by Kaerutobi Ike (蛙跳び池)
“Champrose will be two days further, but they have great ale,” Marion said, holding his horse’s reins tightly in one hand, his only good eye scanning the map in their captain’s hands for the city he had just named. He pointed at it with the cheese he was holding. Sean watched with great amusement as Thane’s aristocratic features twisted in a grimace—it made him look like one of these sneering nobles they hated working with—and Thane moved the map away from Marion’s greasy fingers.
“If that’s our criteria, then Vieux-Port should have a festival about now,” John protested. He tried to take the map from Thane, but their leader moved it again, without even looking. “That’ll be way more fun than good ale, Captain, and I bet we can find work once the festival is done,” he said, trying to grab the side of the map closest to him. Thane jerked it away again and promptly folded it, holding it very close to his chest. Thane had a thing about people touching his precious papers. Considering that the last map had gone up in flames, Sean understood that particular hang-up.
Jean took on a thoughtful expression. “Lots of merchants due to be heading back home, I’m sure someone will want protection for the road back.” He said it with a shrug of his bony shoulders. It was rather comical in Sean’s opinion. The man was like a living scarecrow.
Thane had probably already considered the job possibilities himself, but he still nodded to the two.
The newest addition to their band, Tom, stirred and looked up. “We’re close from Vieux-Port?” he asked with a drowsy frown that made him look younger than his twenty years. Sean felt his smile grow to his ears. Tom tended to have that effect on him.
Sean found himself going hot all over as Tom’s half-open eyes reminded him of other times when Tom’s eyes looked unfocused and heavy-lidded. Pleasurable times. Very good memories indeed.
“We’ve entered Eauvive this morning,” he explained to his sleepy lover.
Still looking confused, Tom looked back down the road, as if he could see through the trees and spot the stones that had marked the frontier between Eauvive and Claireval.
Sean steered his horse closer to Thane. “Hey, Vieux-Port will be full, but I know someone who works at the Hot Coal inn. I’m sure they’ll find room for us to stay.”
Thane hummed approvingly and put the map away. “We can always keep going to Champrose if we don’t find anything.”
Sean sent a winning smile to Tom, but his companion didn’t look like he was sharing his enthusiasm. In fact, he looked nervous, and not in a good way.
Giving the rest of the group a head-start, Sean spurred his horse to walk next to Tom’s.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
Tom immediately schooled his features into something more neutral and shook his head. “Nothing important.” When he saw that Sean was frowning he continued, “I just know a few people in Vieux-Port and… you could say we had a bit of a falling out.”
Sean immediately thought of a dark night some months ago. A campfire in a forest with five guards talking about a murdered prince, looking for the Falcon’s troop and Tom in particular. Sean had decided then to keep what he had heard to himself and to make sure they took a different road to stay away from the guards. Maybe it was time to spill the incident to Thane and convince him to avoid Vieux-Port.
Before he could do so, Tom continued. “It’s really not that important though. Plus, I really doubt we’ll see them while we’re there. Last I heard, they were… on a journey.”
Yeah, a journey. Sean had an inkling it wasn’t the kind of journey you came back from. More like the kind of journey that followed a dispute between two hot blooded young nobles and its resolution at sword point. Sean had always thought Tom was the sixth or seventh son of a small baron, roaming the land looking for a way to make his own living, but maybe he had had a more pressing reason to leave home. Winning a duel to the death against a prince of the realm would be a damn good reason to leave in a hurry.
Vieux-Port was a merchant city. It stood in a bay and its inhabitants spent half their lives buried in mist. When people walked its streets, their sight was stopped short by tall buildings, ramparts of dark granite and, through them, indistinct grey clouds. But today, as they crossed the bridge of the east gate, the sight that greeted them was a flamboyant display of pennants and flowers, so much colour that the city was transformed.
Thane whistled in appreciation and Sean—who would have sworn he could find the Hot Coal Inn blindfolded—had to stop and take a good look around to get his bearings.
Tom was craning his neck like someone who had never been to the city before, pointing at buildings and statues and chattering away excitedly. Suddenly, he looked they way they had come, toward the gate tower. “Those are nice walls. I bet they have… yeah, there! Can you see this Sean? They have a ballista in that tower. I’d heard the defences were impressive, but that’s really something. Oh, and the streets are really wide. That’s clever city planning if I’ve ever seen any. The attacks on the town must have been really bad under…”
Sean laughed as Tom realised that everyone was looking at him with wide eyes and shut up suddenly with an audible click.
“Didn’t know you were into architecture,” Sean teased, bringing his horse close enough to mess Tom’s brown hair in an affectionate gesture.
Tom smiled shyly back and shrugged. “Just learned a lot of the history. That person I told you about, we spent a lot of time talking strategy together.” And it was weird how wistful he looked just then. Sean might have felt a little jealous, if the shadow that passed on Tom’s face didn’t confirm his impression that it had all ended very badly. No threat there.
The streets were getting more and more crowded around them, which prompted Thane, as captain of the group and the most practical of them all, to spur everyone forward.
It looked like the city was about to overflow any minute. There were endless rows of carts in front of the usual shops and people moving all over as sailors, merchants, artisans, soldiers, and mothers with their children were bustling in the streets, selling, running, haggling or just gaping at everyone and everything. That’s what Thane was doing at least.
“Was it that bad last year?” asked John as he fought to make space between a cart and a man built like a barrel and looking as mean as a rabid dog.
“Don’t think it was,” Sean answered while Thane pleaded forgiveness from a washing woman for stepping on her foot. “I’ll ask Ash when we reach the Inn.”
“Who’s Ash?” Tom asked.
“Sean’s special friend,” John answered with a wide grin, causing Tom to look back at Sean in surprise and with no small amount of worry.
Sean tried to look reassuring from where his horse was squashing him against a wall and hurried to explain. “We were kind of raised together; we’re both orphans, so we formed our own little family.”
The troop almost lost Marion to the momentum of a group of sailors who were making their way inside a tavern. The drunken men absolutely refused to part to let anyone through and, by the look of it, had already converted a fair part of the street to just go along with them for a drink. The crowd went about it with much laughter and promises of beer and ale and everything a “real man should be enjoying when he’s free and on land, mate! Come on, I bet a fellow like you has plenty of stories to tell. Why go against the flow?” It looked for a minute as though Marion would give up and join them, when Thane snapped around in the sharpest quarter-turn a soldier could ever hope to achieve and shouted, “Falcon’s Talon on my mark! One, two, walk!”
