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Bind Me More Tightly Still

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A year ago, Adrian had been at the southern front, defending the mountain passes against the latest wave of incursions disguised as bandit attacks.

He had not expected to come back to the capitol again for months, if years—one term stretching into another, with little or no leave between, until injury or retirement made him unable to fight and forced him home and into the female sphere.

Now, back in the capitol, he would not say he had found the front easier (he was not fool enough to tempt fate that way) but he disliked the court in comparison and felt ornamental, instead of useful. He understood strategy and politics well enough, but the words seemed to have entirely different definitions at court.

“You aren’t exactly aggressively pressing your suit,” his sister remarked acidly. She had very pointedly not had any of her wine, so helpfully poured by the footman. “Lady Welland is bragging endlessly about how successful Edmund has been, all the stories he tells her—makes her unbearable at parties.”

“He shouldn’t speak so carelessly,” Adrian replied. “William will kill him if he does not stop.”

“My god, I hope he does,” Caroline admitted, relaxing into her chair and gesturing freely with her glass. “It’s becoming unbearable. You and William haven’t been buggering one another, I hope? Or perhaps you ought—perhaps she finds that attractive.”

She stared at him for a long moment, like she could read the queen’s preferences off his own skin, and then sighed, admitting defeat. “Well,” she said, “You ought to find something she likes and pursue it. It’s getting on six months now! She’s sure to move some of you out of the rotation if she’s had no luck—no sense keeping a lame horse around—or perhaps she’ll just add a few more.”

“This quickly?” he asked. He was genuinely—shocked, truth be told. He would have thought he had a year or two yet.

“She’s all we have,” Caroline admitted. “The throne would pass to a new family entirely, and it wouldn’t be through the distaff line at all. I doubt she wants to be responsible for setting that precedent. So—an heir, and as soon as possible. You and William really should consider working together. She did pick an odd bunch. It would be one thing if you were all military men, but she’s gone for a real variety, hasn’t she?”

She stood abruptly, and offer him her hand, which he kissed politely.

“As much of a boon as the return of your dowry would be, I would prefer to avoid it. Please give me the next Queen as my niece instead, dear brother.”

“I will try,” he said, and she patted his cheek.

Edmund looked wretchedly indolent as he slipped inside the room, all loose-limbs and kiss-swollen mouth. Shoulder braced against the doorframe, he swiped a hand against his mouth, and grinned to see the smear of rouge across his palm.

William threw his cards down in disgust, and Adrian, taking the chance to consider it a fold, swept the chips into his own pile. He expected Sebastian to challenge him on his opportunism, but the other man only gestured minutely at William. Adrian did look to make sure William did not actually rebuke Edmund—William was older, and theoretically outranked him, but despite the brief and pleasurable comeuppance it would provide, putting Edmund in his place would only cause problems. Adrian owed it to William to help him keep his temper in check.

 “Exert yourself?” asked Sebastian, taking all the cards back to shuffle and deal new, fairer hands. Edmund took this as an invitation to saunter closer to the card table. In the blaze of their candles, it was easier to see the bite marks sucked into his neck behind his unbuttoned collar, and Adrian heard William’s sharp inhale.

Deprived of anything to lean against, Edmund grabbed the back of Sebastian’s chair. Sebastian did not flinch, and instead looked over the hand he dealt himself.

“Not as much as she did,” Edmund said. The flickering shadows did nothing but make him seem more lecherous. “Had her howling for it—her ladies will be making eyes at me tomorrow, blushing at the thought—”

“Nicholas is still with her?” Sebastian interrupted. He pushed his bet to the center. William was as red as an apple, but when Sebastian rapped on the table, to call him to attention, he hurriedly looked over his cards and added his offering. Adrian was glad that at least the wine was finished hours ago. He would hate to see this situation inflamed beyond what Edmund could manage with his lax manner.

Edmund’s eyes narrowed. Adrian had to admit it was a clever trap on Sebastian’s part, and took a moment to think about the card game and raise, before Edmund squinted and said, “Yes.”

“So he’ll stay the night,” Sebastian continued, and laid out his trick. William understood, now, and his expression lost some of the rage, even drifted towards amusement. Edmund had still not caught on.

“He’ll bed her again tonight or tomorrow morning to your once, and she’ll have the pleasure and memory of sleeping in his arms,” Sebastian concluded. He tipped his head back to stare up at Edmund, who scowled down at him.

“What sort of man wants to fuck a cunt full of some other man’s seed—”

“A smart man,” Adrian said, and, pleased with himself, set down his play. Sebastian looked away from Edmund to see it, and sucked his teeth, to Adrian’s pleasure, before he gave his own cards a closer look. William merely cursed, already knowing his own coin lost.

He himself had become too-intimately aware of the taste of Sebastian’s come—and not because they had been comrades, as he and William had been, but because he had lapped it from his own wife’s cunt, with his thoughts running along the narrative that his own would have a better chance with less competition.

But, in all fairness, his cock had been in Sebastian’s mouth at the time, with her watching both of them and making beautiful noises with his tongue inside her. Now, it was hard to retrace the trail of thought that had led him to that course of action.

He had considered it intelligent in the moment.

Edmund looked as though he was about to spit a challenge at Adrian himself, of all people, when William surprised him in speaking.

“Yes,” William said, low, “A smart man,” and then he gestured at Sebastian. “Are you going to take your turn, or fold?”

Edmund huffed, but wisely did not speak further. He turned on his heel and left for his rooms. The three of them were quiet as they finished the turn, and Sebastian did not deal them new hands.

“Time for bed, I think,” he said, with no real loss of cheer. He looked from Adrian to William, and then smiled as he tucked the cards back into the table. “Gentlemen.”

Adrian inclined his head in respect as Sebastian stood and made for his own rooms. The candles were burned nearly to the ends of their wicks, some guttering out as they came to the end. He and William sat in silence for a moment before he broke it abruptly.

“I spoke with Caroline earlier today,” he said, glancing at William.

“She is well?” William asked solicitously.

“Very,” Adrian began, and then said, “She thinks we ought to work together to better our efforts.”

William, well familiar with Caroline’s antics, scoffed.

“Her suggestion may well have some merit,” Adrian pointed out. Why he was coming to his sister’s defense, he was not sure.

“She has never called for us both. And why would she? And you—you don’t want any of this!” William shook his head.

“I did not expect it. We did not expect it, William, but we are here, and we ought to try.” It was a clever trick that Caroline had, when her thoughts would come out of Adrian’s mouth, and he frowned to hear her consolatory tone shape his argument.

He sighed, and pressed his palms against his eyes, leaning back in his chair. He used his own tactics.

“Caroline says there are rumors she will put us out of favor if she does not get with child soon.”

This, at least, shocked William. “I—this soon?”

“Yes,” Adrian said tiredly. “She is the last of her line, William, and there are plenty of men who were passed over for us. All have sisters and mothers desperate to put them in her path—and some of them far more eager than us.”

There was a way William got when he was considering a problem, a set to his shoulders, a change in tone. Adrian had seen it most often in strategy meetings, the backdrop a tent, the night sky, a battlefield. He heard the tone now, and saw the set when he dropped his hands.

“Then we must try,” William said. “I am not much for seduction, but we ought to be able to manage it.”

He managed the intricacies of court by applying the ramrod discipline that had governed his life since he enlisted. He suspected William did much the same—there was simply no other way to do it if one was not raised to it, and as it was, he had a reputation for being stoic and rigidly rule-abiding, which he pursued to its fullest advantage.

Let Edmund have the reputation for being glamorous and a gossip—let him be the center of attention, surrounded by tittering women and handsome men. Adrian understood very easily while William took such umbrage with his flagrant misbehavior. William took his duty and the honor of a position very highly, even when he was only a prince consort and no longer a colonel.

Still, with Edmund holding his own, smaller court further down the hall, there was not as much of a crowd about the queen’s throne as there could have been, and Adrian was glad for Edmund’s relentless taste for attention for that alone. He was watched by various knots of nobles as he came forward, unable to meander and obfuscate his intended destination by pausing along the way for little conversations. His taste for tactics was confined to the field.

The Queen was speaking with one of her ladies when he came forward. He waited at the edge of the dais for her to signal that he was allowed to approach. He could not catch her words, but when she glanced to the side and saw him, she dismissed the lady immediately and gestured for him to come to her.

Adrian took the last few steps and sank to his knees before her. This, too, he could manage gracefully, and hold, for it was admittedly more comfortable than parade rest.

