VI. The Wanted Chain

Before leaving King Philip's castle and after Rowan left, Argus took Wren somewhere private to speak. Wren never liked spending time alone with his father. It always unnerved him. Being in a stranger's home only made him more anxious. Argus pulled up a chair for Wren to sit in. Shortly after Wren sat down, Argus locked the door. He sat across from Wren at the small table in the dimly lit room. Argus leaned forward across the table, a crooked smile on his face. "You're doing well. If you wanted to finish this war off yourself, I'd say you could manage." "That's ridiculous. I'm nowhere near that ready." Wren sunk down in his chair. "Son, it's not about doing the most fighting. You merely need to be competent." Wren's heart pounded as his father spoke. "I pay soldiers to do the rest. Your brother can't manage what I give him nor conduct himself appropriately on the battlefield. He's such a show off. You know what they call him. Such an undignified name." "I don't think he'd want me fighting alongside him." Wren looked away. He really did think that, but that wasn't why he mentioned it. Argus waved is hand. "Who said anything about that? Get rid of him. He thinks of you as inferior. He won't suspect anything." In the back of his mind, Wren always wondered if his father would push him in this direction. Actually hearing him say those words was still shocking to him. He winced at the thought. "Father, why do you want me to do something like that?" "I'm only thinking of the kingdom's future, as you should be." Argus reached down and got something out of a bag. It was a blue and silver dagger. He slid it across the table. "Here, keep this on you." "What? I don't need this." Wren refused to touch it. "You can decide for yourself what you want to do. But...it would be very easy to slit his throat." Argus grinned, his voice almost a whisper as he spoke the last few words. "I can't do that...besides, if he were to die, then..." Wren felt sick listening to his father. "The Knight of Cailean, is that what you're worried about? Turn the blade over." Wren picked up the dagger and looked on the other side. It bore the image of a great eagle, the symbol of King Brion. "This...belonged to an enemy soldier, didn't it?" "It's easy to fool others with the right props." Argus grabbed hold of Wren's hand. "I expect you to keep this on you at all times, and I will check." "What if I don't?" Wren asked. "I have no need for a spare even more useless than the first born." Argus whispered his words. He leaned away from Wren, getting up to unlock the door. "Get ready to leave. We'll be heading home soon." "Yes, Father..." Wren sat alone in the room, unable to move. He stared down at the dagger. It weighed almost nothing in his hands but he had never felt a heavier weight placed in his mind than the sight of it. Argus met with someone else later on, his childhood friend and greatest ally, Egret. They spoke in Egret's room, knowing no one would dare bother them there. Egret's reputation pleased kings and terrified servants. The two old friends talked over a few mugs of beer. Their conversation started off on them gloating over tales from past glory days and current conquests, of land and women. When they spoke of the present, Egret shifted the conversation to the real reason they were meeting in secret. "How's it going with the boy?" Egret asked. "He'll come along eventually. I only need to keep stoking the fires of fear and feeding into his resentment." Argus said. He lowered his voice. "I already gave him the prop for the first act. Once the older one's taken care of, I can use his death to garner outrage towards King Brion. At best, that sodomite devil will slaughter the other side for us. If not, he'll run off back to Hell and I'll finally have that monster out of my hair." "Speaking of which, didn't you catch them together?" Egret took a big gulp of his drink. "In public, no less. I can't tell if that son of mine is a complete idiot or if that beast has bewitched him. It matters not. I won't have these problems with the younger one. He fancies your daughter. If we marry them off, we'll be celebrating a birth within a year." Argus boasted. "And our lands will be even more joined than before." Egret raised his mug in the air. He laughed. "Argus, did you ever think we'd come this far? I remember when we were young and plotting against your brothers. I was certain someone would find us out." "Ah, but your work on my sisters was exactly the catalyst we needed to get the court's eyes off us. Who knew killing off my siblings would be such a rewarding experience?" Argus laughed and finished off his drink. "After Brion, we should take Silvanus next. I've always wanted his land." Egret leaned over. Silvanus's lands and his were directly beside each other, with the land at Egret's border overseen by Robin and Luke's father, Sir Faolán. "No, we'll take Philip first. He's the weaker of the two. Silvanus has the Black Wolf to guard him. We will need to deal with that one carefully." "I think we can handle him. I hear he's gone soft the last few years." Faolán never frightened Egret the way he did others, nor was he impressed with his reputation as a warrior. To Egret, the only person who could defeat him was himself. With rumors going around that the man became more compassionate, Egret didn't respect him at all. "We should rile up that wolf, make him reckless and take him out already. Then, when we're through with Brion, Silvanus will be easy to take. His daughter, Flora, is quite the beauty. I wouldn't mind taking her as my wife." "Egret, you're already married." Argus shook his head and smirked. "Didn't stop me from getting rid of the last one. Mara's been nothing but a thorn in my side. At least Eleonora was quiet. Been thinking about slipping something in her drink." Egret drank the rest of his beer. "Haven't you ever though of getting rid of Ran? She's not exactly the exotic beauty she once was. Her hair's half gray now." "She is loyal though. Unbelievably loyal. That makes her quite useful. If I want another woman at any time, there's no need to remarry." Argus had long lost any attachment towards his wife. When he was younger and roaming the lands looking for anything to take, she was a beautiful, foreign treasure. He showed her off like a jewel-studded chalice on his return. In time, his interest in her oddness waned and their children were imperfect mongrels in his eyes. He regretted having children with her, but there was nowhere for her to go and she always defended him in conversation. Finding another woman with such limitations and qualities would be difficult. He resigned himself to making due with inferior offspring and having a strange foreigner for a queen. At times, however, he did consider acknowledging some of his bastard children and having them get rid of the current legitimate ones. That too was not ideal. Better an inferior legitimate child rule than a bastard, he thought. "Eh. I'm no king. Whatever woman is beside me doesn't really matter in the end." Egret tossed Argus a piece of paper. "Here's the next schedule. Make sure your men are ready." Argus glanced over the paper and tucked it away. "Of course." While the two old friends schemed in secret, Rowan was wiping the blood off his face. Another battle concluded. Robin was completely soaked from head to toe once again. Rowan hated seeing those strands as gold as the sun dyed in a deep red-brown. Working with Philip's men meant he couldn't get away with keeping Robin out of battle anymore. He wouldn't be able to give a reason Martin would accept. Robin was taking advantage of this, being more ferocious than usual to please Rowan. The heavy stench of blood and death hung in the air. Rowan was used to the sight, but the smell still made his stomach turn. He walked through a scattered pile of hacked corpses and limbs to meet with Robin. Luke followed close behind him. Luke started doing that since the assassination attempt. Rowan didn't mind. Luke still annoyed him, but his behavior had calmed significantly since that incident. Luke's demeanor had changed enough so that Rowan had returned to teasing him again. That was far from his mind in that moment. He needed to reach Robin and wash. If his father got what he wanted, soon too, he would be looking for Wren out along the stretches of another careless graveyard. He wondered if he would recognize his brother's face painted in such a violent color. Robin smiled at him, looking no different from a wild beast. "Have I done enough?" "More than enough. Come, let's bathe." He put his hand over the hand Robin was holding his sword with, lowering the blade. Luke watched the two of them silently. He grew more disturbed by their relationship each time he saw this display. He considered himself barely any better than a demon. His brother was something else entirely. Robin truly did become a beast from Hell on the battlefield for the sake of strings pulling at his heart. Such devotion to a single person, no matter how pure, was no different than being bound deeply into the sins of lust and greed, if not worse. Rowan's affection bought more death than any amount of gold the kings had ever paid out. Despite this, he couldn't stop himself from being mesmerized by the prince. He was so drawn in by his presence he hadn't spent the night with another man since the day they met. When he tried, he only ended up thinking of the prince and found his companion for the night inferior before getting to bed. He told himself this would all pass once he had the prince for a night. This obsession was merely from not being able to have him. He would return to his old self once he got what he was craving. He repeated that to himself many times a day. At a time like this, he couldn't interrupt the couple. Rowan was in no mood to be wooed. Luke went off to wash alone. Since that day, a nagging dissatisfaction was building inside him. Something clawed at his mind from somewhere he locked tight long ago. He pushed it back, but the lock was already breaking away. Behind him, against the banks of the river, his shadow was a perfect silhouette of his father. On the water's surface, he was met with his brother's reflection. Each figure were both strangers, distorted visions, and all too familiar. He kept the shadow to his back and stared up at the sky. The blue and white alongside the brilliant, burning hot light aggravated him just as much. He turned his gaze before him. Before the field, a single tree stood by the river. A lone mountain ash was the only disruption in the field on that side of the river. For a moment, it looked as if the sky was wrapped around the tree, and both reached out towards the infinite horizon. When he was young, he often watched the skies from the little farm he lived on before he left to find his father. Both night and day, through all weather, the sky and land always seemed to go on forever. It was impossible for him to ever see all that land, even now. Back then, staring out at that vastness only reminded him of how small and how chained down to the ground he was. He sought to remove those chains, but he had merely extended the length. Nothing but the sky could hold eternity. A beautiful illusion was of no need to him. All that was real was not in his mind or in visual tricks. He only had need for what he could touch and hold on to. There was no eternity there. The tree was dying, he could see it, and the field beyond him was barren. Not far behind him, past their camp, the ground was littered with the dead. The coldness of winter crept across his skin. Luke dressed himself and returned to camp. The world outside of man's touch was no place for him. He found Eider, who hadn't bothered to wash off yet. He sat down beside him, hoping that man's company would bring his mind back to its usual state. "I see you survived." Luke said. He sneered. "Though I suppose that's easy when you don't participate." "Hey, when it comes to living, all strategies are valid." There was no shame in Eider's words. "I can't wait for this to be over with. We're running out of what I stashed away. There's no way in hell I'll be able to stand more of this without something to drink afterwards." Luke had actually been drinking less than usual since they left. Eider seemed to have noticed and had been drinking more than double, as if to compensate. "Damn straight. And there ain't no women out here either. We haven't seen a village this whole time." Eider wiped his face off with a rag. A messenger approached them. He bowed before Eider and handed him a letter. "Message for you, Sir. From your wife, Lady Fleur." Eider took the letter and opened it. He glanced over it as he spoke. "Fleur sent me a letter? She must have delivered then." "Your wife was expecting?" Luke asked. Luke was unmarried himself. His father never put pressure on him to have an heir, and he could care less what anyone else thought about the matter. "Yeah. She was due any time now." Eider's eyes widened when he got halfway down the letter. His face turned pale. Luke leaned over and spoke quietly. Whatever the bad news was, Luke knew it was likely not something the entire camp needed to hear. "Something wrong?" "It was a girl." Eider's expression was blank. "Is that bad? Don't you already have several sons?" "A girl would have been fine." He folded up the letter. "Seems this one was a stillborn." "Oh...I'm sorry." Luke didn't now what else to say. He had little experience dealing with situations like this. "Well, that's how it goes. We can have another one." Eider's tone was emotionless. Luke could tell that was from holding back. "She named that one Nina. The next girl can have her name." "Do you want to drink right now?" That was the only thing Luke could think to offer him. He felt obligated to give something, though he didn't consider them to