It must have sounded soldier-like and authoritative enough for the sailors. They hurried to let Marion pass while they bemoaned hard-hearted commanders and chanted their own joy at being free for the day. The songs died as they finally entered the tavern and several shouts of “Beer!” “Ale!” and “Food!” erupted from inside.
Sean’s stomach gurgled at that and he resumed his task of leading everyone to a place where they could get beds and food of their own.
The Hot Coal Inn looked on par with a country manor caught up by the sudden growth of the city. There was a short patch of grass, sporting an old tree, between the main house and the stables and all the rest had been covered by cobblestone roads and two-story houses. It was a nice part of town, with many houses showing off wears through their ground floor windows and pretty curtains on their second floor. Shops below and habitation upstairs, an artisan could certainly do worse than this clean and airy street.
The inn itself was a large three-story structure. The walls were newly whitewashed and the roof was covered in expensive grey slates. There were many windows, some as tall as a man and comprised of a large number of glass panes. The inn was miles above the troop’s usual standard in lodging, but they were in the money. They were going through a large city after two whole weeks on the road. Sean knew he could get a good deal for all of them, as long as Ash was still around. So he quieted Marion’s worry and Jean’s reservations with a joke and a smile and brought his horse to the stable entrance.
“Anyone?” he called, “Octavius, are you in there?”
“Sean? Is that you?” answered a clear, mellow voice.
Sean felt his face split into a smile as he recognized who it was. “Ash?” He dismounted, handing his reins to John and hurried inside.
Ashley was hurrying toward him too. She pulled herself up to her toes and threw her arms around his neck. “It is so good to see you again. I missed you!” Her eyes were shining with tears and there was a little more wetness than usual at the corners of Sean’s own eyes. He held her close and rocked a little from side to side.
“I’m really glad to be here. How have you been?”
She pressed a kiss to his cheek, before letting go of his neck. “Good. Very good. Octavius and Jacques are taking really good care of me.”
Ashley was a petite woman with generous curves. Her face was the very picture of health with her round, pink cheeks and clear complexion. Her mouth was a red bow pulled in an constant smile, her eyes were two pools of blue, eternally sparkling thanks to an inner light that came both from a warm heart and a clever mind. Her hair was tied into a long golden braid. She wore her dress as if it were still the silk of her youth instead of a simple embroidered cotton and held herself like the noblest ladies Sean had met on his journeys. Sean had to hide a smile at how confused his lover looked as his proper education forced him to answer Ashley’s formality with all the pomp one would expect to find only in stately meetings.
“So you finally decided stable work was worthy of you?” Sean asked, knowing it would put an end to the endless politeness and also that it was not the case, Ashley’s hands were as white and soft as when she was born.
She slapped him on the chest in mock outrage. “Stable work? Who do you take me for? No, I had just come to give a carrot to Annabelle.” A white mare nickered and looked out of her stall. “Are you here for the festival?” Ashley asked, looking more at Thane this time.
The captain shrugged. “If we can find room.”
Ashley’s face lit up. “Of course you can. Come, follow me.” She linked her arm with Sean’s and he let her, beaming at everyone. Right now, he had all his favorite people around him. Everything was perfect. Tom seemed a little hesitant in his reciprocation of the sentiment, but it was okay. He would warm up to Ashley. She was the best sister anyone could ask for.
Octavius, the innkeeper, had to play a little game of switching people around—Ashley’s bed was moved into the maids’ room and her room was covered in straw mattresses—but he managed to fit everyone in, even though Thane had to sleep in a storage room and everyone else was a little cramped. It wasn’t as bad as many places they had slept in before and probably better than what many people had found in the city.
Ashley had overseen the moving of her belongings with good humour, giving a clever imitation of Thane at some point when she had ordered John and Jean to “put some energy into it, men!” Thane was still licking his wounded pride somewhere, because his men had all started laughing and Marion had dropped a chair on Thane’s bad leg, adding injury to insult. Sometimes, their captain forgot that he wasn’t working with real soldiers anymore and that his mercenaries expected a lot more freedom when there was no fighting going on.
“What’s going on anyway? I’ve never seen this city so full of people before,” Sean asked as he deposited Ashley’s trunk at the end of her bed.
Ashley was directing Tom to place the vase he was holding onto a small table. “Haven’t you heard? There are to be three days of celebration, starting the day after tomorrow. The King has prolonged the festival in honour of the return of Prince Tristan!” Tom almost knocked the vase down, Ashley helped him right it before she continued. “There will be a ball for every night of the festival to find him a wife. All the girls of marriageable age with any claim to a title have been invited. It has been the talk of the town for weeks.”
“All girls with any claim to a title,” Sean repeated, “did you get an invitation?”
Ashley gave a self deprecating smile. “I don’t think that anyone remembers my existence, but even if they did, they probably think I have turned into a maid by now. Which wouldn’t be too far from the truth.” She gestured at the linen apron she had put over her dress to protect it from the dust.
Sean didn’t know how to feel about that. These were the people who had cast Ashley out without a backward glance, people so powerful they probably didn’t regard Sean and his friends as human beings. “Did you want to go?” he asked.
Ashley squared her shoulders and put her hands on her waist. “Ah, me? I don’t need them. I have much more freedom here than any queen can ever hope to have.” And, with that, she left the room to “go get flowers for that vase.”
“Your friend is really strong-willed,” Tom remarked once the tap tap of her shoes couldn’t be heard anymore. He sounded impressed. Also, a little bit baffled.
Sean agreed with that, but he had also noticed Ashley hadn’t actually said she didn’t want to go.
Much later that night, the six companions of the Falcon’s Talon were seated in front of a small mountain of food. Well, what remained of it. Empty tankards were strewn among the plates and bowls. The light of the main room had dimmed during the evening and, since the table was in a poorly lit alcove, Sean and Tom, who were seated at the farthest end, could barely see their plates. Sean was distractedly finishing the end of his roasted lamb, struggling to cut it with only his left hand, as his right hand was occupied under the table. Tom was hiding his face in his tankard, face still red from almost choking on a morsel of food. Marion and Jean were struggling—and failing—to keep awake and John was singing to his cup and laughing at nothing. While Thane appeared to be the least affected of them all, Sean could see that he was far from sober by the way kept asking the same maid if she wanted to spend the first evening of the festival with him.