She stroked the side of his cheek with her fingers, and tipped his head up. Adeline was mesmerizing, and even if some of it was the artifice of her position and the skill of her dressers, the rest was anchored in her luminous skin and bright eyes.

“Adrian,” she said, disarming him entirely. Wavering on the edge of matching her informality, or paying her what she was due, he looked to the side and answered, “Your majesty.”

“You have a boon to ask of me?” she questioned. Off to the side, one her ladies laughed, and he repressed the tightening of his jaw.

“William and I would speak with you,” he said.

“We are speaking now, you and I. Shall I call for him?”

“No,” he amended. “Privately.”

“I see,” she said, and she removed her hand. Thinking she was displeased with him, he looked up. Her expression was very plain, mouth unsmiling, forehead unwrinkled. “Tonight?”

“If it pleases you.” He suspected it did not.

She did not reply, and he considered himself dismissed.

William attached himself to his side as soon as he was back in the crowd proper and together, they made their way out to the hallway, in the opposite direction of Edmund’s gathering. Adrian followed blindly, trusting William to lead them somewhere quiet.

He chose a sitting room that was several years out of style, and shut the doors after them.

“What did she say?” William demanded, striding over to the windows to peer out. “You are the well-mannered one—what could you have said to offend her?”

“I asked for a private meeting,” Adrian said, and then, “… I asked for a private meeting.”

“What?” William said, squinting at him.

“She thinks I mean to—that we mean to demand an additional chance to serve her, I believe,” Adrian admitted.

“We do not,” William disputed hotly.

“But she thinks we intend to—which means someone else has, that she anticipates in-fighting, jockeying for influence, trading favors.” Adrian shook his head; walked to the window, turned on his heel and came back, working out his thoughts in paces. This was not a command-tent, where he could parse through strategy—he had much more room to walk in circles.

The first thought came quickly.

“Have you rebuked Edmund in public?”

“What?” William said, and then, “God, no, he is only so brazen when it is just us—when you are there to witness it as well. To… hold me back, I assume. He last did it three nights ago, the day you spoke to Caroline.”

“Then he has some sense,” Adrian said.

“We are very rarely not in one another’s company,” William pointed out wryly. He sat in one of the heavily upholstered chairs. It was a testament to the diligence of the palace staff that a cloud of dust did not puff from the cushion.

“Then she expects it from elsewhere.”

“What of our relatives?” William asked. “They can only talk, but as they can only talk, they may talk without end or truth.”

“Caroline would never,” Adrian began, before realizing that, yes, Caroline would. She would be coy about it, never anything more than hints, off-hand comments that were just a touch too intimate, too confident, and utterly unchallengeable, but that none the less suggested a royal intimacy reserved for, say, the aunt of the next heiress apparent. And she would do it all with utter confidence that it would, ultimately, benefit the crown. Loyalty and traditionalism had been fostered in both brother and sister.

“And your aunt?” Adrian asked. He envied William his chair, but kept pacing. “Has she written you lately?”

“Of the estate,” William said tiredly. “Of this year’s harvest, my younger brothers, and my cousins, and her hopes that I might find at least one of her girls a position at court if not husbands.”

“And what did you tell her?”

“That I would try on both counts, but that I could offer nothing yet.”

“Would she run with that?” Adrian asked. “I remember her being… excitable, when we visited her before the last campaign. Tried to wed you to that foreign burgermeister’s daughter, if I remember correctly.”

William put his face in his hands, and groaned. Adrian forged forward.

“And this is to say nothing of Nicholas’—mother? grandmother? Both still living, if I remember correctly, and his grandmother a duchess. We know Edmund’s sister is at court. Sebastian has…”

Adrian trailed off, stopping as he tried to recall the more intricate details of the other consort’s house.

“His sister died shortly after the wedding,” William provided, lifting his head. “Her title passed to a distant cousin. I do not think they are fond of him. They have not sent him any coin for his upkeep.”

At Adrian’s puzzled expression, William elaborated.

“I asked him a few nights ago why he was such a careful gambler. He was very honest. And there are his clothes.”

Puzzled, Adrian asked, “When did you begin to care about fashion?”

“I can notice patterns, Adrian, the same pair of trousers worn thrice in one week.” William neared rebuke. “Do you doubt me?”

“No.” Adrian relented immediately, reining in his temper. “Forgive me, William, I—”

“You didn’t expect her to be sharp with you, and it has shaken you,” William said. His accuracy cut as it flattered. William sat straighter in his chair. “By your accounting, we are in a nest of vipers, some of whom we are related to. We should expect sharpness.”

Adrian had always loathed the hot shame of a public rebuke, hated how exposed and humiliated it made him feel. That his wife had—never mind that she was his sovereign, that he was one of five. He had, perhaps, when he was young and considered marriage at all, hoped that he might be first and last, or one of two at most, mayhap even with William. 

“Do you think we should tell our families to stop?” William asked.

“They would not listen, and say that it is for their benefit and ours,” Adrian said. He sighed. “If Caroline was correct, this may well be what has us put aside first if we handle it poorly. No. We go, and we say what we intended to say, and apologize. It will end when she is with child.”

“And then?” William asked.

“And then if we fail, we settle into being ornamental for the rest of our lives.” He was struck by the desire to drag his fingers through his hair, render himself as unkempt on the outside as this tempest had made his thoughts, his desires, his plans for the future.

“Perhaps she’d grant us an annulment,” William said. “We could return to the army.”

“Would that we were so lucky.” Adrian shook his head. “Come—we ought to prepare for the audience.”

William heaved a sigh and stood.

They were not Sebastian, who Adrian needed to watch more closely, so they had clothes to suit. Caroline would have sponsored a new outfit every day if he told her it would make him the favorite. Adrian still chose something plain, no ostentatious embroidery or overly ornamental lace, tying his hair back and trusting that the simplicity of his outfit would scream humility in the event of his tongue not being up to the task.

William frowned when he saw it, which Adrian took as indication that it would do.

“I look like a fool,” he said, and Adrian adjusted his collar.

“You miss your uniform.”

“I do,” William said, and Adrian smoothed the wrinkles out of his jacket. “I am not suited to this. I don’t understand why she chose me.”

“I assume because she found you handsome to some degree, and your pedigree impeccable.”

“A very small degree,” William said, and glanced at his reflection in Adrian’s mirror. “I am ungainly.”

“Nicholas has far broader shoulders,” Adrian offered.

“Nicholas has a head and shoulders over me in height, and she knew him from girlhood,” William pointed out. “It doesn’t matter. No amount of fussing will make me fairer, and if she does mean to set us aside, extra rouge now won’t convince her to keep us.”

“What a delightful manner you have, Prince William,” Adrian remarked, droll.

“If I blacken your eye, I’d be more handsome in comparison,” William said, considering, and opened the apartment’s doors for him, exchanging nods with the guards.

Their walk to the queen’s private apartments was silent. The guard at her salon door looked them over only briefly, and then announced them, opening only one door. Both of them slipped inside.

Compared to the hallway, which had been lit by a blaze of candles, the brightness reflected off mirrors, the light in this room was low.

Adeline sat on a couch, the business of state spread about her on the cushions and on the low table around the arrangement of pale blue flowers like their dropped petals. Her ladies and secretary were notably absent, and if he had not witnessed her deliberate nature before, Adrian might have mistaken her lack of acknowledgement for genuine distraction.

This, he knew, was a rebuke.

When she did look up, it was only to indicate two seats, one on each side of the couch and facing the low table. Adrian left William, and took the one to her right. She spent several minutes organizing her papers. Despite the nearly compulsive need to look at them, he focused instead on the room. He had not seen much of her apartments besides the bedroom, and he had been distracted on each previous visit. 

“Well,” Adeline said. She was in a genteel state of dishevelment; her face was washed clean of any cosmetics, her hair still faintly damp, her robe informal but not entirely nightclothes—similar and yet utterly alien in comparison to her court appearance a few hours previous. “You wished for a private audience. What is it you wanted of me?”

He had not looked at William for several minutes while she tided, but they met one another’s gaze now. It was William who spoke first.

“We fear you will set us aside,” he said, and he did not look at her, but at his hands in his lap. William was not an indecisive man. Court did not suit him, but the front had, and there he had been a good commander, a dependable man, a fine shot, and a brave solider.

“Why?” She focused on William. If it was not the conversation she expected, she hid it well.

“You are not yet with child.”

Adeline looked between them, brow drawn up. “It has not been a year.”

Adrian shrugged. William had spent his ability to navigate delicate conversations, or so Adrian assumed. He took over.

