Love & Royalty
NOTE: This story contains spoilers for Mistress Mage! You have been warned…
“I need the final list of nobles being introduced at next week’s ball.”
“And the tallies of stored foods for the winter.”
“And I’m still waiting to hear back from the tailors—”
Niko stopped short, looking up from the book of notes and reminders he’d written to himself. “What is it?”
“It’s been just us for a while now.” The crisp, amused voice came from Ammon, Niko’s ever-present shadow. “You sent all your runners and courtiers off on tasks earlier.”
“Oh.” Niko felt his cheeks warm with embarrassment. How long had he been speaking to himself and Ammon without realizing they were alone? “Why didn’t you say anything?”
Ammon shrugged, but his small smile was kind. “Far be it from me to interrupt the king.”
Niko glanced up and down the long stone hallway. Finding no one, he stepped up to his bodyguard, smiling playfully. “I don’t mind you interrupting me when we’re alone.”
“That’s good, because this interruption comes with the reminder that you have a meeting starting soon.”
“Oh?” Niko smiled as he toyed with the sash over Ammon’s uniform, marking him as the Niko’s personal bodyguard as well as the castle’s captain of the guard. “Something fun and private, I hope?”
“Unfortunately not.” Ammon looked amused, but not tempted. “The Lady Couressa should be waiting for you—”
“Not her again,” Niko groaned, pushing off Ammon’s chest and rolling his eyes in an un-kingly gesture of exasperation. “This is the fourth time she’s managed to get onto my list of appointments.”
“Clearly she has something important she wishes to discuss with you,” Ammon replied coolly.
“If by ‘important’ you mean ‘matrimonial,’ then yes.” Niko huffed. “I keep telling my counselors that I don’t intend to take a wife and this Lady Couressa ought to know as much, as she is one of my counselors.”
“And the council keeps telling you that with all the reform you keep trying to push through, it would only be in your favor to follow some traditions,” Ammon reminded him smoothly. “And you do need to sire an heir at some point. The council seems very disapproving of your current heir apparent.”
That made Niko chuckle. His current heir was his younger brother, only recently ennobled and crowned as a prince. He’d been raised in the slums of a criminal city, sold as a child-slave, and hunted as one of the mage-born bastards of his late father. Now the most powerful mage in the kingdom, it was only expected that the royal council would be furious about the appointment. But then, they were furious about a lot of the changes Niko had made, such as freeing all the enslaved mages, re-establishing the mage guilds and professions, and making peace with the neighboring kingdom of Viaparaiso.
No, the current heir certainly wasn’t the council’s favorite person by any stretch of the imagination.
“I can find an excuse to miss my appointment.” Niko’s soft eyes sized up his companion. “It would give us an hour to ourselves for once.”
“You’ve already missed this appointment three times. Lady Couressa represents the Sylwynder duchy. Even I know that’s one of the most powerful houses in the realm. You can’t avoid her forever.”
“I know what family she’s from,” Niko muttered bitterly. “My lack of interest in taking a wife shouldn’t be something that causes offense among the high nobility.” Niko slid his hands up Ammon’s chest, rising on his toes even though it did little to lessen the height difference between the two of them. “I’m interested in you, though.”
Ammon chuckled. “Your brother has been teaching you bad habits.”
“I’m still not doing them right, it seems,” Niko grumbled.
Ammon laughed again, then leaned down to press a kiss to Niko’s lips. “How about a compromise, Niko? Meet with Lady Couressa and decline her offer, then you and I can find a moment alone.”
Niko drew back, acting affronted. “Now who’s taking up Reshi’s bad habits? Trying to bribe a king, honestly.”
Ammon shrugged, shoulders and chest muscles flexing against the well-fitted shirt beneath his tunic, drawing Niko’s attention. “Did it not work?”
Niko huffed. “Fine. Which parlor is the lady waiting in?”
“This way, Majesty.”
Ammon made a face at the title, causing Niko to laugh. Officially, Ammon oversaw castle security as well as Niko’s personal guards. Once the council stopped clamoring for Niko to take a wife, he planned to have Ammon named as the prince consort, which entitled him to the honorific of “Highness,” though that seemed to embarrass him for some reason.