Tom gave another cough and Sean smirked. He knew the tankard was mainly something for Tom to hide his face with, even though no one was paying them any attention. And such a shame it was, for right now, Tom’s cheeks were a very lovely shade of red and his eyes and mouth were half-open in the most enticing way.
Sean tightened his right hand under the table; Tom grunted and gave a full body jerk. It was definitely a moan that passed his lips this time. Sean gave Tom’s cock another squeeze in reward and smiled innocently when John looked their way with a confused frown.
After all, it wasn’t Sean’s fault if things had escalated to this.
It had started innocently enough, just a hand on Tom’s thigh. Sean had honestly forgotten all about it. He was surprised to find Tom glaring at him and realized that he had distractedly begun rubbing little circles on Tom’s leg with his thumb. Tom’s attempts at warning Sean off were hilarious, so he had started rubbing more firmly and went higher. When Tom opened his mouth—no doubt to tell Sean to stop—Sean had just smiled at him in the most wicked way he knew how and slipped his hand completely between Tom’s legs.
Tom jumped and choked on his mouthful of food. Sean hid a laugh behind a chicken leg, feeling no remorse at all. He laughed harder when Jean asked Tom if he had bitten his tongue.
From there on, Tom had squeezed his legs around Sean’s hand. If he hoped to deter Sean that easily though, he was in for a big disappointment. Sean just relaxed his hand and participated in the conversation going around the table. As soon as he felt Tom let up the pressure on his hand, he pushed closer to Tom’s crotch. Soon, he was rolling Tom’s balls through the material of his breeches. It was clumsy, but effective enough to pull another groan out of Tom. Luckily, the whole inn erupted into shouts right at this moment and the noise covered Tom’s voice.
It was harder to get any more noise out of Tom after that, because that was the moment when he had started gulping down the rest of his ale, coughing, and Sean didn’t really want to get caught. But that wasn’t the last of Sean’s attempts. Since he couldn’t get a rise out of Tom with sudden assaults, Sean opted for a siege. He didn’t have to do much, just keep his hand against Tom’s growing cock and rub small circles against it. The soft touches were enough to get Tom hard.
Which brought them to now and the beautifully lost look in Tom’s eyes. It was time to reap the fruit of his hard work.
Slowly, Sean leaned against Tom’s side, until he was inches from his ear. “Ready to surrender and follow me to the room?” he asked in the same low voice he usually used to tell Tom how beautiful he looked and how good it would feel when he came.
Tom was too far gone for big speeches; even proper enunciation was eluding him at the moment. But he could still nod and give a raspy yes, one that made the urgency to get out of the very public main room even more pressing.
Sean’s help was more of an impediment, but he couldn’t make himself let go of Tom right now. So he pushed and pulled and said sorry to Marion when Tom lost his balance and sat on him and ignored the chair that fell when Jean woke up flailing. Thane’s disapproving look only made the laughter bubble closer to the surface and he was chuckling madly by the time he was climbing the stairs and so was Tom when he finally pulled him in their room and slammed him back against the door for the kiss he had wanted to give him for the last hour.
There was fumbling on both of their parts to get as much clothing as they could out of the way without letting go of each other. Shirt-free, but with their breeches caught around their legs, they finally gave up and just went back to kissing and holding each other as close as possible. Tom might have started the grinding of their hips, or maybe he had just followed Sean’s lead. Soon enough, it didn’t matter.
Sean wasn’t surprised to feel Tom stiffen in his arms as he came between them. But his own orgasm took him by surprise only a few seconds later.
Even once the urgency was gone, they remained close, mouthing at each other’s faces and necks and trying to get some air back in their lungs. Eventually, Tom laid his forehead on Sean’s shoulder and his eyes slipped close.
“Do you think they all know?”
“That we came here to fuck? Thane does. He won’t care, though; he doesn’t sleep here.”
Tom hummed. “The others?”
“Don’t think they realised. But they won’t stay ignorant for long if we just stand here. Especially looking like we do.”
Tom didn’t say anything. There was already more awareness in his eyes. Soon, he was holding himself upright and pulling his breeches back up. Sean did the same and watched as Tom bent down to get their shirts. He had put on some muscle since he had joined the mercenaries. Gained a few new scars too. The biggest were still the three slashes on his shoulder, going down his back. A little present from a wyvern. Sean had gained a few nasty souvenirs of his own, like the burn that kept the hair at the back of his neck from growing again. He hadn’t been able to explain to Ashley what happened. In the end, he had let Thane spin a lie about a burning house.
“We deserve a rest.”
Tom looked up, looking confused. “What?”
Sean smiled and joined his lover for a some tidying up. “Nothing, just glad we’re here and nothing bad will happen for a while.”
The next day, everyone got roped into helping with the inn’s preparations for the festival. They didn’t know exactly how it happened. Ashley had batted her eyes and, somehow, the whole of the Falcon’s Talon men had agreed to ignore their hangover and work alongside the staff. That occupied them for the whole day. Kept them in line, as Thane said approvingly every time Ashley asked if someone would be so kind as to do this or that.
When night fell, they were all ready to enjoy a calm evening. And it was a calm evening. Until a group of young nobles made a grand entrance into the Inn.
“Noirepin,” Ashley explained when Sean commented on the way the maids started making themselves scarce. “He has the ear of the prince and a reputation of not using it sparingly.”
Sean couldn’t understand how he went from enjoying an evening with his friend to starting a fight, but one moment he was sitting with his head leaning on Tom’s shoulder—happy with the world at large and his place in it in particular—and the next, there was an uncouth attempt at groping Ash. What should have been a simple intimidation job went completely south as the man guilty of the crime refused to repent for it and threw a punch instead.
Several people got to their feet and got in on the fight in which not everyone seemed to know which side they were fighting for. It finished with Sean’s fist in Noirepin’s sneering face. Then there were death threats and promises to the gods and a slew of ancestors to make Sean pay for this affront. The whole incident closed on a slammed door and everyone left inside the inn cheering at everything and nothing, too full of ale to leave any space for good sense.
As he was drowned under toast after toast, Sean decided that the whole affair had been rather beneficial. Especially now that everyone was merry and cheery again. Even Tom stopped frowning at the door after the fourth or fifth round.
The first day of the festival started in fanfare. Cannons were fired on the city’s ramparts.
“It’s to celebrate victory against raiders who set siege to the city, fifty years ago,” Tom explained when Sean groaned.