“You need an heiress.”

“I have been married barely half a year—my own mother did not expect me until three years after she wed. It is not abnormal.” Irritated, she went for the papers again, flicking through them.

“If some accident were to befall you, the crown would fall to another family,” William began, and Adeline dropped the papers into her lap.

“To speak of the Queen’s death is treason.”

William lost all color, and Adeline shook her head.

“No, no,” she said, and sighed. She moved as if to drag a hand through her hair and then yanked it away, a habit returned to in stress, previously trained out. “A joke, my apologies. Some levity. Who has been saying that to you? It is not your concern.”

 William hesitated, and before he could speak, god forbid mention Caroline, of all people, Adrian cut in.

“It is our concern,” Adrian said, “if we are to be demoted or dismissed because we have failed in our primary duty.”

“Six months,” Adeline said again, the words pushed through her teeth. “You will not be dismissed. Is this truly why you wanted to speak with me?”

“Yes,” Adrian said. “I did not… think of how it would appear.”

“I reacted poorly,” Adeline admitted. “I thought you were trying some court-seasoned ploy, some… ill-considered conspiracy. I should have realized you were incapable.”

Adeline put the papers back on the table, this time putting them face-down with the envelope they must have arrived in on top. It took just as long for her to put them back in order as it had for her to go over them while they waited. She was buying time.

“Would you like to stay the night?” she asked suddenly, once they were settled and she sat back on the couch. Her hands were in her lap, the hem of her robe caught between forefinger and thumb and worried between them.

“Why?” Adrian asked. William turned to look at him.

“I am not yet with child, and I do need an heiress, and if I recall correctly, though I would need to consult my diary if I was to be completely accurate, neither of you has visited me for nearly half a month.”

“Thirteen days,” William said, and Adrian recalled his own previous visit, with Sebastian. It occurred to him, suddenly, that she had never called for William and him at the same time, the fact William had pointed out the day before. He had bedded her alongside Nicholas, alongside Sebastian, with both of them—once, memorably, alongside Edmund, though that had been more an annoyance than a pleasure—but never William and himself. Perhaps it was their history?

As he thought, William acted, striding forward and kneeling beside her on the couch. The rug could be thick enough to cushion his knees, but William settled, sitting back on his heels.

“Adeline,” William said, looking up at her. Then he nearly prostrated himself, caged between the table and the couch, and pressed his lips to the bit of slipper that peeked out from under the robe. Adrian watched as he lifted his head, and took her foot into his hands, slid the slipper off, and slipped his hand under the hem of her robe and the thin shift under it, rucking both up as his heavy hand slid along her leg.

Adeline only watched him. Her lashes cast shadows against her cheeks, and she sighed and leaned into the embrace of the couch as William kissed the inside of her knee, her dress high enough to reveal her calves.

William’s hand went higher, disappearing under the gathered silk and linen. Instead of going further, he turned to look back at Adrian, mouth twisted into a disappointed frown.

“No interest, Adrian?” Adeline asked. She reached out and pet William’s hair, stroking without disturbing the part. When she cupped his cheek, he pressed into the touch, and looked up at her in a way he had never looked at even Adrian, all doe-eyed and softness.

Adrian sighed, and stepped around William to take a seat beside her. He bent his head to kiss her, and she immediately met him with forwardness, deepening the kiss. She tasted of sugared tea, and he felt the moment that William’s lips met the sensitive skin of her inner thighs when she startled, gasping and breaking the kiss.

William pushed her knees apart and settled himself between them, tugging her forward. The way Adeline yelped at the sudden movement was satisfying, visceral and soothing some quiet part of himself glad to see her overwhelmed.

“Calm yourself,” Adrian advised her, as William pulled the tie of her robe open and bunched her shift around her hips and under her thighs. She was bare to the air, and William dove in with the enthusiasm of a man who bothered to remember exactly how long since he had last been in her bed, likely down to the hour. “He only wants to get his mouth on you.”

No, Caroline had not needed to worry about whether or not he and William had been buggering one another. The voracious hunger on display clearly signified some level of obsession on William’s part; he would have found a way to manage even if Adrian had sucked him off in the hallway before the meeting.

He and William had never had her at the same time, but they had years of shared history, and he could use that.

As William lapped between her thighs, smearing her wetness across his cheeks, she took shaky little breaths. The breadth of his shoulders forced her knees open, and kept her exposed to his attentions. Adrian leaned closed, pulling the ties of her neckline open, sliding his hand under the linen to cup her breast. Her skin was warm and so soft in his hand, rolling her nipple under his thumb, giving the handful a gentle squeeze just to appreciate the weight in his hand.

She had high color in her cheeks, and kept glancing down at William’s head between her legs.

“Would you like him better with a beard?” Adrian asked, idle. She looked at him, and her lips were parted, her breath stuttering and fast. “It isn’t fashionable, but it makes him look older.”

“He’s perfect the way he is,” she said, and bit back a cry as William redoubled his efforts for it, tongue dragging against her clit, a constant barrage of wet friction. Adrian watched as she shifted on the couch, chasing more of what lit the best fire in her.

“Mm,” Adrian said, possibly in agreement, as he took his hand away from the softness of her breast. Then he reached for and dug his fingers into William’s hair, too short for a queue but long enough that he was sure of his grip, and held him against her cunt, something solid for Adeline to work against. William’s eyes popped open and he whimpered even as she sighed in brief contentment, her nails clawing against the velvet of the couch. “Sometimes he needs a guiding hand.”

She did not rebuke him or respond, more focused on bringing herself off. William’s eyes closed again, and he moaned against her as his eyes fluttered close, gripping her thighs and pulling her closer, as if he could sink even deeper—tongue, fingers, anything, by the sound of it, as long as he would be more wholly surrounded by her, more deeply buried in her scent and presence.

Adrian kissed her. Her mouth opened, her tongue slid against his, and her teeth clicked against his in her eagerness, pulling him more into her lap. She was just as hot and desperate as William was, but where he yielded in lust, she consumed.

She tensed, her thighs spread and held, suddenly grabbing Adrian’s hand and William’s hair and holding him close enough to smother—and then she relaxed, her whole body sighing, relaxing, her head falling back to rest against the couch.

He released William, Adeline’s hand no longer holding his, and William pulled away. His face was a mess, smeared and patchy with the deep blush of effort. When Adeline opened her eyes, she looked first at him, a wide smile blooming over her face.

“Come here,” she said, and before she even pulled her chemise back down over her knees she coaxed William into rising and kissing her, his large hands cupping her face, all his own shortness of breath forgotten for the sake of languid kisses, surely tasting her own salt and wetness in his mouth.

Adrian waited his turn.

When at last William stepped back, Adrian took his turn. Sweet and closed-lipped, he pulled back as soon as he felt the press of her tongue, and opened his eyes to find her frowning in her denial.

“The bed?” he asked, and stood. He offered her his hand, like a gentleman, and she took it in a tight grip—and then his arm. It was not far. There was a door right off the salon, and it opened to the bedroom. It was grand and richly decorated and there were several paintings of pastoral scenes and favored relatives, but beyond the rich dark wood and marble, there was a bed that was very, very large, and it was to that bed that they went.

She turned around to kiss him, and he yielded when she pressed to deepen it, pleased by how well her body molded to his. He held her hips, kept her tight against him, and then slid his hands up and under her arms, lifting her and tossing her back on the bed.

Behind him, William scoffed, and as Adrian shed his jacket, he said, “She did not want court-soft men.”

From the bed, now raised on her elbows, Adeline smiled. “I did not,” she agreed, and Adrian pulled off his boots before he joined her, her own slippers hitting the floor soon after.

While he waited for William to join them, he helped her pull off her robe. Her shift came over her head, and she reached between his legs for the buttons down the front of his trousers, sliding her hand inside to feel how hard and wanting he was for her. Adrian did not want some quick, half-dressed fuck, fumbling and the sound of flapping cloth, so he pulled back right as William came onto the bed, nude and ready to take Adrian’s place above her.

“Share,” William rebuked, and Adrian rolled his eyes as he began to work his own trousers off, then his stockings, all his clothes alike in roughness and their ability to be irritating blocks to his hurry.

Beside him, William and Adeline had returned to kissing, his cock dragging against her belly, flushed against her pale skin. Adrian tossed his shirt to the side and waited for William to feel satisfied enough to stop. When William did finally pull away, he had that doe-eyed expression again, and he kissed Adeline’s forehead before he rolled off her. She made a picture, laying there, nude and flushed, her cheeks as pink as her nipples, her thighs smeared and sticky. Her hair was undone like a maiden’s, spilling over the sheets, and Adrian thought, my wife, before he tucked the thought away to be puzzled over at a later time.

