thinks, but as glad as he is that Tanner wasn’t killed, his mind is already whirling on armour designs to prevent it happening again. With access to the library, his listlessness has faded, and it’s been a blessing to feel the familiar itch to design in his fingertips. He has no space of his own yet, but once his husband has visited him and he can leave the lantern room—a strange pulling sensation wraps itself around Q’s belly. He doesn’t want to think of that. The fear is melting away, but in its place is an attachment that makes him feel as much guilt as it does joy: Tanner. Tanner’s presence, Tanner’s smile, Tanner’s touch, and Q is past admitting to himself that he looks forward to these lessons, that he looks forward to Tanner’s hands on him.
He looks forward to more than that. He looks forward to the way Tanner’s bright eyes go soft around the edges when they land on his face. He looks forward to the gentle press of Tanner’s gaze, carefully steadying him. He looks forward to the sweet, proud smile Tanner gives him when he’s leaned against his broad chest, still shaking in the aftermath of his pleasure. He looks forward to the day Tanner lets him reciprocate that pleasure, because he’s sure—he’s so sure—that Tanner wants that, too. That he wants it as much as Q wants it.
Tanner kneels before him in the center of the lantern room, their activities hidden from prying eyes by the bright candles again. He’s stripped down to his trews, chest and feet bare, as he lets Q explore his torso. His cock is hard, and that’s thrilling too.
Q’s cock isn’t half so restricted. He’s in the filmy court wear again, though he doesn’t tell Tanner it’s the first time he’s put himself in these thin silks since the wedding, and their diaphanous shifting only barely preserves his modesty as he sinks to sit on his feet beside him. Tanner certainly appreciates it, which more than makes up for the chill in the room—and that’s rapidly disappearing anyway.
Tanner swallows. “Today’s lesson,” he tells Q, voice breaking off when Q presses a kiss to the place where the scar’s thick lines meet.
“Today’s lesson?” Q coaxes.
“I want,” Tanner starts, and yes, they both do. He captures Q’s mouth with surprising restraint, more hot breath than contact for one wavering moment until they collide, mouths pressed in sucking, tender kisses that sap the strength from Q’s limbs and replace it with heat, melting his bones into jelly. Yes, he wants.
Tanner cups one hand around his jaw, fingertips tracing the curl of an ear as he follows the skim of his palm across Q’s face to his ear. There’s a buzzing undercurrent to his breath, a moment where it’s more growl than air, and each tiny hair along Q’s arm stands on end as the sound skitters up to settle, tingling, in his scalp. Tanner’s other hand is hot on his thigh, the fabric there so thin and delicate that it’s as if his fingers are resting directly on his skin, as if the heat of his grasp is scalding. His thumb settles in the hollow bowl of Q’s hip, pressing firm and rubbing until it is all Q can think about, all he can imagine that that touch is only scant inches from his cock.
“Touch me, please,” Q begs breathlessly, shuddering as Tanner’s breath stirs the short curls by his ears. “Please, please. Tanner, please.”
The sound of his name seems to solidify Tanner’s resolve, and he pulls away, taking those gorgeous lips with him. He leaves Q tipped onto the floor, thoroughly kissed and wanting, with lips kiss-bruised and feeling sore, full, swollen. Above him, Tanner’s eyes are dark with want, but when Q reaches for him he retreats further, slides his palm against his cock and presses until the hunger in his frame ebbs.
“I can’t,” Tanner tells him helplessly.
It’s not good enough. “Won’t,” Q corrects, voice vicious. He doesn’t want to fight—doesn’t, honestly doesn’t—but he’s tired of Tanner bringing him to the edge, of Tanner taking him over that edge in hollow orgasm. Surely he can see how much better it would be if he would just give in. Surely he can see how desperately Q wants him. Even the lingering shame, the guilt that this man is not his husband, every thought that isn’t Tanner’s name on his lips copper-flushed like fresh blood is swept away by the memory of his weight above him, by the thought of his hands on his hips, by the press of his cock against Q’s own. He wants with the marrow in his bones, wants more than he has ever possibly known wanting.
And Tanner wants it too. Q can see it in the aching line of his shoulders, in the way his knuckles have gone white on his thighs, in the line of his cock so clear through his trews, lifted and dark with blood beneath the thin white fabric. He wants—Q wants—and it’s honour that won’t let Tanner take what Q is offering so plainly. Q rocks his hips up from the floor, feels the silks slide and pool around his cock hot and slipping, and watches Tanner bite his lip until it bleeds.
“Touch me, then, if I can’t touch you. Touch me and tell me you don’t want me, or.” Q breaks off, breath shuddering in his chest. Tanner looks agonised.
“I can’t. I can’t. God, the things I would do—I would never take my hands off you once I put them on, and you would never—”
“Because I belong to another man?” It’s a low blow, unkind to the both of them, and Tanner flinches.
“Then tell me how to please him. You’re lovers? Tell me what he likes.”
For a moment, Q thinks he may have gone too far, may have taunted Tanner one too many times. May have brought the truth of their infidelity home too readily, but Tanner’s lids drop over fever-bright eyes, his mouth falls open as though tasting Q’s eagerness on the air. He smiles, and it’s wicked. “Take off your clothes, then, and show me. Bond would want to see. I want to see.”
“Would he,” Q teases, and oh, now’s not the time; Tanner’s face is flint, something harder than Q’s used to seeing. “Are you pretending to be him, then?”
Tanner pauses, clearly startled, and then that sly smile is back. He nods with approval as Q shimmies out of his fine clothes until he’s sitting nude on the floor, bare and shivering with more than cold. He can see the soldier in Tanner now, the stern face and commanding presence. Q tips his face into his shoulder, suddenly almost as shy as he is aroused.
“Q, little Q. Did you play with the other boys in the lower town? I’d bet you had all the men—all your friends’ fathers—trailing behind you looking for their chances. You’ve got a mouth for kissing, but did you ever learn more?”
“Yes.” It’s not true, not at all, but the insinuation, so dirty and unkind, fires Q’s chest like a kiln, simmers in his blood.
“Yes, my lord,” Tanner—Bond—Tanner corrects.
“Yes, my lord,” Q parrots. He’s surprised how much higher it stokes him.
“What did you learn?” King Tanner prods, but when Q just writhes on the ground before him, his smile goes cruel. “I think you’re lying, little Q. I think you teased them, teased and teased and never even considered following through. I think the only cock you’ve touched is your own. Tell me it’s true.”
“It’s true.” Q’s admission is breathless. He’s sprawled at the feet of his husband’s manservant, cock growing ready just from words, and he can’t even bring himself to be embarrassed; King Tanner brushes the pads of his fingertips along Q’s skin, and Q can feel the cold trail as his sweat is wiped away.
“Show me, then. Show me what you’ve learned.”
At first, the command makes no sense, but Tanner reaches, pulls at the laces of his own trews and draws them to the side, lifts out his own cock so thick and daunting and regal—and there’s no way Bond’s cock can compare with this one, with its majesty, with its loveliness. Q finds his mouth watering, aching as he looks on and Tanner strokes himself hard. To Q’s credit, it doesn’t take long; when he’s done, Tanner leans back to watch him in return.
His fingers are only shaking a little bit when Q wraps them around his own cock. Only enough to remind him that he is nervous, only enough to remind him that he’s kneeling before Tanner as he would the king. The first slow slide of his hand against himself draws a startled groan, as though he’s never felt even his own touch on his cock before, though in a way he hasn’t. A wank has always been something sly, something furtive with the covers pulled up to his chin as he bit his lip and fantasised about the smith’s arms, the miller’s son’s plush mouth. Even with privacy that hadn’t changed until he suddenly had no privacy left, and he has to admit that its return brings out the hedonist in him. Q sighs, spreading his legs so Tanner can see, and touches.
And Tanner touches, too. Q watches through eyes slitted with pleasure as Tanner takes himself in hand, in that thick, war-callused hand that Q knows from experience feels divine. They groan together.
“Are you watching?” Tanner asks gruffly. He’s close to breathless, bestial growls caught just beneath the surface of his voice, and panting. Q watches him slide and ride his palm in slow, even strokes and the thrill dances along his nerves from the soles of his feet to the backs of his knees to his cock before lodging in the center of his gut. Tanner is wanking for him. “Q,” Tanner’s voice breaks in, and Q can barely tear his eyes away, almost can’t bring them up to meet Tanner’s burning gaze. “Is this how you do it, there in your bed? Under the furs with your legs spread and begging like a whore—is this how you wait for me to come to you?”
“Yes.” The word falls out of his mouth, thin confession so lithe he cannot hold it back. “Yes.”
“And am I who you’re thinking about when you play by yourself? When you put your fingers up your arse? When you make yourself come, who do you think about?”
Q’s mouth falls open, confessions waiting impatiently behind the hungry gasps of his breath. His chest is on fire; his thighs tremble and his hand jostles and he has to take his fist away, to curl his fingers against his thigh until the knuckles are white and shivering—
Tanner groans, his taunting falling silent, and Q peeks, risks a glance to where he’s. To where Tanner’s wrapped one fist around his bollocks, the other knotted as Q’s is against the urge to touch. It’s—
“Please,” Q begs. Tanner’s eyes dart up, catch at his chest, his mouth, his eyes, and.