More groans rose in the room. Everyone was either nursing a hangover, or had not been asleep for long enough to get one yet. Sean belonged to the first category, but he had been awakened when Thane had walked Jean to his bed sometime near dawn.
Tom commiserated while Sean recounted the story, then forced Sean to accompany him to breakfast. Sean was sure that Tom was secretly terrified of Ashley. It made Sean sad. He had wanted so much for these two to get along.
Breakfast made Sean’s stomach and head give up their attempt to kill him. It got to the point where the sun outside stopped stabbing his eyes and started looking welcoming.
“You know what? I need a new belt. And possibly a pair of socks. Want to come with me see if there’s anything interesting?”
Tom didn’t even consider before he started shaking his head. “Too crowded for me. But, if you want, we can get up earlier tomorrow, when there are less people?”
Sean had very little hope of that happening. So he decided to go do his own shopping while all the merchants were in town.
Tom accompanied him to the door, looked around to make sure no one could see them, and kissed Sean quickly on the cheek.
Sean was smiling widely as he left.
“See you later Tom.”
“See you later Tom,” Sean said to Brynn, looking relaxed and happy.
Brynn watched him walk out the door with a smile. And then he turned and found Ashley standing in his way. He had not heard her approach. The way she was staring at him felt… disquieting. Brynn didn’t feel welcome. Her smile reminded him of a certain witch who had tried to kill him. He shuddered at the memory. That was all he needed to decide he had better go find Thane. Brynn smiled, he was sure it wouldn’t convince anyone, but he tried. He nodded and tried to step around Ashley.
She side-stepped too, which put her right in front of Brynn and much closer than he liked for anyone to be, except for Sean. Brynn stepped back. Ashley stepped forward. Her smile widened as Brynn’s faded.
Ashley kept smiling and staring, the very picture of the cat about to eat the canary.
“Err… can I help you?” Brynn asked, in the hope of spurring her along and shortening the agony.
“Tom,” she said, smiling some more in a way that showed off her very white teeth. “Sean likes you.”
Brynn was too terrified to try and smile back. “Yes, he does.”
As she remained silent he added: “I like him too.”
She nodded in acknowledgment. “You two are cute together.”
Brynn waited for an actual question or a request. None was coming.
What was she doing? “Thank you?”
“You know, Sean is usually a happy person, but I have never seen him this happy before. I hope it will last.”
“So do I.” At this point Brynn spotted Thane and the others coming down the stairs. They all looked white in the face and black around the eyes. “If you will excuse me, I have to speak with my companions.”
He didn’t run for it, but he wanted to. It was very hard to keep his back to Ashley without checking that she wasn’t following.
Thane raised an eyebrow in question as Brynn approached him and didn’t seem surprised when Brynn immediately put Marion between him and Ashley. She was still near the door, looking down at her basket, no doubt spying on them.
“What were you two talking about?” Jean asked with a knowing smile that seemed out of place to Brynn. Had he missed something?
“I think she was threatening me.”
John did a double take. “Who? Ashley?” he looked back at her and she waved her dainty hand in a friendly greeting.
Thane had also looked back, but, as his next words showed, he was completely fooled. “That doesn’t sound like Ashley,” he said, turning back toward Brynn. “You must have misinterpreted.”
Brynn was ready to bet a whole golden coin he wasn’t.
Before he could say so, the door banged open and five guards wearing the tabard of the royal family marched inside. Everyone froze. Ashley’s eyes grew as wide as saucers.
Obviously this wasn’t a normal occurrence. Brynn immediately thought of Noirepin’s threats and his eyes moved to the closest guard’s shoulder. Sure enough, he found the prince’s colours there. Ashley was right then, these were Tristan’s men.
The soldiers were led by a sergeant who immediately stepped forward and started shouting loud enough to be heard in the whole house and maybe even in the whole street. “Where is the man who assailed the Count of Noirepin? We know that he lodges here! Bring him out!”
There were a few panicked looks exchanged between the men of the Falcon’s Talon. Marion even put a hand to his sword and would have drawn it out if Thane hadn’t made the signal for ‘no one move’ sharply enough to convey exactly how angry he was.
Ashley palled and immediately approached the Sergeant. “Surely there must be a mistake, we wouldn’t–”
“Save it! We know he’s here. Where is he?”
The soldiers were holding their swords and pointing them at everyone present. Brynn wondered how precise their description of Sean was.
“Hurry up people, we have orders to bring the criminal to face the Count and the Prince, if you don’t want to be judged with him for helping to hide him you had better give him up now!”
In front of the Prince? Brynn hoped he wasn’t about to regret his next action too much.
“You’re looking for me,” he said loudly, stepping forward and holding his hands up and away from his belt where his sword was.
Thane hissed a curse behind him and he didn’t say anything and clamped a hand over John’s mouth when the man went “What? Don’t–”
Brynn hurried toward the guards, turning at the last moment to look Thane in the eyes.
“You tell everyone not to worry too much, okay? I’ll be back in no time.”
“I really doubt that,” said the sergeant. On his signal, the guards chained Brynn and efficiently dragged him outside to throw him over a horse.
It was the most uncomfortable journey of Brynn’s life, including all the times he had to ride while wounded.
He didn’t see much of the castle, just the soldier’s back and door after door until he was dragged into a larger room and pushed to his knee on a thick carpet with an intricate pattern.
“You have been accused of assault on the person of Matthew of Noirepin, Count of Eauvive,” boomed the herald’s voice. “What do you have to say in your defense?”
Brynn looked up. He was in the throne room. He recognized it from the description. He had heard it enough times after all, and from the very man who was now sitting in front of him. Brynn gave silent thanks to whoever was looking out for him up there and rose to his feet.
“Nice to see you too, Tristan.”
The look on everyone’s face was worth it. Especially Tristan who looked like Brynn had walked to his throne to hit him.
Noirepin’s immediate reaction was outrage and a resounding “How DARE you!”
And boy! If watching Tristan grimace had been fun, it felt like true joy to look at the way Matthew’s face broke down and turned ashen grey when Tristan silenced him with a hand on his elbow and said “Matthew, you remember the Crown Prince of Foretaucerf, don’t you?”
Sean was pretty happy with his day when he came back at the inn. He couldn’t wait to see Tom’s face when he showed him the belt he had bought him. He could already picture the way the young man would turn red in embarrassment and, hopefully, excitement. It was so easy to get Tom excited. The smallest thing got him hard and needy. The mere idea had Sean quicken his pace.