“Both of us?” he said, to William, and William nodded. Adrian shimmed until he was laying flat on the bed, his head on the pillows, and, slowly, Adeline came to him, sitting in his lap.

“Is that amiable to you?” he asked her, and she only smiled, reaching over him to her bedside table. Her breasts hung tantalizing close to his mouth, but only briefly, as she drew back, a small stoppered amphora in her hands. She turned and offered it to William, and then she lay down atop him, her legs split and straddling his waist.  

“Very,” she said, now close enough to kiss, which he did gladly. William popped the cork, and the air thickened with the smell of roses. He had to do nothing but lay there and kiss her as William slid his thick fingers into her cunt. Adrian knew she had done this before, the oil alone attested to that, among other acts, but she had not had them both at once, and between the two of them, they could surely make a case for their continued matrimony.

He liked watching her face as William worked, particularly her lips, kiss-swollen and worried between her lip as she rocked against his fingers. His arousal was a low burn, continually fed by her noises and his anticipation, and he assumed William was the same. He was damnably stubborn enough not to rush, even as Adeline appeared to grow impatient. With her hands on his chest, she scored half-moons and longer scratches, her whines breathy and frequent enough that he was compelled to stroke her back as she buried her face against the curve of his neck.

“Let her,” he said to William, and he nodded, and Adrian murmured sweet nothings into her ear as William moved his oil-slick fingers to her clit, and coaxed a shuttering release from her that had her boneless and relaxed in Adrian’s arms, kissing his neck.

“Up,” he said, his hold moving to her hip. “Just a little, there,” and it took a great deal of control for them both not to allow her to sink down on him entirely. He held her tight, keeping her ass in the air, halfway inside her. She did not fight him, not really, but she was tired and impatient both, and this was delicate.

William was overly cautious with how steady he held himself and how slowly he entered her, stopping as Adrian himself had, half inside, and the drag of his cock against Adrian’s managed to be both exquisite and nearly enough to ruin him. Adeline’s face was wet against his neck, but she lifted it, and tucked her arms against his chest.

It was with the same impertinence that a child seeking extra sweets that she moved, working her hips to sink further down on them both. But Adrian had a tight grip, and William did as well, so she managed at best a half-hearted wiggle, and hissed between her teeth at the denial.

The reminder that he was, truly, stronger than she was—that he might make her do something by the virtue of his ability to overpower her countermanding her order, that between William and him, she was physically powerless—it was just as heady as a burst of adrenaline, and just as likely to make one foolish. Better that strength be turned to care, and, he thought wryly, pleasure.

He could still hold eye contact with William even with her raised, and the other man nodded at him before he began to thrust. Their position was precarious enough, too much of it theory and practiced with other partners, but once they were settled it was nothing but sweet, between the friction of the drag between them as William moved and Adeline’s own heat. They did not have to manage long, though William’s brow was damp with sweat. Adrian thought of the family estate, the cleaning of a rifle until Adeline trembled and came, once more loose-limbed in his arms, and William gave up grace and thrust impatient and out of beat to bring himself off. Adrian came first, pinned to the bed under them, and then he felt William finish—the familiar gasp, the slick feel of hot seed—before he, too, sagged, and added to the pressure on Adrian’s ribs.

Even with that, he was content to lay there and bask in the haze of bliss. Adeline’s hair was soft and still somewhat damp, but it curled into ringlets twined ‘round his finger, and she did not protest, only breathed against his collarbone, too tired to speak.

It was William who moved first, by necessity, heaving himself off her and flopping onto his back. Then, Adeline, all colt-shaky limbs. Adrian did not like the way she flinched as she folded her legs. Tenderness was to be expected, but as he sat up, he looked for blood—and found none.

His own legs were unsteady as he stood, and made for the washbasin, the pitcher thoughtfully full, and the cloths nearby.

He cleaned himself off in the basin by the window, wiping the sweat off his skin with a different rag, and discarding both in the bin for that purpose. He even did William the courtesy of wetting a new one, and handing it to him as he came to the same corner.

On the bed, and with great effort, Adeline moved away from the wet spot, and kicked the covers off entirely, sliding herself under the sheets, drawing them up to her chin.

“My tutors always said women were entitled to several husbands as we were entitled to the protection. Men are disposable for the sake of protecting the home, the children.” Adeline stretched despite the twitch of pain, limbs straightened, waves ruffling through the silk sheets. Adrian thought she ought to be on her back, but at least she was not standing, trusting they would bring her whatever she desired. “And yet they kept offering me sweet boys who could barely keep up on horseback.”

“So you asked for soldiers,” Adrian said, as he slipped back into bed, William taking the other side.

“Noble soldiers. No one lower than lieutenant,” she corrected idly. Adeline cozied up to William’s side, laid her head on his chest. She kissed his neck, her fingers tapping against his collarbone. “The whole country knows why I chose Nicholas.”

Adrian pressed his luck. “What about Sebastian? Edmund?”

“His sister and I were acquainted. She had him presented at court before she passed, and he made an impression. And Edmund was a … suggestion. A compromise, if I am frank, though I am fond of him.”

At William’s horrified look, she laughed.

“But—he is so—”

“He is charming,” she said. “And witty enough, though I am disappointed he conducts himself so poorly. A few more years at court should put a polish on him. And,” and here, Adrian anticipated the rebuke, “he has four older gentlemen to guide him towards better behavior. He has good breeding—he was quite distressed when I declined a public consummation for our marriage. He feared the air of uncertainty it would give us, though, to be frank, I find the idea somewhat old-fashioned and generally brutish.”

William said nothing further. Adrian admired his newfound ability to hold his tongue, though her proximity and unabashed affection likely motivated him. He had always worried about his appearance affecting his ability to find a wife, far too wide-shouldered and muscular to appeal to the nobility, with their preference for fine-boned and elegant men. And yet she’d seemed to like it, evidenced quiet clearly by the way she touched William, even now stroking his arm.

This was the first time Adrian had cause to witness their private moments. Well, if this was how she treated him, so gentle and unabashedly affectionate, it was no wonder why William looked at her like the rising sun.

“No more of that,” Adeline urged, and threw an arm over Adrian’s waist, wiggling until she was pressed to William’s front, nestled between them. “I am tired, and I intend to have you both again in the morning. I have no appointments until ten.”

William met his eyes over her shoulder even as he embraced her, his nose buried in her hair.

With her eyes closed, she sighed. She was every inch the well-serviced wife, and she reflected contentment like a mirror reflected light. Adrian was not unreasonably proud of himself.

“Perhaps I will keep you here until I return from the meeting,” she mused. “All the better to have you ready for me when I come back.”

“I would like to be kept,” William said, and Adrian did him the courtesy of casting his eyes aside so he did not need to see her expression when she rolled over to look at William.

“Oh,” she said, “you are a darling, aren’t you?” with such tenderness that Adrian fought the urge to flinch away from it. But Adeline did not linger on it, and when she rolled back over, she reached for William’s arm and draped it over her waist, holding the hand in her own and to her breast. William did not reach for her.

“What is your ten o’ clock?” he asked instead, and she opened her eyes.

“A meeting with the counsel on the matter of the southern front. Our neighbors are pressing for peace, and if we are to have a treaty before the first snows, it would need to be done within the next few weeks.”

“Have there been recent developments?” Adrian did his best to keep the hunger from his voice, but he could not erase her knowledge of his background.

“My marriage,” she said. “My domesticity. The withdrawal of two experienced soldiers.” 

She let it hang in the air, and did not look away. Adrian blinked first.

“No more,” she said and she let go of William’s hand to cup Adrian’s cheek. “But tomorrow, we will talk, and you will both tell me all the things my counsel would not know, so that I will be more informed if we are lucky enough to secure a treaty.”

He allowed himself to be drawn closer, and when she threw a leg over his hip, it was easier still to press inside her, William a tight fit alongside, and come half from the way she held his gaze all the while.

“You’re winded,” Sebastian said, and to his credit as a gentleman, he did not follow the comment up with laughter, or a prod on Adrian’s poor form.

Adrian only winced as he bent to check the girth—as if that could explain the ache in his thighs, the stretch of muscles left unused for months, now forced into use by this morning's riding. His mount turned her head to lip at the hem of his coat, all mildness and sweet temper.

