Mael left his father’s office, elated and nervous.
His father had granted permission, and with almost no fuss—and what little fuss there was, only what he would say no matter who Mael chose.
Now there was only the asking to do, and Mael was flooded with all the fears and anxieties and doubts he thought he had overcome. He should have known better.
They had only ever been friends. It would come out of nowhere. Winnoc would not want the additional burdens, after all the obligations and duties thrust on him by his family. He probably already had other aspirations—thought that patently absurd, since if he had them then he would have told Mael.
He was moving too fast, though—that certainly was not in doubt. But in his mind, he was not acting too fast, he had simply realized too slow. The lords and ladies, prince and princesses, all the men and women offered up to him had never appealed and Mael had believed it when people called him cold.
It was Winnoc who assured him he was just a stubborn idiot, and just waiting for the perfect person. Mael had conceded he must be right, but secretly wondered. He had danced with every person he was bid, flirted here and there, even bedded a few—but not a one of them ever captured him. He seemed doomed to rule as a very lonely king.
Except he never felt alone, because he always had Winnoc. Mael smiled faintly as he wandered the royal castle looking for the object of his thoughts, and was unsurprised to find him on the archery grounds. It was a gloomy day, overcast with rain threatening to pelt down at any moment. Exercises for the royal guard had ended hours ago, and all had retreated inside so as not to be caught outside when the sky finally tore asunder.
But Winnoc, as dark and handsome as the storm-soaked sky, had never seen rain as more than a challenge. He would practice until he had real reason to go inside—and that reason usually was Mael, and Mael alone. They had been boys together, fostered together at the castle of Winnoc’s Uncle, won their spurs together.
Mael could not imagine life without Winnoc, his faithful Duke and sworn knight, his best friend, his brother in ways that ran deeper than blood. There was very little they did apart. How was some stranger supposed to come in and fill a role that Winnoc had held for their entire lives?
Winnoc let fly another arrow, then lowered his longbow and finally turned to Mael. He smiled warmly—more warmly than anyone ever really saw from the stoic Duke, called the Prince’s Shadow. “Hail, Prince. What brings you so far afield to see me? You could have had me summoned.”
“My legs aren’t broken, and at least out here we have some measure of privacy,” Mael replied. “I came to tell you I made my choice for Consort.”
Surprise—and something that looked remarkably like bleakness—flashed across Winnoc’s face. “What? I did not know you even had anyone in mind, Mael! This is the first you’ve bothered to mention to me you’ve finally found someone! Since when did I fall out of your confidence? How do you eve know—” He abruptly turned away and resumed practice, letting fly one arrow after another, until the strain left him sweaty and panting, and no arrows remained at his side.
Though he was clearly still angry, his nigh-legendary calm had fallen over him. “So who is to be our future Consort, then, Mael? Who has won the heart of our cold prince?”
“You know him,” Mael said quietly, hand tightening around the ring he held. “I think he had my heart the day he pushed me in the pond, held me under the water, and would not let me up until I admitted I was a brat and promised to buy him a new toy ship.”
Winnoc’s scowl abruptly vanished, replaced by absolute shock. “What—” He closed his mouth with an audible click, then said cautiously, “Unless you have been sinking ships recently…”
“The only ship I ever sank was yours, idiot, and I still maintain you deserved it,” Mael said with a smile, and finally held out the engagement ring he had been carrying around for the past three days—ever since he saw Princess Avel flirt and play with Winnoc, and made him smile. The ferocity of his reaction, the anger that someone else dared to make Winnoc smile, had made him realize something he should have figured out a long time ago. “I know it’s a bit sudden—”
The sound Winnoc made then could only be termed a growl, as he reached out and yanked Mael close, and kissed him hard enough someone’s lip split. His, Mael realized when they drew apart. “Sudden?” Winnoc repeated. “Mael, you’re an idiot.”
“You could have said something,” Mael said.
Winnoc shrugged. “I did not want to ruin what we had, and you always seemed to be looking for something. If I had, I figured you would have seen it by now.” He plucked the ring from Mael’s hand and slid it onto the second finger of his right hand. “If you’d gone on dithering much longer, though, I admit I was going to drag you back to the pond for a fresh dunking. You’re still a brat, after all.”
“Well, then it’s best for the kingdom if you remain close by my side to administer the odd royal dunking. Accept your duty, your grace, and become my Consort.”