“—the hell you thought you were doing, spinning around like that!” Aris shouted at Legarus as he stumbled.
Costis bit back a smile as he parried another brandish of Legarus’s stick.
“Although I should just be pleased at seeing a little creativity,” Aris continued. “I’m fairly certain I’ve seen Costis make that same move three times in as many minutes.”
Costis rolled his eyes and began to drive Legarus towards the wall. “No one asked you,” he muttered. Louder, he added, “And it wasn’t as if anyone had noticed until you mentioned it.”
He cursed as Legarus darted in and tapped Costis on the hip.
“Don’t get distracted, Squad Leader!” one of the men said cheerfully.
(Costis thought he heard one of them mutter “What would the queen say?” but it was better for everyone if he just pretended he hadn’t.)
They were having morning practice, earlier than normal because of the summer heat. Well, early for the rest of their squads—Costis often practiced by himself before dawn, and was used to even earlier hours.
There weren’t often people in the courtyard at this time. However, for the past couple weeks, Costis had been seeing a young man seated at the same bench a few yards away from the training ground. He was always alone, and never had any papers or books with him, so he couldn’t be doing anything but watching them.
Often, Costis was too busy to see his face, and the man only ever stayed for a quarter hour at most. But once, Costis had caught a glimpse of his profile during a break for water, and had felt a started jolt of recognition. He knew the man’s face, but from where, he had no idea.
The man was there now, and Costis had been sneaking glances at him for the past five minutes. Subtly, so no one (Aris) would notice, and briefly, so no one (Aris) could take advantage and best him in swordplay.
Unfortunately, he couldn’t avoid either of those things very long.
“What—” Aris said, with an exasperated thwack to Costis’s turned head, “—in the world do you keep staring at?”
Costis hissed and rubbed his head. “Nothing,” he said. “I was just—” he looked back.
The man was gone.
He sighed. “It was nothing. I thought I saw someone I knew.”
“Was it the queen?” Aris grinned. “Because I don’t think getting whacked in the head with a stick would win her over.”
“Would you stop?” Costis snapped. “It’s been seven years. Even good jokes go sour after that long, and this one was never good.”
“Maybe not to you, but I find it hilarious,” Aris said, and there was an anonymous snort of agreement from one of the guards. Costis glared in its general direction.
Aris nudged him. “I guess I’ll forgive you for getting distracted, anyway, because we’re finished. Time for breakfast.”
“You go ahead,” Costis said, waving a hand. “I’ll eat after.”
Aris looked at him suspiciously. “Why, what are you going to do instead, here by yourself?”
Costis didn’t answer.
Aris rolled his eyes. “You’ve already practiced enough, Squad Leader, take the day off.”
“I already have the day off,” Costis said. “I should put it to good use.”
“Do you even know the meaning of a day off?” Aris demanded. “Run some errands like the rest of us mortals, if you really want to keep busy. Don’t skip meals like a lovesick teenager.” He started to grin again, and opened his mouth.
“Don’t,” Costis warned. “Besides, I’m not skipping. I told you I’d eat later.”
Aris glared at him, unconvinced. “I’m not an idiot, Costis.”
Costis suppressed a retort. Instead, he said, “I promise I’ll eat later.”
“…fine,” Aris said. “But I’m checking again this afternoon, and I’ll know if you’re lying.”
“You sound like my father,” Costis said, and ducked the swipe at his head. “Okay, okay!”
Then Aris left him alone, and Costis went back to practicing.
By the time he came out of his daze, the sun was beating down full force on the courtyard, and people were starting to populate the benches.
Costis closed his eyes. He maybe had overdone it a little. His throat was parched, and he was sweating heavily, and when he turned to look for his water skin, he swayed on his feet.
But he needed to get stronger—he couldn’t ignore the fact that despite being a squad leader for five years, and despite being praised by his superiors on numerous occasions, he still hadn’t been assigned to the palace. Everyone knew that the Third was the best, and Costis liked to believe he was one of the better squad leaders. And yet, for some reason, his squad hadn’t been deemed good enough.
Except Costis did know the reason. It was that most squads assigned to the palace had someone backing them. The Baron Erondites’s younger son, Sejanus, had served in the Third before being promoted to lieutenant, and many lords’ and ladies’ sons and lovers shared the same story.