A castle servant in a pale-blue tunic marked with Niko’s own sigil—an open book with three stars across its pages—bowed low before opening the door to the Twilight Parlor. All the royal informal meeting rooms had names like Sunset, Midnight, Gloaming, and Sunrise and had matching color schemes. Twilight was decked out in soft blues, purples, and silvers, mostly of silks and satins, though the plush lounges were velvet. As Niko entered the room, a young woman stood and curtsied deeply.
“Lady Couressa,” Niko said, quickly cutting over her. “Please accept my sincerest apologies for missing our previous appointments. The truth is—”
“The truth is that you are not taking a wife,” Lady Couressa stated firmly.
Niko cut off abruptly, stunned at the audacity of being interrupted. The only people who interrupted him were his lover and his impertinent younger brother.
“Would it interest you, my king, to know that I have no intention of marrying you?”
Slightly staggered, Niko groped for something familiar to steady himself. He found royal indignation within easy reach and tipped his head to peer down at her—not an easy feat considering she was half a head taller. “What, then, is your intention of setting up these meetings?”
“I intend to be your queen.”
Confused, Niko glanced back at Ammon, who merely shrugged serenely.
Lady Couressa took advantage of the silence and gestured gracefully towards a richly polished table set with tea and small cakes. “If it pleases Your Majesty, my explanation will take but a moment of your time.”
Niko hesitated but careful schooling kept him from showing any outward signs of nerves: he didn’t bite his lip or rock on his heels or fidget with his hands. Instead, he let out a slow breath and reviewed his options.
It would simply be easiest to reiterate that he had no intention to take a wife nor a queen and be done with this meeting. But upon review of what he knew of this woman—eldest daughter and heir of a loyal duke, well respected among the castle’s courtiers as well as the peasantry, and educated at the Wolbridge Academy—he found himself intrigued at her distinction between being his wife and being his queen. After a moment of consideration, he glanced back over his shoulder at Ammon.
The tall bodyguard gave no indication of his opinion. Internalizing a sigh, Niko inclined his head and moved to take a seat at the table. Ammon fell back a step to stand by the door as a guard.
“Please, Guardsman Ammon, won’t you join us?” Lady Couressa indicated a third chair at the table. “I do not believe we could have this discussion without you.”
Ammon tensed but didn’t move. It was a well-known castle fact that Ammon was Niko’s lover, as well as the reason Niko refused all offers of marriage, but it was rarely acknowledged and certainly almost never within the king’s presence. Nearly every royal dating back hundreds of years had kept lovers, or even harems, but they were never acknowledged on the same level as a king or queen’s wedded partner. Niko’s own father had kept a lover, but that hadn’t stopped him from imprisoning her for magecraft and ordering the deaths of his children by her.
Niko beckoned Ammon forward, urging him to claim a seat at the table. If the woman was inviting this discussion, why not have it? Ammon moved stiffly, as if uncomfortable with being addressed as more than a bodyguard. Once he joined them at the table, Niko gestured for Couressa to be seated. Once she arranged her skirts around herself and drew in her seat, Niko and Ammon took the two remaining chairs at the tea table.
“I thank you for your time today, Majesty,” Couressa began, folding her hands on the table. Under normal circumstances at a meeting like this, the host—that was to say, Couressa—should have poured tea for her guests, then for herself. The fact that she folded her hands told him that none of this was to be normal. “It is my understanding that you refuse to wed, is that correct?”
“You are correct, Lady.” At a very subtle motion from Niko, Ammon began pouring tea into a crystal-cut teacup, adding just the right amount of honey and milk before setting the cup down in front of Niko. He then poured a second cup and kept it for himself.
“Your faithfulness to your partner is to be commended,” Lady Couressa stated with a formal nod to Ammon. Once Ammon finished with the tea, she poured herself a cup, using just a touch of honey to sweeten it. “However, it is also my understanding that the royal council is still insistent that you take a wife and sire an heir. Is that also correct?”
“As you are a member of the royal council yourself, I’m sure I don’t need to confirm that for you,” Niko stated cagily. “And you must also be aware that it is not necessary for me to take a wife in order to sire an heir.”
“So, you would have a bastard inherit the kingdom?”
“I already have.” Niko’s felt his grin was just a touch wicked. It was true, of course, as his brother Reshi was his father’s bastard.
