When the crowd that had gathered for the early morning had begun to disperse, Nico vaulted over the banister, landed on the dusty yard, rolled across the ground, and then jumped to his feet, arms raised to either side of him as though he had just performed a great acrobatic feat.
What few spectators remained politely clapped their hands as they laughed. “Fantastic form,” said Rakan, walking up behind Nico and patting him on the shoulder with enough force to make him pitch forward and almost lose balance.
Nico looked about and spotted the field of tents that had been set up behind the royal stage for the knights that had started coming in some two or three weeks prior to the tournament.
The castle was definitely large enough to house most of the dignitaries that had attended—and it did—but most lords and ladies sought out accommodations elsewhere. Some were in residence at estates that dotted the outer perimeter of the city. Frankly, Nico thought that a tent was wonderful, as despite everything Aides attempted to help the situation, the interior was simply too stuffy this time of the year.
“Where are you going, boy?” said Aides with a small smile as he descended the staircase at the side of the royal stage. “The stunt is over! You did fantastically well. You should celebrate. Come with us, get changed into something more suitable for the weather.”
Nico looked down at himself and realized that his silken tunic was clinging to his body—drenched in sweat. The sight left very little to the imagination and Nico’s musculature, developed through ten years of intensive martial training, showed very well indeed.
“Stop calling me boy, father,” said Nico, baring his teeth in a playful snarl. He knew his father didn’t mean it, but he still liked to poke fun at Aides for seemingly never getting used to thinking of Nico as anything more than a more-than-averagely capable, responsible, and independent young man despite being some seven years older than the age of manhood in their realm.
Aides laughed and ruffled Nico’s hair as he walked by. Nico decided to walk with his parents for a little while. It looked like they had something to say to him. “Don’t you see, dear husband,” said Kore, placing a gentle hand on Nico’s arm as she walked up to his other side. “Our little prince has found a boy!”
“Where is he?” said Aides, looking around rather dramatically. “I have a duty to fulfil as a father! I must make him fear me such that he risks pissing himself at the very sight of my approach.”
Nico playfully punched Aides in the shoulder. “You will do no such thing, father,” said Nico, as he felt heat rise to his cheeks. “If there is anyone that he must fear it is me. I know that the way to a man’s obedience is through his cock, father mine. I will make him quiver in fear of having no company but his hand’s if he crosses me.”
“Oh,” said Kore, with a knowing smile. The blush on Nico’s face deepened. He had always suspected that his step-mother knew about Will, but he had never been sure enough. The look she sent his way, however, was proof positive that she had known for some time. “Your father knows that fear very well, little prince.”
Nico looked over his father’s shoulder at the array of tents that lay beyond the royal stage. They made their way out of the jousting yard, and it wasn’t until they had taken quite a few steps that Nico realized they were headed toward the back of the spectator stands.
Nico noticed that his father was looking at him with a bemused expression. “I have not seen him in ten long years, father,” said Nico, “You will forgive me for being more than a little bit excited.”
Aides grinned at Nico. Smiles were something that Aides did liberally in private company, but grins were another matter entirely. Nico felt somewhat shocked to see his father’s pearly-white teeth, truth be told.
Aides elbowed Kore as Nico scanned the tents for the pennant flag of the House of Phoebus. “Even better that I had insisted on making that stunt happen, then, no?” said the king. “I bet that the poor young man was instantly stiff as a rock in his breeches the moment Nico removed his helm, don’t you think, darling?”
Kore rolled her eyes, while Nico simply watched with thinly-veiled amusement as Aides glorified himself for no apparent reason. “Was it not perfectly planned and executed on my part, darling wife?” said Aides, holding out his hand for Kore to take.
The queen, as far as Nico was concerned, seemed to be more than happy to play along, but he also knew that she was famous for her scathing sarcasm. “It was truly a plan worthy of a general,” said Kore, mockery dripping in copious amounts from her tone. “Perhaps the Imperator would rescue you from kingship to place you upon the battlefield.”
Aides’ face turned briefly red at the jab, but he quickly regained his composure. “Well,” said Aides, turning to Nico with a forced stern expression. “Go on,” said Aides, “go find the boy that you are going to choose as your favoured for this tournament. I trust that Di’Marrë has told you what you must do, yes?”
Nico nodded. He was about to take a step forward when he rocked back on his heel and looked at his father. Something had been bothering him for the last few days. “Must we really resort to such things, father?” said Nico. “Would it not be an affront to tradition, to chivalry, and to honour to guarantee a victory for my favoured?”
