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𝕿𝖎𝖑𝖑 𝕯𝖊𝖆𝖙𝖍「𝐬𝐭𝐨𝐫𝐲」


Cromwell's Quarters, Album Castellum, Delphi

An hour or so later....

An Early Morning Visit

The ceremony had been over for more than an hour and a half by the time Emerson knocked on the doors to the Lord Chancellor’s apartments. He had to knock several times, and was considering the utility of just heading back to his own guest suite for a few hours sleep, by the time the other man opened the door.

“Good morning,” Emerson said with a yawn. “You wished to see me?”

Cromwell, who had not intended to fall asleep at all and as a result had ink smudged on his cheek from the document he was editing, did his utmost to appear wide awake as he responded.

“Yes. Indeed. Come in.” He stepped aside, wondering if the way he said that sounded as awkward as it had felt. He heaved a great sigh and rolled his shoulders, looking around for the supplies he had sent for earlier.

“Your… hands, I found out later what it is that happened. I wish I had been there to divert the Dowager Queen somehow. I’m shocked to learn that someone else came to your rescue however. I could’ve sworn he wasn’t fond of you in the slightest.” That was putting it lightly, Nuri resented Emerson’s existence stubbornly. But perhaps that was subject to change out of spite for his mother’s disrespect towards his marriage and guests.

“I would have been all right, I always come up with something,” Emerson said airily, as though he hadn’t felt a very real fear only a few hours ago. “My palms will heal fine, Minister Brennan is more than adept at bandaging me up by now- I used to do that trick loads of times, the scars are hardly noticeable, even if you know to look for them.”

Emerson chose not to comment on the ink stain, instead looking about the room. Tasteful, but a bit… Less minimal than he was expecting.

“You know, you can decorate your rooms in Redhill if they aren’t to your liking,” he suggested.

“Ha,” Cromwell said, attempting to sound humorless but failing at the mention of the decorations in his room. He fondly kept them just the way they were, pretending that he simply couldn’t be bothered to have them redorated, or de-decorated really, to how they had been before Meera’s ladies had gotten a hold of them.

Cromwell had trouble keeping the small smile from his face as he abandoned the supplies he’d found off to the side in favor of examining the bandages on Lord Emerson’s hands, who politely resisted the urge to snatch them away. Cromwell took them in his own and inspected their wrapping. They were indeed well done. He couldn’t complain or insist on redoing them.

“The decor was all an elaborate gift from the Queen, at the time a Princess, and her ladies a few years ago. I do not possess the level of taste they do. They declared my living quarters sad and unacceptable. So they set about…” He gestured, “Fixing it up in the way they thought I might appreciate.”

“Well, they showed admirable restraint,” Emerson decided. “I would have demonstrated no such respect for your preferred color palette,” he joked, noting only the occasional pop of color against the majority of neutral tones.

“No, I imagine you wouldn’t have.” Cromwell wasn’t quite joking, he let Emerson’s hands go and stepped over to the table in the middle of the room, where the wine was. Lord Emerson enjoyed challenging him in strange ways.

“Speaking of ladies, you were uncharacteristically harsh with Lady Nyme. I could have sworn you were all thick as thieves. Almost as if she had thwarted certain political intentions with her being here that the crown had in mind for her. Ones she was almost entirely unaware of until… well her parents should make it clear to her upon breaking their fast I should think.” Cromwell teased.

“She’ll get over it,” Emerson said sharply, uncharacteristically harsh once again. “And you can keep your speculation about my feelings to yourself,” he warned. That wasn’t why he was angry with her, not really, and he didn’t want to think about the real reason.

That she was stupid and reckless and endangering her friends, and he couldn’t stop her from making all the same mistakes as he had.

“Something to drink?” Cromwell offered as he poured more into his own goblet.

“No, thank you,” Emerson said, after a dry swallow. “I think I’ve had enough for the night- Or the day, I suppose,” he said wryly, aiming for a lighter tone.

“You would think everyone had, and yet tonight the wine will pour heavier than ever. Please sit, there’s several things at large that have gone on since last I was here. And annoyingly, I can not stay to fix them directly after the Crown’s little incident.” Cromwell sat on one of the many cushions surrounding the table and invited Lord Emerson to do the same.

Emerson snorted at the euphemism. Instead of sitting as indicated, he laid himself out on his back across several cushions, so that the top of his head grazed against Cromwell’s thigh. He pulled a flask- water, presumably- from his own pockets and poured some into his open mouth, his eyes falling closed as he listened.

“Before we arrived at the Capitol, King Averett tasked me with ensuring that should Lord Brutus be here he was to be kept far away from the Prince. A task I did not think necessary, as I would know if Lord Brutus had set foot in Album Castelum. Moreover, I personally threatened him to stay away when I had him thrown out.” Cromwell took a swig of wine.

What an interesting task that Avery had set for Cromwell- Even more interesting, that he had failed to tell Emerson of it.

“Unfortunately, he’s here anyhow. Apparently, the Dowager Queen silenced my clerk and Lord Brutus has been in Album Castelum for some time now, training and attending meetings. Turning a new leaf in his duties apparently, under the thumb of the Dowager Queen herself.”

“A problem, I presume, since His Majesty intends to cut his hand off?,” Emerson fished.

“Does he? I thought he was posturing.” That was the punishment for rapists in the Belethan army, did the King consider Brutus a rapist? Or was this simply jealousy over another man having touched his husband?

Is that why the King seemed to dislike him so much? At least as far as he knew, the King didn't intend to cut his hand off. It would certainly be a problem if he did- Cromwell needed his hands.

“Well kindly inform the King that while soldiers require no trial to be declared guilty of a crime punishable by limb detachment, nobles do. In either kingdom.”

Emerson laughed lightly- He didn’t expect Cromwell to understand the nuances of Beleth’s military justice. At least Cromwell had confirmed his suspicion, and Emerson almost wished he’d denied it instead.

“And yes, it is a problem, it was far better when Brutus was useless and focused on chasing his next opportunity for pleasure. His aunt used to handle affairs in representation of Vergina while his mother handled the running of the region. They are extremely reasonable people whose main interest was keeping the peace and doing their duty well. Brutus is an inherently selfish creature who is less likely to be so amenable. What’s worse, is that as a Lord he has the power to be a problem. All of the lesser houses in Vergina answer to him.”

“The Dowager Queen Agora is intending on using him somehow and in a way that runs contrary to the treaty. She’s working against me. And given how many nobles are wearing her mark, she’s been busy.” He grabbed the string of pearls laying on the table and pulled them up, dangling them over Emerson's face so he could see.

“They’re fashioned into a noose, and the men cut off their hair to signify seniority over those who did not fight in the war.” He tossed them back onto the table, annoyed.

A noose- How charming, Emerson thought as he opened his eyes to take in the necklace before closing them again. If they kept it up, they might yet meet a real gallows.

“She is not taking her lower rank well I think. In my opinion, the better the new King and Queen establish themselves as the authority the more she will act out, but the weaker her influence will get. And we can further undermine her influence by further solidifying the ties between our two kingdoms. I’ve taken the liberty of vetting through all eligible and age appropriate matches for the Princess Graceling. Their families have all agreed to hold off any engagements for the next full year, and are amenable to the arrangement should they be so lucky.”

“My, you have been busy,” Emerson said, opening his eyes with a smile, impressed. Even if ‘all’ the possible matches Cromwell deemed appropriate were only a few, it was still quite a bit of work in a short time.

“The only problem is, I’m not positive this initiative will be taken well coming from me. Your King feels a certain way about me.” Cromwell tilted his head, “I can’t imagine why.” He said dryly.

“I would guess it’s due to your prodigious talent for acting like an ass,” Emerson told him frankly. “But luckily, you and the Princess are of the same mind- I was delegated with compiling a ranked list of your eligible bachelors,” he admitted. “Specifically she would like ‘someone who is taller than me, but not excessively so’ and ‘can do at least four different dances’. She’s also partial to brown eyes, but I warned her that some compromise would be expected.”

“Hm…” Cromwell nodded, thinking, “I think at least one of them has brown eyes. I wasn’t particularly focused on those qualities, truth be told.” This must be part of his ‘talent for acting like an ass’ as Emerson called it.

He moved a lock of hair from Emerson's face carefully, slowly, “At least she can be assured that all Theren nobles dance excessively, especially the eligible ones. Both of the late Prince Magnus’s progeny are made available, Lady Feona will hold off Gaius’ wedding date a year, to break the engagement if necessary. Though I think he may be a tad too old to be appropriate.”

“I would think so,” Emerson agreed, relaxing into Cromwell’s hand. Grace herself probably would not care, but Avery would almost certainly object. “And we’ve broken enough engagements as it is.”

The Theren nobility were not inclined to view the Beleth royal family favorably as it was, there was no reason to cause further resentment.

“Agreed, nonetheless I thought it prudent that all options were offered. Out of respect for the Princess’ rank.” Cromwell liked the way Emerson's eyes fluttered shut, and experimentally ran his fingers through more of his soft hair as he continued. Watching keenly for any indication of discomfort and enjoying that the redhead only relaxed further under his hands.

“The heir to Argos, Cassius, is available; he is Lady Mercy’s older brother. I hear that he is uncommonly kind, though maybe not the brightest mind. Pylos has two sons in her age range, one of them stands to inherit the region as heir, he did not attend the wedding, and instead was left to run Pylos in his parents' stead while they attended. His name is Sirius. I believe you stopped the younger from dueling someone from a lesser house earlier, that one is Quintus. Which leaves the heir to the House of Thebus, Draco. He was at his mother’s side all night… I don’t think he’d be taller than Princess Grace. He’s just at her height I believe.” He joked.

Emerson snorted. “Well he’s young, perhaps he still has growing to do,” he suggested idly before continuing. “His Majesty is going to have a headache tomorrow, regardless of what we may do to heighten it,” he said. Avery held his alcohol well and had not given many visible signs of his drunkenness, but Emerson knew him better than most.

“I shall inform him that I have asked you to assess possible matches for the Princess based on their political appropriateness, while I judge their characters- And their dancing,” he said. “If he objects, I can tell him the truth- That we are doing no less than his sister herself asked for,” he said simply. Perhaps Emerson was also a bit drunker than he appeared, to be openly admitting to Cromwell even a subtle manipulation of his king.

“He’ll likely be more comfortable if he feels she has a chance to make her own judgments- When is Lord Gaius to be wed? She could attend as a representative for Beleth, and meet some of the prospects then,” Emerson suggested. “Or Cokinos usually holds a tourney in mid-spring, the families could be invited- And meet possible matches beyond just the Princess. Let’s see… All the immediate cousins are dead, already married, or- Well.”

Emerson was fairly certain that Grace and Avery’s mother had had at least one brother, but beyond that he had really no idea. As far as the court was concerned, that branch of the royal family did not exist.

“He’s got the nieces and nephews, but they are far too young and too far away, and their mother would never allow it. There’s some eligible second cousins though, I think. And of course,” he said with a wave of his hand in the air. “All the various bachelors and bachelorettes of the noble families.”

“Mmmmm.” Cromwell's chest rumbled, pleased with the outcome of these suggestions, “Co-mingling should be encouraged, Theren nobles are practically all cousins as is. I’ll have to contrive some way to change their perceptions on the viability of matches made with Beleth.” Probably best done by ensuring that the ladies from Theren already present in Beleth married well. And quickly.

“Speaking of co-mingling…” His fingers traced to Emerson's lips, running across them back and forth lightly, “How amenable are you to sitting on my face? Right. Here.” He tapped those lips, watching intently.

Emerson chuckled, opening his eyes in a lazy smile, and darting his tongue out to lick at Cromwell’s fingers. “Fairly amenable,” he allowed. He’d never given Brennan an estimate on when to expect him, after all.

“But we have another problem that I can hardly imagine you are unaware of,” he said more seriously, turning his head to fix his gaze against the Chancellor’s. “You’ve said the Dowager Queen is working against you. How are you certain that she is not working in line with her daughter?”

Cromwell had made a good show of supporting the treaty, but it might only be that- Emerson knew that his loyalty was to Queen Meera. And if her intention was to support the treaty… Well, she had an unusual way of doing so.

“Oh that, you needn't worry.” Cromwell smiled wryly, “As it would turn out, this wedding wasn't according to her plan either. The Queen informed me that her mother nearly screamed her head off when she informed her that she required a wedding to take place as soon as possible.” He languidly traced Emerson's ear. “Corroborated by servants' accounts of the rather memorable morning.”

“Apparently, the queen’s mother only supported her match after some sort of correspondence with the Prince. Something about competition apparently.” Cromwell could see why Agora would despise the match. Basilius was not her idea of a strong man, a good regional choice, nor a proven leader.

Emerson looked up at him, unimpressed by these reassurances. “Having this child cedes her authority- To her mother, or to her husband… Or to Beleth,” he said. He knew that Avery did not want to restart the hostilities… But he would, if he felt it was necessary. “Theren is more advanced than Beleth in matters of the body, but even we have solutions to this. If she truly means to abide by the treaty, why has she not ended the pregnancy already?”

“Are you asking me why rationality has been placed behind emotion?” Cromwell tweaked the ear he was tracing, “Funny, that's a question I have to ask every day and of everyone.” He noted annoyedly.

“All these people, making every little thing so difficult instead of listening to reason is why I don't get any sleep.” He removed his ministrations and decided more wine was what he needed, he could feel a headache coming.

He would kill the Dowager Queen if he needed to, whatever heir Meera produced too if necessary. He'd kill them all and install a new monarchy, a new nobility, if it would free the chokehold their petty squabbles had on the little boys they sent to war.

“We won't go back to war, I think the blood of the common folk has been shed enough. The nobility think that people without rank are as disposable as a rag, but when I’m done with them, they are too.” He said airily as he stared at the ceiling.

Emerson laughed, but instead of his cheer from earlier, it was a dark and hollow sound. Everyone was disposable to someone, and he couldn’t decide if he was impressed or amused that Cromwell thought such things were up to his decision. “His Majesty cannot afford to be any softer to Theren than he already has, without risking war in Beleth,” Emerson warned. “He will raze this country to the ground to prevent violence in his own. And for what,” Emerson asked. “A child she will one day hate?”

He sighed, shifting slightly. “I am sure Queen Meera envisions a happy future, and I doubt she is interested in hearing from me on the topic,” he admitted. “But I know what it is, to be the son who stripped his mother of her birthright. She does not just carry a child, but a seed of resentment that will grow, faster and stronger than its twin.”

“What reasonable conclusions you've arrived to.” Cromwell noted, deciding that the flow of information for tonight was to be cut off. As much as Cromwell strangely yearned to reassure Emerson with all the murderous contingencies he had in place, doing so would reveal far too much to the King of Beleth than was wise.

Perhaps far too much to Emerson himself. The redhead would look at him in disgust if not disbelief. He wasn't sure which he disliked more.

“Say what you mean to say, instead of asking me to give you what does not exist. It's annoying.” He shifted, looming over Emerson. Rethinking his original plans of devouring the redhead. He'd never been softer in his life.

“I mean to say-” Emerson frowned, trying to remember where he had been going, and then frowning deeper as he reflected on what he had said. He’d had no intention to tell Cromwell of the weakness in Avery’s rule, or of his own insecurities.

“I mean to say,” Emerson decided with a sigh, looking enviously at Cromwell’s wine cup but instead reaching up. He gently wiped the smear of ink from Cromwell’s cheek and tugged the other man’s face towards his own. “That I get very morose when I am drunk,” he said softly. “And I think both of our moods would improve, if you were to prevent me from talking much further.”

Cromwell rethought the rethinking he'd done about what he was going to do to Emerson. The speed of which just annoyed him further.

“Hm.” He grunted, before grabbing his jaw and obliging Emerson's request.

code by @fudgecakez

Maybe There's Hope For Love After All
King Avery & Prince Nuri

Avery felt awful, and it wasn’t because of the headache pounding against his temples. Well- That probably wasn’t helping, and he downed his third glass of water since he’d woken up. He’d found a platter with some fruit on it in their room and he’d taken some when he’d fled to the sitting room, and he was feeling a bit better for having eaten.

But even if the hangover were to disappear, the anxious pit gnawing away in his chest would surely not. He’d promised Nuri, and he’d broken that promise.

Unless he was greatly misremembering, Nuri had at least enjoyed himself, so that was something. But he didn’t want Nuri to think the expectations had changed in any way. They owed each other and their countries heirs, that was unavoidable, but Avery would not ask for more.

Even if he wanted more. He’d done an admirable job of denying that to himself thus far, but after last night he could hardly fail to recognize it.

He wanted to know the planes of Nuri’s body so well he could carve them with his eyes closed, he wanted to memorize every sound Nuri had made only a few hours prior, and learn what other melodies he might compose with Nuri as his instrument. He wanted to taste those sounds pressed into his own mouth, to smell Nuri’s arousal mingled with the sweat of exertion and know that he was the cause. He wanted to hold Nuri’s chest so close to his own that he could feel Nuri’s heart beating against his until they hammered in sync together, and he wanted to make Nuri’s heart gallop so fast it might burst from his ribcage. He wanted to know just how quickly he could make Nuri fall to pieces in his hands, and he wanted to keep Nuri on the precipice for hours on end and commit to memory the contortions of his face when racked with pleasure.

He wanted far too much, and it terrified him.