be friends. "It's a little early, but...eh, might as well." The two of them shared drinks together. Several of the other soldiers demanded to know where they kept getting alcohol from, but neither would let them know their source. Once Eider had a few drinks, he had returned to his usual self. Luke, however, felt the darker parts of his mind creeping up on him again. He drank more, hoping to drown out the unwanted noise. "Luke, you've changed. You going to clean up your act soon?" Eider put his arm around Luke. "What? Nonsense. I'm the same as I've always been." Luke finished off his drink. "I ain't blind, you know. You're in love this time. It's making you soft." Eider teased. "Quit with that. I told you, I'm not..." Luke knocked his arm away. "It's not bad. I think I like you more as you are now." Eider poured him another drink. "What's there to like?" Luke muttered under his breath. His words were too quiet for Eider to hear. Luke drank more than he spoke after that. He was only half-listening to what Eider was rambling on about at that point. Before he realized it, he was barely conscious. Someone grabbed a hold of him. "I'll take this off your hands." Lark pulled Luke up from where he was sitting. "Hey, we're talkin' here. Find someone else to bother." Eider said. "Stop it!" Luke attempted to struggle, but his movements were sloppy and weak. "Let..go of me...I'm not..." "Shut up, whore. I'll be done quick enough." Lark yanked Luke forward. Luke stumbled and fell to his knees. "I said cut that out!" Eider yelled. "If you want a turn, you can wait until I'm done." Lark pushed Luke onto the ground, holding Luke's hands down. Luke kept struggling to free himself but he was barely managing to keep himself conscious. Lark undid his pants and whispered something to him. Luke couldn't understand his words. Everything faded around him. When he woke in the morning, he was under a thin blanket. It felt like someone was holding him, and he was laying against something warm. He opened his eyes to find a familiar face staring at him. "Morning, honey." Eider said in an absurdly cutesy voice. Luke quickly moved away from him. "What?! You...did you...did we...?" Eider laughed. "Like hell. I don't mess around with men." Luke checked over his clothes. He was still dressed, but that didn't mean something couldn't have happened. "Then...what...why were you holding me like that?" "You know, you're really cuddly in your sleep." Luke objected. "...I am not! And you were the one with your arms around me!" "And who was laying on who's chest? You drool in your sleep too. Look what you did to my shirt." Eider pointed to a wet spot on his shirt. "You're changing the subject!" Luke ignored that comment. "Let's start from the beginning. Why am I here?" "That Lark fellow tried to force himself on you. I figured you'd have it under control since he's a complete weakling, but you were too drunk. So I gave you a helping hand. With the hilt of my sword to the back of his head." He pretended to be holding a sword and hitting someone. "Is he alright?" Luke didn't care if Lark was alive or dead. Eider could get in trouble for hurting another soldier though, especially as they served different kings. "Eh. I don't know. He fell over. Anyway, you were already out cold yourself. I figured someone else might try and do the same thing. Then I took you back to my tent. And that's it." Eider stretched out on the cot. "That still doesn't explain why you were holding me." Luke kept his distance. "I got cold and you started snuggling up against me, so I went with it." Eider grabbed Luke around the waist and pulled him in close. "What's the matter? You don't want to cuddle me anymore?" "Jesus, will you cut it out!" Luke resigned to being held. He didn't mind the physical contact, but he couldn't erase from his mind the circumstances under which they met nor that Eider hadn't been able to satisfy himself with any women in a while now. "I guess I owe you my thanks, though I don't understand why you bothered." "I can't watch something like that happen to my favorite drinking buddy." Eider messed with Luke's hair to annoy him. "What kind of friend would I be then?" "That's..." Luke nearly corrected him. He couldn't get himself to say it. "Regardless, thank you...for last night." Luke made himself more presentable before leaving the tent. Eider followed right behind him, not bothering to fix his hair or wash his face. To Luke's embarrassment, the first two people he saw were Rowan and Robin. "This isn't what it looks like!" Luke froze. Eider saw an opportunity for amusement. He put his arm around Luke's waist. "Abandoning me already, Luke? After we had so much fun last night." "We did not!" Luke pushed him away. "Shut up with that nonsense. People will spread rumors." "Given that you've slept with half the people here, I don't think one more would change anything." Eider tried to get a rise out of Luke. Luke looked around to see who else was nearby and said under his breath. "Not that. I don't want anyone to get the idea I slept with someone who's diseased." "Should I even ask what this is about?" Rowan raised an eyebrow. Robin shook his head and walked away. "I'm just messin' with him. He passed out last night and I took him back to my tent." Eider left out the rest of the details. "Oh? Is that so?" Rowan wasn't interested in what went on the previous night. He wanted to leave like Robin did, but he didn't want to look rude either. "You know better, Prince. I ain't gonna sleep with some man." Eider yawned. "Speaking of that, when are we going to reach a village? I haven't been with a woman in far too long. I'm starting to consider things I really shouldn't." "Sometimes, I wonder if the only reason you show up for battles is for women." Rowan shook his head. "Of course." Eider grinned. "That, and my father would have my head if I didn't." There was little time to rest. The two armies marched forward, reaching deeper into enemy territory. With their combined forces, they were able to push back Brion's forces not far from Brion's castle. They did not have enough manpower to go further. It would be for Egret and Silvanus to take Brion at the other side and weaken him further before they went to attack the center of his territory. Supplies and morale were already low from fatigue. Martin and Rowan agreed to return back, both sending messengers ahead of the armies. Spring was drawing closer. The weather had already started to warm early. The two armies would stay together until reaching King Philip's lands, then go their separate ways. Rowan rode ahead of his army alongside Robin. Going home brought him a mix of feelings. "Father's going to get onto me for this when we get home." He felt over the front of his shirt where he had been shot. "Surely he will have forgotten about it by now." Robin said. He was in a better mood than Rowan. "He never forgets when I mess up." Rowan was certain as soon as his father received his message, he had already started rehearsing a lecture to give Rowan. At the front of King Philip's army, Luke approached Martin. He had put off speaking with him about this, and in truth, he didn't believe himself as to the reason he wanted this. So close to their King's home, his time was limited. Luke swallowed his pride and spoke formally. "Sir Martin...I would like to ask a favor of you, if I may." "That's unusual. What is it?" Martin was taken aback. "I'd like to ask permission to do something. I should be asking the king this, but there's not much time." He cleared his throat and quickly rehearsed what he was going to say next one in his mind one final time. "When the prince was injured...I was right there. I keep going over it in my head and I'm positive if I had been paying more attention, the whole thing could have been avoided. I failed as a soldier to do my job. I feel like I owe the prince my service, at least temporarily, to make amends for my mistake." "You sure this isn't about you wanting to bed him?" Martin narrowed his eyes. "No, it's not...It doesn't sit right with me to not offer him something." Saying something like that didn't suit him. Luke hated his actions being pulled by another. Martin was surprised. He hadn't expected such responsible sounding words from Luke. As noble as Luke's gesture was, Martin still assumed Luke had ulterior motives. He sighed and smiled. "You have my permission. I will inform the king of the reason for your absence." "Thank you, Sir Martin." Luke gave a small bow from atop his horse and rode over towards Rowan. Martin watched him leave. "That prince has had quite the influence on you, hasn't he? Or is it your brother?" Luke rode up beside Rowan. Robin smirked at Luke, as if mocking him. Luke glared at him and turned to face Rowan. Rowan was none too happy to see him. "Sir Luke, what are you doing here?" Rowan asked. Luke gave a slight bow from atop his horse. "I've been given permission to come with you, my prince." "For what purpose?" Rowan half expected Luke to say something inappropriate regardless of how Luke was behaving. "To make amends for my failings in battle. If I had only acted sooner, your injury could have been avoided. I want to serve you until you are satisfied that I have done enough to compensate for my error." Luke reached over and placed his hand on Rowan's thigh. He watched for Robin's reaction. Robin was still smirking at him. Rowan gently removed Luke's hand from his leg. "You did enough by helping me get away from the battlefield to be treated. You don't need to do any more for me. Besides that, I never blamed you for what happened. You don't need to make up anything to me." "Please, Prince. My conscience won't rest until I have done at least something more for you." Luke begged. "Very well. You may come with us." With a sigh, Rowan gave his approval. Robin laughed under his breath. Luke narrowed his eyes and shot his brother another glare. "This isn't what you're thinking it is. I'm simply making amends for my mistake." "You've been so bold all this time that you forgot to learn how to lie." Robin said to him. "What are you two going on about?" Rowan gave Robin a confused look. "Well, I got no objections to this. I might stay around more instead of going back home." Eider rode up from behind them. "Oh, wonderful..." Rowan said sarcastically. Rowan dreaded the trip home even more. While they rode back, Wren was relaxing with Rosabella. The garden was still mostly empty. They had been spending most of their time together indoors, primarily in Rosabella's room. Rosabella had yet to get much further with fulfilling her and Rowan's plan. Wren was more open to engaging in sexual acts with her, save the only one that mattered for the plan. She wasn't angry with Wren over this, though she found his avoidance of it being tied into some silly sibling rivalry to be childish. She was happy to spend her days with him. The times when Rowan was away were when she was at her happiest. When Rowan returned, it was always a reminder of the reality the four of them were stuck in. Since Wren started coming to her bedroom so early in the morning, she had already told her servants to not bother her until later in the day. This left them with less chance of others interrupting them, and allowed her to lounge around in her sleepwear late into the morning. Wren clearly enjoyed it, she noticed. To further entice him, she stood by the window. The sunlight shone through her white gown, revealing the outline of her body. She watched Wren as he recited a poem to her, his eyes constantly wandering over her. Wren finished his poem. "What do you think?" "Wren, perhaps I am misinterpreting your words, but I feel as if your poems have become a bit indecent in symbolism." She said with a grin on her face. What Wren denied her in person, he demanded in between the lines of his words. "What do you mean, my lady?" Wren asked in an innocent tone. Rosabella found nothing believable about it. "Well, then maybe it's not intentional." She laughed. "But I can tell what's been in your mind while you were writing." "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to..." Wren averted his eyes. "No need to apologize. I quite like the change." Rosabella turned to look out the window. Many servants were gathering at the front of the castle. "A visitor?" Wren stood behind her to get a look. "Is it the soldiers returning?" Down below, a man in armor entered through the front gates. His face and hair were obscured by his helmet. "No, it's only one man." Rosabella noticed something as the man rode inside. His breastplate bore the image of a wolf surrounded by flames. She had seen this man once before at her father's home. "That crest...the Black Wolf." "Rin's father? Why is he here?" Wren leaned slightly out the window. His father and Egret met him at the front of the castle. The man removed his helmet, his long blond hair falling back. Wren heard much about that man before, but he had never seen him in person. From so high up, Wren couldn't see his face clearly, but he recognized that shade of blond as being the same as Robin's hair. Rosabella closed the window shut. "I should get dressed. We should go somewhere else." "Do you think my father might come looking for me?" Wren asked. "Possibly. We don't need to get caught by either of our fathers." Rosabella opened up her wardrobe, sifting through her dresses. "I don't think my father will really punish me for this, but I wouldn't want him seeing you so indecent." Wren stared at her. He lingered over each curve, wanting to do more than embrace her. Rosabella undressed and tossed her gown at him. She leaned against the wardrobe, showing off her body. "You mean like this?" Wren caught the gown. He walked over to her. She gave him a devilish grin as he ran his fingers through her hair. He whispered. "I'm very selfish. I don't want any other man