Sebastian leaned back in the chair and threw his legs upon the corner the solid oak desk. Gray eyes watched his friend pace and fidget, worrying the hem of his jacket and the collar of his shirt. “And this is why I’m glad I’m not you.”
“How kind.” The answering voice was dry and devoid of any and all humor.
A faint smile pulled the corners of his lips up. “I know.”
His friend, best friend, the Crowned Prince Gilleon Marlus Harthian of the Emerald Highlands, paused before the full length mirror in the room, feet spread apart. He leaned forward, fingers fumbling with the mound of fabric and the emerald stick pin at his neck. “Damn collar. I can’t get it to sit right.”
“Relax. It’s not like anything important is going to be happening in the next hour.”
As the old saying went, if looks could kill, Sebastian was certain that he would be beyond the realm of the dead right now.
“If you wanted someone to whisper sweet platitudes and fret with you, you should have asked someone else like Harry to be here.”
The roles reversed as Gilleon smirked at him in the mirror’s reflection. “I know. It was highly encouraged in fact.”
“Of that, I have little doubt. I can hear your mother now. Why don’t you pick Harry to be your Oath Keeper? He’s a good, stable boy.”
“Would she have been wrong?”
Sebastian flashed a lupine smile, eyes glinting. “Of course not. If there is one thing your gentle mother is, it is that she’s always right.” He steepled his fingers before his face, “Honestly though, I am glad I’m not you.”
Gilleon gave up on his collar, pulling instead on the bottom his jacket. “With privilege comes responsibility.” The words sounded old, route, long since drilled by countless mentors, headmasters, and tutors. At what point did words lose their meaning? When did they become nothing more than pointless touchstones, used not for their message or wisdom, but to steel the nerve as chants did a warrior before battle?
“And apparently the lack of ability to chose one’s own wife.”
“The Tests will ensure a proper match is made. I have been Tested and I have no doubt that Freesia Tested all the others thoroughly as well.”
Sebastian noted fingers dance along the jacket, smoothing non-existent wrinkles. “Are you saying that convince me or yourself?”
Gilleon’s answer came as a raised eyebrow and frown.
He had overstepped his bounds. If the reprimand bothered him, it never crossed the lines of his face. He sat up and pushed himself smoothly to his feet.
“Remember, you are the one who asked me to be here this day.” Sebastian made short work of the distance between him and a small serving table with wine and refreshments. He poured a glass and handed it to Gilleon. “I am but a minor noble in your father’s court.”
“Hardly minor. Your family stewards nearly a fifth of the land.” Gilleon took a long drink, nearly draining the cup, before handing it back.
“As exciting as that sounds,” Sebastian conceded, taking the glass to refill it again, “I’m still dismissed by practically everyone in court.” He poured a second glass for himself.
“That might change if you followed the rules every once in awhile.”
“But where’s the fun in that?”
The two friends smiled at each other over the rims of their drinks.
“What if I don’t like her?” Gilleon blurted.
“That afraid you’ll end up with the fair lady Tylinda?” Sebastian teased, “But everyone has been Tested, correct? And Testing is supposed to ensure a most noble, worthy, and blessed matching. Besides, it’s a beautiful day. Surely that in itself must be a good omen. Or do you not trust our wise King’s Sage?”
Gilleon’s face drained to a blank mask. He let the silence speak the words he could not.
Sebastian nodded in sympathetic understanding. To be so trapped by one’s station and at the mercy of other’s choices was nigh intolerable. A gilded cage, no matter how comfortable, was still a cage.
He gripped his friend’s shoulder, gray eyes serious, “For all his faults, the Sage knows people. He also knows that his life and position depends upon our nation’s prosperity and your future happiness. I may have no faith in his Tests and riddles and rhythms, but I do have faith in his self-interest to keep his comfy life. I think it’s safe to say you’ll be safe from the, how should we say, tender cares of Tylinda.”
A rare true smile graced Gilleon’s face, lighting his features. “And this is why you are here and not Harry.” He gripped Sebastian’s forearms tightly, almost to the point of bruising. He clung like a man desperate not to drown.
Perhaps he was.
Sebastian barked out a short laugh. He may indeed be nothing more than a minor lord in the court, and one of disrepute, but he and he alone held the keys to Gilleon’s friendship and trust. Would they have allowed him to be the whipping boy all those years ago if they had known the bond of friendship that would emerge?
Sebastian doubted it. The fourth son in his family, he had been meant to be a throwaway child; one son to inherent, one to war, one to scholar. That was all that was needed in a lord’s home. So what was left to a lad of birth too noble for less but too low to be more?
Whipping boy to the prince was the suitable answer.
“It will be okay, Gilleon.”
Gilleon’s eyebrows furrowed. “What did you do?”
Sebastian brought a finger to his lips.
He was saved from having to answer by the steward’s arrival. The Ceremony of Handfasting was about to start. It was time for Gilleon to meet his future queen.
The ceremony was long and vapid just like every ceremony that had ever been before it and every one that would ever come after it. Freesia, the King’s Sage, droned on and on about the wisdom of the gods, purposes of the Tests, and how glorious was the prepared match for the kingdom and the Crowned Prince. Dull, dull, dull.
The most interesting part of the whole thing was watching Gilleon as he tried, as unobtrusively as possible, to determine Sebastian’s secret. Every time, he merely redirected his prince back to the event, giving him nothing more than a smile. That at least was amusing.
Hours later, the pinnacle of the Ceremony had come. It was time to announce the Crowned Princess to be. All the Ladies that been Tested began to preen, clasp hands, smooth gowns, and let forth sighs enough to be audible in the large hall. Every one certain that she would be the one selected. They eyed Gilleon like a rancher eyed his cattle. It disgusted Sebastian.
Freesia picked up an ornate scroll and held it aloft. Upon that scroll was the name of the chosen lady. All attention was dutifully focused upon it. A mouse scurrying at the far end of the hall would have been heard it was that quiet. No one wanted to miss the next words spoken. The future and fate of the kingdom rested upon those words.
Sebastian reached forward and discreetly grasped Gilleon’s elbow. Tenison was so high, his arm nearly trembled with it.
“The gods have guided and the Tests have confirmed,” Freesia intoned, “she who will be Crowned Prince Gilleon’s wife and our next Crowned Princess is known as…Lady -” This close Sebastian had a front row seat to the confusion that swept across the King’s Sage’s face and the falter in his voice. “Lady Analyn.”
To a one, the whole hall erupted in confused mummers. The Princess’ least Handmaiden raised her head in shock upon hearing her name. Gilleon’s eyes locked with hers.
She had never been Tested.
Sebastian leaned forward. “I told you not the worry.”
Slowly, Gilleon turned to look at him.
He grinned at his best friend. “Sometimes you just don’t need some stuffy Test to know a good and proper match. I have no faith in the King’s Sage to realize that. But the Prince’s Sage…Now that’s someone I’d trust.”
“Sebastian,” Gilleon hissed.
“You’re welcome. Now go and meet your bride. She’s waiting.” With a gentle push, Sebastian encouraged Gilleon onward towards the only woman he’d ever taken a fancy and a liking to.
Gilleon would no doubt chew him out later for messing with the Tests, the Ceremony, and practically the whole future of the kingdom. But that was fine by him. As long as his prince was happy and his needs were met, that was all that mattered. Seeing the pure joy on Gilleon’s face as he clasped hands with his lady made everything he had risked to change that damned scroll worth it.
Anything for his prince. Anything at all.