The common room was still quiet when he looked around for his lover. He didn’t spot Tom on the first round, nor did he on the second. On the third, he noticed Marion’s pale face and Thane’s carefully blank expression.
Sean’s stomach knotted. He made a beeline for their table, asking, “what’s going on?” Marion paled even more, if that was possible. John and Jean reflexively avoided his eyes. Only Thane dared look him in the face.
“I think you should sit down,” the captain said calmly.
Sean kicked a chair away from the table and perched on it. “The fuck is going on? Where is he?”
“The guy you pissed off sicced the prince on you,” Thane announced. “His guards came here.”
Sean wanted to tell Thane how little he cared, but he could see the beginning of an explanation. One he didn’t like at all. His voice was no louder than a whisper when he asked: “What the hell did that idiot do?”
“Passed himself for you. They arrested him, said he was brought to face the prince in person.”
“What? Why didn’t you stop him!”
Thane glared. “I would have, if I had thought he would listen. Anyway, don’t worry too much about him. It’s not like the prince will crucify him for a bar brawl. The king wouldn’t allow that. I heard he’s a very sensible man. Tom will be back.”
He sounded so certain of it. For a second, Sean even believed him.
“The king is sick.” Ashley whispered from where she was hugging herself tightly. She still looked shocked. “The whole council has been putting a lot of pressure on the prince, I heard he has been acting out just to get them off his back lately.” She looked up, eyes wide with fear. “Don’t trust the prince to be reasonable. If you know anyone who could interfere for your friend, I would call on them. Now.”
“He will be fine,” Thane said when Sean looked at him pleadingly. Thane and his better than thou attitude, his lordly accent and his career in the army. Thane who had once admitted in a drunken fit that he had once had a bright future in front of him and powerful people at his back. But now their captain didn’t look ready to help anyone. Instead he put his hands on Sean’s shoulders and looked him square in the eyes. “There’s nothing you can do, so stay put and let Tom handle himself. He doesn’t need your help. Everything. Will. Be. Fine.”
Thane had Marion escort Sean to their room so he could have some time alone. This was Thane’s way of putting him under arrest. Marion knew it too, he was still guarding the door when Ashley came to see how Sean was doing.
She hugged Sean tight. He felt better for it.
“Your boss might be right you know. Maybe he’ll be fine,” she said, but her voice was wavering and she didn’t believe it herself.
“I don’t understand why he won’t at least try to do something,” Sean whispered in her hair. He still couldn’t get his head around Thane’s apparent disregard of the danger Tom was in. The others hadn’t looked like they understood it any better. They kept giving Sean pitying looks and John had even taken Thane aside to try and get an explanation. It had ended in raised voices and Thane had refused to answer. The captain had just stared him down and repeated that Tom would be fine. He had ordered everyone to stay at the inn. Had reminded them all that he was their captain, that they had agreed to listen to him and that he could get rid of those who didn’t follow his orders. For real. Thane almost never did that. Sure, he played at army captain sometimes, but it was a front. A silly mask Thane put on sometimes because he knew it amused them and also maybe because he needed to act like a ridiculed lord sometimes to… well, fuck, because he was Thane. But he never played the ‘you chose me’ card, he never reminded them that he was a tough guy, tougher than they, and that was why they had chosen to follow him.
“I tried to talk to him this morning.” Ashley said suddenly. “To Tom I mean. I tried to tell him that I was glad for the two of you.”
Sean gave a weak smile. “You did? I regret missing that.”
Ashley hesitated. “He seems… very put together. Very polite. Like your Captain. But, Sean, isn’t he a strange choice for you? He seems so distant, so cold.”
Sean shook his head. “He isn’t. He’s just… shy. Bad with people. I don’t think he had that many friends before he met us.”
And now Tom was back to being on his own. Like when he was Tom Thumb the Lone Monster Slayer. Too bad the stupid count and his friend weren’t dragons. Then Tom could kill them and escape their evil cave without any help.
He looked up, surprised by how miserable Ashley sounded.
“What is it? What’s wrong?”
She was wringing her hands and biting her lips. “I might have lied a little.” She looked up to gauge his reaction and Sean tried to look as friendly as possible. Ashley opened her mouth and then said in one breath, “Iwasinvitedtotheball.”
Sean’s first reaction was, “Uh?” Then he took a moment to consider the timing of Ashley’s reveal: “Wait, could you get me in the castle?” That, followed by the mixed signals she had been giving since Sean had arrived, made him ask, “Why didn’t you say it sooner?”
Ashley had calmed down considerably when Sean hadn’t become angry. “I hadn’t planned to go. That invitation was brought in by a merchant and it came with a ball gown and a letter by someone who claimed to be my godmother. But I don’t have a godmother. Jacques had a friend of his, who is a servant in the castle, examine it and he said it was genuine. But since everything was so out of the ordinary Octavius and Jacques thought it was safer if I didn’t go.” Sean was about to say something about that, but she interrupted him. “It was better this way, I agreed with them. I don’t want a chance at becoming queen anyway. I just–” Her cheeks pinked and she looked down. “I just thought it would have been a chance to go dance and be treated like a lady for a few nights,” she admitted, a little ashamed, though Sean didn’t see why. It was okay to want to be strong and to turn your back on the people who had given up on you when you needed their help. It was also okay to wish things had stayed easy and to pretend for a few nights that they still were.
“Don’t worry about it. Just tell me this: This invitation of yours, can it get people inside the castle?”
Ashley nodded. “It mentions my name and a retinue. You can pose as a guard.”
Sean felt hope come back. He smiled widely and hugged Ashley to his chest. “You’re the best. Thank you so much!”
That was the moment when Thane came in the room, looking harried. “Marion tells me you two have been whispering in here for the last ten minutes. I know you are plotting something. Just tell me what already, so I can point out to you how stupid it is.”
Sean beamed at him, daring him to say anything. “Ashley has a unique chance to go to a ball. She just asked me to escort her there.”
The streets seemed alive. Words echoed against old stones to give quaint houses and crumbling shacks voices of their own. Laughter, both the higher bell-like jingle of young, pretty women and the low gravel of older, drunken men, was suddenly bubbling from dark alleys or down from balconies. Here a name, here a curse, here a sweet serenade and there an off-key shanty were heard escaping from windows.
