The Prince’s Consort
Antonia Aquilante © 2020
All Rights Reserved
Amory giggled as he and Tristan practically fell through the garden gate. He slapped a hand over his mouth, but Tristan must not have heard. If he had, he would have teased without mercy, as was his right as Amory’s closest friend. But Tristan tugged him along, barely giving him a chance to latch the gate behind them so the lock spell would reengage.
All morning, Tristan had been in high spirits—unusual as he was usually the more focused one in classes. But when Amory asked him what was going on, Tristan only shrugged. Maybe it was the weather. All of Jumelle seemed livelier since the warmth of spring had burst over the city.
He let Tristan pull him down the stone path to a secluded corner of the garden shaded by large trees. The walled garden was blooming, giving them plenty of dense foliage to duck behind. With a wicked grin, Tristan turned and pushed him back against a sturdy tree. Before Amory could say a word, Tristan sealed his mouth over Amory’s in a breath-stealing kiss.
The kiss wasn’t a surprise, not then. They had been kissing a lot over the past year or so. The first time had been a surprise, even for Tristan who’d seemed shocked at his own actions. Amory never thought his friend would want to kiss him. He hadn’t thought Tristan saw him in such a way, was attracted to men at all. Their first kiss had been tentative and awkward. They’d gotten better at it quickly.
He moaned into the kiss and pulled Tristan closer, urging him to settle his weight against Amory and relishing the feel of Tristan’s firm body against his even as it pushed him into rough tree bark. But who cared about tree bark when Tristan was kissing him as if he wanted to consume him? Deep and passionate, with tongues tangling and teeth nipping. Yes, they had definitely gotten better with all the practice.
“Tris,” he gasped when Tristan pulled back. He wasn’t done with the kiss. But Tristan said nothing, just began kissing along the line of Amory’s jaw. The light little kisses made him shiver and stifle another moan. Though they were in a back corner, away from the house, they were still in his family’s garden, and he didn’t want anyone finding them. They should go somewhere else. A nip to his earlobe made him shudder, and a nuzzling kiss under his ear drove the thought right out of his head.
He grabbed the back of Tristan’s neck and pulled his lips back to Amory’s own for another kiss. Tristan’s slightly larger frame still pressed him into the tree, but Amory took control of the kiss, deepening it and exploring Tristan’s mouth with his tongue. He nearly laughed when Tristan whimpered, loving his ability to provoke such a reaction in the other man. Tristan pulled back with a gasp, and they leaned there together, panting.
“I love kissing you,” Tristan gasped.
Relief exploded in Amory’s chest. Tristan hadn’t said he loved Amory. Tristan was his best friend, but even with all the kissing, Amory wasn’t in love with him. “Me too.”
Tristan grinned and dropped a quick kiss on Amory’s lips. “I want to do more.”
“M-more?” His cheeks heated at the stutter.
Tristan grinned and kissed him again. “Yep. More.”
Amory’s nerves didn’t abate at the confirmation, though he wasn’t sure where they came from. In all the time since that first awkward moment, they hadn’t done anything but kiss. Oh, they touched a little, but never on bare skin and never below the waist. They’d never discussed the concept of “more” before.
The idea did intrigue him. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t thought about what it would be like—he had. But imagining it and doing it were two separate things, and the idea of doing more with Tristan made him vaguely uncomfortable. He wasn’t sure why. They were best friends, and they’d come this far. There was no reason not to go a little farther.
Tristan watched him, his blue eyes intense and a little quizzical. How long had Amory stood there, not saying anything? He smiled past his nerves. “Like what?”
Tristan grinned, slow and wicked, and reached out to unfasten Amory’s pants without a word. Before Amory could protest, before he could decide whether he wanted to protest, Tristan had his hand inside Amory’s pants. He gripped him and began a tight, slow stroke. The feel of another man’s hand on him for the first time stole Amory’s breath, and when he got it back, all he could do was moan.
