thinking about a prince who's like. the only son to a small kingdom, who can't leave, can't really travel, because his father is just terrified he'll be injured or lost or killed

just absolutely weighted down with work at all hours of the day to keep him in place
when he was a teenager it was classes in everything under the sun - long lessons in geography, learning the names of other families, memorising their complex and intersecting genealogies, studying the family history, local history...
nowadays it's other things - overseeing administrative work, constantly working through sheaf after sheaf of stacked papers, redrafting one after the next, compiling minutes of the king's courts.

his father says its important work, that he did it himself until he was king.
his father says it's the best way to learn, to entrench oneself in the background running of the kingdom, to understand the economics, the noble obligation, the logistics.

the prince understands, albeit in the way one understands but does not condone another's motive for murder.
everything he does is scheduled one way or another, no matter his attempts to supercede whatever has been timetabled for him: he takes time to ride and finds an ambassador waiting to ride with him; he goes for a walk and is met by the chairman of the Royal Bank.
he doesn't want to be king.

he's known this since he was a child, has always known it - he doesn't want to be king, and doesn't much want to be a prince, either, but there's no escape.

when he finds the young man in his room, he thinks him an assassin.
he has him pinned against one of the walls very easily, his dagger tight against his throat, but it's plain to see he has no blade of his own.

"who are you?" he asks coolly, and the young man quivers, looking up at him with his eyes wide and his lips trembling.
"Mr Job is going to tan my hide," he says.

"is he?" asks the prince dispassionately - Job is the palace butler.

"I broke a serving platter."

"and you thought he wouldn't look for you in here?"


"in the habit of hiding from your mistakes?"
the young man looks away from him. "I'm sorry, highness," he says. "I thought you were still at supper. he enjoys giving a beating too much - he'll forget soon enough."

"and I'm to harbour you in the meantime?"

"the kingdom is called sanctuary, sir."
it is a joke, accompanied with a pained smile. the prince does not smile back: he rings a bell for service, and watches the young man's face fall, crumpling inward.

he is young. twenty, twenty-one. no younger than the prince himself, but the prince has never felt young.
youth has always felt like something reserved for people other than him - he's been old since he was big enough to hold a pen.

"Your highness," says Job, and the prince watches the sudden fury erupt in his face as he approaches.

the prince blocks his path.
"is it true you beat the servants, Job?" the prince asks quietly.

"of course, highness," says Job, inflating himself to his full height, shoulders squared, his gaze boring fiercely into the young man all but cowering behind the prince.
the prince hates play-acting at being a hero, and resents the butler for forcing him into it.

"have you lost command of your tongue, Job?"


"your tongue is in good working order? you retain a command of language?"

"yes, highness, of course--"
"and yet you feel your fists communicate your intent better than your tongue? are you soon bat me about, when you find I am late for breakfast? strike my father on the chin, perhaps, when you wish to communicate that his boy has run his bath?"

Job is staring at him wordlessly.
"don't beat the servants," said the prince. "any of them. ever."

"for twenty years I have conducted myself in the same man--"

"for twenty years you've been butler?"

"yes, highness."

"for twenty years you've beaten servants?"

"for severe infractions, highness, and--"
"twenty years is quite the time," said the prince. "you can go on beating servants or go on being butler. choose one."

"you've no authority to--"

"I handle your contracts. i can assure you I do."

Job is easily deterred, following this.
the young man says, "thank you," in such a tiny voice that it makes the prince want to spit at him.

"get out," says the prince. "don't break anything else."

"that was very ki--"

"out. now. or I'll beat you myself."

the young man stares at him before leaving him in peace.
the young man is called Mahon, and he works as footman. he is the same age as the the prince - 22 - and he worked at a noble house before coming to work at the Palace.

the prince learns all of this against his will - the cook tells him and he can't tune all of it out.
"he's been talking you up," she says as he rifles through a drawer, looking for the right paper. "been saying how kind you are."

"yes, I gathered myself that he wasn't too bright," says the prince, and picks out a bar of chocolate.
he eats a piece on the way back to his room: one square exactly each day until the bar is done, so long as he can secrete it somewhere in his room where a housemaid won't take his only pleasure from him under the guise of cleaning up.
Mahon is in his room again, barely hidden behind the curtain of his ridiculous four poster bed.

"get out," says the prince.

"I wanted to thank you," says Mahon.

"we all want things that don't matter," retorts the prince. "out."

"are you lonely?" asks Mahon softly.
"no. get out."

Mahon looks at him in a way the prince supposes is meant to be understanding, and is instead irritating. "are you lying?" he asks.

"yes," says the prince tonelessly. "I'm so lonely I could cry, my heart aches for companionship, et cetera. i reiterate: get out."
"you needn't be sarcastic," says Mahon.

"needn't I? good. get out."

"would it kill you to have a friend?"

"perhaps," says the prince. "best not to risk it. should I repeat myself again?"

"You're such a kind, noble--"
"Oh, do stop before the nausea takes hold," mutters the prince. "I'm not your romantic ideal waiting to be softened by your kind attentions. go downstairs and embarrass yourself if it amuses you, but you needn't involve me."

he starts stripping off his clothes to go to bed.
Mahon, stunned and embarrassed as more of the prince's skin is revealed, hurries out of the room and goes downstairs.

the prince starts stripping the next three times Mahon appears in his room, regardless of the time of day, and it works to keep him at arm's length.
the fourth time he strips off his shirt and Mahon faces rigidly the other way, but doesn't actually flee.