It was a struggle to find space between the bodies and Sean had to work very hard to convince the horse they had found for Ashley to move forward. The crowd seemed a cognisant entity with an endless hunger, sweeping onlookers into its maw and digesting them until they became a part of a its whole. Everyone seemed to get caught up in the jubilant atmosphere. Sean worried that they would be next.
“I had forgotten it was this bad,” he shouted in Thane’s direction. When the Captain had realized that there was no talking them out of going, he had insisted on accompanying them. Octavius and Jacques had tried very hard to remind Ashley that even she had doubts about the gifts. There had been threats to lock her in her room, to which Ashley had snapped back that she wasn’t theirs to lock anywhere and that she would leave for good if they tried. Thane had then tried to turn on Sean, but now that he had a good chance to get in the castle, he didn’t care what was or wasn’t waiting for him once he came back outside. So Thane had given up, climbed to retrieve his pack and then produced from it a full uniform in green and silver. “I’ll be the guard,” he had said to Sean with a condescending look, “you might be able to pass for a footman.”
Sean was kind of glad to have his captain with him now as he watched Thane elbow people left and right and shout about someone’s service and to be let through as if he was escorting the king himself. It worked. Mostly. Sean started to imitate him. “Give way!” he shouted after Thane.
There was a ring of quiet around the castle maintained by heavily armed soldiers. These men seemed all the more bitter the louder the shouts and the songs coming their way. They straightened and their chief smiled politely at Thane.
The guard in charge looked at the invitation in Thane’s hand and gave a brief peek upward to where Ashley was smiling down, her face barely visible under the hood of her cloak. The guard’s eyes widened and his back straightened some more.
“Welcome to the castle,” he said with a grand gesture toward the gate of the inner courtyard.
Sean kept his head low and avoided eye contact until they were inside and they were all accosted by footmen.
Sean had to step on someone’s foot to help Ashley off her horse. She was as light as a bird in his arms despite the heavy dress. She gave his shoulder a squeeze of thanks as she made a step toward the castle and paused.
Sean turned and took in the sight of the enemy’s lair for the first time. His first thought was that there was a garden climbing up the wall of the palace. Sprays of sweet smelling herbs were intermingled with roses, colorful gladiolus and bright sunflowers. In between, torches chased the shadows away and thus the wall appeared as though a ray of sunlight had lingered to be a part of the decoration.
Thane didn’t look impressed, but Ashley and Sean needed a little time to regain their composure and advance toward the high wooden doors that allowed entry into the great hall. As they did, the spicy fragrances of the various herbs reached them, like the sweet promise of what awaited them inside.
It was like standing on a battlefield after cannons had been fired. All sounds were muted, as if they were coming from the tapestries hanging on the walls. Whispers, quiet footsteps, the faint echo of music, all as soft as the thick carpet in which Sean’s shoes sank a little with each step.
Sean walked closer to the other two, looking for comfort in this hallway that seemed all the higher and all the larger for being so empty and silent.
“This castle is huge,” Sean mumbled to Thane’s ear. Even said low, it felt as though his words were echoing in the halls.
“This castle belongs to a king,” answered, taking far less care to modulate his volume. Sean winced.
Brynn watched from under his mask as yet another woman all but threw herself at Tristan’s feet only to be politely greeted then ignored. On Tristan’s other side, Matthew of Noirepin was keeping a commentary on the people who approached. Who was rumored to be sleeping with whom. Who had climbed in rank. Who had done something stupid. Despite Brynn’s dislike of the man, he had to admit to being grateful. Noirepin managed to make this dull function almost bearable. Also, the man had a better memory and better information than a spymaster. Unless he was Tristan’s spymaster. That would be… such a clever idea.
Brynn smiled and waved at an elderly couple who greeted him and tried to get him involved in a conversation. A trick to win time while their daughter batted her eyelashes at Tristan. Too bad for them, Brynn had played that game since he was ten and he dispatched them with a smile and a platitude before they realised what had happened. Tristan got rid of the girl. As for the sister of the girl, Noirepin whispered something to her and she left in a hurry, looking as though she wanted to cry.
The next people on the line stepped forward.
This, Brynn remembered as he plastered on another fake smile, this was the reason why he was calling himself Tom Thumb, spent one night out of two sleeping in the woods and earned his living fighting monsters.
Brynn let it continue for an hour.
“There,” he whispered to Tristan, trying to keep his smile on and his face and angling his head away from the room, because half the staff present tonight were probably trained to read lips. “The Prince of Foretaucerf made his appearance. Can I go back to my rooms now?”
“You’re joking right?” Noirepin whispered in the same fashion, making it look as if the three of them were exchanging pleasantries. “You made your grand reveal and ridiculed everyone. Now you’re staying here and suffering with us!”
Brynn turned to Tristan. “I’m not the one giving up on the quest to find myself a wife the painful way. I’ve done enough.”
Tristan’s lips smiled too, but his eyes were arctic cold. “Yes, indeed. You’ve done so much that right now your father thinks you might be dead. He had been throwing away money he could be using on defenses or easing the life of his people to find your sorry ass.”
Brynn felt a slight tinge of guilt. It lasted until another family tried to reach the dais and they had to interrupt themselves to take care of them.
“Well, I’m alive. I’ll write to him. Everything will be back to normal and I’ll be banned from going home again until I’ve rescued that elusive wife you’ve given up on.”
“No, you won’t.” Tristan said between his teeth, stopping long enough to bow to another lady. “I’ve sent a messenger to your father and you will be following him as soon as this festival is over. In the meantime, I am not allowing you out of my sight. In fact, be prepared to accompany me to council tomorrow.”
Brynn remained frozen in horror, even Noirepin’s satisfied little smirk wasn’t enough to snap him out of it.
“I am definitively underdressed,” Ashley whispered as they looked at all the gold, silver and precious stones displayed on clothes, wrists and necks around them.
“Just act as if you don’t know it and think you are too good to be talking to them,” Thane advised. “You probably are anyway.”
Sean was too overwhelmed to add anything to that conversation. He didn’t just feel underdressed, he felt naked and stupid. Now that he was in, he realised he did not know where to find Tom and had not even an inkling of where to start looking.
Hell, for all he knew, Tom might be here. Half the people present were wearing masks. Even the castle servants had masks as part of their uniform tonight. Ashley had found a white mask with the dress. It was embroidered with a flowery pattern and had tiny crystal butterflies that matched the fabric of the dress. Sean didn’t know shit about dresses, but Thane had approved, so it must have been expensive enough. There were no stones hanging from Ashley’s ears or neck though. Just a simple silver chain that supported a pendant currently hidden in the dress’ neckline. A very low neckline that Thane had also approved, which Sean really thought meant it was actually too low.
