by juou no zan (女王のザン)
“Tiede!” Arden shouted, pounding his fist on the door to his brother’s quarters. “Tiede! I need advice!”
The door swung open, though it was not Tiede who stood behind it. It was Farran, Tiede’s new husband. Farran’s dark, curly hair was loose and wild around his shoulders. He was wearing a robe that must have been Tiede’s, judging from how it was short in the sleeves and barely went to his knees. Somewhat breathlessly, Farran said, “Tiede’s busy. Can I help or do you want to come back in, uhh. Two hours?”
“You’re killing me,” Arden moaned. “I’m dying, and you two are having sex.”
“You’re not dying,” Farran said. He frowned, and looked at Arden more closely, then shook his head. “No, you’re not dying.”
Arden huffed. Tiede couldn’t even have the decency to marry someone who didn’t have younger siblings and wouldn’t be as wise to Arden’s ways. “I’ll come back later,” Arden said.
He went back to his rooms and buried his face in his pillows to scream.
Farran was the ultimate source of Arden’s current predicament, but Arden could hardly hold it against him when Tiede was so obnoxiously happy. Still, if Tiede hadn’t fallen in love with Farran, he wouldn’t have abdicated his position in the line of succession, and Arden would still happily be the spare. And as the second prince, Arden wouldn’t have been under nearly as much pressure to get married, whether he was of age or not. But Tiede had at once cleverly fulfilled and frustrated their father’s ultimatum, by getting engaged before Arden’s date of majority while at the same time making it impossible for anyone to object to him marrying a common man.
Arden was proud of his brother for putting himself first for once, but it was also unfortunate for him, since Arden’s happiness and well-being were the primary beneficiaries of Tiede’s selflessness. Arden had been abruptly thrust into the position of heir to the throne, for which he was ill-prepared. He had also been immediately put in the line of fire for an arranged political marriage, since Tiede had dodged it.
When he tired himself out screaming into his bed, Arden paced around his bedroom. That wasn’t satisfying for very long, so he went up to the parapets to pace the perimeter of the palace. He did two full rotations before the clock chimed that it had been two hours since Arden first went to Tiede’s room.
This time when he knocked on Tiede’s door, it was Tiede who answered it, and he was fully dressed. “There you are,” he said, as if it hadn’t been his husband who told Arden to go away and come back later.
Arden pushed past him to fling himself onto the couch in Tiede’s sitting room he usually took when he visited his brother.
“Oh, good,” Farran said, standing in the doorway that led to Tiede’s bedroom. “It’s a family trait.”
“What is?” Arden asked. He looked up at Farran. Arden could hardly begrudge his older brother for ruining his life when he looked at his new brother-in-law. Arden might have done the same, if their positions were reversed. Farran was very attractive.
“Being melodramatic,” Farran said, smiling. “Should I go, or would the extra brotherly advice help?”
“You can stay,” Arden said. He rolled onto his back and sat up. Tiede settled in on the couch across from him, with Farran joining him a second later. Farran didn’t look quite as put-together as Tiede did, and he had several bruised love bites visible over the collar of his shirt that hadn’t been there earlier in the day. They looked almost comically mismatched, opposites in so many ways; Farran was tall, with broad shoulders and dark, curly hair, where Tiede was slim, blonder than Arden, and only of a height with their short mother by virtue of his very erect posture. Combined with how composed Tiede was versus how relaxed and practically sloppy Farran was, they looked like an unkind cartoon comparing nobles to commoners. But Arden knew, as few people did, how much happier and relaxed Tiede was now that he had Farran in his life. Beneath those surface-level differences, they fit. They complemented each other.
If Arden thought about it too hard he was sick with envy.
“So what’s the problem?” Tiede asked. At least he gave Arden the grace of being serious when he asked that.
Arden said, “I’m in love with my betrothed.”
Tiede’s eyebrows drew together. He exchanged a look with Farran. Looking back at Arden, he said, “That doesn’t sound like much of a problem, Arden.”
Arden groaned. “Right, yes, I can see how you would think that,” he said. “Let me tell you how I met Fam.”
Sneaking out into the city to drink was probably not the kind of thing a responsible heir to the throne did. But Arden had been sneaking out into the city to spend time with—well, not normal people, he didn’t think he could blend in with commoners—but lesser nobles and gentry, at least. People who could accept Arden as a feckless second son instead of seeing one of their princes, and therefore talk to him sort of normally. Normally for the upper class, anyway. He’d been doing it for years before Tiede abdicated and Arden wound up heir to the throne, and far be it from him to break an irresponsible habit when he needed the outlet more than ever.
On this particular night, Arden had wound up in a dim corner of the tavern he usually snuck out to, sharing a table with a stranger. He drank with strangers most of the time. The better someone got to know him, the higher the likelihood they would recognize him. “I’m not cut out for this,” Arden said into his tankard mournfully. “I was supposed to be the spare. I don’t know how to do the work of running anything.”
His table companion made a sympathetic noise. “Did something happen to your brother?” he asked.
Arden laughed. “Yes,” he said. “He fell in love. Bastard. ‘Course, our father wouldn’t let him marry another man. So now I’m to marry the girl dear dad had lined up for my brother, and learn a lifetime of lording as soon as possible.” He sighed. “What if I wanted to marry a man?” he asked. “Did he think about that? Of course not.” He sighed again. “And his betrothed is so handsome. ‘Snot fair, having to look at him and know he’s going to be my brother-in-law soon.”
His table companion laughed.
“Shut up, you,” Arden muttered. He took another swig from his tankard. “I didn’t even think to say anything. ‘Oh, I’ll have plenty of time for that later,’ I thought. He didn’t tell me it was a race!”
The other man at the table said, “I feel for you. But that’s the lot of nobility, isn’t it? Got to be some kind of cost, or we’re just spoiled wastes of a castle.”
This time, Arden laughed. “That’s one way to put it,” he said. “Mind you, I’ve known some fucking wastes of a castle.”
“We all have,” said the other man. He sighed. “I do hear you about the arranged marriage. My father’s got me betrothed to someone I’ve never met.”