Tanner sweeps him like a storm, with crashing thunder and impossible wind, dragging him back to the mats on the floor with a fist clenched in his hair and his mouth anywhere it can reach. It’s almost overwhelming, and Q cries out when his cock bumps against Tanner’s stomach, already caught trembling on the edge of bliss just from the power of this man’s want for him. Tanner’s murmuring quietly into his ear; it takes a moment for the lust fog to recede enough for Q to understand his pleas: “I can’t.”
“Is that your cock?” Q asks, because it is: Tanner’s cock is iron, nudging wet at his thigh and hot, and Q can see the moment that all thought of stopping evaporates.
To his credit, Tanner doesn’t bother with a response, not in words. Instead, his lips dip in a mocking grin and he drags the length of his cock along Q’s belly. He’s thick, the hair at its base coarse and visceral, until Q wants nothing more than to touch. He needs to feel it, to take in the shape and the weight of it between his fingers until he knows it, until he understands this thing he wants so ravenously. Q reaches. Tanner stops him.
“Do you feel me, Q? Feel my cock, and how hard it is for you? Do you see how red it is for your touch? How wet—can you smell how much I want you?”
The words are tinder, spark, catch, ignite until Q feels feverish, thick and dizzy with the heat of them. He’d beg again, say or do anything for more of that slipping, sticky contact, but he’s struck dumb; no words will form in his brain, fizzle into air on his tongue. He wants to, though—wants to beg: please. Please. Perhaps Tanner hears him anyway, because he shifts, rocks, and slides against Q in the most delicious way—the groan that he pulls from Q feels deep, dredged from some well of passion he barely understands.
Tanner’s mouth is slick as he presses kisses along Q’s throat, beneath his jaw and in the fold behind his ear, and this time when Q reaches for him he catches his fingers, bringing them to his mouth. His teeth scrape at the pads and a line of fire heats Q’s belly. He squirms, and Tanner laughs.
“I could eat you up,” Tanner says.
Tanner presses a kiss in the center of his chest, tongue dabbing out to catch the salt of his skin in tiny bites; Q only realises what he’s planning when Tanner dips it into the crease of his navel, and when he freezes it’s Tanner’s kiss-red lips and awestruck expression that shake off his nerves. He wants Tanner, very much.
It takes all of his concentration not to come the moment Tanner puts his mouth on him—before, even: the moment Tanner’s breath washes humid and heavy across his skin—and Q falls back, lets Tanner ease him open, lets him hold his legs out until there’s nothing to do but submit to tender, fascinated exploration. And Tanner’s touched him before, has put his hand on and in Q’s body until he’d come, but there’s something delicate—something worshipful—about him now. There’s something in the way he runs his nose along the line of Q’s raised thigh that leaves him dazed and willing to be prayed to. Tanner doesn’t taste, just smells—Q can feel his deep breaths in the prickle that is the stubble of his pubic hair growing back—and drags surprisingly soft lips across his skin in sweeping passes. When Q is melted thoroughly, that’s when Tanner finally tastes.
Q’s breath escapes him in a slow hiss, bitten and held between his teeth as if that can hold it back. There’s a high, animal sound scratching at his throat, and Tanner doesn’t seem to notice, doesn’t seem to care as he licks those tiny kisses into the line of Q’s cock. He’s harder than he can remember being, blood pounding in his temples and in his chest and in the tip of his cock; Tanner’s breath is hot and then cold on the damp skin as he kisses and kisses and kisses. Q curls his fingers in Tanner’s short, pale hair and groans.
The response is instant, unexpected: giggling. Voices, outside the Lantern room’s thin walls, and Q startles, pulling back—there are dark figures pressing against the thin skin of the walls, curious handprints and shadows as the spies try to see their shadows, and. Laughter, whispering. Shame and humiliation chase each other down the line of Q’s spine, and he can’t meet Tanner’s eyes.
“Oh, god,” Q whispers, sick with horror. They’ve been surrounded, and someone’s going to tell his husband, he’s sure of it. He can barely breathe around the shape of his fear, and when Tanner smoothes a calming hand over his shoulder, he flinches before sinking into the touch. His arousal is still there, doused and guttering, and he feels so guilty. “I—”
Tanner doesn’t shush him, doesn’t try to talk him back down; he takes Q’s stricken silence in stride, helps him back into clothes that do nothing to protect his modesty. He’s been throwing himself at—but that’s not fair at all, because he doesn’t regret wanting Tanner. He’s not guilty over doing it, only over being caught. Tanner kisses his forehead and they settle wordlessly on the bed to wait out the siege.
When he wakes, Tanner has already gone. The attendant is there instead, gently blowing out the candles; he turns a strangely sympathetic eye on Q.
“You’ll dine with the other consorts tonight; from now on, there will be no special concessions. In the morning, you’ll leave the Lantern room.”
Q waits until the attendant leaves, numb. It is a mild punishment, and he hopes Tanner isn’t suffering for their indiscretion, but. But now he has proof, doesn’t he? That Bond is never coming, that he’s going to be set aside in some dusty corner, that he’s given up everything for a pretty cage and a lifetime of perfunctory self-relief. He’s cold, but it doesn’t warm him to peel off the pretty silks and dress again in more substantial clothing. It doesn’t relieve the chill that’s crawled inside him, even to wrap himself in the fur from the bed and pace; he craves sunlight, some semblance of freedom. He finds his feet following a familiar path to the king’s garden, to the little yellow flowers that remind him of home, and he doesn’t care about the delicate slippers on his feet or even the months of embroidery he must be ruining as he sinks to sit beside them, breathing in the subtle smell of home.
It’s dark, well after dinner when he hears the footsteps in the garden behind him. Tanner’s heavy cloak wraps around his shoulders, and he buries his face in the collar, absorbing the scent of him. It’s several long minutes before he can talk.
“Are you in very much trouble?” Q asks quietly. Tanner sighs.
“No. I wouldn’t be, anyway, but no one saw me leave. Q—” But he doesn’t seem to know what to say, and Q has to resist the urge to lean into him, warm for the first time in hours. Around them, insects sing in the cool evening.
“Bond isn’t coming,” Q admits finally. Tanner stills beside him. “There’s nothing to prepare me for; he isn’t even going to consummate, so I don’t know how much longer he’ll keep me.”
“He can’t just send you back,” Tanner tells him, but Q’s not so sure. He feels cold and sad, and even though he’d never truly wanted—but it’s not the same as being told you are undesired. “He won’t.”
“Even if he doesn’t, I’ve lost all face. When the other consorts realise he’s never come to see me—not even once!” And his hurt bursts suddenly, unexpectedly sore and festered. “I’m not even worth pretending! If he didn’t want to fuck me, he could have visited anyway. He could have—I’d have knelt at his feet and read a book. He behaves as though—I mean, he.” Lanced, his pain feels hollow. “He gave me permission to use his library. He sent me—he behaves as though he cares, as though he’s interested, only to show so clearly with his absence that he’s not. He gives me gifts and ignores me on our wedding night, tells me I may wander and doesn’t travel the short distance to see me, puts me in a place of pride and shows shame over me. Why?”
“The king has been busy—” Tanner starts, and Q shuffles away from his grip.
“Don’t defend him to me. Please, I just.”
It’s dark enough to hide the kiss Tanner presses to his hair. “I’m sorry.”
“The worst part is the thought that he’s seen me, that he’s decided somehow without ever telling me that there’s something wrong with me. I know,” Q pauses, taking a breath, “I don’t compare to men like you. Perhaps he prefers soldiers, where I am thin and weak-looking and pitiful. You are so—you are. Something to desire, and I want you more each time I see you, but me? I’m small and shy, afraid to see him because he might want to touch me, ashamed that he’s seen me and clearly doesn’t want to.
“Did you know, the average stay in the Lantern room is two months? I’ve asked the slaves; they’ve noticed this. Two months of doting romance is all any of us can expect before he moves on to the next, and I don’t even warrant more than three weeks, and not even a visit in that time.” Q flips a yellow flower with the tip of his finger, torn. “He’s already wooing someone else.”
Tanner looks confused, conflicted. “Why would you think so?”
It takes Q twice to force the words out, to confess: “I’m being moved to make room in the morning. Tonight will be the last night I spend in the first bed I’ve slept in since childhood.”
Tanner is quiet at that; when Q turns to look at him, he looks sad. “You were told that? That you were being replaced?”
“No, but. He doesn’t really have to, does he? Say it? I almost prefer that he doesn’t; at least this way the first time I meet him won’t be him turning me down. He’s already done that, and hopefully I’ll be over that by the time we actually meet. If he ever decides to actually meet,” Q adds, frowning.
“He does want to meet you. I—you can’t think he doesn’t; he wants very much to meet you, to spend time with you. I thought,” Tanner drops off, guilt writ in every corner of his face. “I thought you’d rather have the privacy. I wasn’t thinking.”