“Well, what do we do now?” Ashley asked, looking at Sean as if she had no doubt he knew the answer.
“Err, we need to look for Tom. He must be–”
“You can stop looking,” Thane said pointing toward the other side of the ballroom. “He is right there.”
Half of Sean’s brain had something to say about how unsurprised Thane sounded. The other half of Sean’s brain was telling him that the man with the high black leather boots, the perfectly tailored clothes and the half mask covered in emeralds and diamonds, that man couldn’t be Tom. Even if he really looked like Tom and moved like Tom and held himself with his hand resting on the hilt of his sword just so this man couldn’t be Tom. Even from where Sean was stood, he could see that this man’s clothes were more expensive than Ashley’s dress. And this wasn’t Tom’s sword, since it was covered with gold and other precious jewels. This man was talking to a guy that just had to be Noirepin and they were smiling at each other and joking together and also with the prince. And the other reason why he couldn’t be Tom? The royal circlet in his otherwise perfectly Tom-like brown hair.
“Okay, congratulation Thane, it’s not very funny, but you have found Tom’s lookalike. Ha ha.”
But Thane wasn’t laughing. In fact, Thane looked deadly serious. “I asked you once if you knew who he was,” Thane said without an ounce of laughter in his voice. “Do you remember what you told me?”
“I would be an idiot if I didn’t recognize nobility when I see it.”
“What do you see now?”
“I see the prince of Eauvive, wearing a mask in his colours, and I see another prince, wearing a mask in green and white. But do you know what else I see?” Sean turned to Thane and looked him up from head to toe, slowly. “I see an asshole, wearing a uniform in these same colours, who told me Tom would be fine with the prince, ordered me to stand still without giving any explanation and then looked at the royal dais first thing upon walking in this castle. Care to explain?”
“It was complicated, and not my story to tell.” Thane had the guts to look him in the eye while he said this. If they hadn’t been attracting weird looks already, Sean would have punched his lights out.
Ashley had been watching them bicker without a word, but she was always sensitive to Sean’s moods and she must have sensed that he was getting to the end of his rope. “Maybe you should go ask him now.” She said pointing at Tom.
“And how do you propose we manage that?” Sean bit out.
Ashley pointed next to the queue of young ladies being presented to the prince… well, princes.
“Why not go see if this prince is really worth all the fuss?” she asked, with a mischievous glint in her eye that Sean hadn’t known she possessed.
“Brynn,” Tristan called suddenly between lady number too-many-plus-a-hundred and lady too-many-plus-a-hundred-and-one, “there is a man wearing Foretaucerf’s uniform there.”
Brynn and Noirepin followed his finger and fell on Thane. Brynn’s eyes widened; Noirepin’s immediately found Ashley.
“Tristan, that’s the girl I talked to you about,” he said, excited enough that he even grabbed the prince’s sleeve. “But what is she doing with one of your soldiers Aucerf? That’s the royal guard’s uniform isn’t it? And who-=”
Brynn’s eyes fell on Sean. The man was standing a half-head taller than everyone around him, Brynn was surprised he hadn’t seen him sooner. But maybe it was a good thing. His blue eyes were burning with anger and his whole face promised hell to pay.
“That’s him!” Noirepin exclaimed then, still low enough that the people around them couldn’t really hear, “That’s the guy who almost broke my nose.”
“Oh you’re not still thinking about that,” Brynn protested halfheartedly. Right now, letting Noirepin throw Sean in a dungeon until he cooled down sounded like a semi-good idea.
Tristan was barely reining in his annoyance. The council members, seated at each side of the dais, were paying close attention to the prince’s frowning face. “Brynn, now would be a good time to explain how you came to be in my throne room, I believe,” he hissed between his teeth.
Brynn turned to Noirepin while he searched for inspiration. The count was looking back and forth between Sean and Brynn, a pensive look on his face, until he seemed reach a conclusion and his annoying smirk came back. “Oh, this is going to be good,” Brynn heard him mutter.
“Brynn!” Tristan shout-whispered. “Explanation. Now!”
Brynn shrugged. Killed by Tristan or Sean, what difference? “I’ve joined a party of mercenaries. The guy in the uniform is our captain. I don’t know where he got the uniform from. The man who hit Noirepin is my friend. And he doesn’t deserve whatever Noirepin wants to do to him, by the way.”
Tristan turned slowly to face Brynn, face pinched and eyes full of warning. “Friend… you mean friend or you mean… with…” Apparently that was as close as Tristan could go to an explanation.
Noirepin couldn’t keep in a laugh then. “With added nightly gratification. Yes, Tristan. That kind of friend.”
Tristan’s mouth did something ugly before he could catch it. Quite possibly, the only people who noticed where the council members—now looking ready to take action should their prince decide to throw a tantrum during the reception given in his honour. As soon as the grimace had appeared on Tristan’s face, it disappeared, replaced by another fake smile.
“You are a disgusting person and a dishonour to us all,” he said calmly, charmingly even.
Noirepin was still chuckling, but that set him off again. “Don’t worry,” he told Brynn, who was trying very hard to keep his own fake smile, “he will get over it. Right now he’s just thinking about all the time you two spent naked in each other’s company. You had a public bathing room at that school of yours, didn’t you? Anyway, let’s move things along a little shall we? You! Lady… I don’t think I remember your name, but come here.”
Neither Tristan nor Brynn could do anything as Noirepin made Ashley and her two companions move to the head of the line in the rudest manner possible. From their scandalized expressions and the despair oozing off of them, the council was of the same opinion.
“Now our dear prince has been chattering my ears off about you, asking me who you were and I couldn’t answer. But let that not keep the two of you from sharing a dance. I believe…” Brynn saw him clearly signal to a servant who in turn gestured hurriedly to the orchestra in the corner. They started playing completely off-key in their panic, but rectified it at once. The whole affair lasted barely three seconds. “Yes,” Noirepin continued, “the dances have started. Why don’t the two of you go get better acquainted on the dance floor?” He even had the gall to look up at Tristan and wink. Tristan walked down the steps without a word and bowed to a bemused Ashley, taking her hand and giving it a discreet yank when she didn’t immediately follow him.