Nico dearly wanted Will to win, but he was not so certain about making such a possibility a certainty through dishonourable means. “It would make a mockery of this very tournament, father. Am I, and the other lords of this realm, to accept that this was merely a farce that I could toy with freely?”
Nico looked around, but it did not seem as though there were any unsightly characters eavesdropping on their conversation. Aides led Kore over to a rounded boulder that had been used as a marker for where to construct the royal stage. The builders had rolled it in, for a laugh, and had never quite managed the strength to remove it. The queen gracefully sat down atop the stone.
“Tradition is a word that can bite me,” said Aides. The almost-carefree expression he wore dissolved into the more glum and realist one that Nico was used to. “I have heard enough of that word from the court and I am sick of it.” Aides shook his head. “Chivalry and Honour. Yes, those words still carry some value, but this is not the battlefield of the body, my son. Chivalry and Honour only go so far on the playing field of the nobility.”
“Deceit and manipulations are what we deal in. How many of our servants, do you think, have been bribed to interfere with the contest?” Nico had no answer for that. He was well aware that the number was irrelevant—only the quantity. Too many. Aides paid his livery well, but every man and woman had their price. “This is the great game of lords, Nico. While I admire your idealism, I am not so certain that this is the most fitting place for it.”
“Remember, my son,” said Aides, as he walked up to Nico. “There is more at stake in this tournament than gold, a title, and bragging rights.” Aides shook his head. “The future of the crown that you will one day come to wear begins today, and your happiness will forever be affected by what you choose to do when the sun sets and a victor is named.”
“If the tournament does not go as you desire, what will happen, then?” said Aides.
“The Dominion has made it clear that it will refrain from meddling in disputes between the different Human Kingdoms, Nico,” said Aides. “If I refuse to honour the agreement made ten years ago because your favoured did not win the tournament, then it may very well be the case that—”
Nico did not need to be told. “I know, father,” he said, “war will come.” Nico wondered, idly, if it was an inevitability already. Surely, he had done enough to gravely insult Aires, what with the humiliation he had dealt to the warlord’s son and champion before the tournament had even begun.
Nico was well aware that they were already treading on thin ice with Aires, and while the warlord likely had his excuse to declare war on Aides’ kingdom, the other lords would likely be uninterested in joining him unless the agreement was broken.
“I appreciate your concern, father,” said Nico, “But I am not a child any more. I want to marry someone who is honourable and worthy of my hand. How can I know this if I simply hand the victory to my favoured on a silver platter?”
“Besides, father,” said Nico, his voice taking on a more serious tone. “Whomever wins the tournament is sure to be a capable fighter,” he said. “We might not know how honourable that champion will be, but do not forget that I am a warrior myself. I know how to ride and fight as well as any of these knights.”
“If necessary, I can keep whomever the champion is in line.” Nico glanced at the tents again, though this time his eye was drawn to the only one flying two banners—the three-headed dog of the House of Aides, and the golden sun of the House of Phoebus. “And should it come to that, I will put aside love and my own happiness for the sake of the kingdom.”
Kore stood up and straightened her dress. She walked up to Nico and stroked the side of his face. “You have surely grown into a fine man, Nico,” she said, “and your father and I are certain that when the time comes for you to accede to the throne, you will be a wonderful king to our people.”
“Go to him,” said Kore, glancing at the same tent that had caught Nico’s eye. “Find your destined and everything else shall follow.”
“Besides,” said Kore, looking over her shoulder and glaring at Aides, “ignore all this nonsense talk of war. I have it on good authority that full-scale war runs contrary to what the Dominion wishes and at best, there will be a few minor skirmishes before the Dominion steps in.”
Aides frowned, but said nothing. He turned to Nico. “If you would have it, I would give you my advice. Ask your favoured to partake. How he responds shall perhaps help you in determining whether he is a worthy partner.”
Nico spent ten minutes pacing in front of Phoebus’ tent. He couldn’t think of what he would say to Will once he saw him again. Was he supposed to be angry, since Will hadn’t even written to him in ten years? No. He felt that getting angry was disingenuous since he felt more frustrated and relieved than actually angry.
Nico was very much frustrated that he hadn’t once managed to find out who Will was until he was standing, quite literally, on the threshold of meeting Will again after ten years. Had Will changed in that decade? If he had, did he change for the better or for the worse? Did Will even still remember him?
All the talk about Will being worthy or not worthy of his hand in marriage had even gotten Nico thinking about the whole idea of worthiness. Of course, he might think that Will was worthy of his hand, but that all rested on the assumption that he was worthy of Will’s hand.