"do they give you any actual work to do?" asks the prince.

"do you WANT to get lonely?" asks Mahon.

"desperately," says the prince. "and yet here you are again."
"Do you not think you're kind?"

"I'm not."

"but you care about people, don't you?"

"I am forced to interact with people all day. You are interrupting my only respite."

"the cook says you don't have any friends, that you work all the time."
"your belief being that I ought be some manner of socialite to please the whim of a footman?"

"You just seem unhappy, that's all."

"is it a crime to be unhappy in one's own bed chamber?"

"I think you're unhappy everywhere."

"who gives a toss if I am?"

"I do."

the earnestness makes his skin crawl in his saccharine sweetness, and this time he grabs the servant by the hair, lifting him up on his toes to hold his blade to his throat.

he presses hard enough on the skin that he leaves a thin, white line.
"do you know what would happen if I killed you?" he asks softly, deliberately, as Mahon whimpers, shaking on his tip toes but too frightened to struggle free. "have you thought about that?"


"I'd ring for service and they'd take your body away."

"a maid would clean your blood from the stone; your body would be pieced apart and fed to the palace pigs. one of the guards would record in his notes that he saw you leaving at some late hour of the night, and two witnesses would corroborate his lie."
Mahon is breathing reedily, eyes watering, looking at him in terror.

"they wouldn't just hide that I'd kill you," says the prince softly. "they would make it seem as though you'd gone looking for death, and deny your family your last month's wages."
the prince presses harder before pulling back, just before he can draw blood.

Mahon hiccoughs miserably.

"I could kill you very easily and face no consequences but the mess," says the prince. "do you think a kind man could do that?"

"But you won't."

"but I could."

"do you know what a monarch is, Mahon?" asks the prince, spinning the blade in his hand.

"a ruler," says Mahon. "who rules based upon their blood."

"by blood is correct," says the prince. "the monarch is comparable to a tick or some other parasite in this way."
Mahon stares at him, shocked and confused.

"the tick is incapable of kindness," says the prince. "by his very existence he bleeds and weakens those in his proximity. get out before I call a guard."

Mahon jogs to leave him be.
Mahon leaves him be from there. the prince spends his late evenings alone, as he usually does, staying up as the hours tick by for no reason at all, knowing it will be exhausting the next day, and yet not wishing to give in and cede the whole of his day to whatever nonsense.
the prince, distantly, muses how much he hates his life, and for the umpteenth time plans how he would escape, the scale he might attempt down the palace walls, the gutters, his path through town to the outer gates.

he is fairly certain there are guards devoted to stopping him.
his father has told him there aren't, which is a confirmation in itself, but more than that he knows that every attempt before has been swiftly headed off.

he eats a square of chocolate.
"don't you ever do anything?" asks Mahon. he's carrying a tray of cheese and fruit and wine, and the prince looks at it with little interest as it's placed on his desk.

"no," says the prince. "nothing. not ever. I simply sit here and wait for time to pass."
"when you're king, it will be different," says Mahon, in the tone of one who has rehearsed his statement.

the prince dreads the day his father dies and he is chained even more so to this husk of a nation, made to grow fat on its blood and its blood alone.
"why do you say that?" he asks dully, though he knows the answer.

"you'll be a good king," Mahon says confidently.

"oxymoron," replies the prince, and takes one piece of cheese, pushing the rest of the plate to Mahon with a vague gesture.
he looks eagerly at the prince, though he holds back the expression. "May I?" he asks. "I've not eaten since this morning."

"I invited you, didn't I?" asks the prince, but it makes his blood boil in his veins.

how many of this useless castle's wasted servants have been starved?
today or any other day? how many hundreds of people in the town, the surrounding cities, are eating for the first time all day to day, or going without food because they took such a high tithe in grain this year, only to sell most of it because the royal granaries were full?
"you'll be able to fix things when you're king," says Mahon.

"I won't be king," says the prince.


"I won't be king," repeats the prince.

"what will you be?"

"whatever I can be," said the prince. "and if not that, dead."

"oh," says Mahon.
for some reason he looks utterly miserable, and the prince rolls his eyes in embarrassment, wondering if the guards still had someone stationed in the sewers below the kitchens to keep him from leaving that way.
"but you're so lucky," says Mahon, sounding slightly tight, the emotion too spineless to be called anger. "don't you feel lucky?"

"would I feel lucky born an executioner rather than one sentenced to the block?"

"that's different."
"you're right," says the prince. "after a fashion, I suppose I might respect an executioner."

"it's in your blood to rule."

"is it in yours to serve?"

Mahon does bristle at that, his shoulders squaring. "Maybe it is," he snaps.
"imagine what a wonder you would be, then, serving the people instead of me. wandering about this crypt to bloody inheritance polishing boots and starving whilst you feed us - am I more worthy of the women we've widowed starving in the slums?"
"it's not that you're more worthy," says Mahon, and the prince laughs bitterly, standing to his feet.

"finally, we agree."

"but it's part of your position. we must embrace the path in life laid out for us."


"... because."