seeing this view." "Why don't you dress me today?" Rosabella's cheeks burned. "I would be honored." He said, caressing her face. It hadn't been intentional. As he spoke, he knew he was mimicking phrases he heard Robin use on Rowan. He had long admired Robin, to the point of deep adoration, and wanted to emulate him to better himself. Over the years, he found his attempts inferior. He almost laughed at himself that he was able to finally capture it then. He chose the dress he found complimented her figure best. It was a gift Rowan had brought back for her the last time he was home. The origin of the dress initially bothered him. He found he could overlook that quite easily when he watched how she moved in it. How tightly it hung above her torso, how low the top of the dress dipped--it was nearly indecent. Such a style was not common in their area. Rowan had surely had the dress made for her in another kingdom. He helped her into the dress. Kneeling, he slipped on her shoes next. Rosabella giggled as he did. When he rose, he took out her cloak from the wardrobe to cover the dress up. He placed it on her shoulders and whispered in her ear, "Don't let anyone see under this but me." "I wouldn't dare." She wrapped her arms around him. "Perhaps, tonight, you could take it back off." "Perhaps." Wren wanted to kiss her. He stopped himself. If he allowed himself to, he would want more, and he was struggling at restraining himself as he was. "We should go somewhere else now, before I am unable to leave." "Let's go outside. It's a nice day. We can check to see if any of the plants have buds on them yet." Rosabella tugged at Wren's shirt. "You still have your brother's cloak, don't you? You should wear it while we're out." "I suppose I could..." Wren had worn the cloak a few times since his brother let him borrow it. He planned on keeping it neatly folded up and away until Rowan returned. When Rosabella found out he had it, she requested he wear it a few times when out with her. There wasn't really a point in doing so. Everyone knew Rowan was away. Rosabella seemed more entertained by seeing him in it than anything. There was one other time outside of that. He had originally planned on leaving the cloak in his brother's room. He meant to leave it with his other garments, but found himself going through the clothes Rowan had left behind. On a whim, he tried on his brother's clothes, donning the cloak as the final piece, and looked himself over in the mirror. For a moment, he mistook himself for his brother. The longer he stared, the more differences he noticed. He was younger, of course, and paler. The clothes hung somewhat loosely on him, Wren not having the physique to fill them out properly. He didn't have the personality to match the colors. It was too bold and dominating for him. His brother's scent surrounded him. At the time, he joked to himself, "I could fool Father, I bet, but not Rin." He kept that little incident to himself. Rosabella would certainly tease him for doing such a thing. On their way out, he got the cloak and put it on. Rosabella clung to his arm as they walked down to the garden. The garden was coming back to life again. At each bush and tree, Rosabella looked for signs of Spring. Wren followed behind her, more interested in seeing her so happy than what she was doing. After she had circled around the garden a few times, Rosabella sat down underneath the old mountain ash in the center of the garden. In her excitement, she had tired herself out. Wren found it cute. He sat down beside her. "Something wrong?" She played off her exhaustion. "I'm a little thirsty." "I'll go find a servant and have some drinks brought here." He kissed her on the cheek before getting up. Wren was impressed with himself. He managed to look romantic in front of Rosabella and control himself. He didn't intend to keep all of that desire pent up. There would be a time and place for that. His father may not care what he was doing, but he didn't want his father knowing anything about them. There was still the matter of completing Rowan's plan. That too he was not willing to allow, yet. At least, he thought, not under the current circumstances. Even if he wanted it, Rowan had no business deciding that for him. He could agree to it, however, if Rowan were to ask him properly instead of simply expecting it. With the way things were going, it would only be a matter of time before Rowan came to him about it. Wren knew his brother better than Rowan thought, in some ways. He knew very well the reason Rowan hadn't asked him directly was out of his own arrogance and pride from being the older sibling. 'Unfortunately for you, I can be very patient. You're not winning this one.' It was petty, but Wren expected Rowan to cave in time and everything would be fine. He wasn't really mad over the situation anymore. He only wanted a little respect. On his way to find a servant, someone crossed his path. At first, he mistook the stranger for Robin. He nearly called out to him to ask him when he got home. The man was not wearing Robin's colors nor armor. He was a much older man, looking about the age of Wren's mother. Though very handsome, there was something rough about him. The man exuded a bitter coldness. Wren glanced away, hoping the man would not notice him. The man stopped before him. "Ah, you are the younger prince, aren't you? Wren, was it?" "Yes, that is me." Wren faced him. The man's eyes matched perfectly in shade and shape with Robin's. It disturbed him to see those eyes giving him such an empty stare. Wren wanted to get away. "You are...Sir Faolán of Cailean?" "Indeed. One of my sons serves your king." The man's gaze pierced through him. "Do you always stay behind? You are young." Other princes and kings stayed out of battle. His own father, despite how much he boasted of being a warrior king, had not been in a battle since Rowan was small. Both King Philip and his son Prince James left it to their knights and soldiers to do battle for them. Sir Faolán's own king, Silvanus, did not fight either. Wren knew why he had mentioned this. Rowan did fight, and they were both Argus's sons. Wren gave him an ambiguous answer. "For now, I stay." "So, you plan on joining your brother in battle?" Faolán stood closer to Wren. Wren unconsciously backed away from him and lowered his gaze. "If that's what Father wishes for me to do." "You know, you are his son, but you don't have to serve your father's every whim. In time, you will be serving your brother instead. If I were you, I'd ask him what he wants." He moved closer to Wren. With a twisted grin, he said, "Or perhaps, you would rather be king yourself." "I don't know if I want that." Wren kept himself from making eye contact. "You're the spare. You should be prepared for that. Not that it's any of my business." Faolán changed the subject. Wren couldn't tell if it was because he noticed how nervous Wren was over it or if he had other motives. "Has my son been serving your kingdom well?" "He is our most powerful warrior." Wren said what he expected the man would want to hear. "Your father hates him. I can tell. He hates seeing me here simply from association." Faolán showed no concern in how his words came off. "Well, he has his reasons. It's a complicated matter..." Wren stopped himself from saying any more, worried he might reveal something that could endanger them. "My son's getting in the way of the prince having an heir. It's not complicated." Faolán's response shocked Wren so much he faced him again. He barely manged a few words. "How did you...?" "He is my son. Of course I would know." Wren thought for a moment he almost saw the man grin again. His words were remained empty. "After all, I'm the one who formally introduced them. Your father's a fool if he thinks he can stand between them. Argus will be left without a kingdom when he finally sets my son off." "He wouldn't do something like that!" Wren blurted out in Robin's defense. He froze up after he spoke, unsure of how Faolán might react. Robin never spoke kindly of his father. He had no idea how the man felt about Robin. "Your father is using you as a pawn, boy. If you follow the path he's leading you down, my son will kill you both. He'll be at your throat first." Faolán put his hand up against Wren's neck. The man wasn't hurting him, yet Wren couldn't get himself to move. His very presence kept Wren in place. As he withdrew his hand, he said, "Tread carefully, young prince. You have no idea how dangerous the waters you're in are." Wren stood motionlessly in place. "What do you know?" "Your father wants the world. What do you desire?" He walked past Wren. "You should think it over. Your time is running out." Wren couldn't move until he was gone. He could hear his heart pounding in his ears, and felt ashamed at himself for being so weak. He couldn't begin to understand what reason Faolán would have to say any of that to him. With a deep breath, Wren went on his way, trying to push the incident out of his mind. Robin's father did not stay long. Before sunset, he was gone again. Shortly after Faolán left, Egret departed as well. Argus informed Wren that Egret would be working with Silvanus's men for the next few months while their own men and Philip's returned home for the time being. Wren wouldn't admit it aloud, but he was happy that his brother was coming home. "What of my studying with Egret?" Wren asked. Egret had been teaching him about identifying poisons in private. "We will continue that when he returns. You have plenty of books you can read on the subject in the meantime." Argus noted. "And you and I have plenty of training to do together. Be ready after lunch." "Yes, Father." Wren watched the window eagerly, hoping to see a sign of anyone coming near. Drawing close to home, Rowan had managed to keep in his annoyance as Eider and Luke continued to bother him. Robin kept mostly quiet during the journey, ignoring the two of them. Rowan was a little bitter over it, but expected as much. Eider carried on the loudest. "I can't wait to sleep in a real bed again." He grinned. "Surrounded by grateful women..." "I'll just take the bed. Though I wouldn't mind some company..." Luke reached over to touch Rowan's face. Rowan knocked his hand away. "I'm afraid my bed has no extra room, Sir Luke." "What a pity." Luke tried to touch Rowan's thigh instead. Rowan grabbed his hand, holding it tightly, and mouthed to him "stop it" as he narrowed his eyes. He nodded his head in the direction of Robin, who hadn't seen any of what Luke was doing. Luke pulled his hand away. Eider didn't notice the exchange between them. He nudged Luke in the side. "Bet you're glad to be away, aye, Luke? That bratty Prince James is always giving you a hard time." Luke grimaced. "Don't even mention that name in my presence. If he gets himself assassinated, I will buy drinks for every soldier on our side." Still curious about their history, and wanting to piss him off, Rowan decided to see what he could get out of Luke. "If you don't mind me asking, what's your history with him? Prince James seems to target you in particular. Is there some reason for that?" "It's nothing more than bad luck." Luke's agitation showed on his face. Rowan could tell he wouldn't get any details out of him then, at least not with so many people around. Eider saying that made him wonder if Eider knew something about it. "Please, let's talk about anything else. I don't want to think about him for any moment longer than I have to." "I apologize. I didn't mean to pry." Rowan feigned politeness. "Don't worry about it, Prince." Luke motioned over at Robin. "Is he always quiet like this?" "Sir Robin likes to enjoy the scenery." Rowan said, coming up with the first excuse he could think up to excuse Robin's rudeness. "He looks like he's off in his own world." Luke commented. Robin was staring off at some birds flying nearby. He considered making a comment about Robin's mental stability. "He's always like that. Sometimes, we'll be at the castle and I'll talk to him, and he ignores I'm even there. I know he hears me." As Eider spoke, Robin laughed under his breath. "I hear you laughing about it over there. Prince, why do you let him act like that?" "He never ignores me." Rowan looked over at Robin. "Isn't that right, Sir Robin?" Robin turned to face Rowan and said with a smug look, "I heard your every word, your majesty." "See, Sir Robin is behaved enough." Rowan gave them both a fake smile. "Enough?" Luke narrowed his eyes at his brother who had returned to staring off at the distance. "Look, the castle!" Eider pointed ahead of them. When they arrived, Wren was waiting for them at the end of a long crowd of celebrating people. Argus hadn't bothered to come out to see them. Once the men had passed the masses, the soldiers split off, most heading off to look for food or a bed. Rowan wanted to be alone with Robin and Wren, but Luke and Eider had both followed them. He kept his annoyance hidden. Rowan's mood lightened when he noticed Wren was still wearing his cloak. "We're home." Rowan greeted him with a sincere smile. He wouldn't normally allow Wren to see such an unguarded side of himself. In that moment, he didn't care. "Have you been well, Prince Wren?" Robin asked. "Yes. And you?" Wren glanced over at Luke as he spoke. Robin said, "Well, things didn't go as smoothly as we hoped. It doesn't matter now. We're home." Wren nodded to disguise his split attention. For a moment, he made direct eye contact with Luke. There was something there in his mind, something familiar he couldn't quite grasp hold of. He spoke to Luke in a soft, nervous voice. "You...have we met?" "You're the younger prince. Yes, I remember you." Luke had a devilish grin on his face. Robin and Rowan exchanged looks of worry over where the conversation may end up going. Robin moved himself in between the two of them to keep Luke from doing anything physically inappropriate. "When did we meet?" Wren asked. "At my king's castle. You attended the meeting, didn't you?" Luke stepped around Robin. Rowan intercepted him. Luke kept himself from laughing. 