At this point, it was looking as if the only way Costis’s squad would be assigned to the palace would be if one of them procured a rich lover. Costis would have to hope it was someone else, because it certainly wasn’t going to be him.
He wiped the sweat off his brow and stretched, spine popping. He stumbled, a little unsteady on his feet, and realized with a jolt that on top of skipping breakfast, he had only eaten some bread and an apple for dinner the previous day. Despite what Aris said, Costis was not actually trying to starve himself, and he cursed.
“Stupid, stupid,” he muttered to himself as he fought back another wave of dizziness. He looked around for his water skin, but couldn’t find it. “Where—”
“Looking for this?”
Costis spun around to see the mysterious observer from that morning. In his hand, dangling from its strap, was Costis’s water skin.
“Yes, thank you,” Costis said, all but snatching it from the man’s hand. After several long draughts from the skin, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and said, “Where was it?”
“Over there by the wall,” the man said, pointing to the far edge of the practice court. Costis frowned. He could have sworn he had left it closer.
But he had more important things to worry about, he realized, as he took in the appearance of the man in front of him.
He was young, younger than Costis by a few years, with dark skin and long hair. He dressed simply, but in fine materials, and wore simple gold jewelry on his ears and fingers. But it was the worn leather boots on his feet, unlike anything Costis had seen from Attolian craftsmen, that stopped Costis short.
Everyone knew the Thief of Eddis was visiting the palace, and Costis was only surprised it had taken him so long to put two and two together.
“Your highness,” he said, although he was still thinking of the man as the Thief. “Thank you for the water.”
The Thief flashed him a quick grin. “Don’t thank me for your own water. Though I did bring some food. I couldn’t help but notice that you were here earlier this morning, as well.”
So were you, Costis thought, but didn’t say. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know what the Thief (or even just the Prince) of Eddis was doing watching the Queen’s Guard practice.
“Did you have breakfast?” the Thief asked, holding out a basket Costis hadn’t noticed. “It’s nothing much, just some pastries and fruit that I stole from the hall.” There was no way to tell whether he meant that literally or not.
“...no,” Costis said.
“Would you like to share?”
Costis knew his own expression was probably incredibly dubious, but he honestly didn’t really care. “Um,” he said. “All right?”
“Perfect!” The Thief smiled brightly and gestured to a couple of benches a little ways away. “Shall we?”
What followed was probably the strangest meal of Costis’s life. The Thief wouldn’t sit until Costis did, which was notable enough. Then, after waiting until Costis was eating, he opened the conversation by saying, “Did you know you keep dropping your guard in the third?”
Costis froze with a pastry halfway to his mouth. He set it down. “Excuse me?”
“Sorry.” The Thief grinned. “I didn’t mean to criticize. It was just something I noticed while I was admiring the rest of your skill.”
Somehow, Costis managed to keep himself from blushing. “Excuse me?”
“Oh no,” the Thief said ruefully, “I’m mucking this up. What I meant to start with was that I’ve been watching your two squads practice for a few days, and I’m very impressed.”
“I had noticed,” Costis said, sardonic, and immediately wanted to kick himself. “I mean, um. Thank you?”
“You’re welcome,” the Thief said, and smiled.
Costis didn’t know what to say after that, so he took another bite of his pastry.
By the time they parted ways, ten minutes later, Costis was still no closer to understanding why the Thief had sought him out.
He dismissed it as an act of royal caprice, and attempted to put it out of his mind.
Practice the next day was hotter than usual, and the men were sweating profusely after a half hour.
Costis was taking a moment to drink water (he had learned his lesson, thank you), when he heard a soft, “Excuse me?”
He turned around, only to see the Thief leaning against the nearby fence.
“Hello, Your Highness,” Costis said carefully. “Did you need something?” He winced at how standoffish that sounded, but the Thief merely smiled.
“No,” he said. “I just saw you sparring, and thought I would come see if you had skipped any other meals.” His voice became teasing toward the end, and Costis flushed.
“No, Your Highness,” he said. “But...thank you, for your concern?”
The Thief laughed. “Was that a question?”
Costis crossed his arms and shifted awkwardly. “No, it’s just that—I’m a little confused. You don’t even know me.”