“Look sharp,” Sebastian murmured, and turned his attention to his own horse. A groom began to remove Sebastian’s gelding’s tack, and Adrian took better hold of the reins of his mare, expecting someone to come for his saddle. He looked over his shoulder, and saw Nicholas and Adeline walking into the stable through the corona of light cast by the outside sunshine, her hand on his arm, the sunlight catching Adeline’s jewels, the delicate-seeming coronet in her hair.

They came for him, Nicholas moderating his own steps to match Adeline’s strides.

Adrian recalled easily that Adeline’s mother had her fostered with the Duchess of St. Austrey, that she had grown up with Nicholas for however briefly before her own queenly mother had died, the last in a series of parental disappointments for the then-princess. Had Nicholas harbored similar dreams of being her husband, just the one, not just first among equals as he surely was now. But it was a fantasy all men had—first, of being invited to a woman’s bed, then, a more frequent invitation, and finally, the defined safety of marriage, of a claim to children, even if they were not entirely your own.

Was Nicholas himself enough of a fool to harbor the fantasy still when the object of his boyhood affection could never allow herself such a thing? Surely not, but the carelessly affectionate way he touched her fed Adrian’s suspicions.

And yet, Nicholas was not given precedence in her bed. He stayed until morning each time he was called, but was that truly an edge? William and Adrian had been granted the same lazy morning not a month back, and he was sure if he searched his memory he could recall most of them having the same chance.

“Prince Adrian,” Nicholas greeted him, and Adrian bowed to him. Finally, a groom appeared at Adrian’s elbow, and he handed over the mare’s reins. Suddenly, his hands were empty, and Sebastian slipped away somewhere, having excused himself with as much discretion as the groom had used to make himself known.

Adeline was dressed too finely to be going riding, the pale collar of fur around her throat the only indication that the outfit was suitable for outdoor wear at all. Nicholas matched her in a suit of dark green wool, muted and solid beside her—in other words, the perfect picture of a prince consort.

“Are you going riding?” he asked, choosing politeness over muteness, and Nicholas replied, “Yes.”

“Driving,” Adeline modified, squeezing his arm.

“Driving,” Nicholas said smoothly.

“They are fetching the carriage now,” Adeline said. “Would you like to join us?”

He could not say no.

It was not the state carriage, in all its gilded over-zealousness, but a smaller one with the royal crest upon the doors, and a matched set of white horses. It was close-topped and curtained, and comfortably warm inside, which Adrian was unspeakably thankful for as he clambered inside. Built to seat four, he expected Adeline to sit beside Nicholas, and was confused when he found her and her wide skirts half in his lap instead.

Nicholas did not seem displeased by it, so Adrian did not call attention to it. The carriage jerked into motion, rolling smoothly down the long boulevard towards the gate, and beyond it, the city.

“Are you going visiting?” Adrian asked. Caroline kept a townhouse in the city, as did most of the families. Or she could be calling upon one of her common-born counselors, or going to speak with the guilds, or—

“The treaty was announced today in the papers,” Adeline said. “I would like to judge the public reaction myself.”

That explained the tiara, the fine clothes.

She removed one of her gloves, laying the discarded leather in her lap and laying her hand upon his thigh. Adrian did not look at Nicholas, even as her hand crept towards his waist.

“Have the reports been negative, your majesty?” he asked.

Adeline smiled.

“‘Adeline’,” she reminded him. “And no, they have been positive.”

One handed, she undid the buttons on the right side of his trousers, her hand slipping under coat and waistcoat alike, but not under his drawers. 

“I am glad to hear it.” He could not bear it; he looked at Nicholas, but the other man was placidly watching the trees roll by.

“The treaty itself is generous,” Adeline noted. “Both sides satisfied, both national prides unmarred…”

She trailed off just as she gave him a squeeze—he was half-ashamed that she would feel him thickening, reacting to her touch.

“I should credit the success of the negotiations to our discussions,” she continued.

“Our discussions?” Adrian said dumbly. Her hand was so warm, rubbing him through the linen of his drawers.

“You and William were so helpful,” she murmured, and kissed his jaw. Her breath was hot against his neck. “You knew so much, the little things my intelligence overlooked or failed to report. I suppose you would know. You were deployed there for how many years?”

“Nearly a decade.”

“Nearly a decade,” Adeline said, delighted. “All those observations, gathered over so long—how useful they were. I might have been there weeks—I might have held the conclave and had it crumble in my hands. But it did not, and it is all a credit to you and William.”

“Thank you,” he said, stumbling through the word. She continued to stroke him, kiss his neck, pressed tight against his arm, and Nicholas watched him all the while, too intense for Adrian’s comfort.

As the carriage came closer to the palace gates, Adrian began to grow concerned. The fear did not dampen his arousal, much to his dismay, and neither Nicholas nor Adeline seemed particularly concerned.

“Adeline,” he said, and he was not sure if it was to draw her attention to the obvious, or to beg her to finish him off.

“It is alright,” she murmured. “Hush. I am trying to thank you.”

He nodded, and turned his face from the windows, instead focusing on the exquisite friction of her hand made better by the bumps in the path of the carriage. He was nearly there, about to rut into her hand to finish himself off when she cursed, and stilled.

“Damn,” she said, and then, “Nicholas, switch with me.”

Adrian was left dazed as they did so, accompanied by a flurry of movement in too-small a space. Nicholas sat next to him, an utter contrast to Adeline’s sweet perfume and rustling silks.

The footman knocked on the roof, and Adeline let out a confident, “All’s well!”

She was apologetic as she squeezed Adrian’s knee and then smoothed her own skirts, glancing out the window to measure the last of the distance between them and the crowd.

“They would see,” she said. “The guard has allowed them right to the gates and I cannot lean over you to greet them or shield you from view, but Nicholas could.”

Adrian was struggling to come down, and hide ungentlemanly disappointment, but he nodded. Nicholas’ bulk provided him cover as he fixed his trousers and regained command of himself.

She was marvelous with the crowd, at least. Those furthest away from the gates would see the carriage, and only that, but for those close enough would also see her face, serene and beautiful, the crown, the gown, the way she carried herself. Her expression never faltered, even as they circled—once, twice, three times—and Adrian admired the cheering crowd as much as he admired her, for coming out in the cold and staying just to catch a glimpse of her face. She could rule well with such love, if it lasted.

The chill through the uncurtained windows was truly starting to bite by the time the carriage turned away from the gate and back up the boulevard. It was Nicholas who pulled them closed, for all that it left them half-blind. In the darkness, he did not notice as she dropped to her knees until she was there, once more working at the buttons of his trousers.

“Lift your hips,” she said, and he obeyed, even had Nicholas’ arm to grip as he did so, and she took down trousers and drawers and he was left to sit bare-assed on the leather cushion.

He forgave her that, and all other injuries very quickly, for she had her mouth on him even though he was soft, and she was all heat to the cold air, and devilishly thorough besides, lips to his root and his balls in her soft, ungloved palm. Adrian had done this for William, and William returned the favor, their teenage fumbling resolving into intimate knowledge of one another the way men unlikely to ever be wed did. It was fair to say he was accustomed to William’s tricks, and William to his—but her mouth was not William’s, her soft lips were not his, and the half-lit sight of her—Adeline, her—on her knees, and his cock in her mouth.

He could die here, he thought, dazed, and be perfectly content with such an end.

She worked him with her mouth, coquettish glances upwards at him fading away for focus, instead, on maintaining something of a pace that worked with the bounce and sway of the carriage, and Adrian glorified in that instead, head tipped back against the seat cushions.

He had nearly forgotten that Nicholas was there until he went to grab something to resist the urge to thrust up into her mouth, and his hand landed on Nicholas’ thigh instead.  

Perhaps he ought to have expected the kiss when it came, for it only took a moment of looking into the other man’s eyes for him to surge forward and seize him by the front of his coat. It was against Nicholas’ mouth that he moaned as Adeline continued to work him. At his full hardness, she did not take him wholly, but allowed her hand to stroke the rest.

Nicholas pulled away, expression unreadable in the dark. He had his own hand down the front of his trousers, and surprised himself by thinking nothing of it, allowing his head to fall on the other man’s shoulder.

He thought, then, of the two of them together, Adeline and Nicholas, when she had fostered with his family. How many kisses had she stolen from him, how many dark corners had she lured him into, Nicholas following love-sick and adolescent-restless as she took advantage of him in a way his lady mother and countess grandmother surely would have disapproved of heartily.

Well. Not take advantage. Not with how wrapped in one another they were still, after all this time, and practiced technique on Adeline’s part here and now. And likely not with much disapproval, given where it had led him.

