In the treetop,
When the wind blows
The cradle will rock;
When the bough breaks
The cradle will fall,
And down will come baby,
Cradle and all.
Your cradle is green,
Father's a King
And Mother's a queen.
Sister's a Lady
And wears a gold ring,
Brother's a drummer
And plays for the king.
"His Imperial Majesty, the King of Laidir!"
Ruari concentrated on keeping the beat of his drum steady, the pace even, not even daring to sneak a glance as the King of Laidir and his entourage swept by. God forbid he make a mistake now, with the entire Cadhain royal court desperate to make a favorable impression upon Laidir's King. This was his sister's biggest chance, and there was no way that Ruari was going to screw it up for her.
Both his drum and the accompanying trumpets ceased as the visiting party reached the thrones, the King of Laidir exchanging courteous nods with Niall, the King of Cadhain and Ruari's own father. Beside him, Queen Aileen blushed and fluttered at something the Laidir King had said, the very picture of ladylike. A moment later she did her best to direct the King of Laidir to where Brigid stood, and Ruari held his breath.
He thought Brigid was pretty, but that was from the point of view of a doting younger brother. A few comments dropped by the servants seemed to indicate that his view was shared, but if the King of Laidir didn't agree...
But no, Brigid was smiling and blushing as the King of Laidir kissed her hand courteously, allowing him to draw her away to better speak in less obviously public surroundings. Ruari released the breath he'd been holding and slipped out of the throne room, wondering how much his sister would be upset with him for spying.
Not too upset, he thought. Brigid had always been nothing but sweet and caring of her younger half-brother ever since he'd come to live at the palace when he'd been but four years old. She'd been six and hadn't understood what the fuss had been over this boy who was her brother but wasn't. Even after they'd both been made to understand the difference between a wife and a mistress, Brigid hadn't cared. She just accepted.
Ruari prayed that her sweetness and charm would work on the Laidir King as well. It was her greatest chance to get away from Cadhain and the infant Prince Heir Cearul, as well as Cearul's mother, the Queen Aileen.
In his darker moments, Ruari envied the infant Cearul. His birth had been celebrated. Legitimate. Not like Ruari's own. King Niall had never married Deirdre, Ruari's mother. She'd been only a simple seamstress and not fit to be anything more than a mistress to a King, though the fact that Niall kept Ruari as close to him as he did made Ruari think that he must have at least cared for her, to defy his ministers by taking in her son.
Ruari didn't really remember her anymore. He'd been four when she'd died. All he really remembered was a fuzzy recollection of long auburn hair and vivid blue eyes. The same eyes he saw every morning in the mirror. He liked his eyes, though they set him apart from his father and sister. Brigid and Niall shared the same pale green eyes, though their hair differed. Brigid's was long, wavy, and brown, like King Niall's first wife, Queen Fianna. The new Prince Heir took after his own mother with hair of spun gold. It was only Ruari who'd picked up their father's deep red curls.
Sometimes it made him laugh, that it was the illegitimate child who actually looked like his father. Some sort of divine joke, perhaps. Only it wasn't really funny anymore. If his mother hadn't been common, if she'd been wife and not mistress, then he'd be the Prince Heir of Cadhain, not the infant Cearul.
"Enough of that, Ruari," he growled beneath his breath, turning a corner and catching a glimpse of his sister and her suitor as they stepped into the red sitting room. Perfect. He knew of at least three different ways to spy on what was happening in that room.
Letting himself into an adjacent suite, Ruari swiftly locked the door and was halfway across before realizing that he wasn't alone.
There was a man at his spyhole, dressed in the finery of the King of Laidir's entourage. Taller than Ruari, or he would be if he was standing straight, and well-built. Not to mention the sword at his side. A knight?
"Who are you and what are you doing?" Ruari demanded, trying to look as impressive as he could while still carrying the drum that marked him for what he was.
The dark-haired man started and jerked back, eyes wide as they met Ruari's, then slowly they eased into a thoughtful look as they took him in. Ruari promptly cursed his fair skin as a flush spread across his cheeks, no doubt making his infernal freckles stand out all the more.
"I could ask the same of you," the stranger drawled, his voice deep and rich as the imported chocolate Ruari's stepmother was so fond of. "I can't think of a single reason for a drummer boy to be in this room unless..." He smiled. "You wouldn't by any chance, be intending upon spying on a certain courtship, would you?"
Ruari paled, hoping his expression didn't give him away as he cleared his throat carefully. "I have no idea what you're inferring, sir. I was merely looking to fetch something that may have been left behind in this room, but as I can see it is not here, I should be going..."
He hadn't managed to do more than turn around and grasp the door handle before a firm hand grasped his shoulder and spun him back around, making him drop his drum as he collided with a very firm, very solid, very warm chest. He yelped even as his cheeks heated.
The stranger cursed mildly and released him, bending down to pick up Ruari's drum and inspect it for damage. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to do that." He offered it rather carefully to Ruari, who stared.
"You... what?" Automatically he accepted the instrument, tucking it under his arm where it would be safer.