“That is fair,” Couressa allowed. She took a sip of her tea and hummed appreciatively before setting it down. “Might I offer you an alternative?”
“An alternative to marriage and a bastard?”
Niko exchanged a glance with Ammon, who seemed content to remain silent during the entire exchange. “Please, Lady. What do you have in mind?”
Lady Couressa took her time in turning her cup just so before looking up and meeting Niko’s eyes steadily. “I believe that the council is correct in their opinion that you must take a co-ruler from among the peerage. It is nothing against your partner, but he is not only a commoner, but a foreign one at that.”
“Pardon, Lady Couressa,” Ammon interrupted, his low voice smooth. “While my Itanish heritage is readily apparent, I was, in fact, born and raised in the capital city of Kibernia, within sight of this very castle. As I understand it, you were raised on your fathers’ duchy until you attended school at Wolbridge, then moved to court only two years ago. By my reckoning, I am less a foreigner than you are.”
The lady held up a hand, inclining her head gracefully. “Please forgive me, Guardsman. I misspoke. You are, of course, a Zaraphethen native, but you cannot deny that with looks such as yours, such a union might be perceived unfavorably by the public.”
“The public’s perception can be corrected,” Niko said calmly.
“Can it?” Couressa tipped her head as if musing. “You’ll recall, I’m sure, that in recent memory, a king taking a foreign lover resulted in war, slavery, and almost the end of the royal line.”
Niko fought to keep the irritation clear from his face. She had made an excellent point: his father’s foreign lover, the Lady Laurana, had nearly usurped the four-hundred-year-old royal bloodline. “If you are making the argument that I set Ammon aside because of the public’s perception—”
“I am not.” Couressa folded her hands. “In fact, I am making the argument that the right woman taken as your queen can help stabilize your rule, as well as appease the royal council.”
Niko braced his hands on the table, preparing to rise. “Lady Couressa, I have been quite clear—”
“In your intentions to remain loyal and true to Guardsman Ammon, yes. It’s quite honorable.” Lady Couressa’s face stayed steady despite Niko’s protest. “But so long as you must sire an heir, why not sire one with a queen, rather than a hen?”
Niko, still half-considering storming out, startled as a warm hand covered his own, still braced on the table. He met Ammon’s deep green eyes and took a calming breath, settling himself back into his chair. “I feel we are coming to the crux of your argument, Lady?”
“Yes.” Though she made no movement, the lady appeared to steel herself. “The title of queen, while commonly only acquired through marriage, has the capacity to be bestowed by a monarch with the approval of his council, just as any other title or rank of nobility.”
Niko scanned through his knowledge of royal history. “The only precedent for such a thing would have occurred nearly two hundred years ago when a king of the blood named his sister as queen because he was unable to sire children.”
“Then you know to what I refer.”
“This case is different.”
“Tell me, King Vanikolanestra, is it simply that you do not wish to wed a woman, or is that you do not wish to share power with one?”
Heat rose in Niko’s cheeks against his will. “As I do not love a woman, I wish to do neither.”
“Political marriages are seldom about love, my king, surely you are aware of that.” The way Lady Couressa squared her shoulders was reminiscent of a student preparing an oral report. “While it has been most common for every ruler to wed a member of the opposite sex, the motivation for such is not purely procreational. The women of Zarapheth, both noble and common, feel better represented by a female monarch, just as they feel more comfortable with female healers or female priests. A kingdom supported by both male and female monarchs symbolizes a balance of power, not just within our own kingdom, but to others as well. A female co-ruler could offer different viewpoints on matters of state as well as lend you support if ever you stand opposed to the council’s wishes.”
“And I suppose you feel you are the correct woman for such a position?” Niko asked, sipping his tea as he considered her arguments.
“I do, of course. I am quite happy to list the reasons why I believe myself fit for the throne, but if you wish to consider other women before making your decision, I would not protest.”
Niko nodded. “Tell me, then. If I were to appoint anyone as my queen, why should I pick you?”
“First, and I cannot stress this point enough, it was my idea.”
Niko couldn’t help but laugh at the smug way she said it. Lady Couressa smiled as well.