For a moment, Q is an empty shell around his indignant pain. “You?” he demands, but. But it makes sense, from the things Tanner has seen, from the disconnect he has still with the people of the pleasure quarters, though he’s closer than Bond, at least. And he can’t be furious, not when Tanner looks at him with such anxious, gentle vulnerability in his eyes. “You asked him to move me?”
“I asked for you to be moved, yes. I saw—she hated that room, too, and I was stubborn, cruel when she complained. I didn’t understand, but. It is cruel, isn’t it? To put you on display, so new to our household and used to more privacy. It’s not right to keep you there where anyone who wants to can spy on you. I wanted,” Tanner trails off. “I’m sorry.”
Q smiles, even though it’s thin. He understands, really, and he lets Tanner take his hand to pull him to his feet. “It’s okay.”
“It’s not,” Tanner disagrees gently, “but thank you for saying so.” His arm is warm under the cloak when he wraps it around Q’s waist, and he guides him back onto the wooden path, tutting at the state of Q’s clothes. “All those pretty things and you’re rolling around in the dirt,” he teases. Q grins. Closer to the house, they drop a respectful distance apart, though Tanner keeps Q close, leading him past the door he’s always used to a different door that must go into the pleasure quarters. “I want to show you something,” Tanner says as he unlocks the door and opens it.
Servants and slaves scatter, disappearing like mist from the elegant rooms revealed. They’re lovely: a large workroom with a table and chair shoved into the corner, a loom half-built nearby. There’s a pile of cushions in the center of the room, clearly pulled from the bed in the smaller chamber to the side, and through the delicately scrolled archway there is a sitting room full of lovely carved furniture. It’s clearly the room of a beloved consort.
“Tracy’s room?” Q asks, peering shyly for some sign of the intimidating woman.
“Vesper’s. Yours, now,” Tanner says. Q whips his head back to look and he’s almost bouncing on his feet like a nervous child. “If you want it.”
“It’s beautiful.” There must be some mistake. These rooms have actual walls, doors that close the bedroom away from the living space, elegant furnishings too fine to waste on an unwanted boy.
“I suggested it,” Tanner tells him. “There’s a sitting room for entertaining visitors—the Dowager Mother is eager to see you again, and now that you’re out of the Lantern room, I expect she’ll be by before much longer. She hates that room, though. Well, I suppose she would,” Tanner seems to realise, “having been confined to it herself.
“But there’s a smaller bedroom—it’s not as large as the Lantern room, I’m afraid—with doors that lock; you’ll be the only one with the key. I thought that might cheer you. And the workroom.” Here Tanner gestures at the open space around them. Just this room is larger than Q’s home before, and he takes in the table again, the loom—being broken down, then, and he feels a pang of remorse for Vesper’s own projects that have been packed away, stored unfinished—and the boards leaned against the wall. Shelves, perhaps. He’s going to have a proper workshop! Tanner laughs at the smile Q can feel forming on his face. “I wanted you to have a place to invent,” Tanner confides.
It’s perfect. The room is anything he could have ever hoped for, more than. Q ducks beneath Tanner’s arm to explore, dragging his fingertips along the wall until he reaches the bedroom. It’s tiny, intimate. The bed takes up most of the space, but for. “Oh,” he breathes softly, fingers wavering. There is a veil on the wall, delicately embroidered with purple flowers, not yet yellowed with age. It’s. Tanner’s hand on his hip makes him jump, and when he looks up, Tanner’s eyes are solemn. This was someone’s room once, and he’s cheering like a child at inheriting a space that, by all rights, should belong to a woman still mourned. Q swallows and lifts the edge of the diaphanous net. There is a dark curl still trapped in the fabric; he doesn’t pull it out, but watches Tanner lifts the veil from the wall.
“Was she pretty?”
“Gorgeous,” Tanner confirms. He holds the fabric carefully as if afraid it may crumble between his hands, and not for the first time Q wonders if Tanner was in love with Vesper, if he and his king had shared more than their own close friendship. “She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. At the wedding, she outshone the stars.”
“You saw her at the wedding?” Q asks.
“I—” Tanner says, surprised. “I forget; your wedding was...unusual. You were most grievously treated.”
Q can’t find words against that, not when he’d wondered why his husband had refused to even look at him during the ceremony. He tries for a smile instead, though he knows it’s watery and pale. “It’s forgotten.”
“It shouldn’t be,” Tanner insists. “The king has been selfish with you, unkind. He’s left you too long, and his silence has hurt you. I—he knows this, and some nights his guilt eats at him until he can’t sleep, because he knows you deserved to feel special, to feel loved. He knows this, and knows he is a coward.”
“Let’s not talk about him,” Q says firmly. Tanner looks bleak, but nods. “Tell me about Vesper? No one else will, not truly. I feel like I should know her like my sister.”
Tanner’s laugh is pained, small but genuine. “You’d have been a terror together. She used to run down the hall laughing in her bare feet; the other consorts hated her. The slaves used to hide her when she was angry with—with the king. She could go days without showing herself, locked up in her room.
“She had black moods, sometimes. She hated being kept in the castle—you hate it too, don’t you?” Tanner’s eyes are very clear, wry and hurt and still so, so in love. It takes Q’s breath away. “She would scold me, tell me I didn’t understand the world, for all I’d seen of it. She would throw things when she was angry.”
“And she—? How?”
“I,” Tanner stops. His mouth works, but he doesn’t speak for a long moment. Then: “Childbirth. Both of them. I’m sorry, I don’t want to—”
Tanner’s hand is trembling when Q takes it between his own, the skin rough and hot beneath his palms, and when it balls into a fist, Q lets it, gives Tanner room to grieve quietly. “You loved her.”
“More than I thought I would.”
“Did—?” Did she know? Did the king know? Q bites his tongue on the insensitive question.
“I hope so,” Tanner says, and even though he doesn’t know what question Tanner thinks he’s asked, he hopes so, too. He’s surprised by the touch of Tanner’s lips on his knuckles as Tanner bows his head to kiss them. “You would have liked her very much. She would have liked you.”
There’s nothing to say to that, and Q bumps Tanner with his shoulder, a wordless request that Tanner obeys, pulling him close.
“Have you been in the lower part of town?” Q asks.
“Of course I have!” Tanner huffs. “I do travel.”
Q sighs. He hadn’t meant to get into a political argument with Tanner—it just happened. He had seen a peasant that looked underfed delivering kindling wood to the castle and Q had opened his mouth about the town’s poor.
“Recently? Have you visited in the last few years? Outside a palanquin?”
Tanner glares at him. “I don’t travel inside one of those blasted things. And no, I haven’t had business in that section of town for some time.”
Q nods smugly. “Then you haven’t seen how the new fees are impacting the poor. With the increase in prices of goods it’s hard to keep your family fed these days. I was on the verge of not making my tithe and losing my home. I only had it for so long because my parents paid it off in better days. But I couldn’t afford to always have the stove on, and it needed new windows.”
Tanner reaches over and cups Q’s elbow, steering him left on the gravel path. He’d asked him if he’d like to take a walk, and Q had readily agreed, even dressing in some of his nicer things, not quite the sheer marriage clothes, but a nubby silk tunic heavy with embroidery. It makes him look less like a rich man’s toy, more like a rich man’s husband, and he has to admit to himself that he looks the part. He meant to look attractive for Tanner, to catch his eye, but instead he’s lecturing him.
“This probably is boring to you,” Q says ruefully.
Tanner looks at him, lips pursed in thought. “No, not at all. The economy hasn’t been the same since after the last war. The king’s advisors say it will rebound in time, especially if he’s able to negotiate safer trade routes north.”
“In the meantime, people are going hungry. More people than ever before. They’ll be starved before things get better,” Q argues.
“What would you have the king do, then?”
“Tithe relief, at least for the poorest citizens. I live in the castle, so Bond can’t tell me the kingdom can’t spare fewer gold plates so the workers in town can buy food.”
“What you don’t realize is that a lot of the wealth you see around you has been in the royal family for generations. Bond isn’t wasting money on unnecessary fripperies. He has been drawing less from the treasury except to rebuild the army and navy,” Tanner tells him.
“Of course, but killing people can’t be more important than feeding the ones at home,” Q sighs. He’s far from a pacifist, but the palace is dripping in luxury. Certainly both can be prioritized.
Tanner’s lips thin and his blue eyes go flinty. “Defending the people so they don’t get slaughtered or become slaves under the neighboring ruler is also the king’s duty.” He looks defensive, and Q remembers that Tanner is the king’s man. Criticizing his policies too strongly isn’t going to endear him to either of them.
“There isn’t much either of us can do about it, anyway,” Q says, changing the subject. He hadn’t been looking for a debate—he’s still hoping Tanner plans to show him a secluded part of the grounds for more romantic ‘lessons’.
“Hmm.” Tanner’s brow furrows.
Q studies him from the corner of his eye. Tanner looks distracted, preoccupied. He shifts closer, so when they walk their arms brush and touch. “Where are we going, anyway?”
When Tanner looks at Q, his expression shifts to an unreadable neutral. “I want to show you something important to me.”
“Oh?” Q asks, intrigued. He looks around. They’re on a footpath behind the castle that leads to the various outbuildings, stables, barracks and workshops that support the estate. It’s almost a small town in itself nestled within the inner walls.