Tristan’s grin widened at the sound, and his hand sped up, working Amory faster. After a few moments standing there, struggling to breathe, Amory realized he wasn’t doing anything for Tristan. He scrambled to unfasten Tristan’s pants with fumbling fingers as Tristan whispered encouragement. Finally, Amory wrapped his hand around Tristan’s hard member and began to stroke him in time with Tristan’s strokes. It felt awkward at first, different from touching himself yet not so different, but Tristan didn’t voice any objections.
“Yes, yes, yes. Amory,” Tristan gasped into Amory’s ear.
It didn’t last long. Amory might have been embarrassed at how quickly he found his release if Tristan didn’t finish just as fast, spilling over Amory’s hand, and collapsing against him. He was glad of the tree at his back, rough bark and all, because his wobbly knees didn’t have a chance of holding both of them up.
He didn’t know what to think about what they’d done. He’d enjoyed it, but the uncomfortable feeling still plagued him. Before he could begin to analyze it, Tristan was chuckling, low at first, quiet in Amory’s ear, his body shaking against Amory’s chest. Tristan pulled back enough to look at him. His eyes sparkled with happiness, and Amory’s laughter bubbled up to join his friend’s.
The laughter eased the way as they fumbled for handkerchiefs, cleaned themselves up, and neatened their clothes again. Then they leaned against each other and the tree, still laughing a little. It was Amory who moved for another kiss. Both of them were grinning when their lips met, and they couldn’t seem to stop laughing as they kissed, as they kept kissing. But the laughter was soft and light, like the kisses, and Amory relaxed into them, wrapping his arms around Tristan. Telling himself he would think about everything later.
“Good afternoon, brother.”
The unexpected voice and its snide tone had Amory jerking away from the kiss. The back of his head thunked into the tree trunk behind him. Tristan jumped back, separating them much more effectively. Amory almost wished he hadn’t. The short distance between them seemed like a vast gulf, and Amory felt very alone as he straightened away from the tree and turned to face his older brother.
Alban’s handsome face was twisted in a sneer even more disgusted than the one he habitually wore when looking at Amory. He studied Amory and Tristan in silence while Amory struggled not to squirm. No use saying anything to Alban, he knew from bitter experience.
“Now I know why you wanted no part of that pretty little maid last week.” Disdain dripped from Alban’s every word. “You’re more of a disappointment than I thought. Worthless. How are you even my brother?”
With a shake of his head, Alban turned and strode away, likely heading directly for the house. Amory remained frozen for a long moment, not even blinking.
“He’s going to tell your father.” Tristan’s voice was flat, so different from its usual exuberant, almost musical quality. The shock of it broke Amory’s paralysis, and Amory turned to face him. Tristan still stared at the spot where Alban had stood.
“Yes, he is.” Amory ran a shaking hand through his hair and slumped back against the tree. Alban hadn’t hit him, which was a pleasant surprise, but the consequences were still going to be bad. How would Father react? With disappointment, certainly, but that was nothing new. Most likely with anger as well. However disgusted Alban was, their father would be ten times more so.
“Do you think they’ll tell my father?” Tristan turned fear-filled blue eyes on Amory.
“Tris.” Amory reached out. He couldn’t bear seeing him so afraid, and though he couldn’t say much to reassure him, he couldn’t stand by while Tristan was upset either.
But he stepped out of Amory’s reach. “Do you?”
Amory tried to hold back a flinch. “I don’t know.”
Tristan groaned and scrubbed his hands over his face. “He can’t. I don’t know what my father will do if he finds out I prefer men. I’m his oldest son. I’m supposed to take over for him in the business, get married. Have sons to take over the family business after me.”
“You still can. All right, the children part would be difficult if you don’t marry someone who can carry them, but you can still take over the family business.” He didn’t bother mentioning that Tristan had four younger brothers and a younger sister. Surely at least one of them would have children someday who could inherit the family’s business if Tristan never had any of his own and his father insisted on an heir of their blood. But Tristan took his responsibilities as first son seriously. Too seriously. He wouldn’t want to hear that at the moment.
“Not if he disowns me.”