Smiling faintly, the man took a step back and bowed formally. "My name is Kian. I am a Knight of Laidir as well as personal manservant to his Majesty," he stated nonchalantly. "So, can I assume you're also here to witness the progress between my King and your Princess?"
"She's not a princess," Ruari corrected, then winced and clapped himself upside the head. "I mean," he went on at Kian's curious look, "In Cadhain one isn't a princess unless they're the daughter of the Queen or married to the Prince Heir. Otherwise they only carry the title of Lady."
Kian looked rather puzzled. "I was under the impression that the Prin- pardon, Lady Brigid was King Niall's only daughter."
"She is," Ruari confirmed, "And her mother was Lady Fianna, our former Queen until her death. Brigid was a princess until father remarried Queen Aileen."
Kian's brows shot up. "Father?" He looked Ruari over thoughtfully. "I can see the resemblance, though I was under the impression that Prince Heir Cearul was quite a bit younger..."
Ruari flushed and looked away, not wanting to meet this man's mocking grey eyes when the explanation came out. "My name is Ruari. And I'm no prince either."
"Your father is the king," Kian pressed.
"Yes, he is," Ruari granted with a sigh, "But my mother was neither noble nor wife, all right? That makes me only what the King sees fit to grant me; at the present, that is his royal drummer, which is a far sight better than a bastard son would normally be given. Is that enough information for you, or would you like to pry into the rest of my life?"
"Your country has strange customs," Kian observed, shaking his head slightly, disarraying the dark strands of his hair. "In Laidir, such sons would be given positions of honor, and daughters treated as the princesses they are."
Ruari shrugged, still not quite meeting Kian's eyes. "I don't mind, I really don't, but I do want to see Brigid happy..."
"Ah." Kian straightened and stalked back to the peep hole, peering through it for a moment before nodding in satisfaction and beckoning Ruari over. "Come," he murmured, softly so as to not be overheard so easily. "Watch with me, and we shall see how well your sister takes to my King."
Cautiously Ruari set his drum down on a chair and walked over, perching uneasily next to Kian and hesitating a moment before taking the opportunity to peer through the hole. Brigid and the foreign King were sitting just a touch closer than strict politeness dictated, both smiling and talking easily. It made him relax and smile himself, until he pulled back and found Kian far too close and watching him with an odd expression.
"What?" he demanded tensely.
Kian smiled somewhat self-deprecatingly. "Forgive me, but red hair is more than a bit unusual in my country, and even then I have never seen such a shade... it is fascinating."
Ruari felt his cheeks heating again. "It tends to run in the royal line. Queen Aileen was most upset when Cearul was born blond."
"Mmm, yes, I can see how such would be desirable," Kian murmured, reaching out to bury the fingers of one hand in Ruari's curls. Ruari yelped and jerked back, tumbling off the small divan he'd been on and falling to the floor.
Scrambling to his feet, ignoring the hand proffered, Ruari placed several feet between himself and the strange Knight. "What do you think you're doing?" he demanded.
Kian smiled easily and shrugged, muscles rippling beneath his snug tunic with the movement. "Being too forward, I think. Quin is always chiding me for that. I think he needs to learn to live a little."
"You're crazy," Ruari managed.
"Probably," Kian agreed, "But that's never hindered me before." He contemplated Ruari again for several long heartbeats, then grinned and resumed his place peering through the peep hole.
Ruari stood where he was for several long moments, uncertain, then slowly and cautiously slipped back onto the seat next to Kian. The man flashed him a quick grin, then returned his attention to the events of the next room, leaving Ruari free to contemplate him at his leisure.
He was brash, forward, confident to a fault, and apparently had some sort of interest in what happened between Brigid and the foreign king as well. He seemed polite enough, when he wasn't invading Ruari's personal space, and he'd appeared to have a genuine concern for the possible damage to Ruari's drum.
"All right," Ruari said finally, "We know why I'm here, but why are you here?"
Kian looked up in surprise, then flashed that grin again. "You could say I have a vested personal interest in how things turn out, but I think it would be more accurate to say that I just like spying on Quin."
Ruari frowned. "Quin?"
"Quinlan," Kian elaborated, gesturing toward the peep hole. "The gentleman in there flirting with your sister. Doing better than I'd expected, really. He's usually quite hopeless when it comes to the fairer sex."
"You're on a first-name basis with the King of Laidir," Ruari observed nonplussed.
There was that grin again. "We grew up together. Like brothers, really. Got into all the requisite fights and all. I won, of course."
Ruari rolled his eyes. "Of course." He eyed Kian for a moment, then decided to try his luck and push the taller man out of the way. Kian let him, chuckling, and a hand fell upon his shoulder as he looked through the peep hole.
"So, has he fallen out of his chair yet?" Kian murmured, causing Ruari to draw back and stare at him. "What? It wouldn't be the first time."
"Do you always speak so ill of your King?" Ruari asked, trying not to let his disapproval seep into his voice. From the way Kian laughed, he was fairly certain he'd failed.
"Usually, yes," Kian said cheerfully, "Though he also usually deserves it. It's that whole brother dynamic again, you know. Have to pick on each other because nobody else will."