He’d taken refuge in the sitting room, where he could compose his apology without having to look at Nuri’s sleeping form. Where he wouldn’t be distracted by the slivers of Nuri’s skin exposed by the tangled sheets where his hand might fit perfectly, or the way strands of Nuri’s hair fell into his dark eyelashes. But all he’d found in the sitting room was his own nervous anxiety, and nothing to soothe it as effectively as the steady rhythm of Nuri’s breathing.

He’d returned to their bedroom eventually, eyeing the breakfast platter and the glass of some unknown juice on the side table. It was a bit unsettling, to think that servants had been in their bedchamber while they’d slept. At least he’d still been wearing his shirt.

He’d brought one of the chairs level with the head of the bed so that he could know as soon as Nuri woke, and alternated between drinking water and rehearsing what he was going to say to his husband.

Nuri himself was blissfully warm and comfortable. Relaxed, in a way that he hadn't been since coming back to his childhood home.

Which had been an unfair sensation, not unlike having been robbed and left on the side of the road in nothing but your knickers. Marriage to a foreign Kingdom and King left him uncomfortable there, and now alienation left him uncomfortable here.

By contrast his husband's mouth had left him feeling [/i]extremely comforted. A few times. And relief, also in the form of feeling that his marriage was going somewhere good, could at least be found when he was alone in this room with Avery.

So no anxiety or fretting woke him up particularly early, there was little sense of urgency even in the list of things he had to do. Cromwell could go wait, or go back to sleep, he was probably busy anyway.

That was Nuri’s train of thought as he rolled over and reached for his husband, still half asleep.

But didn't find him.

He patted the bed a couple of times to make sure before begrudgingly opening his eyes.

“That chair can
not be more comfortable than my arms, husband.” Nuri pouted.

Avery couldn’t help a soft smile at Nuri’s objection- It was a very nice chair, but Nuri was right.

He was beautiful, Avery though, even in his sulking, the bright morning sun highlighting the bones of his cheeks and his collar and- Avery cleared his throat, before he let his eyes wander any further.

“Are you thirsty,” Avery asked, offering the water. “How is your head?”

It would only be fair to let Nuri sleep a bit longer, Avery reasoned. He was smaller than Avery and would need more rest to recover, and it was in no way a stalling technique on Avery’s part.

“I didn't drink nearly as much as you.” Nuri grinned and flipped over to lay on his back, letting out a contented huff as the pillow deflated under his head.

“Thought I'd leave the heavier drinking for tonight, when I don't have to introduce every noble here to my husband and assure them that yes, he really is that handsome. And no, he’s not hiding his peg leg anywhere. And yes, mother is
thrilled we’re here.” He stretched his limbs all the way to his toes leisurely, his voice coming out muffled as a result.

He settled again and noticed the look on Avery's face, with his quiet demeanor, looking deflated. Something or someone was bothering him, he looked around the room for clues and only found the food the servants must have left.

“Why do you look sad? Did the servants come in here and mistreat you?” He accused huffily, shimmying out of the bed and looking around still.

“No, no, of course not,” Avery said with alarm, standing to reach out and encircle his hand around Nuri’s wrist to halt his investigation, not wanting someone else to be blamed for his somber mood.

“I only…” He dropped Nuri’s wrist and ran his hand over his face and through his hair, which had long since lost its tie to the silk sheets. “I wanted to apologize. For last night- Er, this morning,” he corrected. “I was… Incredibly presumptuous. Especially as I had already promised you that I had no such expectations,” he rushed forward, uncomfortable but determined. “I will be more cautious in the future,” he pledged. He may have to sleep in his study on nights when he’d been drinking, but the settee was relatively comfortable- Certainly more so than the prospect of repeating this conversation, with this most recent vow broken as well. “It will not happen again.”

Someone really allowed this man to be in charge of running a Kingdom, thought Nuri dully as he went from annoyed to… annoyed for a different reason.

Nuri grabbed a hold of Avery’s shoulders and shoved him on the bed, so he could glower over him properly.

“Won't happen again?! Did you drink so much you don't remember teasing me all last night at the party?”

“I didn’t-” Avery began to object, surprised at the turn this conversation had taken, and the position he found himself in. His hands found Nuri’s against his chest, but instead of pushing Nuri away, they pushed up Nuri’s sleeves to revel in the soft skin of his forearms.

“Or how I was all over you in the bath earlier? [/b]Honestly Averett…” Nuri didn't pay any mind to his reddening cheeks, or the way his eyes were getting misty with emotion and desire. He was past caring as he lowered his mouth onto his husband’s own, making needy noises.

Avery hardly responded, his eyes open in shock.

“It's like you can't tell at all how much I like you. You’re going to drive me insane.” He pulled away reluctantly, yanking his husband's hair back in order to finish his point. And slyly straddle his waist in order to punctuate it.

“You… Like me,” Avery repeated, not quite a question but a hint of doubt nonetheless. On their wedding day, he’d dared only to hope they might one day reach a point where Nuri didn’t hate him. That they had become friendly enough to have a relationship based on mutual respect was more than he had ever thought to ask the Goddess for.

He’d killed Nuri’s father, destroyed his romantic and familial relationships, and brought him to live in a foreign land surrounded by strangers. It was no less than King Garett had done to his third wife- And even if she had learned to pretend otherwise, Avery knew she had never forgiven him for it.

But Nuri wasn’t Queen Eva. And Avery… Wasn’t his father.

It had been months, and Avery suspected that Nuri had a fairly good judge of his character by now. He might not always be completely truthful with Avery when it came to uncomfortable topics, but Avery could not imagine that he would lie so boldly without prompt. He would certainly not feign an interest in Avery just for the sake of keeping the peace, when Avery had already told him it was not necessary.

…Nuri was telling the truth and he was a fool, Avery concluded.

“Then I should apologize again,” Avery said softly, no longer quite so shocked but instead amazed at his good fortune. He reached up to cup his hand against Nuri’s face, tracing his thumb against the other man’s jaw. “I have been so preoccupied with preventing our relationship from echoing that of my parents, that I failed to see it had already since diverged.”

Somewhere in him, too close to the surface for comfort but too far down for him to realize it till now, Nuri had been terrified that somehow all of this was some horrible trick. That any moment now Avery would turn cold and make it clear that this was all a trick to have him under his thumb. That the love and affection he had been basking under were only conditional to the services he provided as a political pawn.

Nuri had no idea if he was pathetic enough to still yearn for that affection had that actually happened, but then again he'd still pined for his mother's attention after everything hadn't he?

But that wasn't Avery at all. He was warm, ran hot when he was angry. He never left Nuri shivering in his cold.

His chest shook as he chuckled a little, wiping away at a little droplet of water that had fallen on Avery's cheek, eyes widening when he realized where that water had come from. Avery turned his face to press his lips against Nuri’s palm instinctually.

“This is embarrassing Avery, you're making me all emotional. It's horrid and not at all dignified of a Prince.” He jerked away and wiped at his eyes aggressively, realizing that he wasn't wearing any smallclothes when he sat back, and lifted his hips up a little in further embarrassment.

Avery soothed his hands down Nuri’s back and along his thighs, subtly adjusting Nuri’s long shirt so that the younger man could sit on its tails with somewhat more modesty than before.

“There is no audience here with us now,” Avery said gently, replacing Nuri’s hands with his own and wiping at his tears far more gently than his husband had. “Do not criticize yourself for my sake, when I can find no flaws.”

He leaned up to kiss Nuri softly. “You are so beautiful,” he breathed against Nuri’s cheeks. “Even with red eyes.” He paused, looking up at Nuri with fondness and reverence. “Though… Your words have made me exceedingly happy, so. I may feel badly if my own continue to be a source of tears for you,” he joked.

Nuri threw his arms around his husband's shoulders, letting himself be kissed and adored.

“Then you shall have to find some way to make me happy again this morn.” He demanded, grinning like a fool falling in love.
code by @fudgecakez

Some People Think Setting Traps & Lures Is A Form Of Flirting
Lord Chancellor Cromwell & Lord Emerson

Emerson wasn’t surprised to wake up alone. He was, however, surprised to be in what he could only assume was Cromwell’s bed. He must have been drunker than he’d realized to have badgered the other man into letting him sleep there last night- Or this morning, rather. He didn’t remember having gotten up from the sitting room to come here, but it must have happened. He couldn’t imagine Cromwell having carried him.

He squinted into the blinding light coming in from outside and decided it was probably sometime in the late morning. Probably still at least two hours before noon, but much later than he usually slept. He’d slept surprisingly well, for having been in a strange bed. Cromwell must be having his meeting with Their Majesties- the Beleth ones- that he’d mentioned he would need to attend. Or attending to any of his many other duties, Emerson supposed. Cromwell had a dozen more important things to do than wait around for Emerson to wake up.

With a stretch, Emerson regretfully left the bed and straightened the covers and pillows, erasing the obvious signs of his presence. He found his clothes neatly folded on bench at the end of the bed and pulled them on hastily, aware of the time and his own obligations as the haze of a good night’s sleep wore off. He should have just returned to his own quarters last night, he chastised himself. He’d probably already been seen by the staff who served Cromwell, or at least his absence had been surely noted by those assigned to his guest rooms. Plus, he needed to start setting up meetings for Avery, he was supposed to have met with Minister Brennan this morning to discuss how last night had gone, he ought to-

“Oh! Hello there,” he said brightly as the Lord Chancellor appeared through the large doorway, his mouth turning up into a smile without thinking. He did up the buttons on his tunic as he wondered if the meeting with Their Majesties was already finished, or if Cromwell was merely coming by to kick him out before going to it.

“I apologize for intruding on your hospitality, but thank you for it nonetheless,” he said as he smoothed his hems down. “You are a most gracious host,” Emerson winked. He supposed guests on matters of business saw a very different side of Cromwell than he’d received half a dozen hours ago- The dour lord would never accomplish anything with his day, if he treated all guests as he had treated Emerson in the parlor. Emerson grinned again at the recollection.

Cromwell's mouth flapped open and shut a few times as he thought like a madman what to say. What hook he could possibly cast to get this fox to snap his jaws shut on it and be reeled in, just as he was able to do last night.

He'd only very reluctantly left because duty called, and then duty canceled after making him wait past the time of their meeting. The upside of which meant he got to come right back here, preferably before Lord Emerson escaped his bed.

“I’ll be out of your way now,” Emerson said, leaning forward to kiss Cromwell on the cheek quickly.

“You're not hungry my lord? Besides, I have good news for Beleth. Lady Roysa’s concerns can be laid to rest finally.” Well. That news about the Belethan royals was about as confirmed as the news that they had already consummated was. But Emerson didn’t need to know that detail.

Emerson laughed. “You’ll have to be more specific- Lady Roysa has more concerns than a cat has kittens, and nurses them more fondly still.”

Cromwell shrugged, a slow smirk forming on his crooked mouth. “I don't divulge secrets to people with their foot half out the door.”

The servant he sent for food could not possibly be that far behind him now, if he could only get Lord Emerson to sit down - on a cushion if not his face this time. He'd have him. At least for breakfast.

Emerson’s grin faltered momentarily. Cromwell must know of his intentions for the day and hope to derail them- But Cromwell was mistaken if he thought delaying Emerson would have much effect on his reception among the generals he was to visit today. Unlike with the nobility of Redhill that Cromwell had been exposed to, people in the military respected Emerson as Avery’s right hand, instead of viewing him as the King’s foolish pet project.

He righted his smile in a moment, and it spread even wider. “Breakfast and secrets- You do know how to tempt a man,” he allowed with a laugh. “Just do not tell Lady Veora I am putting off my utility for either, or she may be cross with me!”

He had promised to be useful, after all- Though he was slightly less concerned with her good opinion of him than when he had initially made that promise. If she was somewhere wringing her hands with worry that it would fall to her to arrange all of King Averett’s meetings as well as Prince Nuri’s…. Well, she could wring them until after Emerson had enjoyed breakfast.

“Oh I doubt you'll be missed there. There's not much left to do on that front anyway.” Cromwell laced an arm around his waist and led him out to the table they sat at yesterday. Ready to fill him in on the agreed upon meeting times and the aforementioned ‘secrets’.

The both of them unawares that the Dowager Queen Agora hadn't stopped to rest like they had, and had pieces falling into place as they spoke.
code by @fudgecakez

And Some People Think Setting Traps & Lures Is Just Par For Course
Dowager Queen Agora & King Avery

A growing discontent sat in Agora’s stomach the longer she had observed how very different the relationship between the King Averett and her son appeared to have from her presumptions. Did he lie in his letter? Did things change drastically in so little a time? Did he not remember her careful instruction to keep a certain distance in his heart?

A thing she thought would be no issue given how he'd done it so thoroughly well with Brutus. And poor Brutus, she really was asking much of him when she instructed him to have patience. He wasn't used to demands, and despite the strides he'd made in discipline since she first had him fetched from whatever brothel he'd been wallowing in he was a passionate man full of fire and brimstone. There was only so much she could expect from him.

Especially when others were so very obviously attached at the hip to the prize she’d promised him would be his once again.

A part of her wondered how she could put her son’s head back on straight, so that he might remember whose side he is on. But another part of her knew it mattered very little, one way or another. Her poor son really had sacrificed himself away, he wouldn't get to choose how things turned out. That part was for her.

Which was not to say she wasn't doing her utmost for him still, even after his impudence. She was still his mother, who wanted what was best for him. And what was best for him was to not get attached to a temporary King.

“Ah, so we finally have a moment alone, your Grace.” She grinned as she turned and curtsied in the Belethan fashion.

She'd had a summons sent out under the guise of her son that invited King Averett to a comfortable solar with a pretty view and bright lighting from the setting sun.

They were a few hours out from the second day's celebrations beginning. And to her son, she'd sent a summons under the guise of King Averett to another solar, far from this one, so that he could reacquaint himself with someone who could love him better than this murderer before her.

“I thought it wise to meet, even unofficially, before the formal meeting tomorrow with my daughter.” She gestured for him to situate himself anywhere he liked in the room.

Avery was disappointed that Nuri wasn’t there- He’d been looking forward to seeing him again, even if it had only been a few hours since they’d seen each other. But he thought he did a decent job of hiding his surprise, and he bit back his retort about his title being “Your Majesty”.

She was being too familiar, but he would try to take it in good faith. They were family, after all, and Avery suspected it would mean much to Nuri if they could heal the fractures in the strained relationship.

He took a seat so that he could admire the view, and did not hide his interest. “You have some truly gorgeous vantages here in Delphi,” he praised. “You know,” he said, turning to her more directly. “You do not need to trick me into meeting with you, officially or otherwise. You need only to ask, and I would be happy to grant you my time.”

Agora answered with an easy laugh, genuine, as she did find playing with her food before she ate it entertaining.

“It is just my idea of a joke. Unexpected things have a way of… lightening the mood.” She lied as easily as breathing. Unexpected things often had the opposite effect, and she didn't fancy taking chances when it came to her plans. So the trickery really was necessary.

“And after all, our topic of conversation is very heavy indeed your grace. Any excuse to-” She gestured at the view, “-Show you our Kingdom's beauty and attempt to alleviate some of that burden I’ll take.” She leveled him with a look.

Avery began to suspect that his concerns about this conversation’s trajectory might have some merit.

“I know you must be angry, given the course of events that has brought us all here today. Happy though the occasion, unhappy is the cause.” She sat next to him and laid back, observing keenly.

“Unburden your anger, your Majesty. I am humbly contrite and ready to listen.”

She seemed genuine enough, but Avery could think of no good response. If he claimed ignorance of what she spoke or pretended he was happy, she would think him a fool. As for his anger- She was neither an appropriate nor correct person with which to share it, even when prompted. Worse, he might cement himself in her mind as the irascible lout she was already likely to think of him.

“I am more familiar with my anger than I should like to be,” he admitted after a long moment. “But I can think of no reason why you should become acquainted with it as well. Besides- My anger is not currently present. Frustration,” he allowed. “Confusion. But not anger,” he assured her.

“No? It would enrage me, to tell you the truth, had a vassal Kingdom of mine directly undermined me by producing heirs when the only ones to be had were to be mine. So that they might rule both seats one day. It would enrage me a great deal. It might even cause me to act.” Agora noted calmly, carefully ignoring that he did not want to address this to her specifically. He would.

Avery raised his eyebrow. “Has Queen Meera tasked you to determine what I am and am not willing to do?” The Dowager Queen was certainly being insistent, after all. “I am hopeful we can come to a mutually unsatisfactory resolution,” he assured her dryly. A good compromise left all parties unhappy, his aunt always said. “But my actions are largely dependent on her own. You may convey that to her, at least.”

Another chuckle, another amusement, “Unfortunately, she doesn't make decisions that I don't allow her to.”

Well that was good to know, Avery thought. Whoever was really running Theren- Agora seemed to think it was her.

“Nor does she possess the forethought to send anyone to meet with you before she does. She is a rather… honest and forthright sort of person. Terrible traits for a Queen to have, but admirable and inspiring as far as reputation goes.”

She continued on, as if simply discussing dinner plans, “She has no intention of ending her pregnancy. Nor will she delegitimize or otherwise abandon her child. It's out of the question, you may consider it off the table.” Which left them all with very little room to do anything at all. What King Averett wouldn’t know however, is that she wasn't giving her daughter the credit she was due in this decision. Agora had been quite unable to sway her, and amended her plans accordingly.

“Well, that’s all very good to know,” Avery said after taking a moment to absorb what she had said. “I’m sorry to hear you anticipate so little space for compromise.” He paused for a moment, collecting his thoughts.

