Aramis Stilton is 24 and being invited to the Duke’s palace.
He’s up and coming in the mining scene, risen from another miner to something else - something approaching nobility. But he’s serious, and dedicated, and working long hours to remember the ills and pitfalls of the miner’s life, so he can alleviate them. Make the mines safe. But he didn’t imagine it would garner this kind of attention.
People were talking about him now, a fact he didn’t care for - and curious people would stop by his office to ask bemused, condescending questions like why do you think you can do this and why do you think you should do this and what point is there in saving miners, there’s a new one born every minute, and at first he was flabbergasted by the utter lack of compassion these people had, but now he says little about his ideals, simply says, “I want to,” and that is enough.
But somewhere along the way, he must have attracted the attention of nobility. So Aramis Stilton is now here, meticulously shaven and dressed in his finest (which is not very fine at all), waiting for the audience of the Duke of Serkonos himself.
He fiddles with the rock in his pocket. He keeps a single interesting specimen in his pocket at a time, to fiddle with, and remember the rocky cliffs of Morley.
A young man, his age, maybe younger, comes up alongside his angled elbow and crashes into it, knocking his hand and ripping the stitching on his suit pocket.
He looks up at the young gentleman, hoping it was a mistake, but - no, no, it doesn’t look like it is. The bent of that grin is - too deliberate, too victorious.
“Oh, terribly sorry,” the boy says, stifling chortles.
This has to be Luca. He looks like the Duke, like all the portraits he’d seen. Very tall — and Stilton is no small man — and quite broad. But unlike the Duke, Luca has an undeniable air of barely-hidden rage and genuine cruelty. From behind the door, there are more chortles, a similar voice, and it begins to feel a lot like Aramis’s schoolyard days.
Thankfully, the Duke comes in and commands, “Luca, Radanis, leave our guest alone.”
Luca looks back at his father, clucks his tongue, and leaves.
Theodanis looks every part as regal as Aramis would want him to. Dusky, clear skin, an immaculately trimmed beard, sparked with darker gray in its black depths, strong and confident eyes. The sort of posture which is both authoritative and welcoming.
“Welcome, Mister Stilton.”
“Um, thank you, Your Grace,” Aramis chokes out, bowing low.
The rock that was in his pocket tumbles out with a loud clatter, skittering across the glossy palace floor.
The Duke turns promptly, to pick up the stone where it slid, about a meter behind him.
“Oh, your Grace, you don’t have to-“ Aramis starts, but the Duke is already bending and picking it up.
The Duke examines it closely, turning it this way and that, nodding.
“Scheelite, isn’t it?” The Duke says.
“Um,” Aramis says, dumbly, “yes.”
“Lovely stone. Have you examined it under black light?”
“Oh, yes!” Aramis says, surprised, “Have you?”
“Yes. I’ve recently taken an interest in natural history. Here you are.”
The Duke hands back the chunk of rock, grazing Aramis’s palm when he does so. His fingers are smooth, and Aramis twitches under the touch.
The Duke laughs, slightly, and says, “I’m sorry if I startled you.”
“No, I- No.”
Just your fingers were very soft. And something inside me went off.
Theodanis smiles, and guides Aramis into a smaller chamber, something more personal, like a study. There is one attendant, and one member of the Grand Guard within. Theodanis greets them.
Aramis does the same, but feels slightly lame doing it, feels their eyes on him making him nervous.
Morlian. Poser. Came from nothing, will only be nothing. Their eyes seem to say.
The Duke settles in an older chair, leaving Aramis the newer, posed next to it.
“Do you smoke, Mister Stilton?”
“No, thank you, your Grace.”
“I don’t either.” HIs eyes glimmer with mirth, some joke Aramis isn’t in on.
“My lungs are sooty enough,” Aramis says, laughing by himself.
“Oh!” Theodanis says, getting it, and he laughs, a big grin splitting his face. The Duke is missing a tooth, farther back in his mouth, the same one Aramis is missing from having it fractured.
“Do you drink?” Theodanis pulls out a bottle of fig wine from a small cooler beneath a table.
“Um, if it’s permissible.”
“Of course it is, I’m offering.” Theodanis gestures to the attendant, who ducks into a small alcove in the room and retrieves two fine glasses.
The Duke pours them each a glass.
The fig wine is pure and clean tasting, quite delicious.