Ruari made a quiet sound of non-committal, resuming his watch through the peep hole again. He arched a brow at the sight that met his gaze, lifting his head to regard Kian again. The Knight blinked once, then started laughing.
"He fell, didn't he?" Kian crowed. "I knew he would. Ha. He owes me a pineapple cake now." The man looked incredibly smug even as Ruari stared at him in disbelief.
"Pineapple cake?" He wasn't sure he wanted to know the explanation.
"Quin's a really good cook," Kian provided helpfully. "But he won't give me any unless it's part of a bet, so I make him lose as many bets as possible." He positively beamed.
"I'm starting to feel sorry for your King," Ruari muttered, taking one last look through the peep hole at where Brigid was helping the Laidir King to his feet and standing much closer than strictly necessary. Though the King of Laidir didn't seem at all opposed. That was good, then.
Standing, Ruari managed a polite bow to Kian and had managed to swipe his drum into his arms and make it almost to the door before the hand fell upon his arm again. This time he didn't drop the drum as he turned to look up at the taller man. "What?"
Kian looked him over slowly again, fingers coming up to toy with one of Ruari's curls before his hands dropped back down at his sides. "Will I see you again?" he asked.
Ruari shrugged. "I live here, and I attend most of the formal court functions, so I imagine you will."
Soft grey eyes warmed, then before Ruari had time to react Kian was kneeling and kissing his hand exactly as the Laidir King had kissed Brigid's earlier. "I look forward to it," Kian murmured, rising again.
Flushing hotly, Ruari fumbled blindly for the lock, throwing it and yanking the door open before bolting out, heedless of who might see him in his desperate rush to get as far away from the Laidir Knight as possible, the skin on his hand seeming to burn where he could still feel the lingering imprint of where Kian's lips had been.
Laughter and happy voices floated out from the small walled garden, its occupants oblivious to anything else but themselves and their conversation. There were only the two of them, neither deemed important enough to be shadowed by guards, and so there were none to overhear the siblings.
Ruari had graciously allowed his sister to claim the bench to keep her skirts tidy and was sitting on the ground at her feet, his drum safe in his lap. She'd just finished relating to him her latest encounter with the Laidir King and with a flourish waved her hand under Ruari's nose. "And then he gave me this!"
At first glance it was only a simple golden ring, but upon closer inspection Ruari could see very tiny, intricate engravings upon the surface. He peered at it, just able to make out the exquisite figures twining around the band. "Wow... that must have taken forever to make..."
"That's what I said," Brigid agreed, laughing. "Every time I look at it I see something new, though Quin says that's just my imagination." She smiled beautifully, or so Ruari thought.
"Quin, hmm?" Ruari teased. "On a first name basis already, are you?"
Brigid flushed prettily. "I... that is... His Majesty... Oh, posh." She huffed and swatted Ruari's head. "If we are to be married, I can hardly keep calling him by his title, now can I?"
"Oh, I don't know," Ruari teased. "'Oh, your Majesty, please your Majesty' sounds perfectly- ow!" He rubbed his head where she'd smacked him again. "All right already. Just saying..."
"You are downright devious, Ruari," Brigid scolded, though she was still smiling. And blushing. "Behave yourself."
"Where is the fun in that?" Ruari quipped, winking. "Though in all seriousness, Brigid, he seems like a nice enough man, but if he ever doesn't treat you right, you tell me and I'll come to your rescue."
Brigid laughed. "You're going to storm the Laidir royal castle all by yourself? I suppose you could whack them with your drum, but I think there are far better uses for it..."
Ruari chuckled. "Is that a not-so-subtle request, my Lady?"
She fluttered her eyelashes at him. "If I may be so bold."
"For you, Lady, always." Ruari smiled and settled himself better, drawing his drumsticks out from the pouch where he kept them and slipping the soft mufflers over their heads to mute the sound. "Piper of Caer Fairge?"
Brigid tittered softly. "You know me too well, Ruari."
"I should," Ruari returned laughingly, "I'm your brother." He set his sticks to the drum, hearing the beat in his head for a moment, then delicately tapping out the complex rhythm. It was a fast song, not for the unskilled, but Ruari had spent a long time making certain he could play his elder sister's favorite song without mistake. Only the court musicians were better.
After a measure, Brigid's sweet soprano added the words to the love song, blending effortlessly with the drum beats. Two verses later Ruari joined her, singing counterpoint. It was not as easy as many had believed, to sing and play at the same time. It required two different beats, two different ways of thinking, especially in the Piper of Caer Fairge. Ruari had been known to swear that the composer had to have been a twisted sadist of a man.
They'd reached the second chorus when a most unexpected sound joined them - that of a set of pipes as played by a true master of the craft. Ruari broke off his singing, almost missing a beat as he stared across the small garden at the man who had entered and was even now walking across the lawn toward them, pipes held to his lips as he played.
Kian. Looking as splendid as ever in his pristine uniform, walking steadily and coming to stand by Brigid's bench without missing a note. Where had a knight learned to play pipes? Not to mention with such obvious skill.