"keen on debate, aren't you?"
the prince wheels to make some other point, to cut and needle, but before he can, Mahon stands on his tiptoes to kiss him.

his lips are warm, his eyes closed, and although he kisses the prince he seems frightened to so much as touch his chest.
the prince stares at him as Mahon pulls away.

"Have you a fiancée?" asks Mahon in a whisper.

"no," says the prince. "my father fears it might make me harder to control."

"I'm sure that's not why."

"you seem sure of a lot for knowing so little."
"I wish you weren't so sad," says Mahon, and the prince takes another piece of cheese, chewing it silently.

Mahon steps closer slowly, faultingly, and puts his fingers delicately on the prince's thigh.

"I'd like," he says, "to... to serve you."
nausea rises in the prince's throat as Mahon's hand slides up his thigh, and the prince grabs his wrist, twisting then around.

Mahon cries out in fear more than pain as the prince pins his arms at the small of his back, bent over his desk.
"is that what you want?" he asks in Mahon's ear, feeling his body shiver. "you want me to serve? you want me to fuck you, do you, use you as a prince ought use his servants? want me to make use of your body until I lose interest then turn you out?"
"but you won't do that," says Mahon, and the naivety of it makes the prince inwardly rage.

"I could chain you down if I wished," said the prince. "bugger you 'tip you begged me to stop - more than that, I could flay the skin off your bones and laugh when you screamed."
"but you won't," says Mahon, and the prince shoves him toward the door, away from him.

"but I could," says the prince, taking off his clothes for bed.

"I only want to touch you. to kiss you. is that so awful?"
"you want what you think I should be. you want a figure in a tapestry, a character in a fireside tale. I'm neither. that won't change if you kneel before me and serve me with your mouth."

"but what if I want to?"

"we don't always get what we want."
his chance comes with a riot.

he's glad to see the smoke as it rises from the base of the city proper - even as much as the advisors try to keep upsetting news from reaching royal ears, the prince has heard it in whispers from the palace staff.
he takes the pack hidden beneath a floorboard in his room, always ready packed, checks it hadn't been tampered with or enchanted, and goes down to the kitchen.

the cook has a bar of chocolate waiting for him, which he takes.

"thank you," he says.

"good luck," she replies.
the two of them have danced this dance a handful of times before, but never have so many of the guards been called away from the palace, desperate to soothe the ruckus via their swords and truncheons, as though starving bellies could be mediated now with shouts and threats.
"what are you doing?" asks Mahon, appearing in the doorway with his eyes wide and horrified.

"what does it look like?" asks the prince, and drops down the ladder under the pantry's grating.

the sewer guard is gone. the prince smiles.
Mahon rushes after him as he begins to walk down the sewers, although he lets out a horrified noise when he realises where they are, when the stench hits his nostrils once they've taken two turns.

"but you- you can't just run away," he says. "what will Sanctuary be without you?"
"better off, I expect," says the prince, crossing over a tunnel piece. he knows the sewers like the back of his hand, knows their maps inside out, knows the date each piece of huge, working pipe was laid and warded and put to work.
"but they're rioting," Mahon says. "the city is in tumult - don't you want to help?"


"by telling them to calm themselves? by leading them? by--"

the prince's laughter echoes off the pipes around them, many voices disappearing down each trough.
"you think that is the end of a riot? a speech from a man who caused it?"

"how did you cause it?"

"they're starving because taxes are too high, because we've taken too much land, because we hoard, because the palace guard is inflated and the country guard can't do much."
Mahon is stepping behind him quickly, one hand resting on the prince's back like he's frightened to lose him in the dark.

"but the solution to that isn't for them to tear one another apart like dogs," he spits with surprising venom.
"I wouldn't worry about that," says the prince. "it's the royal guard they're aiming at."

"but your safety, highness, what if they find you?"

"I suppose they'd kill me. serve me right, too."

"but... but say we go back now, you can announce a banquet--"
"a banquet? feed them for one night in luxury and then let them back to starvation?"

"If you really want to change things," says Mahon, "you need to stay and work from the insi--"

there's a clunk, and a wet smack.
the prince turns back to the body of Mahon on the floor, and sees the bar he smacked his head on, the bar the prince leaned left to avoid.

Mahon is bleeding only a little, but the blow seems to have knocked him out.
"small mercies," mutters the prince, and hoists the other man over his shoulder to keep walking.
Mahon is only out for two minutes, but he's confused when he comes to, and the prince rolls his eyes when he realises he may be concussed, and keeps him awake as best he can, pinching his hip when telling him to stay awake doesn't work well.
He steals a horse once they're outside of the palace's fort walls, and he keeps Mahon against his chest as they ride, doing what he can to check he's alright as they move.

He leaves it forty minutes' ride from the fort, going past two villages before they stop at an inn.
They don't recognise him - his father always looks over the portrait artist's shoulder and makes adjustments, asking them to strengthen his jawline and make his nose smaller.

His eyes have been any colour but brown, these past few paintings.
They won't notice him gone yet, the prince knows - the riot will keep them distracted, and the cook never tells tales on him.

He's gotten this far before, though, so there's no need to rest on his laurels.
After the prince has tended to him, Mahon sleeps easily, and the prince takes a few hours himself, but before light has broken he nudges Mahon awake.

He looks around in exhausted bafflement.

"Where are we?" he asks.
"It hardly matters, we won't be here for long," says the prince, putting Mahon's boots on for him, and Mahon stares in horror as he watches the prince's fingers on his own laces.