“Why do they do that?” Arden asked. “I mean, I know why they do it, but, gods, someone you haven’t met? At least make it someone you’ve seen around, can’t you? Someone you know by reputation? I know we can’t all marry for love but I’d like to know her.”
“Gods, I know,” said the other man. “At least it’d be something.”
Arden looked up and considered him. He was a good-looking man, clean-shaven and clear-skinned, with long brown hair tied back in a queue. And he hadn’t reacted at all to the revelation that Tiede was marrying a man, or that Arden thought he might have wanted to as well. Arden said, “Y’know, I hear they have rooms upstairs…?”
“Oh,” the other man said, and just from the tone, Arden’s hopes fell. “I don’t know that I want to be your first man, thanks.”
“I never said I hadn’t been with a man before,” Arden said, pouting.
“Have you, then?”
Arden sighed. “No,” he admitted.
“I think we’d better stick to commiserating, then,” the handsome stranger said, and clacked his tankard against Arden’s.
Arden woke up the following morning with a headache and a nasty taste in his mouth, but otherwise he didn’t feel too bad. At least, until he remembered that it was the day he was supposed to meet his potential fiancee.
He was glad Tiede was so happy with Farran, but Arden really wished he’d had more time to prepare for all this heir to the throne business.
He got dressed and went down to breakfast. Tiede and Farran had gone to see Farran’s family, who lived in a town a couple of hours northwest of the castle, and Father almost never ate with the family, so it was just Arden and his mother. She fussed over his hair and the collar of his doublet, and Arden let her, even though he was definitely too old to be fussed over by his mother like this. Tiede didn’t let her fuss over him at all, and even though Arden was certain Farran would have let her, the fact that she had not yet met Farran’s mother meant she didn’t feel comfortable doing so. Queen or not, Mother wouldn’t encroach on another mother’s territory. So Arden bore her otherwise-frustrated motherly attentions. Besides, he never could get his hair tied back evenly on his own.
Arden didn’t have a lot of time to fill before his meeting with his father, his prospective bride, and his prospective bride’s father, but it was just enough time to get bored. He couldn’t concentrate on anything, not with his head aching, and by the time he’d begged some willow-bark tea off the castle physician, it was time to go to his marriage interview.
His father nodded at him when he entered the room. “Arden,” he said.
“Father,” Arden said, nodding back as he took his seat. A mere moment later, one of the courtiers came through the other door and announced their visitors.
“Lord Reinder Sietema and his daughter, Lady Famke Sietema.”
Lord Reinder Sietema and his daughter bowed, then Arden’s father got to his feet and gestured for them to approach. He said, “You’re looking well, Lord Reinder. I am delighted to finally meet your daughter.”
Arden finally made himself look from Lord Reinder to his daughter, and froze. He recognized her. She had clear skin, long brown hair, and features Arden had spent a fair amount of time admiring, because she was the man he’d been drinking with last night. Arden stared at her. Or…him? He would have to ask, wouldn’t he? Unfortunately, it was clear they had also recognized Arden, going by the stricken look on their face. They had to get enough privacy to talk and make a plan about how to deal with this, but if they were supposed to be a man and a woman—
Oh, Arden thought. He was truly overthinking things in his panic. “Father,” he said, the next time there was an appropriate lull in the conversation, “might Lady Famke and I take a walk in the garden?”
“Of course,” said his father. He gestured to one of the guards, which Arden took to mean that guard would be their chaperone.
Arden offered his arm to Lady Famke, or whoever they were, and headed for the door. Once they were in the garden proper, the guard who had followed them fell back, out of earshot, though still well able to see them. Arden glanced back to make sure, and then said quietly, “Alright, we should be safe to talk.”
“There’s nothing to talk about,” Lady Famke managed to hiss, while continuing to look perfectly calm and lady-like. “If you keep your mouth shut, I won’t spread around the fact that you’re pining for your brother-in-law.”
“I am not pi— It would just be nice to have the option,” Arden said, unpleasantly aware that his ears and neck were heating up. Hopefully if their chaperone noticed, he would assume Arden was simply nervous flirting with his potential betrothed. Arden sniffed. “I will say, it kind of stings to know I’m the unpleasant arranged marriage.”
“Don’t be stupid, it’s not you,” Lady Famke said. “It’s the whole thing. It’s being married off to some strange man and expected to be his wife. It’s one thing for you,” they said. “You’re just being denied a choice. Which is bad enough, I’ll grant, but I’d trade with you in a heartbeat. You wouldn’t be the one expected to have babies.”
Arden considered the idea of somehow being forced to carry his own children and felt queasy. “So, er, you prefer the guise in which we met?” Arden asked.
“Vastly,” Famke said flatly. “But my family lacks any other daughters, so eventually my father put his foot down about my ‘childish tomboyishness’.”
“Ah,” Arden said. That was actually easier for him, considering he had first met Famke as a man, and trying to think of him as a lady had been difficult. They walked along a carefully trimmed hedgerow, which ended in a fountain. While they paused to admire the fountain, Arden said, “Then even if I convinced my father I would rather marry someone else, you’d still be obliged to accept some match eventually.”
“I see no way around it,” Famke said. “It makes me sick, to be blunt, but I can’t think of any way out of it short of running away. And I don’t exactly have a trade to support myself, once I can’t leverage my family name.”
“I might have an idea,” Arden said.
Famke looked over at him and rolled his eyes. He made for a pretty woman, but Arden supposed whether or not he looked well in the role mattered about as much to Famke as it would matter to Arden. It might be fun once in a while, but Arden wouldn’t want to do it every day. He couldn’t imagine it got less tiresome after doing it for eighteen years. Or however old Famke was; he might be a few years older or younger than Arden. Last night, Arden had thought older, but dressed like this, Famke looked as if he might be younger than Arden. Famke said, “You’ve known about my predicament in detail for all of five minutes, highness.”
“Well, we’d be helping each other,” Arden said. “If we did accept the engagement—”
“Don’t you dare say something about getting the best of both worlds,” Famke interrupted. “I will kick you in the balls, prince or no.”