Tanner nods but his face is still tight. The friendly warmth Q has grown used to has fled leaving him a bit unsteady. He must have caused offense with his discussion, but he can’t bring himself to regret saying it. Just a few short weeks ago he was wondering how he was going to afford tithe and bread; it was a part of who he is. Was.
Q is distracted by his thoughts on Tanner’s odd mood; he starts when a handful of scullery maids carrying baskets approaches them on the path. They stop, move to the side and bow deeply as they pass.
Tanner has his full attention turned on Q, watching his face, and Q feels roses bloom on his cheeks under his regard. “It’s going to take me some time to get used to that. The titles are bad enough, and now people are bowing and scraping to me just because I walk by.”
Tanner blinks, and Q could swear he looks relieved, but that doesn’t make any sense. “Ah. I’m sure it’s quite an adjustment for you.” Something is definitely amiss, Q’s sure of it. Before he can mull over it further, Tanner stops them in front of a temple. Unlike the grand temple where he was wed, this is a modest stone building surrounded by a decorative iron fence and a lush, wild garden.
“Would you wait outside just for a moment?” Tanner asks carefully.
Q tilts his head, curious. “You want to take me to prayer?” His eyes widen in panic as a thought occurs to him. “You want to confess that we’ve been wanton; Tanner, I beg you—!”
“Shh,” Tanner shushes him gently. “I want to show you something the gardens. Just stay while I check to see if we have privacy,” Tanner smiles, but it’s hollow, not shining through in his eyes. Q nods hesitantly and Tanner slips away through the gate.
He’ll ask him, Q decides. He’ll ask Tanner what he has said to make him edgy. Whatever he’s done, he can…
“What are you doing out here alone?”
Q jumps as he’s shaken out of his thoughts. His obnoxious attendant is stomping down the path in his direction, face turning red as he storms up and to snatch Q by the upper arm.
“I’m not alone,” Q denies and wriggles, trying to worm his way free.
The attendant dramatically looks around, squinting, and when he sees no one else nearby, he pointedly shrugs his shoulders at Q. “Is your escort invisible?”
Q wrestles his arm free, brushing the arm of his tunic to see if the twit has set wrinkles in it. “Don’t be absurd.”
“Inside the castle you can roam as you will, but outside you need an escort befitting your station. I’ve explained this to you—is your hearing deficient?”
Q rolls his eyes. He’s been in worse places alone living in the lower city his whole life, but now he’s married it’s as if he needs to be treated like glass. “I’m not even outside the walls! What’s going to happen to me here?”
“Consorts have been stolen away before. The walls may seem safe, but they are teeming with commoners,” The attendant tells him slowly, as if addressing a wayward child.
“Commoners like I was! Just because they are poor, you think one of them is going to drag me off? What could they even do once they had me?” Q spits, indignant. “Why does everyone here assume that if one is not wearing silks they are...”
The gate creaks and Q looks up to see Tanner scowling down at the attendant, his fist gripping the wrought iron.
The attendant drops into a bow. “A million pardons, your Majesty.”
Tanner’s shoulders drop and he sighs. “Q, come with me please, before some other blundering stiff arse happens by and makes things worse.”
Q’s mouth drops open, a question on the tip of his tongue. “I…”
Tanner’s glare at the attendant could melt lead. The man bows again and scurries away as Tanner takes Q’s hand to steer him through the gate and into the garden beyond.
“Tanner, what the hells was that all about?” Q asks as he’s pulled along rows of old tangled bush roses. The flowers here aren’t exactly neglected, but they are less formally tended than the other palace gardens he’s seen. It’s homier, somehow more intimate.
“That was about a man too trumped up for a position he may find isn’t his much longer,” Tanner growls. “The rest I’ll explain.”
Tanner leads him to the center of the garden and Q soon discovers that it’s not really a garden at all; simple alabaster markers stand in somber lines, decorated only with the engraved names of the deceased.
“You’ve brought me to a graveyard.” Q tugs his hand free and Tanner lets him go.
Tanner moves to the third row of markers easily, with a familiarity borne of practise, and without having to read any of the names, stops between a pair of them. Q wonders if this is Vesper’s resting place. Perhaps Tanner has decided he should bring Q to pay his respects to the woman’s rooms he’ll soon be moved into—the woman he is now sure that Tanner loved, may still love.
“I know this isn’t the way things are usually done and I’ve cocked it up to boot, but—” Tanner takes a deep breath, “—I thought I should show you the resting place of King Andrew and Monique Bond.”
Q looks at the stones and looks up at Tanner, mouth working silently. He doesn’t get it. “Why would you bring me to see them?”
“They would have liked you. I’d like to think so, anyway,” Tanner’s gaze is full of regret.
Q is confused, but the sadness in Tanner’s eyes keeps him from asking more pointed questions. He tries for something simple. “Were you close to them, then?”
“To an extent. They died when I was still a boy. But you’re in their household now, in the family. I thought it would be fitting for you to see them. Someday I’ll be buried here, too. Maybe soon, the gods only know. The life expectancy of leaders in the field is never high. You might...” Tanner stops. He closes his eyes and regret etches deeper lines in his face.
The pieces are shifting around in Q’s clever mind like a puzzle, and he can almost start to see the picture forming. Something clicks into place, a notion:
A tidy answer to his questions, but no.
I’ll be buried here, too.
He doesn’t want to believe it. Q feels like he is standing on the edge of a crumbling pit that is trying to swallow him whole.
With one last attempt to deny the idea that’s quickly coalescing, Q asks in a quavering voice—“Bill?”
Tanner shakes his head. “I’m sorry. I’m your husband. I’m James Bond.”
Q makes a small choking sound. Before everything can come crashing down, he turns and runs.
The worst part is that he has nowhere to go. His new suite—Vesper’s rooms; Bond gave him his favourite wife’s home—isn’t ready yet, and he finds himself back in the Lantern room. He’s got nothing much to pack; his chest is missing and with it the wooden case and the glass bulbs, the filmy clothes he’d left on the floor and the ruined slippers, the books he’s taken from the library and the yellow flower Tanner—Bond. Bond? Q’s stomach clenches—had put in his hair last night, all moved over to the new rooms. The candles are still here. If nothing else, the candles will always stay here in the Lantern room.
And now he knows them for the sign they truly are: they’re there to protect the king’s modesty. They say, in a language that has always been clear to everyone but Q, that the king is visiting, that everyone else is to stay out. He lights them now.
He sees the hand before Tann—Bond. Before he knocks, and how long is it going to take for Q to stop associating that familiar face with his friend, to start connecting it to the absent husband he’s been quietly resenting this whole time? Bond slips in the door before Q has a chance to respond to his knock, and the presumption, the arrogance in it banks the coals of Q’s smouldering irritation. How dare he follow Q back here? How dare he force an interaction? How dare he—how dare he pretend to care and understand and—! Q’s anger catches in his chest in a spasm like a hiccough.
He wants to be cold, wants to be cruel in the way he knows now Bond fears, but. He means to be distant, to bite out a cordial greeting—“Good evening, Your Majesty.”—and leave Bond to freeze in his disregard the way Q has been shivering in his husband’s these long weeks. It doesn’t work.
“Majesty,” is all that will fit through his gritted teeth; the flat of his palm makes a sound against Bond’s cheek that is shocking, satisfying. Bond staggers back, eyes wide, and Q wonders who’s dared strike him since he was a child, if anyone did then. “How dare you?” he demands, and the fuzzy, guilty expression on Bond’s face sharpens.
“What do you think you mean?” Bond snaps back. “I can do as I—!”
“Including leading poor common boys on, right? Making them think they’re being unfaithful—making them worry about what will happen when they’re caught! Driving them into your trap by ignoring them and pretending to be the only friend they have at the same time!”
“Did you worry much that you were being unfaithful?” Bond snarls, and. And no, most days he hadn’t thought about that. He’d spent as much time pretending he wasn’t married as he could, wrapped in the arms of his husband’s man and licking the wounds on his ego. When Q falters, Bond’s eyes go wide, his mouth soft with apology. “Q, I—”
“It was made abundantly clear that my husband didn’t want me,” Q reminds him. Bond flinches. “I was common and not worth visiting, left waiting all night for his regard—twice!—without even a word that he wasn’t coming. Maybe you don’t know this—I only confided it in one person, a man I thought was my friend—but everyone else did. Especially the others in the pleasure quarters; they made sure I noticed them talking about it. They wanted to know how I’d displeased him.”
“You never displea—” Bond starts, but Q cuts him off.
“—and did you enjoy it? Touching me, helping me through my nervous fumblings as you pretended it was to help me, when at any point you could have helped by telling the truth? By assuring me that my husband did want me, that he hadn’t judged me lacking? You pleaded mercy for the man who wouldn’t even look at me, all without telling me he had. You let me feel unwanted, you—” It’s humiliating, the way his voice cracks there, and he can’t push any more words beyond the shards. He’s felt so tied to Bond’s desire for him—both as Tanner and as his husband—that the sudden release has snapped back, sharp and cracking.