Adrian panted, his hold on his crumpled trousers tight. The carriage hit a bump, and even with her hold, he thrust deeper into her throat, crying out in a way he hoped was muffled. Adeline did not seem to mind, only increase her pace, and he chased his end desperately, eyes shut tight enough to hurt, blindly hoping please, please, and he broke, jerking in his seat as he came, shocks that ran through his body and left loose contentment and buzzing tinnitus in their wake.

Nicholas was courteous enough to allow Adrian to continue to lean on him even as he finished himself off, gasping something that sounded very faintly like Adeline’s name as he came and was soon left in the same loose-limbed state as Adrian himself.

“Here,” Adeline said, as she produced a fine little lace kerchief from her pockets. She tried to rise to her feet; stumbled, and both he and Nicholas reached out to steady her. She smiled, and Adrian thumbed at the side of her mouth, where spit and seed both were smeared. Shock probably colored her cheeks; he could not see for all that she glanced aside, but when he took the handkerchief, he wiped her mouth first, then the wet disarray of his own lap, all for that she had swallowed his mess.

That, he was sure, let him flush with shame and lingering arousal.

Put in as much order as could be managed, he did up his own drawers and trousers, and went to offer Nicholas the handkerchief, only to find he had his own and was already in order.

“Keep it,” the other man said, and Adrian tucked it away. Well, if it was a day for embarrassments, this would crown it.

Adeline pulled back the curtains, and Adrian was surprised to see them only halfway to the stables.

“I had them take an extra lap,” she confessed at his confusion, and he decided not to think too deeply on it, too contented and, perhaps, even genuinely happy.

Nicholas was warm, and had not shrugged him off yet—he fell into a light doze, surprised when the carriage stopped. He gathered himself in time for the footman to open the door.

Nicholas helped Adeline down, the two of them infinitely more composed. They would leave for her next engagement in the palace, and Adrian—Adrian would find a quiet corner in one of the outbuildings in which he could gather himself and consider the whole shape of the experience.

“Well, did you like it?” Sebastian said, and when Adrian turned to look for him, still dazed, he did not recognize the other man at first, so dressed down as to be utterly unfamiliar, coat discarded and his trousers work-dull. He was shoveling hay, and paused a moment, letting the tines of his pitchfork rest on the stone.

Adrian stopped, until now only thinking of a bath and rest.

“Both of them?” Sebastian asked. “Or just her? It was clever of you and William to get into her bed before she went south.”

His smile was sharper when he said that, for all that he currently dressed the fool.

Like Edmund, Sebastian was court-raised. Until the untimely death of his sister, he had received the support that a man of their rank ought, the guidance of an intelligent woman, and the benefits of a good education. Despite the utter cipher of Nicholas’ feelings, he thought Nicholas was favorably disposed towards him—that he would be generally well-disposed towards anyone that kept the peace and made Adeline happy—and he had previously considered Sebastian to be much the same.

What he was utterly sure of was how Sebastian would treat an enemy, now deprived of nearly all the things that made a gentleman a gentleman.

“We thought we were about to be set aside,” Adrian confessed. He settled his hands at the small of his back, and avoided the muck as he came closer, all the better to speak quietly and be heard.

“You hadn’t said,” Sebastian said, and turned back to the pile of straw, tossing it in the stall.

“And confess my deepest fear?”

Sebastian laughed. Adrian shrugged, looked to the side.

“Well—I assume she reassured you?”

“She is pleased by us.”

“A sentiment not felt by the whole court,” Sebastian pointed out. “Her choices were… unorthodox.”

Adrian kept to himself that knowing Sebastian mucked stalls in his free time would worsen opinions.

“You were at court before she married,” he stated.

“I was,” Sebastian agreed.

“Were there other men favored for the position?”

“Edmund and a cadre of his ilk.” He tosses the last of the straw, and closes the stall door. “They may well have been the better choice. I hear her fathers were the same sort, but they died before I came to court.”

“I do not think she would be well served by fools.”

Again, Sebastian laughed, and wiped his palms on his trousers. “And where would I be, if I did not have her? I am pleased to be among the chosen.”

He hung the pitchfork. “So—did you like it? Nicholas joined in, I assume.”

“Yes,” Adrian confessed to both, finally.

“She is remarkably good at managing so many. I don’t think my mother had as clever a way of going about it.”

Adrian recalled his own mother, who had kept to two, and stopped herself at four children, two of whom she’d lost to illness. Managing all of them, and the household besides—but could it be all that different from managing soldiers and supply?

Sebastian brushed past him on his way out, then paused, grabbing his upper arm and squeezing. He scoffed, and let go.

“A year out of the service, and you’re still built like a warhorse. It’s unfair to the rest of us.” Sebastian smiled, and picked a piece of hay off Adrian’s coat. “What we have to do to keep up.”

Adrian felt his cheeks burn with color, and turned his head forward. He waited until he no longer hear Sebastian’s boots on the cobbles before he turned and went to look for William.

It was hardly gossip he could share with anyone else, and if Nicholas was to expect the same treatment, he ought to receive a warning.

Something had the court unsettled today, where all should be truly settled more than two months after Adeline’s return from the treaty signing. He ought to have focused on the conversations, eavesdrop until he caught hold of the gossip that had them all aflutter.

William handled it for him, sliding into place beside him as he lounged by a column, watching as Adeline received petitioners gracefully, just far enough to be robbed of the sound of her voice.

“Sebastian has been formally accused of impotence,” William hissed, and Adrian only managed to keep from turning to look at him through great force of will.

“He’s not,” he said, once he had recovered from the absurdity. “We know that.”

They do not,” William said, and gestured discreetly at the rest of the milling crowd.

“Impotence or infertility?” he asked, now determined to clarify.

“Impotence,” William said again, grim. “They do not want him simply set aside. They want the vows undone entirely.”

Adrian closed his eyes, exhaling.

“How will she handle it?” William asked. “She must answer them—” and he stopped speaking. Adrian followed his gaze, and saw Adeline was not merely looking in their direction, but at them, and then across the hall, where Nicholas sat, surrounded by a small nest of his female cousins. The three of them had the whole weight of the court’s attention on them, hundreds of eyes, flitting between them like blood-sucking flies. By then, Adeline had already moved on, standing and waiting for quiet.

Now, when she spoke, it was loud enough that Adrian and William could hear it where they stood.

“I regret to inform you all that Prince Sebastian has been accused of being unable to fulfill his duties, which would render our marriage void,” she said. “Such an accusation must be treated with all due seriousness, so I must ask—who makes it?”

William noticed it before he did, and grabbed Adrian’s arm to get his attention. Adrian had her a moment later, as Lady Welland called out, “I do,” followed by a demure woman by her side doing the same, though her answer to Adeline’s call was so weak as to be inaudible. Edmund with them, though he said nothing, and stayed behind as they stepped forward.

“Lady Welland,” Adeline said in acknowledgement. “And who do you have with you?”

“The head of the prince consort’s staff,” she said, to which William cursed, and not quietly. Adrian was sure his own face had lost its color. He would need to review his own at once. The idea that they might be someone else’s creatures disgusted him.

“She will swear that not once have his sheets been found stained, nor has any of his staff witnessed him anything other than flaccid, your majesty,” Lady Welland continued. “My fear is that you have been deceived by him. He knows his position would be forfeit should the truth be revealed. I act only for love of you, my queen, and for the sake of the heiress we so long for.”

“Your loyalty is recognized and appreciated,” Adeline said, inclining her head in the smallest of nods.

“She cannot think this will work,” William hissed in his ear, and Adrian silent, agreed. “Edmund cannot.”

“Is the prince consort present?” Adeline asked, turning to one of her ladies. Before they could disperse into the crowd and find him, the gathered throng parted like a flower opening to reveal Sebastian, striding forward. He passed Edmund and his sister without looking, stopping only at Adeline’s feet, where he knelt on bended knee.

“Your majesty,” he said, without raising his head.

“And how do you answer these accusations?”

“They are false,” Sebastian vowed.

“Will you submit to a witnessed consummation?”

“I will submit,” he answered.

Adeline summoned one of her ladies. They were too far to hear what she said, but the other woman scurried off, and then William shouldered past him.

“What—” Adrian stumbled forward, but William turned back.

“We should be closer. He should not be alone.”

Adrian was about to ask how William intended to get closer. The answer became apparent quickly—William was not a small man, and he made room by virtue of the breadth of his shoulders. Adrian was able to follow easily in his wake. He was just as capable as William in shouldering past, and who would rebuke one of the prince consorts?