Arden laughed. “Oh, I do like you,” he said. Few people threatened him when they knew he was a prince. Famke threatening him in earnest was perversely endearing. Arden went on, “No, I thought—well, if we were engaged, or certainly once we were married, our fathers would stop trying to arrange marriages to someone else. And once you were my…spouse…your father would have no right to say anything about the way you dress or act.”
“And how does this help you?” Famke asked, suspiciously.
Arden shrugged. “You heard me last night,” he said. “I assume you wouldn’t mind a husband-in-name-only fucking around.”
Famke considered that. “No,” he said. “I suppose not.” They walked on. One of the flowerbeds was full of blooms that filled the air with a sweet scent. Some fat bees buzzed around, bumbling from flower to flower. Finally, Famke said, “That might be alright for a couple of years, but what about heirs? After what happened with your brother, they’ll want you to have a whole passel of kids.”
“Oh no, too many is almost as bad as too few,” Arden said. “But Tiede is actually marrying Farran. And Farran has three sisters. Once they’re officially family, no one would be able to object to me naming one of their children my heir without Tiede coming down on them like a particularly angry blacksmith.”
“Hmm,” Famke said. Tiede did have a reputation among the nobility for being harsh. Hopefully Famke agreed that Tiede could effectively terrorize people out of objecting to Arden naming a nephew-in-law his heir. “How old are these sisters?” Famke asked. “Are they likely to have children in the next few years?”
“The eldest is seventeen, the youngest is thirteen,” Arden said. “And Alivia the eldest is already a bit of a slut, so I shouldn’t think it would be a long wait.”
“Oh,” Famke said. After a moment, he said, “That could actually work.”
“I wouldn’t have suggested it if I didn’t think it could work,” Arden said, stung.
“How am I to know that?” Famke asked. “We may know each other’s deepest secrets, but other than that, we’re practically strangers.”
Arden laughed again. “Fair enough,” he said. “So? What do you say?”
“Yes, I suppose,” Famke said. He glanced over his shoulder at their chaperone, trailing a decent distance behind them. “I’d ask to shake on it, but your man might think it was odd.”
“We could kiss,” Arden suggested. “That would be ordinary, in the circumstances.”
“Hmph,” Famke said, and presented his cheek. Arden leaned over and kissed him delicately.
The king and Famke’s father were delighted that their children were so enthusiastic about the match. Or at least Famke’s father was; Arden’s father was more difficult to read. Arden would go as far as “pleased”, but that probably had as much to do with Arden following his father’s plans as anything else. Father had never enjoyed how willful Tiede was, particularly on the subject of marriage. Arden quietly going along with the path laid out for him was bound to please their father.
Famke was Arden’s date to Tiede’s wedding. It was the first opportunity for them to be seen in public together, and the first time they spent together since their walk around the garden the day they were betrothed. Arden introduced Famke to Farran’s family and steeled himself not to wince when Alivia enthused about how she’d be gaining another sister with Arden’s wedding. Famke was gracious and charming, and if Arden hadn’t known better, he would have thought Famke a perfect lady. He was really quite a good actor.
As the reception started, Famke took advantage of the bustle of everyone settling at their tables to murmur to Arden, “Are you certain your brother is happy with this?”
Arden glanced up at the high table, where Farran and Tiede sat with their parents. Farran’s mother and step-father looked awed to be sitting with the king and queen. Farran looked pleasantly stupefied. Tiede was practically glowing, although Arden doubted many people in the room could see that. “He is,” Arden said. “That’s just his face. When you know him, he looks at least as happy as Farran.”
“If you say so,” Famke said.
Arden laughed. “Trust me,” he said. “He wouldn’t have abdicated if he weren’t.”
“I suppose not,” Famke said. After a moment, he added, “I do see what you meant about Farran.”
“I don’t know about abdicating, but I might moan to a stranger in a pub about it,” Famke said, and Arden rolled his eyes.
Two days after Tiede and Farran’s wedding, Arden and Farran’s sisters had a trip out to the country planned. Arden asked their permission to invite Famke as well, and Alivia seemed more excited about that than about the initial plan.
Since the girls were there, Famke was dressed as a lady, although he’d used the excuse of the picnic being outside to wear wide-legged trousers instead of a skirt, and his hair was only very technically up, resembling a masculine queue at least as much as it looked like a lady’s hairstyle.
As they left the city bounds in the carriage, Siwan said, “Not that I don’t appreciate getting to do fancy shit like carriage rides out to the lake for a picnic, but why are you bothering?”
Arden frowned. Had no one explained this to them? They were smart girls, but he supposed they hadn’t grown up dealing with the kind of interpersonal politics Arden had.
Luckily, Famke cut in before Arden could formulate a thought. He said, “It would call your brother’s marriage into question if Arden didn’t treat you as family.”
“Ohh,” Siwan said. She elbowed her older sister Alivia in the ribs. “Why didn’t you say that?”
“I tried!” Alivia protested. “I didn’t put it as smart as that, though.”
Meraud, the youngest sister, said, “You didn’t put it as smartly.”
Alivia sighed. “Yes, Merry, I’m sure you’re right,” she said.
“You don’t have to bother in front of us,” Arden said. “Or Mother.” All three of them made incredulous faces at that. “In front of Father, sure. And obviously in front of other members of the court. But we’re family now.”
“I’m afraid you will need the space to relax,” Famke said. He looked sidelong at Arden, then smiled and said, “It’s fucking exhausting being polite and proper all the time.”
Alivia was already enchanted by Famke, but his dropping into an informal register visibly got the less-proper Siwan on his side as well.
“Why do we have to be careful in front of the king but not the queen?” Meraud asked Arden. “Is the king not our family as well, now?”
Arden grimaced. “Yes,” he said, “but, um. He’s kind of an asshole?”
Famke laughed, covering his mouth with one hand.
Alivia stared at Arden. “You can’t say that about the king,” she said, although she sounded more awed than scandalized.
Arden shrugged, and said, “Not in public. But he’s also my father. It’s nothing personal,” he said to Meraud. “He’s not really my family, either, at least not in the same way Mother or Tiede are.”
