Chapter 1: Royal Requests
Wren considered the request of the noble before him. Lord Aethor almost always had reasonable requests and normally Wren had no problems passing those requests on to Isaac. Most of the time, Isaac granted those requests. But this request pushed the boundaries of what Wren was willing to even listen to.
Lord Aethor was from the conquered kingdom of Lenron and usually requested small favors like imports of semi-valuable goods that their kingdom didn’t produce. Now they were requesting a large import of steel in order to refit their militia with better weapons. It was a dangerous request. While it was good to have a strong militia in case Isaac needed their support in a war, a strong militia could also start a war with the Empire.
“Let me think about it,” Wren finally said. “If I decide it’s to the benefit of the Empire, I’ll ask the King.”
Lord Aethor looked disappointed but nodded. Wren’s word was final in terms of requesting favors. The first month after Wren had rejoined the court after the war with Fontain, he had remained on the dais with King Isaac, bored and longing to do something. Isaac had eventually given him permission to mingle with the court and Wren hadn’t ruined his good relations with them. Instead, he found that they were all eager to talk to him and request favors, knowing that he had the authority to pass their requests on to the king with more influence than if they asked the king themselves.
Wren quickly learned how to tell which requests deserved to be passed on and which he could safely ignore, and which nobles consistently asked for reasonable requests and which he should avoid. Now, six months later, he was a valued member of the court and had no known enemies. He hid his opinions and while he never flattered anyone, he did learn to favor influential members of the court in order to gain favor with everyone.
Lord Aethor, for example, represented most of the nobles from conquered kingdoms and tended to speak for all of them. Since he also asked for reasonable favors, it was easy to earn his high regard. Wren had carefully phrased his response so that Lord Aethor wouldn’t know if he would pass the request on or not, so it shouldn’t affect their relationship.
Wren was grateful when court was dismissed a few minutes later, since it meant Lord Aethor wouldn’t press for a more concrete answer or other lords from conquered kingdoms couldn’t give arguments in favor of Lord Aethor’s request. He returned to Isaac, who held his hand as the nobles left the room.
Usually after court, Isaac walked him to the stables and then kissed him lightly on the lips. Then Isaac left to finish up court affairs or do something important – Wren never figured out exactly what he did – and Wren went riding for a few hours. It had taken a long time before Wren felt comfortable riding again, but it was one of his favorite activities. At first the mere sight of the stables had sent him into a state of terror after his experience in Fontain, but he slowly overcame the memories of seeing the stablemaster there cut down in front of him. Then he had to adapt to riding again, since the memory was so tightly wound into his terrified escape from the castle, bruised from the guard’s rough treatment, enemies at his back as he desperately fled in an attempt to reach safety. To reach Isaac. Tye, the first prince, had been the one to find him but had taken him to Isaac the next day and he had slowly started reclaiming his life an confidence since then. Often one of the princes would go riding with him, sometimes a couple of them. He always appreciated their company, since he had very few chances outside of riding and breakfast to befriend them, but it did mean he couldn’t ride as fast or as far as he really wanted.
After riding, Isaac was usually finished and they retired to dinner. Sometimes, though, if he wasn’t finished, then Wren went to the library with the princes and read books on Guin until Isaac was done. The princes were hard at work trying to figure out when the goddess would come back to their world, and where she would appear. Isaac still hadn’t told them about Wren’s encounters with Guin where she had tried to kill him, so Wren had to watch what he said sometimes. He wasn’t sure why Isaac was keeping it secret, since the family seemed to keep very few secrets, but he wasn’t about to share if Isaac wasn’t. Isaac and Tye were also keeping what had happened to Wren in the dungeon of Fontain a secret from their brothers, and Wren was grateful. There were some things no one needed to know about, and that was one of them. He still woke in a panic sometimes, the memory of the guard’s hands on his body vividly imprinted in his mind, but Isaac was always there to soothe him.
Today, though, instead of walking to the stables with Wren, Isaac took him back to their rooms. Wren was puzzled, but allowed Isaac to lead him. He rarely questioned Isaac anymore. When he had first arrived, his reputation for disobedience had preceded him and Isaac had cut off his hair as a warning, since hair length was associated with rank in the Empire. It hadn’t done much, since Wren continued to be as headstrong as ever, but he had settled down in the months after Fontain. Before, he had spoken his mind and done what he wanted. The attack in Fontain had scarred him, though, and now he found it easier to hide what he was thinking and pretend to be something other than what he was. It made court easier, but Wren wondered if he had lost some essential part of himself. He obeyed Isaac now even when he disagreed, but Isaac had once said he enjoyed Wren’s spirit. Did Isaac miss having him question every decision? He had never commented on it. Once in Wren’s room, Isaac gestured to the bed where a new set of clothes was waiting. Just a few weeks ago, Wren had received a new wardrobe designed for summer, but this was brand new even though it also seemed designed for summer.