A circle had formed around the dais, and Adrian and William took places at the edge. Sebastian was not close enough to touch, but they had an unobstructed view of where he still knelt. Adeline had retreated to nearer the throne, speaking quietly with her ladies. Through one of the arches to the side of the hall returned the lady she had dismissed a few minutes previously, and with her came two guards, each holding one side of an elegant little sofa. With little fanfare, it was brought up to the front of the room, and set below the dais and in front of the throne.

“That will do,” Adeline said, and her lady curtsied but did not rejoin the others, atrophied to a small huddle and watching like a flock of more colorful crows.

Sebastian was the calm of the utterly trusting, and it very nearly unnerved Adrian. Even when Adeline motioned for him to come closer, he was rapt and unstressed, rising easily off his knees. Eyes down, the lady waited at Adeline’s right hand.

“I declined a public consummation as I considered it unnecessary. I see now that it may have soothed some fears that have since festered. In the spirit of making that right, I will remedy the situation.”

Sebastian was pliable as she undressed him. He was still as she unknotted his neck cloth, rolled his shoulders back to help with his jacket and waistcoat, and unbuttoned his braces, letting the straps hand loose. He offered no resistance as she removed his shirt without untucking it from his trousers first, letting his trousers fall low on his waist. All the discarded clothing was passed to her lady.

Bare-chested and with the eyes of the room on him, Sebastian caught Adeline’s hand as she went for the buttons on his trousers. When he released it, she pulled it back slowly, and he bent to remove his boots, placing them neatly to the side. Then he unbuttoned his trousers, and pulled them and his drawers both down his hips, where they at once fell to the floor and could be stepped out of.

Much to Adrian’s coupled relief and displeasure, Sebastian had a proud cockstand, which Adeline wrapped her fingers around.

It was a bawdy display, without the ceremony of a wedding surrounding and otherwise cushioning the behavior, and the women in the room tittered to see it, while Adrian himself had to resist the urge to look away. He did glance at William, who was raptly fixed on the two of them. He had a shameful blush creeping up his neck, but a glance downward revealed the idea excited him as well.

Surely, he could not find enjoyment in the idea of being so displayed, of being forced to prove what should have been obvious to anyone who watched him watch Adeline. Adrian was disgusted by the heavy-handedness of it all, the archaic tinge. Sebastian was unlucky to have no sisters or aunts remaining who ought to have handled Edmund’s sister’s plotting before this.

And yet—nothing would be as effective as this simple proof, which was why it had been commonplace at weddings. A final proof of quality before the contract was signed.

Sebastian’s head tipped back as Adeline stroked him. He did not reach for her, but his hands were curled into fists, and he trembled like a horse ridden hard. When she released him and stepped back, he lurched after her, catching himself halfway into a step. She waited until he was still and standing straight before she stepped to the side and indicated the sofa.

He sat.

Adrian and William—and those on the sides of the hall—benefited until now from their angle, but those head-on had seen, perhaps and at most the clench of Sebastian’s buttocks. Now, however briefly, they had a full view of his body and the erection that disproved half of Lady Welland’s claims.

Gathering her skirt, the hem raised high enough to brush her ankle, Adeline sat in Sebastian’s lap. He put his hands around her waist as she eased up onto her knees, straddling him backwards. Her skirts obscured much of what happened next, the silk crunched into clouds and draped down over Sebastian’s calves and spread over the seat of the sofa. One hand disappeared under the fabric, and Adrian could imagine it—hiking up her shift, finding her hot and wet and easily parted, her arousal private but just as fierce. And then, holding himself steady as she eased down, measure by agonizing measure. That, Adrian could see. Adeline’s composure was otherwise unspoiled, but he could track the moment that Sebastian breached her with the exhale that parted her lips, and, then, when she sat back on her heels, having consumed as much of him as the unusual position would allow, the smile that was too self-satisfied for court, there and gone.

Sebastian wasn’t half as composed. His back was pressed to the plush velvet of the sofa, his jaw clenched shut, and his nudity made the flush of his skin all the more apparent. His calves were tight, his feet flat on the floor. How much could he really move? Shallow little thrusts, perhaps, measured in what little space there was between him and Adeline. Adrian could see both his hands on her waist, holding tight, so there would be no teasing her clit, or playing with the privacy given by the cover of her gown. All eyes were on him, expectant, tracking each moment, each exhale, each stuttering movement of his hips, judging him if he was too forceful and disturbed Adeline’s seat, if he did anything more dramatic than rustle the fabric of her gown and ruin the decorum of the court.

It would be, in other words, torture.

Adrian gave him perhaps a quarter of an hour before he would manage to come despite it.

Or, perhaps, because of it.

He laid his hand on William’s shoulder. William jumped at the sudden interruption, bumping into the woman beside him who had been gazing at the display just as raptly. When she turned to rebuke William, the anger fell from her face upon realizing who they were. Adrian smiled at her with gritted teeth, and she turned away quickly.

“We should leave,” Adrian said, and William glanced back at Sebastian first. He was now making the smallest noises, like sobs, his forehead pressed to her shoulder. Surely, Adeline would do something for him—but no, she sat straight-backed and motioned for one of her ladies to bring the next petition forward so that they might continue.

“No,” William said. Doubtlessly, the woman next to them was now doing her very best to eavesdrop. He could argue with William, he could leave alone, or he could stay. Adrian looked for Nicholas in the crowd and found him across the crowd, still watching. Even Edmund was still standing with his sister, though all color had left her face. Adrian was unsure why she was so sure her plot was unsalvageable—Sebastian might still fail.

Adeline spoke with the next petitioner. It was a land dispute. He heard that much, but his focus kept drifting to Sebastian.

“Please,” he heard Sebastian rasp, “please, I can’t—” but of course Adeline wouldn’t respond. Sebastian let out another one of those wretched little cries and William exhaled. Adrian supposed he could understand the eroticism in the act, willingly done, without the pressure of one’s marriage and good standing balanced on success. Adeline said something to the petitioner, apparently having decided in their favor. Their eyes flicked between their queen and her captive, before they dipped a curtsy and backed away. Adeline sighed and closed her eyes, and beckoned for the next one.

She made it through two more, all the while Sebastian shifting under her, biting his lip near through before he screamed, muffled against her shoulder. He stayed like that, unmoving, for several minutes, and Adeline did not acknowledge him as she had not acknowledged him for the entirety of the affair.

When she was done, by actual lack of complaints or lack of desire to bring any more forth, she dismounted, easy as she pleased, her dress providing cover and barely exposing an ankle, while Sebastian was left in her wake, dazed and nude and limp cock glistening with his spent seed.

Even now, William did not turn away. Instead, he strode forward, and draped his jacket about Sebastian’s shoulders. Adeline did not look back at them, already cutting a path with her ladies in tow through the hall, leaving silence in her wake. There was some mercy for Sebastian now, for the crowd looked at Adeline, and not him.

Adrian met Nicholas as they both came to join William. There was a mute agreement between the three of them, a bulwark they formed to shield the other man and between them, shuffle him off to the side hallways, and from there, to their apartments.

They did not speak at all during the long walk there, nor when the door to their wing of the palace was closed by the guards.

Once safely ensconced, Nicholas transferred his burden to Adrian’s shoulders. He did not want to look at Sebastian’s face, which was mercifully partially shrouded by his hair, some of it stuck to his forehead.

“This way,” Nicholas said, and he opened the door to Sebastian’s suite. Adrian had never been inside—he had been to William’s, and William to his. The rooms were essentially the same size, a small room off to the side for bathing. There were very few paintings on the walls, and where both William’s family and his had made sure he would have many comforts—a thick rug, a trousseau to be proud off, a small library of his own—Sebastian lacked several. There was a large vase of cut flowers on the mantle, pale blue, and incongruously bright and cheerful.

He and William brought Sebastian over to the bed, and laid him down gently. Sebastian’s hand closed on his sleeve, and Adrian looked down—and could not look away, paralyzed. What Sebastian saw on his face, Adrian could not be sure, but Sebastian only smiled.

“Fetch a damp cloth,” Nicholas said, and to get away, Adrian pulled back to go to the washroom. He wet a scrap of flannel, and looked at himself in the mirror above the washbasin. He still recognized himself, and he fought with the unfamiliar emotions boiling in his chest even as he returned to the bedroom. Nicholas was helping Sebastian sit up as William removed the loaned coat.

“Give it here,” Nicholas demanded, and he took the cloth and wiped down first Sebastian’s brow and neck, and then his limp cock and thighs, before pulling the sheets back and helping Sebastian slide under them.