Ruari eyed him doubtfully for several moments before adding his voice back into the mix, finishing off the song two verses later. When it was complete and the last of the music faded away, Ruari fixed the unexpected intruder with a distrustful stare. "What are you doing here?" he demanded.
"Ruari!" Brigid exclaimed, swatting him. "Manners."
Kian laughed, low and musical. "I beg your pardon, my lady, for interrupting your duet, but I could not help myself." His grey eyes flashed a grin at Ruari before returning to Brigid, Kian going down on one knee politely. "I heard the lovely music and was drawn to it, never realizing that I would in doing so also discover the object of my day's search." He smirked. "I think your brother has been avoiding me."
Scowling, Ruari put his drumsticks away and tried not to cross his arms like a petulant child. "I was doing a good job of it until today," he stated flatly.
Brigid blinked from one to the other, finally settling on Ruari. "You didn't tell me you'd met one of Quin's entourage, Ruari."
"I was trying to forget?" Ruari offered, trying not to sulk at the way Kian laughed again.
"Trying? I shall be pleased then that you did not succeed," Kian crowed, grey eyes sparkling. "As for myself," he continued, rising and bowing to Brigid, "I am Kian. Quite pleased to make your acquaintance, my Lady."
Brigid's soft green eyes widened. "Kian? Oh! Quin speaks often of you. I had not realized you were here..."
"Oh, I wouldn't miss this for the world," Kian laughed. "Do tell me, for he won't; how many times has he spilled his drink on his jacket?"
A laughing green gaze met Kian's own steadily. "Now then, good sir, that would be cheating. If you are to have such knowledge, it will not be from my mouth," Brigid chided.
Kian smirked, though he also appeared faintly pleased. "Well spoken, my Lady. I will admit my hopes were not too high for this venture, but it seems that things are going far better than anticipated." His gaze flicked to Ruari again, punctuated by a grin, then he looked back to Brigid and bowed. "If I might ask a boon of you, my Lady?"
Brigid blinked in surprise. "What is it?" she asked.
An odd feeling of unease passed through Ruari's stomach as those grey eyes glanced his way again, then Kian was speaking and he could swear he felt his entire world tip sideways.
"One normally asks such a thing of a parent, but I believe in this case it is your respect I must win." Kian smiled. "I would beg permission to court your brother, my Lady."
Ruari gaped even as Brigid's mouth fell open a moment before she shut it quickly, laughter sparkling in her soft green eyes. "Oh... oh my..." She brought one hand up swiftly to cover her mouth, though the laughter she hid was obvious from the way her shoulders shook. "Have you thought to ask his permission for this venture, good sir?" she asked.
White teeth flashed as Kian grinned. "I'm working on that part." He ducked just in time to avoid the drumstick lobbed at his head, twisting to wink at Ruari. "Honorable, devoted, and feisty, not to mention musically skilled. I could not have crafted one more perfect had I tried." His hand snapped out, plunging into Ruari's curls and threading through them in an intimate caress before withdrawing - brushing against Ruari's cheek in the process. "Though I will be gentleman enough to admit that it was the hair that first piqued my interest."
"You will keep your hands to yourself," Ruari snapped, stifling the impulse to chuck the other drumstick at him as a hot flush spread across his cheeks. Not that it would do any good if he did. The Knight had already demonstrated his speed in avoiding such projectiles.
Kian flashed a patient smile at Brigid. "As I said, working on that part. I figure by the time Quin gets over his butterflies enough to propose, I should have your brother worked around to my views."
Brigid blinked at him, then at Ruari, before bursting into helpless giggles. "I.. oh... oh!" She wrapped her arms across her stomach, leaning forward slightly as she struggled to control her mirth. For a moment she almost seemed to have gotten it, then she made the mistake of looking at Ruari's face and promptly fell helplessly to her laughter again.
"It's not funny," Ruari muttered, punching the insufferable Kian in the arm with one hand, more than a little surprised when the man didn't bother to dodge it. A moment later he had the reason, as Kian caught his wrist and yanked, spilling Ruari into his lap with a yelp.
"I'm not that bad of a catch, you know," Kian announced, carefully sweeping both drum and pipes out of the way of Ruari's fists. "There are many who would gladly leap at the chance to curry the favor of the man who has the King's ear." He winced slightly as one of Ruari's fists connected with his chest, but otherwise made no move to stop him.
"Let go of me!" Ruari snapped, finally managing to escape and scrambling back out of reach of any further antics. "You... you..." He scowled darkly, crossing his arms over his chest. "I don't know what game you're playing at, but I don't want any of that. If power and the King's ear is all that's important to you, then take yourself elsewhere and leave me and my sister in peace."
Brigid bit her lip, rising from the bench to place one hand on Ruari's arm. She looked back to Kian, somewhat uncertain. "I... I must agree with my brother, sir. If there is courting to be done, it should not be for money or power, no matter what my father or others of the court might think. Believe me when I say that if I had not found your King to be kind and courteous and delightful to be around, there is no way I would have accepted his suit."