'Protective, aren't we?' "Oh, yes." Wren didn't feel satisfied with that answer. He knew there was still something else he was forgetting. "Oh, a bit of advice. You might want to learn to keep track of how much you drink." Luke whispered the last part. Wren's eyes widened as a memory flashed before him. His face burned hot and his heart pounded. "Enough about that meeting. Let's go inside." Rowan said quickly. Wren snapped out of his embarrassment for a moment. He had come to greet them for a reason. "Oh, Father wishes to meet with you in private." "Of course he does. I'm sure he has something new to complain about." Rowan mumbled under his breath. He sighed and put his hand on Robin's shoulder. "Sir Robin, I'm sure he won't want you there. You stay here for now." "If that is what you wish." Robin said. "Hey Luke, you want to get something to drink?" Eider stretched his arms. "Tired of standing around here." "Hmm, later. I think I'd like to get to know the younger prince more." Luke waved him away. "Suit yourself." Eider whispered to Wren. "Better watch your ass, Prince Wren." "Uh, Rin, you're staying, right?" Wren moved over closer to Robin. Robin finally noticed what Wren was wearing. He wanted to laugh, but he kept him amusement to himself. "I think that would be for the best." "Rin?" Luke glanced over at Robin. "It's a nickname." Robin shrugged. "Well, I'm off then. Come have a drink with me later, Luke. It's your turn." Eider waved as he started to walk off. "I will." Luke didn't waste any time once Eider left in getting closer to Wren. He pushed Robin aside and got between the two of them. Robin balled his fist. He restrained himself from doing anything more. Luke took hold of Wren's hand. "Prince Wren, good to see you again." "I don't think we've been properly introduced." Wren shifted his eyes back and forth between Luke and Robin, not sure what to do. Luke kissed Wren's hand. "Yes, we have. You don't remember? We nearly headed off together that night after the meeting." "I'm afraid I don't recall such a thing." The memories of that night flashed in Wren's mind again. He pushed them back in embarrassment. "Your brother got in the way that time. How about tonight instead? I'm sure I can show you things you've never done with any lady." Luke drew closer to Wren, leaving little space between them. Robin grabbed hold of Luke by the arm and pulled him away. He kept a firm grip on Luke as he spoke. "That's enough out of you. I thought you came here to court Rowan. Are you that disloyal?" "I did not. And I should think you'd be grateful for that, considering you've staked a claim on him." Luke yanked his arm free. "It's not about that. It's a matter of principle." Robin glared at him. Wren watched the two of them in confusion. "Rin...should I ask what this is about?" Luke quickly composed himself. He put all his focus back on Wren. "Nothing at all, Prince Wren. My brother seems to have misunderstood me. Why don't we forget him and go somewhere else? Do you mind if I simply call you Wren?" "I'd prefer you addressed me properly. Rin, why don't you show him to a guest room? I just remembered that I need to see...Mother about something. Yes, Mother. Because...um..." Wren pleaded with his eyes for help. Robin responded to his plea quickly. "Rowan's birthday?" "Yes! Yes, that's definitely why I needed to see her! We have planning to do together!" Wren started to walk off. "I'm sorry. I must go now." Luke sighed as Wren ran off. "He's a shy one." "It's more immaturity than anything." Robin commented. "And now I'm stuck with you. Should have went with Eider." Robin was glad to be alone with Luke. He wanted to talk with him without the others around to hear. "I'll find a room for you. You want to know where mine is too, right?" "Why would I care where your room is?" "Because that's Rowan's room." Robin gave him a big grin. "You're joking...I can see getting away with it out in the field, but how did you manage that here?" "We shared a room as children. Rowan would throw a tantrum when I'd be sent away at night. At this point, we say it's because he trusts me with his life, and so I am expected to guard him at night." Robin led Luke further into the castle. "And people believe that?" "Those we need to convince believe it. Nothing else matters." Robin stopped in front of a room. He opened it and looked around before he motioned for Luke to come inside. "Will this room suffice?" "It's decent enough." Luke took a look around the room. He didn't care what sort of luxuries he was given or how the room was decorated so much as he wanted to memorize the look of the room to avoid getting lost later. The design was a bit too feminine for his tastes, the bed and windows decorated with flower designs and the floor was covered in fragrant petals and herbs. The scent of the room was a mixed of floral and musty aromas. He sat on the bed to test its comfort. "If you wish to eat with Rowan, don't bother going to the dining hall. We never eats there." Robin checked around the room to make sure nothing was missing or out of place. Dust along the window and corners of the room suggested it had been some time since any servant had thoroughly cleaned it. "Why?" Luke asked. "He has his reasons for it. Besides, it helps spread those rumors about him being terrifying and strange." Robin sat down at a table in the room to write a few notes to tell servants after he left. He did a lot of paperwork for Rowan, so he always kept supplies for that on him. "He eats breakfast in our room, lunch typically outside, and dinner either outside or in our room most days." "I don't understand you. Are you bored of him?" Luke teased. "I'm giving you a fair chance. I know very well you won't make any progress with him. However, I accept your feelings and wish you luck on your impossible battle." Robin checked over what he wrote, glancing around the room to see if he had forgotten anything. He hid his amusement with a face blank. "You see me as...entertainment, don't you?!" Luke stood up from the bed. Robin grinned. He laughed under his breath. "Since you're bound to lose, you could try to befriend him. You don't keep anyone near. You could use a friend. Rowan would do well to have someone other than me to converse with too. I know he has plenty he can't say to me." "So that's your plan. Did you learn to behave like that from when you were in their hands?" Luke said, hoping to rile him up. "And where did you learn to behave from?" Robin laughed at him. Luke didn't respond. Robin put his things away and rose from the chair. He walked over to the door. "I have business to attend to. I'll see you later, I suspect." The two brothers said no more to each other. Robin left wearing the same blank expression he kept earlier. Luke had always been an observant person and good at seeing through others. He couldn't read Robin at all. He sat back down on the bed. "Mother would adore you if she saw you like this." Elsewhere in the castle, Rowan and Argus spoke in private. Argus did most of the talking while Rowan attempted to get in a few words here and there. Rowan was in no mood for hearing his father complain to him. More than anything, he wanted to sleep. "You're getting careless again. Explain yourself." Argus sat comfortably in a chair. He rested his head against his hand. "I have no excuse. I made a miscalculation. I am sorry." Rowan stood in front of him, slightly bowing. He was exhausted and hungry. It was making him more agitated than he would have normally been. His annoyance was coming through in his voice. "Don't let it happen again." Argus got up from his chair and approached Rowan. "I have no use for a weak leader who allows himself to be so vulnerable. It's disgraceful. Will you be on your knees the next battle?" Rowan kept his head lowered as he looked up at his father. "I am very sorry..." "I suppose he's gotten you quite used to being on your knees already. Perhaps, you would do better if he was gotten rid of. At this point, we hardly need his strength." Argus had a devilish smirk on his face, anticipating the fearful look that flashed in Rowan's eyes. "That isn't necessary. I admit I wasn't as careful as I could have been, however, in light of what we learned at King Philip's meeting, I should think this oversight is a more forgivable one." Rowan clenched his fists as he bowed deeper. His face was hot with embarrassment and anger. "I will overlook it this time. However, if there is a next time, do me a favor and stay down." Argus walked past him. He lingered behind Rowan, just close enough to be unnerving. "I won't let it happen again. Please, forgive me." "You are forgiven." Argus returned to his chair. "You may go now. I do not wish to see you any longer." Rowan said nothing as he left. He headed back to his room to take a short nap. Lunch was soon enough that he didn't mind putting off eating a little longer. About an hour later, Robin woke him to eat. Rowan asked for Robin to bring their food outside as he wanted to spar with Robin after lunch to get his mind off his father's demands. Robin could tell by how tense Rowan looked not to ask about how things went with Argus. When they had finished eating, they both prepared themselves. Rowan enjoyed doing this with Robin despite how much he hated fighting in battle. For him, it was more of a competition than a real fight. Sometimes there was a little bit of blood or bruises, but nothing serious. They had trained with each other for so long they could read each other's intentions and limitations with ease. Both of them were stubborn and competitive. It was merely a training exercise to keep up their skills, but asking to stop first meant accepting defeat. They had different strengths, but were overall evenly matched. The winner would be determined by who made the first mistake. Today, there was an unexpected factor. A third party joined them. Robin laughed under his breath. Rowan sighed. "Good afternoon, Prince. Do you mind if I watch?" Luke leaned against a stone wall. "If you wish...Though I doubt you will be entertained." Rowan refocused his mind back to Robin, searching for a weakness to exploit. "Are you ready?" "Wait. I have an idea." Robin gave a crooked smile. "Since Luke came all this way to see you, why don't we trade place?" "Robin, what are you...?" Rowan gave him a strange look. "I would be honored." Luke moved in between them. He unsheathed his sword. "You fight very beautifully, your majesty. Won't you allow me the pleasure of experiencing that first hand?" Robin snickered as he moved away from them. Rowan realized what Robin had offered him. He hid his amusement. "Very well. I see no reason to deny you that. Are you prepared?" "Yes, my prince." "Good. I must warn you. I hold back for no one." As Rowan finished his words, he had already started to swing at Luke. Luke was caught off guard by how quickly Rowan moved. He expected, as it was only a training exercise, for Rowan to be less violent. He was barely managing to counter Rowan's swings. 'Does he intend to kill me? Why is he fighting like this?' Luke hadn't seen this side of Rowan before. It was different than the person he saw move with such desperate gracefulness on the battlefield. The person before him was wild and fierce, each movement filled with an arrogance he had never seen the prince display before. Luke realized he was merely being toyed with. 'So, there's a devious side to you too.' Luke reasoned his brother had set this match up between them to humiliate him or scare him off. 'You misjudge me, Brother. He intrigues me even more now.' However further interested he may have been, Luke still had a problem to deal with. He knew he was going to lose. He needed to find a way to do let it happen without allowing his brother to get a laugh at him. Luke tried to get in a word to concede defeat early. "Prince, I think that..." "Quitting already?" Rowan struck at him with a heavy swing. Luke managed to stop the attack with his own blade. Rowan pushed forward until he had backed Luke up against a wall. He kept pushing until there was little space between them. With a smirk, Rowan mimicked Luke's usual tone and said, "What a pity." Out of pride, Luke attempted to push him off and fight back. Rowan kept him pinned against the wall. The tip of Rowan's blade drew uncomfortably close to Luke's neck. He hated to say it. Luke's hands shook as he spoke. "We should stop. It's clear I am outclassed." Rowan released him and sheathed his sword. "Thank you, Sir Luke. That was most entertaining. Why, I feel so much better than usual. You're welcome to spar with me any time you wish." "Are you mocking me?" Sweat dripped down Luke's face as he caught his breath. Rowan didn't respond to his question. "I've noticed a few places you leave yourself open at. If you'd like, I could help you work on that. If you behave yourself, that is." "I can't make any promises on that end." Luke wiped the sweat from his face and sheathed his sword. He reached out to touch Rowan. Rowan backed away just enough to be out of reach. He wasn't annoyed by Luke like before. With Luke's behavior more controlled, Rowan was starting to find Luke amusing. Luke's desperation made Rowan want to tease him. "Your advances would serve you better being used on someone else." "I'm not giving up. All you've done is make me burn more for your touch." "Unfortunately, you will have to keep that fire inside you." Rowan put his hand on Luke's shoulder, letting himself linger there for a while to watch Luke's reaction. Rowan had two competing ideas in is mind about the flashy knight. It was clear that when they met, Luke very much