“You were Queen of Theren during much of my father’s reign,” Avery said, a sudden non-sequitur. “I am sure you are familiar with his style of rule- If a slight against him ever went unpunished, it would only have been because he was unable to respond. It’s odd, you know, because I’ve never thought I look much like him,” Avery mused. He’d certainly heard it whispered behind his back often enough as a child.

“But you must think me his spitting image,” he told Agora wryly. “I can only think you are looking at me and seeing my father instead- Convincing yourself that my lack of retaliation implies an inability to do so. Are you really so blinded that you fail to see the fully equipped fleet that patrols your coasts? The troops that occupy your cities? Do you think that because I have not restarted hostilities means I am unable to do so?”

Of course not, but Agora smiled coyly anyway. Now she was getting somewhere. “You aren't your father? Are you entirely sure about that your Majesty?”

“Oh, we are similar in many aspects,” Avery admitted easily enough, his even tone disguising his discomfort with that fact. “But I am a far better fighter and military strategist. I had hoped to be a better diplomat as well- But you seem to think that particular ambition to be a waste of time,” he pointed out.

“I wasn't aware that you needed my approval or good opinion on your character and skill-set your grace. But despite what you have to say about whatever I might think of you, it really isn't all that bad.” If you called being very simply a walking dead man all that bad.

“I have complete and utter faith that a resolution will be met. Simply put, there are certain things off the table. I thought you might like to know that before the meeting. So that you might have more time to be… creative. And as you've pointed out your grace, you have a much better mind for strategy than your father. Surely you can think of some way we may resolve things, without forcing a mother to kill her own child?” Agora pressed, gently, her jaws snapping shut on the verbal trap he’d fallen into.

Avery hated this- When people said one thing, and then turned around and made it his problem. It reminded him of several conversations with Vienna, and that made him wary.

“You seem to misunderstand my presence here,” Avery said slowly. “I am not here to propose solutions to a problem Theren has created. It is on you- and your monarchs- to present a resolution that myself and Prince Nuri will deem satisfactory. That you think to suggest otherwise,” he said, polite but cold. “Does not inspire confidence in your own ability to problem solve.”

“But your Majesty-” Agora raised a delicate hand to the pearls around her neck, seemingly shocked, “Theren lost to the might of Beleth, clearly it is not I who is the superior in strategy. Though…” She looked out to the shoreline, “... We do have one idea of how to handle things. I had hoped that the King of Beleth would be up to the task at hand. But if he would prefer we play guessing games about what might please him, I suppose we are obligated.” She gave him an unimpressed and condescending look. This was child’s play.

Avery barely resisted the urge to roll his eyes at her, and the look he returned to her was one of obvious annoyance.

“Dowager Queen Agora, I grow increasingly tired of whatever game you are playing,” he said as bluntly as he could. “We both have better things to do with our time- Or at least, I do. If you wish to tell me this idea, I am willing to hear it. Otherwise, I suggest we end this audience.”

“Better things than the thing you came here for?” She laughed at him, he wanted to run away, having had enough. Smart.

“Alright I’ll concede. You aren't your father at all King Averett. He would've quite lost his head by now. Who taught you such self control? They don't teach politics to soldiers. Even noble ones.” And for good reason. A noble sent to lead armies tended to become beloved and admired in a way a sitting King could never be. If you were brother to said King and got certain ambitious ideas in your head. It could spell unrest.

“Lord Brutus doesn’t have this kind of self control, no matter how much I try to instill it in him. Though, I've only had him for a little while, maybe he'll improve given more time. Certainly he'll take to his instructions better after being given the treat I dangled in front of him today.”

Avery looked confused at this. “I was under the impression Lord Brutus had been banished from the castle,” Avery said. Had she offered to rescind his exile? But the way she spoke almost made it sound like she already had…. But she wouldn’t. Would she?

“I was quite shocked you know… The only other man I've ever seen so attached to Nuri was Lord Brutus. Everyone had thought they were made for each other. They seemed the perfect pair. But everyone can see how you’ve come to dote on Nuri. A shocking turn of events indeed.” Agora noted, a sliver of ice in her tone, her eyes narrowing, a downward tilt to the corner of her mouth.

She was displeased that this man stood a chance at snatching away one her progeny. He wasn't satisfied with taking her husband? He had to take her Nuri too? Well, they'd see about that.

Avery didn’t like this. At all.

“Not that shocking, His Majesty is an easy man to like,” Avery said flatly, her perception of his relationship with Nuri being the least of his concerns at the moment. “Where is Lord Brutus?,” he asked bluntly, uninterested in trying to guess at the answer to what had become a pressing question.

“I believe I've already told you.” She leaning forward, resting her arm on a knee, acting as if this was all obvious and he was the village idiot playing catch-up. Or mayhaps just someone in over his head.

“He's with my son.

Avery stood abruptly, his face gone thunderous with rage.

“He is not some ‘treat’ to wave like meat before an ill behaved dog,” he spat. “Where are they?,” he demanded.

“No, he is my son.” She rolled her eyes at his offense taken over the silly flowery prose one employs when speaking.

She sat back and went back to staring off in the horizon. Done speaking with the King of who cares where.

“You are either ignorant or cruel to treat him such, and a poor excuse for a mother either way,” Avery said, his voice thick with disgust. “Whatever modicum of goodwill I still held for you- Know that you have wasted it with your silence,” he said angrily, already halfway out into the hall beyond. The door slammed shut behind him, leaving the dowager queen alone.
code by @fudgecakez

Luckily Unraveling Traps & Lures Just Takes One Unaccounted For Man
Prince Nuri & Lord Brutus & King Basilius & King Avery

“This way your Majesty.” A maid beckoned Nuri up the stairs towards the wing of the castle that housed the King and Queen, surprised that his husband would have taken up in a solar there. Their room was in another wing of the castle entirely, on opposite ends… normally no one but the immediate Royal family had such freedom as to find themselves relaxing anywhere in these rooms. It was where he had been before he was married.

It wasn't out of the question. But it was suspicious. Especially since he recognized this maid as one of his mother's. Intuition told him to turn back. Nonetheless, he obediently followed. Looking around and observing the guards placed here and there, they became sparse and disappeared entirely from view by the time they reached the open solar.

He walked in, feeling altogether as though this might be an assassination attempt, but knowing logically that it couldn't be. He soon wished it were though. Given who was in the room.

“Brutus.” He greeted the smiling bastard rudely, scowling and turning right around just as the doors shut behind him. A sliding sound made it clear that they were locked in, and Nuri cursed his luck while he kicked a dent into the fine wood. He should've listened to his damned intuition.

“Oh come now Nuri, is seeing me again truly that disgusting to you? We did not leave each other on bad terms.” Brutus scoffed, smile falling, “And I did not leave you willingly I might add. That was all your doing. Your decision, and your idea. I did not leave you abandoned Nuri, you left me.”

Brutus sighed deeply, “But I don't want to be angry about that for the first time in months since I've seen you…” He strode over, arm reaching out to Nuri as if to steady a beast. He was always impossible to deal with when he was angry. Impossible for anyone but him.

“Can’t you even look at me?!” He exclaimed, at a loss, he kneeled and took Nuri's hands on his own, “Beloved they might have married you to another but this changes nothing for me. You're still my heart. You're still mine.” He squeezed Nuri's boney hands till he finally twitched and deigned to look at him with a scrunched up haughty expression.

“You have some nerve Brutus, I’m a royal consort now and my King would be well within his rights to have your life for this impudence. Do the smart thing for once in your life and leave this castle as soon as you can.” Asking Brutus to be smart and reasonable was like asking a baby to do arithmetic. Nuri couldn't believe he had the… well, never mind, Brutus always did have the audacity.

Nuri looked away, not wanting to so much as look at him again. It was making him panic, it was making him feel trapped and small. He never thought he'd see Brutus in the flesh again, not in this lifetime. Tears pricked at the corn of his eyes. He never used to be this weak. Brutus didn't used to bring this reaction out in him. But ever since Avery… he was so kind. He’d gotten so soft.

He just couldn't bare the thought of ever belonging to Brutus and dealing with him. Ever again. His mind was rejecting it violently. And the fact that he let himself be cornered like this meant he was dishonoring his own husband. His sweet, kind, eye-opening husband.

“I don't care what King claims you Nuri. It is I who knows you and loves you best.” He reached up and cupped his jaw, forcing Nuri to look him in the eyes. “Your feelings for me could not have gone if you fear for my safety still my little darling. I know you still remember that you could never be angry with me for long. Not when I kissed your anger away, like this.”

No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. He had it all wrong! Nuri panicked as Brutus’s lips forced themselves on his own. A sick imitation of kissing.

Nuri hadn't forgiven him he'd given in to him. He complied. And he didn't have to do that anymore. And where did Brutus think his hands were going.

Nuri made frustrated yells and struggled against the door as best he could after Brutus covered his mouth and reached for the parts of him he always found so fascinating, it was obvious what Brutus intended now. To stake a claim on him again.

Nuri clawed insistently against the hand that covered his mouth and tried not to feel hopeless at his body’s reaction to familiarity. So he did the next thing is panicked mind could think of. He bit him, hard.

Brutus yelled in indignation and frustration. But Nuri triumphed, it got him to back away, turning in offense to cradle the now bleeding hand.

“I don't know what's gotten into you Nuri but Beleth has made you incredibly disagreeable!” Brutus bellowed at him, cheeks blotched red. “This wasn't how this was supposed to go damn you!”

Nuri only responded by producing a dagger he'd hidden on his person.

For all his show of fierceness though, he was forced to try not to stumble back as the double doors swung open. He collided with a sturdy, tall figure. Who steadied him and looked between him, disheveled, and Brutus, bleeding.

“Guards. Take Lord Brutus to the cells. Have someone see to his hand.” King Basilius frowned and led Prince Nuri out into the hall by the shoulders, to watch as Lord Brutus was quietly and without fuss taken out of the solar.

“As my King commands.” Brutus stopped to bow before he left, sparing a glance at Nuri before leaving.

Nuri, who spit out the bit of finger he chomped off of Brutus, straightened himself angrily. Still scowling.

“I was going to make a joke about the guards that've been following me around all day finally coming to use, but I hardly think you must be in a joking mood.” Basilius said lightly, pulling out a handkerchief from his pocket and offering it to Nuri.

“Why are guards following you around all day?” Nuri huffed, taking the offering and wiping the blood off his mouth. Guards were posted at checkpoints in Album Castellum, but they didn't follow people around unless it was for a purpose. The nobles here trusted the royal family to keep them safe. Whereas in Beleth Nuri had to become accustomed to being followed around.

“To protect me from you, apparently.” Basilius raised a brow and pointed at his dagger.

“Now you are joking.” Nuri scoffed ruefully and sheathed his dagger. Heartily ignoring that he'd said he intended to geld the man just yesterday. His heart was still pounding. He sighed heavily to calm it.

Avery came barreling up the hallway in the opposite direction that Brutus had been taken, flanked closely by one of the servants who had once served in Nuri’s retinue, and was likely going to be offered the chance to do so again. Another step behind was one of the men from Beleth who’d been standing guard outside Agora’s solar, and had been rather shocked by the sudden and angry appearance of his King from within.

He had no weapons on his person, but the rage emanating from his figure implied that none were needed. It dimmed slightly when his wild eyes fell on Nuri, and he was by his husband’s side in an instant.

“Where is he- I will tear him apart, did he hurt you, is that your blood,” Avery demanded, his hands flitting across Nuri’s frame but never settling, as if to measure the damage by fingertip alone.

“My King- Avery, My King it's not my blood, for the love of every god Beleth has…” Nuri fussed, tilting his head this way and that as Avery's fingers flew everywhere, finally grabbing his hands in his own and holding them to himself. Stilling them.

“I’m fine. Look at me, I’m fine.” He caught his eyes in his own, the task of calming his husband down in turn calming him down.

“Nothing happened, nothing was ever going to happen. Except maybe an international incident.” Nuri nodded towards the bloody bit of finger on the floor that he'd spat out.

“And to prevent an international incident, which is probably what my mother wants, Brutus is going to stay in the dungeons till we leave. And you are going to stay away from him.” Nuri really needed Avery to understand that they couldn't afford to make a fuss about this. Creating a fire by putting one of Theren's most important nobles on trial while they had a mistake of a pregnancy to deal with was a ludicrously bad idea.

Avery freed one of his hands from Nuri’s and pulled the other man into a crushing embrace, tilting his face down to press a kiss to the top of Nuri’s head and breathe in deeply. When he looked up, he seemed to notice the King of Theren for the first time.

“She can have much more than an ‘incident’,” he said darkly. He would burn this city to the ground before the next sunrise. “What part did you and your Queen have in what has transpired here,” he demanded of Basilius. The castle had stronger defenses than the city, but with his ships already in the port, he could fire on it from the sea and watch the white stone crumble into the ocean-

Nuri stilled, tense. He silently begged the spirits that Basilius was born with sense. Meera wouldn't fall in love with a fool would she? He clutched the back of Avery's tunic.

“Meera is with her ladies, and I left to give them privacy, it was the noise against the doors that drew me here. No one should've been in this part of the castle save for us and a few of the staff and guard. I… confess I don't know what exactly is going on here, beyond the obvious.” Basilius answered anger with calm submission, holding his hands out in silent surrender.

“But if you wish to seek justice then you shall have it.” He promised. Unsure if that was the correct thing to say, but surely that's what Meera would want too, no? He wasn't sure if he'd be getting scolded later, there were so many invisible rules he'd been trying to learn since he came to the capitol. Things were simpler back home. You did a bad thing, you were penalized for it.

“He found us, and had Brutus arrested. Meera never even liked Brutus. I doubt she had a hand in this. This isn't something she would do, it is however, exactly what my mother would do.” Nuri titled his head up.

“Then I owe you my thanks, not my anger,” Avery told Basilius, unwrapping himself from Nuri to bow his head in contrition. “I apologize for my temper.” He seemed genuine enough, but he was still clearly upset, even if not at the Theren monarchs.

“Please my King, take me back to our chambers, I don't feel well.” Unused to using this sort of tactic, Nuri felt heavily awkward using it. But if it got Avery to where he could calm him down and contain him then he’d swallow his pride all he needed to. He couldn't allow Basilius to promise anything else concrete. 'Justice if you wish to seek it.’ - was already just barely vague enough for Nuri to work with.

“I- Of course,” Avery decided after a moment’s delay. He looked like he would rather stay and speak with Basilius further, about Lord Brutus’ arrest and what sort of ‘justice’ might be on the table, but Nuri’s trick had worked and Avery was eager to please him.

“I apologize for the disturbance,” he told Basilius. “I look forward to speaking more at a later time.” He was all clipped, diplomatic politeness now, anxious to do as Nuri wanted and be away. He wrapped one arm around Nuri’s waist, as much to support the younger man as to reassure himself that his husband was safe.
code by @fudgecakez
[at this point some FC's change and the main character of "Nuri" goes through a makeover in terms of motivations/personality/background. see character thread for specifics]

Who is safer to anger?
King Avery & Prince Nuri & Lord Emerson

Emerson was a bit surprised to be summoned to Their Majesties’ quarters, but he wasn’t displeased- Though it did cut into his time to get ready for the evening’s festivities. But he had a novel’s worth of reports from the generals to deliver, and other news besides.

He strode into their sitting room after he’d been announced, crossing to the small desk to deposit the reports.

“Well, let’s start with the bad news,” he said, deciding it best to get it over with quickly. “I thought it best you hear it in person, before we go off to any parties- I have reason to believe that Lord Brutus is back in- Ah,” he said, looking up at his monarchs and noting their expressions. Avery in particular looked like he wanted someone’s head detached from their neck, and didn’t overly care how it was done. “I see you already know,” he surmised.

“Acutely observed Lord Emerson. I called for you because I need you to help me talk some sense into our King.” Nuri said passive aggressively.

He wasn't confident he alone could wrangle his husband in this matter, and so called the only other person here he would listen to with any degree of seriousness. That debt swearing had better be useful for something.

Well, that was dire indeed, Emerson thought- Nuri asking for his help.

“There was a minor incident, my mother set a trap and I fell into it. Nothing of much import. But she succeeded in infuriating and undermining Avery. It's important now that he is not to be seen as undermined. We already have one fire, we can’t afford another.” Nuri was speaking to Emerson, but he directed a lot of what he was saying to Avery.

“‘Nothing of import?’,” Avery echoed incredulously. “He attacked you! You had to fight him off- How would you feel if I went to a wedding in Ruhar and was attacked by one of their nobility? You would expect there to be repercussions!”

“He attacked you?,” Emerson asked, concern furrowing his brow. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine. And he didn't attack me, he just became presumptuous.” Nuri shrugged, “He thought he could touch what used to be his. He thought that I would go along with it. It was probably my mother that gave him the impression.”

“Prince Nuri is right,” Emerson said a moment later, after weighing his options, and deciding he was more likely to be forgiven for disagreeing with Avery. “You can use this. Put them in a position where they need to please you- Perhaps they will be more amenable to compromising on their inconvenient heir if you have this to hold over their head as well. Besides- If you make a public spectacle of this, it will only reflect poorly on you. People will assume you an overbearing, jealous asshole of a husband-”

“I am not being ‘jealous’,” Avery spat angrily.

“I know that, and Prince Nuri knows that,” Emerson assured his friend, with the sort of soothing tone one might use for a panicked horse. “But the average Theren courtier doesn’t. Nor does a Beleth noble for that matter, and word will certainly get back there eventually. Goddess only knows what they’ll say.”