Ruari winced. This was a fine time for Brigid to decide to tell someone off, even if she had managed to be polite about it. He hoped she hadn't ruined her chances with the King by telling off Kian. His eyes darted to the man in question with trepidation, confused at what he saw there.
Somehow, Kian looked... different. It was hard to judge the man when he'd had so little contact with him, but there was definitely something that had changed. Some slight shifting in the way he held himself, an odd light in his cool grey eyes, an indefinable quality that had until this point been suppressed. He was, however, still smiling.
"Yes," Kian murmured, "You will do just fine. Gentle enough to deal with his insecurities, yet there is fire in you still. More than we dared to hope..." He took a step back, bowing low from the waist like a courtier. "My apologies to you both. I had to know, even if my methods were not the kindest." As he straightened, his gaze flicked to Ruari and a faint apologetic cast came over his handsome features. "If my games have ruined my chances, then for that I truly am sorry, for my interest in you is genuine."
Ruari's brow creased in puzzlement and more than a bit of anger. "What game are you playing at, Kian? You're testing us? Why?"
"I will not see Quinlan or myself in the hands of those who would use us," Kian replied mildly, that odd quality still present in his words and bearing. "It is a hard thing, for those in our positions to find someone who will look at us as men and not for the power we wield. I was only hoping to find someone for Quin here..." His lips quirked into a half smile. "I was not expecting to find someone so to my own tastes as well."
Glaring, though without any heat, Ruari carefully shrugged off Brigid's hand and moved a pace closer to Kian, staring up defiantly at the man. "So what do you want of us then?" he demanded.
"Of your sister, only that she cherish and love my br- Quin as he deserves. Nothing more. But you?" Before he had time to do more than yelp, Kian's arms were around him, holding him flush against the Knight's muscular body. "The things I want of you are so many," Kian murmured lowly, "And not all of them are fit for polite company."
"For someone who's so obsessed with Brigid's and my behaviour, you're awfully rude yourself," Ruari grumbled, trying and failing to free himself.
Kian smiled and loosened his grip, though he didn't let Ruari go entirely. "I'm afraid I am entirely too used to getting my way. Tell me then, beautiful flame, what is the proper way to go about courting you?"
"You can start by letting me go and keeping your hands to yourself like a proper Knight," Ruari snapped, surprised when Kian actually released him.
"So, restrain my touching, then." Kian nodded. "It will be a terrible sacrifice, but I believe I can do that. What else?"
"Um..." Ruari looked around, his gaze falling on his sister who was doing her best to look completely innocent and not giggle, though she wasn't faring so well. "Just... um..." He exhaled in frustration. "I don't know. Nobody's ever wanted to court me before."
Kian blinked in surprise. "No one? I find that hard to believe, my little drummer. Not with that hair and those eyes..."
Ruari shrugged. "The bastard son of a King isn't worth much."
Kian's expression tightened, shuttered somehow. "It is in Laidir," he said tersely. "You should come with us when we return home. I will see to it you get the respect you deserve."
"As what, your playtoy?" Ruari snapped, trying to quash the momentary hope that had arisen in him. He was nothing. Had always been nothing. Kian had no right to offer him something he'd given up on years ago.
"No," Kian said regally, that odd and indefinable quality rising to the surface again. "As my consort."
Ruari blinked. "Your what?"
Kian scrubbed a hand through his hair in frustration. "Apparently that is something else that is unique to Laidir. I am beginning to wonder why I ever leave home."
Brigid was staring at him oddly and had opened her mouth to ask a question when another voice rang out across the garden. "Brigid? Are you here...?"
All three of them turned to face the new arrival, Brigid dropping into a graceful curtsey followed quickly by a sketchy bow from Ruari, though Kian just snorted and shot the dark haired man an exasperated glare. "Your timing could be better, Quin."
Brown eyes blinked at him curiously, then widened as they fixed upon Ruari. "Oh! He's the one you..." Quinlan winced. "Sorry, Kian."
Kian sighed quietly. "It's all right. I wasn't getting very far anyway."
Quinlan looked from Kian to Ruari and back again, then grimaced. "Can't you ever fall for someone who actually likes you?" He stepped around them to bow to Brigid and offer his arm, which the lady took graciously. "Of course, if you did, you wouldn't be you."
"Very funny," Kian muttered. "Go away, Quin. I'm doing a perfectly fine job of screwing up my own romance without your help."
"You..." They both blinked and looked to Brigid, who was looking back and forth between Knight and King with wide eyes. "You two are..."
Quinlan and Kian exchanged matching grins, Kian prompting cheerfully, "Yes...?"
Curious, Ruari actually looked at them for the first time, starting rather visibly. "Holy... you're brothers!"
Both brothers burst into laughter, shoulders shaking violently in their mirth. "That we are," Kian managed at last, struggling to get ahold of himself. "I told you brothers are more highly thought of in Laidir than they are in Cadhain." His grey eyes sparkled.
"But..." Ruari frowned slightly. "Well, I guess that explains why you're so overprotective of him..."