“As to what I can bring to the royal table, I am a daughter of the peerage, schooled in etiquette and nobility from birth, much as yourself, Majesty.” She inclined her head slightly. “In addition to my noble upbringing, I attended the Wolbridge Academy and graduated at the top of my class with certificates in both history and politics. I also sojourned with the Star-Sworn for two seasons, assisting the poor and ill in my home city, as well as the nearby towns and villages. While this isn’t enough to qualify me to speak for the peasantry, I feel it gives me a more grounded view than some of the other women you might consider. While I may not agree with all the ideals of the Order of the Great Canvas, I do believe it is the greatest system in place to help all peoples within the realm of Zarapheth.”
“I have heard you described as devout,” Niko interjected.
“By the standards of most nobles, yes, you could consider me as such,” Couressa allowed. “Most would not don simple linens and serve in sickhouses as I did, either. I have heard you described as a heretic, Your Majesty.”
Niko placed a hand over his chest in mock surprise. “My lady, had the realm not suddenly needed me to step up and rule, I would have made my vows to the Star-Scholars.”
“Yes, because their viewpoints are never heretical.” Couressa didn’t quite roll her eyes, but her tone conveyed the gesture. Niko very nearly chuckled. “On a more personal level, I am prepared to offer you children, outside of the bounds of marriage.”
Niko drew back, the sudden switch from playful banter to a discussion on sex making him feel wrongfooted. “That would be, um . . .”
“Expected of any woman you name as queen, I’m sure,” Couressa continued, blithely ignoring Niko’s discomfort. “But what I’m offering isn’t simply to bear the realm’s heir.” She lifted her eyes to meet Ammon’s. “I’d be willing to bear your child as well. After the succession is secured, of course.”
Niko’s hand tightened reflexively around Ammon’s, though he was able to keep his breath steady. The realm required Niko’s child, as the blood in his veins represented a four-hundred-year unbroken chain of rulers. Despite his squeamishness, he had always known he would have to sire an heir. But since falling in love with Ammon, all he’d thought about was meeting and raising Ammon’s own child. The fact that this woman was open about her offer very nearly had him agreeing on the spot.
“That’s a very generous offer,” Ammon said, covering Niko’s silence. “However, there always remains the question of conceiving.”
“Yes, I understand that can happen.” Couressa set her fingertips against her crystal teacup and turned it. “First, I will point out that both of my fathers have proven their fertility by siring eight children between them. And as many of my brothers and sisters have already started families of their own, I expect no issues regarding that matter. But, in the event that I am unable to produce an heir, my first request would be for a healer to examine both His Majesty and myself to verify which of us might be . . . inadequate. If the fault were to lie with me, I would, of course, step down. And, of course, prior to lying with the king, I would remain chaste for the requisite three months and swear to it before a liar’s brand.”
Niko looked away, willing the blush in his cheeks away. “I appreciate the time and effort you have taken to present all of this to me—to us—Lady Couressa. As you may understand, we will have to discuss your offer before—”
“A moment, I beg, Your Majesty.” Couressa held up a finger.
Niko found himself annoyed; this woman clearly held no compunctions about interrupting a king.
“I have told you what I can do for the realm and what I can do for you. Should you consider my offer, you should be aware there I have certain expectations as well.”
Niko nodded, almost relieved to find himself back in familiar territory. Negotiating contracts and political ambition was what he had been raised for. “Please go on, my lady.”
“First, you will need to acknowledge that I am no brood hen. If I am your queen, I will be queen. I will attend all council meetings and have an equal say in the governance of the realm. Yours is the only word that could outrank mine.” Couressa waited for Niko’s nod before continuing. “Next, in the event that you should pass through the Canvas, I would be named queen and sole ruler in your place. Not a regent until your children come of age, but a ruler in my own right until my Path ends.”
Niko frowned. “In such a circumstance, you must agree that my children remain the heirs to the throne, regardless over any others you might have after my passing.”
“I will agree to such a measure.” Couressa inclined her head graciously. “The power behind the throne rests upon the blood in your veins, Majesty. I would never willingly supplant it. But I expect to be your successor if the worst should occur. Not our children, your brother, or your lover.”
“I have no such ambition, Lady,” Ammon assured her softly. “But since we are speaking of such dark topics, please allow me to share one of my own conditions. If Niko’s Path were to end abruptly and you were to assume the throne, I would expect to retain my rights as a parent over our children.”