“I don’t care what they say-” Avery said fiercely.

“Yes, you do,” Emerson corrected. “Because if you make a public spectacle of this- It will be at his expense, much more than yours,” he said with a nod towards Nuri. It was Nuri’s pain that Avery wanted to make public knowledge- Or Nuri who would have to suffer insults on his honor and stay silent.

Avery deflated.

“They will say I betrayed you.” Nuri added. “The crown just can't afford this right now. There could be accusations of illegitimacy to any heir born within the next year.”

“I- I hadn’t thought of it that way,” Avery admitted. “I didn’t mean to- I had no intention of-”

“I am sure you didn’t,” Emerson allowed. Avery had unlikely thought very far or thoroughly beyond satisfying his immediate anger. “But Prince Nuri is right, and I agree- You should put aside your stubbornness and follow his lead in this,” he counseled.

Avery sighed, defeated on multiple fronts.

“Then what do you suggest as the best course of action,” he asked Nuri.

Nuri bit his bottom lip, relieved that Avery saw some sense. But this wasn't over yet, they could and would ask for a counter measure. They were owed at least that much for what his mother had done. She didn't know it yet, but she'd made a huge mistake.

“...How did you know how to find me? You said my mother met with you, what did she say exactly? Was she taunting you openly? Can we concretely say this was set up by her to my sister at least and ask that she be barred from the meeting?” His mother's wording was often vague on inconvenient points.

“She spent the whole time trying to, I don’t know, bait me into anger or something, acting like it was my responsibility to solve problems Theren created and feigning disapproval that I wouldn’t,” he said with annoyance, “And when I tried to excuse myself, she revealed she had brought Brutus back to Delphi. Said that you were a ‘treat to be dangled’ in front of him- She even bragged about his lack of self control,” Avery spat with anger. “I asked her directly where to find the two of you and she refused to answer- I only found you thanks to one of your former servants.”

“Is she really expecting to attend a private meeting between monarchs? She isn’t one,” Emerson pointed out.

“I don’t think anyone’s bothered to tell her that,” Avery said bitterly. “She as good as told me that she thinks of Queen Meera as little more than her personal puppet- That she doesn’t allow her daughter to make decisions she might disapprove of.”

“I’m sure she believes a version of that, but in this instance I’m more sure she wants you to believe that,” Nuri pointed out. It protects Meera as a monarch more if someone else can be blamed for antagonizing behavior. And if it brings her glee to be thought of as the thorn in her opponent's side, with more power than she has, then that's a happy coincidence.

“She probably expected me to welcome Brutus’s advances in truth.” Was that to undermine him? Or to undermine King Averett… probably both. If his mother had to choose who she backed, it would never be him.

“Which I would never do, to be clear.” Nuri felt the need to say. If Avery felt relieved by that, it didn’t show on his face.

“Well, I have no interest in any further meetings with her, especially in any official capacity. If she makes an appearance- Can we insist she leave,” Avery asked. “Or just leave ourselves, and refuse to meet with anyone but the actual monarchs?”

“You could just keep meeting with the military instead, until they agree to it,” Emerson proposed. “Any of your officers would be happy to talk with you at a moment’s notice,” he said with a nod at the mountain of reports.

“And what of Lord Brutus,” Emerson asked. “Where is he now?”

“Dungeons.” Where he'd stay till King Basilius or Meera said otherwise unless his mother was intent on getting herself into more trouble. But Nuri thought it imprudent to mention any promises certain newly made Kings made.

Avery frowned. “Is he going to be staying there, though?”

“I’d suggest you insist on it,” Emerson said with a matching frown. “It does create some spectacle, if word gets out,” he mused. “But likely less than if he was allowed to run free during your visit. And he did violate his exile- It’s not unreasonable that he would be jailed for daring to return, is it?”

“I’m not so sure anyone will really notice his absence, there's wedding celebrations going on. He can ruminate down there for a bit.” Nuri pointed out. People weren't likely to be focused on where anyone specific was, “The masks hide half of people's faces anyway, so it'll be difficult to tell who is all present and who isn't.”

“Well, that’s for the best then, isn’t it,” Emerson decided. “On a more concerning note- Did neither of you meet with Lord Cromwell today? He is the one who told me of Lord Brutus’ return, I had assumed he would warn you as well.”

Nuri looked at Avery, exasperated, of course sleeping in had consequences, “No… we didn't.”

Ah well, it's not as though knowing that would have prevented this anyway, Nuri would never have guessed that his mother would pull this.

“Hmm,” Emerson said, not revealing whether this answer satisfied him or not. “Well then, I suppose I ought to tell you what else I have discussed with him- Princess Graceling’s marriage prospects among the young Theren nobles.”

“You discussed what?,” Avery sputtered, now quite distracted from one problem towards another.

“She’ll be of marriageable age soon. I take it she would like to know her options so that she knows what to expect, which is wise and nothing to be alarmed about.” Nuri didn’t know if Grace was a part of this list making, probably not, but he didn't want the rug to be pulled out from underneath her in an attempt to keep her in the dark just because her brother was determined she should remain a child all her life.

It would be good for her to know the possible outcomes of her future, whether she married within Beleth or from Theren. And if certain things went awry she might have to marry from Theren.

“She’s not of marriageable age yet,” Avery scoffed, and Emerson rolled his eyes. She would be seventeen soon enough, and besides-

“And how old were you when you were betrothed, Your Majesty? Ten, I think it was?”

Avery frowned. “That was different-”

“Hardly,” Emerson said, before Avery could expound. “Your mother made a match based on good politics and a hope for a future. We would be wise to do the same- Especially since your sister all but put me up to the task.”

Avery’s frown didn’t go anywhere.

“Well there you have it, she's thinking of her political future. All good and wise of a Princess who was raised to be good and wise. You should be proud.” Nuri raised a critical brow.

‘Pride’ was not the emotion Avery was feeling.

“No one’s made any vows yet,” Emerson promised. “But so long as we’re already here… Lord Cromwell will point out which of the noble families would make the strongest allies, and we can assess if Grace might like their sons,” he said, referring to the Princess in the familiar to remind Avery that Emerson was his sister’s friend as well, and wanted the best for her. “If any seem promising- Then perhaps we can arrange for them to meet with her at a future time. We are merely starting what will be a long vetting process- Mirroring what your sister and aunt have already been doing with the Belethan nobility and some of our continental neighbors.”

Avery sighed heavily. “And how much vetting have they already done in Beleth, dare I ask?”

“Enough that Grace has already determined most of Beleth’s bachelors to be ‘too old, too ugly or too boring’- Why do you think she was so persistent in her hopes to join us on this trip?”

“Fine,” Avery said irritably, beginning to lose some of the composure he had regained.. “I will not ‘make a scene’ regarding Lord Brutus, even if he sorely deserves much more besides. I will allow Lord Cromwell to advise us on which young lordlings would be the best husband for my youngest sister. Is there any other favor I can grant against my better judgment,” he asked sarcastically.

“Find a way to relax? The party is going to start in about an hour's time. You can't show up glowering at everyone.” Nuri sighed, running his fingers through Avery's hair. He didn't want to go, feeling exhausted and altogether like they'd just avoided another war but, well, they were expected.

“Go run the bath, we can show up after everyone's had a drink or two,” Nuri suggested gently.

“I can’t promise my mood, but I can run you a bath,” Avery agreed. He reluctantly drew his head away from Nuri’s hand, but then leaned in to kiss his husband on the forehead before departing

Emerson sighed once the door had closed behind Avery, and turned to Nuri. “Well- That could have gone better. Could have gone worse, though. Did you have a plan beyond getting me involved?”

Nuri shrugged, “I sent for you because I figured you were the only person here besides me that could talk him down. He's been rattled, and you've seen him rattled more times than I have.” He admitted.

“We’re lucky it wasn’t worse- His Majesty tends to… React strongly, to things like this. He very well might still, if we are not careful to keep Lord Brutus out of sight and out of mind. He will have a hard time keeping his temper this week, I suspect,” Emerson said.

“You have to understand,” Emerson said, trying to explain his friend’s behavior to someone who might find it overbearing. “After his mother and Grace and Lady Gilda and-” He didn’t finish that sentence. “Well. He is very protective of those he cares about.”

King Ellion, it was left unsaid, thought Nuri. But more pointedly than that.

“It's my understanding that Merid was attacked, and his Majesty was the one to rescue it. Are you implying he blames himself for… what, not getting there in time? One would think him a hero.”

He didn't know why he was being so sensitive right now, and hoped he hid his anxiety better than he felt it, but this trip was going from bad to worse quickly and a thousand other complications he had to figure out a way to get out in front of and Lord Emerson just really had a way of irking him at the most inopportune time.

“He followed his father’s orders to stay on the front line, rather than defect with Baroness Elleni to come to Merid’s defense.” Of course, Emerson had stayed too, though he suspected his guilt was somewhat less acutely painful than Avery’s. “If he hadn’t…. Lady Gilda might still have use of her legs. But that isn’t my point,” he said with a sigh, pushing his hand through his hair and wondering where his point had gotten to.

“I only mean to tell you- His anger comes from feeling useless. What good is all his power, if he cannot use it to protect those he loves?”

“Or those he's supposed to.” Nuri blurted out, unsure of why he did but refusing to ponder it before moving on to the material point quickly.

Emerson hoped Nuri was not quite so oblivious as that last remark made him seem, but he kept his mouth closed, already aware he had crossed into dangerous territory by seeking to advise his Prince on his husband’s behavior.

“Uselessness and powerlessness can indeed be grating. Thank you for your insight, Lord Emerson.”

Well. That was a dismissal if Emerson had ever heard one, and a pointed one at that- He hadn’t meant to imply that Nuri had no such experience with such feelings, but as usual, he managed to taste his own boot regardless.

He was tempted to say more- To point out where Nuri had managed Avery’s temper well, to assure the Prince that he probably hadn’t even needed Emerson’s assistance.

“Of course, Your Majesty,” Emerson said with a deep bow of his head. “I shall see myself out. Thank you for your time.”

Nuri didn't bother acknowledging that it was Emerson who had given him his time as he watched him leave.

He had to find a way to get out in front of all of these damn people.
code by @fudgecakez

A Lady's fate is decided for her
King Avery & Prince Nuri & Queen Meera & King Basilius

“Sister…” Nuri swept into the room, Avery in tow, looking sharp as ever and satisfied with the fact that their opponents today were not.

In fact they looked a tad frazzled despite the pomp they both were dressed in.

“Nuri, your grace, you seem well rested. I’m told you did not partake in the night's festivities after all.” Queen Meera greeted the pair as they walked in.

“A Shaman partaking in such a thing, as Prince I am allowed but I hardly think my presence would inspire relaxation or indulgence. My King had to stay in on my behalf.” Nuri quickly answered, taking the blame for not appearing and covering for his husband. Who he was not inclined to force last night to go anywhere. They'd spent the time talking strategy and actually sleeping.

His religious role had finally done him some good on this trip.

“Oh, I had thought since you are married now… well I missed you at lunch, a shame, I had them make your favorite.” Fig jam on toasted scones, it was out of season.

She had thought her brother had always felt a little constrained by his role. Good at it though he was.

“I thought the invitation a little ostentatious considering the insult you've born me.” Nuri bluntly and unkindly pointed out, smiling curtly.

Meera’s smile fell, she looked down in shame before composing herself.

“Yes, well, it was an attempt to better explain things in private before we met today.”

“Explain in private why you thought spitting upon the treaty you were so magnanimously offered and undermining the marriage I made to solidify it was a good idea?” Nuri recited, he’d practiced that line in his head many times.

“I had no part in what mother did.” Meera said defensively, tapping the table pointedly.

“But she is your subject, and you do take the blame.” Nuri finally sat down in his seat, sighing, as his sister did the same.

Meera shut her eyes and breathed while they all got comfortable.

Avery, surprisingly, looked like he actually might be- He had decided to treat this as if he was meeting with his generals. He was the authority, and they were there to provide him with information. And, if they valued their positions, with solutions.

He’d used the tactic on his own nobles with success- The trick was maintaining the facade through the twists a conversation might take, which he hadn’t quite mastered yet.

“You're right, and we apologize for the ugly turn of events that have happened underneath our protection.” Basilius took over.

“As you should,” Avery said, his voice flat.

“Please understand that none of this has been in effort of the crown wishing to undermine yourselves or the treaty. We want to make things right, we want lasting peace between Beleth and Theren.” Basilius continued.

“We do. We didn't get married with the intention of hurting anyone.” Meera agreed, joining hands with her husband and locking eyes with Nuri.

“Your intent matters very little, when it so pales in comparison to the consequences,” Avery said calmly, a hint of disappointment in his tone. “You have potentially endangered the future of two countries- Not to mention that of both our neighbors and trade partners. What do you propose to do about it?”

“I don't suppose there is any chance you are…” Meera glanced at King Averett but implored Nuri.

Who didn't understand what she was trying to convey.

“Pregnant?” Meera finished, hopeful but doubtful somehow.

“No.” Nuri supplied.

“Well, I can't undo the fact that I am-”

“You can.” Stated Nuri, clarifying for her.

Meera’s eyes widened, her brow furrowed, hand clamped down on her husband's until the knuckles turned white.

“No, I can't, and it's monstrous to suggest otherwise. I didn't think I needed to tell you that Nuri, to suggest your future kin should be snuffed out…” Meera couldn't afford to be as angry as she felt, as horrified or as offended. She knew it. She suspected Nuri knew it. And she never thought she'd live to see the day their mother’s worst teachings would be used against her in her own brethren.

Avery was immensely glad they had decided that Nuri would broach this subject, and not him.

“I won't do it. There has to be some other way, we are not animals, we have the gift of civility and diplomacy.” She concluded.

Avery winced internally. As he had gotten older, he had begun to suspect what the many illnesses of his mother might actually have been, and had it all but confirmed by Lady Deidre. She had not been an animal, and Avery resented the implication, even if he knew Meera could have had no such intent.

“So you can, but you won't. Not even for the sake of future peace?” Nuri asked in a much more subdued way this time. As if only curious.

“You have something in mind, something costly.” Basilius spoke up, dawning realization at the dance that Prince Nuri was making he and his wife do. He'd seen it before. Queen Agora was a master of it. She'd make people feel downright indebted to them for the things she pried out of their hands by the end.

You save the thing you value most, but you give up the thing you value second most in the process. And done without notice, you're practically grateful for her ‘mercy’ in the end.

“A father's role is to protect his children. To do anything to that end, don't you agree?” Nuri asked, impressed with Basilius’s quick uptake. He was immensely difficult to read, but read the intentions of others quickly.

Basilius nodded solemnly.

“Then the best thing to do to protect mine in the future would be to demand Meera end her pregnancy. But given your absolute refusal to do that, perhaps you can instead pay with your inheritance, Megara.”


And then, “All of it?!” Meera clarified, a little shocked, for Basilius’s home was no small swathe; it spanned almost the entire Ruharian border in Theren.

Nuri looked to Avery for approval, “All of it.”

Avery nodded solemnly. In truth, he did not much care what happened to Megera, but Nuri had convinced him it would be a worthwhile prize. At the very least his hungry nobles would be sated, with land to squabble over. And maybe- just maybe- the people of Theren might be less likely to rally behind Meera’s child if the father was stripped of his title as a lord of Theren.

“That's an entire great house Nuri and Basilius’s entire claim to nobili-” Meera stopped as she felt her hand squeezed and looked to Basilius, worried he didn't understand what this would mean.

“That land is under the care of my sisters, what is to become of them if I were to agree?” Basilius would have already agreed, painful as it was, to give up his childhood home to protect his child on the way, had he no siblings to be concerned of.

Avery shrugged, seemingly unbothered by this problem. “They can come live here in Castle Antebellum with you,” he suggested idly. “Or… Lady Florentina can marry a Beleth lordling, and Megara can stay intact- As a duchy of Beleth.”

“Basilius!” Meera implored, knowing his answer before he said it.

“Megara will stay intact, and my sisters will not be forced from their home. It will matter little which Kingdom Megara belongs to so long as those things remain true.” Basilius calmed his wife.

“Florantina is not exactly…” Meera continued.

Nuri sighed, not able to understand this half spoken conversation happening before him. These two were so close that they understood one another with looks and a squeeze of the hand alone.

“Lady Florantina will marry a Belethan Lordling, so long as she is to keep her home.” Their home was the most important thing to them. Used to be for him too. But if Basilius had to choose…

Meera stared into her husband's eyes, a sudden thought coming to mind. She would not leave the table with nothing.

“Very well. Megara will be absorbed into Beleth’s Kingdom, my child will be safe, and you will take your soldiers home. It is time. They menace my people and cause unrest. If peace is what you want then bid them home.”

“I have been through reports from my generals stationed in Theren, and have already decided to withdraw half of the company from within the city of Delphi over the next two months,” Avery admitted. She could have that for nothing- It was expensive to house them within the city, and their presence was largely unneeded at this point.

“But do not be so hasty to dismiss my troops, Your Majesty,” he warned. “You are a very rich country, with little military left to speak of. I had planned to re-locate those in Delphi to your coastal borders to protect your fishing towns.”

“But your majesty is about to absorb most of Theren’s border to Ruhar.” Meera smiled, “So we can easily manage with what little we have given the substantially smaller border to the north.”