Kian snorted. "You, lovely one, have no room to speak." He looked rather pointedly at Brigid, who promptly laughed.
Ruari scowled and crossed his arms again rather than give in to the impulse to hit the man. "Hmph."
"He's right you know," Brigid teased gently. "For a little brother, you are amazingly protective."
"Somebody has to be," Ruari muttered fondly.
"All right Quin," Kian stated into the lull, "Take your Lady off somewhere you can trip over her dress or spill wine down her blouse and let me see what I can salvage from this mess I've made for myself."
Quinlan punched him, but led Brigid out of the garden anyway. "Good luck, Kian," he called over his shoulder as they left. "You'll probably need it."
Kian sighed quietly. "Probably," he agreed beneath his breath, turning to face Ruari again. "So," he asked with false cheer, "How much trouble am I in now?"
Ruari made a face. "I'm still deciding that." He looked over Kian thoughtfully, considering. The man wasn't bad looking by any means, quite the opposite really, and being in close proximity to him had had more of an effect upon Ruari than he cared to admit, but still. The man was pushy, had no concept of personal space, and was entirely too confident about getting his way. Of course, if he was the King's brother, that might explain some of the arrogance.
"While you are deciding," Kian asked with forced casualness, "Might I ask a favor?"
"What kind of favor?" Ruari asked warily.
Kian smiled and scooped up Ruari's drum and his own pipes from the grass. "Play with me?" he asked, holding out the drum.
Ruari looked from Kian to the drum and back, then slowly reached out and accepted the instrument. He had a brief moment of panic when he found only one drumstick in his pouch before remembering he'd thrown the other at Kian's head and retrieving it from the grass.
"What other songs do you know?" he asked, checking to make sure neither drum nor stick had gotten too damp by their time in the grass.
Kian smiled and shrugged. "Most of them. Quin would say I have a weakness for music."
"Weird hobby for a Knight," Ruari muttered, dropping down to the lawn and crossing his legs. "Okay, have any preferences then?"
Kian considered, then smirked ever so slightly. "Dream Lover."
Ruari snorted and rolled his eyes, but set the opening beat anyway. Right on time, Kian's pipes joined him, spiraling up and around his drum beats with a skill that even he couldn't find fault with. It was different to play for someone who wasn't his sister, but somehow oddly pleasant. Not that he'd tell Kian that - the man was insufferable enough as it was.
Still, pointless lyrics or no, he did eventually surrender to the feeling and give voice to the words. And he absolutely refused to acknowledge the feeling that passed through him at the gleam of real pleasure that sparked in Kian's eyes in response. He was just singing because it sounded better that way. It wasn't for Kian's benefit at all. It wasn't.
"So," Kian murmured, threading his fingers through Ruari's crimson curls, "Will you return with me to Laidir?"
They were in the guest suite assigned to Quinlan and his entourage, curiously empty at this time of evening, though that could very well be because all the rest of the guards were watching their King dance with Brigid at the festivities. Ruari hadn't felt like attending, so when Kian had offered, he'd accepted. With the provision that Kian keep his hands to himself.
Not that Kian was behaving very well, but Ruari had decided a good half hour ago that he didn't really mind all that much. It felt nice, and Kian hadn't tried to remove any clothing, so he felt he could tolerate a few touches here and there.
"You've asked that before," Ruari pointed out. "I still want to know what my role would be. I'm sure your brother has plenty of drummers."
"None with half your skill," Kian returned with a shrug, "But I think I would be too selfish to share you with the court anyway. I wish you to be my consort."
Ruari sat up a little, only to have Kian push him firmly back down and shift his hands from Ruari's hair to his shoulders, kneading skillfully. "Explain this consort thing to me, then," Ruari demanded, doing his best not to melt into a puddle across Kian's lap at the sensations those very finely skilled hands elicited.
"A consort is, mmm, how to explain to one who has not grown up with the concept..." Kian considered, his hands continuing their sweet torture across Ruari's shoulders, down his back, and up again. "We of Laidir marry for children. So that the family lines can be traced easily. But for those who have no wish for children, or are incapable of producing them, there are consorts. Persons one wishes to spend their life with, but for love rather than offspring."
"That's..." It was excruciatingly difficult to think clearly with Kian's hands doing what they were. "Different..."
Kian shrugged, and Ruari felt it more than saw it. "It isn't common, even amongst the nobility where it originated. But I have been somewhat enamoured of the concept ever since I first realized that I... ah..." A beat. "Would never be having children."
"Mmm..." Ruari twisted his head in an effort to see Kian without actually having to move from his sprawl across lap and divan. "Never?"
The faintest hint of a flush stained what he could see of Kian's cheeks as the Knight shook his head. "I don't... ah..." He grimaced. "I can't. The only thing touching a woman does to me is make me want to lose my supper."
Ruari struggled not to laugh, but it was a lost cause from the beginning. "Oh... don't touch my sister, then," he managed to get out. "I don't want you throwing up on her..."
"Very funny," Kian retorted, swatting Ruari across his butt and startling a yelp from the redhead. "I can deal with them as long as they're properly clothed. It's just when they start to lose a few layers that I have problems."