“Now you’re being dramatic. Preferring men is not illegal. It’s not wrong. Your father loves you. He’s proud of you, and you’ll be the same son he’s proud of after he finds out.”
“You don’t know that, Amory.”
No, he didn’t. But Tristan had a better chance of everything working out fine than Amory did. Tristan’s father was proud of his accomplishments, which was more than Amory could say.
“I may not, but I believe it will be all right. Don’t borrow trouble. My father and brother might be too busy killing me to remember to tell your father.”
Tristan huffed out a half laugh and whacked him on the shoulder. “Don’t joke about that.”
“Who’s joking?” Amory smiled crookedly. “Seriously, though, I do think everything will be all right with your father.” He took Tristan’s hand and squeezed and then let go before Tristan could pull away.
“Maybe. I need to go.”
“All right. I’ll see you soon.”
“See you.” Tristan slipped out of their little corner of the garden and was gone before Amory could get another word out. He tried not to think about how unsure Tristan’s parting words sounded. He didn’t want to lose Tristan. Not when he would likely need his friend more than ever.
He didn’t think Father would kill him, but he couldn’t rule out Father hitting him. It was partly why he was so surprised Alban hadn’t—his older brother was a perfect replica of their father in every way. But even without actual murder, Father could make Amory’s life miserable, and Amory wouldn’t be able to do anything until he came of age next week. A week seemed like a short time but was long enough for his father to…
He needed to think about his options. Father would never accept his preferences. Once his father knew, Amory’s time in his family’s house was limited. He hated to leave his younger siblings, especially Adeline, but he doubted he would have much of a choice. It might be best to leave before he was thrown out.
Sighing, he pushed himself away from the tree and started for the house. He hoped he could avoid Father long enough to spend a little time with Adeline and make some plans. And to get his hands to stop shaking.
Later that night, Amory was still wondering what would happen. He’d canceled plans with friends to attend a show put on by a sorcerer with a strong Talent for illusions who was creating a lot of excitement in the city because he wanted to get whatever was going to happen over with. But nothing had. Father hadn’t hit him, yelled, or even spoken to him when Amory saw him. His expression was more disgusted than usual, but that was all. It didn’t make sense, and with each moment, dread tied Amory into tighter knots.
Dinner progressed as it always did in their household. The entire family ate each night in the formal dining room. Its wood-paneled walls and heavy brocade hangings made the room dark and oppressive, something even the steady glow of the light globes in the glass chandelier couldn’t alleviate. The magic globes took the place of candles in many of the fixtures in the house and were a costly convenience Father coveted. Amory never liked the room. Nevertheless, he had been required to eat there with the family since he was twelve years old. Before that, he’d eaten in the nursery with his younger siblings. They were seven at the table that night—his parents, Alban, Adeline, their two younger sisters, Adora and Alva, and him. His two youngest siblings could escape the grueling family meals because they were only ten and eight years old. Lucky children.
Father ordered they eat a meal of several courses, as he insisted the nobility did each night. Amory wasn’t entirely certain how Father could know with such authority how they ate at the palace, or why his family needed to imitate the nobility at all, but his opinions didn’t matter. Amory couldn’t complain. He could only endure the long, stilted nightly affair during which his father and brother discussed business, and the rest of them ate silently unless spoken to.
Which was what Amory was currently doing, though he tried to blend into the background more than usual. He wasn’t even exchanging furtive, speaking glances and signals with Adeline. Too much trepidation filled him to do anything but focus on his food and hope he went unnoticed.
Perhaps he’d cursed himself by thinking it. He looked up at Father from his position farther down the table. “Yes, Father?”
“Alban and I are meeting with the crown prince tomorrow afternoon about a piece he commissioned from us. You will come with us.”
Father’s blunt words made no sense. He never involved Amory in business. Amory knew the workings of their family’s glassmaking business—he’d grown up learning it—but he had no role there, and he was never taken to meet customers. Let alone customers who were so important. The principality of Tournai was known for its beautiful glasswork and fine mirrors, and his family’s business was at the pinnacle of the trade. The crown prince, and his father before him, ordered exclusively from Amory’s family.
