Raylan leaned back against the casement, his eyes drifting beyond the edge of the wide balcony to look out over his palace. The full moon painted towers, battlements, and walkways with a silvery light, and he could see the guard patrols as clearly as if it were day. The peaceful, slow patrolling of the guardsmen, the arrival of the new watch – each station changing guards at a slightly different time in a complex maneuver that kept his eyes busy, flicking from one tower to another as the watch smoothly changed shifts.

He swirled his wine before taking another sip – it went down blissfully smooth now, in spite of its strength. The powerful burn of his first glass had faded, along with the strain and frustration that had been building throughout the long, tortuously hot summer day. All gone now – all dissolved into a tingling, lovely haze. A cool breeze was pushing through his dark, wavy hair and billowing the drapes back and forth – now out onto the balcony, now back into his royal bedchambers. Shifting shadows and the pale white moonlight danced over the heavy fabric, a seductive game of light and dark that drew his eyes away from the guard patrols and held him until he almost swayed in the wind himself.

With a grunt, Raylan turned and staggered back into his room. He had to catch himself against the bed almost at once as the room tipped dizzily around him. Struggling to keep his feet, Raylan wobbled over to the table where the servants always laid out his refreshments. Picking up the nearly-empty wine bottle, he up-ended it over his glass, splashing out the last of its contents. A few drops hung on the rim of the bottle and Raylan frowned at them, shaking the thing a few times before giving up and latching onto the bottle with his mouth, tongue collecting the drops and sucking away the last of the faintly-sweet wine.

Lips closed around the bottle's round neck, Raylan paused. His dark blue eyes unfocused, becoming distant, vacant. His tongue slipped back into the bottle – no longer searching for wine, just…searching. He tightened his lips, then softened his hold and slid down the bottle's neck a little further before drawing off with a slow, wet slurp. Pressing his lips to the mouth of the bottle, he nibbled and sucked lightly, his far-off gaze fixed on a spot on the thick, rich carpet. Thick…rich…soft carpet… Raylan sank unsteadily to his knees and dropped onto his side. Almost as soft as his bed… He set the wine glass down carefully, then cuddled the empty bottle to his chest and continued mouthing over the glass opening. Goddess, if the court could see him now… Raylan snorted into the bottle, giggling drunkenly. Ah, that would be the death blow to his reign, surely. That bastard son of a slut Darbrion would depose him before his father even finished the arduous task of dying, and every last noble would take his side, too. Raylan knew that at least two thirds of them were already seriously questioning his ability to rule. Odious lot of fat, mud-nosed, pretentious…!

Twinges of pain were just starting to build up in his temples again, but Raylan's troubled thoughts were interrupted by a slight tremble in the floor he lay on. Footsteps. Heavy ones, approaching…and then low voices outside his door. The watch was changing, and that meant his personal guard was being relieved by the next shift as well.

And that meant…

Raylan shoved himself up into a lopsided sitting position, staring at the door. The bottle rolled away from him along the carpet, but Raylan didn't notice until it was well out of reach. Then he frowned, annoyed, and cast about for his glass, instead. Finding it, he swallowed the remains of the wine, eyes still glued to that door as though he could see through the solid wood, fix his gaze on the man standing at attention just outside…

Biting his lower lip, Raylan moaned under his breath. He dropped the empty glass to the floor, but it only bounced softly on the thick carpet as Raylan pushed himself forward, onto his knees, and began to crawl to the edge of the bed. He used the bed as leverage, clawing his way to his feet, then anchoring himself against the solid bedpost. His eyes had sharpened, focusing on that door as though they could crumble it to dust with a piercing stare. Raylan's free hand traveled up the front of his torso, rumpling his loose, sleeveless nightshirt as it went. Then it was brushing up his throat, fingers combing through his short, dark beard, then back through the waves of brown hair, pulling them hard for a moment before the locks fell forward over his brow again. His fingers found their way to his lips, and he bit them, drawing them into his mouth and sucking a little at the tips.

"Open…" He whispered around the muffling of his fingers. His eyes should have burned the door to ash, by now… "Come inside," he gasped, a saliva-wet hand slipping free to paint trails of moisture down to his clavicles.

But the door remained closed and silent. Footfalls approached and died away again – the passing of the guard on patrol. Which one…? The one pacing from one end of the hallway to the other, or the one who stood by his door? Both were members of the royal guard, his personal elite force, but which one was which?