“Tell me about your work.” Theodanis says, leaning into Aramis.
“Oh um, what do you want to know?”
So Aramis tells him, stutteringly at first, about things he’s working on now - some sort or rudimentary elevator for the mines so that people don’t have to be lowered down by their waists. Structures that can be erected underground so digging out new mine shafts was safer and incurred less risk. Gloves to protect the younger miners (and all miners, really) from galena, which was largely toxic, especially for young people.
This is usually where people find him boring, but Theodanis is listening like it’s the most interesting thing in the world. “Go on,” he says, when Aramis pauses.
So Aramis finds himself rambling about everything — the intricacies of mines, of their silt content, their vein makeup, how silver can be find in quartz but is more often found as an imperfect mineral along with other elements. The history of Karnaca’s mines especially. The smelting process. Blacklung.
Through it, Theodanis is leaning on the arm of his chair, smiling.
As soon as Aramis notices, his mouth slows to a halt.
“Oh. Sorry, I was… rambling.”
“No, no. It was very interesting. You’re very passionate about it.”
Aramis nods, slightly. “Yes, I- I’ve always been someone who- is into things.”
Theodanis is silent, but smiles.
“You’re a very interesting person, Aramis.”
There’s that warmth again, that little switch being turned again.
Stop thinking it. Stop right now.
Something is strange. It occurs to Aramis that the Duke probably didn’t invite him simply to talk about his work and drink fig wine - which is delicious, but not the point. They hadn’t even met previously - this couldn’t be a social visit. There had to be a reason.
“Um, your Grace?” Aramis starts.
“Theodanis, if you prefer.”
“Oh, um… Duke Th- Theodanis, why- why did you call me here?”
Theodanis looks somewhat surpirsed at the question.
With a gentle hand, he excuses the few attendants.
The room is silent for a few moments before Theodanis speaks.
“Do you…” Here Theodanis pauses, and steeples his fingers, “have interest in men?”
That’s something I can’t talk about in Morley. Can’t talk about my dreams of my neighbor’s strong arms, can’t talk about the stolen kisses with Bradach, can’t talk about the warmth I felt at the Duke’s fingers on my palm and his lips around my name. Can’t talk about it.
Theodanis smiles though, this soft thing. “I as well. I’ve only ever liked gentlemen.”
“But- but you have a wife. And children.”
Theodanis scratches his beard, combing it into disarray and then back into neatness.
“Yes. But that’s the expectation one has of a Duke. To produce an heir. Callas — my wife — knows. Luca I suspect does. I am not certain about Radanis.”
There’s something in Aramis’s throat.
“Why… do you ask, your Grace?”
Theodanis looks at the floor. His noble face is in quiet repose, and if someone were to sculpt his posture now, it would be a masterpiece.
“I am interested in you, Aramis. As I said before, for your work, but also…” Theodanis looks up and his even stare sends a thrill through Aramis, “As a person.”
Theodanis smiles. “I wanted to know if you were interested.”
“Are. You asking me to be your lover?”
“Yes,” Theodanis says, as if it were nothing.
That’s it. This must be a trick. A witch hunt. Root out those who would desire the Duke. Root out those whose perversions included loving their own gender.
But Theodanis’s face is so calm, and so sincere. And Serkonos is not like Morley, not staunchly against sins of all kinds.
“I… don’t know, your Grace,” Aramis says, lying, “I would need to get to- get to know you first.”
“Oh no, of course. But then, I intend for this to be a proper thing,” Theodanis reaches across the gap to take Aramis’s stocky hand, “I will court you. And try to woo you.”
That’s so sweet. Aramis feels his heart knit up, and he tops Theodanis’s hand with his own.
“I am much younger than you,” He murmurs.
“As long as you would have an old man,” Theodanis whispers back.
“I am foreign. And oafish.”
“I find Morlians to be exceptionally beautiful. And you are incredibly interesting.”
“People will disapprove.”
“They always do.”
“I may…” Aramis swallows, “I may say no.”
“It’s your right to.”
Theodanis is meeting his gaze. Aramis can’t look people in the eyes - it scares him, makes him skittish — but every time his eyes dart back to Theodanis’s they are resolutely staring at him.
He is so - enchanting. And Aramis… Aramis lets go of his fear. Lets his heart lead the way, rather than his overactive mind.