“Q—” Bond’s hand wraps around his shoulder and Q rears back, striking at him again; prepared this time, Bond catches his wrist, tugging him in for a kiss. Q struggles, furious, and when he bites into the kiss, Bond yelps, drawing back. Q follows.
It’s easy, then, to tip Bond back onto the stripped bed, covered only with a thin blanket. Bond is meek, following, and when Q nips at his mouth again, he groans. They’re both already hard, Q’s body unable to remember that this isn’t Tanner beneath him gently teaching him carnal lessons. It’s his lord husband, the king, and Q grinds down on Bond’s cock from where he kneels above him. There’s absolutely no reason to stop this time and they both know it, so he’s not. He’s not going to stop.
His lessons have been very effective, though—he knows what his husband likes; he knows how to please him in bed. He kisses along the line of Bond’s throat and listens to Bond’s familiar groan. Then there are fingers in his hair, easing him back when Q doesn’t want to be eased back. He bites at the skin beneath him and Bond’s grip goes lax, holding instead of steering. Q grins against him.
The damnedest thing is how his body still responds to Bond’s touch. Bond strokes his back like a cat, and the fine hairs on the nape of Q’s neck stand on end, leaving him tingling. His skin buzzes with the pleasure of it, with the weight of Bond’s cock pressed against his belly between them, with the gentle, hesitant scrape of his stubbled jaw against Q’s throat and shoulder. Bond is being tender, is trying to slow him down, but why? Why should Q go slow? He sinks to sit, to press full contact between their bodies, to feel the press of Bond’s cock exactly where he’s wanted it for so long now.
There’s nothing to gentle the way, Q realises with regret. No smooth oil that will let him test the efficacy of his training on the girth of his husband’s cock just yet, and while he knows that a finger can work unslicked, Bond’s cock beneath him is rude, wide and solid in a way that sends a hungry thrill up his spine. He’s not interested in hurting himself for his husband’s pleasure—not anymore.
Bond’s stomach is firm, even beneath the layers of cloth still separating them, and Q takes a moment to enjoy the heat of his body between his legs, to enjoy the desperate grip of his hands on his waist, to enjoy the way Bond passively sighs as Q rides the line of Bond’s arousal through their clothing. It’s like gentling a big cat, so much tension and power purring languid beneath him, and Q realises with a start that he can do anything. Bond will let him do anything, and suddenly he wants nothing more than to see his husband come.
Q slips like an eel from Bond’s lap to kneel between his knees; he considers the trailing sleeves and elegant drape of his lovely clothes in the warmth of the candles’ light, thinks about the way Bond’s eyes had gone dark at the sight of him bared in the cedar room, and it’s not actually a difficult decision. He rocks back to his heels, stands long enough to shove the thickly embroidered robes from his shoulders and untie the delicate ties that protect his modesty, and grins with sharp, vicious teeth at Bond’s groan. When he falls back to his knees after kicking the puddle of cloth from the bed like a child, Bond tangles his fingers in Q’s hair and Q lets him guide him up for a kiss.
“Gods,” Bond murmurs worshipfully. “All the good gods.”
“Are you thanking them for me?” Q teases.
“Yes.” Bond sounds wrecked, barely biting words between quick and sucking kisses to any spots of bare skin he can touch.
“Good. You should be.”
He fishes one clever hand beneath the ties at Bond’s waist, works his cock out into the air. Bond seems to hold his breath, waiting. Q could torture him here, could make him wait, could make him suffer the way he has—
He slithers down Bond’s body to lick a tiny, teasing taste along the head and Bond head falls back between his shoulders. The sound he makes is obscene—gratifying. He’s so loud there’s little chance anyone hasn’t noticed, but for the first time Q doesn’t care. Let them all know he knows how to please his husband, and let them all stew in their jealousy for want of what he has in his hands, in his mouth, on his tongue. He licks again and hums a pleased sound at the feel of Bond’s hand on his head again, nails on his scalp as he explores.
It’s not—not quite what he’s expected; Q’d been frightened at the thought of servicing his husband with his mouth, but Bond melts beneath him, trembling like jelly, and Q realises he’s had this all wrong. He’s imagined a faceless man above him holding his jaw open with his thumb as he forced a cock past his lips; Bond is tender and obliging, and he lets Q detour along the thick vein underneath until his nose is brushing, then nestled in the heavy musk of the curls at the base of his cock. And Q knows if he wanted rough, if he wanted the fingerprint bruises on his face and the lingering ache of a jaw held wide, he could have it; he has so much power here.
He can feel the strain in Bond’s thighs beneath his hands as he licks. Different actions cause Bond to flex in different ways: a line of open-mouthed kisses makes him arch; the flat of his tongue makes him groan. The edge of a tooth pressed in careful threat has Bond’s fingers curling deliciously in his hair, but. But it’s his little groan, the tiny sound of pleasure Q doesn’t think to stop until it’s out between them—that groan makes the cock in his hand throb, shiver hot and drip bitter trickles of milky-viscous pleasure from the end, sets up a fine tremble in taut muscle. Bond reaches for him at that, rubs his hair absently and pulls at his shoulder until he rises and Bond can lick the taste of himself out of Q’s mouth. Bond’s slick, impossibly hot cock bumps Q’s own, nudges wet along the skin of his belly, and Q realises now how aroused he is, how hungry for more. He stops.
Pushing Bond back against the bed, Q sits. Lying along Bond’s belly, Bond’s cock is ready, almost jumps into his palm when he wraps a hand around it and pulls. Bond’s gone starry-eyed, already slipping into that veil of pleasure that’s always been just out of reach before, barred by the paper links of propriety. His cock is still beautiful; Q sighs as he strokes it, slips his thumb beneath the head just the way he likes, himself, and listens to Bond’s appreciative moans. After this, he doubts he’ll ever be able to believe himself unattractive or weak.
It only takes a few more strokes for Bond to succumb. His jaw drops, sweet stiffness washing over him in waves, and he thrusts hard into Q’s hand in shuddering pulses before sinking liquid onto the bed. Bond’s belly is covered in streaks of his own pleasure, and Q’s hand; Q carefully wipes himself clean with an unsoiled patch of Bond’s tunic, guiding his lax arm to dab at a spot on his knee with the sleeve. Q knows Bond watches, and when he can avoid his eyes no more, he looks up at the fond expression on Bond’s face. He looks amused, jovial, languid, and hot anger trills up Q’s spine.
“Well, now you’ve had what you wanted, you can leave.”
The confusion that washes over Bond’s face at that is almost beautiful, and no small part of him thrills at it. “Wha—?” Bond asks, even as Q rises from the half-dressed bed. It isn’t until he’s stepped into his clothes, until he’s tying up the laces that do nothing to hide his still half-hard cock, that Bond realises what he means. “Q?” His voice is almost small, and Q wavers until he sees the shadows through the wall, hears the giggles.
Let Bond be the one who is humiliated for once. He throws open the door as Bond gawps at him from the bed; in the hall, footsteps scatter, but Bond’s bare cock is nothing they haven’t seen before. “Go. Please.”
“Q,” Bond tries again, those eyes of his deadly sweet with sadness, and Q has to remind himself to be firm.
He watches Bond collect himself; the man dresses like he doesn’t care that there are curious eyes peering around the corner, like it’s not beneath him to obey the commands of a stroppy consort. Like he wants to be punished, almost, and as he goes he pauses in the door, stroking Q’s jaw as if to guide him into a kiss. Q refuses.
He wakes in the night to the smell of the candles guttering out, thick plumes of white smoke where they’ve burned all the way down, hours of light only now diffused to a warm twilight. It’s late; there’s a meal on his table long cold. The room is cold, and it’s the time of night when even the servants and slaves have retired to snuggle beneath warm blankets for sleep. There is a shadow at his door.
Q doesn’t know if he is surprised or not when he opens the door to find Bond lying there slumped. He’s still stained, the hem of his cuff streaked and stiff in a way that makes Q wrinkle his nose in disgust and amusement. He didn’t even clean himself up.
But it’s cold, and Q wonders if Bond has been waiting for him here all night, if he has been shivering in the dark whilst the candles kept Q company inside the room. Something in his chest pinches at the thought; the heat of Q’s rage has cooled, too, into something mean and insecure—he’s given Bond what he wanted, the only thing Q has to give. Had to give. They haven’t officially consummated, but it’s been near enough for law, and there’d be no bloody sheet to prove or disprove a claim. For better or for worse, they’re stuck in this situation, and Q wonders not for the first time if his husband could be happy with that.
It’s too much for his tired head. Shaking the thoughts away, he closes the door and goes back to the bed, tucks his toes beneath the blanket to warm them, and stares at the ceiling, willing sleep’s return. He’s still aroused—the memory of Bond’s sighs hits his ear and his cock gives a halfhearted thump of interest—and at home a wank would have sent him to sleep, but it doesn’t feel like the proper solution here. He rolls restlessly.
There’s nothing for it. His mind may argue, but his heart won’t let him sleep; he scoops the blanket from the bed and shuffles back to the door.
In sleep, Bond looks younger, not as worried or as tired or as sad as Q has become used to seeing him. Q sighs, careful to wrap the blanket gingerly so as not to wake him, and leaves the Lantern room behind.