“It’s goddamn baffling how your mother is still into him,” Famke said, shaking his head. “She’s so lovely.”
Arden smiled at him. “I’d love to have an explanation for you,” he said. “But I have no idea.”
“Perhaps he is very sweet to her when they’re alone?” Alivia suggested, although she looked doubtful. Siwan snorted her disbelief in the suggestion.
“I suppose that’s possible,” Arden said, although he doubted it. Still, Mother had to see something in him. She was not only polite, but devoted to him. It really was baffling.
“At least he’s a good king,” Famke said. “By all accounts, King Bastien the Second was a wonderful father.”
That made them all laugh, since Bastien the Second was the king most commonly used as the butt of jokes about stupid decisions. He had made some highly questionable royal decrees during his reign.
The ride out to the lake took long enough that when they got there, no one wanted to see the sights nearly as much as they wanted to eat. They pulled the packed food and blanket out of the carriage at once. Arden asked the carriage driver to give them some privacy, so he took the carriage off to a meadow overlooking the lake, and unhooked the horses from the carriage so they could graze.
Setting up the picnic was somewhat novel for Arden and Famke, whereas the girls obviously didn’t find anything strange about setting up their own meal. As they unpacked the food hamper, Siwan said, “Hey, uh—” She made a face then asked, “Can I just call you Arden?” Arden nodded. “Fucking weird,” she muttered, before going on more loudly, “So you obviously know Prince Tiede—fuck, just Tiede, I guess?—better than us. Is he, like…actually happy with Farran?”
Famke burst into laughter. “You know, I asked him the same thing at their wedding,” he said. “He says that’s just what Tiede’s face looks like.”
“Look, if you had our father scrutinizing everything you did your whole life, you’d keep things to yourself too,” Arden said. “I promise he’s ecstatic. He’s basically deliriously happy. It’s disgusting, really.”
Famke laughed again. “Yes, how dare your brother smile in public,” he said. “What is the world coming to?”
“He hasn’t smiled in public since we were kids,” Arden said. “It’s weird.”
The laughter spread to the girls, now, too.
“Do you have siblings, Lady Famke?” Alivia asked, when everyone had settled down enough to speak again.
“No, I’m an only child,” Famke said. “I have lots of cousins who live on my father’s estate with us, but it’s not really the same anymore. We used to be closer.”
“Oh, that’s too bad,” Alivia said. She was so sincere about it, like she was genuinely sad Famke and his cousins had grown apart. Unfortunately, that wasn’t uncommon in the upper classes: when they got old enough to know and care about inheritances, the various branches of families tended to withdraw somewhat. Unless, of course, they were distant enough that it would be acceptable to marry back in to get a bigger cut. The royal family hadn’t done much of that since taking over the throne, but Arden had friends whose entire family tree looped back on itself with cousin marriages every generation.
“Don’t worry, Fam,” Arden said while they all settled onto the blanket and began taking food, “you’ll soon have more siblings than any one person could need. Two brothers and three sisters.”
“Yes, that’s the real advantage in our match,” Famke said dryly. He accepted a roll from Meraud. “Father thinks it’s about marrying the crown prince, but really it’s so I shall never again be without someone to exchange a glance with when one of our parents says something tiresome.”
Siwan laughed. “Assuming we’ll know what’s going on is optimistic,” she said.
“Well I appreciate the vote of confidence,” Alivia said, sniffing.
“I mean, they’re still parents,” Meraud said, speaking up for the first time in a while. “You can probably just assume they’re being tiresome.”
“Ah, you’re getting the hang of politics already,” Arden said. Famke snorted and smiled fondly at him. Arden’s heart fluttered.
“Ugh,” Siwan said, “is this just what all brothers are like? Sappy as hell?”
Alivia lightly slapped her knee. “You just had to ask if Tiede even liked Farran!”
“And he said yes!” Siwan protested.
Meraud asked Famke and Arden a question about the food, and the conversation turned to more mundane matters for a while.
Farran’s sisters were good company, whether or not their manners were rough around the edges. Like Farran himself, they were forthright, which was always something of a relief given the way most people acted around Arden. And Famke had an easier time putting them at ease than Arden himself did. By the end of the meal, they were relaxed in a way Arden had never known them to be around him alone.
As they packed up their things for the carriage ride back to the city, Siwan said, “It must suck that you’re not allowed to be alone together until the wedding.”
“Simply one of the few downsides to marrying the heir to the throne,” Famke said, which was a neat way of sidestepping the issue of whether or not he and Arden wanted to have sex with each other.
The thing was, Arden had been attracted to Famke since before they were betrothed. He hadn’t been thinking about how difficult it would be to marry him and not have sex with him; he’d been trying to be a decent person, get Famke out of a difficult situation, and arrange things to both their advantage. But the idea of a marriage-in-name-only was growing less appealing the more time Arden spent with Famke, because Famke was not only attractive, but clever and fun as well. Arden really enjoyed Famke’s company. He was even now charming Farran’s sisters, making them feel like they were his and Arden’s peers. He was going to be an excellent spouse, and Arden didn’t foresee him becoming less attractive over time.
Officially courting was a pain in the ass, but it was a pain in the ass Arden would have had to deal with no matter who he was marrying. Another thing his brother had just skipped entirely, although Arden couldn’t imagine using the approach Tiede had. Arden and Famke couldn’t be alone together, which made having real conversations about anything impossible. And, of course, nothing they did together could be beneath the dignity of a prince, which meant the classic nobility standby of meeting up for a walk in a public park, where you could actually get some amount of privacy while still being in full view of the public, was out. The castle gardens would have been acceptable, but that offered even less privacy than a public park.
Farran’s sisters had been excellent chaperones, but taking them on public outings posed its own problems. One of which was that Siwan and Meraud had little interest in parties and other noble gatherings, though the main problem, of course, was how they were not quite fit for judgemental company.
Farran presented the next good opportunity for Arden to spend time with Famke. Meraud had a lecture she wanted to attend, and neither her sisters nor Farran were especially interested. Farran asked if Arden might go with her, then Arden asked Famke to accompany them. Partway through the lecture, Famke held out his hand for Arden’s, after which Arden absorbed absolutely none of the lecture itself.