Amory had never been allowed to meet him. Father was derisive of Amory’s business skills and deplored his creativity. Amory hoped his two youngest brothers had better luck living up to his father’s expectations; his sisters wouldn’t even be given the opportunity to join the business if they wanted to. So why was he being taken to the palace? Father didn’t know of Amory’s involvement with the piece, so it couldn’t be a problem he would be blamed for.
“O-of course, Father,” he stuttered when he realized he’d been silent too long.
Father shook his head. “Dress appropriately and do not embarrass me.”
As if Amory could ever be anything other than an embarrassment in his father’s eyes. “Yes, Father.”
Father fixed him with a hard stare and then made a sound of disgust low in his throat. “Maybe now you’ll be of some use to me.”
With that, he turned back to his conversation with Alban and left the rest of the table in silence again. Amory met Adeline’s quizzical stare from across the table and shrugged. He didn’t know what was going on either.
But he didn’t have a good feeling about it.
Philip Alexander Stefan Mael threw himself down into his office chair with a long sigh, forcing the weight of responsibility that came with each of those names from his body. Audiences had been long that afternoon, some of the petitions complex, others tedious and frustrating, but he’d insisted on presiding on his own. He wasn’t alone with the petitioners in the audience chamber—there were any number of people with him—but he refused to have his uncle whispering in his ear. Uncle Umber, his father’s brother, had become a source of counsel and support when his father died. But Father had been gone over a year, and Uncle Umber needed to let Philip be the ruler of Tournai. He had been trained and prepared for it his whole life, but no one would ever see him as a ruler if his uncle was perceived to be the power behind the throne.
Uncle Umber wasn’t pleased, but he hadn’t protested. Maybe he was coming to terms with Philip’s ability to rule on his own. Or maybe Uncle Umber was waiting for him to give up and crawl back. He couldn’t envision a time when he didn’t seek Uncle Umber’s counsel, but Philip would rule his country himself, if it killed him. And it might. Not because he wasn’t capable of carrying out the task, but because ruling was all he did. He looked at the stack of papers on his desk and slumped deeper into his chair.
A rap on the door forced him to sit up straight. “Enter.”
Cathal opened the door and bowed. “Your Highness.”
“Cathal, you realize you don’t need to bow or to call me that when we’re alone.”
“You’re the crown prince.” Obviously, that explained everything for his stickler-for-protocol cousin. “The glassmaker is here, Your Highness.”
Philip rubbed a hand over his face. He didn’t feel like dealing with Arnau at the moment. Owning the finest glassmaking business in Tournai did not make the man less irritating. But it needed to be done. “Where is he?”
“The red receiving room.” Though small, it was the most formal and intimidating of the receiving rooms. The sweeping view from its large window was the one good thing about it to Philip’s mind. The rest… All the red velvet and gilt and ornate furniture were too much for his personal tastes, but they made it the perfect room in which to meet a man like Arnau.
“Fine. Let’s get this over with.” He strode from the office, Cathal on his heels. Cathal moved ahead only when they reached the red room. He pulled the door open and stepped back so Philip could precede Cathal inside.
Arnau was already there, and he’d brought his son with him. Alban was more insufferable than his father at times. Philip bit back a groan as he walked past the three men, who had all bent into bows as soon as he stepped through the door. He sat in the chair on the small dais at the other side of the room. Cathal took up a position standing to his left as the three visitors straightened.
His gaze slid over Arnau and Alban. They’d met with him more than once in the past, but the man with them was a stranger. He looked young, younger even than Philip, and—
Philip’s mouth dried, his breath caught in his throat, and he stared. At the curling auburn hair and the slender, lithe body dressed in well-cut, well-made clothes. At the rich brown eyes staring back at him. They went almost comically wide and startled, but the young man didn’t look away, and Philip couldn’t bring himself to either. A delightful blush stained the stranger’s cheeks, and Philip wanted to grin. Who was this man?