For all intents and purposes, Nico was on the verge of having a mental breakdown. He had never doubted himself or his motives this much in his life, and the constant fluttering of butterflies in his stomach certainly did not help. He was supposed to be a prince, all put-together and regal. Frankly, he felt just as jittery and nervous as the first time that he had enthusiastically put his cock in the stableboy’s mouth.
Out of the corner of his eye, Nico could see that Aides and Kore were watching him walk back and forth in front of the tent. They had amused smiles on their faces and Nico was half-tempted to walk back to them, slap them across their smug faces, and tell them that they weren’t helping in the least.
Then again, Nico supposed, they would just find it rather funny.
“Li-tenfi dermë teýna fitë kirasi vivital wikârda`na qarë konë fitë ζ`re1” Nico jumped, surprised to find a young Tretalleri man stepping out from behind the tent. He cursed himself silently for having not noticed. “Qami qakonë fitë d’norë teýna`re2” said the elf, the expression on his face almost sad and regretful.
Nico was taken aback. He had never actually heard the common form of Tretalleri spoken before. There were some of the elves among the citizens of their kingdom now, but Nico had never quite had the privilege of speaking with them.
His mentor Rakan was of the Blood in the Dominion, and thus spoke formal Tretalleri. Similarly, Nico’s tutors had never taught him the informal structure of the language used by the commoners. He understood enough as the two modes of the language were not wildly different, but Nico had no idea whether it was appropriate to respond in the formal manner.
Nico decided that it was better to respond in Dominean. It was the most diplomatic way. “I have been waiting for him as well,” said Nico. “He never once wrote. He never once visited. He never once showed that he even remembered me. How am I to know if he is honourable?”
The elf walked up to Nico, stepping right into his personal space. Nico was not blind. He knew that just like all the other elves, this one was a well-trained warrior. His own warrior instincts kicked into gear as they both sized each other up in an instant. It was unsettling, to say the least.
“My heart…” Nico shook his head. “I have not listened to my heart for a long time, but it tells me that I will find the same pure-hearted boy that I met ten years ago,” he said. “And it’s not him that I doubt… I doubt myself.”
Nico was about to step into the tent when he realized what the elf had just said to him. He froze, heart pounding in his chest. Had Will found another lover in the ten years since they had last met? Was that why Will had never written? “Your sun?” he said, voice faltering despite his best effort to calm himself.
Somehow, Nari’s words and introduction did not make Nico feel any more reassured. There was no conceivable world where “D’denë idë” was not a term of endearment.
Nico briefly considered maybe walking away to protect himself from getting hurt, but he had been waiting for this reunion for far too long. Perhaps he was simply getting ahead of himself and jumping to conclusions without first examining the situation—a fatal mistake when it came to playing the game of the nobility.
Nico narrowed his eyes at Nari before walking into the tent. His breath caught in his throat when he saw Will sitting on a threadbare cot, chest bare, armour gleaming on a pile beside the foot of the bed.
Nico’s throat immediately felt dry the moment he saw the sheen of sweat that clung to every curve and muscle of Will’s form. Nico could not help but think that Will had grown into the kind of man that would receive marriage proposals flung at him left and right had he been higher born.
Nico was half-tempted to fling a proposal at Will himself. “N-Nico!” said Will, distracting Nico from his less-than-appropriate thoughts about what he would like to do with the sizeable package nestled between Will’s legs. “W-what are you doing here?”
Nico opened his mouth to answer, but his eye caught the gleam of something that Will had been holding. He tried to take a look, but the moment he did, Will hurled the object into a plain velvet-lined wooden box and slammed the lid shut.
“I-I mean,” said Will, trembling as he got down to one knee, head bowed. “To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit, my prince?”
1 Li-tenfi dermë teýna fitë kirasi vivital wikârda`na qarë konë fitë ζ`re — He has been waiting for you for ten years, you know?
2 Qami qakonë fitë d’norë teýna`re — Do you doubt his honour?
3 Qarë erzë karra fitë`re — What does your heart tell you?
4 Qarë qirë fitë leral pirë nedë teýna`re — Do you not have faith in him?
5 Qami anmenë fitë ζ enkarë`re leral kira t’jorë`re — Why hesitate, then? There is no reason to worry.
6 Daennë d’denë idë fitë`re — My sun needs you.
7 Wyna`na d’denë idë siltanë teýna`re Romnë idë teýna neltë nilkontë dorë fitë ζ`re — Yes. He is my sun. I love him, but not as you do.
8 Nari nakhidë`na Nykos a’Aides Qor’Cilaninnë dirë D’Ferindë Aides`re — My name is Nari, Nykos son of Aides, Prince of the House of Aides