“An excellent point,” Niko agreed, still clasping Ammon’s hand. “If anything did happen to me, Ammon would remain as both parent and guardian over the children.”
“Of course. I would not expect anyone to step out of their children’s lives, especially after such a loss.” Couressa took a sip of tea, then dabbed at her lips with a handcloth. That was a stall tactic, and perhaps an indicator of nerves. Niko prepared himself for another unpleasant condition to this woman’s terms. “My final condition would be that the two of you not wed each other.”
Niko was on his feet so quickly he jostled the table, making the tea slosh in the crystal cups. “How dare you make such a demand! My life and my love are my own, they are not—”
“Your Majesty.” She said the words hard and clipped, like a teacher chastising a student. “It would be hard enough to keep the kingdom and its gossiping nobility from labeling any children I bear as ‘bastards’ owing to our unwed state. Especially as any children I bear for him”—she shot a look over at Ammon, who still sat calmly, his hands folded on the table—“would be immediately obvious as not your own get. If the two of you were to formally wed, it would destabilize our union and create obstacles that our children would one day have to overcome.
“Now, I have no objection to naming him as your prince consort, nor do I object to the both of you living as if wed. My only expectation for intimacy would be when we are attempting to conceive. Once the succession is assured, I expect I may take my own lovers. Discreetly, of course.”
Niko still stood over the table, once again put off at the mention of intimacy with someone who wasn’t his lover. Ammon reached out and took his hand, his green eyes soft and comforting. Niko allowed the gentle guidance to settle him back into his seat. Once settled, Ammon spoke to the woman who would be queen. “As Niko says, there is much to discuss regarding such a proposal. My lady, I thank you for inviting me into this discussion.”
“I would not think to leave you out of something so personal to the both of you,” Couressa replied. “I think it wise for you to discuss and consider my proposal, but may I make a suggestion before we go much further?”
Niko nearly squeaked at the word “further.” Instead, he coughed and asked, “And what is that, Lady?”
“While I do not expect any feelings of love between the two of us, all great partnerships must be founded in trust, respect, and perhaps, some common ground. I would like it if we could spend some time together to ensure that we like each other well enough before we make any definitive plans.” Couressa raised her shoulders in an elegant shrug. “I would like to be queen, but not at the risk of shackling myself to someone I dislike.”
“That is . . .” Niko found himself reconsidering his first opinion of Couressa as a court climber. “Very pragmatic, Lady. Were you thinking something along the lines of courtship?”
“Not in the traditional sense, no,” she cautioned. “I do not need any gifts or musicians or poetry. But I should like to talk to you about plans for the kingdom, especially with regards to the freed mages, as well as your misguided interest in the Star-Scholar sect.
Niko laughed. “Misguided? Lady, the Scholars’ research supports crop growth, medicine, and faster travel to better serve the realm. I would go so far as to say the Scholars take the greatest interest in the common folk.”
“Abstractly, perhaps,” Couressa allowed, chin raised obstinately. “But it is by the efforts of the Sworn that food is actively distributed, the sick and injured are treated, and the commoners are taught to read and write. The Scholars do not dirty their pretty white robes to help the common rabble.”
“I have seven points to counter that argument.”
“Please don’t waste my time by arguing in favor of Seeker Ramoran’s essay ‘Aid to a Dying Peasant.’”
“How is that not relevant?” Niko asked, reaching for the pot to pour himself another cup of tea.
Ammon selected a few cakes and leaned back, watching the pair argue. The lady had artfully engaged Niko in a debate that made him feel comfortable again, despite his reticence to discuss marriage and succession. Likely Niko understood that to be the case but went along with it as if he actually were considering her offer. The lady had set this stage well—better, even, than Niko could know.
Lady Couressa had approached Ammon weeks ago, requesting his assistance in getting the king to listen to her proposal. He had been resistant at first, but by the time she’d said her piece, he reluctantly found himself agreeing with everything she’d said. Niko would undeniably have to sire an heir—Ammon had known that from the beginning. And an heir with links to a strong noble house would give that child a strong support network when they began their rule. The child of a brood hen would face challenges from both the nobility and the council once they took the throne.