intended to play around with him and move on. To come all this way, he was either very determined to get what he wanted, or what he was displaying now was an act. In that moment, Luke gave him the confirmation he was seeking. Rowan didn't meet with the eyes of a wolf closing in on its prey. An innocent vulnerableness displayed on Luke's face, dressed with a faint red. Rowan pulled his hand away. "You came to watch, right? I still want to continue, and Robin's hardly gotten to do anything yet. When I'm done with that, I could give you some pointers." Luke returned to his usual self. "I would love to hear any advice such a skilled swordsman has to offer." Taking his previous position against the nearby wall, Luke watched the two of them fight. He hoped that afterwards, he might get to be alone with Rowan for a while. The arrogance Luke had seen in Rowan earlier was on greater display as he sparred with Robin. His brother mirrored that cockiness. He could tell they were both enjoying themselves, both seeking to outwit the other. The sort of behavior he saw between them made him think more of old friends than lovers. He was a little surprised that his brother didn't throw the fight to appease the prince. Rowan "won" their little pretend fight by knocking Robin's sword out of his hand, but Luke could tell by their movements Rowan won by his own skill and only just barely. Robin made a small mistake and Rowan fully took advantage of it. To Luke's disappointment, Robin stayed around to watch Rowan give Luke some private training. Luke didn't bother complaining. The prince was at least taking more interest in him. Any progress was better than none. Rowan was in a good mood by the end of the day. Robin was happy to see Rowan was in better spirits. There was still plenty of menial work to be done for the king between them, but Rowan didn't mind as much. The next morning, Rowan was still in a good mood. He wanted to spend some time alone with Wren. Robin was understanding and they went their separate ways after breakfast. The last time Rowan had spoke with Wren, they had left on somewhat good terms. To see his brother still wearing his cloak when he came home gave him hope he could improve things further. The two brothers had been at odds for a long time. It started when Rowan was in his mid-teens, becoming annoyed at having his little brother tag along with him everywhere when he wanted to be alone with Robin. By the time he had gotten over that, his brother was on the edge of becoming a teenager and starting to push him away instead of wanting to cling to him. As the older one, Rowan knew he should have acted more maturely about the matter. But, he had let their bickering continue. He was ashamed to admit it, but he had held some resentment towards his brother during that time. Rowan had gone through lengths to avoid letting his father use Wren as Argus did with him, and Wren didn't seem the least bit appreciative. Rowan knew now that was his own fault. In his attempts to shield Wren from the cruel world their father forced Rowan into, Rowan had also shielded Wren from being able to understand what he had given Wren. With the current situation, he could admit to himself now as well why Wren was so resistant. The plan was conceived by him and negotiated between Rosabella and himself. He knew he didn't need to ask Robin's permission first. Robin already trusted him enough to understand what he was doing. Wren was the only part of the equation he hadn't considered carefully. If he didn't admit his arrogance to Wren and apologize for putting him in such a situation, he knew his brother would continue to resist. Rowan did a lot of thinking about their situation on those too short nights out on the battlefield. As he had covered his brother in his cloak, he wanted again to shield his brother from having to deal with that. It was a painful thing to consider, but he contemplated negotiating with Egret to allow Wren to marry Rosabella instead. He would need to marry someone else and have an heir properly if he did that. The thought made his stomach turn. He didn't want it to come to that. If Wren still chose to be uncooperative, he would arrange it as an apology, he told himself. Rowan was more nervous than he expected. He searched for Wren around the castle. He had gone to Wren's room first, then Rosabella's afterwards, and their usual meeting places around the castle. That left the garden as the next likely place to check. He walked out to the garden, nervousness building inside him. Rowan told himself again what he needed to do and counted his breaths to calm himself. The walk out to the garden was long. When he got there, he didn't find Wren. Rosabella was busy tending to the plants by herself. When she noticed him, she greeted him. "Oh, Prince, how are you? How is your injury?" "It's already long healed. Thank you for your concern." "Look at the garden. Everything's almost ready to bloom. These have bloomed early. Would you like them?" Rosabella handed him a handful of flowers. "Thank you, Lady." He accepted the flowers. They were small, white flowers. He was careful not to damage them. "Is Wren not here?" "No, he's training with your father right now. I don't like it. I don't want him to be involved with all of that. Those kinds of settings, even outside the battlefield, are so easily dyed in red." Rosabella's worry showed on her face and in her voice. "I don't like it any more than you. I'll do my best to keep him away from battles, but there is little I can do to stop this if Wren is wanting it himself." "I know. Thank you, Prince." Rosabella held onto his arm as they walked through the garden. Rowan had asked her to do things like that to help with their plan. "Oh, your mother wanted me to ask if you'd like to have a little contest on your birthday." "If I have time, that would be nice." "You will be twenty-seven, right?" Rosabella recounted in her head. "Yes. And my lady, your birthday won't be long after that. Are you looking forward to turning nineteen?" By coincidence, Rosabella and Wren had the same birthday, and their birthdays were the same month as Rowan's. Robin's birthday too was also the same month. "I keep getting older, but I don't feel any different." "That's how it is." Rowan led her over to a bench in the garden and sat down with her. "I'm afraid I didn't have time to respond to your letters. My apologies." "It's alright. I knew you were busy." "Is your stepmother still bothering you?" Rosabella's stepmother was a frequent subject in the letters Rowan received from her. "Mara hasn't visited in a while, thankfully." She continued her act and leaned against him. "How is the Knight of Cailean?" "His brother tagged along with us. Robin seems to be having fun annoying him. It also seems his younger brother has a bit of a thing for me." "Surely, you jest..." Rosabella looked up at him in disbelief. "No, I'm not. I must confess, I've been messing with them both over it. It's so easy to tease them." Rowan said in a playful tone. "You're cruel, Prince." She laughed. "Maybe a little..." Rowan got up from the bench. He offered her his hand. "Thank you for the flowers, my lady. Would you like me to walk you back to the castle?" "No. I want to stay in the garden a little longer." She declined. "Prince, are you sure you're alright? You seem different." "What do you mean?" Rowan asked. "You seem softer than before." She said. "Perhaps it's that we're not strangers anymore. When my father introduced us, you terrified me. It feels like not that long ago your words still carried a sharp edge to them." "Do you dislike it?" "No, I don't, but I worry that such kindness will put you in more danger than Wren." A somber note carried through her words. "I'll be fine. I'm getting older is all. You should have seen what my father was like when I was a child. Now, that was terrifying." He joked. "I'll see you later then, Lady. Take care." As Rowan made the walk back, he headed to where his father would likely be training Wren. His earlier mood of mixed happiness and anxiousness faded. It wasn't hard for him to find them. Argus was training Wren on swordsmanship in the courtyard. Rowan didn't want to be seen by either of them during that. He watched them from a balcony on the second floor. The display didn't bring him any feelings, no anger or sadness. It only deepened a growing emptiness inside himself. He held out the flowers Rosabella had given him earlier and absentmindedly plucked away each petal over the courtyard. When the petals were gone, he let the stems fall from him. The two men in the courtyard didn't notice him, and he was grateful for it. "You shouldn't watch this. It'll only make you uneasy." Robin came up from behind him. "Robin, could you make it rain for me?" Rowan turned away from the sight down below. "If you would like." "Thank you." Rowan gave Robin a deep kiss. Robin pulled back. "Is it alright? Someone might see us." "He knows anyway." Rowan held onto him, kissing him again. "I want to see something. Let's go the library." Robin didn't object. Rowan's complacency bothered him, as did the fact that Rowan hadn't informed him of the king knowing about them. He assumed Argus likely did anyway, but Rowan's actions suggested something had happened. Given the way Rowan was behaving, he decided against asking for the time being. As Robin led him into the hall, rain came down in sheets behind them. Rowan held onto Robin's arm, not bothering to look if anyone was around as they went down to the first floor of the castle. Unease was building up inside Robin, but he still asked nothing. In time, Rowan would tell him what was bothering him. There was only so long he could bottle things inside before it spilled out. Though he did not care if anyone knew of their relationship, he knew Rowan would normally care. For whatever reason, Rowan was not in his right state of mind. In Rowan's place, he watched for others. At their current location in the castle, he needed to be especially cautious. Robin had no way of knowing what direction Argus and Wren would choose to come inside from, but the bottom of the stairs was near one of those entrances. Argus may know, but Robin didn't know what happened between the king and Rowan, and didn't want to be seen by him like that. When they reached the bottom, Robin heard approaching footsteps. He pulled away from Rowan, who looked up at him briefly with an empty gaze before glancing down the hall to see who was coming. Robin's worry was soon justified. They had the unfortunate chance of running into Argus and Wren, who happened to be going in a similar direction. Wren was dressed in light armor. Argus had a proud look about him. It disgusted Rowan. He gave a half bow to Wren. "Good day, your majesty, and to you as well, Prince Wren." "I was just training your brother a moment ago, when the rain ended our lesson. We are going to eat lunch now. Would you like to come along? You so rarely eat with us, even when you are home." Argus kept up the appearance of wanting family bonding. "My apologies. I'm afraid I have business to attend to once again. Thank you for the offer. Perhaps we can another day." Rowan spoke in an overly polite manner. "Are you doing well, Prince? You look a little pale." "Brother, you don't need to be so formal with me." Wren gave him a strange look. "Nonsense. Let him be." Argus said. "I'm fine, Brother. I have a cold, but it's already passing." Wren answered Rowan's question, a slight agitation in words. "I see. Well, I shouldn't keep you from eating. You need to regain your strength." Rowan passed by him, and Robin followed right behind Rowan. Wren was unnerved by the entire exchange, most of all being that Robin never said anything to him at all. In the library, Robin spoke freely again. "When did that start?" "I'm getting him used to it. Father's trying to set a wall between us. I can feel it." Rowan searched around for something in particular. "Why are you playing into it?" Robin asked. "It's alright. He might do better if we had more distance." Rowan found what he was looking for. A table in the library was covered with half opened books and pages of notes. His brother had never been good at picking up after himself. "Let's see what he's making you study..." He glanced over the notes. Some of the notes were in his brother's handwriting, but several were also in someone else's. He recognized the handwriting, as the same person had taught him before. It belonged to Egret. Egret had long left to help Silvanus. Whatever subject Wren was studying, he must have been studying for a while. Robin picked up one of the books. "Disguising poisons...?" "It seems my father is having him learn the same underhanded techniques he had me study when I was young." Rowan pulled a small charm from his pocket. He placed it on top of a box near the stack of books. It glowed brightly. "Check the contents." Robin opened the box. Several small vials were neatly organized inside it. Robin inspected the labels of a few of them. "They're letting him handle these unsupervised?" "Father never was one for safety." Rowan examined the bottles himself. Many of the vials in the box were deadly in small doses, as he recalled. "Robin, I have a request." "I figured as much." Robin held a vial in his hand. He took a deep breath and focused on the tiny bottle. The liquid's color dissipated, becoming completely clear. Robin held the bottle out to Rowan. "This is what you wanted, right?" Rowan placed the charm on the bottle. It didn't react. "Yes. Do the rest of them." One by one, the vials changed. Rowan closed the box, leaving a crate of water in place of a toxic collection. He left everything else as it was. Before leaving the library, Rowan took with him a few books. Reading used to help ease his mind when he was stressed. Lately, the number of things that did had dwindled