“Try it on,” Isaac urged.
Mystified, Wren undressed. Isaac enjoyed watching him, as usual, but Wren wasn’t putting on a show this time. He was too confused. The underclothes were a different style than Wren was used to, and the pants fit very snugly and gave him far better range of motion than he was used to. The shirt also fit snugly and had adjustable leather straps crisscrossing his chest. Once he was dressed, Isaac adjusted the leather straps and stood back to admire him.
“You look beautiful, my sweet,” he said. “Do you know what you’re dressed for?”
Wren looked down at his clothes, puzzled again. Isaac seemed to think these clothes were designed for something specific, but he had no idea what. He had such range of motion, perhaps they were for riding. That had to be it, but he didn’t know why Isaac had waited this long to give him this outfit if that were the case.
“Riding?” he asked. He was very unsure of his answer and he knew it showed in his voice.
Isaac laughed and gestured for him to turn around. Isaac took his hair and brushed it into a tight ponytail. His hair was growing at a very fast rate, though Isaac informed him that since he had seen Guin, it was common for his hair to grow this quickly. It now came well past his shoulders.
After tying the tight ponytail, Isaac braided his hair and then tied the bottom firmly. It felt odd to have his hair out of the way so securely. He and the princes normally wore their hair in loose ponytails, as did Isaac and most of the court. He wondered why Isaac had done his hair like this and if it was related to his outfit.
“Why am I dressed like this?” Wren asked.
“This is a fighting outfit, my sweet,” Isaac said. “For training.”
Wren’s heart skipped a beat and he pulled away from Isaac. Fighting. Fontain. Blood. Ashe being beheaded. Hilde and Forre’s blood mingling on the floor. The guards taking him one after another. The memories had almost faded, but certain things still triggered them and this was one. He backed up until his back hit the wall. He was breathing heavily and he crouched, back still against the wall.
Isaac knelt so he was face to face with Wren. He reached out and cradled Wren’s face.
“You need to learn how to fight, Wren. I need to know that you can protect yourself in case anything happens to you. I will not leave you helpless again.”
“I’ll always be with you,” Wren said. “I’ll never be in danger again.”
“We cannot always be together,” Isaac said. “You must learn to fight. Do you know anything about fighting?”
“No,” Wren admitted. “I wasn’t allowed. Ever since I was a child. I wasn’t allowed to play with the other children in case they hurt me.”
Isaac looked grim. “This will be hard for you, then, but you must do it. Every year, the princes go on a retreat to keep their fighting skills sharp. You will accompany them.”
“I’ll be leaving you?” Wren asked, unable to keep the fear from his voice.
“Yes,” Isaac said. “But you will be with all of the princes. You will be completely safe. Now let’s go meet them. You leave soon and we have a few things to talk about before you leave.”
Wren was speechless. Isaac was sending him away. Didn’t Isaac remember what had happened last time Isaac had sent him away? Isaac took his hand and led him to the courtyard. All nine of the princes waited for them in a half circle, and all of them were in outfits similar to Wren’s. They looked gorgeous, but Wren couldn’t focus on that. Isaac was about to leave him.
Isaac turned to Wren and caressed his cheek.
“All of the princes will look out for you, but they’re also training while you’re there. You need to pick one who will focus on training you. Anyone except Tye.”
Wren knew why Isaac was excluding Tye. Although Tye seemed to have put aside his romantic interest now that Wren was the concubine, being alone together might spark it again. Wren was getting angry that Isaac was sending him away and he glared at Isaac.
“What if I want Tye?”
But rather than act offended or hurt, Isaac just smiled. Wren noticed Tye smiling as well, though some of the other princes looked surprised that he was questioning the king.
“You don’t want him,” Isaac said. “Tye and I were specially trained and we share the same philosophy of teaching fighting. It’s why I’m not teaching you myself. There is no room for mistakes with us. The other princes went through a more forgiving training that is more suitable for you.”
Wren looked at Tye, then at Isaac. If that were true, then he didn’t want Tye and he was a little grateful Isaac wasn’t teaching him. He would hate to disappoint Isaac. He looked at the other princes. He was now friendly with all of them, but he still knew Dashel the best.
“Dashel,” he said, and Isaac nodded his head and gestured for Dashel to step closer to them.
Dashel bowed slightly to the king, and smiled reassuringly to Wren, who had butterflies in his belly. He was still scared of leaving Isaac even while he was angry at Isaac, and he was too terrified of learning to fight to even start thinking about it.
“You have quite the task, prince,” Isaac said. “Wren has absolutely no experience. Not even the basics. Be very careful with him.”
“Of course, my Lord,” Dashel said.