It wasn’t just Couressa’s argument that won Ammon over, though. The more she spoke, the more Ammon saw her as a fit match for Niko. She was logical to a fault, prepared well-researched counter-arguments, and possessed a wit and humor that Ammon found both appealing and clever. In the end, he’d decided that Niko at least needed to hear Couressa out, but he vowed to himself he’d do nothing to sway Niko either way once they finally sat down and met.
Curse Niko’s stubbornness for delaying this meeting as long as he had.
As he watched them now, debating the finer points of religion with both enthusiasm and humor, Ammon felt he’d made the right call. The rest, of course, was up to Niko.
As the argument finished, so did the tea and cakes. Niko formally asked if the Lady Couressa would dine at his table at the next feast. Rather than give a coy, demure response, Couressa accepted, but advised that he not expect a dance from her until they were better acquainted. Niko agreed. They all stood at about the same time, but neither Niko nor Ammon made a move to open the door for Couressa; after all, it wasn’t to be a courtship. Couressa smiled and nodded to each of them before rapping her knuckles on the table.
The servant just outside the door pushed it open while bowing deeply. Couressa curtsied, then took her leave.
“Thank you,” Niko told the servant. “We will be just a moment longer.”
“Very good, sire.” The servant pulled the door shut.
“What do you think?” Niko asked, letting his nerves show once they were alone.
Ammon swirled the dregs of his tea, reminding himself of his vow not to offer his opinion of Couressa either way. “She seemed very prepared.”
Niko chuckled. “I expected nothing less. She represents one of the oldest families of the realm and she is quite outspoken as a counselor.” He frowned. “That’s not really a point in her favor.”
“Do you want to refuse her offer?”
“Well . . .” Niko dragged his finger through a drop of spilled tea. “Her idea is excellent. A queen without marriage. But then . . .” He looked shyly up at Ammon.
Ammon tossed back the last of his tea and set his cup down gently. “Niko, from the beginning I have accepted that this would not be a traditional partnership. If the price of not being able to marry you is that I can still be by your side and raise children with you, then it’s a price I am willing to pay.”
“You say that, but I feel it makes what we are, what we have, somehow . . . less.” Niko’s eyes were downcast as he smeared the tea droplet across the table.
Ammon stepped up to him and set his hands on Niko’s shoulders. “Nothing with you is ever less.”
Niko smiled and leaned into Ammon’s chest, arms wrapping around him to hold him. “Sometimes I wish I could just run away with you and not worry about anything else.”
Ammon snorted. “You never would.”
“No, you’re right.” Niko stood on tiptoe for a kiss. “I love all of this as much as I hate it.”
“So, are you considering Lady Couressa’s proposal?”
“I am considering it,” Niko agreed. “I like the idea of not having to marry my queen. That way even if I must lie with her, I can still feel that I’m being true to you. Although, if she does carry a child for each of us, there could be some debate by the council over which one would be heir to the kingdom.”
“Niko,” Ammon said patiently. “You are sweet, but don’t be foolish. Any child of mine will be immediately discernible from the one carrying your blood.”
Niko sighed. “You’re right, of course.” He rapped his knuckled on the table. Just as before, the servant held the door open for them.
“But if parentage is something that could become an issue,” Ammon said, voice low as they exited the room. “The one you need to look out for is—”
A jovial voice echoed up the stone corridor, carrying a flattering, if unchivalrous comment along with it.
“Reshi!” Niko called in mild horror.
“Yeah,” Ammon said. “That one.”
“Which way did Lady Couressa go?” Niko asked the servant. He breathed a sigh of relief as the servant pointed in the opposite direction from which Reshi was now loping. “If he so much as breathes the same air as her, courtiers will start rumors as to whose child she’s carrying.”
“Niko, where’ve you been?” Reshi called, waving a cheerful greeting. “I couldn’t find you for lunch, so I ate your food.”
Niko laughed. He looped an arm through his brother’s and forcefully marched him back the way he had come. “I’ve already eaten. Tell me, Reshi, are you and Kestral planning another adventure soon?”
Ammon paced along behind them as they walked.
“I think we’re both a little tired from—”
“Splendid!” Niko exclaimed. “I have an errand in the south for the both of you.”
“The south?” Reshi whined. “That’ll take months.”
Niko patted his brother’s hand consolingly while Ammon hid a grin.