Q sets his pen down and looks out his window. It’s a beautiful day and he has it open to catch the breezes. His rosewood desk is enormous—the top is rubbed smooth and darkened with age by generations of hands. There is a pile of books on his desk and scraps of parchment with his notes: ideas to optimise the water system in the baths, a crossbow so small it could be concealed under a cape. None of it is holding his attention.
He’s been moping around for a few days, he knows, but he feels hollowed out. He’s lost any possibility that his husband would, well. Be at least good company. Plus, his only friend at the palace—his lover—was a man who didn’t even exist. Now he has no idea what his future holds, other than long days of loneliness stretched out before him.
He can always run away, he thinks. Not in a rabbit-like panic like last time, but with careful planning. Now that he has been moved out of the Lantern room it might be easier, especially if he waits a little longer for the king to forget about his existence. Bond’s little game is ruined now, so that probably won’t take very long.
Q bites his lower lip. Why had Bond been sleeping on his doorstep if wooing him had been some sort of sick fun? Maybe, Q admits to himself, he’s not running away yet for more than strategic reasons. Maybe he’s being a fool and waiting to see how things to play out.
He pushes his chair away from his desk and stands up, bending his back in a stretch. He has work to to do—quite a lot before his workshop is set up to his liking. He hears a knock at his door and turns, rolling his eyes. It’s probably the attendant checking on him again; the staff probably think he’s going to try to off himself.
Instead, a different man is standing at his door. He has a round, friendly face and he’s in his middle age, holding up well even though he is losing his hair. He’s wearing a good quality but unassuming tunic. “Hello?” Q asks.
“Lord Q. Can I speak with you for a few moments if you’re not busy?”
Q snorts. “When will I ever be busy?” He waves the man in and closes the door.
His visitor tries to smile, the expression fleeting and halfhearted. “This is awkward. See, I’m Bill Tanner—the real Bill Tanner. I’m the king’s man.”
“I see. Bond didn’t even bother to make up a fake name for his little charade.” Q shouldn’t be surprised to hear the bitterness in his own voice, but it’s still there, sharp and biting.
“We had words over that, believe me,” Tanner says wryly. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry for what happened to you—it was wrong of him.”
“I suppose the king can treat his property as he will. Was there something you wanted?”
Tanner pauses and seems to think on his next words. “I thought we should meet, anyway, but yes. He sent me to see if there is anything you need for your workshop.”
Q wonders if Bond sent Tanner to check in on him for more than that, but he brutally squelches the notion. “I have a list on my desk; let me get it for you. One of the things I’ll need is a pair of spectacles, fitted for close work. I could never afford them before but I suppose now...”
Tanner hesitates, then seems to screw up his courage and blurts out—“I think he’s sorry too, Q.”
Q freezes. “What?”
“He won’t say it, of course. Not to me, but he hasn’t been acting right since you fought. He’s quiet. He’s been drinking alone at night.”
An odd fear runs through him. He doesn't want to hear what Tanner is going to say, but at the same time he very much wants to know. “I suppose it’s a comfort that our leader has a conscience.”
“He does. You have to understand, he wasn’t ready for this. He was still deeply in mourning and I think he still is. He didn’t want another spouse after Vesper. He was pushed into it, thought he was simply doing his duty, but. He didn’t expect you.”
Q squints in confusion. “Didn’t expect me? Someone must have mentioned to him that he was getting married.”
Tanner smiles sadly. “Oh he knew about the wedding. I don’t think he intended...I should let him speak for himself. Maybe think about seeing him sometime soon and talk? You have a right to be angry, but if it helps, I don’t think he intended to hurt you. He’s always been a bit ham-fisted with courting, perhaps because he has always had a long list of willing concubines.”
Q swallows hard, closes his eyes, and whispers, “Tanner, I’ve been made a fool of once. Don’t lead me down that road again.”
“You were never the fool to begin with,” Tanner replies. He pauses and both of them stand in uneasy silence for a moment. “You know, why don’t you just have a page send that parts list along?”
“Okay,” Q says, feeling suddenly raw and exposed. He’s glad Tanner seems to have had his say and is leaving.
Tanner sketches a little bow. “I’ll leave you in peace, then. If you ever want a personal message to reach James, have a page send for me. I’ll take it directly.”
Q nods absently and Tanner gives him another sad smile.
“He’s a right arsehole at times, I’ll never deny that. But Bond’s a good man,” Tanner tells him quietly before shutting the door.
Q’s heart is racing when his slippered feet carry him to the workshop windows that face out towards the garden. He’s terrified to even consider what Tanner just told him. The entire castle is a den of lies, and if he has learned one lesson, it’s that he can’t trust anything anyone says to him.
Not that he knows what to do with such information, even if it is true.
He looks towards Bond’s rooms, wondering if the king is inside. He almost hopes—fears—he’ll be caught looking for him, but. There is no movement from the suite across the garden and all the drapes are drawn tightly shut.
Before Q turns away, a bright patch of yellow just outside his room catches his eye. He opens the window wider and pokes his head out. A vase filled with yellow buttercups—the same flower that covers the fields near his old house—sits on the step in front of his door.
It becomes almost a parody of the waiting before: Q expects Bond any day to come assert his rights as husband, to come take what he’s paid for. Only he doesn’t, and the longer Q waits for it, the more sure he becomes that it’s not coming. At first, this was fine—better than fine, it was grand! His days filled with tinkering in the lovely suite of rooms, and he only ever had to leave for meals with the other consorts and concubines. He could hide in his room at his desk and design invention after invention, except now—
His eye drifts to the window, to the yellow flower that has been replaced every day this long week without fail. The little plant in the garden beyond is stripped and listing sadly, its remaining blooms too small for courting with, but the cheery blossoms still appear on his step every day—Q peeked out of the window this morning; yes, it’s still Bond delivering them in the grey-pink hours of the early dawn, and for some reason Q’s heart pounded harder when he ducked beneath the sill to avoid being seen. Bond is fetching them from somewhere, and he is bringing them to leave for him.
Even working at his desk in the middle of the day, Q can see that flower standing like a gentle admonishment. When he’d seen Bond putting it there, for a moment it hadn’t been his husband standing stooped and quiet on the path outside, it had been the familiar face of Tanner, his only friend. It had been the same broad shoulders he’d circled with his arms once upon a time, the same sad, self-deprecating half-smile on Bond’s face when he stood. He hadn’t tried the door, even though Q was standing just beyond it, and Q is beginning to wonder if he ever will. Instead of the hurt rage of before, the thought just makes him sad.
When the fine part he’s adjusting snaps in his hands for the third time, Q makes his decision almost before he’s aware; there’s a shape in the garden beyond his windows that’s distracting him, and. And. It’s time, he thinks.
The wooden walkway doesn’t groan beneath his feet and the door is soundless as he closes it behind him, but Q supposes war is in Bond’s blood, and he sees Bond’s flinch from feet away, sees the way he forces himself still at the base of the plant and its little yellow flowers. Still, Q coughs when he arrives, sinking beside Bond to examine the wilting stalk. Its leaves are fading, curling, and Bond looks so frustrated and sad as he eases the wet soil higher to support the thing.
“It looks quite dead, I’d say,” Q tells him. Bond’s shoulders stiffen further. “I’m a little impressed. This one’s a weed where I’m from in the lower town, very hardy and hard to kill. Even a good winter’s frost won’t get rid of it entirely.”
“I’ve bollocksed everything up,” Bond says quietly. He’s not talking about the plant. Q nods.
“Yes. Some things can be neglected and some must be focused on, and it’s important to know which is which.” Bond watches carefully as Q scrapes back the mud to reveal the plant’s rotting stalk. “Too much care can be as toxic as too little.” Q stops, then starts again. “I’ve been waiting for you to come make it up to me, and it occurred to me that you thought you already were.”
Bond is quiet, then: “I never meant to be cruel, Q. I only—”
“—you’ve overwatered it here,” Q continues as if he hasn’t spoken, excavating into the rich soil to find the pale and watery roots. “This earth’s too good, too. Sometimes common things should stay where they belong, I think.”
“No.” The strength of Bond’s denial is powerful enough to shake Q’s resolution not to look at him; he catches himself and rubs his chin with the curl of his shoulder instead. “That’s not true.”
“Isn’t it,” Q muses quietly. He stands with the little plant in his hand, peering around the garden—“There.” There’s a sandy patch of scrub, some small spot of wild in the careful cultivation. When he kneels to scrape at the ground with his nails, it’s hard. Bond’s hand on his shoulder is surprising—Q hasn’t been touched by anyone in a week, and he hadn’t realised how much he’d missed it after his parents’ death. Bond hands him a small shovel, and he digs.
When he’s done, he stands to brush the dirt from his hands and knees. Before him, Bond looks smaller than he’s remembered, less towering than Q’s anxious imagination has made him. They’re of a height, and though Bond’s not as rail-thin as Q, he’s not enormous, either. He’s just a man. Q smiles at him. The thin smile Bond gives back is hopeful.
“It may die yet,” Q warns, and Bond’s smile slips. “Tell me why.”