down. He hadn't had a chance to read for pleasure in a long while, and hoped it would still give him the same effect as before. Once they left the library, Rowan picked a quiet spot outside to read. The rain had already stopped by then. Robin stayed close by, quietly watching the plants and animals around them. A little ways into reading one of the books he brought, Rowan stopped and turned to Robin. "You can go do something else if you're bored. You don't have to stay with me." "I'm not bored. I'm actually quite happy." Robin leaned against him. "Do you want me to leave?" "No." Rowan put the book down and sighed. He picked up one of the others he had brought with him. "Looks like you're the one who's bored. Why don't we do something else together?" "Like what?" Rowan tossed the new book aside. "We could practice. Your birthday's soon. You know your mother's going to want to hold another little contest again." "Hmm, that could be fun. It's been a while since I've gotten to use my bow." A small smile appeared on Rowan's face. "I think I'm a little hungry too. Should we eat first?" "Why don't you get our equipment and I'll fix us something to eat?" Robin kissed him on the cheek. "Alright. I'll meet you out on the archery range." The two each went their own way. Rowan was quick to get their things and go out to the range. His feet felt light as he walked. Robin was a perfectionist when it came to cooking, so Rowan knew he would have plenty of time to practice solo before Robin returned. His elevated mood from the previous night had completely returned after he had shot a few arrows. When an unexpected visitor entered the area, he didn't mind. "Hello, Prince." Luke stood beside him. "Sir Luke, I wasn't expecting you here." Rowan glanced at him for a moment before returning to aiming. "A little bird told me you might be out here." Luke moved slightly closer to Rowan. Rowan's mind was too occupied with what he was doing to let Luke distract him as he shot. "I've been meaning to ask. Would you mind just calling me Luke? Adding 'sir' in front of my name sounds too formal." "If you wish. But I'd prefer you use my title." "That's fine with me. What are you doing out here?" "As you can see, I'm practicing." Rowan wanted to roll his eyes at Luke, but he refrained from doing so to not mess up his next shot. "That's a little low-class, don't you think?" "Where my mother's from, skill with a bow is highly valued." Rowan shot again. "I did not mean to offend..." Luke held up his hands. "You're not the first to think it's odd. I know very well to be a warrior here, I need to master swordsmanship, but I am more confident with a bow in my hand. If I could, I'd abandon my sword entirely." After his next shot, Rowan's quiver was empty. He walked out to retrieve his arrows and examine the target. "Having seen you in battle, I find that hard to believe. You're like a demon with a sword." Luke walked alongside him. "Where's your loyal knight at?" "Robin is busy fixing dinner for me. I forgot to eat lunch earlier." "That reminds me. I wanted to ask you about that. Why does he play the role of servant to you? He is a knight. Don't you think that's inappropriate?" Luke asked. "It's wholly inappropriate, but it is his wish, not mine. He's very selfish. He's always tried to take up as much of my time as possible." "Does that not bother you?" "Not at all." Rowan was busy running his earlier movements through his mind as he approached the target. "I find his devotion to be quite beautiful. A little mad, but very beautiful." Luke shook his head. He saw nothing beautiful in Robin's possessiveness nor his servitude. Rowan pulled out his arrows and headed back. With Luke still following him around, he had an idea. It would still be a while before Robin returned. Teaching Luke a lesson had entertained him the previous day. Giving Luke another dose of humility could prove to be even more entertaining. He had to admit too he was starting to enjoy Luke's company, under certain circumstances. When Luke unintentionally forgot to mask his real self, Rowan found that part of him intriguing and somewhat similar to himself. 'Perhaps I can coax that out of him again.' Rowan walked slightly closer to Luke. "Do you want to try?" "Me? I've never...that's not really the sort of thing I would be interested in..." Luke shook his head. "Come on. I'll show you how to do it." He nudged Luke. "I'm sure I'll be terrible at it." "That doesn't matter. Won't you try it, for me?" Rowan wanted to laugh. "If you really want me to...but I know I won't be any good at it..." "No one's good at anything the first time." It's too easy, Rowan thought to himself. Rowan looked over the training bows that were kept nearby. He put his own bow down and picked out one for Luke to use. "This bow should do. Let's move closer to the target. This distance is far too advanced for a novice." To Luke's embarrassment, Rowan had walked him nearly all the way back to the target. Rowan hadn't chosen that distance to mock him. It was an appropriate distance for someone who had never shot before. But, he knew very well Luke would take offense to it. "We're so close...don't you think I should move back a little more?" Luke's complaint came almost immediately after they stopped. "No. This is fine. Don't worry about how close we are. We're going to work on getting your form correct first." Rowan gave him further instructions and helped him get everything ready. Luke fumbled through the motions. Rowan hadn't expected Luke to be so difficult. He used his hands to gently force Luke into a better stance. "Move your shoulder back more. And keep your back like this." With Rowan so close behind him and touching him, Luke felt something strange. He couldn't place the sensation. He ignored it and saw their closeness as an opportunity to flirt. "Why don't we skip this and you stay where you are?" "Eyes on the target, not me." Rowan took hold of Luke's jaw and kept him facing forward. "You are my target." Luke spoke seductively. His words meant nothing to Rowan. "You're stalling." The pressure in Rowan's words caused Luke to shoot before he was ready. He wasn't really trying to begin with, but shooting pre-maturely bothered him. His arrow nearly missed the entire target. He kept up his defeatist outlook to save face. "I told you I'd be terrible at it." "You didn't do that bad. Try again." Rowan encouraged him. "If it amuses you..." Luke got out another arrow and drew back. "Your alignment is off. Here." Rowan moved Luke's shoulders and pushed in his stomach, keeping his hands there as Luke aimed. "When you're ready, shoot." Luke's heart raced for a moment. A strange feeling in the pit of his stomach made him uneasy. His hands started to sweat, Luke quickly aimed and shot again. The arrow landed further inward, though still relatively far from the center. "That shot was much better." Rowan removed his hands. "Am I interrupting?" Robin asked. He stood behind them with a tray of three bowls and three cups. "I was giving your brother a lesson. He might be a decent shot one day." Rowan said. "I seriously doubt that." Luke handed Rowan the training bow. He was still flustered, but he couldn't explain the source of it. "Judging from the look on your face, you quite enjoyed your lesson." Robin teased him. Luke paid no attention to his brother and handed over everything to Rowan. As they walked back across the range, Luke noticed the contents of the tray. He shook his head at his brother's strangeness. "So, Robin, you're still going to practice with me after we eat, right?" Rowan asked. "Of course. Are you ready to lose the contest again?" Robin had a smug look on his face. "Don't get cocky. I've won twice before." Luke turned to Rowan. "Contest?" "Mother's birthday present to me each year is a private archery contest." Rowan's face lit up. "Do you want to watch?" "I think I'd be out of place at something like that." Luke held his hands in the air and shook his head. "I don't really do family events." "I thought you said you came to serve me." Rowan narrowed his eyes and spoke with a coldness Luke was not used to hearing from him. "I did, but this is hardly..." "That settles it then. I order you to." Rowan gave Luke a wicked smile. Robin laughed. Luke was less than thrilled. "What?! You can't be serious..." "Oh, but I am. You can consider it your gift to me." Rowan didn't care if he came or not. He was more than amused watching Luke's reaction. Luke bounced back from his temporary loss of control. He said in a soft, seductive voice, "My prince, I'd much rather give you a more private gift." Rowan was having none of that. "Are you disobeying me?" "You are more devious than I expected." Rowan's behavior left Luke more interested in him, and annoyed. "Just disobey him if you don't like it. He may even punish you, if you're lucky." Robin playfully suggested, knowing full well Luke wouldn't understand what he was implying. "Why would I want to be punished?" As Robin expected, his joke went over Luke's head. "Your loss." Rowan shrugged, playing along. "You two are strange." They both laughed at Luke's words. He assumed it was another thing between them he wouldn't understand. Robin set their food down as Rowan and Luke put away the equipment Luke had been using. Rowan sat down on a bench to eat. Beside him, Luke did the same. Wanting to make up for the time he lost cooking, Robin put off eating. He picked up his bow and strung it. "Rowan, do you mind if I practice some while you eat?" "I don't mind." Robin stood at the same distance Rowan had been shooting at. Rowan ate his food while Luke watched Robin shoot. Luke paid close attention to every movement his brother made and compared it to his own weak attempt at shooting. There were no flaws and no hesitation in him. He wanted to watch Rowan again to compare the two. He looked over at Rowan. There was little distance between them. He laid his arm out across the back of the bench on Rowan's side. Rowan didn't notice. Luke leaned over slightly in Rowan's direction. "I don't get him. Does he really not care if we're alone?" "The only reason he would need to is if you attempted to harm me. What else is there to worry about?" Rowan didn't look at him. He watched Robin as he ate. "I might steal you away." Luke moved in closer, little distance remaining between them. "You can't steal what's already been stolen." Rowan put his food aside. He positioned his entire body towards Luke. "Tell me, Luke, what do you really want from me? Is all you want a single night? There are plenty of other men who will have you." "None I have met are as handsome as you. Can't you indulge me a little? Inevitably, your love for him will wane. Holding on so desperately is foolish." Luke played with Rowan's hair. Rowan smiled at him as he grabbed onto Luke's wrist and pushed his hand away. "So, why don't you tell me who hurt you?" "Excuse me?" Luke flinched. Unnerved, he unconsciously moved back. "You're not playing around like Eider. For all your flair and distance, you desperately want someone to hold you." Rowan's tone was mocking and his gaze pierced straight through Luke. "I am not wrong. It's written in every movement you make." "I don't need that." Luke averted his eyes. "You're a liar." Rowan lowered his voice. There was something alluring to Luke in the way he spoke. Luke felt his body burn at the sound of Rowan's words. "If you were to steal my heart, you would break it. Is that what you want? Or do you wish to hold me for far longer than a night and are too afraid to admit it?" Luke wanted to deny such a claim. No words came to him. Rowan stood up and strung his bow. "You can't have me. I'm sure there's someone out there who would suit you better. You don't need to lock yourself up in this tower prison to protect yourself." "I can't live like you." Luke managed to finally say. His words lacked his usual confidence and his voice was light. Rowan looked back at him. "You say that, but I can see in your eyes that tower is built on unstable ground." Rowan went to join Robin. Luke watched the two of them for a while. Neither of them spoke a word to each other as they practiced. In their silence, he saw something he lacked. A comforting closeness surrounded the space between them. It was strange and unfamiliar to him. After an hour, he excused himself. Drinking didn't calm his mind and he couldn't find it in himself to bother staying the night with someone. He wandered around the castle until nightfall, when he returned to his room. "What the hell am I doing here?" Luke laid down on the bed. He couldn't stop thinking about Rowan. When he was alone with him out on the archery range, he lost himself. His body's reactions revealed all too clearly what he wanted to deny. He had taken so many measures to avoid it. "Damn it." Luke turned over on the bed. He noticed the embroidered pattern on the blanket. A garden of flowers blossomed around him in thread. His hand rested on a red rose in full bloom. An unwanted memory slipped into his thoughts of a night he offered a rose underneath the stars. There was nothing there on him, but he could feel the constricting burn of rope around his wrists and ankles. Luke moved his thoughts to his only sanctuary. The lonely tower his king had long forbid anyone from entering. It's forbidden, empty existence was what had drawn him to it when he first came to King Philip's castle. By that point, he had given up on playing pretend with relationships. Being alone suited him just fine. If he wanted anything, he could get it and move on. The solitude of that stone structure alone eased his mind. He had gone there again not long after offering that rose. Martin was monitoring his every action and word to the point of suffocation. He didn't want to speak to anyone, much less Martin. Outside, sheltered underneath the massive building, there were no