Raylan sagged against the bed until he was sitting. He couldn't know, but he could imagine. Imagine that the sentinel nearest his door was a broad, dark man with the red-amber eyes of a foreigner, a bandit, a dangerous captive-turned-guard who would never have achieved his current rank if Raylan hadn't… "Mmmm…" The front of his trousers fell open under his hands without difficulty – the knot of the laces was always simple, always easy to untie with a single tug.

One very secret but firm conversation with the captain of the royal guard. One conversation his father would have shredded him for, had he been healthy enough to hear of it. His father would never trust a foreigner with the position, would never place his life in the hands of a wild man from the Wastes, a convicted, dangerous, powerful… "Ahhh," Raylan sighed, hands closing around his aching prick, wrapping the shaft in warmth and softness… Ah, but not softness! By the Divine She, Raylan hated his hands for their tenderness! He wanted roughness – the coarse, hard rasp of calluses, the tight grip of a hand that was accustomed to grasping a sword's hilt and wielding it with deadly power…

"Please…" Raylan whispered, his head falling back as his too-soft hands worked up and down, squeezing hard to make it feel rougher, just a little bit brutal… "Ah!" He gasped with a thin cry as heat flooded his body, warm fluid spilling into his hands. His body convulsed with the release, but only for a moment. All too soon, it faded. It was gone so quickly, leaving him empty, tired, and too drunk to do anything else but roll over, hauling the thick coverlet with him.

Raylan vanished into a cocoon of bedding and slipped into dreams where he was wrapped in something much harder, hotter – strong, muscled arms a dusky dark tan, an embrace that protected and possessed him and lulled him into much-needed, peaceful sleep.

~o~

"Did you hear something?" Sahal stopped patrolling the hall as he passed and glanced at the prince's door.

Nodding, his fellow guard waved a dismissive hand. "He's talking in his sleep again, or something. Nothing to worry about."

"I'd like to make sure." There was no asking for permission; it was a statement. They were equally ranked, and Sahal knew that Krelden would not take offense. His pride was not so puffed-up that it would bruise over such a thing, and that was good. Sahal dealt poorly with men who lorded themselves over others rather than did what was necessary.

Sahal stepped to the door and eased it open, just a crack. By the moonlight pouring in from the balcony, he could see the bundle of blankets, the rise and fall of sleep-heavy breathing, and a tuft of dark hair. As he backed out, he also noted the fallen wine bottle and glass. Krelden looked at him. "Well?"

"Aye, sleeping. Been drinking too, from the looks of it."

"Small wonder," Krelden commented with a nod. Sahal nodded back, once, and then resumed his patrol silently. The prince slept on, unaware of the momentary intrusion.

Sahal continued his patrol, yet the image lingered – a huddled mass of blankets, a wine bottle on the floor, but no wine spilled. Empty. Like the room – empty, except for the prince, alone in bed, covered in that heavy blanket… But if the blanket were removed, if someone took the bedding in his hand and drew it away, revealing the prince, his body soft with sleep and drink…? If someone could see him as he was now, in that nearby room – vulnerable. Touchable.

With a sharp shake of his head, Sahal snapped that thought off before it could continue. This was not the time.

Reaching the end of the hall, he was about to turn and make his way to the other end again when a little spot of white caught his eye. Just around the bend where his patrol ended, lying on the floor in the middle of the hallway – a little folded piece of paper.

Senses tingling, Sahal scanned down the east hall – the guard was not in sight, but that was not strange. His patrol was about three times as long as Sahal's and took him around several corners – he did not have a sleeping monarch behind any of the doors he passed. Sahal turned his attention to the walls, the shadows, every detail of his surroundings. Nothing seemed out of place.

Sahal bent with a resigned sigh and picked up the paper, opening it to read:

Last chance.

With one last, careful look around, he turned to resume his patrol. Krelden would probably have seen nothing – as usual – but Sahal would ask again, as a matter of protocol. They would search the area carefully in daylight when their shift ended, but Sahal suspected they would still find nothing. Finally, he would turn in this latest note to the captain, and then head to the barracks for breakfast.

This was the sixth night, the sixth note, and the investigation had yielded nothing. It might well be time to face this messenger himself.

~o~

The musical chirping of birds rang like alarm bells in his ears, the early dawn light burned his eyes through his scrunched eyelids as though the sun itself were staring him in the face, and the gentle, whispering footsteps over the carpet sounded like iron scraping iron in an apprentice's forge – all wrong, harsh, and awkward, without rhythm. Raylan whimpered into his cocoon and damned wine to the lowest pits of the Forsaken.

"My lord," a soft male voice whispered carefully from beside the bed, "I've drawn a bath for you."