Avery smiled back, rather reminiscent of a wolf. “Very well. I shall withdraw two thirds of the troops from Delphi over the next three and a half months. But the soldiers already stationed around greater Theren will stay where they are,” he said, his tone not suggesting it was negotiable.

He was not going to risk Theren’s safety, when an enemy country gaining a foothold on the continent could lead to attacks on Beleth, Dorelith and Ruhar as well. “We can revisit that at a later date- Perhaps along the timeline the treaty initially outlined.”

Beleth had made no firm promises on when all soldiers would leave Theren, but there were key dates in which undefined ‘progress’ was to be made.

“To do what, cost you money? Those troops only make sense when you also have them on borders.” Meera kept her easy smile. “Unless you mean to continue having your men menace my people. Peace is not born of fear, King Averett. And isn't the dissolution of fear what we both want?”

She didn't have the men to flank them and to spread on her new borders, she needed to focus on the outskirts and not worry about the heartland.

“You speak of peace being ‘born’, as if it is not a birth that threatens it,” Avery said coldly. Peace, in his opinion, came about through security.

“I am meeting in person with my generals this afternoon,” he told her. “I will discuss options with them and report back when we have reached a conclusion we hope will be more… satisfying to you. I can promise no specific number or dates until then, except that the number of troops in Theren shall be reduced.”

He glanced at Nuri to see if his husband had anything else to add.

“We’ll send you the terms for signing.” Nuri gave a small smile, “I’m glad, despite what you might think, that my niece or nephew can be born after all. I’ll copy sutra in their name, you can have the temple here in Delphi burn it in offering to our family's altar.”

Meera’s fake pleasant smile dropped, but picked back up in some small, genuine way.

“Thank you. I would like that.” She nodded.

“Blessings be upon you.” Basilius added, nodding to the Shaman rather than the Prince in Nuri.

“The spirits watch over you.” Nuri nodded back.
code by @fudgecakez

King Averett & Prince Nuri discuss the terms of the treaty in their room
Some People Just Want To Go Home

Soon after the meeting, which Nuri noticed Avery somehow didn't seem entirely satisfied by, Avery had to leave for a meeting with his Generals.

Nuri tried to file away his worry by doing something busy, like getting to work on the sutra he said he'd copy. Not a simple and quick task. It'd take about a month to finish if he had ample free time, which he did not, excepting in perhaps now.

He worried while he sent for a physician, lit his incense, ground his ink, was properly bled from his forearm to mix with the ink, and only received respite when he chanted the virtues of the ancient ones. Those unnamed and faceless but not forgotten that existed within all of their lines.

But then came the endless and slow scrawling. Entirely unlike copying in the temple, where the soft hum of people whispering, water flowing, and shuffling steps could keep one company. And the worry could continue to bloom.

Nuri had thought of visiting the temple. But it wasn't really appropriate for him to, he had to leave that role behind. He didn't serve that purpose. Not anymore.

The adventure of newness on one's path coincides with the discomfort of it. This he knew as proverb, but to experience the discomfort himself was another thing. He didn't just speak of difficult paths he was walking one right now. And the comfort of the familiarity might be nice, but it'd be a crutch too.

He did not need a crutch, he did not need to copy his sutra in the temple and speak with the monks there, the people that came by for offerings and blessings.

Helping them seemed so easy compared to managing a Kingdom.

Just when he'd thought he'd done well, his King was still displeased with things. What was a Prince to do? How was he to appease? And what significance did keeping Belethan troops in Theren really serve?

Nuri diligently scrawled until he heard Avery return.

The King placed a sheath of papers on the side table as he entered the private chambers, untying his hair binding with one hand as he did so. He glanced up at his husband, and his face immediately fell into a frown.

He hastened to Nuri’s side, his hands hovering above the bandaging on the Prince’s arm as though he was afraid to touch. “What happened? Are you all right?”

“Hello… I had a physician bleed me for the ink, that's all.” Nuri hadn't expected to be questioned about it, but now that he thought of it, Avery would just see a bandage on his arm and not understand.

He set his brush in the shallow bowl of water next to his ink pot and grindstone, rolling his sleeves down so it didn't distract his husband any further.

“Words written in blood are carved in stone… they blood let in Beleth still to draw out sickness yes? This is like that. But for certain sutra doctrine instead of medicinal properties.” Nuri screwed the cap on his ink pot shut as he explained.

It didn’t seem the same at all- But Avery knew he had little understanding of Nuri’s religious practices, so he bit his tongue.

“How did your meeting go?”

“It was all right,” Avery replied, looking away from the now covered injury to meet Nuri’s eyes. “One of the senior captains will be resigning so that he can marry a local baker,” he said with a slight smile.

The captain in question was a good man, and though Avery would be sad to lose him, he suspected the man would be happy as a baker- He had come from a common background, and seemed eager to divest himself of leadership and return to humbler roots, especially considering how smitten he was.

Nuri returned the smile with some glee, charmed by the news and imagining how this Captain might've met their baker and fallen in love. It was the sort of thing he loved hearing about during his temple days.

He chuckled softly at images of flour on noses and blushes on cheeks.

“It sounds as though the Theren military is not quite as poor as I had feared- It will take them a while to rebuild, but the majority assessment is that they have good leadership and a solid foundation, as well as some decent strategies on how to use their limited resources,” he said, grateful for the evaluations his own leadership team had conducted and their collaborations with the Theren senior officers.

“There was, of course, some consternation with the agenda,” Avery admitted- Mostly from those more loyal to his Minister of War than to him. “But we reached an accord on what we would like to offer to Her Majesty, as well as our limit.”

His strategy with politics may have been less robust than that of his field command, but Avery knew the basics- Always negotiate down from what you wanted to what you were prepared to give.

Nuri’s smile tightened and then fell as he listened, he almost wished he had gone with Avery to meet with his men but Nuri hadn't been invited and he didn't want to overstep.

“You know… as a Prince I had to learn the sword and spear, even as I learned to speak to the spirits, but I am no military man. There is much experience I lack. Some things that seem obvious to you that do not seem so to me. So please, keep my ignorance in mind when I ask.”

Nuri licked his lips and glanced down at his hands, shrugging, “Is it really so important to keep soldiers in Theren for much longer?”

Avery frowned, an eyebrow raised in surprise that Nuri did not agree.

“I had thought things would be well settled when they agreed to give up such a substantial piece of land. It amounts to a rather large duchy for Beleth. The nobles will be ravenous over it, pleased, I thought you would be pleased. But by the time we left you certainly didn't seem so.”

Avery shrugged- He was pleased with the concession of Megara, but mostly because Nuri seemed to find it important, and he trusted his husband’s judgment. It would certainly give his nobles- and those of Theren- something to talk about besides Meera’s untimely pregnancy.

“I did not expect her to bring up the issue of the troops at such a time,” Avery explained. “It seemed… Presumptuous, to ask concessions of us, when they are the ones who have trespassed on our goodwill.”

“Besides,” he continued, “I rather assumed I would discuss such things with her military advisors.” He wondered idly how much Queen Meera consulted with them.

“As I told her, I was already planning on reducing the number of troops, particularly in Delphi- She is right, that they are wasted in the city and more likely to cause distrust than anything else. But a country weakened by war is weak to attacks on all fronts- Civil unrest, marauders and raiders, empires hoping to expand. I will not risk that- or it spilling into Beleth and the rest of the continent- simply for Her Majesty’s pride.”

Nuri kept his shock to himself and only blinked until Avery finished the explanation of his thoughts on the matter. He chose his next words carefully, if not neutrally. Really neutrality was overrated and not a thing he missed leaving behind in the temples of old.

“Ah, so, you stand to walk away with a tenth of a Kingdom, far more than anything your father ever accomplished or his father before him against Theren. For the price of one child. And you are concerned with condescending to a Queen who you think does not accurately represent her people's desires or needs because… you believe Theren is under your guardianship? Why?” Nuri’s brow furrowed, still not really comprehending.

“It was your idea to take Megara,” Avery reminded him.

“As you have explained this I can not tell if you are ridiculous or if you are lying because your real intention is to occupy Theren indefinitely and you think you can not tell me.”

“I assure you, the only one planning for an indefinite stay in Theren is my besotted captain,” Avery said.

“I need…” He crossed the room to the shelves, where an assortment of books were stacked for perusal. He pulled out a few likely looking ones- Poetry, something religious he didn’t recognize, something with illustrations that he closed immediately for propriety’s sake, until finally he found an atlas. He could not hide his wince as he took it out, quickly switching it to his other hand and rolling his shoulder back a few times to flex the muscle.

Nuri sighed internally, recalling the whack he'd get as a boy on his shoulders when he sighed out loud during prayers, as he watched Avery fumble for the book he was looking for.

Did he truly think that he was the only one who knew of the world?

“Here we are,” Avery said, bringing it to the table Nuri had been working at. “This is us,” he said, flipping through the first half of the book, pages of detailed maps of Theren, Beleth, Ruhar, and Dorelith. But as he flipped further through the pages, the illustrations became less specific. “Joless lies in the middle of the Wider Sea, yes? And to it’s south- Vendelia and Panet. These maps have to have been made after the Panet and Khstani war, as it shows all the land as Panet- So what, five years?”

“But they are already inaccurate,” Avery continued, tracing a line along the borders of neighboring countries. “Panet has since taken over Angria as well. And Vendelia has crossed the sea here,” he said, flipping the page over and pointing to a peninsula jutting out from a larger landmass. “And taken most of Leiran. Then used their hold in Leiran to expand to Ratan.”

“The two empires are in a war of conquest, amassing colonies to fight out their battles. Not to mention the Northern States,” he said, flipping further still to the rough outlines of the unified countries far to the north. “Like Vendelia, they have conquered a lesser area first, then expanded further into the land they wish to take.”

Yes.” Nuri barely glanced at the book, more focused on the paranoid look on his husband's face. Until it clicked. He understood now what his anxieties were and why. It seemed so obvious now that he realized.

The only thing was these anxieties were entirely unreasonable and presumptuous in Nuri’s opinion. But at least his husband was not secretly out of his mind. His point of view was defensible.

“I am confident - or at least, mostly- that none will move on Joless,” Avery continued, seemingly unaware of his husband’s frustrations. “It is too valuable to every player in international trade. But Joless’s firm refusal to anything but complete neutrality means they can use it as a staging ground for further attacks, and I fear they will set their eyes on us eventually.”

Nuri moved his hand over the images, covering them and batting away Avery’s fingers until he could soundly close the damn thing.

“I understand. I understand now that you wish to protect what your children will inherit and you are anxious that Theren will be invaded. Unfortunately for you, if you say this to the Queen of another Kingdom, who's Kingdom is not to be inherited until she is dead, she will want you gone even more. Please tell me you understand that?”

Nuri didn't bother getting into the details of the rationale behind why he was ludicrous enough to believe any attack from so far would ever be attempted. Such a thing was unheard of. And instead attempted to get him to understand the terrible way he intended to go about this.

The condescension alone wouldn't go over well, but the outright possessiveness implied in watching over what he saw as his, not his children's exactly, but his was a dangerous thing for any member of the Theren court to realize.

They could tolerate, and given time, even accept, Nuri’s descendants as rulers of Theren. But Avery himself? Making a puppet of Queen Meera? There would be blood.

“I am not thinking of our children,” Avery said, markedly confused. “We don’t exactly have any,” he reminded Nuri, though it was unclear if the statement was meant as a dig or just a simple statement of fact.

Nuri rubbed his eyes in frustration at his thick headed husband's refusal to help himself.

“I can certainly understand that the Queen is… Reluctant to host Belethan soldiers, even if it is on our dime and not hers. And I understand she does not want to appear weak- But Theren is weak, and will continue to be for at least a few more years.”

Which, admittedly, was his own fault.

“I am afraid it is she- and you- who do not understand that this is important to me,” he emphasized. “Even so, I am willing to compromise far beyond what I think is sensible, because she is your sister and I know you value her,” he allowed. “I only hope she will be satisfied with what we have come up with.”

“For me?!” Nuri stood up, aghast, holding his hands up in surrender, “I wash my hands of this, do not think to do anything on my behalf as I won't thank you for it. I just wanted to go home with our gained riches and be braggarts before all of court and feel as though I did something good for once.”

“Why should the court be happy we conceded to an impractical demand?” If Nuri thought Meera was concerned about looking weak in front of her people, couldn’t he understand that Avery had no desire to do the same. The MInister of War would want to call for a vote of no-confidence, though Avery did not think the others would go for it. Not to mention, the sooner the troops went home, the sooner the crown would enforce the land-for-service agreements, which most of the nobles hated.

“If you and Meera insist upon this ridiculousness you will do it yourselves and of your own accord. I am not a Shaman of Theren anymore I do not need any coddling on my sister’s behalf and I do not agree with your insistence on this matter. If you wanted to conquer Theren then that is what you should have done, but you didn't, you chose this path. And you can't sit there and pretend another monarch is supposed to be happy you magnanimously want to keep your boot on their Kingdom’s neck. Especially when that boot was supposed to be temporary anyway.”

“It is temporary!” Just not as expediently temporary as Meera wanted.

Nuri finished his long winded rant and hand waving, and exclaimed “Ugh!” before circling around the table to get changed for bed.

“Maybe I should call Lord Emerson again to talk sense into you!” He called from behind the curtain.

Avery scoffed. “Emerson would be the first to tell you the consequences of compromising on safety,” he said, an edge of sadness bleeding into his irritated tone. “And he would only point out the absurdity of Her Majesty’s request! It is simply not possible to move thousands of troops in a hasty manner,” he said with frustration. “Our ships are tied up patrolling the bay and the coasts, and with winter coming, travel through the mountains will be nearly impossible! I am not a god, Nuri- There is only so much that can be practically managed!”

“Do not talk to me about logistics Avery. If this were about logistics you wouldn't be so insistent that so few stay, far beyond what is reasonable you said!” Nuri threw Avery’s words back at him as he tossed clothes aside and pulled on a sleeping robe.

He was hardly going to offer more than he was able to actually accomplish, Avery thought angrily, but it seemed pointless- and perhaps unwise- to argue further.

“Do what you like, it isn't as though Meera has much to bargain with. But if you lose me Megara I'm going to sick Lady Roysa on you.”

“Well… Fine!” It was a stupid response and Avery knew it, but he couldn’t think of anything better to say. That it was important to him, and he wanted his husband’s support? He’d already expressed that, and had been ignored.

He looked at Nuri’s silhouette behind the dressing screen, and sighed. He assumed he was not welcome in their shared bed, and turned to the low couch instead, pulling off his boots and overshirt and abandoning them on the floor. He pulled a pillow to one end and tried to make himself comfortable.

“What are you doing?” Nuri, seeing this mopey display of childishness, walked over and gestured to the couch, towering over Avery disapprovingly. Hands on his hips.

Avery rolled over to look up at Nuri. “Same thing as you,” he said churlishly. “Getting ready to go to sleep.”

“You are such a military man. Go get dressed for bed properly and go to sleep in your bed. If you are really so disgusted by your husband you don't want to sleep in the same bed as him then I can leave you this room and find another.” Nuri’s tone didn't really convey that he really thought all that, but to point out the further ridicule of the situation.

“... Fine,” Avery agreed, standing and picking up his discarded things. He placed them back where they belonged, before pulling on the sleeping robe he had been given to wear in Theren. It was not as warm as his night clothes in Beleth, but he supposed it was not as cold at night as it was in Beleth, especially this time of year. Once dressed he climbed into his side of the bed and settled there uneasily. In truth he had meant to stay up a bit later going over some reports, but he would feel foolish doing that now once he had already declared his intention to sleep.

Leaving things unresolved and tense was getting tiring in Nuri’s opinion. But he didn't know what else to say or do. Maybe he isn't cut out to be a royal after all, who knew. He just hoped Meera caved tomorrow so they could leave with little trouble.

He blew out the candles for them.

code by @fudgecakez

Lord Chancellor Cromwell & Lord Emerson discuss the terms of the treaty in their room
The People Who Realize What's At Stake

Emerson was floating languidly in his bath- His enormous bath. At least twice the size of the bathtubs at home. And to think, there were ones even larger in other rooms of the palace! Theren had its drawbacks of course, but it also had many pleasures. Many, many pleasures.

He recalled his prior evening, spent cavorting with the nobility to a degree that would make even the most libertine of his Belethan friends blush. He had been a bit startled to see the Lord Chancellor there- It didn’t really seem like his scene, after all. Especially since he hadn’t really seemed to partake in any of the activities, not even the feasting or drinking. He just… Sat there and watched from under his mask.

Not that Emerson had been hyperaware of him throughout the night, of course.

There was a knock at the door, and Emerson sighed to be interrupted. Then remembered the day’s earlier flirtation with a pretty young noblewoman with pale gold hair, and decided it might well be worth his time to get out of the bath.

He pulled himself out of the pool, leaving small puddles on the tiled floors as he crossed the room. Unlike some of the more glamorous guest accommodations at the palace, this was truly just a single room and not a suite- But it was still plenty large, with adequate room for a small sitting and dining area, a desk to work at, and the bed hidden behind a silken privacy screen. And the pool, of course.

He opened the door, surprised to find Cromwell there but not displeased.

“Well, you’re not a slender blonde,” he remarked casually. “But I suppose you’ll do,” he winked. “Come in then,” he gestured.

“I assumed she was already here.” Cromwell lied, he had intercepted her on the way and sent her in another direction.

He'd like to think it was because of the business he came to conduct, but, well, he was well past lying about that to himself wasn’t he? Hadn’t even put up a fight in fact. Pathetic.