Arden told himself it was simply a done sort of thing. He might as easily have held Meraud’s hand, or Tiede’s, or one of his friends’. But the thought that Famke enjoyed spending time with Arden buoyed him through the protracted wedding preparations. When Meraud tentatively asked Arden if he and Famke might go with her to another lecture, Arden agreed at once.
Attending lectures with his youngest sister-in-law was eminently respectable as a courting activity. It didn’t give them any time to speak, really, but Famke did again hold out his hand for Arden’s, so they sat there quietly holding hands. Truthfully, were they not visible to the rest of the audience, they probably could have done anything they wanted at all, as Meraud was completely absorbed in the lecture and not paying any attention to them, but that was, of course, one reason attending a lecture was a fine courting activity; the rest of the audience as well as the lecturer served as chaperones.
Famke evidently didn’t have the trouble paying attention to the lectures that Arden did, as after each lecture he had something to say to Meraud that got her chattering happily about the subject. Arden hadn’t even heard her speak so much to her sisters.
It was following another lecture they attended with Meraud, after which she and Famke had a lively discussion that Arden barely understood, that Arden went to ask Tiede for advice on what to do about the fact he had fallen in love with his betrothed. They hadn’t had any chances to speak privately, but watching Famke with Meraud, having him hold his hand out to Arden, Famke teasing Arden about how little Arden absorbed at the lectures, was enough to let Arden know he was in trouble.
Farran pulled Arden into a headlock and knuckled the top of his head. “You’re not supposed to get married to help someone else’s problems!”
“He’s suffering for it already,” Tiede said, rolling his eyes, “don’t maul him.”
“Maybe he needs a little brotherly mauling,” Farran muttered, but did let go of Arden, after giving him one last rap with his knuckles. “The girls wouldn’t do something so bone-headed.”
“So you suggested a marriage of convenience, but now you’re falling for her,” Tiede said. “I beg your pardon, falling for him.” He frowned and leaned back on the couch, thinking. “This still doesn’t sound like much of a problem,” he said finally. “Use your words like a big boy.”
Farran snorted, and Tiede shot him a glare. Farran smiled at him. “‘S just rich coming from you, love,” he said. Turning back to Arden, he went on, “But true enough, being in love with your betrothed doesn’t sound like a problem. Just tell him.”
“But what if he doesn’t feel the same way?” Arden asked.
“Then you’re allowed to come back and cry about it,” Tiede said.
“We can get drunk together,” Farran added. “And then we’ll help you figure out how to deal with it, because you’re going to be married to him either way.”
“There are worse things than liking your arranged match too much,” Tiede said, the hypocrite. Although maybe “hypocrite” was the wrong word, as Tiede would hardly have been at risk of liking his arranged match too much. “As long as you’re not an arse about it, you’ll be fine.”
“Plus,” Farran said, “once it’s out there, who knows? Even if he turns you down at first, at least he’ll know he can say something if he decides he does want a real marriage.”
“What are the chances of that?” Arden asked. “I already told him we didn’t have to consummate it or anything.”
“Fairly good,” Tiede said. “Assuming he’s interested in men. That’s what everyone says about arranged marriages, anyway.”
“You are fucked if he doesn’t like men,” Farran admitted. Arden was fairly sure that wasn’t a problem. Arden had left out some of the details in his recounting, such as his immediate regret that Tiede had met Farran first. Farran said, “But if you like each other and he knows you’re interested, it’s not unlikely. My mom wasn’t at all in love with Dirk when they got married, and now she’s crazy about him.”
“What if he feels trapped and wants to call it off?” Arden asked. As sick as the idea of marrying someone he loved and never getting to tell them made him feel, the idea Famke might never want to see him again made him feel worse.
Tiede rolled his eyes once again. “Then he’s a fool and you should fall right back out of love with him,” he said. “No one could make a better offer to a man in his position than you, even if there were tons of them who were easy to find. Lord Sietema is high-ranking enough to exert influence on practically any other man, which means your betrothed can’t take your plan to another man and expect success. An intelligent person should prefer being married to an understanding prince—even if your feelings are one-sided and it’s awkward—to marrying someone who couldn’t offer as much freedom of expression.”
Arden scowled. “That’s supposed to make me feel less like I’m trapping him?”
“You being the only good option is better than him not having any good options,” Farran said. “Anyway, you’re getting way too worked up about this. What’s the worst that could happen? Apart from him calling it off, I mean.”
“He might never want to talk to me again,” Arden said.
“But he will talk to you again,” Tiede said. “He has to.”
Farran sighed. “Love, you’re not helping,” he said. Tiede frowned again. Farran looked to Arden and said, “I’m sure he felt trapped before you even met. He’s in a crap position. And I can’t speak for him, but neither can you. Until you tell him how you feel, you’re both making decisions based on incomplete information.”
“I suppose,” Arden said.
“Now who’s giving advice he wouldn’t take,” Tiede murmured, nudging Farran with his elbow.
“Yeah, yeah,” Farran said, and smiled at him.
Tiede’s wedding had been a comparatively subdued affair. Arden, on the other hand, was the heir to the throne now, and Famke expected to be his royal consort. Arden didn’t have to be involved in a lot of the prep work, between his parents and Famke’s parents, so he was a little stunned to walk into the great hall and see exactly how extravagant his wedding was.
Arden had never felt more overdressed in his life, which was a high bar for a prince to clear. But when he saw how lavishly the great hall was decorated, it definitely helped him feel less overdressed. Thankfully, they would have the same brief ceremony Tiede and Farran had had. It was the reception that would take a thousand years, because Arden’s father was giving a speech, and Famke’s father was giving a speech, and the mayor was giving a speech, and the high priest was giving a speech, and then everyone else of any importance was going to propose toasts after all the speeches were finally done. By the time they were allowed to eat, Arden and Famke would be interrupted every couple minutes by people coming up to give them well-wishes.
Arden stood at the head of the great hall with his father and the high priest, waiting for Famke and his father to appear in the double doors at the far end of the hall.