"What are you doing?" he asks.

"You've not seen these laced up before?"
"We're outside the palace?" asks Mahon.

"Oh, yes," says the prince. "This is Urston. Off we go, chop chop."

"But-- but we can't, we have to--"

"I thought you wanted to serve?" asks the prince dryly, and watches in interest as Mahon blusters.
He looks frightened, confused, overwhelmed - he looks like a man who's lost control of his horse.

"We must go back," says Mahon again. "It's-- it's dangerous, and we must go back, we must..."

"Why must we go back, Mahon?" asks the prince slowly, stepping closer to him.
"Because you're the *prince*," says Mahon desperately, looking everywhere but at the prince's face as he steps slowly closer, hand hovering over the dagger at his belt. "Because they'll come for you, because you really, you really aren't meant to leave the palace..."
He flounders as the prince gets closer, sweat shining on his cheeks, which are darkening with blood.

"You can change it more from the inside, you can't just, just leave, I mean, what will the kingdom be without you? How can you help if you're far away?"

"What a graceful pivot."
Mahon stares up at his face, eyes wide as saucers. "Pivot?" he repeats in a tiny voice.

"Who told you I wasn't to leave the palace?" asks the prince delicately, bringing the dagger up to the side of Mahon's neck and pressing the tip just under his jaw, threatening to pierce.
Mahon whimpers, and although he doesn't move his head, he looks wildly at the blade.

"You did," he says.

The prince laughs. "No," he says amusedly, in a better mood than he has been in years. "No, I don't believe I did."

"Your highness--"
"I thought it was strange," murmurs the prince. "I'm not ugly, I've had my share of servants coming to throw themselves at me, but they've all been put off by what a cold fish I am. Not you, though. No, you, you *cared* for me."

"Of course, of course, I cared--"
"Is your name even Mahon?" asks the prince, turning the blade in his fingers and watching a tiny bead of blood well under its cut.

Mahon has tears in his eyes, but his face is more angry than fearful.
"What's wrong with you?" he demands. "Born into the lap of luxury, and all you can think of is these, these horrible little people with no manners, no class, who would kill you as soon as look at you! You're a prince - you've a duty."
"To whom, pray?"

"To your blood," says Mahon sharply. "To your blood, to your father, to the city, to Sanctuary. Not to farmers and beggars whose fingers are filthy with dirt."

The prince laughs, and kisses him.
Mahon moans into his mouth as the prince shoves him up against the wall, lifting him by the hips and kissing him as hard as he dares.

He hasn't kissed a man like this since he was sixteen, when he was still able to attend events with boys his own age, and Mahon's lips are soft.
When they break apart, he looks at the prince blearily, confused, but apparently delighted.

"I knew you'd see sense," he says breathlessly. "The advisors picked me out personally, knew I'd be the right sort of person, and if we can just go back--"

"We aren't."
Mahon's growing smile drops. "What?"

"I'm not going back," says the prince, smiling as he charges a little magic between his fingers. "And seeing as you're my own personal spy, I'm afraid you won't be going back either."
"Will that make you moral?" asks Mahon defiantly. "Killing a man loyal enough to serve you, who cares enough to pull you back from the brink of madness?"

"Who said anything about killing you?" replies the prince, and knocks him out with a basic sleep spell.
When Mahon wakes, it's with a bad headache, which the prince had been expecting - he has placed food in front of him and an analgesic too, which Mahon reluctantly takes.

"Where are we?" he asks.

"You think I'll tell you?" asks the prince.
Mahon is quiet, glaring at him in the gloom, and to avoid the obvious answer to the question he picks up a slice of buttered bread, biting into it. The prince can hear his stomach rumble.

"How long have I been asleep?" he asks.

"I won't be answering that, either."
Mahon chews and eats in silence until he asks, "Are you going to kill me?" His fingers have slid up the side of his own neck, touching the scab at the edge of his jaw where the prince had cut him.

"I'd rather not," says the prince, "but that's no to say I won't."
Mahon eats.

The prince asks, "Is Mahon your actual name?"

The other man hesitates for a second, lips pressing together, before he nods his head.

"You're not from Sanctuary, I take it."

"I'm from Mercy."
"You're titled?"

"No. My father is the Duke, then my brother," says Mahon, and the prince nods his head slowly. He knows the Duke of Mercy's family on paper, knows the line has four boys and one girl, though not their names.
"They thought to send you to me and make something of me, hm? Lull me to the embraces of aristocracy via what, the skill of your mouth?"

"You are lonely," says Mahon. "It's not like I was wrong."
"But you see, I am lonely because I reject them, not because they reject me."

"Isn't it the same thing?" demands Mahon.

"No," says the prince simply. "Perhaps had you any principles to speak of, you might know that."
"You don't know a thing about me," spits Mahon.

"I wouldn't say that's true," says the prince softly, arching one eyebrow. "For example, I know I have you at my mercy."

Mahon gulps.

The prince's smile is razor thin and just as sharp.
"What will you do with me?" asks Mahon.

"I suppose my plans aren't dissimilar to what yours were for me - keep you with me until your principles become closer to mine, and I think you might betray them for me."
Mahon clenches his teeth. "You just don't understand how the world works," he says. "Some people are simply... more fit to rule than others. That's how it's been, how it's always been. It's not out of unkindness, it's a fact of life."