Twisting around and sitting up a bit, Ruari blinked to find himself almost nose to nose with the Knight. "Um." Up close, he could smell a faint cologne, overlaid with a musky smell that was Kian himself and that, combined with the sudden realization that he was still in Kian's lap made his trousers suddenly feel several sizes too small. "That is, ah..." He tried to subtly ease himself away, barely able to stifle a whimper when Kian's arms came up around his waist and held him in place. "Do-" He refused to acknowledge that that might have come out as a squeak, "Do I want to ask how you figured out you didn't like women then?"
"Quin," Kian explained with a shrug, dipping his head to nuzzle the soft fabric at Ruari's throat. "Decided to hire a courtesan for my birthday one year." His hands slid up the back of Ruari's tunic, caressing the bare skin beneath. "I'm not sure who was more embarrassed of the three of us."
"Oh..." Ruari managed, dismayed at the way his breathing sped up at the feel of Kian's warm breath caressing his throat. "That's... um... oh."
Kian chuckled, and the shifting of breath made Ruari shiver. "I got even later. Privilege of being a brother." One hand left off what it was doing to come up and deftly undo the buttons at Ruari's throat, going all the way down until there was bare skin from neck to navel. Kian fairly purred in pleasure, slipping Ruari's shirt off his shoulders even as he lowered his head to lick at the skin he'd revealed.
Biting back a gasp, Ruari managed to get his hands on Kian's shoulders enough to push the man just far enough back that lips, tongue, and breath were a safe distance away. "You said... you said you wouldn't touch..."
"I said I'd keep my hands to myself," Kian purred, sending shivers down Ruari's spine. "I never said anything about my mouth." He licked his lips, and it was all Ruari could manage not to do the same.
Before he quite realized, he'd let his arms go slack and Kian's mouth was upon him again, licking him, sucking, hot and wet and dizzying and then he yelped and jerked away as Kian's teeth found his nipple. "What - what - what..."
"Hmm?" Kian blinked at him slowly. "It usually feels good..." He cocked his head curiously to one side, considering. "Ruari, you have been with... or have you? Been with a man before?"
Ruari flushed and looked away, staring intently at the far wall. "I told you," he mumbled. "No one has any interest in a bastard child."
"But surely a courtesan..." Kian pressed.
"No." Ruari's flush deepened, bringing out all the hated freckles. "I took care of my own pleasure."
"Ah." Steady hands stroked his hair, toying with the abundant curls. "I will ask your permission, then. Would you allow me to be the one to show you the ways of pleasure?"
Ruari swallowed, fully intending upon telling him no, but he found he couldn't look into those pale grey eyes and speak the word. Instead, the only word he could manage was: "Kian..."
Arms tightened about his waist, those hypnotic eyes were far too close, then there came a soft, tentative brush of lips against his own and it was all Ruari could do not to whimper in expectation. A moment later there was a moist heat and Kian's arms slid up to his shoulders, one hand twining in his hair again as their lips met and meshed. It felt like nothing he'd ever experienced before in his life and he gasped softly.
Kian took the opportunity provided, his tongue slipping into Ruari's mouth, startling, but Ruari couldn't move away. Not with Kian's hands holding him securely in place. A moment later moving away was the last thing he wanted as that tongue moved skillfully, exploring him, savoring him, Kian's mouth swallowing his helpless moans as Ruari pressed unconsciously closer.
For a moment he thought he'd drown in Kian's kisses, and oddly enough he didn't care, but then Kian was backing away and they were both breathing heavily. They stared at one another, blue eyes and grey, for what seemed like an eternity. Then it was Ruari who made the first move, his arms coming up to encircle Kian's neck, drawing himself closer as he pressed the first hesitant, uncertain kiss to Kian's lips.
He wasn't sure if Kian was serious or not about this whole consort thing or if all he was really after was a conquest for the night, but for the moment it didn't matter. If Kian left, then at least he'd have one night to remember. If he was serious, if he really did want to take Ruari with him... then he'd deal with that in the morning.
Deft fingers stripped him of his shirt and vest even as Ruari did his best to do the same to Kian. There were far too many buttons on Knight uniforms, he decided sourly, though Kian kissed away the expression almost before it had time to truly form. Then his hands were on Ruari's, guiding, showing him the way to best remove that irksome jacket to get to the undertunic and the warm skin beneath.
Kian shuddered as Ruari's fingers brushed across the smooth planes of his stomach, the softest of sounds escaping his lips. Ruari worked his way slowly up, marveling at the power contained in the Knight's sleek body, fighting hard not to blush as his questing touch brushed across the nubs of Kian's nipples.
"Ruari," Kian's smooth voice murmured, then his lips were once again captive as Kian claimed them utterly, leaving him feeling like the world was spiraling out of control around him and Kian was the one thing he could cling to if he wanted to stay sane.
There were warm hands sliding down the back of his trousers, cupping his ass, kneading sensually and Ruari tried not to cry out into Kian's mouth. He realized he was straddling Kian's lap, though he couldn't remember how he got there, and that thought was pointless anyway as his shifting brought their cloth-covered groins into contact and the kiss was broken with a shaky cry.