A soft noise—Cathal clearing his throat—brought his attention back to where it should be. Arnau stood in front of the dais, flanked by the two other men and slightly in front of them, a supercilious expression on his face. Philip reminded himself again that Arnau owned the foremost glassmaking operation in Tournai.
“Good afternoon, Your Highness. I am always honored to receive an invitation to the palace.” Arnau gave him another half bow, his tone an odd mix of self-important and ingratiating. As if he had been invited to the palace for a social engagement, not to give an accounting of himself. “You have met my son Alban previously. This is my second son, Amory.”
Arnau gestured at the beautiful mystery man. He was Arnau’s son? Philip never would have guessed. Amory looked nothing like his father and brother. They were bulkier in build and darker in coloring. And there was something else, something less definable, separating Amory from the rest of his family.
“It is an honor to meet you, Your Highness,” Amory said. His voice sent a shiver down Philip’s spine, even as he noted the sincerity in the words. Another difference between Amory and his father. Arnau never seemed sincere.
“And you, Master Amory,” he said before turning quickly to Arnau. He couldn’t get lost watching a beautiful man. “Master Arnau, I assume you have a good reason why the chandelier I ordered from you is now a week late.”
Amory’s eyes widened, shock and annoyance swirling in their depths, as Arnau began to bluster. “Your Highness, the chandelier is a complex design and, as such, will take much delicate, time-consuming work to finish.”
“A design you submitted to me and assured me could be completed on the timetable you set.” Philip focused on Arnau as he spoke but kept watch on Amory out of the corner of his eye.
“The men who work for me are artists who produce the finest glass in the world, Your Highness. A product of quality takes time.”
Amory’s eyes went wide and his mouth dropped open slightly at his father’s words, though he immediately tried to hide his surprise and disbelief. Interesting.
“I am aware of what a product of quality takes, Master Arnau. I am also aware of the quality of your workers. None of which tells me why you and your craftsmen were unable to meet a delivery date you set.” Philip held up a hand to forestall whatever excuses were going to come forth. “As you were aware when I gave you this commission, the chandelier is a gift for the king and queen of Amaranta on the birth of their first child. For the honor of Tournai and for our continued good relationship with a neighboring kingdom, the gift I commissioned from you, which I trusted you and your craftsman to complete on time, must be delivered to them before their child reaches adulthood.”
Perhaps that last was a bit much. It had only been a week’s delay. Regardless, sending a gift late—and the delay would be more than a week by the time the chandelier was finished—would not make Tournai look good to its neighbors. They were a small principality, but their size only meant they needed to build stronger ties to their larger neighbors.
“I do apologize, Your Highness.” Arnau’s voice took on its most ingratiating tone, his face becoming an insincere mask of contrition. “We never intended to delay delivery of your gift. We are working to complete it with all due speed.”
Philip allowed more of his annoyance to show. “If you had done that from the beginning, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, Master Arnau.”
“Of course, Your Highness. One more week, and the chandelier will be completed to perfection. It will be the most impressive gift the king and queen of Amaranta receive. The envy of all others.” Arnau seemed to clue in to Philip’s impatience and cut short his words. His face didn’t change, but a calculating gleam came to his eyes. “In the meantime, perhaps I can do something to apologize for the inconvenience we have caused you.”
He raised an eyebrow. He couldn’t wait to hear what Arnau thought would appease him. A discount? If Philip hadn’t needed the highest quality glasswork for the gift, he would never have done business with Arnau again.
“As you see, I brought my son Amory with me today.” Amory turned a puzzled gaze on his father, who seemed almost…smug. “I thought you might like to spend an evening together, Your Highness. Get to know each other.”
Complete silence fell. Arnau couldn’t be saying what it sounded like, could he?
“I don’t understand, Master Arnau. What are you offering?”
Oh, yes, his expression was definitely smug. “I only hoped you might like to get to know Amory better, Your Highness. You are both like-minded men, and Amory hasn’t known any others. I thought you might get along well, if you spent an evening, or a night, getting acquainted.”