"And those that starve?"
"How is that our business?"

"In Sanctuary, because tithes were too high and the farmers were made to starve with too little grain on which to live."

"They knew what the tithes would be - they should have grown more."

"In drought?"

"It's not our business," Mahon repeats.
"Isn't it?"

"How can it be? I'm not a farmer, and nor are you."

"Tithes could be lowered to little, or naught, of what they are. Royal grain could be spread to the people instead of hoarded purely for royal use."

"Fine," says Mahon. "Do that, then."
The prince laughs. "You think that's enough?" he asks.

"Isn't it? Feed them this year, and--"

"Why not every year?" asks the prince. "Why shouldn't everyone eat from the same plate when we grow enough?"

"Even those who don't pay for it?"

"Especially those."
Mahon stares at him, looks infuriated in a way that makes the prince almost want to laugh.

"Why would anyone work if you were feeding everyone?" he asks slowly. "What do people need money for, but for bread?"

"You think people only work because otherwise they'll starve?"
"Most people."

The prince leans in, elbows on the table, leans close enough to look at Mahon's face, the indignation, the tightness in his features.

"Is that why you took this job?" asks the prince.
"People hunger for things more than food," says Mahon. "It doesn't mean everything should be handed to them on a platter."

"Everything's been handed to me on a platter."

"Has it? Haven't you worked? Haven't you done your duty?"
"My duty in what? Overseeing the starvation of the people? Fussing over family trees and petty land disputes?"

"Change it, then," says Mahon. "We you're king, you can change it. Didn't you tell Job not to beat me?"

"Did he beat you in the first place?"

"That's not the point."
The prince laughs at him, and Manon clenches his hands at his sides.

"Just because your butler didn't beat me doesn't mean I haven't been beaten," he mutters. "Why do you think your way is the only way? You can't compromise?"

"What compromise should I make?"
"Go back. Soothe the rioters. Lower the tithe. You're only running away as it happens - it's all happening still, you're just not a part of it."

"I'm done being a part of it," says the prince. "I'm done with all of it. The title, the position, all of it."
Mahon stares at him. "But it's your birthright," he says.

"It's been quite a long while since I was born," replies the prince. "I've had a great deal of time to develop since then."

Mahon is quiet, fist clenched. "What if they kill me?" he asks.
"Who? My father, his people?"


"The solution, I think, is not to go back for you either, hm?"

"Maybe I don't want to run away from life like you do."

"Not life," he corrects. "Just my life. No more Prince Alexander."

"And if it gets me killed?"
"I haven't abandoned you yet," says the prince. "Do you think I'm about to?"

"But you said you're only keeping me to stop me from betraying you."

"Oh, but without you," he says, voice dripping with sarcasm, "I might be lonely."

Mahon sips his drink.
He tells people his name is Allegro, which Mahon snorts derisively at.

"Your made-up name is better than mine, is it?"

"I just think it's a stupid thing to choose, that's all."

"It's not my choice. My mother called me Allegro when I was a boy."
Mahon says, "What, she was opposed to everything about the world too, was she?"

"I couldn't say, she died when I was quite young. I doubt it - she married a king, and was a duchess in her own right."

"You don't feel bad speaking ill of your mother?"
"What ill am I speaking of her? Is it speaking ill of the dead to disagree with them? Were that the case, we could never disagree with anything. Besides, parents are often wrong. They aren't sacred by virtue of parenthood."
"Your father is kind to you," mutters Mahon. "Goes to every effort to teach you, protects you--"

"Controls me. Keeps me tightly leashed that I might not stray."

"Perhaps you should be."

"Like I have you?"
"Am I leashed?" asks Mahon, and Allegro pulls him close to him, wraps his arms around Mahon's waist and makes Mahon gasp: they're in the middle of a town square, and Mahon stiffens as Allegro kisses the side of his neck.

"No one cares," he says. "No one's looking at us."
"Is this what you dream of?" asks Mahon. "Being unimportant, being no one? Having no duties, no responsibilities?"

"Oh, I plan to find duties, once I'm in the no longer being searched for."

"How could they stop searching for you?"

Allegro nips his ear, makes Mahon shiver.
"If they think I'm dead," he says, and Mahon grips his hand.

"Why?" he asks. "You could have everything and you're just... throwing it away."

His voice is tortured, and Allegro pulls him closer, kisses the back of his neck. He wonders why he cares so much.
"What's the point of everything if it's at a cost to someone else's anything?" asks the prince.

"You don't know what it's like to have no power," says Mahon, and Allegro does laugh at that, can't help himself.

"Don't I?" he asks.
They're a long way from Sanctuary, and it's been weeks.

"are you going to fuck me?" asks Mahon. He's not tried to run - Allegro believes he is frightened of what might be done to him if caught.

"Do you want me to?"

"You kiss me."

"I thought you liked it."
"I didn't say I didn't," says Mahon.

"One gets the impression you haven't been kissed much."

"As if you have."

"I haven't," says Allegro easily. "My father banned me leaving the palace, let alone the city, and we rarely have visitors. Who would I kiss?"
"Other nobles," says Mahon, and Allegro sighs.

"I don't much care to kiss people who seem to care about my title, seeing as I never wanted it. Many of the nobles who'd take up with me did so hoping to marry me."

"Well, I don't," says Mahon.
"What did they promise you?"