“Maybe not,” the Thief agreed, “but I do know that you’re the best squad leader in the Guard, and it wouldn’t do for the best to be seen fainting in the courtyard, now would it?”
Costis blinked. “The best squad leader?”
The Thief smiled at him, then, a smile at once warmer and more mischievous than all of his others. “Heard from the queen’s own mouth.”
Costis felt his face grow hot. “She—she said that?” he said quietly, and was mortified to hear his voice tremble at the end. But even his mortification couldn’t smother his pleasure at hearing his queen thought highly of him. He hadn’t even thought she knew his name. He almost didn’t believe the Thief, but why would he make up something like that?
“She did.” The Thief’s smile grew into a grin. “So don’t skip any more meals, all right? You have a reputation to keep.”
Costis knew he was being teased, but he couldn’t work up enough irritation to do more than raise an eyebrow. “I wasn’t planning on it,” he said dryly.
The Thief laughed at him, and Costis felt himself flushing again, though he wasn’t sure why. “I have to go,” the Thief said, “but I hope to see you later.”
“I hope so, too,” Costis said automatically, and was surprised to find that it was the truth. He watched the Thief walk away with bemusement, until he felt someone come up and stand beside him.
He turned his head to see Aris staring at him. “What?” Costis asked.
“Costis,” Aris began, his voice strange.
“What,” Costis repeated.
“Since when do you know him?” Aris nodded to the end of the courtyard through which the Thief had just left.
“Who, the Thief?” Costis shrugged. “I don’t; he’s been watching our practices, and he shared breakfast with me yesterday.”
“You share—wait. The Thief of Eddis is watching our practices? I don’t know whether to be flattered or suspicious.”
“Aris,” Costis began, exasperated. But then he remembered all the stories he had heard of the young Thief of Eddis, performing acts of international espionage before his fourteenth birthday. “Both, probably,” he said, after a long pause.
“Yeah,” Aris said. “You said he’s been here for a few weeks?”
Costis nodded, turning back to watch the men spar.
“Huh. He was just here a couple months ago. Does he ever spend any time actually in Eddis?” Aris frowned, turning to look as well. “Makes you wonder if there’s any truth to those rumors.”
“Rumors?” Costis asked absently, noting the way Legarus was still trying to fight prettily rather than effectively.
“You know,” Aris said, uncomfortably, rubbing the back of his neck. “About him and...the queen.”
Costis rolled his eyes. “Oh, those. Of course there isn’t, don’t be silly.”
“It’s not that ridiculous,” Aris insisted. “They seem to be very close.”
Costis glared at him, ready to be finished with this conversation. “Why are we gossiping when we should be practicing?”
Aris made a face at him. “Don’t be jealous, Costis,” he said, punching Costis’s arm lightly. “I’m sure you still have a cha—ouch!”
It was very late at night, and Costis was practicing again (after eating dinner, thank you), when the Thief approached him.
He had come up on Costis silently, watching him practice for a few minutes before Costis even noticed him there. Costis kept practicing, going through the forms he knew by heart, until the Thief cleared his throat.
“Hello,” he said, lounging against the wall. “Do you actually ever leave this courtyard?”
Costis stopped, wiping his brow. “Sometimes,” he said, “on special occasions,” and was rewarded with a quirk of the Thief’s lips. Neither of them said anything after that, and silence fell over them. Costis waited, knowing the Thief was there for a reason, and curious, despite himself.
“Listen,” the Thief said. “Listen, I have...a proposition for you.”
Costis frowned. This wasn’t what he had been expecting. “Okay?” he said slowly.
The Thief hesitated for a moment, then seemed to come to a decision. “I need you to pretend to be my lover.”
Costis stared. He had to repeat that a few times in his head before he could begin to comprehend it. “What?”
“You heard me,” the Thief said, grinning. Any sobriety or hesitancy seemed to have left him.
“I’m...not sure I understand,” Costis said, only he was afraid he did.
The Thief propped his chin on his hand and smiled disarmingly. “I want you to pretend to be my lover,” he said, as casually as if he were asking for someone to pass him the wine at dinner.
“You have to know that the queen and I are. Well.” The Thief suddenly looked uncomfortable, as if he didn’t want to talk about this.