Cromwell raked his eyes over the very wet Lord Emerson and stepped in, deciding this outcome made him feel less pathetic already.

“You are making it rather difficult to focus on the business I came to conduct.” Cromwell noted, deciding to stare at his calves in detail, even the back of which were spotted with a few freckles.

“My sincerest apologies,” Emerson replied, not sounding very sincere at all. If anything, he sounded rather pleased with himself. “But please- Make yourself comfortable,” he said, gesturing broadly to the room. Emerson himself certainly intended to, grabbing a pear from a plate of fruit on the low table and crossing back to the bath to slip back in.

Still hot, delightful.

“So?,” Emerson asked, placing the pear on the side of the pool. “What business did you come to conduct?”

Cromwell pondered momentarily if Lord Emerson was not sent by some enemy of his to torture him. He was being dramatic, but, thought Cromwell, no one had ever held a pear and made it look so decadent.

But he behaved himself and sat on the steps of the bath. He had a duty to uphold, he steeled himself.

“Your King.” Cromwell began, keeping his eyes trained out of the water and on Emerson's eyes.

“What’s he done this time,” Emerson asked with a sigh, though first he sank deeply into the water, rising up with his long hair now wet and streaming down his face.

“It appears that he gave the Dowager Queen certain threats involving the troops occupying Theren. And she is using them to her full advantage. I understand the duration of the troop's stay here to be a point of contention right now. I fear if King Averett and Queen Meera part ways bitterly on this trip, the dowager Agora will succeed in turning her against the treaty.”

Emerson frowned, pushing his hair out of his face with one hand. “Why should that have even come up,” he said with exasperation. “He couldn’t just stick with the original timeline?” Trust Avery to mess a good thing up, he supposed. “Well, we shall have to come up with a way for that not to happen, then. To be honest,” which he was more in the habit of being with Cromwell than he really should be, “I worry the King shall also be turned against the treaty, if there is not some recompense for what happened between Brutus and Prince Nuri.”

Cromwell filed that away in a corner of his mind.

Emerson moved closer to Cromwell, to grab his pear from the side of the large bath. “So what do you propose we do?” He bit into his fruit as he considered, letting the juices spill down his chin.

Cromwell's eyes trailed those juices down, shit, he was fooled into looking into the water.

Emerson was too clever, intentionally or not, for his own good.

“I was hoping…” Cromwell's fingers darted out to catch some of the juice, dragging it up and off his chin as Emerson’s tongue slipped from his mouth and licked at the older man’s index finger, “That you could be convincing.”

Emerson’s mouth had begun to turn up in a smile, but it fell to frown.

Cromwell tasted it. Pear was his new favorite fruit.

“I can only have one thing left to do and I would rather exhaust all other possibilities first.”

“I am blessed in many respects, Lord Chancellor,” Emerson replied, almost a little frostily. “But seducing the King into obeying my whims is beyond even my powers.” He was a little… Annoyed at Cromwell, for having suggested it, and he drew back from the Chancellor to settle on one of the pool’s carved benches.

Cromwell’s mouth went slack. He could not, if his life depended upon it, recall a more sudden dowse of cold water on so heated a moment he had experienced in his lifetime.

“That is decidedly not what I was suggesting.” He recovered quickly, leaned back, and considered the mood in question that had turned icy.

“Oh,” Emerson said quietly, relieved enough that his tense shoulders visibly relaxed. “I shouldn’t have assumed,” he admitted. His family certainly had.

“Though I can see why you thought as much.” Cromwell shrugged, “In my defense I don't think I can be blamed for getting distracted.” He deadpanned.

“Hmm, I suppose not,” Emerson allowed, giving the Lord Chancellor a small smile, the corner of his left eye wrinkled into a crease. “So. What you were suggesting, then? That I talk His Majesty into your assuredly-more-reasonable idea… Which is what, exactly?”

He had not been briefed by either his King or his Prince on how the meeting with their fellow monarchs had gone, and wanted to know what he was hoping to pull off before he agreed to it.

There were other things he was anxious to pull off as well, but he supposed he could restrain himself if Cromwell could.

“The timeline was vague in the treaty. I do know the Queen wants Beleth out in less than one year, but I've gotten her to consider two. I need you to find out what King Averett’s timeline is. And warn him of what I told you. No need to tell him how you found out.” Cromwell nodded in affirmation, thinking they could actually get somewhere if Emerson could work his metaphorical magic touch.

“Four years,” Emerson said promptly. “Half the soldiers gone in the first year, another quarter in the second year, the remaining quarter to be withdrawn over the final two years, and those would mostly be officers to assist in the training of the new Theren troops and overseeing coastal patrols.”

It wasn’t exactly a secret, so Emerson hoped he wasn’t betraying anything.

Cromwell closed his eyes and sighed deeply.

“It could be tricky to get him to agree to a two year timeline,” Emerson cautioned. “If he doesn’t feel Theren is able to defend itself yet. He is very… Concerned, about threats across the seas.”

When Cromwell opened his eyes he did his utmost to appear patient.

“Forget what I said about not telling your King it was me. Make sure you do tell him these three things.”

Cromwell held up three fingers and ticked them off one by one. “That the defense of Theren is not his concern and he wildly oversteps the treaty by presuming it is or using that as an excuse to keep his troops here.” One.

Avery considered defense of anything to be his concern, Emerson thought.

“That he is delusional if he thinks he will ever be allowed to have his men preside over and train Theren's men.” Two.

Delusion had hardly stopped the man before.

“And that if he wanted four years he shouldn't have openly threatened Theren as he did to the dowager queen. And now I am struggling against said dowager to get the Queen to agree to two.” And now Cromwell's heart was beating with frustration. If King Avery really intended to claim his troops were here for protection he had bungled that thoroughly already.

Well, Cromwell had the point there, Emerson had to admit.

“You can tell him that yourself, you know,” Emerson said idly as he thought through what Cromwell had told him. “He doesn’t really like you very much, but he does respect you.”

To a degree, at least. Certainly more than he respected the Dowager Queen. Emerson also wondered why they were taking Agora’s word on anything, considering the stunt she had pulled the day prior. He supposed Cromwell had his reasons.

The problem with politicking and scheming with people who weren’t Grace and Roysa he supposed, was that none of them really seemed to know Avery very well. They played against his values instead of with them- They were annoyed with his need to protect everyone, rather than seeing it as an avenue to appeal to. Admittedly, this one was a bit trickier than usual…

“I might have some ideas,” Emerson allowed after some careful consideration, taking a thoughtful bite of his pear. “It depends on what the generals said- and which ones of them said what,” Emerson had to concede, as there were certainly some officer’s opinions that Avery valued more than others. “But I think I could convince him that two years is reasonable and in everyone’s best interest.”

“Good, you advise him and I advise who I’m actually supposed to be working for.” Cromwell said lightly, his attempt at a joke, as he seemed to be doomed to be managing both sides at once for the foreseeable future.

“And I will see about… what I can do about Brutus. Perhaps he's overstayed his welcome again in Delphi.” Or amongst the living, if things did not go over as smoothly as he'd hoped.

“I’d say,” Emerson agreed, before turning a more calculating eye on Cromwell. “And you’ve overstayed your welcome on those steps,” he said, rising from the bench so that water streamed from the tips of his hair and ran in rivulets down his chest and back. He crossed the pool so that he stood in front of Cromwell, and tapped lightly on the other man’s ankles. “Come on, at least soak your feet. I’m sure they could use a rest?”

Cromwell unlaced his boots at Emerson's prompting.

“Maybe just a little soak.” He agreed, but instead of just his feet Cromwell’s clothed legs entered the bath, deciding he would take a seat where Emerson was just a moment ago.

“You can sit back down, I didn't mean to disturb your bath after all.”

“Oh, can I now,” Emerson said with a teasing smile. He returned to his previous perch, though he sat facing the opposite direction now, his knees on either side of Cromwell’s thighs.

Emerson ran his fingers up Cromwell’s shirt, attempting to pull it up- But instead of coming along with his hands, the wet fabric merely bunched together and floated in the water. Emerson laughed, and Cromwell joined him, his attempt at seduction gone awry, and buried the sound in the dark-haired man’s neck as he shook with it. The laughter did not last overly long, though, as he began to press his open mouth along Cromwell’s collar bone and up his neck, humming as he did so.

Despite everything though, the stress of the going-ons of the Kingdoms and moods previously killed, Cromwell found his heartbeat easy to quicken.

Breaths became shallow as hands roamed and mouths inched closer to each other.

Perhaps tonight, after they were sated at least once, Cromwell would finally ask Emerson if he'd ever experienced being tied up with silk rope before.

code by @fudgecakez

Queen Meera's Quarters, Album Castellum, Delphi

The next morning....

A Failure To Negotiate

Queen Meera considered the note in her hand as King Averett was shown to the terrace by Lady Veora, who curtsied low and backed away.

To King Averett. Not to her…

She supposed that was proper and correct.

Meera had heard Veora was flawlessly handling her duties for this trip, and felt a little bad at adding to her workload by rescheduling today's meeting with King Averett to the morning.

But her mother was right, she needed to control this meeting far better than last time’s fiasco. With the whole picture clear and having had time to consider both her mother and Lord Chancellor's arguments she felt confident. Far more confident this time than last, when she agreed away a tenth of her Kingdom.

Avery had not been pleased by Lady Veora’s arrival at his suite to inform him of the meeting’s changed time- He had considered not showing up until the previously arranged time, but he had no wish to antagonize Queen Meera any further, and if he was being honest- He would prefer to get this over with.

“My brother sent me a note, it seems you've convinced him that your occupying force is here because you're simply concerned about the Panet and Vendelian Empires taking advantage of Theren's diminishment. A notion so ridiculous I’m not sure he even believes it, as he did receive the education of a Prince after all.”

Avery wasn’t surprised by Meera’s assessment of his concerns, but he was a little surprised to hear that Nuri had contacted her without telling him.

“As for me, I wouldn't believe it even if I hadn't spoken to my mother about your talk.”

Ah. That. Avery wondered if he would ever learn the best way to react when he felt threatened by people more politically savvy than himself.

“You enjoy having your forces here ready to attack our citizenry at a moment's notice. A real reason we all can both believe and confirm. I can understand that. You were victorious and you have a right to certain liberties. Loot and conditions of surrender that include ensuring we can not rise against you any time soon. But you have this already, you've seen what's left of our forces. Theren is not interested nor capable of entering any war within the next decade at least. So…” She sat down.

That was exactly what Avery worried about- Not that anyone seemed to believe him.

“I am advised that the soonest you can leave is within the year, but comfort and convenience included raises this to two. Theren has never been beyond affording people comfort and convenience.”

Avery sat as well, leaning back and putting one foot on the other knee. He tried to make himself look relaxed and confident, but he wasn’t sure if he was successful.

“I have already promised you that I shall remove half the company from within Delphi within the next two months,” Avery said. “And I will abide by that.”

He paused.

Meera said nothing and waited for him to continue.

“Once winter has come and gone, the mountain passes will be more traversable, and I believe that the seas will be safer, allowing us to move a larger amount of troops through both means in a more efficient manner,” he said. Ships, however, would be much faster. “However, I am unwilling to pull my naval patrols from the bay for your comfort. Nor will Beleth’s merchants be interested in sacrificing their trade. So here is the first part of my proposal: Theren will come up with the ships to move the soldiers, and Theren will pay for them.”

“Additionally- Troops will stay along your border with Dorelith until the fort there is fully functional again, regardless of how long that takes,” he said, leaving the timeline of it up to her. He imagined she could get it done post-haste. “And two dozen of my mid-sized ships will continue to patrol your coastline, until such a time that they may each be replaced with functional ships of your own. However, they will stop in your towns only to restock.”

“You have taken Megara already and the construction of enough ships vast enough for that will take longer than two years with access to their lumber. Is there any reason in particular you especially want to keep troops on the Dorelithian border?” Meera didn't say no outright, less concerned about the naval fleet than the ground troops in truth.

Though she certainly wasn't keen on Beleth possibly having the power to cut off their trade to Zhongguo. Two Kings ago Beleth had been enraged when Zhongguo wouldn't do business with them.

“You shall have access to Megera’s lumber,” he clarified, though he was aware that even with it, he had set a difficult task. He was willing to negotiate on the number of ships if she pressed the issue further- Hopefully by the time even a dozen ships were completed, a full two dozen would no longer be needed.

“As you have pointed out, Beleth is taking on the considerable bulk of your border with Ruhar, so Dorelith may become your weak spot,” he said. “I quite doubt King Stefan means you ill,” Avery allowed, as he had his doubts about the old man’s ability to keep his own country safe, much less wage war against another. Or defend against one. Which was his concern. “But I will not leave the border vulnerable while the castle is rebuilt. I am open to having our generals negotiate the number of troops stationed along that border, if you have soldiers to spare that can add to their company.”

“There is also the matter of the troop’s compensation,” Avery continued. “The men who agreed to land-for-service will, of course, be dealt with by Beleth.” The crown would either have to back-pay them for the full amount, or renegotiate with the nobles involved in the deal how much service equaled how much land- It would be a nightmare for his aunt either way, but this entire trip was already going to result in a massive headache for Lady Roysa. He could suggest that Theren offer them land, but he had a feeling he knew how that would go.

“But the men who are given a straight pay…. Theren will pay six month’s wages for each that is sent home within the year, and three months for those sent home within the second year.”

Meera kept her mouth shut until he was finished, even if emotionally she wanted to scream at his ludicrous demands. But she kept what both her mother and Cromwell had made clear to her.

This was a military man at heart, and politics were not his forte.

“You mean to beggar my people but keep our borders secure. Truly you think like a General.”

Avery thought this ironic- He had rarely felt less like a military man.

“No, you've already agreed to the mines as compensation in the treaty and have further been promised a tenth of my Kingdom. I can not afford to give you more, not if we are to recover in two years time from our famine. And further still, our borders are not your concern. I already told you that excuse won't fool anyone in this room. Theren is not yours. It is mine. You had your chance to take it and you didn't. You've lost momentum and you need to see to your own granaries. Your troops will go by land and this thing will be done.” Meera glared, wondering if she would see what her mother saw now.

Avery sighed, uncrossing his legs and leaning forward, his hands clasped between his knees.

“I am disappointed you do not take my concerns seriously. But considering our very different experiences, I am not surprised,” he allowed.

“Neither am I.” Meera fired back, clearly not thinking much of his judgment either.

“Going by land will be much slower than by sea,” he reminded her. They would only be able to get the troops removed out of Delphi through the pass before winter hit, and that might be cutting it close. If they went by sea, they could bring soldiers back with them on their return to Beleth within the week. “And during that prolonged time, my troops will need to eat- When that food could instead be served to your people.”

Meera scoffed.

The food for the troops was being brought from Beleth, and Avery knew the deliveries from the few ships he could spare caused resentment among the common people of Theren. But that food had already been paid for, by a fund specifically marked for the campaign of helping Theren rebuild. If Theren did not want their help- which their Queen had certainly indicated they did not- they could at least have the food. Avery supposed his Minister of War could- and would- object to the idea of what he viewed as military funds being used in such a way, but Avery was confident, considering how vaguely the proposal for the funds had been written, in telling him to shove it.

“Theren will need to find the majority of the ships needed amongst her own merchants,” he reiterated.

She thought for a moment, tapping her finger.

“To suggest that you would be allowed to leave any men or ships after having Theren pay to move what you would magnanimously agree to ship out is a slap in the face.” Meera finally said, a compromise brewing in her mind.

If she could just get them out of her Kingdom, no matter the cost…

“If Theren were to do such a thing all of your men and all of your ships leave. Not a single one left behind.”

Avery considered this- She had a point, after all. But like Meera, he knew what he was after. He wanted Theren defended against external or internal threats, and he wasn’t sure he was willing to let his perception of that go in favor of convenience or his coffers, however much the Minister of the Exchequer might object.

“Beleth will pay half of the cost of using any ships you contract, up front,” he proposed. This seemed more than reasonable, Avery thought, to pay for half but leave only a small fraction of troops behind. “If I am able to find any Beleth merchants interested in joining the venture, we will again split the cost. They may also be amenable to loans,” he suggested, guessing that her own merchants may be even more so. “And I will ensure any interest rates are set low.”

“I am also willing to relax my requirements for removal of the ships along the coast,” he negotiated. “For every one ship that Theren can supply, two shall return home to Beleth.”

No. They all must go.” Mother had been right, she had been right. And Meera was a fool to ever trust that they both had the treaty’s best interest at heart. This negotiation was maddening. She felt herself get angrier the longer it went on.

Avery sighed, sitting upright in the chair again. “You are the one who wants this,” he reminded her, the slightest hint of impatience in his tone. “It is up to you to convince me of it.”

“I should not have to convince you to leave my Kingdom, that should in fact, be a given. But if you truly need convincing King Averett, perhaps your court, nay the whole of Beleth, down to the last pig farmer, might find it amusing that your husband is a harlot and adulterer. That he cuckhold’s you in favor of another, more worthy man, Lord Brutus.” Meera threatened.

If Meera had wanted to see the King of Beleth angry, she had found the right way to do it- Though it took a moment, as he processed what she was proposing to do.

Then he stood so suddenly that his chair toppled over. “A ‘worthy man’,” he spat, his face thunderous. “Is that what you call his type in Theren? You would use your brother’s rapist against him,” Avery growled. “And believe you are worthy of calling yourself ‘sister’?”