"What do you think they promised me? Money. Power."

"Money is by the by," says the prince. "But power seems terribly vague. What sort of power were you hoping for?"

Mahon isn't looking at him.
They're in the balcony of a restaurant, and he is looking through the crowd below, to men in Sanctuary armour speaking with one of this town's guards.
To Allegro's interested surprise, the expression on Mahon's face is not one of triumph or excitement, but fear.

He stays well back from the balcony's edge - they've been eating for no coin but for services rendered when Allegro helped with their books and spoke to the tax man.
Mahon has been variations of horrified and fascinated as they've made their way in this manner - Allegro has been teaching children their letters, teaching people new card games or telling stories, has offered help with accountancy or property contracts.
"Why do they trust you?" he'd asked when a woman had given them a place to sleep for the night, the two of them lying in a hayloft and sharing the space with the resident barn cats, both of them purring with delight at their guests.
"Because I seem to know what I'm talking about," had said Allegro. "Because I'm polite, helpful. The further we go, the more people will know us."

"Someone will try to rob us eventually, or kill us."

"What is it you think they'll do to you?" Allegro asks now, and Mahon's expression is tight, his lips pressed together.

"What does it matter to you?"

"Perhaps I can help."

Mahon scoffs. "Why would you?"

"Why wouldn't I?"

"To punish me."
Allegro shrugs, sipping at his beer. He hasn't moved a muscle, although the guards are looking up at the balconies, and he can see that their remaining in place is bothering Mahon, making him nervous.

"I don't know if I believe in punishment," he says mildly.
"Good Gods," Mahon said, staring at him. "The fuck are you talking about now? You don't believe in kings, don't believe in money, now you don't believe in punishment? What next? You don't believe in leaves? Chairs? Cows?"

Allegro laughs.
"I didn't want Job to beat you," says Allegro. "But you think I'd toss you to the wolves? I assume what you're frightened of is more significant than a beating."

"Maybe so," says Mahon. "Aren't we going to move?"


"They can see us."
"They can look at us," says Allegro, and pours more beer for both of them. "They've looked at both of us several times. Haven't seen either of us yet, though, have they?"

"How are you like this?" asks Mahon.

"You're always so afraid of people looking at you. Why is that?"
"Why are you so confident?" asks Mahon. "Barely any exposure to the real world, certain everyone will be kind and charitable to you for no reason. Like you think the world was just made to give everything for nothing."

"Maybe it should," says Allegro.
"And people who paid their way?" Mahon demands. "People who put in the hard work and, and made sacrifices, should they just sit and watch other people get things handed to them?"

"Yes," says Allegro confidently.

"I hate you."
"If you hate me, run," says Allegro pleasantly. "Wait for the Sanctuary guards to leave, and run in the other direction. Go, be free, et cetera."

"I don't have the money," mutters Mahon.

Allegro laughs. "You don't have the same skills I do? You can't read, can't dance?"
"I can't teach," mutters Mahon, squeezing his hand into a fist and looking down at the street as the guards go the other direction.

"What can you do?" asks Allegro. "You're good at lying. Do you play any instruments? Sing? Fight?"
"I'm not like you," says Mahon. "Most people aren't, if you haven't noticed. I can't just... just go up to someone and say, oh, let me in your house, feed me, and in exchange I'll do some odd job for you."

"What did Sanctuary offer you?"
Mahon is silent.

"They must have offered you something," says Allegro. "You don't exactly commit to lying to and seducing a prince with no reward at the end of it."

"I already told you."

"You gave me two non-answers. Did they threaten you?"

"So what if they did?"
"You don't think I can help you?"

"I don't know if you would."

"Haven't I established I would?"

"You've said you would. That's no the same as establishing it."

"I see," says Allegro dryly. "Because of the two of us, it's my integrity that seems to be the most in question."
"They gave me something," says Mahon. "Something I don't want them to take back."


"None of your fucking business," says Mahon. "But they didn't-- they did half now. Said they'd do the rest after I'd done my job."
"Half of what?"

"I said none of your business."

Allegro presses his lips together, humming out a sound as he drums his fingers against the tabletop between them. "What was the job?"

"You can't work that out?"
"It's all very well to say you'd fuck me," says Allegro. "But assuming I did - was that the measure of success, that we'd had sex? Was there something else you were meant to do, to prove you had me on side?"
Mahon crosses his arms over his chest, looking away from him.

"I was meant to get you committed," he says in a low voice. "Let you do that... that thing with the grain, if you wanted. Just feedback on what you wanted to change so you could change it."
"Until I thought it was worth more to stay than to go?"

"I suppose."

"And then?"

"I don't know, and then they'd marry you to someone, and you'd be king?"

"I mean for you."

"For me."

"They offered you a job? A position? Land?"
"They were going to train me while I was with you," says Mahon. "I was going to, to say I hated being a footman and see if you couldn't get something else for me, and they'd give me military training. So I could be part of the guard."
"What weapons training have you done already?"

"The normal amount," says Mahon.

"What's normal for Mercy? Short swords, long swords, axes, archery? Hand-to-hand?"

Mahon says shortly, "I don't..."

"You're the son of a duke, and they didn't teach you to protect yourself?"
"I had a guard," says Mahon. "A personal guard."

"He was with you 24/7?"