Famke, of necessity in his guise as Lady Famke, looked beautiful. Arden wondered how many people in the crowd could tell how hard he had shoved himself down under the façade of “Lady Famke” to tolerate this. His father should know, but probably ignored it on purpose. The king might or might not be able to tell. Tiede probably would have noticed before Arden told him, and he could definitely tell now. Farran might be able to tell, now that he knew—Arden still wasn’t sure how much Farran noticed and just wrote off as noble nonsense, deciding it wasn’t his business. He couldn’t imagine Tiede would like someone who was completely ignorant and guileless, but Arden knew his brother well enough to know he also wouldn’t like someone who often got ahead of him.
Famke’s gown was even more elaborate than Arden’s outfit. He must have had some kind of skirt support holding it out from his feet, and it had a trained over-gown sliding along the carpeted aisle of the great hall. The dressmakers had gone to some lengths to make Famke’s bosom look more substantial than he usually let it look. Arden would have appreciated it more if he hadn’t known how much Famke likely hated it. The gown and overdress were both embroidered to within an inch of their lives, with bits of the royal coat of arms intertwined with the Sietema heraldry. Some enterprising hairdressers had found hair of the correct shade to match Famke’s real hair, to create a hairstyle that was much longer than Famke’s own hair, and dressed it into a very elegant up-do Arden couldn’t imagine Famke choosing for himself, even to play at being a lady. He usually had at least some of his hair falling down his back or shoulders, like a man would have, even when part of it was twisted up into something appropriately feminine.
When Famke reached the head of the aisle, Lord Sietema passed Famke’s hand to Arden’s father. The king escorted Famke the two steps up to Arden. Arden saw Famke’s eyelids flutter, the way they did when he was repressing a roll of his eyes, and had to bite back a laugh. Luckily, grinning foolishly at his betrothed was perfectly acceptable behavior at his wedding. After their fathers stepped back, Famke gave Arden and his outfit a once-over, then looked up and caught Arden’s gaze. He slightly crooked one eyebrow, and Arden had to hold in another laugh.
The ceremony was the exact same oath-swearing nonsense Arden had been doing his entire life. It was thankfully short, and the hardest part of it was kissing his new spouse to seal the contract, not knowing how Famke felt about kissing him, in front of every single remotely important person in the kingdom. Arden wanted to, and technically could, draw the kiss out as long as he wanted. He was Famke’s husband now, and the crown prince, and entitled to kiss his “bride” as much as he wanted to.
But being able to get away with something in public was not the same thing as actually being able to get away with it. Arden knew if his own conscience didn’t keep him from pressing his advantage when Famke couldn’t protest, Famke would be the first to tear into him once they were in private, followed by, in whatever order they could corner him, Arden’s mother, brother, and brother-in-law.
So Arden pulled away from Famke’s mouth after longer than a chaste, political marriage would dictate as the minimum, but well before the kiss ventured into passionate territory. Famke smiled at him and took Arden’s hand, so presumably he hadn’t thought anything amiss with how Arden kissed him.
The feast, speeches, toasts, and well-wishes were all as lengthy and boring as Arden had feared. Having Famke by his side, quirking his eyebrows in tiny expressions no one else would catch and making rude gestures in his lap where it was hidden by the table, made it much more pleasant than it might otherwise have been. Arden didn’t even remember to be nervous about their wedding night until the servants were bringing out the dessert course of chilled pudding, and he realized the reception was almost over.
Between talking to Tiede and Farran about his predicament and the wedding itself, Arden had been completely unable to get Famke alone. Too many people were anxious about the wedding and their courtship to ever leave them unchaperoned for more than a moment. So close to the wedding, they couldn’t even get enough privacy to speak honestly with each other; courtiers, maids, and their parents were constantly coming in and out of the rooms. Whenever Arden had a moment’s privacy, he took refuge in his own rooms so he could hear himself think, and only ever realized afterwards that he might have sought out Famke to talk to him.
Which was how they got to their new suite of rooms on their wedding night without Arden having mentioned ahead of time that he was actually quite mad about Famke.
“What a fucking production,” Famke muttered when they were alone. “At least we won’t have to go through that again until whoever ends up being your heir is of age.”
“We’ll have to make a big deal of it if any of Farran’s sisters get married,” Arden reminded him.
“Yeah, but at least they won’t be the crown prince,” Famke said. Arden nodded to concede the point, and they fell silent.
They turned to look at the single bed at the same time. It was large, even larger than Arden’s bed in his old rooms had been, but hardly large enough to lose track of each other. Whether or not Arden said anything, he would be sharing this bed with a man he found very attractive.
It was that thought that spurred him to speak. He said, “I thought I should tell you, uh.” He swallowed. Gods, this was awkward. “If you’re ever interested in, you know, your marital rights, I would be happy to, um. Oblige.”
Famke stared at him a moment. Then he shoved Arden back against the wardrobe and all but climbed up his front until he could reach Arden’s mouth to kiss him. Arden put his arms around Famke out of reflex more than anything, because he had not been expecting quite such an enthusiastic response. Famke shifted one leg to press between Arden’s thighs. Arden wasn’t surprised his cock was already stirring, but it was a little embarrassing.
Finally, Famke pulled back. His eyes were dark and only half-open as he said, “I thought you weren’t interested.”
“What?” Arden asked. His face heated as he said, “Fam, I came onto you before I even knew your name.”
“Before you knew who I was, too,” Famke said. He smoothed one hand down Arden’s chest, making Arden wish his doublet was less padded and embroidered. “Before you knew I was like this. After, you always said we wouldn’t have to.”
“Wouldn’t have to,” Arden said. “Not that we couldn’t, or that I didn’t want to. I didn’t want you to —I mean, we both complained about not having a choice.”
“Well, I know that now,” Famke said, smiling. “Get undressed, I want to fuck you.”
“Yes, sir,” Arden said, then couldn’t actually start getting undressed because Famke kissed him again.
Eventually, Famke pulled back again and started squirming out of his dress. As he dropped his overdress on the floor, he said, “If your cock isn’t inside me in the next five minutes, we’re getting a divorce.”