Dashel gestured for Wren to come with him and Wren panicked. Were they leaving already? He hadn’t even had a chance to say goodbye to Isaac. He turned to Isaac but Isaac pushed him gently away.
“Wait,” Wren said, but Isaac continued to push him into Dashel.
“It’s better this way, my sweet,” Isaac said, then he let go of Wren entirely and Dashel grabbed him, dragging him back to the line of princes.
The princes surrounded him as Isaac walked out of sight. Wren was completely panicked now and tried to push through the princes to get to Isaac. Dashel kept a firm grip on him and forced him into a carriage just outside the gates. Dashel sat next to him in order to keep him inside and to Wren’s surprise, Tye got in with them.
Seeing that they wouldn’t let him leave, Wren began thinking of other ways to escape. Dashel had his hand on Wren’s thigh and Tye was watching him carefully. Both seemed extremely alert to any attempt on his part, but their attention would eventually waver. He shoved Dashel’s hand away and tucked his legs up on the seat, wrapping his arms around his knees and staring out the window. He would pretend to be obedient until they were least expecting it.
“Do you always pout like this when you don’t get your way, Wren?” Tye asked.
Wren hugged his legs tighter. He wouldn’t get drawn into a conversation because then he might miss his opportunity. Tye smiled at him, as if he knew exactly what Wren was doing.
“You’re beautiful when you pout, you know,” Tye said. “And it won’t change anything. We’re not going to give you any chances to escape so you might as well stop trying. You may obey the king most of the time now, but we all know you’re still as rebellious as when you first arrived.”
Wren turned from the window to glare at him. Not only was Tye amused, Dashel was as well. He included Dashel in his glare.
“I don’t see why I should do anything you say,” Wren said, his anger at Isaac and the princes bubbling up. “You have no right to tell me what to do.”
“Surely you haven’t forgotten what happened to you, Wren,” Tye said. Wren flinched but Tye continued in an even voice. “Don’t you think it would have been better if you could have fought?”
Wren was furious that Tye had brought that up and he didn’t bother to hide his anger in his response.
“There were five of them and they killed the three Imperial Guards outside my room. I assume those guards knew how to fight. What could I have done that they couldn’t?”
Tye and Dashel looked a little surprised by his outburst. Wren never talked about his experience in Fontain with anyone other than Isaac and even then, he rarely gave details like this. In fact, he would never give this detail to Isaac because it would put a number to the guards who had raped him. He realized too late that it would also give Tye that number but he had already said it. He would have to watch himself and not get baited by Tye again. Wren shivered and wrapped his arms tighter around his knees, resting his head against his knees so that only his eyes peered out.
Dashel reached out to stroke his back. Wren accepted the gesture. He couldn’t meet Tye’s gaze now that Tye knew exactly how many men had abused him. It had been all right before, because there hadn’t been a concrete number and he knew that both Tye and Isaac assumed the number was lower than it was. From some of their statements, he suspected that they thought it might even just be one person. Now that Tye had proof of the contrary, Wren was terrified he would tell Isaac and Isaac wouldn’t want him anymore, even though Isaac had assured him in no uncertain terms that nothing could stand between their love.
“Does Isaac know?” Tye asked gently.
“No,” Wren replied, voice muffled by his knees. “I don’t want him to know.”
“Then I won’t tell him,” Tye said, reaching out to touch Wren’s hand.
For some reason, Tye’s touch didn’t trigger any memories and he was able to accept the kind gesture and hold Tye’s hand tightly. He had thought that Tye, who was so closely wound with those memories, would bring back memories now that Wren had accidentally stumbled on them. But Tye’s touch was soothing, not upsetting, and between Dashel stroking his back and Tye holding his hand, he began to regain his strength until he lifted his head again and looked out the window. The gentle touches continued and he was glad.
After about an hour of looking out the window as the caresses grew fewer and fewer until they stopped altogether, Wren looked back at Tye. He seemed relaxed, though he was still keeping a close watch on Wren. Dashel was the same: looking out the window but tense as if expecting something from Wren.
“Why are you here, Tye?” Wren asked. “Isaac didn’t seem to want you near me.”
“He doesn’t want me in charge of your training, and I agree with him,” Tye said. “But he does want me near you in case you try anything. I’m the most capable prince to stop you from doing anything foolish, and to make sure you obey us.”
Wren knew he was pouting again but couldn’t help it. So Isaac expected Tye to keep him in line? Well, he wasn’t so easily kept. He might be stuck in this carriage but once they were out, he was going to make it impossible for them to keep him contained. He returned his gaze to the window. After only another hour, they came to a stop. Wren was a little surprised. He had expected a longer journey, though of course he had no idea how far they were going. It wasn’t quite late enough for them to be stopping for the night, so they must have reached their destination. He peered out the small window of the carriage but could only see a few torches flickering against the darkness. Where were they?