"Well, yeah, I guess, she--"

"They gave you a female personal guard? I thought Mercy was a bit conservative when it came to that sort of thing. Strict gender segregation, strict roles."
Mahon clenches his jaw.

"It's not a nice place to live," he mutters. "Mercy. We all do that bullshit you keep talking about, sharing food, stuff like that. It doesn't fix anything. It's worse than Sanctuary."
Allegro watches Mahon's face, aware he's smiling slightly, like he always is when faced with a puzzle he doesn't have all the pieces to.

Mahon looks, as ever, frustrated with everything about Allegro.
"What was it," asks Allegro delicately, "that you were hoping might be fixed?"

"You can do magic," says Mahon.

"A little. I'm no great sorcerer."

"Your palace employs them, though. Sorcerers."

"Of course."
"Why haven't you fucked me?" asks Mahon, and Allegro raises an eyebrow.

"Why haven't you fucked me?" he retorts.

"You don't find me attractive?"

"I think it's clear I do. It's evidently not your moral virtues that engage my interest."
"But you don't try. You just-- you just kiss me sometimes. Or hold me."

"You want for me to stop?"

"I didn't say that."

"Do you want for me to fuck you?"

"Do you want to?"

"Not if it wouldn't please you. Not if it would scare you, if you'd hate me for it."
"You're not very hatable," says Mahon, as though the fact itself displeases him, and it makes Allegro smile.
"Why did they pick you?" asks Allegro.

"Because I'm a noble," says Mahon. "From far enough away no one would recognise me."

"But why you?" asks Allegro. "Why you, particularly? What special skills made you appropriate - or what particular leverage did they have against you?"
"You don't understand how easy your life is," says Mahon.

"I do, as it happens," replies Allegro.

"No," says Mahon. "You think you do, but you don't. You don't understand anything."

"Why don't you make me understand?" asks Allegro pleasantly. "Educate me, why don't you?"
"Do you know already?" asks Mahon. "Are you making sport of me?"

"I'm not," says Allegro. "Do you feel I've made sport of you so far?"

"I don't know what I feel," says Mahon. "My brothers aren't like you."
"What do you mean?"

"They're all... sedentary, I suppose," says Mahon. "They don't explore things like you seem to. Don't smile, it's not a compliment. Unlike you, they can sit still and be satisfied with things for half a minute."

"And your sister?" asks Allegro.
"I don't have a sister," says Mahon.

Allegro watches Mahon's face for a few moments, imagining the royal sorcerers making adjustments to his face the way they make adjustments to Allegro's portraits.

"Oh," says Allegro.

"Is that it?" asks Mahon.
"What do you want me to say?" asks Allegro. "Want me to tell you I suspected it, or that I'm blown away? I can't tell you I'm one or the other - I'm too stupid to have put it together beforehand, but too worldly to be surprised."
"You're insufferable," says Mahon.

"The crown has employed your services to seduce and ensorcel me, using your gender as a cudgel to keep you here," says Allegro. "That ought have been clue to my insufferability before we ever said a word to one another."
"They haven't used it as a cudgel," mutters Mahon. "Sanctuary is better than Mercy, you know. People there respect me, call me... call me what I want to be called. Help me."

"Give you half now," said Allegro, "held back the rest for later."

"What's wrong with that?"
"I can tell you if you like," says Allegro quietly. "I can't promise you'll like it."

Mahon is staring at him, brows furrowed, lips twisted. "What?"

"What half did they give you?" asks Allegro.

Mahon stiffens. "Excuse me?"
"I know more than you do of my father and the way he and his court thinks," says Allegro. "The way they manipulate, the way they balance a situation in their favour. It's why I can't stay with them. There's no way out but further in."
Mahon stares at him, uncomprehending and painfully, painfully naive. Is it wrong of Allegro to want to kiss him in this moment?

"What do you think further in looks like?" asks Allegro.

"Well, getting you back into the, the fold?"
"I won't marry a woman," says Allegro. "My father knows this about me, as do his court."


"So I expect that a far more solid way to ensure I remained in my place was to ensure I had a pregnant spouse to look after, one I could neither abandon nor smuggle out with me."
Mahon stares at him, mouth agape, and Allegro looks at him but doesn't touch him, doesn't reach across the gap.

"They think five or six moves ahead," says Allegro quietly. "Always, five or six moves ahead."
Mahon's hand is over his mouth and he looks sick, his mouth twisted under his hand.

"But I have," he says haltingly, "I had... things to stop--"

"Provided by the palace alchemists?" asks Allegro.

"Can we go back to the room?"

"Yes," says Allegro. "Yes, of course."
Mahon doesn't cry as Allegro carefully closes the door to their loaned room behind them, and he reaches for Mahon carefully, making sure Mahon can see his arms, giving him every opportunity to pull away.

Mahon throws himself at Allegro's chest and grips at him hard.
It hurts slightly, in all honesty, he's grasping at Allegro so tightly, but Allegro doesn't let himself flinch or let out any sound of strain.

He puts his hands on Mahon's back, squeezes him.

"Fuck," spits Mahon, all but frothing at the mouth with anger. "Fuck. Fuck!"
"It's not your fault," says Allegro quietly. "It took me years to understand the extent to which they moved me about, and I knew from the beginning. It's--"

"But that's sick," hisses Mahon. Allegro likes to see him angry - it's better than nothing.
"Yes," Allegro agrees.