Arden laughed, and began unbuttoning the roughly one million buttons on his wedding doublet. At least that demand answered one question.
It was ridiculous that their outfits were complicated enough that they both required attendants to dress them, but they were expected to undress on their own. At least Arden’s wedding clothes were just time-consuming, with all the fiddly buttons and laces. Famke’s overdress was by far the simplest part of his wedding gown, and he evidently hadn’t paid the best attention to how they put him in it. Arden felt enormously silly, in nothing but fine linen drawers pulled out of shape by his erect cock, trying to figure out which parts of Famke’s gown had real lacing and which parts were ornamental.
“Whoever decided you should have translucent underthings ought to get a bonus,” Famke said, as they finally freed him from the gown proper. Underneath it, he was still wearing enough clothes to be decent in public: a chemise, an underskirt, and some kind of breast support that pushed everything up and together. At least they all looked straight-forward to remove.
Famke untied the underskirt and let it fall to the floor. He stepped out of it, already scrabbling at the laces of the breast support. Arden hesitantly reached to help, and Famke said, “Fucking please, I can’t see anything with my tits up here.”
Arden laughed, and took over loosening the multiple sets of laces that formed the contraption to Famke’s body. Once Arden had it loose enough to get his fingers between it and Famke’s body, Famke wriggled out of it and tossed it across the room. He said, “I’m sure that’s a wonderful invention for someone who wants to look like they have breasts. I think I’m going to feed it to the pigs.” Then he pulled his chemise over his head, and all he was left wearing was stockings and shoes.
“Oh,” Arden said.
“I guess we could have stopped once I had the fancy stuff off,” Famke said, sitting down on the edge of the bed. He crossed his legs at the knees. “But I’ve never had sex in a skirt before and I don’t intend to start now. Finish undressing me, husband?”
Arden groaned and dropped to his knees. “You’re a cruel man,” he said, sliding off Famke’s shoe. When he went for the other shoe, Famke nudged his stockinged foot between Arden’s legs. His toes brushed against the underside of Arden’s cock, with only Famke’s stocking and Arden’s obscenely fine linen drawers between them.
“And now I’m your cruel man,” Famke said, grinning. Arden rolled Famke’s stockings down to his ankles. Famke took over then, kicking them off with his toes, and said, “Get up here.”
“Yes, dear,” Arden said, which made Famke burst into laughter.
Famke swung around to be completely on the bed, then tugged Arden down on top of him, instead of next to him, where Arden had tried to lay. He said, “I don’t see how you’re going to get your cock in me from over there, fool.”
“My mistake,” Arden said, bending down to kiss Famke again.
Arden had given a significant amount of thought to what it would be like to have sex with a man. When he’d met Famke and realized he had still been less open-minded than he thought, he had tried quite hard not to think about what it would be like to have sex with Famke. He’d failed, of course, especially as he realized he was in love with his betrothed-of-convenience. Still, Arden’s imagination had fallen short of what it was like to have Famke in his bed, with Famke’s skin against his.
Famke untied Arden’s drawers one-handed and blind, and shoved them down his hips. Arden squirmed out of them, endeavoring to break his kiss with Famke as little as possible. Famke hiked his legs up and wrapped them around Arden’s waist, which put Arden’s naked cock right up against Famke’s wetness.
“Oh, fuck,” Arden mumbled against Famke’s mouth, and Famke leaned back to laugh at him.
Famke rolled his hips, which made Arden’s cock slide against him, and said, “You know, I spent all day thinking about how to frig myself without you noticing, with us in the same bed.”
Arden groaned. “Why?” he asked.
“It seemed less embarrassing than telling you I wanted to have sex,” Famke said, and they both laughed at that. Famke scratched his fingers in the short, damp hairs at the nape of Arden’s neck. “Would you put your cock inside me already?”
“If you insist,” Arden said. He had to reach between them to adjust, but Famke’s body was, to put it lightly, ready for him. Famke’s eyes fluttered shut and another groan eased past his lips. Famke’s nails dug in to the back of Arden’s neck as he arched his back and tugged Arden closer to him. Arden rocked his hips, making Famke gasp. “Fam,” he said. “Gods, Fam.”
“Harder,” Famke moaned. “Please, Arden, it’s been so long—”
Arden obliged, dropping his forehead to hang just above Famke’s so he could concentrate on moving. Famke was so hot inside, and clinging to Arden enough that only his head and the upper part of his back was flat against the mattress. He pushed back against Arden’s thrusts, ensuring Arden got deeper inside him, and Arden could only imagine what he’d be like when they did this other ways.
Famke came very quickly, by Arden’s estimation. He knew Famke was a man, but Arden’s experience of similar equipment led him to believe it usually took a while, if penetration was the only thing happening. Still, it wasn’t as though he could doubt the testimony of his senses; if Famke’s insides fluttering and clenching around him hadn’t been a sign, the way he tensed up and dug all his limbs into Arden’s flesh was also fairly suggestive.
Arden paused, although his cock protested that he was a fool for doing so. He asked Famke breathlessly, “Should I stop?”
“Fuck, no,” Famke said. He leaned up and kissed Arden, then dropped his head back to the pillow and grinned. “I bet I can come again before you do.”
“Unfair,” Arden huffed, slowly moving again.
Famke took one of his arms from around Arden’s neck and reached between them to touch himself. Arden felt when he made contact, because Famke shivered with his whole body. The wet sound of Famke toying with himself while Arden moved in and out of him was one of the more arousing things Arden could remember hearing. Famke murmured, “You let me fuck your ass, and I bet we could get multiples out of you.”
Arden twitched at just the right moment to let his dick slip out of Famke, and he didn’t notice quickly enough to avoid jamming it against a less yielding part of Famke’s body. He yelped.
Famke laughed, but immediately said, “Sorry, are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Arden said, grimacing.
Famke rubbed the back of Arden’s neck with the hand still there. “So I take it that’s a yes on me fucking your ass,” he said.
“Yes, please,” Arden said.
“Good to know,” Famke said. He pulled on Arden’s neck again, so Arden leaned down to kiss him some more.