“I.” The word hangs between them, something too big for Bond to fit past the shutters and filters he has in place. Q watches him struggle for a moment, then sighs, moving to go. “Don’t hide from me again. Please, Q,” Bond says desperately. It’s a start.
When Q doesn’t move, Bond continues, “Six years ago, my father’s consort, Imogen, died. You wouldn’t have known her; she came from the upper town, and years before—his common wife, as she called herself. The only one of his consorts left is M, now. I think that’s the way she prefers it, to be honest. Did you know she’s from—” Bond cuts himself off, wavering.
“I was told I had to find my own common wife, a woman to remind me of my place in this kingdom and my responsibility to the people. I’d never—as a young man, women were brought to me at court. Tracy was the daughter of a powerful family, of course, and most of the others had been wafted under my nose like lovely perfumes: beautiful and fleeting, replaced when one scent bored for another more beautiful than the last.
“I don’t know if you remember the ball?” Bond asks.
Q does, if vaguely. His mother was sick, the lower town struggling under the weight of the King’s requests to put on an event it couldn’t truly afford. Still, it had been exciting to think of a common consort coming from among them; he remembers the tailor’s daughter and her insistence that she would sweep into the ball in a beautiful blue dress and win the King, only to be teased later as the beautiful dress had swept from her father’s shop in the arms of a much wealthier woman instead. She’d married the pub owner and the King had found a different bride, and that had been that. Q realises now who that different bride must have been. “Vesper?”
“Yes.” Bond smiles again, thinner than before. “We enjoyed five years, the first four in pleasant anticipation of our first child, and one last year in misery as the child we’d waited for slowly killed her. And then she left me alone here.”
“Did she.” The idea pricks at Q. “Do go on.”
“I—” Bond looks uncertain, unsure but sharp enough to catch the edge of Q’s mood. “With Vesper gone, I was given the grace of a mourning period too short to accept the loss of everything she’d meant to me—”
“Worse for her, I’d bet.” The words are dry on Q’s tongue, the idea barbed.
“I’m saying it was worse for her, I’d bet. Being dead and all.”
The grief that clouds Bond’s face parts around the shape of his indignant hurt; Q can see him building toward—
“You could tell me why you behaved toward me the way you did without the shade of someone else’s tragedy used to hide your guilt,” Q tells him mildly.
“My wife died,” Bond snaps.
“Yes. That’s a great explanation for why she didn’t welcome me to your household. Why didn’t you?” Q asks, and here, here is weeks of hurt, of pain, of sadness roiling to the surface. He presses on, forces it up and out of the little pocket where he’s kept it since Bond’s admission. “You got drunk on the night we were wed. The night when it would have been easiest to tell me you were unprepared for this, the night when the weight of my own fear paralysed me and I would have done anything you said—gladly so—you spent ignoring me as if I weren’t waiting for some kind word from you at all, even just to say you’d noticed I was there.
“When you saw me the first time—do you think I didn’t know I’d be put to death for running away? You called me thief; do you think I wasn’t aware I’d be judged as one for stealing your pretty pet from you? The clothes that were on my back? My shoes? Instead, you pled mercy for yourself, tried to convince me to stay for your own satisfaction, when I was happy to run and sure that no one cared. You proved that wrong: I might never earn the regard of my husband, but a man could be my friend in the meantime.
“And you perpetuated that, which is the part that hurts the most—my husband would never look at me, never show me that I hadn’t made the biggest mistake of my life agreeing to marry him, but in the meantime I could have a friend. A friend who desired me, who was desired by me, who could make this long waiting more bearable by being my only confidant in this place where my very commonness was worthy of derision, a friend who could show me a place in this household where I could fit, if I were only willing to bend a little and reshape myself entirely for the pleasure of the King, a friend whose counsel was the only clear, true voice I heard.”
His voice is hoarse as he repeats: “Yours was the only true voice I heard. You lied to me.”
“Q.” Bond’s heart is in his eyes as Q’s is in his throat, thumping loud enough his pulse rings in his ears.
“I could find myself in love with my friend Tanner,” Q admits, “but I still don’t know about my husband. I haven’t really met him yet, you see.”
Bond’s hand at his waist is trembling; Q can feel the way he wants to pull him into an embrace, though Bond stands back, only his fingertips resting on him. The gravity of Bond’s body calls to him, the sweet-tender weight of Bond’s regard calls to him, and above it all, he misses his friend. He misses him dreadfully. He puts his forehead in the crook of Bond’s shoulder and Bond’s arms come around him, gentle and a bit fearful, and when he laughs at the thought of the King afraid of him, it’s laced with a hiccough that sounds like a sob.
They sway together quietly for a moment, until Bond pulls away to peer at his face. “You’ve got—” he starts, and he rubs at Q’s face gently with the edge of a sleeve. There’s a smudge of dirt on the sleeve when he draws back, and when Q looks at him, Bond laughs. “Made it worse, sorry.” Q snorts. Bond’s chest is warm and Q feels limp, worn out without the core of anger in his spine. “I am,” Bond tells him again. His lips move in Q’s hair. “Sorry. I hurt you. Out of selfishness and fear, I hurt you, and I don’t deserve your forgiveness.”
“That’s the great thing about forgiveness, though—you can neither demand nor just take it, and once you receive it, you can’t give it back. I haven’t,” Q tells him, nosing along his collar a bit. “Forgiven you. I could, though. Perhaps.”
He can feel Bond’s smile against his ear. “Good. In the meantime, I have a bit of advice I need from you.”
“Yes. You see, I’ve married this beautiful, clever young man, and I’ve got no idea what to do next. Could you help me? Make me more what he might want?”
“Well. I suppose I have time enough. Might as well fill the days somehow.”
And that, technically, is the end of the story! There's an epilogue to go up, still, but essentially, it's over. Much love and thanks again to DemonicSymphony for beta reading this whole, massive thing for us--your help was invaluable, dear! As for my cowriter, LittleOwls3, I had so much fun writing with you; I've never cowritten anything, and this was a blast, so thank you. And of course, thank you all for reading, commenting, and enjoying this story; everyone's been so kind and lovely, and I can only hope you've enjoyed reading it as much as we've enjoyed sharing it with you.
The title of this fic comes from the Song of Solomon (4:12):
A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.
Thy plants are an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits; camphire, with spikenard,
Spikenard and saffron; calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense; myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices:
A fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, and streams from Lebanon.
Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits.
Like so much of Bond’s life, his arrival home is dictated by tradition. He doesn’t enjoy the senseless ritual, the pomp; he usually just wants to walk through the gates of the castle, peel off his armour, grab the nearest bottle of wine and one of his wives. To forget about the battlefield and the agonized screaming of dying men.
This time he’s struggling to sit astride his destrier as his party passes through the inner gates. He’s exhausted and at his limit, but he has to endure these next few minutes before he can collapse in his bed. The only reason to shorten or forgo the Welcoming is when he comes home on a stretcher.
There is a small party assembled before the grand stair. A representative each from his household—all there to remind him that he is leaving steel at his door and returning to softer, domestic cares. At least it’s usually a quick affair, as far as things with priests go, Bond muses tiredly.
The Welcoming is supposed to be a comfort, a cleansing, but it never quite works. Not for the first time, Bond wishes his father was still living so he could ask him if this show had ever done anything to settle his mind, if this performance had ever helped him find peace
Bond slows his horse to a stop and pulls off his helm. He clears his dry throat before speaking the formal, traditional words. “The King arrives.”
“Your family Welcomes you,” a dozen voices reply in unison, just as they always do.
A grizzled groom comes towards him, dressed in his best livery. Bond drops his reins and offers the man his gauntleted hand. The groom takes it, bowing over it, but Bond can see his smirk as he straightens up. He takes his reins; Kincade has been at the castle before Bond was born and was the one who taught him how to ride. At times, he’s sure the man sees him as a child playing dress-up in the king’s clothes. “Welcome home, Majesty.”
Bond swings his leg over his saddle and when his feet find the ground, he finally feels the full pressure of gravity. His thighs begin shaking as soon as they are expected to support him, and he rests his hand on his horse’s withers just long enough to steady himself. The tremors that wrack him are minute, but Bond doesn’t think anyone can see the king’s weakness.
Kincade leads his horse away and a young man with golden hair steps from the assembled group. He’s in formal martial dress, and in two or so years, he’ll be riding next to Bond through the gates as well.
Prince Andrew bows over Bond’s hand. “Welcome home, Father.” He turns Bond’s hand over and with practiced fingers, unbuckles the straps of his gauntlet. A page comes to take the bits of armor and helm as Andrew hands them to her. Serious storm gray eyes meet his a final time before his son steps back.
A woman with a scarred face in a pressed clean uniform of the Castle Guard is next. Bond draws his sword and presents her with the hilt. She bows over the pommel before slipping it from his hands. “Welcome. We have the defense of the house, Sire,” she tells him with a surprisingly quiet voice. She’ll wipe down his blade and return it to him later.