“Okay, all of you, this way now,” said the bastard of Noirepin once everyone was distracted by the sight of the prince and Ashley dancing. He ignored Sean’s glare and pushed everyone, including Thane, through a curtain into a surprisingly large room hidden behind.
Tom made a move to take Sean’s hand in his, but Sean jerked away and glared him down.
“Not that this isn’t the most entertaining event of my whole week,” Noirepin interrupted, “and I promise that you two will get a chance to get to the part where you shout at each other before getting to have angry make-up sex.” Sean choked and his attempt at starting the shouting was cut short. “But I really need to know a few things first. Order of the day number one: who is that girl who is dancing with my prince right now?”
Sean decided to take care of Noirepin first. Turning all his height against the count he glared down and advanced until he was chest-to-chest with him. “And why should we tell you anything?”
Noirepin looked annoyed, but far from cowed. “Because.” He dug his fingers in Sean’s side. It hurt, enough that Sean stepped back with a yelp. Noirepin waited until he had everyone’s attention again. “If you don’t answer me, I will make sure that Tristan sees his little plan through and sends him,” his finger pointing at Tom, “back to his castle. Where I have no doubt that the king will keep him under surveillance for the rest of his life. Now that might make the make-up sex a little complicated wouldn’t it?”
“Not if there is no making-up,” Sean grumbled.
Noirepin shrugged. “Shouting then, I don’t really care do I?”
Sean gave Tom’s pale face a brief glance. “Don’t get any ideas,” he snapped. “And you, what do you want to know?” he asked, turning to Noirepin.
“Pedigree, education, the works. Also, why the Academy found it important to make me give them an extra invitation to this dreadful ball. They even had me order a gown and a mask. I found your Ashley by having their delivery-man followed. The Academy is known to be an annoyingly secretive bunch, but this was pushing the convoluted plots a bit far. What’s their interest in her? Who is she really?”
Tom gave up his role as despairing lover long enough to look at Noirepin like he had been given another piece to a very complex puzzle. “They did what?”
“Basically, they put a giant sign on this girl’s back and then they told me I should push Tristan in the arms of whoever was wearing that sign. Which I neither like nor condone.”
“Well, we don’t know anything about that,” Sean said. “And we can’t help. But Ashley is as well born and well educated as all of the tarts in this room put together. And is a good enough friend that I don’t think we are going to let your prince anywhere near her.”
Noirepin smiled. “Nice speech, but you won’t be able to back it up, seeing as you will be leaving us very soon.”
“And why is that?” Thane asked.
“Because, as mentioned earlier, Tristan wants to send our dear prince of Foraucerf here back to the loving protection of his royal family. And the song is about to stop. Which gives you,” Noirepin rubbed his chin, pretending to be deep in thought, “oh, about thirty seconds to get out of this castle, before he remembers you. While I can assure you that your friend will be free to refuse my prince’s advances anytime she wishes,” Noirepin shook his head in mock-sadness, “I don’t think Aucerf will be shown the same leniency about accepting an escort of heavily armed guards.”
Sean glared at Tom. Now he had to leave Ashley behind. It was a good thing she could take care of herself. She would show this stupid prince who was boss, he would never know what hit him.
“Exit is this way,” Noirepin said, pushing aside what looked like a bit of the wall. Behind it was a badly-lit corridor.
Sean reached for the hand Tom had let fall to his side. “If I ever see you again,” he told Noirepin when they passed him, “I will do far more than punch you.”
The guy smirked. “Next time you see me, you will be too busy repaying tonight’s debt.” To Tom he waved and gave an even more mocking smile. “As I said, he’ll get over it. Don’t forget to write.”
The door closed behind them and they made their way in silence, through the dark corridors, out of the castle and back to the inn. By the time his things were packed, Sean found he wasn’t angry anymore. Peeved that Thane would let him worry himself sick without an explanation. But ready to accept that it hadn’t been his secret to tell.
With the sudden escape, Sean and Tom didn’t get a chance to talk about what had transpired at the castle until two days later.
They didn’t go far. Octavius had promised to send word as soon as Ashley came back to the inn. For now, it seemed as though Ashley had made an impression on Tristan and been invited to go live in the castle. She had wanted to say no, but the count of Noirepin had convinced her she had an opportunity to do something for justice and those of her friends who weren’t always in a position to get it. If she stayed, she could be a voice for her friends when they were picked up for minor offenses. To Sean it sounded like blackmail.
There was also a strange story surrounding the city-wide search the prince had launched after discovering Tom’s disappearance. Something about a glass slipper? People really didn’t know what to invent to make their lives more interesting.
But yes, those were two intense days of playing cat-and-mouse with the patrols. On the third, they left Eauvive and could finally catch some rest. Sean waited until Tom had gone to fetch water and he followed. He found his lover sitting on the riverbank. It looked as though Tom were moping.
“You’re a prince.” Sean hadn’t quite meant for it to sound like an accusation. He regretted it when Tom hunched in on himself even more.
But Tom had never pandered to Sean before and he wasn’t about to now. He stood up so that they were face to face, his expression both determined and pleading.
“You’re not allowed to be angry about it. I didn’t choose where I was born. And right now I am no prince.”
“Pretty sure that’s not how it work.”
“It won’t change anything. Here, I’m… Just Tom. Your Tom.”
Sean wished it was that simple. “And what happens when you have to go back and be whoever you are when you wear a crown?”
“I won’t. I will never go back again.” Tom didn’t even hesitate. Sean could feel it: Tom had thought about it, considered all his choices, and he had made his decision. Sean came before the life of luxury and a whole kingdom. It was a little bit flattering.
Sean wished so badly for it to be true. But Tom had said it, “I’m Tom. Your Tom.” And Sean’s Tom was a good guy who killed monsters because they terrified helpless villagers and took the plunge for innocent people. One day, that whole kingdom Tom had pushed aside would come back, crying for help. Tom wouldn’t ignore them when it happened.
It didn’t mean Sean wouldn’t appreciate every second he could get until then.
Sean stepped forward and gave an unsuspecting Tom a kiss. And a noogie for good measure.
“My Tom, huh? Don’t think I will forget that anytime soon.”
Tom’s face split into a smile of relief, joy and a lot of fondness. There was absolutely nothing cold about it and Sean wished Ashley could see.
“One last thing. If you ever need to go back to your princely things, who should I go looking for?”
That one brought on a confused frown, but it was followed by a searing kiss that left Sean completely breathless.
“Brynn,” murmured his prince with kiss-swollen lips. “My name is Brynn.”