Was Arnau really…? Arnau’s expression wasn’t just smug, it was knowing, somehow, and slimy. He was. Arnau was offering his son’s virginity, or at least a night with Amory in Philip’s bed, in exchange for his allowing them extra time to work on the commission. His stomach churned with a sick mixture of horror and disgust. How could a father do such a thing? For all intents sell his child for his own gain.
One glance at Amory’s stricken expression told him Amory had no part in Arnau’s plan. The horror and embarrassment in those big eyes ignited a fire inside Philip. He opened his mouth to yell, to give Arnau the scare of his life before sending him on his way. After canceling the order that brought them there and assuring Arnau the royal family would never go to him for glasswork again.
But then he looked at Amory. He didn’t know the man at all, but there was something about him…and he didn’t think it was only Amory’s beauty. Something told him maybe Amory could be a friend at least, if not a lover. He wanted to trust the feeling, ached to be right. But even if he imagined whatever potential he thought was there, no one deserved to be treated the way Arnau was treating Amory.
He couldn’t yell and send them away. Couldn’t send Amory away with them.
He turned the full force of his most regal stare on Arnau and waited. Waited. There. The first hints of uncertainty in that insufferable expression. Just because he found out somehow Philip preferred to spend his time with men, and presumably Amory did as well, didn’t mean his little plan should succeed.
“I think whether Master Amory and I would like to further our acquaintance is not solely a question for me, but for Master Amory as well,” he said after a pause he judged long enough.
“He does, of course,” Arnau said. “He would be honored to further an acquaintance with you, Your Highness, and do anything you wish for him to do.”
Philip fought to keep his voice even. “I would much rather hear from Master Amory.”
Arnau none-too-gently nudged his younger son, who remained frozen at his side. “Tell the prince, Amory. Now.”
“No,” Philip interrupted. “I will speak with Master Amory alone.”
Amory’s mouth dropped open, and Arnau flushed and turned back to Philip. “I must protest, Your Highness—”
“Must you? I don’t think you’re in the position to protest anything, Master Arnau.” Philip was beyond tired of hearing the man talk, and even after making his decision, he was having a hard time keeping his temper in check. The meeting had turned out to be more infuriating than he’d anticipated. “Master Amory? Would you come with me, please?”
Amory’s dark eyes found him as his mouth snapped shut. He nodded. “Yes, Your Highness.”
Philip rose from the hideous, uncomfortable chair and gestured for Amory to follow while he turned to Cathal. “Stay here.”
Cathal was doing a good job of holding back his own surprise and dismay, but Philip saw it. Still, Cathal nodded and seemed to settle more comfortably where he stood. “Yes, Your Highness.”
Arnau gripped Amory’s arm as he whispered furiously in Amory’s ear. Philip barely stopped himself from rolling his eyes. “Master Amory?”
Amory looked up at him and stepped away from his father, forcing Arnau to release him. “Yes, Your Highness.”
He led Amory out into the corridor and then gestured for him to fall in beside him. For some reason, he wanted Amory next to him, not following behind. It would be a few minutes’ walk back to his suite. He wasn’t positive Amory would make it that far before he needed to sit—the poor man was white as a sheet—but hopefully Amory wasn’t as unsteady as he looked. Philip wanted privacy for their conversation, and his suite was the best place to find it.
He glanced at the man walking beside him. Amory was slightly shorter than he was, so Philip was at eye level with his thick auburn hair. He itched to run his fingers through those curls, to find out if they were as soft as they looked. They would be, and then he would want to nuzzle into them, rub his cheek over them. Probably not a good way to set Amory at ease.
Shaking off temptation, he forced himself to look forward as they continued to walk through the quiet back corridors. Finally, he ushered Amory into his sitting room and closed the door behind them, hoping to forestall any interruptions. When he turned from the door, Amory stood in the middle of the room, looking lost and more than a little mortified.
“Sit, please.” He tried to make his smile as warm and reassuring as he could and took Amory’s arm in a gentle grasp to lead him to a chair. Amory’s eyes went wide and startled, but his gaze never left Philip’s as Amory lowered himself gracefully into the chair.