Meera scoffed, “Rapist, funny that is what they call you.” Meera wasn't shy about the venom in her tone as she stood up slowly.

Of all the people that could have accused Lord Brutus of such a thing, the last person in all of Theren who would be believed is The Pirate King Averett.

She had moved Lord Brutus from the dungeons last night, when this terrible betrayal has crossed her mind. A Queen oft had blood on her hands, her mother had warned. Best to get used to it now.

She doubted her mother knew just how easily Meera had found it, the ways in which she could make cuts into the flesh of hearts. For though she scarcely believed Lord Brutus was ever able to abuse a Prince of the blood she did believe he was not an easy man to have as a betrothed.

Nuri had certainly seemed happy to have an alternative when the treaty was struck.

“I hardly care what you call me, when I know the truth. But if that is what you truly think of me, then you are an even worse sister than I thought,” Avery said sneered. “To send him from one abuser to someone you suspect to be one,” he said, his hands clenching the edge of the table.

“Perhaps,” he said icily, “You might benefit from actually speaking with Nuri about his relationships, before you seek to exploit them for your own benefit. He has done nothing to deserve this treatment from you.”

“Since when is any of this about deserve King Averett? Theren did not deserve to be attacked when your brother was assassinated. My father did not deserve to die. I do not deserve to be punished for having a child, and Theren does not deserve to be occupied by your men!” Meera got louder the more sins she laid at his feet.

“Not a single thing since you became King nor I became Queen has been about deserve. We represent the interests of our Kingdom. Now and always and in all things.” She finished, scathingly. It would make no difference what Nuri said. His reputation would still be hung on a tree if it meant benefiting Theren.

“You will be just as poor a mother as you are as sister, as you are a Queen,” he spat back. “Tell me, then- If I agree to your poor attempt to blackmail me, what then? You will promise me the matter is settled, and you will not threaten our relationship again? What good,” he asked with scorn, “Is the word of a woman who will sell out her family with so little care?”

“Better than the word of some Pirate King who breaks treaties I imagine.” Meera bit back the thousand more words she wanted to say. Other threats of what she planned to do that she couldn't afford to admit outright. Explanations that Nuri was no longer her subject but the spouse of an enemy turned ally and quickly turned enemy again. Accusations that this was all his fault to begin with and he forced her hand.

Her refusal to offer him any assurances that her word could be trusted- and the ease with which she tried to turn it back on him, as though he had actually broken the treaty or even intended to- convinced him that there was no further point to this negotiation, if there ever had been.

“Here is what will happen,” he told her tensely. “I will abide by what I have already told you I will do, and much of what I have offered to come down on- Troops will be moved out of Delphi within months, with the other cities to follow. I will move them and others out of Theren as expeditiously as possible- By land before the snow hits, and I hope by ship, if your merchant vessels will deign to accept money offered by such a monster as myself,” he sneered. “If they do, we can have the majority of the troops gone from Theren for your first anniversary.”

They likely would, he hoped- Money was money, and the merchant class had no more love of the lingering soldiers than anyone else. Still, the request would have been much more favorably received if it had come from their Queen.

“You shall have Beleth’s assistance in rebuilding ships, and fortifications if you wish,” he continued. It occurred to him that she had turned to blackmail rather than come down on her own requirements, and perhaps it was foolish to still give her what he had been initially reluctant to offer. But he’d already said it, so he could hardly back down now.

“But Beleth troops will continue to patrol Theren’s borders and coastlines for a year and half,” he said firmly. “If at the end of that time period, my spymasters say threats have receded significantly or my generals that your defenses increased, then those remaining shall be withdrawn as well. If not- We will endeavor to rapidly lower the first or raise the second within six months, and then reassess if needed. Regardless of any progress, all troops and ships will return to Beleth between the sixth and twelfth months of the third year. And you,” he said, pointing an accusatory finger at the Queen of Theren.

“You will have ruined your relationship with your only brother, and fractured the one with your neighboring crown, for the meager cost of several months, a handful of soldiers, and half a dozen ships,” Avery sneered angrily.

“An amusing way to phrase the occupation of a Kingdom you have no rights to.” Queen Meera’s steely voice and expression was devoid of amusement.

She'd already decided what she needed to do.

“This audience is over,” he said, turning on his heel and marching to the door that separated the terrace from the inner halls of the palace, letting it fall shut with a heavy echo.

code by @fudgecakez

The Sea

Later That Day

An Unexpected Visitor

With a storm coming into Delphi, there had been a sudden rush to leave Theren with haste, and Avery still felt a little disjointed. He’d barely had time to talk to Nuri at all before he was being asked which troops of men would be accompanying them back on [what the fuck is the ships name? Something Arrow], what outfits he would want to wear while on the ship and what could be packed away below deck, and of course both Lord Brennan and Emerson had a few final people they wanted him to meet.

But eventually they were off, just having beaten the storm by an hour- They hadn’t quite missed all of the first trickles of rain, and there were rivulets of water drying like tears in the cabin’s window, even with the sun shining again.

Alone at last, Avery knew he could not put off talking to his husband any longer- He’d told the Prince briefly that the meeting with Queen Meera had not gone as well as he would have liked, and what he himself had agreed to do. But he’d made no mention of what Nuri’s sister had planned.

“Nuri,” he said, turning away from the window in a slow, measured manner that likely meant his shoulder was still acting up. “We should talk.”

Finally and I’d rather not hear what has had you so wound up battled for the forefront of Nuri’s mind. But instead…

“I can't tell which seems more tumultuous, you or the sea.” Was what Nuri settled on. He recalled how upset Avery had been when he first came back from his ‘talk’ with Meera and had learnt the self control to not ask and instead give what it was a person needed when they came like that to him in the temple.

He didn't think marriage involved his skills in that way but then again what did he know? Maybe he was doing that wrong too. Every time he tried to interfere with solutions it never seemed to do any good.

“Did it truly go that badly?”

“The sea seems to have settled, so I’m afraid it must be me,” Avery acknowledged wryly. “I told you of what I had promised your sister,” Avery said, knowing that Nuri was likely displeased with him for it. He was going to be even more displeased still though, and Avery hated to be the one to disappoint him. “But as for what she promised me…”

He trailed off with a sigh, frustrated with the Queen and with himself. Perhaps he should have just given in… But what then? Allowing himself to be blackmailed was a dangerous precedent he could not afford.

“She means to spread rumors as far as she can throughout Theren and Beleth, that you spent our time in Theren in Brutus’s arms and his bed,” he finally admitted. “Or at least, that is what she told me she will do.”

Nuri could hear perfectly fine, but he wasn't sure he understood what was being said, and it showed on his face.

He had thought perhaps that Avery was about to inform him that they'd lost Megara in the negotiations, not…

“Why? What possible reason could she have to do such a thing?” Nuri asked, a little quiet, and a lot ashamed.

“Because I would not agree to remove every last soldier and ship from her borders as quickly as she wanted, she decided trying to blackmail us would be most efficient.” Avery sighed, running a hand through his hair, before placing the other on Nuri’s shoulder, his thumb rubbing a small circle in the divot of Nuri’s collarbone. “I could not tell if she really means to go through with it,” he said, trying to instill some optimism. “I know I would certainly never do such a thing to Grace. But she did seem to have… Conviction, about it, or was at least very comfortable pretending that she did.”

That was probably not the sense of optimism Avery was hoping for- That even if Meera had only been posturing, that she had seemed more than willing to do it regardless.

The frown on Nuri’s face deepened as he gulped and looked anywhere but at his husband, he knew Meera would do as she threatened. But he wasn't sure what stung more. Meera's condescension, so reflective of his mother's, or Avery's. Against Meera.

“I have seen what your fear is like Avery. I would not be so quick to be righteous if I were you. You do not know what you would do to try to gain the upper hand on a threatening force occupying your Kingdom. Having known you, I think in fact there's scarcely little you wouldn't.” Nuri hated how strained and heavy his voice sounded.

She might have been hurt to hear Nuri defend her at such a time, if she knew, but Nuri took no satisfaction in that. No satisfaction in any imagined or real guilt. Because despite her barbs. It wasn't she who was at an advantage right now. She was just cornered, and people and creatures alike were nasty when they became cornered.

“That-” Had any number of rebuttals, in Avery’s opinion. Depending on just how weak his own military was, he might be glad for an ally like Theren to have troops to prevent raiders from Ruhar attacking his mother’s people, might allow for Theren ships to offer Jamatal protection against pirates and bad actors. But he had come to realize that Theren did not see him as an ally at all, but just such another ‘bad actor’ to defend themselves against.

And even if he had wanted Theren’s troops out of his country, he liked to think he would have exhausted several more options before resolving to sell out his sister’s reputation.

“That… may have some merit,” Avery eventually allowed as he removed his hand from Nuri’ shoulder- Even if he knew what he would have liked to do in such a situation, he had no way of knowing what he actually would do.

“I need only know…” A hot and shameful tear dropped out of Nuri’s eye, still refusing to look at his husband, “Is it worth it?”

Nuri realized in the next moment how bitter that question might sound, and quickly stood up, looking at Avery properly, hastily wiping away droplets.

“I don't mean- I don't ask to be condescending. I just need to be told, if you think it's worth it to not give her what she wanted. Because if it is, then I have no trouble bearing it. It is what it is. She means to carry through on her threat.” He shrugged, “It's what our mother taught us to do, never make a threat you won't carry out. I can almost hear her exploiting my vulnerability from this ship.”

Avery sighed so deeply that his chest rose and fall. Of course he wanted to say it had been worth it, if it would offer Nuri some reassurance. But he truly didn’t know if it would be- Only time would tell, and even then…

There was a knock at the cabin door, and the voice of the Second Mate.

“Your Majesties! Permission to enter?”

Nuri turned his face away and made sure he was presentable.

“Permission granted,” Avery said wearily, and the man entered.

“A ship’s been behind us- We thought it was just trying to escape the storm, same as us, but it’s definitely been following us, and it’s gaining,” he said with some amount of worry. “But- Well, Lord Emerson says you better come take a look, Your Majesty. That you will know what to do.”

Out on the deck a small crowd had gathered, including the Ladies Veora, Nyme, and Lord Brennan. Who stood together with very concerned looks on their faces.

“Are those Pirates...” Nyme braved to say aloud, sounding like she would be sick. Everyone else had been avoiding the word as they watched the ship ebb ever closer.

“I’m sure they are not,” Lord Brennan told her confidently. “Lord Emerson would never have suggested we allow them to approach further if he had any doubts about our safety.”

Emerson himself stood at the rail of the ship, spyglass in hand. Not that the spyglass was needed- The other ship had closed quite a distance, and the flag could be seen from the deck. A green background, with three white slashes across it. As though it had been sliced open by something with sharp claws.

“Is that…” Avery trailed off as he crossed the deck towards his friend.

“Seems to be,” Emerson told him, passing him the spyglass. There was a figure at the front of the other ship, waving a white scarf in the wind.

With the spyglass, Avery could see the figure more clearly. It was a muscular woman with tanned skin and a yellow headscarf holding back dark curls, smashed beneath a tricornered hat. She was smirking as she waved her symbol of surrender.

“Well, shit,” Avery muttered.

“Exactly,” Emerson agreed. “But she’s never meant us harm before. And she wouldn’t be waving a white flag if she did now.”

“Sir- Your Majesty,” the captain corrected himself. “What do you want us to do…?”

“Allow the ship to pull alongside,” Avery decided. “But if they make any attempt to board us without first speaking to us, draw weapons.” The captain nodded and relayed the message to the soldiers on deck, whose hands already rested on the hilts of their swords.

Prince Nuri hung back, bewildered more than concerned, the whiplash of his earlier raw feelings leaving him more dumb than anything.

“She is a… An ally, from when His Majesty and I were on the Wider Sea,” Emerson told Nuri quickly. “She is very… Showy. But mostly harmless.” To them, anyways. He hoped.

“Of the famed Pirate allies, yes.” Nuri said as he straightened himself and clasped his hands behind his back. He saw little point in being delicate about it, besides, as far as he was concerned these were also his pirate allies now.

Within minutes, the other ship was parallel to their own, and the woman who had been at the front had run to the side so that she could shout across the distance.

She hopped onto the rail of her own ship, hanging onto a rope to steady herself.

“Your Majesty,” she called out, taking her hat off with a flourish in Avery’s direction. “And Your Majesty,” she said a bit more sincerely to Nuri, actually bowing this time.

The Prince couldn't help but smile back, her charisma working on him.

“Captain Ka’Trine,” Avery called back. “What business brings you to our waters?”

“I did not receive an invitation to your wedding,” Trine said, affecting mock sadness. “But I brought you gifts nonetheless!” She gestured behind her, where a man and a woman waited, each holding a chest. One of the wooden chests was significantly smaller than the other, but both seemed of fine quality.

“My offer is genuine,” she told the gathered onlookers, with a smile that seemed sincere enough.
“I could not hurt you even if I wanted,” she said, reaching for her scabbard. The soldiers on board the Cicele’s Arrow tensed as one, but she merely flipped it over to show its contents- Empty.

“Your Baroness Ellini,” she explained. “Divested us of all our weapons before allowing us passage into your bay.”

“You were so determined to pass that you faced Baroness Elleni? Or perhaps you were so well acquainted she considered it no trouble?” Lady Nyme asked before she could think to shut her mouth and let the King take the lead. She resolutely ignored her sister's shocked glare.

But Veora would never ask, would rather die than ask, and spoke far too highly of a prospect that Nyme thought was a useless and faithless end. In this, at least she and Lady Roysa seemed to agree.

“I’ll admit I had not had the pleasure. I had heard she is a fearsome woman, but had no idea she was so beautiful as well- Almost as beautiful as you, dear lady,” Trine told Nyme with a wink. “And nearly as forward! But as the ships that patrol the opening of the bay dock in Merid, I knew I would have little chance of entry if I did not first present myself to her and explain my sorry plight.”

“Your sorry plight?,” Avery echoed with skepticism. He hardly doubted Elleni would have let her pass for a simple sob story- Much less one that entailed ‘I wasn’t invited to a wedding’.

“All right, I gave her a gift, too,” Ka’Trine admitted. “Sorry, Vee- She got first pick! Just the way it goes sometimes.”

Lady Nyme looked to her sister conspiratorially, and was promptly ignored.

Captain Ka’Trine gestured again to the chests. “So- Do I get to present you with my tokens of well wishes, or do my crew have to stand here holding these longer?”

Avery sighed. “Bring the gangplank over,” he said, and a few soldiers obediently placed it between the ships.

Trine and the man holding the smaller chest came nimbly across, though the woman with the larger chest required the assistance of a third crew member to carry it across the slightly unsteady plank. Once on board, Trine nodded to her crew, who nodded back and scampered back to their own ship. It did at least seem that she was aware that the Beleth party was suspicious of her, and was trying to assuage their wariness.

“A pleasure to meet you,” she told Nuri with a wide smile. And then with a conspiratorial undertone, she added so that only those in immediate proximity could hear, “You know- I was his first kiss. I do hope he’s improved somewhat, for your sake.”

“Hardly!,” Avery sputtered, going red at the ears.

“It was hardly your first kiss, or you’ve hardly improved?,” she asked, a bit louder, and Avery glared at her.

Nuri couldn't help himself and only barely managed to turn his head away to snort in laughter, and pretend it was a cough.

“Perhaps we could move this audience to our dining cabin,” he suggested tightly. If she was going to embarrass him- which she almost certainly was- he would prefer she do it only in front of himself and Nuri.

“No, no- I think your fine officers are much more comfortable with me right where I am,” she pointed out, which was very true.

“He has nothing to be embarrassed about unfortunately, at least for our amusement’s sake.” Nuri conceded.

Trine laughed, and moved to slap Avery on the shoulder- But seemed to remember at the last minute that was not an appropriate way to treat a King, and stopped the movement halfway through.

“A pleasure to make your acquaintance Captain. They say in court though it may be nobles who are richer it is the Seafarers who own the most valuable and unique treasures. I’ve always imagined that's true.”

“We have our freedom,” the captain said with a grin. “So that is certainly true. But I do have some… Unique items to give to you as well!”

“For you, King Averett,” she said, again with a mocking tone over his title, as though she didn’t quite believe in it. She unlatched the smaller chest- There were two bundles in it, both covered in cloth. The first was larger, and she took it out. With a flourish, she pulled the cloth off of it and presented… A large jar.

It was filled with a pale yellow liquid, in which floated a hand that had been severed several inches past the wrist. Even through the fog of the glass, Avery could see the tattoo on the wrist. A tree with a key hole in the center.

“Ah. Captain Lockwood.” Avery said, taking the jar as though the contents were perfectly ordinary. He’d always thought it was a stupid tattoo. The man’s name wasn’t Keytree, after all. “I assume then that the Baroness took his head?”

“And promptly mounted it from a stake on the castle’s roof, yes,” Ka’Trine said with an air of delight.

“How gruesome,” Brennan said to Veora and Nyme, a bit shocked at the Baroness’s conduct.

Nyme grimaced and Veora looked away in what Nyme recognized as falsely demure meekness. She didn't want to disagree with Lord Brennan apparently, and Nyme filed that information away for later.

Recognition flitted in Nuri’s mind as he glanced from his husband to the Pirate to the gruesome swiveling hand. It looked bloated from either the liquid or the glass, he couldn't tell.

“Was he alive when you cut it off?” Nuri asked, curious.