Poking his head out of the covers, Raylan caught the scent of herbs and oils and soap – clean and fresh. No sweet, heavy perfumes, thank Goddess, for he would surely have vomited at the first hint of such. Groaning, he pushed awkwardly at the blankets, and immediately, gentle hands eased the covers away, freeing him. Then that same strong, careful touch was helping him up, moving to his clothing to undress him…

A pause. "Ah." The soft voice sounded…disappointed. "My lord…"

Raylan scrubbed at his eyes and managed to open them, squinting down to see what his steward was seeing – a rather unbecoming view of Raylan's royal manhood hanging out of his pants, covered in dried fluids. Memories of how that had happened – and why – washed over him in a nauseating wave, and Raylan sighed unhappily and began to haul his shirt off.

"Pay it no mind, Dal," he grunted, tossing the garment onto the bed. "I did nothing that would offend the Goddess." The steward's face was heavy with regret as he began to remove the trousers fully.

"I do not fear that…but I wish you would call upon me when you need relief, my lord." It was only a soft murmur, but the hint of gentle reproof was clear to Raylan. He knew Dal too well – as Dal also knew him. And both of them knew how dangerously close to sacrilege Dal's offer was.

"I think there is at least one person who is glad if I do not," Raylan dryly remarked, putting the offer aside gently and lightly. He stepped out of his clothing and stumbled a moment before his steward caught him and steadied him the two steps forward to where the large wooden tub waited, filled with steaming water. He leaned on Dal even further as he carefully stepped into the heavenly warmth. The water closed around his legs, then his torso, inch by inch – almost too hot, but not unbearable. Dal was always able to prepare his bath perfectly, and this morning the relief was especially welcome.

"Miella has nothing to do with it, lord," the young man softly answered, collecting the discarded clothing and laying out what Raylan would wear for the day. His voice remained gentle, in spite of the note of decision in it – he was being careful not to worsen Raylan's pounding headache. "My future wife is no consideration; nothing comes before you. I exist to serve your every need."

Barely listening, Raylan relaxed into the embrace of the water. The pounding in his head became fuzzy and muted as the heat relaxed him, the oils and herbs soaking into his skin and sending shivers of bliss through his whole body. "And I do not need you for this," Raylan mumbled, drifting as he lay his head back against the soft cushion waiting for him at the edge of the tub. "Keep to your lovely bride-to-be, Dal. Adore her as you should. Don't be so eager to debase yourself with the Fool Prince."

Dark brown eyes flashed up to him, anger and offense plain in that pale, narrow face. "It would never be a sin to ease your burden, my lord, and I beg you not to use that name for yourself! It is the invention of traitors, and…!"

"Enough, Dal, I know." Raylan raised his hand weakly from the water, then let it drop back down. "Rest assured, I am not so burdened as all that. Were it truly difficult, I would marry, I promise you." He sighed, sinking deeper into the hot water as Dal came over with the soap, preparing to wash his hair for him. Marriage… He might speak of it as though it were easy – it should be, after all, for there were many young noblewomen eager to be Queen – yet the reality was agonizingly difficult…but best not to say so to Dal. His deeply loyal steward would try to solve the problem, likely at all costs. The young man didn't even hesitate to offer sexual services to his master, an act most would call a double sin. Perhaps it simply proved the depths of Dal's devotion to him, that he would readily cast aside his dignity as a man and his duty to his wife-to-be and degrade himself with another male. Raylan shook his head, dismissing those thoughts. "No, it was nothing. I do not even remember well; I was much too drunk last night."

Strong but gentle hands tipped his head back into the water, then began to lather the soap into his hair. "The court is filled with vipers who think themselves justified in questioning and criticizing you, when they should be standing behind their future king…" The soft-spoken young man frowned deeply in disapproval. Raylan sighed, humming agreement, and let his mind drift as his steward spoke. Not for the first time, he wondered how Dal came to be so skilled at washing hair. The steward's own dark hair was cropped so short that it probably required no effort. Raylan's was nearly to his shoulders, and thick – much more difficult to handle. And in winter, he often let it grow even longer…yet Dal always worked quickly and gently, never pulling or scratching.

"…And Lord Darbrion's insolence is intolerable, even as your royal father still breathes…!"

"My royal father is on his deathbed," Raylan corrected in a blank, tired tone. "And Darbrion knows what he is doing. It is the perfect time to act…indeed, the only time, if he is to take the throne for himself."

"He has no claim whatsoever, and you are the undisputed, legitimate heir!" Dal guided his head back, rinsing the soap away gently even as he spoke with soft, but dark, anger.