"It's fucking sick," repeats Mahon, drawing away from him now, rage writ in his features as he paces, gesticulating wildly. "It's worse than Mercy. It's underhanded, it's deceptive - it's precisely the same monstrosity masquerading as acceptance!"
Allegro is beaming, his cheeks hot with delight, and when Mahon sees he looks ready to throw something at his face. "Don't you fucking laugh at me," he growls.

"I'm not laughing," says Allegro. "I am but a man delighted to hear his tongue spoken by another's mouth."
"For once in your life," says Mahon, "would you stop being such a smug, self-satisfied prick, and shut the fuck up?"

"It's going to be alright," says Allegro. "You know now - I know now. There's nothing they can do to harm you."
"That's besides the point," snaps Mahon. "Maybe it's me who wants to harm them!"

"I wouldn't fault you if you did."

"I told them I didn't want that," says Mahon. "Not from anyone. Not... it makes me feel sick."

"I'm sorry," says Allegro.

"Not as sorry as they'll be."
Allegro watches Mahon stand in the centre of the room, hands clenched in fists, lips curled in a snarl.

"They'd never have trained me in anything," says Mahon coldly. "They wanted to use me as broodmother, the same as my family."
"I'd have tried not to let it get so far," says Allegro. "I can tell you I would have been livid, but I'd not have blamed you even had their plans gone as far as they wanted."

"But you'd want a baby?" asks Mahon.

"Gods, no," says Allegro.
Mahon looks at him suspiciously, and Allegro sighs as he sits slowly down, rapping his knuckles against his own knee.

"You recall what I just said about being steps ahead?"

"No," says Mahon snappishly. "I've forgotten it."

Allegro sighs.
"I'm my father's only son, Mahon, and to remarry would introduce all manner of variables he would not like to factor in. For me to have a child would make me happily disposable, if it came to that."

Mahon stares at him.

"Five or six steps ahead," repeats Allegro.
"How are you so fucking calm?" demands Mahon.

"I don't know," says Allegro, shrugging his shoulders. "I'm calm by nature. It has frustrated the crown no end - unfortunately, Mahon, anger is a fairly easy emotion to manipulate."

Mahon spits on the floor.

"For instance."
"Will you teach me to fight?" asks Mahon.

"If you like," says Allegro. "I'm quite good at teaching."

"And humble, too," says Mahon coldly. "And then we can go back."

"To Sanctuary?"


Mahon turns to look at him, mouth twisting. "Why not?"

"You recall the position I've stated numerous times now as to punishment?"

"But this was against me!"

"If I don't go back, there's no reason it should happen again."

Mahon falls onto the bed. "I don't understand you."
"Which part is hardest to grasp?" asks Allegro, coming to lean on the bed, Mahon looking up at him. "Perhaps I can explain."

"You'll just never go back?" asks Mahon. "Never? What about revenge? What about closure?"
"Without me there, the monarchical reign is weakened," says Allegro. "And to be honest, I was integral to a lot of processes, more than I think my father intended - I've intentionally installed several subtle faults in certain paperwork processes."
Mahon frowns. "What does that mean?"

"In the short term, almost nothing," says Allegro. "But given time, quite a bit - lost land, failed contracts, differences in paper agreements and verbal ones. Each fault will sow discord between people and crown.
"In short," says Allegro, "I've set several dominos to fall, encouraging people to criticise and take power back from the crown. This process moves forward best with my being gone - I'm well-liked by the people, though its hardly deserved."
"They'll be suspicious of your disappearance. Blame it on the king."


"And if they kill him?"

"I don't think they will," says Allegro. "I think they might edge him further into powerlessness - for him, that will be more painful."
"But don't you want to watch?" Mahon demands. "Don't you want to see, to know?"

"No," says Allegro. "I want to settle somewhere, be peaceful, help others. Make amendments for my past inaction."
"How can that satisfy you?" asks Mahon.

"I don't know yet that it will," says Allegro. "But I can tell you I've been happier these past few weeks than I ever have been before."

Mahon is quiet. "I'm not like you," he says.

"I gathered."
"Is that what you'll do then?" asks Mahon. "You'll... you'll find somewhere and stay there?"

"Yes," says Allegro. "I might open a school or something like it. I thought I might travel a while first, though. I've wanted to for a long time."
"And me?" asks Mahon.

"You can come with me," says Allegro. "For as long as you like, and leave as you want to."

"I think you're cracked in the head," says Mahon.

"Alright," says Allegro.

"I think I might be too," he says.

"Well. One doesn't like to say."
"Shut up," says Mahon, and Allegro smiles. "Do you like me?"

"Rather a lot, yes."

"I don't understand why."

"Nor do I, really," murmurs Allegro. "But one doesn't have to understand everything. And we needn't fuck, if you don't like."
"Of course I want to fuck," snaps Mahon.

Allegro is smiling again, and Mahon glares at him for daring to.

"You've not convinced me of your nonsense philosophy," says Mahon. "I want revenge, still."

"Alright," says Allegro. Before he can say anything else, Mahon speaks up.
"No," he says sharply. "No more talking. Just-- we could have sex. Maybe."

"Maybe," says Allegro, smiling. "And--"

"No talking," says Mahon sharply, pulling Allegro down on top of him.

Allegro is quiet for a record-breaking thirty seconds.

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