“You mean it’s true?” Costis demanded.
The Thief grinned, at ease again. “Don’t sound so surprised. We’ve been friends for a very long time.” This was news to Costis, who had always heard that the Thief and Attolia had met five years ago, during the treaty negotiations. “But not everyone would be as understanding as I’m sure you are.”
Costis wasn’t feeling very understanding right now. In fact, what he was feeling was horrifyingly close to jealousy, but he nodded.
“People are already talking about us,” the Thief continued. “You’ve obviously heard the rumors, as, I imagine, has the entire court, as well as every lord and lady in the land.” He frowned. “But you must know why we can’t be open about it.”
Costis did know.
Attolia and Eddis as countries had never been the greatest of allies, and tensions between them had been growing towards outright war until the Treaty had been signed in the face of war with Sounis. The old king of Sounis had died and the war had ended before it really began; instead, the three countries had joined forces against the Mede threat, and successfully ousted it.
But a war fought side by side and a few years of peace couldn’t erase centuries of unrest. The Attolian court would never accept an Eddisian prince courting their queen, especially the youngest and least honest one.
“You can’t hide it forever,” Costis said.
“I know,” the Thief said. “We know, we—there’s a plan, I promise.” Why are you promising me? Costis thought inanely. “But we need to buy a little time,” he said, “to let people become accustomed to my presence. To...improve my reputation, if you will.”
The Thief gave him a look. “Be honest. When you look at me, do you see Eddis’s prince, or its Thief?”
Costis’s grimace was enough of an answer, and the Thief laughed. “See?” he said. “My reputation. It needs work.”
“But in the meantime,” Costis said, beginning to see where this was going, “you need to make people forget the rumors.”
The Thief nodded. “Exactly. A distraction.”
“A distraction,” Costis repeated, and remembered how the conversation had started. “Me?”
“You,” the Thief affirmed.
Costis felt the ridiculousness of the situation overwhelm him, and he laughed. “Me.” He laughed again, louder, wondering what Aris would think of him pretending to be the queen’s lover’s lover.
“I can make it worth your while,” the Thief said, and smirked. Costis felt his good humor dry up.
“No,” he said.
“You would be compensated,” the Thief continued, still smirking, as if Costis hadn’t spoken. Costis’s jaw tightened, eyes narrowing. “Although I’m sure a noble guard such as yourself, with all your pride and self-righteousness, would be honored to do something so helpful for your queen. Wouldn’t you?” The Thief’s grin became suggestive, and oh, Costis knew where this was going, and he felt his face grow hot with anger in anticipation. “I’ve heard you’re very...loyal.”
That’s when Costis punched him in the face.
Immediately, he recoiled, stumbling backward, anger replaced with horror at himself. Costis had never liked bullies, but he had just hit an unarmed man who was younger, smaller, and probably less trained than he was. It didn’t matter how aggravating the Thief had been, there was no excuse.
He was just opening his mouth to apologize when he heard someone laughing. A moment later, he realized it was the Thief.
“Oh,” he said, gasping with laughter even as he touched his nose gingerly. “Oh, I knew you would be interesting.”
“So that’s it, then?” Costis said, remorse being replaced by a mixture of irritation and relief. “It was just a joke?”
Picking himself up off the ground, the Thief laughed again. “No, it wasn’t a joke. Although I admit I might have been a little...” He shrugged apologetically. “A little inconsiderate of your feelings.”
Costis crossed his arms defensively, shoulders hunched up. “You mocked me,” he said, and cringed at how childish he sounded. “How did you even know?”
“Know what? How you felt about your queen?” the Thief asked, and snorted. “You haven’t exactly been the most subtle, my dear.”
“Don’t call me that,” Costis snapped. “I can’t understand why you would want me of all people to pretend to be your—” He cut himself off with a shake of his head.
The Thief grinned crookedly. “My lover?” His grin grew wider when Costis glared at him. “I like you, you seem to have a good head on your shoulders—punching strangers and skipping meals aside.”
You’re not a stranger, Costis thought stupidly, and mentally shook himself. “That’s it?” he asked, unconvinced. “That’s your reason?”