"He doesn't need a claim to pull a coup," Raylan shrugged, scrubbing idly at his hands, dissolving the last crusty remains of… "And why shouldn't he? He wants to be king. Many lords do, but few chance upon the right opportunities. Darbrion is at the height of his power, my father is all but dead and unable to punish him, and I have my hands tied as long as he yet lives. I cannot punish Darbrion until I wear the crown, and this lingering illness only gives him more time to spread doubt among the court. It may be that he will make his move and succeed, and I will never be crowned, never given the chance to prove myself a good ruler or punish the usurper." Raylan spoke lightly, but his head throbbed afresh as the heavy subjects began to pile upon his thoughts. He rubbed wet fingers over his temples, breathing deeply to soothe the pain away. "I must find out what he's planning," he mumbled, "and prepare counter-measures. Barring that, at least I've done what I can to ensure the safety of my loyal followers…should the worst occur…"

Dal listened without comment to this. He already knew what the prince spoke of – he, like many other servants and a few loyal nobles, had been privately provided with funds and a route of escape. The prince had carefully made plans for each of his followers. If he were suddenly relocated to the dungeon to await execution, his people had instructions to flee the city. There would be little any of them could do, at that point, other than risk their own lives needlessly, and those would already be in danger, for after the prince was dead, the new king would surely begin a quest to weed out any lingering loyalties to the previous royal family.

For Dal and Miella, there were two horses kept stabled in town, and a secret purse with enough coin to buy a small house, far out in the country where they would never be found. The prince had suggested they head south, to the Borderlands by the Wastes, to let their trail grow cold in near-uncharted lands before turning east and riding to the foothills of the mountain border, on the very edges of Denathria, where a small farm would be easy to come by…and they could vanish into obscurity. It was a good plan, practical and clever, and Dal had objected to it with every inch of his being until the prince had ordered him to swear that he would escape if the worst happened.

The steward sometimes hated the thoughtfulness of his prince.

Raylan stretched and rose slowly from the bath water, and before he could even shiver, a light summer robe covered his shoulders – sleeveless, like all summer garments, yet soft and long enough to reach the floor. He stepped out of the tub and pulled the dressing gown around himself as Dal moved away. "Will you take some food, my lord?"

Turning to look at the table with his breakfast waiting on it, Raylan deflated slightly. His head still throbbed dully, and the prospect of food made his stomach turn. "Just water, for now…" He turned to the large fireplace and sank into his favorite chair, accepting a cup of cool water a moment later.

"Does your head still hurt, lord?"

He grunted into his cup. "A little, yes." Dal was already acting, opening a jar of herbs and mixing it with a salve, spreading the concoction on a clean cloth. He brought it forward quickly, laying it across Raylan's brow.

"Let that work a while, and drink. When you are ready, I'll bring your food. The meal is light, but you must have something, you know…"

The corner of his mouth curled in a half-grin. "You sound just like my mother, Dal…may her rest be sweet. If you were the living queen mother, Darbrion would not be nearly so thorny now. You'd stand for none of his sly tricks, I'm sure."

"I'd clap him in irons, my lord," Dal replied with a tiny smirk. Then he turned himself to the task of cleaning up the bath and putting everything in perfect order. Raylan relaxed, letting the herbal poultice sooth his aching head and sipping the cool water, slowly. He did feel better, now. The songbirds were beginning to sound sweet again, and Raylan smiled at the little spots of color on his balcony. How often as a child had he wished to be a bird, free to fly into the clear sky? How often had he longed for a carefree life? Ah, but those days were gone, now. The court was a political mire around him every day, and all Raylan's hopes hung on a crown that would ensure he survived…and lived every day in that same mire, for always.

He sighed and banished those thoughts. Such was life – a dangerous cycle that all souls clung to, from the highest to the lowest. How ironic that even the prince of the land should struggle for his survival, just like the poorest farmer. Even more ironic was the fact that any poor farmer could sate his needs and find comfort in his blessed task of adoring his wife…while Raylan's body burned for someone he could never have.

Dark blue eyes drifted away from the balcony, staring into the fire, which was already becoming too warm for the summer morning. Under his breath, he whispered in a sigh, "Sahal…"

"Did you speak, my lord?"

Blinking, he looked up at Dal. "No…no. Pardon, it was nothing."

A brief nod. "Will you take some food now, lord?"

"I'll try, Dal, thank you."

Raylan accepted what Dal brought him – a chilled herbal tea to settle his stomach a bit more, then fruit to hydrate him further and break his fast gently. He managed a little soft bread and cheese, at last, but took no meat that morning – he had no appetite for anything so solid. And Raylan could not risk further nausea, for his first task of the day was nauseating enough on its own.

~o~