words uttered. Against his expectations, his mind was caught between wanting to hide in its shadow and wanting to let what was boiling inside himself overflow. "There isn't a point. Let it go." He said to himself. He looked away from the blanket, out to the night sky. The moon shone brightly into the room, a perfect circle of white in the darkness. He reached for the moon in a childish absentmindedness, then laughed at himself. Long after Luke and most of the castle had retired for the night, Robin and Rowan were still awake. Argus pushed his own responsibilities onto Rowan whenever he was home, and Argus had a list of trivial things for him to do that could have been accomplished long before he returned. Rowan used to think his father was being spiteful, but at this point, he took it as more laziness than anything. As the night wore on, Robin insisted Rowan turn in for the night. Rowan, though annoyed at the prospect of more menial nonsense to deal with the next day, agreed to stop. On the way to their room, Rowan said, "I slept more than I have in weeks since we've been back and I'm completely exhausted again. I didn't even do anything that strenuous." "You have a lot of nights of rest to make up for." Robin assured him. "You think it will pass? It feels like no matter how much I rest, I only get more tired." "It's been a long while since you've slept properly. That's all it is. And I did keep you up last night." Robin smirked at his last comment. Rowan grinned. "I didn't exactly refuse." "Do you want to take a bath together tonight?" He asked. "Hmm...a bath would be nice." Rowan yawned and rubbed his eyes. "Will you be awake when I get back?" "I can make it, but...you may have to help me back." Rowan leaned against Robin as they walked together. "I don't mind as long as you're awake when we're in the bath." "I promise...I will probably be awake for most of it." Rowan walked outside. The spot was one he often went to at night. There was a good view of the sky from there. He sat down on a stone bench and looked down over the side of the castle. "That's good enough. Try not to fall asleep while I'm gone." Robin watched him from the archway. He hated being home, but Rowan was in a better mood. That, he was grateful for. He could endure the rest for that. "I won't." Robin went to prepare the bath. Rowan sat peacefully under the night sky. The air was still cool, the warmth of Spring still not quite there yet. Above him, thousands of tiny lights illuminated the darkness. The brightest light of all was the full moon. For all the night's beauty, it couldn't keep his attention against his drowsiness. He yawned again. As he was about to fall asleep, he sensed something was near him. He looked back at the archway. Wren was staring at him. He thought he was dreaming for a moment, given how late it was. Underneath the night, in a blue cloak and matching bag at his side, Wren looked perfectly at home with the pale moon above them. With his hood on, Wren somehow appeared almost inhuman in Rowan's hazy state. He wondered what his brother was doing out at such an hour, but didn't bother asking. "Rin's not with you?" He asked. "He's preparing the bath." Rowan stretched. "What are you doing out here?" Wren sat down beside him. "I wanted to look at the stars." He pointed up at the moon. "Look, a full moon. Better stay in. There might be beasts on the prowl tonight." "Don't be ridiculous." "Who knows. Maybe you're a beast pretending to be Wren...waiting to sink your fangs into me when I least suspect it..." He nudged Wren with his arm. "Are you drunk?" "More half asleep than anything." Even as they talked, Rowan was barely managing to stay awake. "You haven't been sleeping?" Wren asked. "I had some business to attend to late last night, and then Robin kept me up after that." In his tiredness, he had slipped out a detail he meant to keep private. "Something happen?" 'Why do you have to ask?' Rowan tried to get him off the subject, but only made it worse. "No, it was more things escalated. Forget about that." "Escalated?" "Wren...you don't want to hear the details, trust me." He put his face in his palm. "And here I thought you were starting to treat me like an adult." Wren said, sounding like a spoiled brat. Rowan was out of patience for the matter and chose to prove how childish Wren still was. "We had sex last night." Wren's face turned bright red. "Oh...Not that I'm bothered by that...I already knew you two were...intimate..." "You couldn't be more bothered." Rowan stared at his brother's face. Wren couldn't hide his blushing. The light of the moon revealed it all too clearly. "I'm not bothered...it's more..." "Embarrassment?" "Yes..." Wren laughed nervously. "I appreciate you avoiding the topic. Rin would have told me and given me details." Rowan paused at that bit of information. "How much does he tell you...?" The look of disgust on Wren's face told him everything. "Too much." "I'll get onto him for that later." Rowan shook his head and sighed. Rowan thought up something silly to change the subject to, not wanting to talk any further about that. As he opened his mouth to speak, his attention shifted. The moonlight reflected on something in Wren's bag. A dagger with King Brion's crest on it. Rowan froze. He averted his eyes to pretend he didn't notice. Three simple words halted all of his thoughts, running off from his memory in perfect mimicry. 'I hate you.' Rowan turned his back to his brother. He looked up at the brightest light in the dark sky. His body tensed. He counted his breaths to keep a calm appearance. "Wren..." "Hmm? What is it?" There was nothing odd in Wren's behavior. He spoke very calmly to Rowan. A little too calmly, Rowan thought. At the best of times, there was always a strained distance between them. The barrier his brother usually kept up didn't appear to be there anymore. He looked up at the moon again. "The moon's very beautiful tonight, isn't it?" Wren leaned over the side of the castle. "Yes, it is." "It's been a long time since I really looked at it. Isn't it strange the things that are always there that we ignore? If the moon were gone, do you think most people would even notice?" Rowan found himself rambling. He grasped for anything to say. Wren sat back down, looking bored. "Probably not." Rowan felt a knot in his throat and a heavy sting in his heart. He wanted to say something to Wren, anything, but he couldn't get himself to say it. He didn't want to make what he was really thinking obvious. Tired as he was, he had no energy to debate with himself over it or attempt to force the words out. The moon blurred from his vision and the sound of the wind carried him into darkness. Wren felt a heavy weight against him. He looked over at his brother. Rowan had fallen asleep. Wren was caught off guard by this. Rowan had to have been completely exhausted to fall asleep in such a public place. It bothered him how careless his brother was being. 'It would be very easy to slit his throat.' It was a silly gesture, he knew, and it didn't carry the same meaning as when Rowan did it. Wren covered his brother with part of his cloak. Unlike the red on him, blue looked completely ordinary on Rowan. Perhaps, he thought, it was because he so often saw his brother and Robin together and Robin always wore blue. That was the very reason he wore blue himself. As a child, he thought by mimicking his ideal in dress, he would acquire those traits he admired in Robin. He failed miserably at that end. Wren realized he had gotten used to seeing his brother asleep in the times he actually got to see him at all. He couldn't place why, but that too bothered him. Tonight had gone better than he expected. He managed to not start any pointless arguments. With the way Rowan was leaning against him, Wren could see down his shirt. The scar from the arrow was thicker than he expected. He couldn't fathom what that pain must have felt like. Rowan's body was cold to touch. Wren was disturbed by this. Rowan felt far too cold. The moonlight revealed white strands here and there on his brother's head. The more Wren looked, the more he noticed. His brother's skin had always been rougher than his, but he never bothered paying attention to how many scars were on his hands and arms before. "What do you dream of?" Wren reached out to touch Rowan. He stopped his hand midway when he heard footsteps coming down the nearby hall. A light illuminated the entranceway to the hall as the footsteps drew closer. Wren kept quiet. Robin walked out through the stone arches. He held a lantern up and sighed. "I had a feeling he'd be asleep when I got back." Robin approached the two of them. "And he'll go back to sleep as soon as I get him into the bath. What a waste." "I suppose I bored him to sleep." Wren joked. "No, it's my own fault for keeping him up last night." Robin gently shook Rowan's shoulders. "Rowan, wake up. The bath's ready." "Hmm? Already?" "Do you want to sleep instead? I'll tell the servants someone else can use it." Robin helped Rowan get to his feet. "I'm sorry. I don't think I can stay awake." Rowan struggled to keep his eyes open. "It's alright. We can take a bath in the morning. Come on. Let's go to bed." Robin put one of Rowan's arms around his neck and held onto Rowan's wrist. He put his other hand on Rowan's waist. "Let me help you." Wren stood at Rowan's other side. "That's not necessary. I've got him." Robin noticed Rowan had already fallen asleep again. "Are you sure?" Wren offered again. "Yes, but I appreciate your offer. Thank you, Prince Wren." Robin shook Rowan again. "Come on, Rowan. I need you to stay awake at least until we get to the room." "I promise...I will attempt..." Rowan mumbled. "This is going to be a long walk." Robin sighed as he looked down the hallway. "Good night, Prince Wren." "Good night, Rin." Wren waved goodbye and went on to where he was originally planning to go in the first place. He knocked on the door softly, afraid someone else might hear him. No noise came from the other side. Checking his surroundings, he snuck inside. The room was completely dark, but he knew his way around well enough to not need a light. He had no difficulty with finding the bed. He ran his hands across the blanket until he met with warmth. "Rosa...are you still awake?" He whispered. Rosabella woke when she heard his voice. She sat up and reached out for him. "Wren? What are you doing here so late?" "I'm sorry. Did I wake you?" "It's fine. What's wrong?" Her hand met with his. She held onto it. Wren kept his voice low. "Nothing. Would it be alright if I stayed here tonight?" "Yes, of course." Sleepy, she laid back down. "Lock the door." "Are you sure I'm not bothering you?" Wren got up to lock the door. "No, not at all..." She moved over to the right side of the bed to make room for Wren. "Are you not worried anymore about getting caught?" "I am, but...I really wanted to see you tonight." After he locked the door, Wren returned to the bed. He took off his shoes and cloak before getting under the blanket. He pulled Rosabella close to him and kissed her cheek. "I'm too tired to satisfy you right now. Is it alright if I simply hold you?" "Yes...I'm too tired myself anyway." She cuddled up against him. Wren was enjoying every bit of the contact between them. Her body was much warmer than the cold air outside. Her scent surrounded him. He pulled the blanket higher up on them and nuzzled his face against hers. "Perhaps, in the morning..." "You don't need to make any promises." "But I want you..." He had let his words come through honestly, mostly because he was on the verge of entering a dream. "You're falling asleep, aren't you?" "Only a little..." They both feel asleep, cuddled up together in each other's warmth. Further down the hall, Robin helped Rowan to the bed. Already barely awake, it didn't take long for him to fall back asleep. He was aware of Robin beside him. Robin had a candle lit on a table and a book in hand. With his free hand, he petted Rowan's hair and hummed a soft melody. Rowan rarely remembered what he dreamt of. That night, his dream was clear. He was wandering through the woods with Robin. Robin was dressed in a way similar to when they first met, and like then, hadn't bothered with shoes. Robin was keeping quiet as they walked. As Rowan carried on about trivial things, Robin went off on his own. He followed him and called out to him several times. Robin continued to ignore him. Annoyed, he reached for his hand to stop him. His hand went through Robin's. He tried again. Rowan couldn't touch him. Robin crossed a river in front of them. Rowan went to follow him but stopped. In the water, he noticed something. He had no reflection. He kneeled down to touch the water. His hands felt like weights in the water, dragging him in. With all his strength, he resisted but it was in vain. The water sucked him in. Under the water, something kept pulling him down. The sunlight grew distant until everything was darkness. When the light was completely gone, his back hit against something soft. It felt like a cushion. When he tried to move, his arms and legs hit against a hard surface at every side. He pushed upward and met with another hard surface. As he felt across it, he realized it was made of wood. Somehow, he was completely boxed in. Rowan couldn't hold his breath anymore. When he gasped, he expected to slowly drown but he didn't. Nothing happened. Around him, he could hear talking. The first voice he recognized was his father. He couldn't understand what he was saying. He sounded like his usual self, likely laughing about some grand adventure from the past. His mother was laughing about something too. Wren's voice he could understand slightly more, but only bits and pieces. "...finally...gone...always getting...I hate..." Rowan tried to listen more carefully. "I should say goodbye properly." Rowan heard a creaking noise and the darkness disappeared. Light flooded everything. Wren had opened the top half of the box he was trapped in. Rowan reached upward again, but the water held him in. The top iced over, though he could still see everything above him. He banged on the ice, but Wren didn't seem to notice the noise. Wren looked strange. He was wearing Rowan's clothes and their father's crown. Wren smiled at him. "Thank you, dear brother. You finally did something right." Rowan was confused why his brother was thanking him. Wren never seemed to be satisfied with anything he did. Then, it dawned on him what the box was. The water subsided. He rose from the box and looked down at himself inside the coffin. Wren looked so pleased he couldn't find it in himself to be angry. Wren closed it shut and danced with Rosabella. Rowan sat on top of his coffin, quietly watching the celebration. When Rowan woke the next morning, for once, Robin was still asleep. Rowan contemplated a way to make better use of the arrows in his quiver beside the bed. Robin moved closer to Rowan in his sleep until he was cuddled up against Rowan. He looked content sleeping there beside Rowan. Rowan let go of his thoughts as he watched Robin sleep. Before getting out of bed, Rowan leaned over to give Robin a kiss. Wren filled his thoughts. He could put aside the dream. What he saw the previous night was etched firmly in reality. His father likely was the reason behind it. He didn't take Wren for the type of person to act on such a command. Yet, the knife was still there on him. It was possible, as his father had no qualms against doing this to him, that his father may be threatening Wren. He needed to get Wren away from his father. 