His or Kian's, it didn't matter, for once again they found themselves staring at one another. Kian inspired thoughts in him that no one else had; he wanted to lick those kiss-swollen lips, taste the soft skin beneath, work his way down that broad, muscular chest and... do something. He wasn't sure what, but he wanted it anyway.
"What is it that you do to me?" Ruari whispered, clinging to Kian as though his life depended upon it.
"I would ask the same of you," Kian murmured, sliding one hand up his back to cup his cheek, thumb caressing face and lips both. "There is a fire in you that draws me like a moth to a flame. Will you burn me, beautiful Ruari, or will you instead sear away the outer shell and allow me to fly as never before?"
Ruari swallowed, his throat suddenly tight. "I... I..."
He didn't get any further than that, as there came a knock upon the suite door that startled them both. He wrenched his head around to stare at the still-closed door while Kian growled profanities beneath his breath. After a moment the Knight reluctantly slid out from under him and paced across the room, jerking the door open and snarling, "What?"
"Begging your pardon, sire," came an unfamiliar voice, "But you left orders to be informed when your brother proposed..."
Kian sighed and ran a hand through his dark hair, disarraying the inky strands. "Very well. Thank you. See to the necessary preparations at once."
"Yes, sire," came the respectful reply, then Kian was closing the door again. He turned back toward the divan, stopping short at the expression on Ruari's face.
Ruari licked his lips slowly, not certain he really wanted to know, but having to ask anyway. "Sire?"
All the color drained from Kian's face and he leaned heavily against the door for support. "Ruari... I..." All the confidence, all the poise he normally carried himself with was gone, leaving behind only an agonized young man. "We were going to tell you..." he whispered.
"When?" Ruari frowned, rising to his feet. "Why all this charade, Kian?" He laughed quietly. "King Kian. Or is that even your real name?"
"It is," Kian whispered miserably. "Our identities were the only lie we told. Everything else was the truth..."
"So, why all this, your Majesty?" Ruari pressed, doing his best to ignore the way Kian flinched at the title even as he moved slowly across the room toward the Knight. No, King. "What were you hoping to get from us?"
Kian shook his head. "Nothing. Only what you already know. No one was supposed to find out until we were safely back in Laidir, where it wouldn't matter."
Ruari reached him then, wondering how a man who always seemed to have enough confidence for three people could look so utterly defeated now. Then words spoken days ago resurfaced in his mind. Can't you ever fall for someone who actually likes you?
"You're the King of Laidir, but you don't like women," Ruari puzzled out carefully, standing only a bare handspan from Kian. "You came to Cadhain to find a bride, not for you, but for your brother... half brother?" At Kian's faint nod, he continued. "Obviously for the purposes of continuing the line..." Ruari frowned slightly. "Are you going to abdicate to Quinlan?"
A faint laugh escaped before Kian could quite catch it. "No. Quin's lousy at governing, though he's a good brother."
"So..." Ruari's brow scrunched up in thought. "You don't need a direct heir?"
Kian shook his head. "Just someone of the bloodline as I choose. Quin's it right now, as I have no other close relatives. We were only hoping to find someone that Quin could love, and would make a good mother to the heir. Your sister was better than either of us expected, and you..." He managed to summon enough strength to pull a hand up and run it through Ruari's curls. "You I didn't expect at all." A sad, pained smile creased his handsome features. "I'd resigned myself to being alone."
"You're a King," Ruari pointed out. "You could have anyone you wanted."
"I don't want someone to love the King of Laidir," Kian refuted sadly. "I want someone to love Kian."
A faint flicker of a smile tugged at Ruari's mouth. "Kian is arrogant, pushy, and has no concept of personal space. Not to mention he seems to have a strange obsession with redheads."
Surprise spread through Kian's grey eyes as he looked at Ruari, then he chuckled softly. "Have you ever actually looked at yourself, Ruari? You would drive any sane man mad with desire."
"Oh, is that your problem then." Ruari nodded sagely. "I've driven you mad. Or madder, anyway. I don't think you were ever quite sane to begin with." He yelped as Kian's arms were suddenly around him and his cheek collided with the man's broad, bare chest.
"If I ever possessed such a thing," he murmured, pulling Ruari flush against his body, "It did not last more than the space of a breath in your presence, beautiful, breathtaking, fiery Ruari. Will you forgive this foolish man his madness?"
Ruari considered, finding it hard to think straight with Kian so very close, his heady scent thick and dizzying all around. "If I do, will you kiss me again?" he asked, breath already beginning to come faster.
Kian blinked in surprise, then the most beautiful smile Ruari had ever seen brightened his handsome face into something resembling breathtaking. "If you wish..."
Blushing bright enough that Kian could probably count every one of his dratted freckles, Ruari licked his lips and nodded. "Then I'll forgive you for being an idiot. Sire."
Kian rolled his eyes. "Don't even start," he muttered, right before his lips claimed Ruari's and completely put an end to all further conversation.