The Thief shrugged again. “I told you, Irene thinks you’re the best.” It took Costis an embarrassingly long moment to realize that Irene was the queen. “And I know it sounded like I was making fun—and I’ll admit, I was, a little—but you do seem very loyal.”
“I am,” Costis agreed. It was something he took pride in. “But my answer is no.”
At this, the Thief finally seemed fazed. “Look, I’m sorry about being an ass—”
“You were an ass,” Costis said, “but that’s not it. First, I’m not sure I even believe that you and the queen are—whatever.” The Thief opened his mouth to speak, but Costis cut him off again. “Second, even if I did believe you, I just...I couldn’t pretend like that. I couldn’t tell that big a lie. Not for any reason.” He ignored the sly voice inside of him that said, Not even for the queen?
Gen stared at him for a moment, before huffing out a sigh. “Of course you couldn’t,” he said quietly. “I suppose you wouldn’t be you if you could.”
“Well then,” he said, dusting off his knees, “I guess I should think of another plan!”
“That’s...it?” Costis said, a little surprised despite himself.
The Thief tilted his head at him, smiling enigmatically. “I know when I’m beaten.”
Costis shifted awkwardly on his feet. “Sorry,” he said. “About punching you. And, well, about not being able to help. Even if I still don’t really believe this isn’t a big joke.”
“If it were a joke, it wouldn’t be a very good one,” the Thief said, and for the first time, he looked completely serious. It was a good look on him, Costis thought idly, then wanted to smack himself.
“No,” he said. “It wouldn’t.”
Of course, Costis had known that the Thief of Eddis wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. He had been prepared to refuse him as frequently, emphatically, and creatively as necessary to get the message across.
But he hadn’t counted on the Queen of Attolia.
A couple of days after the conversation, Costis was woken in the middle of the night by gentle hands shaking his shoulder. “Costis,” someone whispered, “wake up, sir.”
Costis blinked, vision blurry with sleep. “What’s wrong? What time is it?” After a few tries, he managed to focus on the barracks boy at the side of his bed.
“A little after midnight,” the boy said. “There’s someone here to see you.”
Costis sat upright. “Who?”
“I think it’s one of the queen’s attendants,” the boy said, but shrugged apologetically. “I haven’t learned everyone’s faces yet.”
“Nevermind that,” Costis said. “Thank you, tell them I’ll be out in a moment.”
The walk through the palace was uncomfortable, his boots echoing loudly off the tiled floors. Every once in a while the attendant looked back at him, her face giving nothing away, so Costis wasn’t sure if she was making sure he was still there or if she was annoyed that he was being so loud.
He looked down at her slippered feet, stepping noiselessly and gracefully, and sighed, feeling awkward and out of place. Why would the queen want to see him?
When they reached the queen’s apartments, the attendant entered without acknowledging the guards on either side of the door. They nodded at Costis, and he nodded back, trying not to show his nerves.
They went through the guardroom, past the squad stationed there, into an anteroom. From there, they entered a receiving room, and from there into a small candlelit room—where the queen sat at a desk, writing on a piece of vellum.
The attendant gave him a prompting look and left the room. Costis gathered his courage.
“You asked for me, my queen?”
Attolia glanced up from her writing desk and just looked at him, taking in his straight posture and his (terrified, Costis was sure) expression with a sharp eye, looking at him inscrutably while Costis sweated under her gaze.
“Yes,” she said finally. “I have a proposition for you.”
And just like that, Costis knew.
No, he wanted to shout, only of course he didn’t. He felt stunned, speechless with the thought that the Thief wasn’t lying to you, he was telling the truth, they really are—
“My queen?” he asked, voice cracking horribly, and she smiled. He thought she seemed a little sympathetic, but that didn’t make any sense with the queen he knew.
But then again, the queen he’d thought he’d known wouldn’t have been involved with this.
“I see you’ve figured it out,” the queen said casually, finally setting down her quill. “Gen told me you didn’t believe him, and I thought perhaps you would believe me.”
Gen, Costis thought wildly. She calls him ‘Gen’ and he calls her ‘Irene’ and nothing makes sense.
Out loud, he exhaled slowly, pulled himself together. “I do,” he said slowly, then swallowed. “But that wasn’t the only reason I said no, my queen.”