He did not look angry, or ill-used, or any of the ways Adrian thought he would have felt. Or how Adrian himself would have felt, had Adeline done the same to him.

He needed more air than could be had in that room.

Neither William nor Nicholas called out as he left, making for one of the windows in their shared salon, bracing himself with an arm against the wall and looking out the windows at the snowy grounds below.

He heard the door opening, and his first reaction was anger, coupled with reaching for a sword that he no longer carried, and he spun on his heel to see the door closing—and Adeline inside the consorts’ apartments. 

It would have been startling even if she had come at another time. Seeing her in the most masculine of settings, what he had thus far thought private and sacred only fed his anger. He took a step forward—and she stepped back, away from him.

“I would see him,” she said, and he saw her. The majesty was gone, however briefly, and uncrowned, he could more easily notice her youth, the years between them, the untimely death of her parents and the reality of a viper-filled court and a war on one of her borders. He had never seen Adeline before she was crowned, but he could so easily call to mind Caroline at a younger age than even Adeline, assuming their mother’s coronet, the hesitance falling away in the face of the fact that she must.

He stepped back, and bowed his head, looking at the floor.

“He is in the bedroom?” she asked, and he nodded. He stayed outside, his own thoughts churning like troubled waters, and he might have come to some conclusion if the door did not open again, Edmund slipping and closing the door slowly and without a sound.

He did not see Adrian, not at first.

You,” Adrian said, but not until he was halfway there, too late to slip away. Adrian had him by the back of his coat and some of his hair, too, going by the way he yelped. Adrian had years of experience and muscle on him, and twisted an arm behind his back before dragging him towards Sebastian’s room, and Adeline.

He could not stop what had happened, but perhaps he could—

Adeline was sitting on the bed, talking softly with Sebastian, while Nicholas brooded in the corner and William sat by the door. Adrian threw Edmund forward without much thought, and the boy stumbled forward, falling on hands and knees and nearly at Adeline’s feet.

Edmund cursed, wiping his palms on his trousers, and when he looked up, it was to a cold stare from Adeline.

“You fool,” she said to him.

Adrian stepped further into the room, and shared a nervous look with William, but Adeline said nothing further.

“I only wanted what was best for us, and for the country,” Edmund said. So, Edmund’s sister knew the same tricks as Caroline, but his youth and her clumsiness made them far more apparent.

“No,” she said. “You wished to crack the court open, and Sebastian was an easy target to strike at—no family, no apparent favor, apparent poverty, all his friends gone in the wind when his sister died,” Adeline said.

Edmund hesitated, but said nothing further, but Adrian could not help himself, some too-soft part of himself still churning at her treatment of Sebastian.

“Why did you not treat it like your first night—bring witnesses to your bedroom, expose yourself as you exposed him?”

“Because,” she said, and he could taste the bitterness of contempt, all her hidden frustrations that she buried under placidity and serenity, “I am with child, and with the apparent depths of Lady Welland’s infestation, I am disinclined to allow her so intimate a look. Speaking of which, Edmund,” and she turned her head to look at him.

Before she could speak, he cut in, his grin wide despite the previous rebuke, his youth announced, “Who’s the father?”

“Oh, shut up,” William hissed from his chair. “It is your damned sister’s fault that Sebastian had to suffer this at all.”

“Hardly suffer,” Sebastian corrected, very softly. His head lolled to the side onto the pillow, and Adeline reached for his hand, bringing it to her mouth to kiss.

He apparently enjoyed playing the patient as much as the studhorse.

“William is correct,” Nicholas said. He stepped from out of the shadows of the side of the room, and sat on the bed. Sebastian managed a grin for him.

“Adeline,” Nicholas said, and took her other hand. “This is good news. I am very happy.”

“As am I. Truly. Despite this brief… difficulty.” Nicholas only smiled at her, and kissed her hand.

“Wasn’t difficult,” Sebastian announced.

“So Edmund will go unpunished,” Adrian continued.

“Oh, hardly,” Adeline said. She let go of Nicholas’ hand, and fussed with Sebastian’s covers, like he was an invalid and not merely the recipient of what amounted to a good fuck, unbecoming humiliation aside.

That would fade, if he felt it at all, and Sebastian would be a man of proven virility. All he had done was at Adeline’s direction, and for her—and his—benefit.


“I will not have him until the child is weaned, and I will have him whipped if I hear he has brought himself off by any means other than with one of you. I intend to have a unified flock, especially with a child on the way, and he clearly needs a firmer guiding hand.”

Edmund blanched.

“Surely, Adeline—” he tried, in wheedling tones, but was cut off almost immediately.

“As for your sister,” she began, then caught herself. “Well—I will wait and let that be a surprise.”

And she smiled, and it was decidedly not pleasant.

“Now,” she said, and she stood, hands on her hips. “It has been a very trying day, and will doubtlessly be several long days cleaning up the mess Lady Welland has made of the court. I would like to know we all understand one another before I disappear into meetings and other affairs of state.”

She gently removed her necklace, a handful of pearls and diamonds set down on Sebastian’s nightstand, although she paused before removing her rings, for all five of them were watching her, but utterly still.

“William,” she said, finally and firmly. “Will you help me with my gown?”

Sebastian was bent down to Edmund’s ear, murmuring encouragement as he licked at the froth of come leaking from Adeline’s arousal-flushed cunt. Sebastian was helping hold her legs open, a hand on her thigh and the other leg over his shoulder, over-stimulation driving her to try and close them. Edmund, in Adrian’s opinion, was applying himself to the task with dedication and due respect for Sebastian’s older, wiser tutelage—but the way Nicholas slammed home with each thrust broke his rhythm and rocked his body, and that brought rebuke from Sebastian’s nails, digging harder into the grip he had on Edmund’s hair.

Well, he’d been a spoiled brat for the whole of his life so far. Between the two of them—for Adrian was sure once Sebastian passed along all he knew about eating cunt, he would find a way to keep putting Edmund’s mouth to use—perhaps some of the worst of his stupidity could be fucked out of him.

Adrian kissed Adeline’s neck one last time, minding the mark William had made earlier, and sat up slowly. William, on her other side, did the same, but laid his hand on her belly for a moment.

There was indeed a very small swell. Adrian would not have noticed it if he did not have a great deal of familiarity with her body and was not looking for it, but it was something. Adeline, even in the full throes of passion, did turn her head and look at him, seizing him and pulling him into a kiss, which she broke with a cry as Edmund finally succeeded, and was rewarded by Sebastian holding him still while Adeline shuddered through her finish.

Adrian was off the bed and out of the way by the time Sebastian jostled Edmund out of the way and thrust himself inside her, but Nicholas would pick up the slack. In the parlor outside, the staff had left a selection of cold dishes, and, best of all, wine.

Adrian was not surprised when William joined him a few moments later, in much the same condition: nude, limp, back scratched to all hell, and content.

Wordless, he offered his old friend the second glass. He drank his own for the relief it promised his parched throat, and saw William do the same, if more slowly. Food seemed too difficult right now, and he longed for a robe, but settled for moving closer to the fire, glad for the warm marble under his feet.

He would sleep for a week once he was allowed it, and he might be, in a few hours.

Adrian spoke softly.

“I have done the math,” he said. William looked hard at him, then came to the fire. He glanced briefly at a couch, but remained standing.

“Do you recall, before she went south,” and William said, very quietly, “Yes.”

They both held that knowledge, silent, before William spoke again.

“She was with Edmund and Nicholas the week prior.”

“And she had no one for several nights between, possibly because she was bleeding, and then no one until she came back,” Adrian argued, and then cursed.

“It does not matter,” he concluded.

“Caroline would say it does,” William put forward. He looked at the wine left in his glass. “Caroline would say it mattered very much, and so would several other ladies, all of them powerful.”

“We cannot be sure,” Adrian said, noncommittally, and set his glass on the mantle. “Besides, a child of your seed is a child of mine by affection—frankly, better anyone than Edmund,” and William laughed, startled.

“No,” Adrian said. “Better to let Caroline stew. She may come to the knowledge on her own, or she may not.”

Adrian did not want to think on it now. Instead, he touched William’s shoulder as he walked by.

The half-open door and the noises coming from it beckoned, and they would be hailed as heroes if they brought the wine and some of the food with them. The politics would keep, as would his sister’s machinations, and time would be the best tell of the child’s father, if he cared to play that game.

And Adrian had the feeling Adeline would be more than willing to let them all try for another.