Bond doesn’t have the energy to hide the smile that curls his lips as Q comes to him from the back of the crowd. He’s beautiful—now that he picks his clothes, he looks more the part of a lord than a primped up pleasure toy. He’s in his court garb: a rich blue over tunic with a thick stitched border of silver stags running on the edges. The only jewelry he wears are the emeralds at his ears and the gold consort ring he usually forgoes. He’s let his beard grow in since Bond has been gone, short and just gracing the strong edge of his jaw. Bond likes it.
“Welcome home, my lord husband.” Q’s voice carrying even though he’s spoken softly. His eyes flick to the sides and he bites his lush lower lip—nervous, perhaps. This duty rotates through the consorts, and it’s the first time he’s performed this rite.
A servant follows Q bearing a copper bowl of warm, scented water laced with petals. He holds it in front of Bond as Q takes Bond’s wrists between his own hands and guides them into the water. Rose petals swirl as he scrubs along Bond’s palms with the pads of his fingers, washing them thoroughly. Everyone, Bond included, is expecting the symbolic quick dipping, but Q apparently has other plans. He takes his time, face bent in concentration, running his work-callused fingertips down each of Bond’s fingers and along the edges of cuticle. The water goes dark with the grime of Bond’s campaign, the grime of war. Someone stifles a chuckle when Q orders the bowl to be emptied and clean water poured steaming from a ewer.
Q ignores it and massages Bond’s hands, rubbing the tight tendons along his thumb. Bond keeps himself from sighing, but it’s a close thing—his eyes close and he can feel his shoulders loosening. He wants nothing more than to sink into Q’s embrace and sleep for an age. The sigh escapes his lips.
When Q has deemed his task complete, he dries Bond’s hands carefully with a linen towel. He bows over Bond’s clean hands, busses the knuckles sweetly before stepping back, affection brimming in his eyes.
Bond flows through the rest of the ceremony. A cook brings him a cup of wine and the priest anoints his forehead with a drop of scented oil, reciting words about a bountiful and peaceful home. When everything is done and the group parts to let him mount the stone stairs into the castle, Bond is surprised to find his step lighter. Tanner is right behind him as ever, issuing orders to have a proper bath drawn for his Highness and a meal brought.
The rest of the evening swirls around Bond as the household serves its king. They eat warm and simple food, and Tanner listens to urgent missives in the outer room while Bond is bathed. He usually lets the servants prepare the water and washes himself quickly, too wound up from the field to enjoy a soak, but tonight he sinks into the tub and his body reasserts its fatigue in heavy strokes that paint him with exhaustion. He dozes as courteous hands clean him, and for once the successes and failures from the past weeks are not replaying behind his eyelids. He’s peripherally aware of his people moving around him quietly as he drifts in light slumber until the water cools.
When he pulls himself out of the water and dries off, he feels better—grounded and less shaky. There is no denying he could sleep for days, but his bed in the innermost chamber has no appeal. He pulls on a robe and slippers and dismisses Tanner to his own bed before leaving through the door to the gardens—to Q’s suite on the other side.
Bond has never made it a habit of bringing his lovers into his own bedchamber. His sleep is often disturbed by Tanner with late night emergencies, but in the pleasure quarters he is granted more privacy and more distance from matters of state. Urgent issues seem more likely to hold until morning when he’s in the refuge of another bed.
The garden door to Q’s chamber is unlocked. It isn’t always—Q sometimes decides he’d rather not entertain him for the evening. He might be busy with his projects, curled in bed for an early rest with a book, or, Bond suspects, sometimes he locks it to remind himself he has the right to do so.
Bond stops when he lets himself in Q’s rooms. The first sight to greet him is a wall hanging Q had pulled from storage. It’s in shades of reds and blues with thick nubbly yarns—one of Vesper’s weavings.
Bond had been shocked when he had first seen it displayed. Q had changed the entire suite to suit him, until it had hardly reminded Bond of Vesper’s rooms at all. Even the big bed in the small chamber was covered in dark drapes and crimson blankets, making a cosy cave compared to the bright nest Vesper had prefered.
Then Q had hung the tapestry. Bond had stood in front of it and considered demanding that he take it down immediately. He had found it easier to press her memory as far back in his mind as he was able; the loss, the guilt of marrying Q so soon—and especially for loving another. Instead his mouth had gone dry. His fingers, drawn to it, brushed the fabric, tracing the weft. He couldn’t remember her weaving it, and it suddenly felt like a tragedy, another little slice of her lost to him. He remembers watching her weave other things, though, her hands on the shuttles, and the soft click of the beater. She would work for hours in the soft dust-moted sunlight, humming to herself.
Bond had blinked and dropped his hand from the cloth. He’d turned to see Q drinking a cup of tea, watching him. Bond had had no idea how long he had been standing there, frozen in a time when his wife had lived and was last weaving baby blankets.
Q had calmly set down his cup and held out his hand. Bond had gone to him, hiding his misting eyes in his shoulder. To his credit, Q had said not a word. No justifications, no apologies or platitudes. He petted Bond’s hair and held him until his tea had gone cold.
Now, months later, he is grateful Q refused to let him strip Vesper’s presence from their lives. He still sometimes touches the threads and is overcome with melancholy, but more often now, he smiles when he thinks of her. It’s like she lives on as a part of Q’s workshop.
The workshop is in shadow now and Q must be in his bed. Q never waits for him. Bond figures he had done more of his share of staying up when he was in the Lantern room. It’s neatly practical, like Q himself—while he sleeps in Q’s bed frequently, he still has other wives. Bond still takes his promises to his family seriously; Q may be the favoured one, but he’s not the only one.
Vesper had hated sharing him, but Q is more pragmatic. Or maybe it’s because he had felt the sting of perceived neglect and is unwilling to deny the other wives Bond’s company due to petty jealousy. Bond thinks Q, who tends to putter in his rooms for hours on end alone, knows he would eventually chafe at being doted on.
But there will be no new spouses after Q, and no more concubines. He’s done his duty and secured his line, created as many alliances through marriage as he could. He isn’t a young man anymore, and couldn’t…
“Bond?” Q asks, peering at him from his bedchamber door. He’s changed into silks so fine they could be sheer, the fabric draping and falling around his thin frame. Q prefers practical peasant wear in the daylight, but Bond knows he likes to feel the cool-water slip of his more exotic bedclothes. He’s a secret little sensualist.
“Hello,” Bond smiles, but Q is looking at him with wide, concerned eyes.
“I can’t believe you're up! You’re dead on your feet!” Q scolds him as he rushes over. He takes Bond’s hand and tugs him towards his bed. “What happened? Are you injured?”
“Just tired. There was no battle. We ended up in a siege outside the enemy fort. We had to wait them out.” He allows Q to pull him into his little bedchamber and shut the door.
“So you made yourself stay up for days’ straight in case something happened.” Q tugs on the belt that holds Bond’s robe closed, pushes the fabric off his shoulders. “If you had to fight, you would have been so exhausted you wouldn’t have been able to lift your sword.”
“I do what needs to be done,” Bond replies. Q is pressing on him and he sinks down into the warm bed with a grateful sigh. Q crawls in behind him, fussing with the furs and coverlets until he curls against Bond’s back, tucking an ankle around Bond’s calf.
Bond reaches back and caresses Q’s thigh through the silk. He presses a little harder to feel the lean strength of him, lets his fingertips inch upwards….
Q slaps his hand away. “Bond, don’t tease!”
“You like it when I tease.” Bond feels Q smile against his shoulder.
“Not to be impolite, your Majesty, but we know you're making promises you can’t keep tonight.”
Bond chuckles, and it’s true enough. It felt like a task to walk the few yards to Q’s door. But there is time for that later—he’ll wake tomorrow with a sleep-hot Q spooned around him. Delicious.
Bond’s eyes snap open as a thought occurs to him. He’s a selfish man, he knows, but he has to ask—“Are you happy, Q?’
Q stirs behind him but doesn’t answer right away. “What makes you ask that?”
There are a dozen things he can tell Q: that after six months, he still bears the guilt of hurting him. That he remembers too well how Vesper was stifled here. That the thought of him every day, puttering around mostly alone and…. It all hangs on his lips, unspoken.
Q sighs. “Well, I’m warm and fed. I have all the parts and tools I need for my workshop. The first wives don’t hate me as much as the younger ones, and the Dowager Mother is interesting. Little Emily and Gabriella are sweet. I guess I don’t think about it?”
Tanner has told him this much, that Q seems to be adjusting to court life after his bumpy start. While some of his wives are jealous of his favoured status, Q has somehow come to a truce with Tracy. The children find Q and his workshop fascinating and Q seems to like them, which is an unexpected surprise.
“James?” Q asks, as the silence stretches on.
He reaches for Q’s hand and kisses his fingertips. Q makes a soft squeak. “Do you think about me when I’m not here?”
“Constantly. Unceasingly. Now hush and rest, you old man. You need your sleep.”
Bond chuckles and pulls Q’s hand to settle on his chest. Q kisses his shoulder. They quiet and Bond can hear the soft chirrup of crickets through an open window. He breathes deeply and can smell Q on his bedclothes, the scent of the yellow flowers he loves that are merrily spreading invasively through the more exotic plantings in the consorts’ garden, as though they have always been there. Home.
Bond’s mind settles, relaxes, and sleeps.
Thank you for reading!