The queen raised an eyebrow at him, and he flinched. This wasn’t how he wanted Attolia to think of him—as the guard who told her ‘no.’
Still, he forged on valiantly. “I don’t think I have it in me to tell that big a lie,” he said.
“Hmm,” the queen said, turning her attention back to whatever she was writing. She traced a line of text with one slim finger slowly, deliberately, and Costis had to struggle not to squirm. “I think you underestimate yourself,” she murmured. “I have heard from reliable sources that you may be my most loyal guard.”
Costis swallowed. “I—I’m sure I couldn’t say, my queen.”
Attolia dipped her quill in the inkwell. “Hmm,” she said again. After a long moment, she looked back up at him, eyes intense. “I have faith that my guards are capable of doing uncomfortable things, maybe impossible things, for the sake of the country. And for someone I consider to be my best squad leader...well, I should think that would be doubly true.” Her voice was mild, but Costis shivered.
“My queen,” Costis said uneasily.
The queen tilted her head at him. “And of course your loyalty would be repaid,” she said, freezing him in place. “I understand you’ve been waiting to be appointed to the palace for quite some time. Of course you should have been there years ago, from what I’ve heard.” She shrugged. “But you know how it is. Everything is political.”
Here, she looked at him slyly, and Costis flushed, but at the same time felt his stomach drop. He was being bribed. “Still,” she said, “I’m sure I could find a way to—”
“Your Majesty,” Costis interrupted reproachfully.
The queen stopped, open-mouthed with surprise. “Oh,” she said, and then laughed.
It wasn’t as if this was the first time Costis had heard Attolia laugh. Before, however, it had always been a quiet chuckle, almost noiseless. Once, she had snorted indelicately in the face of a particularly hapless suitor, in the middle of court. It had made Costis smile for days whenever he thought of it.
This wasn’t like that. Instead, it was a louder, lighter sound—mirthful, instead of disdainful. It hit Costis like a blow to the head.
“Relius did warn me,” Attolia finally said, a little breathless. Her eyes sparkled, and Costis tried not to stare. “He was sure that neither flattery nor bribery would work, but I didn’t believe him.” She looked at him, still mirthful. “It seems your honor is true, Squad Leader. Forgive me for doubting you. But I had to try, I’m sure you understand; in my position, one witnesses many an act of greed or vanity passed off as loyalty. I had to be absolutely certain I could trust you.”
“Of course, my queen,” Costis said, still a little dazed.
“Well, can I?”
“Can I trust you?” Attolia pressed.
Costis hesitated. “Yes, of course, but I’m still not—”
Attolia frowned, then, and it made Costis want to do anything to make her laugh again. “Costis,” she said. “Listen to me.”
“I understand this sounds ridiculous. It wasn’t even my idea.” She shrugged. “When Gen first explained it to me, I told him to call a doctor to see if he had a fever. ‘This is your great, foolproof plan?’ I think I said something like that.
“He maintained that it was a good plan, though, and Relius, my most trusted advisor, agreed. At least, he said, it was the best plan we had, and after a few days of thought, I had to agree.” The queen smiled then, a tight, brittle expression, and Costis ran a hand over his face.
“My queen...” He understood exactly what she wasn’t saying, as well as the anxiety she wasn’t voicing. He knew how important this was, but he just didn’t think he could do it. “I don’t know if I can—”
“Please,” the queen of Attolia said, her voice intent, almost desperate. “If I had a better plan, I would use it. The only other thing I could think of was sending him away, and I just can’t.”
“No,” Costis said. “It would be too sudden. It would look suspicious.”
“Yes,” the queen agreed. “But even otherwise, I’m not sure I could.”
Something tightened in Costis’s chest. “You love him,” he said hoarsely.
The queen stared at him, and Costis opened his mouth hurriedly to apologize, but she said, “Of course I do. Do you think I would have let it come this far, taken this big a risk, if I didn’t?”
No, Costis realized, she wouldn’t have. She loves him. The thought circled around his head. She loves him. She loved him enough to ask for this, to cling to this stupid, impossible plan, to say ‘please.’
Well, then. Well.
“Okay,” Costis said quietly, because what else could he do? She had said ‘please’. “Okay, I’ll do it.”