Famke must have been quite good at keeping track of things, or else the first orgasm had taken the edge off enough for him to keep his head, because he managed to keep Arden’s mouth occupied even as he used the hand he had been touching himself with to guide Arden’s cock back inside him, and it felt almost effortless on Arden’s part. He moaned into Famke’s mouth, and felt Famke smile into the kiss.
Famke did not quite manage to come a second time before Arden finished, but only because Arden’s orgasm was what pushed him over the edge. He panted and moaned into Arden’s mouth as Arden shuddered and emptied what felt like everything in his balls into his new spouse.
When he finally caught his breath, Famke started laughing. Arden collapsed onto him, letting himself become so much dead weight. That made Famke laugh harder. He tugged on Arden’s hair tail, then said, “I can’t believe how much of the last few weeks I wasted, worrying about how I was going to deal with marrying a man who didn’t want to have sex with me.”
At that, Arden laughed as well. “Me too,” he said. He eased out and off of Famke, then flopped onto his back next to him. “I even asked Tiede for advice, but he and Farran didn’t see how it was a crisis.” He frowned, and added, “By the way, I kind of told Tiede and Farran about you.”
“I think I can live with the prince who abdicated in order to marry a candlemaker and the candlemaker who agreed to marry your sissy brother knowing about me,” Famke said. Arden typically took offense at someone calling Tiede a sissy, even though it wasn’t untrue, but somehow it didn’t sound mean when Famke said it. Famke added, “I mean, they didn’t stop the wedding.”
“No,” Arden said. “They told me to talk to you, which I did.”
“Excellent advice,” Famke said immediately. “Best brothers I’ve ever had.”
Arden laughed. He groped for Famke’s hand, and interwove their fingers when he found it. “I love you,” he said.
Famke was silent for a moment after that, although he didn’t take his hand out of Arden’s. Eventually, he said, “Shit, good thing you just married me.”
Arden laughed again, and rolled onto his side to face Famke, still holding his hand. “You don’t mind?” he asked.
“Do I mind if my new husband is in love with me,” Famke said. “Hmm, that’s a tough one.” He squeezed Arden’s hand. “No, I don’t mind. And I don’t want you to think—I don’t want to tell you I love you when I don’t yet, especially when I’m pretty sure I’m going to. So this isn’t me saying ‘no’ so much as ‘not yet’.”
“I wasn’t that worried about it, after you tried to climb me like a tree,” Arden said.
“Good,” Famke said. He pulled Arden closer using their joined hands, then rolled onto his side facing Arden. “I really like you,” he said. “And I trust you. And I think you noticed how horny I am for you.” Arden sputtered his laughter that time, not expecting it. Famke brought their hands up to his mouth and kissed Arden’s knuckles. His eyes soft, Famke said, “I’m very glad you convinced me to marry you.”
“Me too,” Arden said.
They cleaned up. Arden helped untangle the extra hair from Famke’s real hair, though every time they thought they’d found all the pins, another would appear to poke Famke’s scalp or Arden’s fingertips. Arden draped Famke’s wedding clothes over the furniture, since the wardrobe wasn’t made to contain gowns with such absurd trains. Famke made fun of him for tidying up his own room. Arden retorted that he didn’t exactly want servants coming in to peep at them the morning after their wedding, and had asked the steward to make sure they weren’t disturbed until they’d gone down to breakfast.
“You didn’t even know if we were going to be having sex,” Famke said, smiling.
“I didn’t think you’d want to pretend to be a lady in your own bedroom,” Arden said, as he smoothed wrinkles out of the stiffened underskirt that had supported Famke’s heavy embroidered gown.
They spent the rest of the night alternately cuddling and having more sex. Arden asked Famke what sort of things he didn’t want Arden to do or say. Famke then gave Arden some hands-on education about what he did like. That led to Arden discovering he really liked being given explicit directions in a sexual context. By the time they fell asleep, Arden was pleasantly sore and in somewhat dire need of a bath.
The next morning, Famke dressed in trousers and a doublet. For the first time, Arden saw how Famke got his chest to look so flat when he was dressed in his masculine clothes; structurally, the garment was very like the breast support he’d worn under his wedding gown, although shaped rather differently to squash his breasts down, instead of squishing everything up. Famke tied his hair back in a hairstyle Arden had seen him wear before, which was theoretically feminine since it was twisted up off his neck, but otherwise looked like a very masculine queue. Famke hardly looked at all like the radiantly feminine lady who’d kissed Arden in the great hall yesterday. Arden could barely believe he could feel so happy, or be so fortunate.
When they walked into the dining room together, Famke holding onto Arden’s arm just the way he had yesterday as they left the wedding feast, Arden’s mother widened her eyes. Not for nothing was she the queen, though, so that was as much surprise as she displayed. She said, “Good morning, Arden. My, Famke, don’t you look…handsome, this morning.”
“Thank you, mum,” Famke said, while Arden pulled out chairs for both of them at the same time, so Famke wouldn’t have an excuse to roll his eyes at Arden’s misplaced chivalry.
After the queen’s personal maid delivered the tray with the food on it, the queen asked, “Shall we be leaving the ‘Lady’ off of Famke’s title, then?”
Arden glanced over at Famke. “Yes?” he ventured.
“Please,” Famke said. “I thought Farran and Tiede might make a good excuse for leaving out the gendered words. No one has to figure out Farran’s official title or if I outrank him if we’re both simply royal consorts.”
“And we don’t have to tell Father,” Arden said. “I doubt he’ll notice if no one draws attention to it, after all.”
“I dare say you’re right,” the queen said. She heaved a sigh, and reached for the pitcher of milk. “Well, what kind of mother even wants a daughter?” she asked. “Silly of me, really.”
“Farran’s got three sisters,” Arden said. “Isn’t that enough daughters for anyone?”
“They’re not technically my daughters-in-law,” the queen said. She looked up and smiled at them. “But I suppose, given how pleased you look with yourselves this morning, I shouldn’t complain.”
Arden reached for Famke’s hand, and brought it to his lips to kiss Famke’s knuckles. Famke smiled at him, and said again, “Thank you, mum.”