“Sadly not,” Ka’Trine admitted. “He was a… Difficult man in life, and difficult in dying, too. I had to run him through several times before he finally agreed to do the decent thing and die.”

“Some people have no shame.” The Prince agreed airily.

“You killed him yourself?,” Avery asked, surprised.

“Of course! It was a pain to track him down,” she complained. “But I got him in the end.”

“Sorry I didn’t get you anything, Em,” she told the bastard lord, who shrugged.

“I’m not the one who got married,” he pointed out, a little confused but willing to play along.

“Well, you know my offer is always open,” she said with a wink, and he rolled his eyes.

“You can just take him.” Lady Nyme shrugged, and said not so quietly in a hushed tone as she and her sister ogled the jar, having moved closer when it seemed it was appropriate to do so.

“I’m afraid kidnapping that particular bastard is more trouble than it’s worth,” Trine said off-handedly.

Lady Veora cleared her throat, “What my sister means to ask is whether our Prince can expect a similarly pickled body part to… decorate and intrigue the court.”

Nuri smiled at Lady Veora’s deft ability to parry any barb she ever encountered and raised an expectant brow at Captain Ka’Trine.

“Ah, I’m afraid not,” the captain admitted. “Had I known you had interest, I might have had the foresight to save some more pieces. My deepest apologies. You were much more difficult to shop for,” she allowed. “So I had to settle for a classic.”

She reached back into the smaller chest, and unraveled the second bundle. From within she pulled a dagger sized scabbard of dark leather. There was mutlicolored thread along the seam holding it together, which was also sewn along the sides to resemble a magnificent feather.

Already impressed with the scabbard and hilt alone, Nuri accepted it readily, holding it up to the light as he drew it out slowly.

Unlike the set of Jolessic juggling knives Emerson had on his mantel at Redhill, this blade was symmetrical with a pair of two deadly sharp beveled edges. The blade was a dark gray that caught the light with a shine, and had what appeared to be a rippling pattern across it. The hilt was black, with delicate gold leaves curling up along it that matched the golden tiger’s eye stone that made up the pommel.

It was the only weapon the Baroness had allowed her to keep.

“It’s made from a fallen star,” Ka’Trine said, clearly eager for Nuri to like it. “Or the blade is at least. Not the hilt and the sheath.”

“A fallen star?” He looked at her almost disbelievingly, but smiled despite himself.

“I wasn't aware you could make blades from stars, but if you can, that is a fortuitous gift to receive indeed. You have my thanks Captain Ka’Trine, and my open invitation to court as my personal guest when it pleases you.” Nuri thought the Captain would make an excellent source of intrigue if she decided to take him up on his invitation. She was clearly as talented in the arena of conversation as she was in the open sea.

The Captain flashed Nuri a brilliant smile as Avery spluttered a bit. “It would please me greatly, I may have to take you up on that offer one day- Perhaps during the summer court season, I hear Redhill is awfully dreary, especially coming up this time of year.”

“I imagine you would find the summer court just as dreary as well,” Avery tried to point out, and for his part, Emerson nodded.

“The courtiers all go to the beach and don’t even swim,” Emerson complained. “Just wade up to their ankles and think they’ve gotten their fill of the sea.”

Ka’Trine laughed heartily, amused at the image he described.

“My final gift is not really for either of you,” she admitted. “Nor is it really ‘from’ me- I’m more so the delivery method.”

She opened the latch on the second, larger chest to reveal- Dehydrated food. Pretty much anything that could be dried and stuffed into a wooden box for at least two months of travel had been. Dried fruit and vegetables, jerky of various meats, beans and more.

“My cargo hold is stocked similarly,” she said, gesturing with a nod of her chin back towards her own ship. “As are my two other ships docked in Merid still.”

“Where did you get all this,” Avery asked suspiciously. Where did you get the money for this, is what he meant?

“It’s a gift,” she reassured him. “Not even from me-I didn’t steal anything!,” she protested his suspicions. “It is from the Ringmaster of Joless, in lieu of a performance to celebrate your marriage. He was similarly sad to miss it, and also devastated to have not received an invitation.”

“...Silas?,” Emerson guessed. “He’s the Ringmaster for the Royal Troupe now?”

He’d been the one to teach Emerson to throw knives- To have made the Royal Troupe was a great honor in Joless. To be in charge of it practically made one an ambassador of the island nation, and the position wielded substantial power considering it was almost never held by someone of noble birth.

“Got it in one,” Ka’Trine told him. “I know it will not make a huge dent in Theren’s hunger,” she admitted. “But I hope it will at least feed some families for the time being. And convey to you that Joless is… Interested in continuing a mutually beneficial relationship of trade and goodwill with both Theren and Beleth.”

“How many times did Silas make you recite that bit,” Emerson asked, recognizing that the wording was certainly not hers.

“Only half a dozen,” she replied peevishly, “And then he ended up writing a letter to the same effect anyways.” She patted her pocket to retrieve it, then frowned. “Think I left it in my cabin.”

“I am sure my sister will welcome the gesture.” Nuri said neutrally, and noted the implication of how Joless was reading the new ties between Theren and Beleth. He wondered whether they would enrage Meera or not.

How poorly had the negotiations between her and Avery really gone? If truly her perception had been changed on the treaty and Avery had made her feel like a trapped animal…

Well, what was to be done about it now? King Averett had made his choices.

The captain smiled again- It seemed there was very little she did not smile about.

“Well, I’d love to stay and catch up more, but I’m expected back in Joless within the month- Apparently, there might be a merchant’s certification in my future, providing I fulfill various duties as expected,” she explained.

“You’re going straight?,” Emerson asked, his brow arched in surprise.

“I think so,” Ka’Trine said with a sigh. “It offers more consistent pay, and I would still get to fight anyone idiotic enough to attack me, so.”

She seemed to find the logic sound enough.

“Em, help me carry this back over,” she told the bastard lord, gesturing at the chest of food.

“Your Majesties,” she told Avery and Nuri. “It would be my utmost pleasure to visit your court at a future date, especially now that I have an invitation! May the sun shine on you in the coming days,” she told them, a rough translation of the formal farewell from her native Panet.

She and Emerson carried the heavy chest back across the gangplank, and Avery watched them for a moment. He turned away before he could see the quiet conversation that Trine initiated, or the way that Emerson’s face fell as she spoke.

“I must apologize for the Captain’s… Overly familiar manner,” Avery told his husband. “She was perhaps the only person resembling a ‘friend’ for quite some time, and not knowing our true identities, she became accustomed to certain liberties,” he explained.

She was also largely responsible for the attacks on Theren’s coasts as well- She herself had not been involved in any, but she had been who he’d contacted to spread the word that Beleth would no longer patrol the opening of the bay, and she’d been quite effective at spreading that word.

He decided not to mention that.

“I found her charming.” Prince Nuri shrugged, hoping she would indeed make an appearance in the summertime as he examined his star blade.

code by @fudgecakez


A Few Days Later

A Convenient Proposal

Veora sat, happily unaccosted, at her favorite fountain in all of Redhill. It was small, and by no indication particularly beautiful, at least not more so than any of the identical ones like it littered around the court’s winding gardens. However Veora, as usual, knew something about its special beauty that no one else could detect.

Barness Elleni had accidentally broken the spout off of the centerpiece when she was a child. And no one in all this time had noticed or cared enough to ever fix it. She had been convinced she'd be in trouble at the time, and buried the piece of stone in the ground near it, marking the grave with a red rock.

Now the water, at least during warmer months, poured out gracelessly and remembering it does so makes Veora smile while she embroidered the leather gloves in her lap.

“You know, everyone goes on and on about what a perfect lady you are, but they don't know you like I do.” Nyme, in perhaps her most annoying little sister voice, announced as her footsteps squelched their way through the scant amount of snow that had fallen in the morning, and would likely melt before noon.

So much for being happily unaccosted.

“To what do I owe the rebuke dear sister?” Veora sighed, barely affording Nyme a glance as she continued her work, near done as she was.

“It's not a rebuke… I just… know something that you don't.” Nyme, not usually one to struggle articulating, carefully said as she peaked judgmentally at Veora’s handiwork.

“Oh Veora, really?” Nyme said, pity and exasperation in her voice.

Veora flushed and flipped over the gloves, she had thought its design to be ambiguous enough to not be obvious.

“They're for me.” She lied, looking away, not realizing that the implication of that was…

“That's worse Veora. And presumptuous, given that the Baroness has made you no such offer. In fact I have it on good authority she has entertained others since last seeing you. I told you that woman has no reason to marry and likely never will. You can not afford the same.” Nyme said as earnestly and quickly as she could manage, expecting that her sister would-

Veora rose abruptly, cheeks red hot with humiliation, and briskly fled her favorite fountain and its secrets.

VE-OR-AH.” Nyme ran after her before she could get too far on those damned long legs of hers and wrenched her back by the arm.

Listen. You can't afford what she can afford Veora you are no heir and you have no holdings. You are a guest at court and if mother and father cut you off you will be a penniless one.” She urged her sister, chest heaving, who refused to look at her.

“If I can make a good marriage I would never let you suffer as you are my sister but you would still be reduced Veora, humiliated. Your fate would forever be reliant on the kindness of others, your rank and dignity always humbled. But not if you accept Lord Brennan’s offer.”

Veora’s eyes snapped to Nyme’s in wide eyed shock.

“I know you think in your mule headed stubbornness that you could handle such a life but you are a highborn girl who has never known that kind of indignity Veora. It would wear on you. You would struggle where you need not, the answer can be so much more simple.” Nyme continued to implore.

“He is rich, very rich, he's dignified and of appropriate rank and merit. I know you could never stomach marrying a man you do not respect and I've seen how you respect Lord Brennan. He is neither vicious nor overbearing and considering his taste in men he would not make the demands of you that any other husband naturally would. Veora, if you are ever to marry, I think this offer is your best chance at a good life.”

“He…” Veora gulped, “He is indeed respectable.” Veora admitted, head swimming as she felt her fate begin to set in mortar.

“And did I mention he is incredibly rich.” Nyme smiled ruefully, earning a chuckle from her sister.

Who wiped at her glassy eyes and took a deep and steadying breath.

“How came you by this gossip anyhow?” She asked.

“Tisn’t gossip sister, he already spoke with our parents.” Nyme had been tasked by them to deliver their warning.

She sort of had. You could lead a mule to water… but you had better be smart enough to know you couldn't threaten them into drinking.

“I see… I will think on it. Do you know when?” Veora eyed the pattern on the gloves. A nondescript ram’s head in all black, with a wreath of sharpened fern and laurel to adorn its horns. The soft edges of flowers and leaves didn't suit the piece in Veora’s opinion, so she took artistic liberties.

Nyme covered the gloves with her hands, “Tonight, he will call upon you. And perhaps it will be safer to continue your friendship with the Baroness as a married woman. I’m sure Lord Brennan would not object so long as you are discreet. You need not be lonely just because you are married to a man.”


Redhill had been transformed in the time they’d been away in Theren. Exterior windows had been covered with thick wooden panels, and heavy curtains added to any that faced into a lightwell. The once green pleasure gardens seemed desolate in their winterization, even though the true cold had not truly hit quite yet, and few servants scurried back and forth from the bustling primary kitchen out into the food gardens that composed the lower part of the hill. The lighter weight clothes had been packed into trunks and the winter outfits brought out and cleaned by manservants and maids to be hung freshly pressed in the nobility's wardrobes.

Minister Brennan’s office was not all too different. His one window had been covered by quarter sawn oak, the corners of the piece carved in relief like delicate waves. There was substantially more firewood stacked next to the hearth for him to add as he liked than there would have been prior, and a roaring blaze crackled away merrily.

His office was larger than most of the Minister’s, in part because he had elected to have a separate office rather than an additional room as part of his apartments. It was in the same wing and floor as the official council meeting chamber, though that was often eschewed in favor of meeting in the antechambers of the royal apartments.

One wall was covered by a large bookshelf and cupboards, some locked and some not. The shelves were stacked with scrolls- Maps, ledgers, proposals of new trade agreements, and more. Despite the volume of material, it was all clearly organized, and only a few papers were on his large desk, stacked in neat piles for his review. He was skimming through one such document when Lady Veora arrived in the doorway, and he stood with a smile.

“Lady Veora! Thank you so much for coming,” he said warmly, putting aside his work and crossing the room. “Please take a seat, and help yourself,” he told her, gesturing towards the several armchairs in front of his desk and the table between them that held a tray of various light appetizers and a pitcher of watered wine.

“Lord Brennan, you shouldn't have.” Veora smiled winningly. Amongst the snacks were her favorite, lemon cakes. Despite the fruit not being in season.

He was a man who paid attention to detail, a talented diplomat. There was much to like about that in a husband. She should be happy for it. Should be happy for many things.

Instead all she could muster was feigned. For she felt nothing, nothing at all.

She swept her skirts aside as she sat, the thick damask gown alike all the others the ladies at court were now sporting. She hadn't a clue how much colder it could get in Beleth, but already it had surpassed Theren’s winter.

“Who did you have to bribe to find lemons this time of year my Lord.” She asked, crooking a brow as she took a cake.

“No one at all,” Brennan answered. “I simply said these cakes were for you,” he said with a smile.

This was not quite accurate. Actually, some of the staff had seemed hesitant to make the cakes when he’d mentioned they were for Veora, which had seemed odd. But luckily Klara had been working, and she’d been happy to help- Or Cara, maybe. He could never remember which of Emerson’s lovers was which.

“I wanted to thank you for your assistance during our trip to Theren,” he told her. “Your help was indispensable. You are a competent and accomplished young woman, and a credit to your family and your country.”

“You are too kind Lord Brennan, it is of course a personal honor to have been of service in any small way to the King and our Prince. Though it did help that my task was to aid an already well accomplished man. Your reputation well proceeds you Lord Brennan.” The niceties and flatteries of nobles came easy to Veora, but at least in this case she did not need to stretch the truth in service of etiquette.

Brennan smiled at the praise, and took a sip of his wine.

“Unfortunately, our combined efforts did not result in quite the… Results we might have hoped for. Beleth and Theren remain only tentative friends,” he said, which was underselling it. “But I think unity between the two countries is still possible, especially if the nobility undertakes that goal as well. Which is why,” he said, “I have spoken with your parents to get permission to broach the subject of marriage with you.”

The surprise on Veora’s face, despite knowing full well what was coming, was still genuine. For some reason probably known only to those who knew how to divine hearts and minds, the news still hit Veora the way a drunken lout might hit a fellow drunkard at a pub.

She had already quite made up her mind to say yes.

“Indeed my Lord, that is why we ladies were sent with our Prince to Beleth. In the hopes that we might make marriages that benefit the alliance. I couldn't have imagined that someone like yourself would look my way however Lord Brennan. We had all presumed that you should never wish to marry at all.” Veora found herself saying, instead of the simple yes she had decided upon.

Brennan chuckled at that. “When I was younger, I had no interest in the matter,” he admitted. “And once I had passed my title to my sister, it was no longer politically salient, and as my interests had not changed… It seemed unnecessary to pursue.”

He paused, considering as Veora nodded in understanding.

She and everyone else had long understood Lord Brennan’s choice. Had she the opportunity she would have chosen the same. Though she was beginning to understand that in Beleth people like they had more opportunity for romance in the marriage state than in Theren.

“But now, a union between us would be politically advantageous for our countries. And I find myself in need of a good conversation partner, and more importantly, someone competent enough to help me manage my estates and finances.”

Despite no longer being Duke of Perrin, Lord Brennan was quite wealthy regardless. He’d directly inherited a large sum from his father, and had made many good investments. He owned several businesses, as well as three homes. The role of trade minister had expanded very quickly in the last few months, and he found it difficult to split his attention.

“I should clarify- This marriage would be entirely of a practical nature,” he told her. “When I said I had no interest in marriage as a youth, I mean that my interests were- and still are- outside the fairer sex. And if I may be presumptuous, I have a suspicion that we may differ in that regard.”

Veora glanced to the bountiful table before raising her gaze to Lord Brennan once more, gulping dryly.

“They say it is my only flaw as a Lady. A daughter can be perfect in every way in Theren, but if she does not marry, she is a great disappointment to her family. I think I have disappointed mine long enough. If it would please you to have me as your steadfast assistant in your matters Lord Brennan. You would find me most content to live in the arrangement you offer, and ever dedicated to seeing your estate flourish.” She sounded much stronger than she felt.

With all the years she'd spent clinging to her romanticisms it felt strange to suddenly let go. It left her light headed.

“Wonderful!,” he said, clearly pleased.

“And I do not find it a flaw in the least,” Brennan said kindly. “In fact- I think it makes us rather uniquely suited for each other! So long as we are discrete, there is no reason we should not both be married, and happy. And if you should ever decide to take a different type of lover because you want a child, I will name such a child as my heir. Though the duchy will still pass to my nephew,” he clarified.

Veora gave a breathless laugh, Nyme was right, she hadn't even needed to ask for it. Nyme was right. Nyme was right and she still felt like her heart was breaking.

“That is a great relief Lord Brennan, that two such people could find so understanding a partner.” Broken hearts mended with time. And after all Nyme was right, this was, on paper, far more than she had a right to hope for in this life. She was a selfish and ungrateful creature to ever think to snub it.

All for the impracticalities of fairytale romance.

But Baronesses free of hand did not tie themselves to marriage when they had no reason to and daughters who stood to inherit nothing must marry for their upkeep. That was practical. That was the way of the world.

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