'What if he wants this?' Rowan washed his face. He stared down at his reflection. There was no red tint to the water. His face seemed strange now without it. Rowan dried off his face. It was pointless to debate the reason. He dressed himself quietly to not wake Robin and slipped something into his pocket. He kissed Robin again before leaving, whispering, "I love you." Robin mumbled something incoherent in his sleep. He searched around to find where Wren was. His father was still eating breakfast. Wren was not with him nor with Rosabella. That left him likely to be studying. Rowan went to the library. He found Wren behind a mountain of books. He pulled up a chair at the table Wren was at and sat down beside him. "Studying?" "Father's orders. I don't think he's read half of these books himself." Exasperation filled Wren as he copied information down from one of the books. "What are you doing here?" "I have something for you." Rowan took out a small charm. He handed it to Wren. "Now that you're involving yourself in courtly matters, I want you to keep this on you." "What is it?" Wren examined the charm. It appeared to be an ordinary stone, carved in the shape of a teardrop. The color was an aquamarine shade. "It's something Robin gave me when we were little. It detects impurities and poisons in liquids. It will glow if it touches any contaminated drink." "Why are you giving this to me?" Wren turned the stone over. Its smoothness was too perfect to have been done by human hands. "Someone nearly assassinated me. You don't go onto the battlefield yet. If someone were to try to take your life, it won't be with a blade." Rowan looked at the books before Wren. They were the same ones he had seen out before. "I see you're learning about poisons right now yourself." "Father is having Lord Egret teach me about poisons. We're to continue my lessons properly once he returns." "I'm not surprised. But I would be careful around him." Rowan cautioned. "Lord Egret is father's closest friend and ally." "That may be, but he is a very dangerous man. With all the talk of betrayal and leaks, you need to be careful around everyone. If that man wanted to get rid of someone, it would be all too easy for him. He's killed plenty covertly in the past." Rowan felt over the top of the box on the table. He assumed Wren had yet to realize what Robin had done. "That's the first I've ever heard of that." "Do you know why we don't have any aunts? Father had five sisters and three brothers. I'm sure by now he's boasted to you about how he killed his brothers to rise to the top." Wren winced at the last part. Rowan noticed, seeing his assumption about his father was correct, and continued. "His sisters were no different. He didn't do that job himself. That was Egret's work." Wren's eyes widened. "Why would he have his sisters killed?" "A princess may not be as powerful as a prince, but she is still a potential threat when it comes to seizing power. After he had his brothers offed in various 'accidents', people were getting suspicious. He changed his method with them, complete with planting enemy weapons nearby." Rowan heard the story from Egret when he studied poisons as a teenager. "Egret's skill with poison has always been a well-kept secret. He taught me about poisons in private as well when I was young." "That's...I can't believe it..." "Egret is quite fond of colorless, odorless poisons. He used the same trick on his first wife, Eleonora. He slipped something into her drink and had Eider deliver it, completely unaware he was about to give his mother a death sentence." Rowan felt a little pity for Eider in recalling that detail. Eider was only fourteen. His face went pale. "Does Rosa know?" "She's the one who told me about their mother. Her father used to brag about it in front of them." Wren sunk down in his chair. He tried to take in everything Rowan told him. "Rosa never tells me things like this." "Some things are so painful the people you love most are the last people you can say it to." Rowan put his hand on Wren's to reassure him. "If you want to talk to her about it, approach the topic gently. I'm sure she'll open up to you about things like that in time." "With what happened to you recently, don't you think it would be better if you kept this?" Wren opened his palm and looked at the charm again. "I don't drink anything other people offer. If I need a drink, Robin can get me as much water as I want." "I should have expected that answer." "Keep the stone on you, as a protective measure. You can never be too safe." Rowan cleared his throat. "Enough about this mess. How has your training been, Prince?" "Stop with that. You don't need to address me formally." He rolled his eyes. "Why not? You are a prince. I should treat you as such." "I'm your brother, that's why. And I'm the younger one, remember?" "Well, you can't go into a fight with that attitude. You need to have people respect you. If I say it, others will more readily see you as a prince before seeing you as second." "We're alone. You don't need to do that here." Embarrassed, Wren's cheeks had a slight hint of red in them. Rowan was the last person he wanted addressing him like that. "It's merely practice." Rowan cleared up his brother's notes and stacked them up off to the side. "Do you want to try sparring with me some time?" "I think I should decline. I've seen you spar with Rin." Wren picked up a wine bottle off the floor and filled a glass on the table. "Are you drinking again?" Unpleasant memories flashed in Rowan's mind. "I'm not going to overdo it like last time." He finished pouring his drink. "Do you want some? Oh, right...you already said you don't take drinks from others. And you never did drink alcohol before, did you?" "I did when I was a teenager, but I realized very quickly I get drunk easily." On a whim, Rowan said, "I suppose one glass won't hurt me." Wren got up to look for another glass. He filled one and handed it to Rowan. "Father's not going to be too pleased about it. This is a very expensive import." "Wren, are you sneaking from Father's personal collection?" Rowan was half shocked and half amused. Wren sneaking off with someone's spirits sounded more like something Eider or Luke would do. "As much as he's been hounding me lately about everything, I deserve a good drink." Wren raised his glass and took a big gulp of it. Rowan took a sip from his glass and immediately put the glass back down. "Ah, I remembered the other reason I stopped drinking. I can't stand the taste." Wren laughed. He finished off his glass quickly and poured himself another. Rowan was starting to worry. "Pouring another glass already?" "I'm not going to get drunk from two glasses. Don't think because I was drunk at King Philip's that it happens often. Father pushed me to drink more than I usually do." He checked his brother's glass. "I take it you don't want anymore. You haven't finished your first glass." "No, thank you." Rowan pushed his glass away. Wren swirled the contents of his glass absentmindedly. "Brother, what do you think of me?" "What's brought that on?" "Don't you think we've been getting along better lately? We used to argue constantly. Even when I was a little kid, it always felt like we were arguing." Wren was in a more relaxed mood. He allowed himself to speak more freely to Rowan. "Hmmm...we were, weren't we?" Rowan was far from relaxed. He picked up his glass and drank the rest of it quickly. The taste lingered in his mouth, a harsh bitterness. "Pour me another drink." "You just said you can't hold your alcohol well." "I'll be alright." "I'd rather not find out what you're like drunk." "I'm sorry. I'm being stupid." He got up to leave. "I should leave you be to let you study." "You don't have to leave." Wren got up to stop him. As he did, he knocked over his bag. The top flap fell open and Rowan saw his reflection in a familiar blade. Rowan froze. He knew he could leave. Yet, he found himself sitting back down. "I'll stay a little longer if that's what you wish." "Here, let me prepare you something else to drink." Wren went to another part of the library to get something. He came back with a new glass. "Here, it's juice." "Thank you." Rowan hesitated to put the glass to his mouth, then hated himself for doing so. He sipped the drink slowly, finding nothing out of the ordinary in its scent or taste. He expected as much, and waited. Nothing happened. The threat of his life didn't bother him. He knew it should have, but he didn't mind if it was Wren's work. Such an act of betrayal suited his father well, and Wren would be easy to control. The internal leaks and planted soldiers, he started to wonder if his father was behind that too. There wasn't enough information for him to assume either way. His father could just as easily be using the current problem as a way to get rid of him. His father's gain in this was obvious. That left where Wren fell in this plot. 'Do you seek power too? Have you disguised yourself from me this whole time?' Rowan stared out the window. The sky was dark. A storm was coming in. Distantly, he could hear a soft rumbling. This was the perfect kind of weather to spend inside somewhere quiet. When Wren was little, there were many days he spent in here with his brother and Robin. He tried to remember if they argued at times like that. His memory was hazy. "Brother, is something wrong?" Wren put his hand on Rowan's shoulder. The sudden contact made Rowan tense up. "Ah, no. I was looking at the clouds. It looks like a big storm." "Rin will be happy." Wren walked over to the window to get a better look. Dark clouds dominated the sky and the ground was blanketed in a thick mist. Wren motioned for his brother to come over to the window. "Look at the mist. Do you remember when I was really little and you would play hide and seek with me in the mist?" Rowan stood at the other side of the window, leaning against the frame. "That sounds familiar. Did Robin not play with us?" "He stayed with me and held my hand as I went looking for you. You were both worried I would get lost or hurt if I wandered around alone." Wren scratched the back of his head. He laughed. "There was one time you hid really well. I felt like I was looking for you for hours, but Rin said it hadn't been very long. Don't laugh...I ended up crying." "How old were you?" Rowan asked. "Five or six, I think. You carried me back and I cried the whole time. God, was I always that whiny?" Wren sighed. "It's alright for someone that little to be like that. I bet you thought I really disappeared." "I did. Children think the strangest things." Wren didn't want to further embarrass himself and remind Rowan he continued to cry long after they returned home. "They have no grasp on how things work yet. It can't be helped." He said. Rowan looked over at the clock on the other side of the room. "I'm sure Robin's wondering where I am right now. I should go see him. Are you going to spend the rest of the day studying?" "I was going to have lunch with Rosa in the garden later, but...I suppose I'll have to pick a different location for that now." Rowan started to walk towards the door. "I'll let you get back to studying." The coming storm reminded Wren of something. "Oh, I forgot. I need you give you your cloak back." "Don't worry about that right now. You can give it to me another time." Rowan left his brother alone. It was only morning, and yet, he already felt tired again. He shrugged it off. That tiredness showed in the way he moved and spoke. Wren picked up on it easily. Now that he was training regularly with his father, he had a better idea of what his brother was dealing with when Rowan left home. He knew a real fight must be far more exhausting. He thought back on those memories of playing out in the mists with his brother and Robin. Back then, Rowan was already training. If his brother was exhausted then, he hid it well. He remembered the conversation with Robin's father. Standing at his brother's side, he didn't mind the thought. However, his father terrified him. Wren pulled the dagger from his bag. The weight of it was more than he could bear.
VII. The Red King | TOC